It's been an exceptional few weeks for Eyck Zimmer. Not only was he crowned 2006 National Chef of the Year last month, but 10 days ago he was named Manchester Chef of the Year. Amanda Afiya caught up with him in between award ceremonies
When Eyck Zimmer was awarded Best Main Course at the awards dinner for the Knorr National Chef of the Year last month he was devastated. Not that he wasn't grateful for receiving the accolade, of course, but he thought his attempts at the title had been dashed and the Best Main Course was something of a sop.
"I had a face like a slapped bottom and couldn't even smile when I went up to collect my plate. I was in it to win it," he says, fervently.
When he was actually named winner of the Craft Guild of Chefs' most prestigious title he was, naturally, over the moon. "It's a great feeling," he says. "Before this competition I decided this would be my last, and if it wasn't for a little friendly rivalry between me and my mentor - and now friend - John Williams, of the Ritz in London, I don't think I would have entered. I was quietly confident. I knew I couldn't have cooked any better than how I cooked on the day, but having been in plenty of competitions I know how painful it is to lose."
Zimmer, executive head chef of Rocco Forte's stunning Lowry hotel in Manchester, is one of the most experienced and qualified competition chefs around. He has twice represented Britain in the Bocuse d'Or culinary world contest staged in Lyons. In 2004 he won the Grand Prix de Cuisine at Le Trophée International de Cuisine et de Pâtisserie in Paris. In 2002 he won the UK leg of the Prix Pierre Taittinger competition and then went on to secure second place in the international final in Paris. He has a whole host of medals from various Olympics and salons culinaires, is the holder of the Master of Culinary Arts title (held by just 16 chefs in Britain) and in 2000 completed his BSc in international culinary arts.
So it comes as some surprise to learn that he's thinking of hanging up his competition apron. Is he really going to retire? "I think so, but then I said that before. To be honest, there is only one competition I would consider again and that's the Bocuse d'Or in France. It's the greatest culinary spectacle in the world," says Zimmer. "Unfortunately, people in the UK don't understand the magnitude of the Bocuse d'Or. Imagine, it's like the football World Cup - 24 countries battling it out over stoves and pots and pans. But there isn't enough support here, either from the media or financially. But I am confident that once we raise the profile and make people aware of this competition the support will come."
National Chef of the Year was a title Zimmer had in his sights for many years. Having entered in 2000, he failed to make it through to the final, but on his second attempt at the title, last month, he found himself at the Restaurant Show battling it out against a formidable line-up of finalists. The challenge, to create a three-course meal for four people in just three hours from a box of mystery ingredients provided by Food From Britain, was a tough one, but Zimmer's choice of menu - illustrated here - came through.
According to David Mulcahy, competition director and vice-president of the Craft Guild of Chefs, Zimmer was a "totally clear and unanimous winner". Mulcahy says that Zimmer kept his recipes simple so that the judges (there were three separate groups judging) could recognise the key ingredients.
"A number of finalists wanting to do their very best tried too much, and so what transferred to the plate was not light and simple. It had to be a menu that people would enjoy eating. Eyck's dishes used basic skills that were executed well and that can often be taken for granted, but that's the mark of a great dish - he brought out the best of the dish and didn't confuse it with unnecessary skills or ingredients. They were three well-constructed courses."
Importantly, he says, Zimmer's considerable experience meant he was absolutely focused. "He's no stranger to competitions, and one thing we find is that being a very hands-on chef does lend itself to doing well in competitions such as National Chef. The chef who gets through and goes on to win by and large is cooking every day in their kitchen - they are at ease with cooking at the coal face."
Of course, competitions do not appeal to everyone, and Zimmer does recognise that it's horses for courses. "Some chefs are critical of competition chefs, and I guess they have a point. At the end of the day it's about what you produce in your kitchens on a daily basis, the quality of food you serve to your guests, that's important. They are the ones who pay your salary and keep you in business. I think the important thing to remember is that there's no room for ego once you have won a competition - that would be your downfall. There's nothing wrong with feeling proud about what you have accomplished, but arrogance is a definite no-no."
But he still sees plenty of benefits for those who do want to take part. It helps raise your profile, for one thing. "If you use me as an example, most people in the industry will probably tell you that I'm a good competition chef, and if you ask where I work, they might not necessarily know."
He goes out of his way to encourage his brigade to compete, believing that it's an important part of people's development. "Competing is one aspect of it," he says, "but I am also aware that competitions are not everybody's environment. There are some great chefs around with a culinary ability greater than most competing chefs - it's just not their nature to put themselves on the line, that's all."
Zimmer's down-to-earth approach to competing - and winning - perhaps hints at his modest upbringing. Born in East Germany in 1969, Zimmer says he was lucky to grow up in a family where good food was always appreciated. Both his grandmother and father were keen amateur cooks, and their passion for food encouraged him to take it up at an early age. "I grew up in a family that loved food, and large amounts of it. I was exposed to good, hearty German food from day one. We used to go to my grandmother for big Sunday lunches - and then have coffee and cake. I pity people who can't appreciate food. I eat healthily and do exercise, but I will never skip any food I fancy."
His formative years were spent at the Erfurter Hof in his home town of Erfurt, then, aged 20, he moved to East Berlin to work at the five-star Palast hotel. When the Berlin Wall came down he leapt at the chance to explore Europe and took up a post in Switzerland at the five-star Grand Hotel Regina in Grindelwald. "This was the foundation of my knowledge of, and love for, classical cooking, which has remained with me ever since."
In 1992 he moved to London and over the following decade worked at some of the capital's finest hotels - the Dorchester, the Berkeley, the Lanesborough and Claridge's. A brief interlude took him to the Choupana Hills Resort and Spa in Madeira, before he returned to London in 2004 as restaurant head chef of the Ritz, reuniting him with executive chef John Williams, for whom he had, of course, worked at Claridge's.
"My home is Manchester now, so I am trying to make an impact on the food scene here," says Zimmer, who moved to the Lowry hotel last year. Managing a brigade of 31 chefs, he oversees banqueting for up to 290 in the ballroom, eight smaller private meeting rooms, the 120-seat River restaurant and food for the hotel's 165 bedrooms and bar, which has increasingly become a busy food outlet. Food revenue at the Lowry is worth about £3m.
"I have to say the support and excitement from local people and the press, as well as the Lowry hotel, has been outstanding. And as long as this is the case I see no reason to move on."
Compiled by Eyck Zimmer and the Craft Guild of Chefs