Chef hopes to find recipe for success
Norfolk chef Richard Knights has all the right ingredients to win a major cookery competition, says Sarah Hardy as she talks to the young star of a popular Broadland restaurant, the Lavender House.
Food, glorious food - we love it in Norfolk and are lucky enough to have several seriously good restaurants. Think of Galton Blackiston's Morston Hall in north Norfolk, and how about the trendy Wildebeest just outside Norwich or Brovey Lair in Breckland?
Another highly successful business is the Lavender House, in Brundall, which relocated from Wymondham about four years ago.
It's run by Richard Hughes - a regular columnist in our Saturday Magazine and EDP Norfolk - and his right-hand man, Richard Knights.
Now Mr Knights, from Thorpe St Andrew, has made it through to the semi-finals of a prestigious cookery competition, the Knorr National Chef of the Year 2006, previously won by the likes of motormouth celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
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Mr Knights, who trained at the hotel school at Norwich City College, admits to being more than a little nervous, saying: "Even talking about it gets me going. I'm not expecting to win but it's just great to be there and see what all the other chefs are producing."
He's one of 40 semi-finalists taking part in a cook-off in London next month, with the best 10 going on to the final.
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"For the semi-finals, we had to devise a three course menu for four based around a non-dairy vegetarian starter, a venison main course and a chocolate dessert.
"And then if I get through to the finals, we're given a box of mystery ingredients to produce another three course meal."
Mr Knights, aged 26, has been practising his menu over and over, explaining: "The themes came from the organisers - obviously venison comes into season in September but there hasn't been much around to experiment with.
"We have about two-and-a-half to three hours to produce the meal so it's all about keeping calm and getting your timings right."
He plans to keep everything very simple, allowing the great, mainly Norfolk, ingredients to speak for themselves.
He doesn't want to say too much about his selections but says that he's very fond of his chosen pudding - a hot chocolate cake, served with a tonka bean ice cream.
"It's something like your granny would make," he says, adding that tonka beans are currently very fashionable. "They have a sort of walnut/almond/coffee taste which goes very well with the chocolate - it's delicious!"
The biennial contest, organised by the Craft Guild of Chefs and sponsored by Knorr, is open to anyone over 21, and Mr Knights, who has entered for the first time, says that there are two hot favourites to win.
"Eyck Zimmer, from the Lowry Hotel in Manchester, has won a lot of contests, while Tristan Welch is a Ramsay protegée - he works at Petrus in London now."
Mr Knights is taking Julia Hetherton, the EDP Norfolk Chef of the Future 2006 winner and another team member at the Lavender House, as his assistant, saying: "She doesn't say much but just gets on with it - I couldn't wish for anyone better."
Away from work Mr Knights, who teaches at the hotel school one day a week, spends time with his family and friends, including his partner of three years, Charlotte.
And he admits that much of his money goes on his sports car, a Toyota Supra.
He likes to eat out, to keep up-to-date with what his competitors are doing, and reckons that Midsummer House, in Cambridge, is one of his favourites.
But having just bought a house with Charlotte, he has no plans to leave Norfolk. "There's so much we still want to achieve at the Lavender House - we're chasing a Michelin Star and think that next year will be our year," he says.
And Mr Hughes, reckons: "This is a real feather in his cap. Richard is very dedicated and always has a very positive attitude. "He has that rare combination - talent and the determination to work hard."
The cook-off takes place at London's Olympia on September 18 and 19, with the grand final on September 20.