Saturday 14th January, 2012
Food is such a huge draw to some people, especially when it is crafted by widely known and regarded professional Chefs with stars and rossettes in tow.
People are willing to travel the length and breadth of this fair Country in order to share the experience of some truely memorable food.
So, I therefore beg the question:
Why would I, a professional Chef with a fair reputation for good food, travel for three hours in the cold of Winter to dine at someones home who is not a professional and does not even work within the industry?
I have been chatting to Mr. B (name with held to protect his current career) for a while now and his passion for food, cooking, and the dream of owning his own Bistro is, to say the least, endearing and infectious.
I know of people within the trade with far less food knowledge and passion, so when invited to road test his capabilities and critique his work, I couldn't say no.
And here I am in an undisclosed location in England typing up my introduction, whilst sat in a freezing Ford KA waiting for an acceptable time to announce my arrival at his door. (I am always very early for appointments, never, ever late)
And I am desperado for the lavatory.......
I am now sat back in the even colder KA about to leave, but need to make note of my initial summary.
The whole enjoyable, easy going and relaxed evening was amazing for the wrong reasons.
Now, that may seem harsh, but allow me to expand and tell you why. The meal was certainly the reason why the gathering was set in place, as the main focus of the evening was to acertain as to whether the Gentleman in question had the skills and ability to advance to a level of Chef/proprietor of his own, self funded Bistro.
However, the biggest resonance that the evening left was an overall warm feeling from meeting new people, sharing a table with them and enjoying an evening of good conversation, witty reparte, and exploration of individuals getting to know and understand each other. Be it over the top, but I left the home feeling not so much a guest, but rather that I had just gained some new close friends.
I know that some of you reading this may be suggesting that this is a good sign of a well balanced Dinner Party, and that the food should be there to give an enhancement to an enjoyable evening, and you are right. That is exactly the point behind good food. But this evening, as already mentioned, was designed to help our Host decide whether the pipe dream should stay just that.
And the answer to that, although not quite as succinct as I am just about to put it, is Yes.
Sunday 15th January, 2012
Arriving at home at 4:15 this morning, I decided to sensibly gain some sleep before going ahead and writing the rest of my piece on last night's soiray in order to give it my full focus and attention. And what better inspirational place than within my place of work, surrounded by people and enjoying each others company, as well as the ambience and most importantly, the food.
After finalising my introduction yesterday evening, I left the car and made my way along the quiet and unnasuming Street, climbed the aged worn Stone steps leading to my destination and knocked on the door 15 minutes earlier than the invitation indicated. Almost immediately after my rapping on the door ceased, the door was opened by whom I correctly assumed to be the Chef/Host. After a very warm, friendly welcome, I was introduced to a fellow diner, followed by Mr. B's wife. I immediately felt relaxed and at home as pleasantries were exchanged, and my Jacket for a very wonderful glass of chilled Sedlescombe Cuvee Bodiam Brut, West Sussex.
We then moved into the nice cosy front room, while Mr. B retracted himself to his kitchen to finalise tasks and, most probably, prepare himself mentally for what he was very soon embarking on.
The husband of the female Diner, whom I had already met, appeared from upstairs joined us and we started the usual getting to know you conversations, which was enjoyable, giving rise to genuine interest on all counts and general good banter.
The final guest arrived, a Scottish lady who had me genuinely bewitched with her strong personallity, fun sense of humour, and amazing depth of knowledge and understanding about pretty much everything.
After an offer of having our glasses refilled, Mr. B steered us towards the Dining room to prepare ourselves for the start of the main reason why we were all assembled. The next wine, a vibrant red-Les Nivieres 2010, Saumur, Loire was served, and so it began, the parade of edibles that was to be sampled, ruminated, discussed, digested and regurgitated in the form of honest opinions, thoughts, reccommendations and suggestions.
Dish one was an Amuse Bouche of An Olive Tuille with local Mozzerella, and slices of Baby Plum Tomato.
Portion size was honest and correct, with the presentation kept simple to enable the diner to see the taster was almost a homage to the base ingredients, that complexity was not key to what the host wanted us to experience.
The starter course arrived of Confit Duck with Cognac, Cornichons, dipping oil and Homebaked Breads. Again, the premise seems simple enough, asking those experiencing his craft work to realise his well created series of steps taken were ultimately to experience the quality and passion involved in producing the dish as a whole.
At this stage, one diner enjoyed it to the extent that he asked for a further sampling, as to him, the flavour and texture deserved to continue. Praise for any Chef, indeed.
A brief repast, apology for a delay in the next instalment, and the main course arrived of Pork tenderloin with green chilli, lime, herbs, wrapped in Pancetta, served with Puy lentils cooked in fesh Chicken stock, with a Mustard, Creme Fraische and White Wine Reduction. Accompanied with two large bowls of mixed baby leaf salad, we all tucked in silently to start with, focusing on our reason for being at the table. To me, although all dishes are to be of a good standard, the main course has to be the pinnacle and the culmination of all the Chef's effort, attention to detail and passion. After a few mouthfuls, encompassing all that was on the plate, a steady conversation returned as we all continued to finish the sybiosis of meat and pulse.
Final course, dessert, which to others is deemed as the real course that matters, and a brave attempt to deliver a Chef school classic that has to be 100% right, the highly revered Tarte au Citron. With Lavender Meringue.
At this stage, pushing the boat out, as well as showing just how important the whole experience was for Mr. B, a beautiful Dessert Wine from Bordeaux (possibly Chateau Liot 2008, Sauternes) was charged in glasses. And it was a perfect choice to accompany the sweet/tarte final dish.
I will catagorically go on record to say that this man certainly understands the concept of correct wine pairing and would happily ask him to arrange a selection for my own personal consumption, or even for accompanying my foods served within my place of work.
The conversation then ceased briefly, as our host sucked in his breath akin to final taste of sweet air before a hanging and asked the all important question.
A mix of carefully selected turns of phrase, very honest and direct analagies and broad ranging conclusions ensued, with Mr. B sagely and nervously hanging on each word, taking every slight and well meaning critique on board like the proverbial sponge.
The general consensus was that this man could certainly show a love of food and that rather than continue with the hosting of six seater supper clubs, in order to gain the capability of realising his dream, it would be prudent to:
spend time in real professional kitchens
Take over a cafe for an evening
Gain the vital theoretical knowledge of ingredients, recipes and cooking methods
And just as importantly, maintain the love and passion that has thrust him this far towards our world.
As I said my fairwells to all and made my way to the front door, I managed to personally thank Mr. B for his hospitality once more, giving a few final pieces of advice for him to take onboard before stealing into the icy night, back to the confines of my frost coated KA for the journey home.
Monday, 16th January, 2012
For the very astute of you, you will have noticed that 24 hours and more have passed by before I have drawn my closing conclusion. This is for good reason. Firstly, so I could give a full report to Mr. B before drawing this post to a close.
And secondly, because it is not that easy to be fully honest, when critiquing a party in someone's home that you were invited to, for free, with the company of such lovely people and wonderfully welcoming hosts.
But, conclude I must.
So, if this was a genuine invitation from a good friend for a meal, I would have been bowled over by the effort and generosity of such a wondrous series of dishes and wine. This would be the best meal in someone's house I have had.....
........But this was a call for professional advice and honest critiquing, in return for 4 courses and wine.
If Mr. B owned the Bistro, and therefore regarded as a fellow professional, then there would have been disappointments and 'issues with the meals on offer. Would it have prevented me from paying the bill when it arrived? No. Would I make a revisit? Perhaps not. Would I recommend it to friends and family. Sadly not. In this premise the food was okay, but had the hallmarks of an amateur at work which would have real gourmands tutting and certainly turning their conversation to every microscopic issue they then could relay to others. So, if Mr. B had his Bistro now I would advise him to employ a Head Chef and let the professionals do their job.
However, the mystery Man is not handing money over for a set of keys to his dream anytime yet, and has plans to keep building on his abilities, learn all he can from those who understand the trade and industry skills, and go thoroughly through underpinning knowledge, understanding the logistics and acknowledging the vast difference between home cooking and professional fine dining before even contemplating on opening doors to a business premises.
And because of that, I know that this man, this very brave and passionate man will one day invest in a set of whites and dazzle people with his cuisine. And when he does, I will be back there, knowing that any distance will be worth it.