Phil Pringle, Curriculum Leader in Hospitality and Tourism at Newcastle College has been named North East Chef of the Year at the annual North East Culinary Trade Association (NECTA) competition.
His win topped off a clean sweep at the event by Newcastle College students, where they placed within the top three in every category and were named Culinary Team of the Year and College of the Year.
NECTA is an independent association of North East catering professionals with the aim of raising the profile and quality of the food trade in the region. It works closely with restaurants, employers and catering colleges such as Newcastle to provide skills and opportunities to students and chefs, while attracting top talent to the area.
We caught up with Phil to hear about the event, his ambitions and why it puts Newcastle College on the culinary map.
Congratulations on your win as Chef of the Year! Is this the first time you’ve won a competition like this?
No, I spent 14 years as a chef in the Royal Navy which is where I got my teaching qualifications and during that time I won Royal Navy Senior Chef of the Year in 2005. I used to get involved with all of the armed forces competitions but I’ve never entered NECTA before now. I was putting it off while I studied for my degree but once that was finished there were no excuses, so this was my first attempt.
How did you prepare for the competition?
I’m lucky that I’m able to use the kitchen facilities within Newcastle College so I did all my practice runs in there, but I limited myself to one bench and the same kind of hob that they use during the event to make sure my timings were correct. During the competition, you’re allowed an assistant to pass you equipment, so I recruited one of our College chefs Matthew Beadnell and he was at all my trial runs to make sure we were both prepared. It’s quite important!
Describe your winning menu. What inspired it and were you given any guidelines?
The brief is to create a three course meal for four people including a scallop starter, pork main and chocolate dessert. You can do anything you want within those guidelines as long as you can complete it within 2 hours and 45 minutes.
There isn’t a set budget but the judges do expect you to be economical and because scallops are expensive, I created simple roasted scallop dish with textures of artichoke and sat them on a bed of wilted greens with a butter sauce.
I then kept the main course cheap with a trio of pork including pork fillet, pork crackling and an offal meatball wrapped in cabbage. That was served with fondant potato, carrots and a wild mushroom sauce.
Judges of these competitions are always really classical so I made a Petit Antoinette which is a really classical dessert made up of layers; chocolate crumb, chocolate mousse, coffee liqueur whipped cream and a chocolate lid served with mango and raspberries.
I followed the brief but also wanted to make sure I could show a lot of different skills and techniques. For example, I tempered the chocolate to give the dessert lid a shine and I made the sauce from scratch, reducing it over the two hours to show them that I could create the dishes using different methods.
How did you feel competing against some of the renowned restaurant chefs such as Peace and Loaf?
do often think the industry chefs have some advantage. They can put their dishes on their restaurant menu and practice it 30 or 40 times a day. I don’t have that luxury so for that reason I felt like I was on the backburner from the beginning and that was daunting.
But I was confident in my dishes and it definitely felt good when the time was up and some other competitors were still cooking but I’d gotten mine out on time. I gave it my best shot and it paid off!
The results were announced at a gala dinner that evening and my wife and colleagues were already with me, so there were plenty of celebrations!
You weren’t the only winner during the event, Newcastle College was named Best Culinary Team and College of the Year, while all of your students placed in the top three in their individual categories. How significant is that for the College and its students?
The students who take part in NECTA always do better in their final exams because the competition really increases their confidence in their abilities. It’s nerve wracking to get up on that stage but hats off to all of them to get up and perform at that age. Our lower level students who go to the event to support always come away wanting to take part in the next one and it really works wonders for them, so from a student perspective it’s an excellent opportunity.
It’s huge for the College and more than anything it’s good for morale because winning College of the Year proves we’re the best culinary school in the North East. We won five years in a row but missed out on that last year so to regain it this year is fantastic for us.The staff also get a lot of reward from training the students and helping them prepare to seeing it all pay off.
How did you help the students prepare for the competition?
We always ask the students who wants to be involved and if there’s a lot of interest we push it back, ask them to come up with dishes and host a cook off. A little bit of a challenge to prove they’re at a level where they’re ready to perform.
We’ll mentor those students and work with them on preparation and timekeeping. It all boils down to commitment and working outside of their timetabled lessons to prepare. If students really want to be involved they’ll put themselves out. It’s an enrichment programme and not something we’re required to take part in – it takes a lot of preparation.
But it really does pay off for us and them.
What is it about the College which makes it the best culinary school in the region?
Our facilities and our colleagues are key to this and I think we should be standing proud and saying we are the best, we have the best facilities, the best teaching staff and we work really well with industry.
We have links to just about every hotel and restaurant in the city. There’s a Michelin star restaurant on our doorstep – House of Tides – and Kenny Atkinson does a lot of work with our students. Dave Kennedy, a previous NECTA Chef of the Year and a well-known chef in the region, does masterclasses here and it really helps the students to work so closely with industry. When it comes to the abilities of our staff, our links with industry and performing at competitions like NECTA, we really are up there at the top.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
When I was around eight years old, I told my mam I wanted to cook like Keith Floyd, who was a chef on the television when I was younger. It stuck with me and when I finished my GCSEs all I wanted to do was go to catering college, so I enrolled at Newcastle College in 1992. It was a totally different experience to what it is now. We didn’t have the same facilities; it was much smaller. But I did get my first job as a chef at the County Thistle Hotel while I was still studying.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to become a chef?
I would certainly say look to do a qualification as they’re important these days. Knuckle down at Maths and English while you’re at school and go to a culinary college.
Before all of that though seek some advice. Come into a college and talk to the chefs and the students about their experiences. It’s a big industry and there’s a lot of opportunity but make sure it’s what you want to do because the hours are unforgiving.
What’s next for you after your NECTA win?
I’m not allowed to enter North East Chef of the Year again as you’re only allowed to win once. But because I’ve won it means I’m eligible to enter UK Chef of the Year which is nationwide and a huge operation. I’ve also been asked whether I’d like to apply for Masterchef! I would love to do both of those things but it completely depends on time as they both take a lot of commitment and I’m not sure how much time I could commit right now. Watch this space!
Find out more about Hospitality courses at Newcastle College here.