Masterchef: The Professionals – Alex Webb, former Dunmow schoolboy and Square 1 head chef, crowned champion
A former student of Helena Romanes School in Great Dunmow has been crowned this year's Masterchef: The Professionals champion.
Alex Webb, 25, is head chef at Square 1 in Dunmow – the High Street restaurant where he started his culinary career as a schoolboy kitchen hand.
On Thursday night (Dec 17), fans of the hit BBC One TV show saw him give another faultless performance to claim the title, wowing judges Marcus Wareing, Monica Galetti and Gregg Wallace with three courses combining classic techniques with a fun twist.
Marcus, who holds a Michelin star at his eponymous Knightsbridge restaurant, hailed Alex as the future: “We have seen a young chef come of age.
"He's a brilliant young chef. I love his thirst for knowledge, and he has cooked beyond his years.
"Masterchef is about the next generation and for me, as a chef, I see Alex as the future."
After a video introduction featuring his parents Jennifer and Philip, who talked about Alex’s lifelong passion for cooking, he beat his two rival finalists, Dutch private chef Bart van der Lee, 33, and Santosh Shah, head chef at London’s Cinnamon Kitchen, who featured the cuisine of his native Nepal with his final menu.
On the “most important day of his life” Alex said that fish cookery was his strength and prepared a scallop ceviche starter with an artichoke and pickled pear tartare, yoghurt foam, parsley powder and capers.
His main was a pan-seared trout with a mussel and caviar cream sauce, a mini potato and fish pie and parsnips, while his cocktail-inspired dessert was delicate white chocolate and passion fruit dome with a playful party popper on the side.
Those preparations for a celebration were well-founded as the judges announced their verdict and champagne flowed after a competition in which Harlow-born Alex rarely put a foot wrong.
Throughout the rounds, he got a chance to showcase the skills he has picked up at some of the top kitchens in the country.
His first hospitality job was front-of-house waiter at the Green Man in Lindsell, before he got his first taste of life in the kitchen at Square 1.
After a year cooking in Australia at just 16, he studied at Westminster Kingsway College in London and graduated as its Apprentice Chef of the Year.
A stint at London’s Savoy followed before he turned down offers from Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay to learn French haute cuisine from two-Michelin star chef Hélène Darroze at the Connaught.
Stints at Hame by Adam Handling, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and finally Roux at Parliament Square, Michel Roux Jr's second London restaurant, completed his rise through the ranks before he returned to Square 1 as head chef.
As the penultimate round of the contest was screened on Wednesday (Dec 16) and Alex wowed some of the most lauded chefs in the country before creating a duck and blackberry dish inspired by his grandfather, I took a trip to Dunmow to taste some of the Square 1 dishes in his repertoire.
The beamed restaurant with a contemporary interior is owned by chef patron Spencer Hewitt, a former chef at Host in Bishop’s Stortford’s Market Square, and wife Claire. While their star employee faced scrutiny on screen, the rest of the team was battling to feed a full restaurant during a power cut.
The outage had closed the restaurant at lunchtime with the loss of 40 covers. With just a partial supply restored for the evening service, Spencer was forced to abandon the £50-a-head tasting menu inspired by Alex’s Masterchef journey and concentrate on cooking complicated à la carte dishes in a kitchen where vital equipment – including the extractor fans – were not working.
The contractors digging up the High Street just outside the door to find and fix the fault were a very obvious reminder of the problems the Square 1 team faced.
Nevertheless, the service was impeccable, and my starter of gin and beetroot cured salmon, pickled cucumber, dill crème fraiche and rye bread was pretty as a picture and tasted gorgeous.
The same was true of my main, a perfectly cooked and very generous portion of turbot fillet, spirulina and seaweed powder, crispy and sautéed kale and caviar cream sauce. Spencer emerged from the kitchen to bring an extra portion of the delicious sauce as an added bonus.
However, my partner’s choice – a smoked bacon rolled chicken ballotine, pork, cranberry and sage stuffing, roasted parsnips, parsnips purée and chicken jus – was missing a final flash in the pan to colour and crisp the bacon, and the consequences of cooking in a kitchen under such stressful conditions was clear.
As Gregg Wallace might have said: “Cooking during a power cut and a pandemic doesn't get much tougher than this.”
As soon as Spencer realised, he apologised profusely and knocked our wine – a crisp and delicious New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – off the bill, which was presented with stunning home-made truffles.
He clearly faced an almost impossible choice: to close because of the power cut or to persevere and try to serve all those who had booked a table at a time when a move to tier 3, like 11 of the 14 districts in Essex, was on the cards.
Thankfully, Dunmow remains in tier 2 along with the rest of Uttlesford, and Alex – who showed off his baking skills with a stall at Dunmow’s market selling freshly baked croissants and other goodies during the spring – will be serving up Christmas dinner at Square 1.
For £125 a head, guests can feast on his dishes including hot baby new potatoes with caviar and chives, crayfish and caviar bellinis, a turducken or three bird roast with all the traditional trimmings and home-made Christmas pudding with clementine centre.