Barry Tonks, Executive Chef at Searcy’s at The Gherkin, and finalist of Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or 1994, tells his Toque story and explains how it helped launch his career to heights he could never have imagined...
Where it all started
Toque d’Or is, undoubtedly, the best student competition out there. You just can’t compete with it. The effort that Nestlé Professional puts in is impressive. If I hadn’t have done it, I simply wouldn’t be where I am today.
I was brought up in a fishing village in the North East of Scotland where nothing really happens and no one really leaves. My career as a Trawlerman was set out for me from a very young age. But Toque d’Or changed this...
I wanted to be a chef as far back as I can remember. Fishing wasn’t for me, and I enrolled in what was then Aberdeen Technical College when I was 19. Soon after, I was lucky enough make it through to the Finals of Toque d’Or. And this is really where my career really began.
For me, Toque was infectious. To compete at that level at such a young age is inspiring. I didn’t want to work in Scotland and serve lasagne and sticky toffee pudding on a Thursday night. I wanted exposure to the real industry. Toque exposed me to London and to a profession I really wanted to do. It inspired me to raise the bar.
Paving the way to Michelin success
Quite literally, Toque d’Or paved the way for my career. I took up my first commis chef position at the Dorchester Hotel, where the Finals Dinner took place. It was my first job as a chef and I got it through the competition.
Ten years on and I won my own Michelin star, whilst Head Chef at McClements in Twickenham. There aren’t many chefs out there who gain a star, but that was my biggest dream. From there, I wanted to be an Executive Chef. I’m always aiming for something. It’s the same amount of enthusiasm I brought to Toque d’Or, and it carries through your career.
One of my biggest personal takeaways from the competition has to be the pressure. I will never forget the cook-offs at Motherwell College. I was late with an apple soufflé but couldn’t serve it because it just wasn’t ready. We still won the heat, but I’m glad I didn’t serve that soufflé. If I had, it would have been less than perfect. This is a mantra I still live by!
Learning to plan under pressure was also a massive learning curve. You’re having to plan, prepare and cost the menu. Add in seasonality, allergies and different nutritional requirements, and you have a challenge on your hands. That’s what it’s like in the real world. If you can deal with the pressure and enjoy it at the same time, it prepares you for life in a professional kitchen.
The mentors were invaluable too. Alan Hill (Director of Food & Beverage at Gleneagles) was my mentor in the early days of the competition, and he had an immense impact on me. At the cooking stage in the first heat, you only had so much knowledge. The lecturers helped us out, but what Alan brought was experience and a more accomplished menu with regards to flavour. Taking that on board from someone at the top of their game was amazing.
There is no doubt that competitions like Toque d’Or are vital to the future of our industry. We are facing a chronic skills shortage right now. It’s about telling the next generation that there is so much to aspire too, as well as preparing them for life as a professional chef or manager. It’s not just about working long hours.
My advice to students embarking on their Toque journey is to give it everything you’ve got. Don’t go into it 50%. Go into it because you really want to win it, but also because you really want to do it. It’s a cliché, but you really do have to give 200%.