A POTENTIALLY life-changing moment awaits one of Scotland’s leading chefs tomorrow night.

Gary Townsend, head chef at Hotel du Vin Glasgow at One Devonshire Gardens, and a weekly columnist in the Herald Magazine, is among the dozen chefs who have reached the final of the prestigious National Chef of the Year 2022 contest.

What has been described as an “incredible cook-off” between the contenders has already taken place. The final will be screened live tomorrow at the Everyman Cinema in Broadgate, London, when the awards will be presented.

Whoever wins will join a distinguished roster that includes Mark Sargeant, Bruce Sangster, Gordon Ramsay and Kuba Winkowski. The event, held for the first time in 1972, has helped launch many high-profile careers, with some winners getting the confidence to strike out on their own.

Like the other 11 contenders, Gary has been taken out of his comfort zone as he has progressed to the final. “You could say that it’s a huge accomplishment to get this far, really, it’s nothing short of surreal”, he said.

Cooking for exacting, professional judges while competing against so many other talented chefs has been a key challenge for him.

“Taking part in the live cook-off was completely different to what I do here, night after night. You’re going into an alien environment. It’s not your own kitchen, and more so than ever, timing is everything the whole process is very unforgiving.

“Even though I knew what I was creating, it was an utterly different experience, because you’re cooking in front of people you have admired your entire life. There are two or three Michelin-starred chefs, and you’re cooking for them. It’s incredible.

“In the contest we were judged on our pre-planned, three-course menu, which we submitted at very start. There were a couple of stages before I got to the final, when they asked you some really challenging questions, and then there was an skills test dish which I had to recreate then film. But ultimately, the things that you committed to recreating at the very beginning, were the dishes you had to cook in the final, in just two hours".

He added: “When I originally wrote the menu I focused on using and showcasing the best ingredients, in hindsight actually planning these three complex to two hours would have been beneficial. I just took the competition stage by stage, so by the time I got to the final, I had to make a few compromises and changes, while still ensuring I retained the basic concept”.

Gary had devised a barbecued beetroot salt-baked dish, but as it would take an hour just to heat the barbecue up properly, he had to negotiate a quick solution.

How does he think he fared in the final? “I like to think I did well, and I gave it my absolute all, but it really was down to the wire for me, as I was plating up in the last seconds. Did everything go to plan? Yes, in a way, but you’re up against 11 other great chefs. If I don’t win this competition I’d want to go again next year and try to win it. It’s a lot of work, and it’s quite stressful, but worth it".

If Gary gets placed, he hopes it’s the catalyst for him to eventually open his own restaurant. “Winning such a prestigious title will give me that extra bit of confidence and backing to drive me forward with my long-term personal ambition of running my own restaurant.

"Of course, I love my job, and One Devonshire is an amazing place to work with a phenomenal team, but long-term, having my own place… well, that’s always been the dream.”

As things stand, however, none of the 12 finalists knows what the actual prize will be for winning, apart from the title. But the contest has a handful of well-known sponsors, and the prize will be “quite substantial”.

Gary’s CV includes more than five years at Restaurant Martin Wishart at Cameron House, where he played a key role in the restaurant winning its first Michelin star, in 2011.

He is one of five Scottish chefs in the final. The others are Iain Gourlay, head chef, Cringletie House Hotel in the Borders; Christopher Niven, executive chef, Marine North Berwick; Russell Plowman, senior sous chef, Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Perthshire; and Thomas Swaby, head chef, Inverlochy Castle, Fort William.