Portabello, Oxford 

One of the first lessons you learn at cookery school is that there is my way and then there is the Leiths way and you are there to learn the Leiths way. Whether that be using cutlery knives to rub butter into pastry, hand mixing water and flour on a counter top for pasta or finding the bloody oysters before you even think of jointing a chicken. The theory is that we should learn a basic solid level before we experiment and branch out on our own, and it’s a good method. Every day we follow a recipe or 5 from the Leiths book and serve it to our teacher at an allotted time and get marked and given feedback. – apparently soon we’re going to start to be given freedom with our choice of accompaniments, pressure.- We’re given a grade for things like meat cooking, sauce consistency, knife skills, you get the picture. I bring this up because I’ve realised that I’ve started viewing every dish I eat like this and marking it in my head…..
It was my own fault. I shouldn’t have ordered the chicken with red wine jus, bacon and celeriac puree. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious. As my teacher Michael would say: ‘It’s nice warm plate, food piping hot and served in good time. Good presentation, nice portion size, maybe a little extra colour next time, some green or something to add freshness but nice clean plate. Fibres nicely set on the chicken but there’s still some moisture, beautiful rendering down of the skin and nice carving of the supreme, still served in the bone, good. Lovely sauce consistency, see how it’s syrupy but still runs down the plate, that’s what your looking for. Bacon, on the less crispy side but works on this dish. Puree isn’t gloopy, nice flavour, hint of pepperyness coming through but good punchy flavour of the celeriac. The consistency though, see how you can still taste those fibrous textures from the celeriac? I’m looking for silky, creamy smoothness, maybe next time pass it through a chinoise (very thin sieve) and add a little cream or Creme fraiche, but otherwise lovely dish, just think about the veg as well as the main event’. I’m being pinickity here because mostly it was a delicious dish, a lovely atmosphere and really great friendly waitresses, but this is what cookery school does to you. As you can see I might not be able to have McDonald’s ever again! ( I’ll cope, I’ve only eaten there about 5times ever anyway #foodsnob). Also I don’t mean to brag but I did nail the celeriac puree when I made it on Friday in my duck, dried cherry and almond sauce, celeriac puree, artichoke crisps and sautéed kale. I’m allowed to say this mostly because my sauce was too thin and my duck wasn’t portioned right, Portabello won anyway.      

   I should also mention the wine and quails eggs I began with. I knew already that the owner of Portabello served exceedingly good English wines as we had previously been to another of his restaurants, the Perch, where we had had a lovely Oxford retreat white wine. The rose, whilst overchilled (another annoying hangover from now having an interest in food and wine, you realise most white and rose wine is served far too cold in restaurants, kills the flavour) was fresh and dry, with strawberry and raspberry flavours, beautiful. I highly recommend Portabello, it’s not the most easily accessible but the cheerful atmosphere and reasonably priced food make it worth a visit. 

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My Saturday ritual 

I have a guilty secret to confess. I’m afraid it’s not quite as scandalous as it seems but apparently it is still taboo in our society. I like going out to lunch in a restaurant, ON MY OWN. I know, what a weirdo right? It’s become my little Saturday ritual. despite being at cookery school I am actually really missing eating. Yes of course there is plenty of food around but given that I frequently run over lunch cooking or in meetings most of the time food I can grab is pretty scarce and fast. On top of that by the time I get back to Oxford after the 2hour+ commute the last thing I want to do is eat the food I’ve cooked, mostly I’d rather grab some cereal and head to bed. Don’t get me started on breakfast, when do I find time for that between the 6am get up and morning traffic on the bus, thank god for tastings in demonstration lectures is all I can say. That and my increasingly worrying caffeine habit. I miss the ritual of taking the time to sit down and savour food, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the buzzing but luxurious time at a restaurant. Therefore I see it as not only necessary but part of my education to take an indulgent lunch on a Saturday. I’ve even got structure now. It has to be a different place every time, ideally not a chain. I have to review it (as of today), I have to eat exactly what I want to eat, and I have to enjoy a reality ice glass of wine of something I’ve chosen to compliment the meal. The last prerequisite is also new but inspired by how much I loved the wine lecture we had the other day on food and wine matching. I want bore you (or give away my secrets) too much by gushing over the details too much but essentially we have been instructed to try as many different wines with as many different flavours as we can. The sooner you taste wines back to back and realise how different and why they taste differently the better, include food in that flavour balance and you reach about the level of fascination I’m at now. The more you learn the more you want to know. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course I am open to including other people in my now sacred Saturday lunch ritual but I am enjoying focusing on the flavours and not the socialising. Applicants apply below. Foodie: necessary, intelligent conversation: required, putting up with my gushing: essential.  Plus they have some vicious competition from the cryptic crossword puzzle, I haven’t got that far yet but they say you can only get better. 

This week I tried out Branca in Jericho, Oxford. I’d spent the morning making homemade bread with homemade butter (my new craze) but restrained on trying any because I was saving myself for lunch. So when the first thing Branca brought to my table was lightly salted foccacia with olive oil and balsamic, I felt they’d read my mind. As I left the house my dad had said to me that Branca was overpriced and not tasty. My analysis is that he had a bad meal. I went I with incredibly low expectations but from the second they brought out the burrata (creamiest I have ever tasted) with pesto and sweet roasted red pepper as a tapas , I was converted.

   I followed this with two started portion size salads, a chicken Ceasar and a chickpea, aubergine, broccoli salad. Not only was it all a pretty substantial meal for one, it cost about the same as a main, I had lucked out. I started with the Chicken Ceasar, a highlight. Simply done, moist chicken, crunchy but not greasy croutons, a perfectly soft boiled egg, creamy dressing and fresh salad. It almost made the second salad tasteless and dull in comparison. But luckily th smoked aubergine topping lifted an otherwise well proportioned salad. All I can say is you shouldn’t have given me that a,axing bread Branca, I had no room for dessert. 

  Where I was let down was the wine. The wine list was impeccably written. Promising interesting flavours, long finish and good prices. Unfortunately most of the wine lacked aroma and (as I can actually now read a wine list) I soon realised the wine was pretty much all the same style and pretty uninspiring. The Viognier I had was mid priced, specially recommended and featured exotic fruits and crisp finish, all I can say is where were the exotic fruits? I know I was pairing it with salty food but the description promised so much.  Since I know they’re not a wine bar I won’t criticise but simply say ‘ could be improved’. All in all bravo Branca, I know picked the right dishes but you’ve earned a return visit. 

  

Cookery school : week 4 and 5 updates 

  

food and wine matching: a friday morning activity

 

veal steak, madeira sauce, turned carrots, potato rosti

  

the offal lecture

  

honey bavarois, poached rhubarb, pate sablee

  

wood pidgeon salad, sage croutons, sherry raisins, morcilla sausage

  

spiced pork belly, crackling, stir fried mange tout, caramelised peanut dressing

  

butchery day: a whole lamb

  

the two ronnie’s present butchery, flipchart included

  

Perfectionism; it’s time for a change. Mourning Benoit Violier.

In today’s paper there was a sad story. It was about the suicide of a Michelin starred chef, Benoit Violier, head chef of the ‘worlds best restaurant’: Restaurant De L’Hotel De Ville Crissier-Suisse in Switzerland. The man who had reached the pinnacle of success in the culinary world. The 44 year old had it all; a successful restaurant, a beautiful wife, a young son, so why did he end it? Because as a chef you are the only artist whose legacy is destroyed or made by a masterpiece that is demolished within minutes of creation. You are only as good as your last dish.

Imagine if Da Vinci could only be a success if he produced copy after copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ to order within 15mins of each other. Or if Mozart was written off as a failure because he messed up bar.74 of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ the 20th time he performed it despite working a 90hr week. Or even if Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, whilst an accolade, simply meant that he was expected to nail every take he did on his next film first time, whilst conveying the emotion of his performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’. And on top of that, everyone on the film set took a picture and immediately tweeted the achievement or demie of that single take. Welcome to the world of the professional chef. Everyone is an expert in food, because everyone eats. They know what they like,  they know what they don’t, they tell you when it’s overcooked, undercooked, over seasoned, not what they ordered and they discredit that business and livelihood you built up over years in a single line on Twitter, Instagram, a newspaper. I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber would not have brushed off his bad performance at last week’s O2 arena gig if he’d lost his Grammys based on that one show. 

Of course it is a chef’s lot. We buy into the lifestyle when we enter the industry. Chefs understand the risks, the pressure, the work. I’ve seen first hand chefs come in at 6am on their day off because a late shipment of beef meant it hadn’t been prepped for that evening’s service. More worryingly I’ve seen a chef’s hand shaking when he comes back from the bathroom having just snorted cocaine because he was surviving on 2-3hours sleep and I’ve smelt vodka surreptitiously snuck in to the kitchen in water bottles. Arethe extremes what makes a good chef? 

I can’t say I’ve ever felt the pressures that Benoit Violier faced but I know what it’s like to feel like a failure. When you’ve cooked a steak a hundred times and this time you misjudge medium rare. When you’ve seasoned a sauce to perfection and this time you’ve forgotten you’re adding bacon so it’s over salted. I’ve come from a long line of pressurising environments; from a high achieving school to Cambridge, no matter what the teachers said my perfectionism meant, almost always, second best didn’t feel good enough. Whilst perfectionism in the industry is an issue that needs to be addressed, today’s sobering news is forcing me at least to reassess my own attitude. I’m at cookery school to learn, if I already knew everything there would be no point in paying the fees. The highest bar is always the one we set ourselves so you’re never going to be a success if you set up it at an impossible height. The same is probably true of Benoit Violier. Yes he had expectations to fill but at the end of the day it’s just food. All of us chefs would do well to remember that, it’s not worth dying for.