Food & Drink: Sunday lunch with Bob Payton: Cajun and the County Set: What makes a Nineties Sunday lunch? In the first of a series, Michael Bateman has a taste of New Orleans in Leicestershire

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The Independent Culture
BOB Payton's Sunday lunch is an outsize, outdoor barbecue, relaxed and informal like our host. At 6ft 4in, Payton is a giant of a man,

and he's out on the lawn commanding proceedings like General Norman Schwarzkopf, a seriously American extrovert in baseball cap and khaki shorts.

The setting, like the host, is several sizes larger than life. We are at Stapleford Park, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, an elegant Elizabethan and Georgian structure which Bob Payton bought six years ago as a 'ruin' (a pounds 600,000 one). He converted it into a grand country house hotel to provide an agreeable home-from-home for the world's better-off. Sunday lunch unfolds on the back terrace of this country mansion set in 55 acres, complete with its own church and fields of grazing black-headed sheep.

Bob Payton is the entrepreneurial American restaurateur who introduced the deep-dish pizza to Britain. His guests today include his lawyer, Patrick Burgess, with his friend Maggie; Wally O'Brien, an old advertising friend from Chicago, with his wife, Margaret; and a French family, Michelin-starred chef Christian Delteil with his wife, daughter and son. There will not be a clash of cultures, says Payton. 'We respect each other's cuisines. I promise not to do anything French and he promises not to do anything American.'

Bob's cooking is uniquely American, especially the barbecue. Patrick, his lawyer, says people sneered when Bob bought Stapleford, and asked what an American could know about country-house life. Then critics were snooty about the food he provided for guests at Stapleford, asking why people would go to a Grade 1 listed building to eat a barbecue. 'But in the 17th century,' Patrick points out, 'they only cooked on spits.' Payton intervenes: 'A few reviewers had got it in for me personally. They thought it was about time Bob Payton got his come-uppance. But all I do is count the customers.'

Payton works in London, where he gets around on a bicycle. At weekends he drives his Range Rover 120 miles up the A1, and trades it in for his horse. He was even married on a horse. His American wife, Wendy, as petite as her husband is grand, greets guests along with their gambolling black schnauzer, Rufus.

They are blanketed in clouds of smoke now billowing out from the barbecue. Here Mark Barker, the hotel chef, and his assistant cook Nick Parkes seem to be burning rather than browning the food. How quaintly English, you might think. Not at all, says Mark: 'This is how Mr Payton likes it done.' So the chops, chicken pieces and burgers were being grilled to a Cajun shade of black on Bob Payton's instructions. From a distance Mr Payton confirms this, barking: 'Burn it or I'll kill you.'

Cajun is a style of cooking in New Orleans which was made famous by Paul Prudhomme, whose signature dish was Blackened Redfish. Bob Payton has extended this style to embrace not just blackened meat but blackened corn-onthe-cob, and blackened red, green and yellow peppers. They don't taste disagreeably burnt, though, so we're into a real art form here.

Only the sausages, shiny, moist and temptingly smelling of freshly picked sage, resist the blackening treatment. 'I get them from a little man in Uppingham,' says Payton. 'They are the best sausages in England.' Oh come on Bob, everyone says their butcher makes the best sausages in England.

Payton frowns, though he can be forgiven for this adman's hyperbole. He came to London with the advertising agency J Walter Thompson, promoting Kraft products such as Thousand Island Dressing. But when he started up his own restaurants, getting hold of prime ingredients was his major concern; when he couldn't find a supplier of the right spare ribs in this country, he imported them from Chicago. 'The British are more concerned about food that looks nice,' he observes. 'It's more important to me how it tastes.'

We tuck in, loading our plates with a choice of lamb chops, burgers, sausages, grilled vegetables, baked potato in foil, helping ourselves to three sharply dressed salads. OK,

so they are the best sausages in

England, we agree (thanks, Mr Culpin of Uppingham). And the best chops from Derbyshire lamb. And the best chopped steak for the burgers, 80 per cent lean, and an essential 20 per cent fat for flavour. The conversation turns to the problem of finding good quality ingredients, here of all places, right in the middle of farming country.

Bob Payton's wife, Wendy, tells of her difficulties trying to get anything new or different locally - unusual lettuce, or the mustardy herb rocket (the Italian arugula) for salads. 'We tried local people and they said no. There were too many regulations. It was too difficult for them. They prefer to sell stuff to supermarkets, vacuum-packed.'

Bob and Wendy couldn't even get bread made to order for them. 'When we offered a Nottingham baker a contract to bake bread specially for us at a premium, he said he didn't want to make any more money. He didn't want to change his lifestyle.' Wendy got together a consortium of local businesses to try to get special poultry. 'But the farmers said that it was too much trouble, they didn't want to get involved in any more paperwork.'

It's fashionable to blame the Brussels bureaucrats for making life impossible for the small producers, says Payton's lawyer, Patrick. But British administrators are as much to blame, using the opportunity to slip in some of their own legislation.

The guests applaud the succulence of the moist barbecued meats. Talk turns to memories of other outdoor meals. Margaret tells the deep-dish pizza pioneer about a deep-pit pig roasted for her in Nepal, cooking overnight in a 6ft trench, stuffed with spices. Then Bob Payton calls for the puddings, which are predictably American, chocolatey and rich - crunchy pecan pie, and sundaes in tall glasses with home-made sorbets and ice cream.

It's not been a boozy lunch, though. Wine is served to those who want it. Payton sets a Baden-Powell example, supping nothing but ice-cold Diet Cokes with ice and lemon. Doesn't he drink alcohol? He ponders the question. 'Diet Coke is what I'm known for.'

He leads his guests indoors for coffee and it is taken reclining on a suite of reproduction Chippendale chairs, under the gaze of someone's ancestors - but surely not Bob Payton's? No, they are on loan from the president of the Wine and Food Society, Hugo Dunn-Meynell, who said he'd like to see them back in their own county of Leicestershire. And why not.

Payton has shared his dream with us and it's been a satisfying day. As we leave we look up at the grand design of the Georgian extension. An earlier owner has had carved in stone, in letters large enough for a billboard: 'William Lord Sherard, Baron of Letrym, repayred this building, Anno Domini, 1633.' Underneath, more modestly, there is the addition: 'And Bob Payton did his bit. Anno Domini 1988.'

BOB PAYTON'S MENU

Barbecued lamb chops: Ask the butcher for best end of neck. Trim surplus fat, but leave some for flavour. Marinate overnight in mixture of olive oil, garlic, rosemary and freshly ground pepper. Grill till well and truly blackened though not overcooked.

Barbecued chicken: On the night before the barbecue, divide the chicken into eight, trim, and marinate in a barbecue sauce. Bob Payton uses his own brand of Cajun sauce with 'secret' ingredients, such as hickory, to get a smoked flavour, and sugar. The sugar caramelises on the skin, accelerating the blackening process. It also seals the meat and prevents it from drying out, a fault common with much British barbecued food.

Barbecued burgers: The all-American burger is 80 per cent lean beef (from a cheaper but good cut like topside) and 20 per cent fat. Simply mince with no other ingredients. Pat into 1/2 in-deep shapes, wipe with oil and grill.

Grilled sweetcorn: Cook the whole cobs in salted boiling water to blanch and soften them for five minutes, then drain. Wipe dry, brush with oil and grill.

Barbecue potatoes: Wash and dry potatoes weighing 4oz each, wrap in foil, prick with a fork, and bake in medium (not extremely hot) oven at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 45 minutes to one hour.

Waldorf salad: Chopped celery, diced apple (green Granny Smiths and Red Delicious), chopped walnuts, dressed creme fraiche and

lemon juice.

Salade Nicoise: Boiled new potatoes, sliced, flaked tuna, finely sliced red sweet onion, cooked green beans, decorated with halved hard-boiled eggs and stoned black olives. Vinaigrette dressing of walnut oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, sea salt, freshly milled pepper.

Caesar salad: Romaine lettuce, roughly torn, shavings of hard pecorino cheese and croutons, squares of white bread fried in

oil and rubbed with garlic. Dressing consisting of corn oil, beaten egg yolk, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, pounded anchovy fillet and grated pecorino cheese.-

(Photograph omitted)

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