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Why was Steven Cross the winner of School Chef of the Year 2019?

This year’s LACA School Chef of the Year (SCOTY) competition has been widely talked about as being the highest standard yet. Every year the level of cooking just gets better and even chefs who have made the final before have talked about how much harder it gets. It’s exciting that LACA and the McDougalls team are raising the profile of the competition and getting such a high standard of entry, year on year.

We caught up with our executive chef, Mark Rigby to learn more about this year’s final and discover how Steven Cross made such a big impression on the judges.

How hard was it to choose this year’s winner of SCOTY?

It wasn’t an easy decision as the points were so close between the top three chefs. Judges are scoring based on a number of criteria. One of these is how the McDougalls products are used as part of the dishes, exploring innovation and creativity to include these ingredients within the menu. Behind the scenes, judges are watching to see how the chefs work including cleanliness, hygiene, efficiency, use of time and also keeping a close eye on food waste. It’s important chefs aren’t over-producing quantities of food and then wasting elements when presenting the dishes.

We’ll also give points for how innovative a dish is, so we’ll be asking ourselves, is it a recipe we’ve seen lots of before? How contemporary is the dish for today’s market? One of the things that we did find was that the food served in the final truly reflected the trends we see in out-of-home dining. This recognises how school chefs are taking account of what’s happening in the wider industry when planning menus.

Fundamentally, the most important part of our scoring is how the dishes taste, the way they are presented on the plates and the flavours and textures of the food. It also needs to meet the budget criteria of £1.31 and meet all the National School Meal Standards. The level of menu created for this amount of money is phenomenal and when you judge the competition it truly highlights the skill level that these chefs have.

How did the younger judges find the overall experience?

We loved having the three pupils from St Martin and St Mary C of E Primary School, who were in the winning team of the McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year, as part of the judging panel. You could see the confidence they had gained from their own cooking competition and they really got involved in the judging of SCOTY. I believe the McDougalls challenge had prepared them well for the experience as they asked lots of questions and did some great interviews to camera. You could see they were all enthused by this opportunity and experience.

What made Steven stand out as the winning competitor?

Steven was offered one of our wildcard spots as the judges saw something special in his dishes in the regional final. The cooking style and techniques he used were a little different and the innovation he showed stood out. But ultimately, it was the flavours, textures and presentation of his final dishes that resulted in his win. It was interesting that when you think about it simply, he served chicken, flatbread and vegetables but the way he cooked, prepared and presented each element was very contemporary. It’s important that the chefs show that the dishes can be created in bulk but also take careful consideration of how individual portions are presented for every single child. Steven’s food tasted amazing and he was a deserving winner.

How did Steven use the Premier Foods products?

Steven used the McDougalls flour for his flatbread and the Chocolate Cookie Crumb Mix for his dessert topping, as well as our orange jelly. You could see how Steven had thought about creating some great dishes and then incorporated the products into them so that first and foremost, he was creating delicious food. I would recommend that all chefs use their own experience, skillset and instinct on how the products can work best for them, within their own dishes.

Why is LACA’s School Chef of the Year such an important competition for the industry?

This competition raises the profile of caterers within schools and it shows that there is a great level of skill within education catering, which is so important for the health of today’s children. SCOTY is great for recognising that despite the publicity they sometimes still get, school meals aren’t stuck in the 1970s. The competition is reflective of current trends.

One thing I loved when judging was that regardless of who the chefs worked for, they had real independence and autonomy in their cooking, showing that school meals don’t have to follow a prescriptive box and school chefs are pushing boundaries. There was no “grey food” in sight as school chefs are passionate about what they are producing and deliver a high standard of food.

We asked Steven Cross to sum up his first ever LACA School Chef of the Year experience.

I loved the whole SCOTY experience from start to finish. That moment when my name was called out as the overall winner really had the wow-factor and was such a privilege. Having Mark Rigby as the Chair of Judges was a real honour as he’s such a fantastic chef and so enthusiastic about the competition. To get this feedback from him was a proud moment. Working with all the other finalists on The One Show was another highlight and gave us all the chance to gel as a group and get to know each other before the big day.

I’ve always loved cooking under-pressure and wanted a new and exciting challenge. It’s interesting what Mark said about the standard of food and how the finalists were all taking trends from the high-street. Pupils these days eat out so much more than when I was at school and are regularly enjoying restaurant food on the high-street with their families. My belief is that school chefs need to be offering the same level of food and choices and that’s where the inspiration for my dishes is from.

The reaction back at school has been so positive. I work with a group of food ambassadors who cooked the winning dishes with me for the rest of the school this week. It gave me such a sense of pride. This felt like a true celebration after all the hard work and taking this title is a true honour for me.