Sitting in the cavernous dining room of Westminster Kingsway College, the five finalists in the Gordon Ramsay Scholar 2002 competition fidget nervously on their chairs. They attempt to make conversation with their colleagues, family and friends as they await the arrival of the competition's founder - but news just in that Ramsay's incoming flight from New York has been delayed means the pre-competition nerves will be out on display for some time to come.
When Ramsay does arrive, an hour-and-a-half later than scheduled, he is apologetic, and immediately sets about trying to put the competitors at ease, praising them for the standards they have displayed in their previous rounds. "The standards throughout the semifinals were on a par with the level of last year's final," he tells the scholarship hopefuls. "Today's final will certainly be hotly contested."
Ramsay cuts to the chase and pulls out a copy of the mystery list of ingredients the competitors will be expected to work with, compiled by his executive head chef Mark Askew. He draws attention to some of the finer ingredients - a boned loin of Scottish venison, four large sea scallops in their shells, a lobe of foie gras, golden oscietra caviar, 10 dark plums - and some of the more mundane ones such as a large red cabbage.
This year's competition has a bit of a variation, he says; the competitors are required to create an amuse-gueule ("purely an amuse-gueule, don't get it confused with a starter"), a main course and a dessert. "Plan your menu but don't confirm exactly what you are going to do. Let your menu evolve during the cooking process. You couldn't ask for a more talented team of judges, but don't look at them as judges, look at them as chefs - chefs to bounce your ideas off. Right, you've got 30 minutes to plan your menu."
The finalists head off to their writing desks while the judges huddle round a large dining table. Ramsay's right, the judging panel is impressive, featuring as it does some of Britain's most talented chefs - Michael Caines, Mark Askew, Marcus Wareing, Heston Blumenthal, Angela Hartnett, Richard Corrigan and Phil Howard.
Ramsay briefs the judges. The competitors have a cooking time of two-and-a-half hours and a 10-minute slot to serve all three courses. While explaining the process, he slips in that three-Michelin-starred chefs Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià have confirmed that they will offer the Gordon Ramsay scholar stages at their respective restaurants in Paris and Cala Montjoi, Spain, during the course of the next year.
The finalists submit their proposed menus and scuttle off to the college's sprawling kitchen. The judges leaf through each entry. "They're all harmonious," comments Howard. "There's not a dish on there that you'd think is out of the competition at this stage." Meanwhile, Wareing takes each of the finalists, one by one, to the Escoffier Room at the back of the college - he's interviewing them for a film that's being made which will be shown at the reception at Claridge's that evening.
The next two-and-a-half hours fly by - for the spectators at least - and while the judges mingle with the competitors, probing them about their menus, little is given away. Christopher Bell, the 25-year-old entrant from Restaurant Michael Deane in Belfast, appears to be the only one vaguely stressed. Sweat pours from his head as he tears around the kitchen. As Ramsay watches, Bell pulls his vanilla custard dessert from the oven. He leaps up and, without looking, deftly slams the oven door with his foot. The other finalists, ranging in age from 19 to 23, on the other hand, give an outward impression of being totally unfazed.
At 3.30pm, the judges are called to the Escoffier Room. Competitor one, Mark Ruck, the winner of the college final and a student at Stratford-upon-Avon College, is ready to serve his amuse-gueule. Two waiters (from Westminster College) sweep into the room carrying four portions of seared scallops with aubergine crisps and basil oil. "I think it needs a bit more acidity," comments Blumenthal. But Askew finds the flavour "pleasantly surprising". Howard would have liked more liaison between the sauce and scallop. Corrigan reminds his colleagues that the entrant is a college student. "You've got to admire his tenacity," he continues, "to serve it in a scallop dish."
Bell's amuse - pan-fried sea scallop, velout‚ of cauliflower and caviar - follows. "That's delicious," enthuses Corrigan, "but it's more of a starter than an amuse. There's lots going on." Caines responds: "It's got the same amount of scallop as the first guy, but for me it's got a bit more substance to it."
Hand-dived scallop tartare with a caviar fromage frais from the winner of the Scottish heat - Scott Price of Rampsbeck Country House Hotel at Watermillock, Cumbria - is served next. Corrigan, ever vocal, is the first to comment. "That's a perfect amuse," he says. "It's quite daring," adds Caines. Scrutinising the flavours, Askew says: "There's a bit too much onion on the aftertaste." But Blumenthal declares that the scallops are delicious.
While competitors four and five, Lucy Hyder and David Abbott, have yet to serve their amuses, Bell serves his main, roast loin of venison, confit of carrot and celeriac, seared foie gras, and port and shallot jus. Howard summarises the judges' thoughts. "As a main, you can't fault that. There's not even a skin on the sauce."
Ruck's main, pan-fried seared venison on a bed of lentils, green beans, served with a fennel and shallot pur‚e and a red wine jus, follows. "That's a shame," says Askew, "he's sliced the venison too early." "But for a college student, it's a really good try," adds Corrigan quickly. Hyder's amuse enters the room, pan-fried scallop and foie gras on roasted pumpkin and sherry vinegar jus. The judges rave about the flavour of the puréed pumpkin.
The first dessert enters the room. It's Bell again, a vanilla custard, sorbet of plums, salad of raspberries. "Bless him," says Caines, "he's done really well."
Ruck's raspberry and vanilla panna cotta with a star anise sorbet dessert is followed swiftly by Hyder's main of loin of venison on braised Puy lentils with celeriac purée. At this stage Bell appears to be the strongest competitor, but as David Abbott, chef de partie from La Trompette, submits his amuse, pumpkin soup with chopped, sautéd scallop, things could change. "You can't beat that for an amuse," says Howard. Caines agrees: "I like that a lot."
Desserts from Hyder and Price come next. Howard remarks on how well all have managed their timing.
Abbott's main, roasted venison served on a bed of lentils with celeriac purée, is placed in front of the judges. "That's got a bit of finesse," says Ramsay. "Technically, you are attracted to each element, but in a way that can work against you," adds Caines. "The purée's so good," says Wareing.
Finally, Abbott's dessert is served - a brûlée flavoured with whole raspberries. Ramsay praises the texture, but feels overall the dish has been too heavily glazed.
The judges cluster around Bell's three courses. There's no doubt whom they've placed first. "He looked totally in the shit, but he just pulled it all together," laughs Corrigan.
"He's the most active, natural cook," says Howard. "For me, that's how I would want service. Three courses - bosh, bosh, bosh."
As the second Gordon Ramsay scholar, Christopher Bell is £5,000 richer and soon to fly off for working stints in the kitchens of Alain Ducasse in Paris and Ferran Adrià's El Bulli restaurant in Cala Montjoi, near Rosas, Spain.
In addition, he will spend a week at Ramsay's eponymous restaurant in Chelsea, receive six signature plates to be personally collected from the Villeroy & Boch factory in Luxembourg while staying at the historic Chƒteau Septfontaines, a year's subscription to Caterer & Hotelkeeper, an engraved commemorative trophy, a Villeroy & Boch engraved plate, two chef's jackets from Bragard and a magnum of Burdese Planeta wine, courtesy of Enotria Winecellars.
Bell's place of work, Restaurant Michael Deane, will receive a Rational ClimaPlus Combi, installed and including free training, courtesy of Rational UK.
Commenting on his win, Bell said: "I'm still coming to terms with it.
"I think I'm going to take a holiday to Thailand with my girlfriend, but I will probably save the rest of the money. I'm hoping to buy a house soon so it will go towards that.
"When I saw the list of ingredients that we had to play with I was happy enough - they are ingredients that we pretty much use every day.
"I struggled a bit when it came to the dessert, but once I'd decided what I was going to do at the briefing, I stuck with it. I know that Gordon made suggestions of what we could cook, but I didn't want to fall into the trap of following his every word. You have to cook what you are used to cooking - that's why you are in the final - so it would have been a mistake to [be influenced by what he was saying] and cook in another style."
Bell is particularly looking forward to going to El Bulli.
"I've been interested in that place for such a long time, so I'm really excited about going out there. Alain Ducasse, for sure, will be good and I'm also looking forward to my week at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant," he said.
"That's somewhere I'd love to eat at so it will be great to be in the kitchen."
Christopher Bell, 25, sous chef, Restaurant Michael Deane, Belfast (winner)
David Abbott, 23, chef de partie, La Trompette, London
Lucy Hyder, 23, head chef, Bacchanalian restaurant, Cheltenham
Scott Price, 21, chef de partie, Rampsbeck Country House Hotel, Watermillock, Cumbria
Mark Ruck, 19, student, Stratford-upon-Avon College (winner of the college final of the Gordon Ramsay Scholar 2002)
Mark Askew, executive chef, Gordon Ramsay Holdings
Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor, the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire
Michael Caines, chef-director, Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon
Richard Corrigan, chef-proprietor, Lindsay House, London
Angela Hartnett, chef-patron, Angela Hartnett at the Connaught, London
Philip Howard, chef-proprietor, the Square, London
Gordon Ramsay, chef-patron, Gordon Ramsay, London
Marcus Wareing, chef-patron, Pétrus, London