Roux Scholarship 2021 winner Oli Williamson's top tip to become a successful chef: don't give up so fast

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

So you want to be a Great chef? 

Arguably one of the toughest culinary competitions around, the Roux Scholarship did not fail to challenge the chefs taking part in the 2020-2021 competition, tasking them with making two highly-technical classical dishes most had never heard of before reaching the finals. 

But even before getting to the last leg of the competition, chefs are expected to be 'at the top of their game,' as explained by Oli Williamson, sous-chef at The Fat Duck and The Staff Canteen's Grilled podcast guest this week, co-hosted by chef and hospitality recruitment agency founderAaron Mulliss.

Aaron said that he knows lots of chefs who have fallen at the first hurdle of the competition: the written entry test: "You're scrutinised - grammar, punctuation, spelling, everything -  they need to know that you are on your game."

But it is precisely because the competition challenges chefs on so many different aspects of their role that Oli always encourages his peers to enter.

"Even that first process, " he explained, "you don't really do that very often: writing a recipe, costing it properly, as a chef you very rarely do it."

"I think it's important for people to learn even that part of the process - and then," he laughed, "try not to s**t yourself if you do get through is another lesson to learn." 

While he believes he made it through to the finals through the skin of his teeth, having been told by chef Clare Smyth that he cooked his fish to perfection with the best sauce in the semi-finals (but that, as quoted by Oli, "everything else was s**t."), he added, "I do think every process is key to it - I suppose I won it on merit of all the things I have learned from everybody that I've worked for," (which, let us remember includes The Greenhouse in London, Midsummer House, Benu in San Francisco and The Clove Club, to name a few).

'People need to devote a bit more time'

What then, is Oli's advice on how to reach the culinary heights he has so far in his career?

"One thing that comes to the top straight away," he said, "is don't give up so fast."

"I've seen a lot of young chefs doing six months here, three months there, dotting around."

Instead, he continued, you "need to devote a bit more time, find somewhere, really think about where you want to go and then stay there for a couple of years minimum."

"Then when you feel like you're at a good stage, then move on and apply yourself again and do a couple of years. 

Having seen his fair share of job applications, he said, "you see all of these CVs where people don't really apply themselves. You don't really get anything out of it because it takes three months to even understand how a restaurant runs, minimum."

"If you're only there three months, you don't really get it. You want to stay," he added, "learn all you can, really use it as a resource and then move on and do something else."

Broaden your horizons

Travel is also at the top of his list of things to do, if not to be successful because it builds you up as a human being. 

For him, he explained, opened up new opportunities diversified his knowledge and understanding of different food cultures and techniques - as well as forcing him out of his comfort zone.

"Try and do visas," he said, "you can do a one year visa in America, in Australia..."

"When I went to Australia, I didn't even wash my own bedsheets and clothes - I just totally changed as a human."

"When you come back, you're so much more rounded, you've seen another culture.

"I fell in love with Thai cuisine and Chinese cuisine when I was in Australia, so you get to go and see stuff that you don't see here.

"It rounds you more as a person, too." 

Underlying all of his advice, the chef said, "do your research before you do anything. Don't just jump in two feet and think you can travel across London for a job, because you can't." 

"Just be realistic." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 6th January 2022

Roux Scholarship 2021 winner Oli Williamson's top tip to become a successful chef: don't give up so fast