Interview with Kate Austen representing London and South East on Great British Menu 2024 – Women In the Food Industry
Great British Menu (GBM) returned to our screens on January 23rd for season 19. The BBC2 show puts the nation’s most talented chefs to the test. At Women in the Food Industry we are continuing our series of interviews with the strong female line-up of chefs from across Britain competing to serve their dish at the final banquet. Our co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, interviewed Kate Austen who has worked at leading restaurants including Morston Hall, Marcus Wareing, Restaurant Frantzen and Restaurant AOC. Most recently she was part of Gordon Ramsay’s development team and is now a private chef in London.
How did you start working in the food industry and where did you train to be a chef?
I started cooking slightly later than many other chefs I have worked with throughout my career. when I first entered a professional kitchen, I was aware that many of them had been to college or culinary school in their mid teens, and that they had a number of years of experience under their belt. I felt that nothing would teach me faster than being thrown into the action – if I were to spend a year or more in a classroom, would that really prepare me for the pressures and intensity of a real kitchen? I thought not.
For me, this was the right decision. I’m a grafter, I’m determined, I’m stubborn and I’m thick-skinned. I expected it be rough, I knew I would be out of my depth and under those pressures probably disliked, but I believed in my ability to learn quickly, to want to succeed, and to get my head down and listen. I think if you can find an acceptance with not being the best at something, which of course I was very far from in the beginning, then it’s a hugely advantageous position. I learnt to be humble, to listen, to learn, and not to give up. There’s a freedom in being at the bottom, because there is only one way to go. I leaned into this.
How did you get onto Great British Menu this year and how did you prepare for the Olympics theme?
On a rainy Monday morning. I was sat in an old store cupboard at work sending some emails, rather uninspired by what I was doing. I knew I was seeking the next chapter of my career, but I didn’t really know what that was. I had grown up watching Great British Menu, and I had worked alongside and admired many previous competitors and winners. On a whim, and with very little expectation, I emailed the competition an application. I was thrilled to be accepted into the show, and immediately felt an excitement about the opportunity to compete.
I definitely found the theme challenging. My game plan was to heavily research first, before even contemplating food or ingredients. I studied the Olympics and Paralympics, reading every article I could, watching old footage, listening to National anthems. I researched specific athletes, moments in history, scandals, heroes and sports spanning from Ancient Greece to modern day. I believe you get out as much as you put in, and I was going to put every single thing I had into the competition, and this would start with solid and recognisable links to the brief. I also studied all the previous series – when it came to final points and splitting of hairs, those who had nailed the brief and clearly told a story often won over other incredible dishes.
This is your first time on Great British Menu, how did you find it working in the studio kitchen and under the eye of the cameras?
This was my first time on the show, and it was an extraordinary experience. I found it extremely tough at times, and incredibly exposing, but also deeply rewarding and wonderfully validating. It is ‘the’ chef show; the one we in the industry respect the most and therefore it comes with a level of pressure. I think when you do anything to such levels of intensity there is always a tension of love and hate. When my first two courses didn’t go as I had hoped, I felt down, really down. I was quite vulnerable to the idea that I had really set my stall out, gone on national television with some impressive credentials behind me, and once the realisation sets in that it hasn’t quite got to plan, that’s a tough mental challenge.
The cameras of course add a huge amount of pressure, and they do take some getting used to, but all the chefs are in the same position, so we can all relate. I have to credit the crew and camera team – they were so supportive of me, always offering words of advice, willing me to do well and showing such belief in me. I am a person who responds hugely to this, and there is no doubt that they all helped get the best out of me.
Which was the hardest course to prepare for when you were researching for GBM’s Olympic theme?
I found the fish course really hard to prepare for. The stories I connected with most I struggled with relating to fish or shellfish. It just didn’t appear logical at all. I got there eventually, and loved my inspiration, but I wasn’t willing to commit to a dish without having the connection and believing in it – that just took time to get to.
Did you embrace the props on the show?
I absolutely embraced the props on the show – they aid in your story telling. As I’ve previously mentioned, when it came to splitting points you needed the full package, and that included props.
Which chefs that you have worked with have given you the most inspiration?
Greg Anderson from Meadowsweet in Norfolk will always have a very fond place in my heart. He gave me a job with no experience, he taught me how to season food, he recognised how to inspire the best in me, and he continues to mentor and help me to this day. His hard work, commitment to the industry, and dedication to food is admirable and I’m very grateful for all that he has done.
If you were marooned on a desert island, what was the one type of dish you could happily live on?
Can I just have potatoes please? Boil them, mash them, fry them, bake’em. They’re delicious.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when you were starting out in this business?
You do have to go through the rough bits to achieve the good bits. And they can last for longer than is comfortable and be extremely challenging. But everything moves, everything shifts eventually. Sometimes you cannot quite see the point in what you’re doing, especially if it is tough, but in hindsight you’ll understand that it’s some of the jigsaw pieces that put you where you are today.
Kate will be appearing on Great British Menu from Tuesday 6th February 2024 representing London & the South East. Look out for more in our series of interviews with the great women chefs on Great British Menu 2024 – this page will be regularly updated.