Celeriac – a root vegetable and variety of celery, don’t you know. It originated in the Mediterranean Basin and was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as selinon. This is all well and good, but no doubt you’re wondering ‘what’s the big deal about celeriac?’ Some might not have even tried it. Few will think of it as exciting or noteworthy. And yet this was the main component of the winning dish, chosen by a panel of experts, that is to go forth to the finals of the San Pellegrino Young Chef competition in Milan.
On the evening of February 24th, in a glitzy semi-finals for the UK and Ireland held in the Georgian restaurant in Harrods, a panel of esteemed chefs chose Mark Moriarty’s signature dish as their favourite of the night. And we were there to watch it all happen.
The night was a buzz of excitement, as ten of the top young chefs in the country assembled to prepare their chosen meals. There were those closer to home – Alberto Fluttero from London’s Le Gavroche presented a garlicky delight – while others travelled across the sea to attend, such as Maria Elena Martinez from County Mayo, who was the only chef to offer up a dessert (a delicious sounding smoked orange and chocolate heart with green tea crumbs.)
The four judges (holding an impressive five Michelin stars between them) sat at the front, armed with cutlery and expectant faces. Clare Smyth, the only female chef to hold and retain three of those stars, headed up the night by revealing what she was hoping for – a dish that was original, unique, and spoke about the chef themselves. To her, this didn’t mean simply following food trends. Oh, and it had to be absolutely delicious to eat.
Atul Kochhar, Chef Patron at Benares restaurant, spoke about the influences he was hoping to see now that the world is such an open place, where inspiration can be found anywhere. He told the room he was looking for diversity, and was particularly excited to see what young chefs could do with vegetarian food – a far cry from even a decade ago when finding superior meat-free options was difficult.
And right on cue – Mark was first to deliver his dish, which incidentally ended up being the favourite of the evening. Entirely vegetarian, it is designed to be eaten like a meat course. Well, if we saw Celeriac Baked in Barley and Fermented Hay with Cured and Smoked Celeriac on the menu, we’d definitely want to order it.
Judge Dan Doherty, executive chef at Duck and Waffle, had been looking for something ‘right on the edge… someone not playing safely or by the rules’, while final judge Oliver Dunne, owner of Bon Appetit, had wanted something totally new, that was heading in a fresh direction.
It was this risk – of taking a humble ingredient and showcasing it as a centrepiece – that helped Mark win. He also loves food to have theatre and a sense of fun, while delivering superb taste. As Clare Smyth, who will now mentor Mark, said afterwards, “The calibre of dishes we tasted tonight was really impressive but Mark’s dish stood out with its flavour, unforgettable theatre and true message behind his dish.”
So, now the San Pellegrino competition heads over to Milan, where another exciting element will enter the mix – a young designer chosen by Vogue Italia will team up with Mark to interpret his dish into fashion, and his efforts will be judged by a panel that reads like a who’s who of contemporary gastronomy, including Joan Roca, Massimo Bottura, Gaston Acurio and Yoshihiro Narisawa.
And what does Mark think about representing the UK? “I am very excited to represent the UK and Ireland in Milan. S.Pellegrino has given me such a fantastic opportunity to get trained by some of the best chefs in the world, as well as put my name on a global stage. I will do the UK & Ireland proud!”