Recently, I sat down with Chef Adam Spicer, Senior Sous Chef at Corpus Christi and one of the master minds behind the college’s stand-out gastronomic scene, to gruel him on life as a college chef, his success as a quarter finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals 2019, and the rise of veganism.
Whether it’s the termly Feasts, weekly formals or even just the regular hall lunch (there’s a ramen option every day), Corpus definitely contends for the top spot when it comes to serving Cambridge’s best college grub. While you might not have all personally experienced Corpus’ culinary delights, the more refined foodies among you might have caught the 2019 series of MasterChef: The Professionals, which featured none other than Adam himself. If like me, you are a MasterChef follower, then I invite you to fangirl with me (vicariously) through this article.
Upon my arrival to the Corpus kitchen, Adam took me on a thorough tour (I even got to taste a little salted caramel chocolate number fresh out the pastry kitchen – things were off to a good start) and then joined me in the college’s beautiful old dining room for a chat; one food appreciator to another (desperately trying to lump myself with him here, sorry Adam).
I started off with the obvious question: what his thoughts were on being a college chef. “I love it,” says Adam, adding that it actually doesn’t feel like a job at all. This, he says, is the beauty of doing something you love as your career; it never feels like a chore. One concern that came to my mind when considering the role of a chef in such a well-established institution would be the level of freedom granted to them; being a chef and creativity are two parts of the same whole, after all. “We’re quite lucky here at Corpus because we have lots of freedom. Between myself, the other sous chef and our executive head chef, we sit down and write all the menus… you’re never pigeonholed into cooking the same thing over and over again.” Indeed, during my tour of the kitchen Adam pointed out at least five menus that they were planning or preparing for the next few weeks. “We also have the freedom of ingredients because we have quite a big budget compared to a restaurant – you couldn’t be buying truffles, lobsters and endless quails to the same extent as we can here, so it’s a great opportunity to use those ingredients.” How very Cambridge.
“We’re quite lucky here at Corpus because we have lots of freedom. Between myself, the other sous chef and our executive head chef, we sit down and write all the menus… you’re never pigeonholed into cooking the same thing over and over again.”
When asked about his ultimate career goal, I was delighted to hear that Adam intends to open up his own restaurant, eventually. “I’m thinking small plate-dining: sharer plates, canopies, like a taster menu sort of thing. Watch this space.” Trust me, we will. After the generic questions, I decided it was time to get more personal. I’ve always wondered what chefs cook when they’re off duty; safe to say, his answer was rather unexpected. Spicer loves “devilled kidneys” and says if he’s “at home mid-week, I’ll pop to the butchers in Newmarket and cook that. It’s quite an old school dish but it’s one of the first dishes I learnt to make, and I love it.” After a subtle and rapid Google of devilled kidneys and an attempt to engage in Adam’s enthusiasm for this dish, I asked where the inspiration for this came from. “There’s a chef called Fergus Henderson who owns a place, St. John in London, and when I ate them there, they were incredible, and I’ve always tried to replicate them, but it’s never quite worked out.” Well, practice makes perfect. I’m not sure I’ll be joining in the practice of this one though.
How about drunk food? “Ooh wow… I don’t know because you never really decide when you’re drunk, do you? There’s a little curry house in Newmarket called Montaz and when you’re drunk it’s the best place to order curry from. Like really good curry. And they do a little ox cheek dish in there and that is really good.” At the thought of last night’s elite gastronomical indulgence of Van of Life cheesy chips and gravy, I couldn’t help but hang my head in shame. We’ll definitely be trying this curry house though. Adam informs me that both Newmarket and Bury St. Edmunds have a fantastic food scene. “Cambridge has quite a bit going on, but I think these two places have a really exciting up-and-coming culinary scene that is definitely appreciated by locals.”
This brought me to ask for his thoughts on Cambridge’s restaurants: “Midsummer House, Vanderlyle and Restaurant 22 are all really good places”, though unfortunately not quite within the student budget range (I can only speak for myself). Luckily, Adam has plenty of recommendations for cheaper, more casual dining in Cambridge: “The little Chinese stall in the market that sells dumplings is banging. And they also do unusual things if you ask them: you can try beef tendons, chicken feet, it’s all quite traditional Chinese stuff which is really cool. If you want a burger, Steak & Honour is absolutely amazing and for a dirty sandwich you’ve got to go Bread and Meat”. He is particularly keen on Jack’s Gelato, “obviously, in the summertime. Sat in the Eagle with an ice cream and a beer and then you end up paying more for your ice cream because you got the £5 Yamasaki ice cream and you’re sat drinking your £3 pint thinking, hold on, how does that work?!” You’ll know where to find him this summer, then.
Now for the juicy stuff: in Autumn 2019 Adam featured on the hugely popular MasterChef: The Professionals TV series. Despite its polished end result and fantastically aesthetic display of foodporn, Adam warns that it isn’t exactly as it looks on TV. Unsurprisingly, he admits that “it’s very heavily edited. There’s a lot of hanging around – the actual time you spend cooking is about 10% of your whole time you’re there. But it was good, and I really enjoyed it.”
Judging on the exceptional standard of the competition this time round, making it to the last sixteen contestants was no mean feat. “On my third challenge when I completely mucked it up, however, I wasn’t very happy. I basically gave myself way too much to do and pushed it way too far, and then I realised when I got to prep like ‘ah, I’m not going to make this’. But if you’re not going to push yourself then when are you going to?” One of the best results of the show, he says, are the connections he made with his fellow contestants. This series featured a record number of young chefs, like Adam, whose ambition was tangible and has led to numerous collaborations that have attracted vast crowds of supporters. “There’s a lot of guys I still keep in touch with, like Exose. He wants to come and do a pop up here at Corpus, which is exciting” Speaking as a day-one Exose fangirl, this is definitely an understatement. Luckily for Corpus students, however, Adam reassured me that he was definitely staying put for the moment. Apart from the occasional pop up to “get his name out there”, he confesses to having no plans to leave the college until he finds somewhere that he really wants to move to.
An obvious challenge facing not only the food industry but also the entire planet is the growing climate crisis. I asked Adam about the pressures to reduce carbon footprint, especially in an institution like Cambridge that is always under immense scrutiny from students, press, and university authorities. “We look at the topic of carbon footprint or even of Brexit and we don’t see it as an issue because we’ve always sourced locally and used seasonal produce… we won’t be using asparagus from Israel or Peru because we won’t put [them on] the menu until their season hits.”
Adam looks very positively at the current state of the British food scene: “I think the British food scene is more exciting than it’s ever been at the moment; it’s huge. We’re lucky because we have a massive melting pot of cultures, so you get influences from all over. We grow some of the best produce in the world… A Spanish strawberry does not compare to an English one.” A reason to be positive about Brexit, perhaps?
“I think the British food scene is more exciting than it’s ever been at the moment; it’s huge. We’re lucky because we have a massive melting pot of cultures, so you get influences from all over. We grow some of the best produce in the world… A Spanish strawberry does not compare to an English one.”
I also asked him about his stance on the growing movement towards veganism and both the benefits and threats it might propose to chefs. “From a chef’s point of view, I think it’s really good because we start doing new things and we’re always learning new things, so that’s really positive.” Interestingly, Adam saw carbon footprint as a point of contention when it comes to vegans. “If you’re buying an avocado from Mexico and we’re buying beef from down the road, when you’re talking about the distance that our food has travelled, it’s not comparable.” He makes a good point.
When it comes to the longevity of veganism Spicer notes that “We do see change in dietaries quite a lot… now everyone is veggie but not gluten free. The other day we served faggots, which aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so we made veggie and vegan replacements. But when dessert came around, their vegan cards conveniently landed on the floor, so we ended up running out of dessert!” After trying the Bakewell Tart at formal the other week, this comes as no surprise to me.
“Truthfully, I don’t think veganism is ever going to take over. When you look at actually how many people in the UK are vegan it is still under 1%. So, though vegans might shout the loudest, it might not necessarily be that it has that much of an impact. It goes up and down with the time of year, as well; in January everyone wants to be vegan but by Christmas time that goes out the window.” When I asked if he could ever see himself becoming a vegetarian, Adam sighed and shook his head. “Don’t get me wrong, I eat vegetarian and vegan meals every now and then without even knowing and I love it. But I don’t think I could ever cut meat out completely.”
Since his time on MasterChef, Spicer has been propelled into an exciting new stage of his career, and the new possibilities are by no means stopping there. Look out for the rise of this young local chef and, obviously, snap up your chance to try the Corpus food for yourself.