Monday, 31 March 2008

Welcome to the real world

That's it. Exams are over and for the next three weeks I won't have to make the long journey over to West London every morning. However unlike when I was a student the first time round, I won't be spending my holiday drinking and getting up late with a hangover. For the next week I'll be working in restaurant kitchens, real live ones that have paying customers and everything!

Monday to Wednesday I'll be working at The Palmerston in East Dulwich doing a lunch shift and two evening shifts. The Palmerston is an above average gastropub whose kitchen is run by former Bibendum head chef Jamie Younger and for the last three years has held an AA rosette for its cooking. Dishes on the menu include Duck and Pistachio Ballotine with Apple Chutney and Cornichons, Line Caught Plaice with Samphire and Mussels, and Grilled Calves Kidneys with Red Wine Radicchio Risotto.

I'm going to be working as the third chef, looking after side orders and desserts and today I learnt my way around the kitchen, prepping ingredients for the a la carte, putting together a special Banana Sticky Pudding for the lunch menu and managing a few of the veg side orders that came in over lunch. It's great to finally find myself in a working kitchen and from plating desserts to picking individual leaves of coriander, I loved every minute of it. On Friday I move on to another kitchen, but more on that another time...

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Chocolate Fondant with Pistachio Heart

It's been a manic week preparing for yesterday's practical exam. Unfortunately it also coincided with Emilie's birthday and I have to confess that I couldn't give her as much attention as I would have liked on her special day (translate: I forgot to get the present!)

Luckily a gooey chocolate fondant is usually enough to divert attention for a while and so I pulled one out of the box of tricks marked 'Emergency Wife Pleasers', this time with a runny centre made with pistachio paste. It seemed to buy me some time, for a few days at least...

Monday, 24 March 2008

Morning Gory

It's 6.30 in the morning and I'm standing in a cold, windowless room in a river of blood. Pushed up against the walls are grey, industrial wheelie bins, filled with body parts. A tall man with a cockney accent and a scar from the side of his mouth to his left ear plunges his arm into one of the wheelie bins and pulls out a bunch of organs. He holds them aloft, grinning manically like a pantomime villain, hoping we'll be revolted. Disappointed by the reaction, he drops them back into the bin.

"Know what these are?", he asks as he holds out his hand hopefully. "They're sheep's bollocks. The Egyptians? They bloody love 'em."

It's not everybody's idea of the best way to begin the day but strangely this is something I've wanted to do for a long time. Not necessarily come face to face with a pair of dismembered gonads, but, you know, visit the meat market during trading hours. Now I'm finally here, called to worship at the temple of meat, the Central Markets at Smithfields.

As much as I've come along to learn about the history of the market and see the meat trade in action, I'm really here for breakfast. The Cock Tavern has held an almost mythical status in my brain ever since I worked in Clerkenwell. Prior to the change in licensing laws, The Cock was one of a few establishments allowed to serve alcohol in the early morning and the mere idea of porters, traders and butchers ending their shifts with a fry up and a pint seemed such a great example of a London subculture that I wanted to see it for myself.

Unfortunately when we finally made our way down into the basement it was nearly empty but I was still determined to have the Butcher's Breakfast which consisted of Devilled Kidneys, Liver, Rump Steak, Bacon, Sausage, Beans and Egg. In my mind this was going to be the best breakfast of my life, a tower of meat, an ornament of offal. Unfortunately it was not to be. Leathery liver, rubbery kidneys, and chewy rump steak was proof that such ingredients need to be cooked with care and to be honest I've seen Pete Doherty give more care to his appearance than the Cock's chef gave to that breakfast. Still, we were there for the experience and the Guinness went down surprisingly well before we sped back to posh West London to cook some more fancy French dishes with vaguely pronouncable names.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Review: Restaurant Sat Bains

If anyone is ever racking their brains about what to get me for a Christmas or birthday present, rack no longer. A trip to one of the restaurants that feature on the right hand side of this blog will always be well received and I'm happy to say that my parents, without any prompting, have cottoned onto this. Last year they very kindly organised a trip to the Waterside Inn in Bray and this year our gift was dinner and an overnight stay at Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham.

Restaurant Sat Bains is Nottingham's only Michelin starred restaurant and is one of the places that Location Location Location researchers might have missed when they voted Nottingham as the fourth worst place to live in the UK. It's not surprising that they missed it given that it's situated near a flyover, adjacent to a industrial estate, underneath a line of electricity pylons. Location Location Location? Phil and Kirstie would not be happy, and they'd make it known with their annoyingly chipper, overly scripted banter.

We are shown to our room which would doubtlessly be described as "well appointed" in a brochure or travel guide, although I have to admit that I have no idea what this actually means. I imagine there's some government department, staffed by registered officiants, charged with organising room appointment ceremonies for new builds and refurbed properties.

'I, Sir Douglas Ponsonby-Smythe, by the powers vested in me, do officially appoint thee, a room!" at which point a crowd of onlookers clap politely and mutter their approval amongst themselves.

'Didn't he appoint that room well, Margaret?'

'Yes, Joan, terribly well. Masterful I'd say. Would you care for another scone?'

Conversely, how are rooms badly appointed? Perhaps elsewhere, a spotty 16 year old who has patiently been shadowing a registered officiant for a week, finally gets to have a go for himself. Full of enthusiasm he bounds through the gates of a property like an overexcited labrador, and waving his arms around proudly proclaims,

'I, er, Danny Wilshire, by the power of my vest, appoint you, a room!'

After a moment of silence, his mentor turns to him and says,

'No Danny, I think you'll find that's a wheelie bin.'


You sense there's as much opportunism going on at Restaurant Sat Bains as in a Heather Mills marriage. There's no question that the restaurant owes much of its current success to Sat's appearance on Great British Menu last year, where his duck egg poached at 62 degrees for 5 hours scored 10/10 from all three judges and was chosen as the starter to represent British cooking at a banquet in Paris. Great British Menu cookbooks are stacked high on the reception desk and available to buy for £20 (Amazon price: £13), and they have rather cheekily removed the famous dish from the £67 eight course tasting menu and offer it as an optional extra for a wallet-busting additional £15. Ch-ching!

Despite not taking the eggy extra, the menu is crammed with exciting flavour combinations - foie gras with corn icecream, poached figs with parmesan, salmon and plums, and magically they all work well. There are enough savory ice cream variations to start up a modern Mr Whippy van business, in fact I can see it now, driving around the gun capital of the East Midlands, with tinkling chimes broadcasting its arrival to the cascading notes of the Great British Menu theme tune. Ok, mister, stick your hands up and give me more of that pine-nut ice cream.

The cooking is adventurous, scientific and for the most part perfectly executed. The only let down was a course of foie gras which was served to our table of four in two different ways. Unfortunately the two dishes were markedly different in quality and execution and left those that had not had been served with the better one feeling cheated. One used 100% foie gras and the other didn't, one contained a leaf of thai basil but the other did not, one was served beautifully on a plate and the other in a cumbersome terrine pot. Why not just serve the same dish to everyone? It's the dumbest idea I've ever seen in a restaurant. Apart from that the food was glorious.

One of the hardest things things with these tasting menus is finding appropriate wines to go with the food. It's often a relief when you're given the option of matched wines with each course and adds an interesting dimension to the meal. This wasn't an option at Sat Bains and so naturally, I asked for help. Unfortunately instead of help, all I got was obstinate condescension and some of the unfriendliest service I've ever received in a restaurant. It went something like this:-

"Could you recommend wines to go with the tasting menu?"

"Well what wines do you like?"

" Well I like lots of different wines, but I don't really know what would go with the different dishes on the menu, I guess I need something versatile right?"

"Yes, that's right."

"So.....your recommendation would be.....?"

"Well as I said, it depends on what you like....."

"Mmmm, wellI like Malborough Sauvignon Blanc, I like reds from the Rhone Valley, I love Beaujolais when I want something light and fruity, I love a crisp Chablis, Champagne, Aussie Shiraz - it depends on what I'm eating!!!!"

"Well, you're never going to find a wine that will match with every course."

"Yes, I know that, that's why I want you to tell me the most versatile wines on your menu. Oh I give up!"

In the end I just went back to the wine menu and chose a Macon ("oh, that's very dry you know") and asked for a recommendation on what I deemed a versatile red, a medium bodied Pinot Noir ("were you thinking of the Central Otago Dry Gully, I drink it at home on a Sunday night.") No I wasn't thinking of that one actually as it costs £59 a bottle, but hey, you're doing my head in so let's just go with it shall we?

Not a good start and not really what you want from your head of front of house, a supercilious lemon-sucking, impersonal madam whose focus is on selling books and extra egg courses rather than mirroring the quality of the food being created in the kitchen. It's an example of how food is just one part of a dining experience, and it's a shame that it marred an otherwise great meal. I won't go into the fact that we weren't invited to taste the red wine, weren't offered the cheese course, had to pour our own wine all the time. These faults are so unnecessary and easily rectifiable that I hope they'll improve them and win the two stars that the cooking merits.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Saturday Kitchen

When I decided to change my career my biggest worry was that cooking every day might end up turning a passion into a chore. 10 weeks into the course I find that the opposite is true. Gone are the days of waking up with a hangover on a saturday morning with nothing in the fridge and an emergency packet of Supernoodles from the back of the cupboard to line the stomach at lunchtime. Nowadays I'm keen to try out new skills and whip something up using store cupboard ingredients and things I may have stored away in the freezer.

Now I'm feeling confident with pasta I can quickly make up a dough with the magimix and after 30 minutes of resting in the fridge I can be rolling out ravioli in no time. I had some wild boar ragout in the freezer which I defrosted and used to fill the ravioli. I plucked some leaves from the basil plant on the windowsill and made up some basil oil to drizzle over the pasta and with a sprinkling of grated parmesan a tasty weekend lunch was ready and on the table.

A couple of saturdays ago I had a little offcut from a leg of lamb which I brought home from school and I ended up rolling it, quickly roasting it and making a tomato and mint salsa with a splash of fig balsamic and olive oil as a dressing.

Tomorrow will be our last official practical lesson of the term. The time has just flown by and it's hard to believe that we have reached the week of our theory exam already. I have some hard revising to do over the next few days so apologies for the lack of posting recently, however once Thursday is out of the way I can catch up on a few posts I've been meaning to write, including a review of our trip to Restaurant Sat Baines which we visited this weekend.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

And I'd like to thank....

25 years ago a rather rotund lady wearing a slightly bizarre uniform called out my name and for the seventh time that day, I made my way up a small set of stairs and onto the stage to receive a certificate of commendation. In my hand I held several other pieces of coloured card, some with the word "Winner" written in capitals, others with "Runner-up" across the top. Now I would have a "Highly Commended" to add to the collection. I looked down from my elevated position onto a room filled with long tables and applauding onlookers, many of them under five feet tall and wearing a variety of stripy neckerchiefs. I was on my way to becoming the most awarded entrant at the Sutton Coldfield District Cub Scout Craft Fair and it felt pretty damned good.

Exiting stage right, I made my way back down to the main floor and stood by one of the long trestle tables which groaned under the weight of over fifty sea-shell sculptures. Further down the table, a collection of blown egg shells painted in various patterns were laid out in perfect rows like soldiers awaiting a royal inspection. Further still was the final category to be awarded - glove puppets, which was basically a bunch of old socks with buttons sewn on for eyes. There, in the front row, was mine: a leg of my mum's tights with two brown buttons, wrapped in a stained white napkin and crowned with a ring of small laurel leaves. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I give you Julius Caesar in 100% pure nylon. For some reason, it didn't win. My hosiery emperor lost out to a recreation of Roland Rat made out of a thick grey walking sock and some fuzzy felt. It was a triumph of pop culture over art but no matter, bagging seven awards had done enough to create a warm feeling of victory, a feeling that I would crave in the years to come.

It was a happy day then, when I opened my email last week and saw that my piece on Chiphenge had been awarded a special prize by the competition host, Michelle from the Greedy Gourmet. She even sent me a little badge to stick on my blog. There are so many foodie challenges happening in the blogosphere that it has inspired me to enter a few more in future and hopefully my entries will prove as popular as the seventh wonder of the carbohydrate world.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Review: Domaine de Chateauvieux

"Can I have the foie gras?" She looks at me, eyes wide with hope.


"What about the crab?"

"'Fraid not."

Her heart sinks as her worst fears are realised.

"Pregnancy sucks," she says.

And although inside her my child is growing, in the surroundings of this two Michelin starred restaurant, I can see her point. My eyes scan down the other dishes on the tasting menu.

L’œuf de poule poché sur une effilochée de crabe « Royal de Norvège », émulsion des carapaces aux piments d’Espelette

Le pavé d’aile de raie bouclée poêlé, carottes étuvées au cumin, émulsion de moules de bouchot au pamplemousse rose et campari

L'oie de Bresse « Miéral » rôtie et confite, poêlée de mousserons et purée de persil, jus corsé à l’ail doux

Les fromages frais et affinés

La mousse au chocolat au lait et ganache aux fruits de la passion, crème brûlée au thé Earl-Grey et sorbet au citron vert

Hopes are raised and then cruelly dashed by a malevolent ingredient lurking in the background of most of the dishes. Molluscs, crustacea and raw eggs lie in wait like a band of Victorian muggers down a darkened alleyway, daggers drawn and ready to pounce. Damn you, émulsion de moules! Up yours, runny œuf de poule poché!

Over in the corner I spot the cheese trolley, unpasteurised heaven on wheels for some, a listeria theme park for others. There may be tears tonight.

The a la carte menu isn't looking too promising either but she goes for the snail and frogs leg starter and pigeon for her main course. We ask for the pigeon to be well cooked. Does it arrive well-cooked? No. Oddly cooked? Most certainly. It turns up on a tray in the middle of a balloon that turns out to be an inflated bladder. How quaint. And it's rare in there. Maybe still even tweeting although I can't hear any noise from the avian isolation tent. I can't understand why it wasn't listed on the menu as Barely Warmed Whole Pigeon Cooked In A Former Pee Bag, or maybe they thought it would sell out too quickly.

Meanwhile we've all be ploughing through the glorious tasting menu, trying not to ooh and aah too much in front of the mum-to-be. It's difficult because the Norwegian crab with poached egg is sensationally sophisticated. A roll of skate wing is moist and lifted by a citric pink grapefruit and creamy mussel sauce. The goose cooked in two ways is wintery and rich, with melt-in-the-mouth confit and meaty fillets offering different textures to the palate. The food is as good as I remember from our first visit to this Genevan restaurant five years ago.

Luckily back then, our mum-to-be wasn't pregnant and could eat everything on the menu, as perhaps she could now in all truth. The French attitude to diet during pregnancy is far more relaxed than the British and we probably take caution a few steps too far, however as complete novices in the baby business we're happy to play things very safe. In six months time I've promised her a feast of foie gras, unpasteurised Epoisse cheese, scallops, and rare beef but for now these are off the menu and those sacrilegious two words, 'well done', will have to be used until our mini gourmet is ready to enter the world at the end of August.