Archive for October, 2010


After two cookery classes this year I have been itching to get into a kitchen during a real service to get that insight as to what it’s like. My chance came by way of Chef Chris Jagger, Head Chef at Prested Hall. If you have read earlier posts, you will know that Chris is the chef I had my first cookery lesson with at Braxted Park. We got on quite well and I had jokingly mentioned spending a shift in his kitchen some time. He said to just let him know if I wanted to and he’d sort something out. So Just over two weeks ago, I got in touch with Chris to see if it would be possible. This was the Tuesday. By Thursday I got the answer, “How about this Saturday?”. That’s two days away, two, I am visibly excited and nervous all a the same time. No time to think, I just say yes. Probably a good thing so I don’t think about it too much.

Saturday arrives and I really don’t know what to do with myself. I try to appear calm on the exterior as I pay a visit to my Mum, waiting for the evening to arrive. I set off and arrive half an hour early. I’ve said this before, when I’m excited I do arrive early, very early. I sit in the Library of Prested Hall having some very good coffee. In fact, remarkably good coffee. I keep shifting in my chair, that continual trying to look calm thing that clearly isn’t working now.

I am finally led to the kitchen. Chris greets me, introduces me to the chefs and hands me a chef’s jacket. Okay, this is real now, I’m going to be in chef’s whites. The kitchen isn’t huge, there’s just the three chefs and the heat I remember from Corrigan’s is there, I’m already wondering how people work in this heat every day, every shift. Chris explains what’s going on tonight, buffet for 100 people, table of 26 people, table for 4 and everything to be served at 8pm. We go thought the dishes, showing me everything that’s ready, what still needs to be done.

So to my first job, washing and chopping veg. First a cabbage type of veg which the names escapes me, some chef I’d make huh? Can’t even remember the name of a veg. Well my excuse is as I’m doing this Chris is telling me about all the veg they grow on the grounds. It’s a lengthy list and quite a few things in there I’ve never heard of. Both of us are surprised when one fo the Chefs tells us they grow cheeses as well. We mis-heard, he said chillies. It was a joke that kept us going through the night though. I chop up some red chard next, quite impressed with myself and my now growing confidence. “At least I know how to handle a knife” I think to myself.

Chris decides to take me for an impromptu tour. We walk out to the main reception tot he two rooms being used for the sit down meals. I am take note that the guests milling around watch us. Is this what it’s like being a chef, you enter a room in your whites and people stop their conversations? Okay I only spotted one group stop and watch us. My head goes up, my shoulders back and I walk confidently with Chris. After all, they don’t know who I am.

Back to the kitchen, service is getting close and we start getting plates ready for the starters. I’m on the prawn & crab cocktails. Plating up with some micro leaves, dressing and a shelled prawn on top. Even with me there we all seem to move around each other, The guys just manage to work round me and I slowly begin to feel like I belong (only just). Okay, maybe I just feel like I’m not in the way too much.

Starters are leaving the pass and something strange happens. Chris has gone to do something and one of the waiting staff ask “Can this go chef?” I look round for one fo the guys to answer and suddenly realise they’re asking me. “Yes, they can go” is all I can blurt out after a quick glance at the plates. Well they were the ones I plated up so I should know they’re ready. Inside I’m completely buzzing, “Chef”, they called me, Simon, Credit Controller from Essex “Chef”. I don’ think Chris told everyone who or what I was.

I’m left close to the pass, just really adding finishing touches to dishes. It feels good, I help where I can, no real cooking as such but an extra pair of hands which seemed to come in hand plating up 30 dishes in one go. With the mains, I help with the duck, it looks good and as we trim it to look nice, I sneak a taste of the left overs. Oh how I love pan-fried duck breast.

The night goes so quickly, deserts are done and out like a blur and here is my main contribution fo the night. Those crème brulée would only have been crèmes if it wasn’t for me. There’s me, cook’s torch in hand making what I think is one of the most wonderful things. I’m pretty nervous and as I see the brulées going well I almost feel jealous of the people about to put their spoons through the top. I said beautiful, I do love that moment as you crack the top open.

I then get handed some chocolate sauce and asked to make pretty patterns on the plates for another desert. Yeah thanks Chris, “you do know I’m not artistic” I exclaim but Chris won’t let me get out of it. Six plates later, we have something that resembles a decent pattern and by the end I look like a pro. Well, in comparison to how I looked about ten minutes ago.

It’s all over so soon. Kitchen is cleared down and I have a last chat with Chris where he points out that I’ve seen the best parts of working in a kitchen. I wasn’t there early to do breakfast, this is after all a hotel. I didn’t have to do all the prepping, I don’t have to stick around t o sort out the ordering. We look at the schedule for next week and got through how much work that entails. I didn’t go there expecting it to be easy and at the same time I knew I wouldn’t get the full kitchen experience.

Two things have come out of my evening in the kitchen. The first thing is my cooking mojo is certainly back with a bang, I’ve been cooking a lot more and trying new things again, reading cookbooks a lot more for ideas. The second thing is more fo a problem, I want to do it again, but next time I want to do more, I want to see if I really do have what it takes to survive a full day. Oh and it doesn’t hurt that I look good in a chef’s jacket.

Special thanks go to Chris Jagger and his team at Prested Hall.

For enquiries, contact Prested Hall, Feering, Colchester, CO5 9EE, Tel: 01376 573300 Web: www.prested.co.uk


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Curry, a meal that’s always scared me. Don’t know why. A lot of my friends over the years, who are not really good in the kitchen, have been able to make a mean curry. It’s probably the spices that scare me and that I don’t like hot spicy food so I worry about how much to use in case it’s too hot for me. So it’s always been a jar for me, although I often add a bit to it, usually extra onions, whole garlic cloves. Had a curry somewhere that they put whole cloves in, they are fantastic slow cooked in a curry sauce.

So why did I suddenly get up the courage to try making one from scratch? It has been brewing for a while, since I went to Benares in February and picked up a copy of Atul Kochhar’s Indian Essence. Each page makes me salivate. You see, I didn’t just want to make chicken tikka masala and pulao rice, you know me, has to be something different. So I go through the book and find some recipes I think are good to start with. I chose far too many dishes to attempt and soon realised that on Saturday when I looked at the size of my kitchen and how much ingredients I had brought.

So Saturday morning i go in search of spice, and would you believe, there’s a shop in a village just ten minutes down the road. So off I pop and come back laden with spices. Some of which I didn’t get to use because of my over ambitious plans. I put everything out, I look through the book again and the decision is made. The menu looks something like this:

Vaingan Katri (Stuffed Aubergine Steaks)

Meen Molee (Coconut Fish Curry)

Dharosh Chachhari (Spicy Dry Okra)

I added some boiled rice cooked with cardamom pods and naan bread to this. Belive me, I was struggling by the time the curry went on so had to keep things simple.

Vaingan Katri

The aubergine steaks are very simple, the stuffing is a mx of grated carrot, potato and cauliflower flavoured with garlic, green chilli, cumin seeds, coriander, chilli powder, turmeric & ginger. Cutting the aubergine into steaks you cut out the middle of each and put the stuffing in the hole. Easy to make, easy to cook and delicious with just a warm hit from the chilli. I forgot to make the sauce that Atul suggests but I served everything up at the same time to disguise that fact.

For the curry, Atul suggest sea bass. I searched high and low, even going to a “proper” fish monger but the bass looked a bit ropey so I went for some monk fish instead. I cut it into a few good size chucks, coated in a mix of turmeric and salt and left on the side. The basic ingredients of the curry are coconut milk, onions, curry leaves, green chillies, garlic and turmeric. Most of it is cooked off before adding the fish and serving once the monk fish is ready. Some fresh coriander place on top and it’s done. I love coconut in curry and this is pretty damn good (sure it would have been even better if Atul had cooked it).

Meen Molee

So far so good. Last dish I really have to concentrate on is the okra. Couldn’t be easier, spices, okra. That’s it really. The selection of spices this time are tamarind pulp, onion seeds, chilli powder, ground turmeric and then a drop of mustard as i couldn’t find any mustard seed paste. I like this dish a lot. Okra can be pretty boring sometimes and this recipe makes it worth getting some.

For the rice I lightly toasted some cardamom pods until they cracked open and put them in with the rice as it boils. Naan bread was freshly made but not by me. It was during making this meal I shouted out “I need a bigger kitchen” to the kitchen fairy. So far she hasn’t got back to me.

I love this book, Indian Essence, and recommend it to everyone. The recipes are so simple, even a curry making virgin like me can make a pretty good go of it. It’s left me inspired to try more and I even grabbed some of the spices the other night, fried them up with some veg that needed using up, served with naan bread and pheasant breast pan fried in garam masala. No idea what i was doing but as I seen the spices used in a single dish, I had a good guess it would be okay. It was. A quick 15 minute meal on a drizzly night.

Thank you Atul, thank you for the inspiration and the tweets of encouragement.

Fish curry, okra and aubergine dishes all from Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar 

Benares Restaurant, Berkeley Square, London, 02076298886  www.benaresrestaurant.com   

Follow Atul on Twitter @Atulkochhar

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Anyone who has been following my Twitter feed and read my previous post will know about my new obsession. Obsession, the cookbook by Nigel Haworth. 54 Chefs and Simon, me had a great idea to collect all 54 signatures. A great idea if not my most sensible one. I really wanted to get het ball rolling and, after obtaining Chris & Jeff Galvin’s signatures, I was eager to quickly add some more.

I often visit Selfridges so I thought Mark Hix would be my next target. I search for a contact and find the email address for Mark’s PA. Great. A very polite and slightly cheeky email is sent and I receive a fairly quick response, a lot quicker than I expected. Not only does it turn out I can arrange to get Mark’s signature, they are arranging an event in honour of Nigel’s book. It gets better, 4 courses will be presented by four different chefs. The annoying bit (only for the sake of getting signatures), Chris & Jeff Galvin are doing the main course. So let me get this right, I think to myself, I go to all the trouble of a train to London to drop my book off at La Chapelle and then go up a week after for dinner, to find they are doing this event. Okay, so this is not exactly a hardship as for one, I got to eat at La Chapelle, and two, I will actually get to meet them this time. So guys, honestly, I was not disappointed, I do love your food.

So a few emails are exchanged and tickets are purchased before, yes before, they even advertised the event. Yes we were the first and I did have a little burst of pride when I saw my name at the top of the guest list. I arrive with my wife at Selfridges, I am a very excited little bunny as my friends told me. Okay I was bouncing, I don’t think I had actually realised how much I admire these guys. It is definitely a comparison to a teenager meeting their favourite pop star. So effectively I’m one of those teenage girls who’s about to meet Take That. Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy.

Why am I so excited? Well I’m at one of my favourite haunts, Hix Champagne Bar & Restaurant in Selfridges and it’s a private-ish event, which I don’t get to attend too often. Then the chefs, Fergus Henderson, Chris & Jeff Galvin, Brian Turner and then of course, Mark Hix and the main man of the night, Nigel Haworth. Hosting the event was Tom Parker Bowles, well it was going to be Tom as Matthew Fort had to cancel. Bonus for the night, Matthew was there. His plans had changed so he came along anyway. This is actually excellent as they are both in the book. Not technically chefs but I need their scribbles nonetheless.

There’s lots of chatter, lots of staring as some of the chefs wander about before the meal. Most of the talk is about the menu, the first time we have seen it. It’s unusual, classic and inspirational. You may think how can it be unusual and classic at the same time. Well, you have four chefs (five effectively with Chris & Jeff sharing he main course) producing the courses so it’s a great variation. So shall we begin.

Roast Bone Marrow - Fergus Henderson

Starter is Fergus Henderson’s Roast Bone Marrow with parsley salad. It arrives proudly, several roasted bones standing up and the room went quieter than any other part of the night. I have never seen anything like it in my life (reminds me of a song). It explained the crochet-esque pin on the table. A great start, getting stuck in, pulling the marrow out onto toast and munching away. I was a bit wary of the parsley salad as I’m not a huge fan of the herb but with the strong onion, marrow and toast it was perfect. A special thanks for the supply of bones for the dog , she approves of Fergus’s cooking too.

Next up is the fish course, Treacle Salmon with Scallop & Pickled Ginger. This is Nigel Haworth’s dish which he introduced with the joke that they had a treacle mine nearby and wondered what to do with this natural resource. Looking around you could tell some people actually believed him for a while. I was just sat there thinking, salmon and treacle, are you sure? I really should stop questioning chefs like this. These guys didn’t get to the top of their game for nothing. It was fantastic. My wife, who doesn’t like salmon in any form, lets Nigel know later that only he and Stuart Gilles have managed to get her to eat salmon. I don’t think Nigel understood how big  a deal that is. Anyway, the sweetness of the treacle works so well with the salmon.

Treacle Salmon & Scallop - Nigel Haworth

I’m hungry for more, wine is flowing nicely, I need more food, my tastes buds are craving the next course. Chris & Jeff Galvin present their dish, Assiette of Lamb with Pommes Boulanger & Braised Fennel. There can’t have been much of the lamb left as we got kidney, sweetbreads, saddle, a loin chip and even some breast in with the potato. I didn’t talk much during this course, I couldn’t. I love lamb and this was so well cooked, the saddle was soft, velvety almost, just cooked past rare. Only problem is I don’t like kidney and even this dish couldn’t sway me. Sorry to the kidney lovers out there, I just do not see the attraction. So another clean plate with exception of the kidney.

There’s a nice break after the main course before dessert so with book in hand I go wandering. Well I noticed hardly anyone had been talking to the chefs so I thought why not. A great bunch of guys, who even though I admire, I remembered are just human. I start by getting Nigel’s signature, number 4. Nigel even remembered my email telling him about my project and did let out a small laugh when I said I only had three so far. As I said, I had Chris & Jeff’s signatures yet still wanted to chat with them and they came over to our table so I was not rude and left my wife on her own.

Assiette of Lamb - Chris & Jeff Galvin

I then steal Nigel’s pen and work along the table fo special guests. Matthew Fort is in my sights. A very funny chat followed as I got him on side by saying I loved Great British Menu and he and Pru were great “but get rid of that other guy” I quipped. Matthew found this quite amusing. So that’s number five. Tom Parker Bowles is chatting to Fergus Henderson so I sneak in there and grab signatures 6 & 7. Found out Tom has lost his job on the radio as I mentioned his show. I emailed a question in for Olly Smith when he was on the show and Tom remembered, he said, “You’re the guy Olly knows on Twitter”. I’m glad I leave an impression with people, just hope it’s for the right reasons! Dessert is staring to come out so I nip back to the table.

This is where we are treated to the best Rice Pudding I have ever had. Brian Turner, who I really only knew from Ready Steady Cook before I got into food. If I could only ask one chef about how to make a pudding, it would be Brian. This rice pudding, as Brian put it, is an English dish, not British, English. Served with a spiced blackberry jam which was just divine. Oh and now skin on the pudding to the agreement of most of the guests I think.

Pudding done, I need to hunt down my last tow signatures. I take a wander over to Brian. I then take my wife over to meet him as she wanted a hug because, and I quote “Brian Turner is just one fo those men who look like they’d give you a good hug”.  A hug she got too from the charmer “Oh is this your daughter?” asks Brian. We had quite a lengthy chat with Brian who gave me a lot of tips and advice to help me decide if I want to get into the profession myself. And there we are, the big black book now has eight signatures. One more left to get tonight, Mr Hix.

Mark, you’re a hard man to get hold of. I think I approached Mark about 5 times before managing to get to him before he got dragged off somewhere. We spoke mainly about the bar and the changes he’d made. I loved the old Moet bar and still think of it fondly. Mark has done a great job with it, kept it classic and gone back in time with the old-fashioned champagne glasses. Mark signs my book and we reach number 9 (on cloud nine – got there in the end).

That’s it, it’s all over. No more to tell as I reach number 9 in the book. Only 45 to go then. I have to say it was a great night, met some great people, not just the chefs and have made some new Twitter friends in the process. As we were leaving I did sneakily ask Nigel how I could get Germain Schwab’s signature as he has retired to France. It’s going to be a tough one that.

One last thing, I have to thank two people. Jo Verberne and Augusta Adu of Hix Food etc. Ladies, thank you so much for letting me know and sorting out the tickets.

Hix Restaurant & Champagne Bar, Selfridges, London, www.hixatselfridges.co.uk

The Book – Nigel Haworth’s Obsession (well worth being part of your collection)

A donation from the night and the book goes to Hospitality Action www.hospitalityaction.org.uk

My Dog, Holly, enjoying some of her doggy bag

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