Archive for November, 2010

You don’t know because you weren’t there

There is a look soldiers get when they have been through a bloody and grueling battle, they call it the 1000 yard stare. When I emerged from the kitchen at The Ship yesterday that was the look that greeted me in the mirror, glassy-eyed, slightly unfocused and knowing I would never be the same again, for better or worse I’m a chef now. I know it’s not only what I want to do but it’s what I was put on this earth to do.

Owing far more to a lack of staff than the need for my individual brilliance I have been in pretty much constant demand in the kitchen since my trial shift. I have worked everyday since then, including yesterday’s dreaded Sunday service, which I will get to later, firstly there are a few things I would like to point out to anyone considering making the move to a pro kitchen.

The quantities are mind-boggling, they truly are. Ever made Yorkshire puddings? Ever made them using 50eggs? Then made another batch because the first lake of batter wasn’t going to last long? Thought not! Everything in a pro kitchen is hot, pointy and designed to injure you, every piece of equipment is a baffling ordeal to operate, the food mixer looks like it needs a co-pilot and 3 cabin crew to operate it, the rest of the equipment looks like it could be used to drill a second channel tunnel and if you stand still for more than 3 seconds someone carrying something that’s roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun will slam into you.

After my trial shift I dropped into The Ship on Wednesday to chat to Oisin and Dave the head chef to see how I had gotten on and found myself immediately put to work in the kitchen. I was asked to skin, pin bone and portion up the cod for fish and chips and use the trimmings to make fish cakes. Seems easy right? You probably think this cheffy lark is a bit of a doddle, well to be honest I felt a bit that way myself at the time, until a tray containing enough cod to make Captain Birdseye think twice hoved into view. Add to this the pressure of having to portion the fish to an exact weight by eye, knowing that if you balls it up you’ve just wasted the main element of a £10.95 plate of food and its safe to say that they didn’t make any allowances for it being only my second time in a pro kitchen. Obviously I aced it, I was a veritable fish skinning machine, in fact I got into such a groove that I skinned an entire side of wild salmon perfectly as well, bit of a shame that it wasn’t supposed to be skinned though.

I got my first proper chef injury this week (best to get these things out of the way early) when I almost chopped the top of my thumb off. I’m not going to brag about how I simply shook it off, stuck a band-aid on it and carried on regardless anymore than I am going to admit that I ran screaming from the kitchen and sobbed in the yard until the head chef coaxed me back in to the kitchen. To be honest I had been for a few beers the night before and that may have played a part in my accident. It did help me realise that while it’s always been fine for me to turn up to work with a hangover it’s a different story when that work involves the potential to lose a digit or set yourself alight.

By the time I finished on Friday I felt like I had given a decent account of myself and that the other chefs had accepted me. I had been trusted to make the shepherds pie without supervision, I had made the fish cakes and prepped any number of other dishes. So all the talk of the dreaded Sunday service didn’t really faze me, I mean it couldn’t be as hard as they made out, sure it would be busy but there is only so many people can fit in the place, right? Wrong, so very, very wrong.

How can I convey just what Sunday service is like? Imagine the opening 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan if there had been a buffet on the other side of that beach. A small band of determined chefs squared off against a vast horde of hungry diners, either we would send them home full and happy or we would go down trying.

From the start it was different, everything was more urgent, I was determined that not only would I keep up but I would contribute as much as I possibly could. Prep was at a fairly frantic pace, once I had made enough Yorkshire pudding batter to drown a small elephant, I moved on to making the bread sauce and getting some shepherds pies made up before lunch service began.

Lunch service was manic, I saw enough white plates to induce snow blindness although at the rate they were leaving the kitchen I didn’t see them for long. Working alongside two other chefs we were plating roast lunches by the dozen. Robbie was pushing the whole brigade hard, the phrase “come on, we are in the shit” was reverberating around the kitchen when the unthinkable happened, we ran out of carrots.

This may not seem like that big a deal to you but in a packed restaurant where people are willing to wait simply to be seated for the best Sunday lunch in London this is a fucking catastrophe. If this was a war movie then we would have been pinned down by enemy fire with no hope of rescue. Just like in all great war movies, a hero was needed, someone had to break cover and storm the enemy gun emplacement, possibly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. I am proud to say I was that soldier, with absolutely no regard for my own safety, I turned to my comrades said “Remember guys, pain fades, glory lasts for ever and chicks dig scars” and I peeled those carrots! Ok maybe the risk to my own safety was fairly minimal as the carrots put up virtually no struggle.

So a week in do I think I have made the right decision? Honestly yes, I have loved every single minute of it. Its felt as natural as breathing to do it and I have learned more about how a kitchen works than I could have in a lifetime from eating in restaurants. The amount of preparation and planning involved is incredible, a good head chef needs the organisational skills that could plan an invasion and occupation of Belgium on a fortnight’s notice.

I do hope I can make this work, I don’t really want to do anything else, when I finished my shift on Sunday night I felt like a chef for the first time and not just come guy who works in a kitchen. This is a massive step for me, up to that point I had felt like I was watching a first person point of view cooking show. I would look down and see this apron, and the white sleeves of my chefs jacket and think “oh what’s this guy going to do” before thinking they were my own hands! I even got to cook my first dish at the pass, it was only fish and chips but it felt great to see it go out and I have to say the cod had been skinned and portioned by someone with incredible talent!

I got home to find an email from a recruitment company the other night, with an opening a client of theirs had for an event manager and I didn’t even bother replying. If someone offered me a job in events now I don’t honestly know if I could walk away from the kitchen, despite the vast different in money and the far easier work involved. I’ve spent probably half my life wanting to be a chef and if the sacrifices I have to make are long hours, hard work and shit money then I am simply going to have to put up with it.

Taking leave of my senses

I’ve thought about it for years, sat in restaurants craning my neck and ignoring my dining partner trying to catch a glimpse through rapidly swinging doors  of a master chef at the height of his powers commanding a small army of professional lieutenants producing top class food for a room full of happy patrons.

Likewise I have sat in mediocre eateries informing everyone who would listen, or was unfortunately for them in ear shot, how I could do far better myself before boring the absolute fuck out of them explaining in detail how I would have done every dish better.

Let me be clear, I can cook. I take my cooking very seriously, as anyone who read my 24 Hour Dinner Party Piece may have gathered. To be honest I take my cooking far too seriously, I went through a phase of making needlessly over complicated food simply to prove that I could. I would spend ages refining and tweaking recipes until I was happy with them. I once spent 3 months working on a dessert recipe which was for a Mushroom Risotto. That’s right, do not adjust your eyes, I said a Mushroom Risotto as a dessert. If you don’t believe me, or you simply want the recipe then mention it in a comment and I will post it. No one who isn’t being well paid for it should go to this kind of effort.

I did a lot of this kind of thing, I went to obscenely twattish lengths to show people just how good I was, doing back to front dinner parties where the starter was a cappuccino and the dessert was a soup. I refused to read cookbooks, preferring instead to write hundreds of my own recipes. I spent literally months practising my knife skills, going out and buying bags of cheap vegetables and then bringing them home and chopping them into stupidly small pieces (I still make coleslaw with a knife for fucks sake). The really sad thing is that this was before I had ever written a word about food or had any intention of doing so.

I could say it was a love of food but if that’s what it was it was a very obsessive and unhealthy love affair where both parties suffered dizzying highs and terrifying lows. It was that teenage love affair where you are convinced that you wont be able to breathe if your other half leaves the room. You see those kids now walking along arms wrapped around each other, gazing intently into each others eyes without a care for where they are going all the while thinking to yourself “why is there never a fucking open manhole when you need one”.

Once I moved past this period, ok so I have had relapses as the 27 hours preparation for a single dinner party will point to, I gained a much more enjoyable love of food, I wanted to learn something so I would have that knowledge and understanding and not simply so I could show it off to people.

When I began to write about food I became far more interested in the question “could I hack it in a pro kitchen?”. It’s always been something I thought about but it was more so in an aspirational sense for many years, then about 2 years ago I asked myself seriously if I could do it, not for a service or a day but like a real chef, go in in the morning and stay till the last table is fed. To do it for a living, no special treatment, no favours, no Chef World style theme park experience but as real and as raw as it gets.

I mentioned this to a few people and all were encouraging but mostly in the “I’m thinking of doing a bungee jump naked while holding a cactus” sort of way, where you say yes as you think it’s never going to happen and if it does the propensity for a hilarious outcome makes it a win win situation.

Oisin Rogers who runs The Ship in Wandsworth said, well why don’t you come down we will give you a try out and if the head chef thinks you’re good enough you can do it. I should point out two things Oisin has been in some way responsible for every half baked idea I’ve had since moving to London and never tell a man who runs a bungee school and grows cacti that you’ve often thought of leaping from a suspension bridge while holding a pointy plant because it may well happen.

So Tuesday night I rocked up at The Ship to be met by a dubious but friendly (and immensely talented) head chef David Faunch and a skeptical if curious brigade. The Ship is renowned for it’s food, it’s a major drawing point for people from all over London so to put it plainly they don’t fuck about, and having some 34year old who’d never set foot in a professional kitchen somewhat foisted upon them wasn’t really something they had planned on.

Dinner service was just starting as I donned my first ever set of whites and somewhat timidly entered the fray. I’d love to lie and say I swaggered my way in balls first and yelled “oi you, cheffy me lad have the night off, I’ve got this sorted”, but the fact it I was planking it. I just kept hoping that whatever they gave me to do first it’s something I’m good at, like chopping, or preparing meat or chatting up waitresses so when Robbie the sous chef produced a piping bag my first reaction was “oh bollox”. I had to heat the mustard mash and then pipe it onto the shepherd’s pies in readiness for service. I did it, they didn’t look too bad and after getting in the way for a bit at the pass Dave gave me a job that involved using a knife. “Here it is baby, its time to shine, let’s make sure those thousands of carrots didn’t die in vain”.

Luckily it seems that I have extremely good knife skills, which was enough to get me the job even though no one knew at that point if they were developed from a genuine ability with food or if I was just a large Irish guy with an unhealthy knife fetish. I put that worry to bed today when I cooked and dished up the staff meal to rapturous applause (ok I added the rapturous bit) but people mostly had seconds and the team of extremely attractive, young and trendy waiting staff, both boys and girls (so whatever you’re looking for they have you covered) some sporting unfortunate Movember moustaches (just the guys) all looked happy once they had cleared their plates.

So where does this lead? How long will it last? Fuck knows, its knackering exhausting work and it’s not going to keep me in Faberge Eggs but at no point in the past 3 days have I thought that I made a mistake. Not only that but I am completely unsinged and still have 10 fingers, ok so 2 of them aren’t mine but I am still counting it as a win.

I will let you know how it goes.

Recipe: Grilled Oyster Masala

This is based on 12 oysters but you can easily adjust it

To make the masala
1/2tsp each of
Cumin
coriander powder
Chilli powder
Fenugreek
Turmeric
1tsp each of
Crushed garlic
Crushed ginger
Tamarind paste
Juice of half a lemon
1 table spoon of finely chopped fennel tops (dill will do if you don’t have fennel tops)
Mix everything together, obviously this will be a quite a dry mix but that’s ok don’t worry
Open the oysters and reserve the juice from them, pass it through a sieve then add it to the masala paste, this should make it nice and liquid

Drop your oysters into the mixture and leave them for about 3 to 5 mins, no more you don’t want them over powered by the spices

Brush the deeper side of the oyster shell with some rape seed oil and place one oyster back into each of the shells

Place them under a very hot grill for about 2 minutes then serve

Recipe: Roast Curried Shoulder of Lamb with oven poached oregano skin potatoes

This recipe is based on a 500g lamb shoulder joint. .
Score the fat and pierce the meat a number of times to let the paste work its way in.
To make the paste you will need
2 garlic cloves
1 green chilli (seeds optional)
1tsp of tamarind (you can get it in a bottle easily enough)
1/2tsp each of
Chili powder (all of these are powdered)
Turmeric
Fenugreek
Garam masala
Ginger
Cumin
Corriander
I used a pestle & mortar, add a good pinch of rock salt & cracked pepper to make it easier
I do the garlic and chilli first then add the rest all in one go.
Add 2tbs of oil to loosen it up.
Then rub it into the lamb, pushing into the incisions you made in the meat.
Leave it for 30mins if you can longer is better
Don’t wash out the mortar, you will see why below

Take 3 medium tomatoes
Remove the pulp and seeds and add them to the paste residue in the mortar and mix well
after you mix the tomato pulp and seeds in the pestle and mortar pour the mixture over the lamb before you put it in the oven
Roughly chop the tomato and add to one thinly sliced leek, use these to make a bed in an oven proof dish to rest the lamb on
Roast in a pre heated over at 180 degrees for about 35 mins then remove the lamb to let it rest
Pour in a half glass of wine to the dish and mix (kind of deglaze) the dish, return it to the over while the lamb rests to make a sauce

To do the potatoes, wash but dont peel some potatoes, cut them into pieces about an inch in size and place them in a bowl
Pour over some olive oil add some salt and pepper and mix so they are well coated in the oil.
Sprinkle some dried oregano on a plate and roll the skin side of the potatoes in the oregano, the oil will help it stick
Place in an oven proof dish with the skin side facing up.
Pour in some chicken stock into the dish till it comes about half the way up the potatoes.
Cover with tin foil and roast in the same oven as the lamb, remove the foil after 15mins to allow the skin to crisp up.
If there is some liquid left in the bottom of the dish you can add it to the sauce.

Slice the lamb, spoon over the sauce and serve the potatoes on the side.

Enjoy

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Ah Sunday, the greatest of all the days. It’s amazing that in less than a generation Sunday has gone from a dread enducing bed time thought on a Saturday night, bringing nightmares of trips to church in trousers made from a special blend of camel-hair and barbed wire and long dull drizzly afternoons filled with boring telly and the smell of cabbage being boiled to death in a pressure cooker to the ultimate relax day. A day for DVD box sets (aah 6hours of season 2 of Las Vegas marvelling at just how good Josh Duhmel looks in a suit and how much I wish James Caan was my uncle), reading the papers, maybe even meeting with friends or watching a veritable smorgasboard of sport.

Sunday has undergone the greatest cool transformation since Quinten Tarrantino rang John Travolta and said “forget about making Who The Hell is Talking Now I’ve got a part for you in my new movie”.

Saturday is too demanding, its all “Hey I’m Saturday, do something fun, now!”. If your single it generally involves going to town to buy clothes, drink coffee al fresco while trying not to choke on bus fumes before going home to throw on your glad rags and hit the bright lights of town for a night of energetic bar hopping and exhausting clubbing.

If you’re married it’s a case of trying to prove that your lives havent changed just because you have kids and you’re still the crazy fun loving person you always were, it’s a case of “Honey you take the kids bungee jumping while I wrestle this crocodile!”, or convincing yourself that a day trolling through warehouse sized megastores buying presents for your house to keep it happy and stop it going into negative equity passes for a pretty good Saturday.

Sunday is far less hassle, it’s entirely acceptable for grown adults be in the pajamas at 3 in the afternoon, eating their way through some heavily salted snack treats and trying to figure out how to get food without leaving the couch! Sunday knows you have a long hard week ahead but it wants you not to worry about it, there is no point wasting a great Sunday worrying about a tough Monday.

Hangovers are positively encouraged on a Sunday, they are damn near obligatory and thanks to the wonders of social networking you can much easier piece together the trail of carnage and debauchery that was you’re Saturday night out. Without social networking you would never be able to figure out what the fuck possessed you to go up to an 6ft 3+ woman and ask her “was my friend right when she said you were a transvestite?”, or casually (as possible) reminding people that we saw Mathew “Jack from Lost” Fox. No one can answer the questions of why the doorman in the Lexington hugged me as I left (was he just really glad I was leaving or had I made a good impression), how despite being possibly the drunkest man in London I managed to haggle a mini-cab driver down to £20 to take me from Kings Cross to Tooting or where exactly I got the packet of beef flavoured monster munch that I found in my coat pocket and ate for breakfast. These it seems are to remain ever out reach, answers that dance on the wind with a tantalising promise of a clarity that never comes. You have however the whole day to swear “never again” and chastise yourself for your nights transgressions.

Even if you do decide to head out for beers on a Sunday the relaxed vibe continues, the social lines are blurred, it’s like a truce has been declared between the different cliques of society. Those out on a Sunday are like the battled hardened veterans of the week, they may not get on but they respect the fact that 7days on and facing into 7days more while still willing to make time for some drinking deserves a grudging admiration. It is the only night of the week when you will see hard charging sales reps, dressed in Tommy and Ralph sharing a bar with facial hair sporting trustafarians called Tommy and Ralph!

Sunday food should be the same, it should be relaxed, involving very little effort but bring lots of joy. My early childhood memories of Sunday food are of my mother stressing herself to the point of a migraine trying to pull together all the elements of a full roast dinner with obligatory dessert. Why fill your last day of relaxation with an exhausting effort in the kitchen. Now don’t get me wrong, as anyone who has met me will testify, I have never met a roast dinner I didn’t like. I even like to cook them. However for me cooking is what I do to relax, spending 6 or 8 hours on a Sunday preparing a 3 course meal for family or friends is as natural as breathing; for most people its terrifying!

So what to cook that takes very little effort but is the perfect giving dish for a lazy Sunday? Well Bubala, its Brisket. The beloved meat of Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory, the greatest American sitcom since Fraiser (if you just said Scrubs then there is a little X in the top right corner of the screen and I would prefer if you clicked on it, we don’t want your kind around here!).

Ask your butcher for a piece of brisket, somewhere about 3 to 5lbs in weight (it will shrink a bit in cooking so dont worry), ask him for a flat cut, also called a first cut, its a leaner piece, tell him as well that you are going to brine it yourself.

On Saturday place the brisket in a large pot cover with cold water and add

2tbs of salt

2tbs of brown sugar

12 peppercorns

3 bayleaves

1/4tsp of ground nutmeg

Just leave it sit there till whatever time you decide to cook it on Sunday.

Ok is Sunday, you’ve checked your phone for evidence of drink dialling, counted the shrapnel in your pocket and your going to stick the brisket on so you can relax on the couch for the 3 or 4hours its going to cook for.

Here is what you are going to need

1 brisket (see above!)

12 baby onions, peeled and left whole

4 carrots, peeled and cut in half length ways

4 baby turnips, peeled and halved

4 sticks of celery, cut into chunks

2 cloves of garlic, minced

Fresh parsley, roughly chopped

enough vegetable stock to cover the brisket

Crusty bread and pickles to serve with it.

In an oven proof saucepan heat some olive oil and brown the brisket well, making sure you get a good deep colour on the meat. Remove it and add the onions and allow them to take some colour before adding the rest of the vegetables. Place the brisket on top and pour over the vegetable stock. Cover and place in the oven for 3½ to 4 hours at 180degrees (everything cooks at 180 by the way).

Then remove the brisket and allow to rest for 15mins before slicing and serving with the crusty bread and pickles to make a quality sandwich, its nice if you provide various mustards and relishes to allow people put their own spin on their finished sandwich, ladle the broth into a bowl and sprinkle it with some fresh parsley to go along with your sandwich.

Enjoy!

P.S. I know the recipe is fuck all use to you at 3.30 on a Sunday afternoon but trust me you will thank me for this next week

Bo-Ho Eating Rhapsody

I fucking hate food fads, I really do. I hate these food trend analysts and food marketing execs who make wonderfully talented chefs perform like dancing monkeys in search of their approval. So you work in food marketing do you? Amazing, how did you end up in this line of work? Were all the jobs in water and shelter marketing gone? What pointless course in what 3rd rate college do you have to hump your way through in a haze of pot smoke and self loathing to tell people vastly more talented than yourself what they should be doing. Marketing food is about as difficult as marketing life rafts on the Titanic.

For years we bought into it, we chased the trends. In the halcyon days of our youth we slavishly followed these gourmet gurus. Don’t lie, don’t pretend you had no part of, there’s proof. Upstairs, hidden at the bottom of the wardrobe in the spare room, in the place you used to hide your porn before the arrival of the internet, when grotty “gym” bags were replaces by suspiciously empty browser histories, there is a photo of you with a flock of seagulls hairdo and shoulder pads the size of balconies, sat in front of a piece of poultry so small it must have come from a budgie, a single carrot and a fanned out strawberry!

There are two things that should matter in a restaurant, the quality of the food and the calibre of the chef. Nothing else. All this talk about service, ambience, the style of the decor is utter bollocks. Service? As long as my food arrives hot, isn’t thrown at me from across the restaurant, or delivered by a waiter who has his thumb in my soup and his fly open that’s good enough. Ambience? Good food being eaten by happy people is the best ambience for any restaurant. As for style and decor, if the food’s good enough I will happily eat off an upturned milk crate while sitting on the floor. If some people want their food served with a stiffness usually only found in an episode of Upstairs Downstairs or a Viagra convention, while sitting in a photo shoot for architectural digest that’s been feng shui’d to within an inch of its life then that’s up to them.

Luckily I am not alone in feeling like this. Which is good, as the difference between being on the lunatic fringe and at the front of a wave of new thinking is numbers! Recently there has been a subtle rebellion against the media dominated world of fine dining. Its hard to pin down where it started and we could all Wiki till we go blind and develop hair on our palms trying to figure it out. What we do know is that people with a love of good food and a distaste for the trappings of high end eateries have started getting together to cook, eat and enjoy great food again.

This goes beyond the supper clubs of New York, the restaurante de puertas cerradas of Latin Amercia (ok, ok so I Wiki’d a little bit, its not like I have a problem, I can stop anytime I want), or the underground restaurants of London. These began as little more than dinner parties thrown by well intentioned people who wanted to share a love of food with friends. However, now established chefs are taking the chance to cook the food the want to cook and not simply expected to produce.

Nuno Mendes, formerly of Bauchus, has established The Loft Project in east London and has welcomed Clayton Wells and Ben Greeno, both previously of Noma, to take stints as chef in residence at the venue. Being freed from the shackles of expectation and allowed to cook from the heart is the culinary equivalent of the rock star playing a small acoustic gig in some back street dive bar.

As brilliant as many of these chefs are; if you examine the menus of any half dozen or so Michelin starred establishements you will find a core of dishes, which differ only in the chefs personal execution.This isn’t a slight on the dishes or the chefs. These dishes are classics for a reason and if nothing else offer a yard stick by which the talent of the chef can be measured but there is a strong sense of the menu being written and the ingredients being sourced to make the menu a reality. Fine dining is the glamorous leggy blonde of the culinary world. It is obvious that a huge amount of effort has been put in, it sure is fun to look at but you know that you would soon tire of the tantrums, the insecurities and the high maintenance.

This new underground food movement is like a cute bo-ho chick, relaxed and assured with a confidence built on knowing there is something of substance beneath the surface. Personally I cant do bo-ho. Firstly I don’t do relaxed, I can do lazy but that’s not the same thing. I also lack the emotional range necessary, I have annoyed, angry and “he was fuckin askin for it” but that’s about it. None of this stops me loving this kind of food, or for that matter claiming credit for coining Bo-ho food. Any menu that is arrived at because of the freshness of the ingredients is a menu I am going to enjoy.

This new attitude to food places all the importance where it should be. It doesn’t mean slapped together and slung on a plate. It certainly doesn’t involve cook by numbers slavish adherence to a cook book. To stand in a market and choose a menu from whats in front of you takes skill. It takes an understanding of how to cook and what to cook together. It takes confidence in a chefs own ability to veer away from the fillet and pick cheaper cuts of meat, who’s longer more relaxed cooking method fits perfectly with the whole ethos of this idea. This type of cooking invokes conversation, and discussion, coupled with the practice of strangers dining together gives the whole evening a somewhat celebratory feel. I am not going to trot out some line about “arriving as strangers, dining together and leaving as friends”. For one thing I am not the type but mostly you’re just as likely to want to stab the guy next to you with a fork as you are to invite him round for lunch. That’s not the point of the exercise, this isn’t a way to get your friend’s numbers up on Facebook or get a some fresh meat for your next swingers party. The only thing the people who go to these events need to have in common is a love of good food. Profession, political views, social status and who’s the most talented member of McFly should not enter into the equation, anyway its Danny and I will fight anyone who says any different!

A menu typically consists of considerably more courses than you would get at a traditional restaurant, not necessarily sticking to a theme or type of cuisine. There should be slow cooked meats, fresh seafood and at least 3 things you’ve never tried before. The menu itself should take you on a culinary journey through old favourites and new experiences and ideally leave you stuffed and contented.

The number of diners at these events tends to be small but not in an exclusive way, reservations are open to everyone and its a first come first served method of obtaining a booking. I’ve never liked the term “exclusive” when applied to food, the idea of an exclusive restaurant has always seemed sort of wrong. Food should be inclusive, it should bring people together and the skill level of the chef shouldn’t shouldn’t mean he is cut off from the public and made to cook like some trophy chef in a gilded cage. No one is saying that these chefs should ply their trade for a handful of beans and a slap on the back. They are entitled to make the best living the possibly can from their profession but for all their elitism, exclusivity and status very few fine dining restaurants actually make money. The money, if there is money to be made, comes from media tie-ins and this is where the PR types get their hooks into chefs. If the relationship was limited to a sort of business manager role then fine, no one wants to see these people end up in an old chefs home, or drifting down the culinary chain like a footballer working his way from the Premiership to the non leagues.

The problem arises when advice becomes instruction and that instruction moves from the PR companies area of expertise (if there is such a thing) to the chefs areas of expertise. When your PR guy tells you that you should really be using more goji berries and this years must have melon is cantaloupe it’s time to toss the i-Phone in the fryer and get back to cooking.

The irony of the whole scenario is that at a time when the food business is so dominated by marketing and PR firms, where chefs are touted around like reality TV rejects and where profile is more far important than professional ability so many high end restaurants are going to the wall. There used to be a formula that the right cost for a plate of food was 4 times the cost of the ingredients, that was to cover overheads, salary and leave the owner with some profit. That formula didn’t allow for, interior designers, feng shui experts, publicists, PR gurus, marketing teams and fucking ice sculptors or any other of the immensely annoying things that get in the way of me enjoying a great meal prepared by a great chef.

I have great hopes that this new trend towards bo-ho food, that it will bring excellent food to a more accessible place. That it will stay true to show casing the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the chef with none of the trappings that food of this quality tends to come with. However all of this hope, all of this rejuvenated spirit, all of this confidence that we are not doomed to a culinary existence dictated to us by faceless, nameless marketing suits took a massive blow when I turned on the TV one day to find Jim Haynes flogging crappy mints while a bunch of theatre school drop outs cavorted round his Paris home trying to look like Bohemian dinner party guests. The ad it seemed was supposed to paint a picture of these wonderfully unique and free spirited individuals enjoying the sophisticated taste of a thin chocolate mint after what we can only presume was an incredible gastronomic experience. It came off more like a bunch of mentally mal-adjusted street performers terrorising an old age pensioner in his home while eating all his chocolates. A sort of Clock Work Orange meets Last of The Summer Wine but with more confectionery.

I am not a food critic, I don’t believe food should be criticised. Food is like money, it is by itself neither inherently good or evil. Its what people do with it that determines if its good or bad. A piece of steak is a piece of steak, a bad chef can ruin it and make it leathery and drier than a camels arsehole in July, a good chef can make it into a wonderfully succulent, meaty delight. If left to concentrate more on cooking many more chefs could ensure their diners could leave their restaurants happy and hoping to return again soon.

24 hour dinner party people

Well actually its more like 27hours but you have to be flexible with the details if you want to steal someone elses clever movie title for your post. Now to most people the thought of a 27 hour cook-a-thon for a dinner party would seem insane. Actually to be fair the thought of cooking for 27 hours simply wouldn’t enter most people’s heads in the first place.

I should point out that the vast majority of that was preparation time, it wasnt like I was spit roasting a blue whale. Let me set the scene, this time last year my father’s family were all in Cork for a family funeral. It was the first time that all the brothers and sisters had been together in decades and having had to endure the post removal and post funeral reception they wanted to eat together in a proper family environment before the all left for parts unknown again.

I offered to cook dinner in my parent’s house for everyone. Now let’s be clear on something from the start, I wanted to show off! There is no point saying other wise, you simply don’t spend that amount of time preparing a dinner unless your intention is dazzle your diners.

I am the first to admit that given free reign over any culinary occasion and I will completely lose the run of myself. I am the proverbial kid in a candy store, I want complete control over every detail, I come down with temporary OCD. Nothing pre-made, store bought, no matter how new improved or lemon scented it may be will be allowed anywhere near a dish.

Ironically choosing the menu was (as always is with me) the fastest part. I decided on 3 courses, the starter would be a duck and chive risotto with a slice of pan roasted duck breast, surrounded by an asian infused tomato broth, served with a hand-made tomato bread roll. Main course would be a loin of pork stuffed with black pudding and apples, garlic mushroom mash, chantenay carrots in cumin butter, roast coriander dusted turnip, parsnip puree and a cider and grain mustard sauce. And for dessert, poached pears with a toasted pistachio crust, with a vanilla and bitter orange marscapone and a chilli and blueberry sauce.

Now don’t get me wrong here I am as fond of a cheese sandwich as the next guy and I am more than happy to knock you up a quick omelette if you’re feeling peckish but give me a special occasion and I am incapable of stopping myself getting carried away. Even a family sunday dinner will see me happily putting in 6 or 8 hours in the kitchen.

I havent actually factored shopping time into this but a trip to the English Market is a relatively painless experience so I don’t count it as work. The pork was free range outdoor bred with a nice bit of fat. Now I don’t subscribe to the rare breed pork movement, as I simply don’t see the sense in eating an endangered animal. I think these breeds should be protected until such time as their stock levels reach a sustainable level. I am about as likely to eat a Tamworth pig or a British Lop as I am to tuck into a Panda burger.

Ok so where do, or rather where did I start?

Hours 27 to 20:

Well I started with the stocks, first I made a vegetable stock and then having removed the breasts and legs (they were used to make a duck ballontine the following day) I roasted the carcasses and the duck necks and added them to the veg stock along with some new stock vegetables and a few herbs. Once the stock was made it was transferred to a container and placed in the freezer. Once frozen it was placed in a muslin lined collinder so that the fat and impurities would be taken out as it melted. I also used this time to make the chilli and blueberry sauce for the dessert and to de-shell and peel the pistachios before blitzing them to a sort of breadcrumb.

Hours 20 to 10:

This was taken up with making the stuffing for the pork then stuffing it so it had a day to rest (this causes a lot less stuffing to come out during cooking) and take on the flavours of the stuffing. Making the vanilla and bitter orange marscapone and the poaching stock for the pears as the flavours will have more time to develop. 6 cans of peeled whole plum tomatoes were chopped and hung in muslin suspended over a bowl to give a wonderful clear tomato base for the broth devoid of any of the pulp. The parsnip puree was made (just the one boiling over of the milk this time) and 2 pints of cider were reduced and added to some of the vegetable stock I had reserved with some garlic, shallots and grain mustard to make the sauce.

10 hours to plate down.

First thing was make the dough for tomato bread and while the oven was preheating I lightly toasted the pistachio crumbs. I added the asian spices (Szechuan peppercorns, cloves, star anise, chilli flakes and fennel seeds) to the tomato base and left it on a rolling simmer with the lid tightly on to avoid it reducing. The tomato rolls were baked and taken out 2minutes before they were done so they could be quickly finished just before serving. The veg was prepped, the pork put in to slow roast on a bed roughly chopped apples and onions to act as a trivot and allow a nice long resting time. Mushrooms were finely chopped and cooked with butter, garlic and white wine before being set aside to add to the mashed potato later. Throughout the day kettles were boiled, immersions turned on and a small mountain of pots, pans, plates and other cooking paraphernalia were washed, dried and reused. As a man I reserve the right to use ever scrap of delph, pan and cutlery when I cook. I can boil you and egg and leave you with 2hours of washing up to do.

When the guest arrived the risotto was started, after 10hours of constant cooking doing a risotto for a large number of people is near suicide but when spirit, good humour and ambition are long faded, sheer brute force and ignorance will carry me through. At the same time I seared the duck breast which had been seasoned with salt, pepper and chinese five spice powder, before putting it in the oven to finish for 8minutes and allowing it time to rest before placing a slice on top of each risotto.

3 days after the invite was extended, after 27hours of cooking, at exactly 7pm the starters hit the table. I had moved an armchair into the dining room and I sat briefly during the starter but considerably longer during the main course and dessert and happily took the praise for my food and fielded questions about what I had done and how I had done it.

Then shattered but dizzy with praise I took my leave, as much out of modesty as out of fear of my mother seeing the bombsite I had left where her kitchen used to be!

Would I recommend to someone to put 27hours into preparing a dinner party, God no! Would I do it all again, Hell yes!