FEW of my friends would envy the prize, especially considering the 8am start it warranted. But Lady Luck aside, I had been so motivated by the idea of attending Caterer and Hotelkeeper’s annual Chef Conference at the Jumeirah Tower, Knightsbridge, that I had considered self-financing the £207 outlay. However, by posing a ‘useable’ question to the panel of culinary luminaries, Michael Caines, Shaun Hill, Brian Turner, John Williams, Simon Hulstone and David Cavalier, via the magazine’s Table Talk blog, I got in for free...
In the ‘Question Time’ style setting, mine was discussed: ‘in the light of the big bang of blogs and concierge style review sites, is there still a useful role for professional restaurant critics?’ Brian Turner, President of the Academy of Culinary Arts thought so, believing paid critics offered consistency, whilst Simon Hulstone of The Elephant in Torquay and British representative for the Bocuse d’Or thought the opposite. Only one national critic has reviewed his Michelin-starred restaurant in five years – and he turned up drunk, blew his nose on the tablecloth, and then wrote-up a dessert he never ate.
Michael Caines, executive chef of Gidleigh Park and director of ABode boutique hotels (that’s not a typo) proclaimed the culture of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and Trip Advisor ‘here to stay and something we should harness.’ Turner (taking the role of Dimbleby for the day) concluded, ‘they don’t build great monuments for critics – and if they did, they’d soon be pulled down…’
The panel also discussed the life and death of food hero, Keith Floyd. Speaking about having once witnessed the daring dipsomaniac’s two large Scotch strong start to the day, Shaun Hill admitted he ‘had the greatest respect for anyone who has a good breakfast.’ But could he cook? –Perhaps influenced by Floyd’s intoxicating company, Hill ‘couldn’t remember much beyond the man’s enthusaism...’
Of the organic movement, the panel were nervous about ‘latching onto warm trends which can quickly become absurd’, quoting instances of ‘organic courgettes being flown in from Zimbabwe’.
Being seated on the front row, the vigorous, almost visual fragrant curls from cooking demonstrations by Angela Hartnett, Elena Arzak, Michael Caines and Martin Burge quickly reached me and tauntingly persisted. Hartnett, who is at the stoves of Murano, Harden’s best newcomer, confirmed her renowned ‘feel’ for food and correct positioning as a single Michelin star chef by cooking a simple walnut pasta and also the more intriguing roasted sweetbreads with pickled peaches, liquorice and fennel.
The fourth generation Elena Arzak, who runs the eponymous three Michelin-starred Basque restaurant ‘in tandem’ with her father, Juan Mari, quietly assembled a walnut cream with ‘mutant’ liquidised, cochineal-tinted cabbage grown in a particularly low pH soil which emphasises colour. This gently lightened when acid (in the form of Coca-Cola or lemon juice) was added. Arzak is ‘fascinated by the effect colour has on our perception of taste’. However, going on the dizzy-making, sped-up film depicting her restaurant, bold colours don't seem to be the priority in its depressingly clinical-looking public areas.
Free from ‘the prison of square plates’ and also, it seems, the discipline / desire to reduce a dish to two or three components, two-starred Caines layered a busy, but deceptively low tableau of lightly poached wild salmon with two types of caviar, salmon jelly, ‘freeze cooked’ cucumber, white honey soy, wasabi, Greek yoghurt vinaigrette, groundnut vinaigrette, ginger tamed by blanching and a tangle of borage ‘which tastes of cucumber’(...) Regardless of the hectic shopping list of pampered ingredients, it looked ravishing.
Looking a little like a more approachable clone of Marcus Wareing, Burge, of Whatley Manor, who, like Caines, is (recently) double-starred, nervously unwrapped numerous cling film pots to build his much celebrated (and already much photographed) mango cannelloni with mint ice cream and pink grapefruit. This came to fruition by use of the exotic-sounding neutral acid, veggie milk and ‘anti humidity salt’. It sounded like alchemy...
Apart from showing frustration with the technical imperfections in a presentation showcasing new dishes from culinary theme park, The Fat Duck restaurant’s tasting menu - the á la carte abolished due to its low (8p/c) subscription - Heston Blumenthal spoke about the norovirus incident. Apparently he was given ‘three hours to respond’ to the report by the Health Protection Agency before it went to the press, leading to ‘criticism from his insurers’ of such an ‘extremely limited’ timeframe.
Of the fact members of staff were seen to return to work whilst still unwell, Blumenthal quoted the Fat Duck’s ‘back to work policy’ of 48 hours whilst noting that, unfortunately, what has now been identified as norovirus takes 72 hours to purge the body. Blumenthal said ‘the report made it sound like my …… chefs were doing mise-en-place then throwing up in the bin.’ Perhaps most curiously, the three-starred chef also admitted that he ‘was told to take Colchester oysters off the menu three-to-four months before February’s closure’, although he ‘wasn’t told why’. Nor did he disclose whom advised this.
Thinking positively, Blumenthal introduced his next venture – the 140-cover restaurant that replaces ‘Foliage’ at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel, November. He stated, ‘I don’t know why I’m saying this, but I’m going to say it anyway – I will never, ever open another Fat Duck.’ The as yet nameless restaurant won’t be ‘at the same level,’ but more ‘of a traditional British brasserie where the food will be a bit more refined than the Hind’s Head’ in Bray.
One other point I found interesting was the fact Blumenthal employs an ex-Penguin editor to research forgotten recipes at the British library - one day a week.
Following the conference, delegates were chauffeured by taxi to the restaurant of GQ magazine man of the year, Marcus Wareing, Phil Howard’s The Square and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester - where I had lunch. Matched to the NV wines of the oldest Champagne house, Gosset (which originally made still wine before bubbles were fashionable) and also iron fist in a velvet glove, Bordeaux blend, ‘Morgenof’ (‘04), a South African estate owned by the house, the un-ambitious menu failed to live up to the demonstrations of the earlier culinary quad.
Little peppery choux puffs were fun, as was a Faberge / bedpan-esque egg containing the amuse bouche, a thick but sprightly spinach, black olive, flower and radish soup. Scotch salmon ‘goujonnettes’ with ‘green emulsion’ were tart and tacky, although cubed al dente vegetables were pristine. To follow, ‘heart of Angus rump’ was tough and ‘crispy Maxim’s potatoes’ startlingly reeked of stale oil. Only soft, sculpted gnocchi were acceptable. Not a dish I would have wanted to fork-out for, only to fork it away.
The dessert, ‘Girl from Ipanema’ with petite madeleine (I would dearly like to know what endeared Mnr. Ducasse to use this moniker) was a sturdy, tropical confection and was the only wine match to work - as with Gosset’s Chardonnay-dominated rosé, it also boasted a pineapple finish.
Ducasse at The Dorchester had turned out to be yet another very posh marquee for rather boring, in this case, upmarket conference-style food. Sharp knives and smart packaging (and the room is far more comfortable than many pictures suggest) proved insufficient camouflage.
Regardless of the two poorly calibrated dishes, it had been a stimulating day. In terms of chef participants, I was particularly impressed by Simon Hulstone, whom, over lunch, revealed a finely-tuned palate and insatiable appetite for exploring the very best cuisine in the world, adding no doubt to his own gastronomic canon, revised at his restaurant on England’s south-west coast. There, divers still in wetsuits bring him cheap but gorgeous scallops (apparently). I will be visiting soon. And I shan’t be wiping my nose on the tablecloth…