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. 

  

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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.

The Oxo restaurant: midweek meal

I have a strict rule of thumb since I’ve started cookery school; no late nights/drinking during the week. Since I am commuting from Oxfrd to London on a daily basis I can’t afford to get tired or turn up hungover while wielding a knife. But then again rules are made to be broken, and what a way to break my rule. Remember the amazing dinner at Le Manoir I blogged about a few weeks ago? Le me refresh your memory. 7 course tasting menu, fantastic conversation, caught up with Raymond Blanc?  Well when the same line up invited me out for dinner again at the OXO tower in London I wasn’t going to turn it  down. 

    
 I have been to the OXO tower once before, but not to eat. Since my sister moved to a London we’ve gone out of our way to find fun, quirky things to do in London together, preferably cheap, in order to spend time together (apparently my scintillating conversation isn’t enough….) one of our favourite things to do is a treasure hunt . We might both be suffering from Peter Pan syndrome but there is just something about walking around and discovering London (new for us Oxford-folks) through a series of cryptic clues sent to your phone. http://www.inthehiddencity.com/london-treasure-hunt/ I sound like I advertise for them, I don’t (I wish, maybe I should….please let me!! ) go anyway. One of our hunts we ended up on the top of the OXO tower. I can’t exaggerate the view enough. It is phenomenal. You can see the entire line the river, St Paul’s, the Shard, Buckingham palace, and guess what, it’s even better at night. 

  I arrived 15 minutes early and twiddled by thumbs at the bar. Normally I am never so impolite (although seriously- who really believes you should never be on time for a dinner party, clearly someone who has never cooked a dinner party) but storm Jonas was raging outside and I was cold. So consequently I stared at the view for 15 minutes. I probably could’ve stared at it for 30mins and it would’ve still been as mesmerising. I know we go to restaurants for the food, but actually for me (a major foodie) if the atmosphere isn’t there, the restaurant falls short. On the other hand, if the restaurant has amazing atmosphere I might forgive it a few food points. It might have been necessary here, but I can’t complain, I lucked out. I started with a melting salmon confit on a sweet potato pancake, beetroot and horseradish cream; other table dishes included the addictive salty langoustines with garlic butter and a platter of duck for two with Jerusalem artichokes and gingerbread. 

  Then. What a main course. I reluctantly agreed to share the Chateaubriand, just to help out a fellow foodie. It was cooked perfectly, a dark pink centre, complemented by melting buttered girrolle mushrooms and an intense beef jus. The Gruyere cheese mash was also something special. I apologise for not getting a photo, I was too busy savouring the meal. My only complaint would be that the carrots, while beautifully presented as whole baby carrots complete with tops, were hard as rocks, a little hard to eat. Unfortunately the Venison Wellington (shared by one set of father/son) fell short. Restaurants really ought say if they include such a dominant flavoured blue cheese in a dish. The beef fillet with cauliflower and walnut dressing promised a lot but seemed a little dull and small for its price. Again the vegetarian at the table commented that whilst ok, her butternut squash dish was nothing special, a shame when vegetarianism is being explored in such an exciting way at other restaurants currently. 

 Despite being rather full from the main, my pudding stomach was fairly excited by the array of desserts. So of course we decided to split a few. The Rhubarb mousse, gin sorbet and earl grey meringues boasted some impressive flavour in the meringues, less so with the sorbet (honourable mention to the octopus inspired presentation plate). The lemon meringue pie and cardamon ice cream melted in the mouth and the chocolate plate lived up to its reputation. It was rich (probably a good thing we were sharing) but the smoked white chocolate mousse alone was worth it. Finally a quick mention about the drinks. Well worth a try is the martini menu. A perfect martini should be ice cold, but not watery, biting and either salty or faintly sweet and the Oxo tower had something for everything on the spectrum. I enjoyed tantalisingly labelled 1953 or the Vesper (yes I do think I’m James Bond) gin, vodka and aromatised wine with a lemon twist, shaken not stirred. I could easily come back just for the view and another martini. The Atmosphere gets a 9 from me, the food a solid 7, the drinks push up to an 8 and the company is always a 10. 

Cookery school: a first glimpse

So it finally happened. I finally have begun training to professionally trade as a chef! I can only describe it as a mix of Masterchef and Saturday Kitchen. Mornings we cook recipes and are critiqued, afternoons we watch demonstrations and take notes in lectures. There’s homework, a lunchroom, uniform, parents evening…. Who’d have thought school the second time round would be so much fun?  You’ll be pleased to know that I indulged in a totally new set of stationary,labelled clearly and my locker is already as messy as it was in sixth form. Moren the experience later, because cookery school is exhausting (as is the 6am commute) so here is just a taster (gettit!!!!)

 

Mackeral with miso marinated soba noodles

  

Pan fried sea bass, clam pernod sauce, sauteed spinach

  

Pan fried Guinea Fowl, wild mushroom risotto

  

Eggs Benedict – 2nd hollandaise of the day, free form poached eggs

  

Bread, classic

 

Twas the Season: The Gingerbread house

I know this is a little late but as christmas is my favourite time of year I can be indulged into stretching out the festive season. I can come up with more excuses. Feel free to take your pick: I’ve been busy as cookery school has just started, I’m feeling grumpy because of the cold weather and I’m rebelling against the usual view of January as the month of abstinence. 

The Gingerbread house my friend and I made might just be the antithesis of abstinence. I believe we covered most of the major food groups: chocolate, toffees, marshmallows, sweets and of course plain old sugar. Even the centre of the house contained a hidden treat of all the sweets leftover, the windows were boiled sweets and the ‘snow’ was marshmallow frosting. Of course this wasn’t so much a cookery session but rather a challenge in architectural design. Using an adhesive icing, similar to the consistency of superglue we gingerly (excuse the pun), tried to join together pieces of gingerbread meticulously measured with rulers and templates – and still then we didn’t get them straight….. -. I’m not sure whether the icing had drunk some of the mulled wine we were enjoying as we put this together but it was definetly touch and go for a bit as we held it together whilst it dry. The chimney was definitely drunk.  However it was all worth it. Other than an excuse to dance around the kitchen to christmas music (hghlights included Buble’s album and ‘Christmas goes Baroque’) whilst consuming excessive amounts of sugar there was actually a more targeted purpose. 

Throwing myself into my short lived career as a babysitter this autumn wasn’t as smooth sailing as I hoped. Babysitting in sixth form had been a doddle. The children were generally old enough to practically take care/amuse themselves or they were asleep in bed and I watched tv. However, try amusing a 3 year old for the whole afternoon and you will begin to understand why nannying is so well paid. There is only a certain amount of ‘lets pretend’ game situations I can enact. So I decided to approach babysitting with ales son plan approach. We made cards, went to see the ducks and of course my personal favourite; cooking. Turns out the three year old is rather keen on it too. Plus she is excellent at washing up. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a three year old, standing on a chair in marigolds singing her own washing up song. So with Christmas approaching we embarked on our most ambitious at; the gingerbread house, along with her older sister. We baked it, she got bored and watched CBeebies while I cut it out and then we all decorated. Out it this way. Some sides were decorated by the 3 year old, some by the 11 year old and some by the 23 year old….but it stuck together and we were rather proud of our efforts are more than a little intoxicated by sugar. The next day I receive a text from the parents of said children asking for a photo. They explained that they had misunderstood the purpose of the house and eaten it… The 11 year old hadn’t spoken to them for a day. All in all I couldn’t have found a more deserving recipient of the house my friend and I made, the kids faces were probably what Christmas is all about. Can’t wait till next year now.

   
    
 

TCS Column no.2: Misogyny in the Kitchen

I’ve been very lucky in life. I am fully committed to the feminist cause, but I’ve never felt able to be that vocal on the subject as I personally have never really experienced discrimination. With a mother and a sister who are both wildly successful from pure hard work, I’ve never felt that I couldn’t achieve whatever I set my mind to. But the restaurant industry has given me a taste of what it’s like to be put down because of your gender. As one 35 year old man eloquently put it when referring to a mistake he had attributed to me which had actually been made by a female co-worker “well they’re all pretty much the same”.Every kitchen I’ve worked in has had a disproportionate number of women and they’ve mostly worked in the dessert kitchen. I get it, tattoos, knives, muscles; cooking is a macho world. Having said this I have also had some really positive experiences of turning the stereotype on its head. For example it was quite something when, having volunteered my ipod as background music to prep work, the chefs chose The Marriage of Figaro Overture. It can be the most satisfying feeling in the world when you prove yourself to a bunch of mildly patronising men and prove that women can be strong, capable and innovative in the kitchen. But it’s sad that these positive experiences are overwhelmed by cases of a few men trying to prove they are the biggest bullies in the kitchen. It shouldn’t be the case in some of the top Michelin starred restaurants in England. One place I worked had a dangerously discriminative atmosphere. A small group of chefs undermining the women in the kitchen rippled through to influence other chefs, porters and waiters. It was little surprise that during my short time there 1 female chef walked out, another gave her notice and the last woman left was new that week.

No wonder that internationally there are over 100 Michelin starred male chefs and just 6 female. This is often put down to anti-social hours being hard to balance with family life, but as the reported 92% increase in the UK of female NEDs in just the past three months shows (Forbes, June 2015), that isn’t what has been holding women back. For a man to show weakness in this industry is a failure; for a woman, it’s career suicide. Luckily women are fighting back. As the Old Boys Club ‘The Savoy Grill’ hires its first female head chef in its 126 history, most kitchens are learning the hard way that women are here to stay. But it’s a shame that in the 21st century, a few restaurants remain a bullying and sexist environment.

Le Manoir: The Guest Experience.

I often realise how lucky I am with my family. When I read the articles about ‘preparing’ for Christmas where others talk about throwing ornaments, seating plans and drinking to mask uncle Alfred’s stories, I thank god that my family are rather good company. I have in the past lamented the fact my family are not large enough for my Christmas spread and how much I need some teenage boys to wolf down the 11 side dishes I provide. It is a very small, first world problem I face in my family, but then again not many people have 8 in the extended relations category. Let me introduce them. There’s my grandad, this 93 year old world traveller can proudly claim that he recently flaunted an 80years or over ban on a submarine exhibit (swinging through the port holes), travelled on the train down to visit us on his own and gleefully was in charge of twister spinning last Christmas which got more and moreI agitative as he abandoned the spinner. On the other side of the family is the 93 year old, mildly racist grandma, who recent asked my (happily married) mother if she had a nice young man, said to me ‘you look really good, it’s good you’ve lost a bit of weight, I’m sure it will help you find a boyfriend’ and whilst in hospital for a hip replacement ‘ are you alright? Why am I in bed when it’s you who needs a hip replacement?. There is my aunt and One Direction/Justin Bieber loving cousin. Then we have my mother, fiercely intelligent but constantly busy, my father, with a headmaster’s presence which makes you think he’s a lot taller than his 5″10 height and my sister who is living the city life with a job in property – I still have no idea what she actually does…-.

So it’s rather nice to catch up with more distant relations who we don’t see at christmas and realise that I’m lucky that even my over-extended family are extremely good company. I was not going to turn down the opportunity to go to Le Manoir Quatre Saisons with my grandma’s sister’s grandson and his family. They do do things rather well at Le Manoir. It is the little details, from the fairy light lit drive and impeccable valet service (they even retrieved my bag from the car) to the perfect decor, dietary tailored menus and exemplary level of attention – neither too much nor too little-. I may have got a bit excited when we arrived because Le Manoir is my old stomping ground and first experience of working in a professional kitchen. My time at Le Manoir inspired the realisation I actually wanted a career in food and I haven’t looked back, well except the following year when I went back to do more experience…  

I could waffle on for ages about the perfect gin martinis I had pre dinner and the beautifully presented canapés but let’s cut to the chase of the 7 course tasting menu. Our first surprise was the selection of bread on offer. I wish I could remember all the different types but highlights included sun dried tomato ciabatta, pecan and raisin and the intriguing beer and mashed potato bread which the couple of foodies around the table decided to try. Surprisingly light and moreish it has been added to the list of things to attempt. 

 

Butternut Squash Soup

 
Our first course was the best butternut squash soup you have ever tasted, displaying what Le Manoir does impeccably, highlighting the flavours of the natural ingredients. It was accompanied by a perfectly cooked scallop and blue cheese garnished crouton, which I actually enjoyed despite my normal dislike of blue cheese. The courses just improved with the next being a highlight. A melting salmon confit, topped with a little caviar to enhance the flavour and accompanied with a little potato salad and lemon, apple and cucumber to compliment rather than overwhelm. Then came a perfectly poached duck egg in a round ball (hitting my attempts far far far out of the water) with wild mushroom tea. I’m scraping the barrel for criticisms but I will say I would’ve preferred a slightly richer mushroom flavour in the broth and possibly an individual teapot the customer could pour themselves just to add a little theatre. This is possibly the only area some other restaurants have the edge on Le Manoir. My personal favourite is Midsummer House in Cambridge which for me finds a great balance between the theatricality of The Fat Duck and the simple flavours of Le Manoir.  

Salmon Confit

Poached Egg

 Anyhoo. The next course was, I believe, my favourite, – which when I looked at the menu I wouldn’t have said – but the subtle flavours of cucumber against a poached brill fillet, scallop and a little kick of wasabi was literally heaven in bowl. It was at this point I regretted earlier getting excited about wine after some phenomenal champagne and letting slip about my wine course last summer; as the pressure was on to pick a perfect more floral white. Luckily even the non-white wine drinker enjoyed it, dodged a bullet there. Next was the venison, thin slices of perfectly rare meat with a simple red wine jus and potato cake topped with caviar again, a surprise addition. Another unusual garnish was the chicory leaves and microherbs adding a fresh burst of colour and texture, lifting the dish from a traditional venison, blackberry or like combo, giving Le Manoir the edge.  

 

Venison

 
I would usually judge a restaurant on its desserts as from experience it is sometimes where restaurants try and cut corners, failing to hire specialist pastry chefs. But having been behind the scenes I knew Le Manoir had one of the most exciting pastry kitchens I’ve ever seen. Think Willy Wonka’s workshop. There is a rumour the pastry chef at Le Manoir is judging the upcoming professional take on Great British Bake off and I don’t doubt it, desserts are a serious business at Le Manoir. They didn’t mess around with dessert no.1. It promised apple and it delivered an overwhelmingly intense flavour of apple, unmarred by any others. Layers of compressed apples matched with a highly distinctive apple sorbet which we all agreed we could probably have had a bowl of on its own. The meal ended in style with a beautiful chocolate and coffee concoction. A praline layer, chocolate ganache, coffee ice cream, even gold leaf and espresso mousse gave an intense hit. Oh and then Raymond Blanc came over to the table to say hi. Even gave me some advice about my chocolate making ambitions, but that would be telling. Not a bad end to the  night.

 

Chocolate, Espresso Delice

 Le Manoir excels at stripping food back to ingredients, generally favouring to streamline one or two flavours rather than wacky combinations or too many. Some chefs should take note of the cooking style: sometimes simplicity is best; the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. What an evening. Good Food, Good Wine, Great Company. As my uncle said, we should live our lives through experiences and I will be dining out (pardon the pun) on and remembering this one for a very long time.  

  

The latest cake commission