Kikkoman Masters 2018 Winner Fergus Wilford

Chef, Fergus Wilford was crowned Kikkoman Masters 2018 champion last October winning a 7-day culinary trip to Japan.

Fergus, 27 was working with Andre Garrett at Cliveden when he took part in the competition. Each competitor had just 90 minutes to create a starter and main course under the watchful eyes of judges and spectators at The Restaurant Show, Olympia. Each dish included Kikkoman Soy Sauce.

Fergus wowed the judges with his starter of soy cured mackerel, cucumber, fennel and wasabi and his main course of koji aged duck breast poached in master stock with butternut squash and fermented king oyster.

The Judging panel included some celebrated chefs including Adam Handling, The Frog by Adam Handling; Simon Hulstone, The Elephant; Selin Kiazim, Oklava; Bing-yu Lee, Kikkoman UK; David Mulcahy, Craft Guild of Chefs; and the nation’s favourite, Brian Turner, CBE and compere.

He managed to take his coveted prize of a trip to Japan in February 2019 and we caught up with him on his return to the UK. Here’s what he had to say:

What made you enter the Kikkoman Masters 2017 and 2018?

The prize, a trip to Japan, really attracted me to enter the competition but I also felt the time was right for me to start challenging myself. This competition seemed the perfect place to start.

We know chefs are busy and work long hours. How did you manage to find enough time to work on your entry, testing it and perfecting it to get to a standard you were happy with?

I basically just used every spare moment I had, either staying late after work, working through any breaks I had and using my days off to test and perfect my dishes. It is important to put time into competitions and if that means working late to test and tweak the recipe then it needs to be done. The extra work paid off with the win, the title and trip to Japan.

Did you ask anyone to check your entry before submitting?

Its important to have someone who believes in you to show your entry to. my executive chef at the time – Andre Garrett –looked over my entry for me and gave feedback to me which certainly helped. I also gave it to my head chef Paul O’Neill because it’s good to get different opinions. But you most also believe in yourself and entry. It’s important when writing your entry that you have confidence in your dishes. You should want to cook and eat them.

Looking back to the day of the competition, how were you feeling and did you bring anyone to support you?

I came along on my own and felt a little nervous but mainly I made sure I felt very prepared and ready to go which helped my confidence.

The Live Theatre is very different to working in your usual kitchen space, it is quite small but also there is an audience watching you, other chefs alongside you, plus judges and our compere, Brian Turner asking you questions. How did it feel?

As a chef you have to be able to adapt to your surroundings in competition. I also had the benefit of having been in the Kikkoman Masters 2017 final when Gabriel Rechisan won the competition. It actually gave me the benefit of having worked in the space, dealt with the questions and the audience. Plus, I knew what to expect which certainly helped calm my nerves.

Before Brian Turner announced the winner, how were you feeling?

I was actually okay, I felt very happy with my dishes and without sounding cocky I did feel quietly confident.

Did you find the judges helpful or did their presence make you more nervous?

The judges were fine, they were helpful, not patronising and their questions were all very relevant. It felt positive more than anything.

When the winner was announced how did you feel?

I was so happy but I also felt a little shocked, mainly overjoyed though.

Who was the first person that you phoned to tell them the good news?

My mum as she has always been there for me and I wanted to make her proud.

As mentioned, your prize was a trip to Japan that you took in February 2019. How was the trip and what sort of food did you manage to experience over there?

The trip was just amazing, so good and such a different experience to anything I have any done before. I spent time with Roux Scholar Trevor Blythe who lives in Tokyo, he is incredibly knowledgeable about Japanese food and I learnt so much from him in the short time we were together. I also made sure I tried different food every night as there is such a diverse selection there, not just sushi, hundreds of difference restaurants and foods to be tried.

The Kikkoman Masters 2019 is now open for entries. What would your advice be to anyone thinking about entering the competition but isn’t sure?

Everyone should have a go. It is a good competition to enter and gives you the experience in a different environment. It pushes you outside your comfort zone and challenges you. Have a think about the sort of dish you want to enter, make sure you practice and practice and practice. Oh, and don’t forget to use the soy sauce!

Has the competition changed your confidence or style of cooking? What do you think the trip to Japan has done for you?

My confidence has certainly grown. The trip to Japan also has helped me come up with more ideas and techniques than ever before, plus I also understand a lot more about various methods and cuisines.

Was there one particular person during your Kikkoman Masters experience that really made the competition worthwhile?

Everyone was fantastic however Brian Turner on the day of the competition was incredibly good at making all the finalists feel at ease and lowering some of the nerves. Plus, the knowledge that Trevor Blythe shared with me in Japan was just amazing, he is from the Western culture living among Eastern culture so looks at things very differently. It was certainly the trip of a lifetime.

T: @FergusWilford
I: @fergusw92