Alot of great things have come from Darlington. It gave us the modern railways, for instance, and Vic Reeves. On top of that, there’s Ruth Hansom, and she might just be the best thing yet. She’s 21, she works in the Michelin-starred kitchen at The Ritz, and she’s just won the Craft Guild of Chefs’ Young National Chef of the Year title. The journey here started when she was a kid. An even younger one, I mean.
‘I always used to like to grow things,’ she says. ‘I was a bit of a weird child – for my 13th birthday I asked for a polytunnel. My mum gave me an ultimatum: she said, ‘You can either keep your trampoline or you can get a polytunnel. You’ve got to decide.’
She went for the polytunnel. She had wanted to be a doctor, but alongside her maths and science classes at school she did food science too. Through that she ended up winning her school’s heat of the Future Chef competition, then the regional final, and at the national final in London she picked up armfuls of business cards from chefs and restaurateurs.
‘I was like, “Oh, I could literally jump straight into a job here – I’d be so stupid not to take that opportunity.” So I went back home, applied for Westminster College, then found a flat on Gumtree and told my mum that I was moving.’
Ruth was 16 at the time. You could forgive a parent for raising some questions about the decision. ‘She thought I was a lunatic,’ Ruth says, ‘but I did it.’
She makes it sound quite simple. ’When I first came down, I was like, “Oh right. So I’ve got into college, how am I going to afford to live? Better get a job.”’ So, she got in touch with Freddie Forster at Boundary in Shoreditch, popped in for a trial and stayed for a year before he helped her into The Ritz, where he used to be head chef. Easy peasy. She learned a lot about people skills along the way too.
‘Some of the chefs love to be shouted at,’ she says. ‘It’s really, really bizarre. It’s just the way they learn: if they’re shouted at, it pushes them on. Whereas others, if you shout at them they’ll go and cry for a few days. You just have to get to know everybody and how they like to work.’
When she was gearing up for competitions, she’d be in the kitchen from 5am to work on dishes with Freddie, a winner of Young National Chef of the Year himself. ‘It’s just amazing the amount of time he gave to me. He made me ask why I was doing everything,’ she says. ‘If I couldn’t tell him he’d send me home, which taught me the importance of always knowing exactly what I was doing.’
At The Ritz, she met Executive Chef and fellow North Easterner John Williams, from South Shields. As saucier, Ruth’s in the middle of learning his recipes and methods, but John’s not afraid of taking her advice: ‘He wants to learn as well, if you’re doing something he’s never seen before, and he’s always asking for ideas.’ The kitchen’s a young one too, Ruth says, with most staff between 16 and 25.
Her competition menu tells you a lot about her generation of chefs: autumn vegetable salad with chicken liver panna cotta to start; a classical main of Norwegian fjord trout, smoked eel and horseradish tortellini with roast beetroot, sea vegetables and orange dressing; and a flourless chocolate cake with chocolate semi-freddo, malt mousseline, chocolate roasted peanuts and caramelised banana. If ‘millennial’ weren’t a completely empty term used only by people who resent youngsters for complaining about the lumpy, disordered world they’ve grown into (thanks for that, by the way, guys), then we’d call it millennial. We’ve got access to everything that ever happened, everywhere: why would you limit yourself by rigidly sticking to old, rigid frameworks? Young people have grown up in a shuffle-enabled, pick-and-remix world where everything’s ripe to be recontextualised. It makes sense that they should bring the same approach to food.
Ruth’s already got her eye on the next competition, the World Skills in the UAE later this year. The UK will send its best chefs, hairdressers, car mechanics, bricklayers, landscape gardeners and other practically-skilled people to Abu Dhabi to compete against their international rivals. Ruth was on the team which won bronze at the European championships in Gothenburg recently. Most people would be pretty happy with that, I say. ‘Yeah, yeah…,’ she says. Then, under her breath: ‘Annoying.’
She’d led for the first two days before being caught on the last day. Clearly, it still rankles. It’s that restless thirst to prove herself which made her come back to the Young National Chef of the Year competition. She first competed when she was 18, and a little rattled by the huge, noisy Earls Court arena. She surprised herself by coming second The next year, she came third. Again, not a bad showing, you’d think.
But for Ruth it was a ‘bit of a knock-back’. It made her more determined to come back and do herself justice this year, though. When she actually won, her overwhelming emotion was relief. ‘I think I just about held the tears in,’ she says. ‘I was like, “Do we have to have pictures now?”’
Ruth’s also the first woman to win the Young National Chef of the Year. While she points out that ‘there’s a lot of rising female head chefs, some really cool people’ – MasterChef: The Professionals judge Monica Galetti of Mere in Fitzrovia and Chantelle Nicholson, the protégée of Marcus Wareing who’s now chef patron at Tredwell’s in Covent Garden, are inspirations – Ruth’s proud of what she’s achieved, regardless of her gender. ‘I don’t think gender matters,’ she says. ‘I think it’s about what you do. It just happens that I am female.’
So will she come back up north? ’Maybe, eventually,’ she says, though travelling is high on her agenda. New York and Scandinavia appeal, especially the latter after a trip to Norway to watch schoolkids get involved in the skrei cod harvest: ‘They get paid by the head, literally working like ninja warriors cutting out the cheeks and the tongue. Crazy. Can you you imagine an eight-year-old from Darlo picking up a knife and hacking up fish heads?’
Well, maybe one – though the polytunnel was probably a safer bet.