The sauciest chef in history

Take 50 litres of cream...Michael Bateman meets the man who put the cordon bleu into supermarket food FOOD & DRINK
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The Independent Culture
ROGER Kearton doesn't look much like a chef. In his white trilby, hair-net, plastic apron and wellies, he might be about to play a slapstick role in pantomime - a bailiff in Cinderella, say, with the 3ft- long plastic paddle he uses to stir the roux for cheese sauce in a saucepan 5ft high and 4ft across.

The recipes he works to are spelt out in comic proportions, too. To make that roux, for example, he melts 15 kilos of butter, then stirs in 12 kilos of flour. Then he pours in 140 litres of cold milk and 50 litres of cream and, when it's well blended and warmed through, he chucks in 100 litres of freshly made fish stock and eight litres of white wine.

This he cooks for half an hour with subtle flavourings; that's to say, a few shovelfuls of salt, celery salt and mustard. Finally, he thickens it further with 15 kilos of cornflour, dissolved in cold milk. As this is a mornay, or cheese sauce, he finishes it with 42 kilos of cheddar and 4 kilos of grated parmesan. Lovely grub.

Roger Kearton is not exactly one of Britain's best-known chefs. Yet every year he cooks more classy meals for his customers than all the chefs in the Good Food Guide, the Ronay guide and the Michelin restaurant guide put together. In his day, he calculates, he has probably cooked some 100 million portions of lasagne; 65 million fish pies; 30 million cod with parsley sauce; 12 million haddock mornay; and five million each of seafood pasta and plaice bonne femme.

Roger Kearton is Britain's Supermarket Superchef Supreme. A boyish 51- year-old, he is about to celebrate his 21st year in a booming profession of which he is both founder and uncrowned king.

It's now about 10 years since food critics stopped sniping at the big supermarkets' clumsy attempts to break into the market for pre-cooked dinners. Gradually, superior dishes designed for a short (three-day) shelf-life in the chill cabinets have not only superseded the fairly dull deep-frozen dishes, but have insinuated themselves on to the tables of smart dinner party hostesses. ("Darling, you shouldn't have taken the trouble." "I didn't.")

At blind tastings of recipe meals, unbending critics such as Robert Carrier began to smack their lips. They were hardly to know it at the time, but it was usually Roger Kearton's efforts that they were so emphatically praising. His haddock mornay, his Ocean Pie and Fisherman's Pie, his juicy garlic tiger prawns.

Now the development director of the Anglo-Danish company Rahbek Fisk (owned by Albert Fisher), he can look back on an extraordinary repertoire of over 300 fish dishes he has created. His frozen dishes are on the shelves of all the big supermarkets in the UK and Europe, and M&S have exclusive rights to all the fresh dishes he creates for the chill cabinets.

Roger Kearton's first passion is cooking, whether it's on a production line turning out 5,000 fish dishes, or at home cooking some more fish for his family. But a dish is only as good as the quality of its ingredients, so he's ever on the move, looking for what might be better materials. When he's not cooking at his Redditch or Danish food factories, he may be wiping ice from his face in an Icelandic winter one day, slushing around among the freshly landed cod; the next day, sweating in equatorial Honduras scrutinising giant tiger prawns basking in warm fish farms.

When Roger Kearton first started in a development kitchen in 1974, the act of producing something as edible as his first commercial line of frozen lasagne was, in terms of food technology, like putting a man on the moon. He would be last to claim it was a gourmet triumph, but frozen lasagne has been the best-selling supermarket dish of all time.

Roger Kearton started his career as a chef when it was a seriously unfashionable job. He was ineffectually warned off by his elder brother who had trained as a chef (he worked in the famous French fish restaurant in London's St James's, Madame Prunier, before getting out and joining the Merchant Navy).

Kearton nevertheless trained at Westminster College of Catering, and got his first job at L'Ecu de France in Jermyn Street, the most distinguished French restaurant of its day (along with the Mirabelle, the Caprice and the Empress).The Roux brothers weren't around yet ... nor were the Whites, the Blancs and the rest of the crowd.

In six years he went right through the system, learning each stage of French classical cuisine. Thus qualified, he moved to Lacy's. The chef was Bill Lacy, who was married to cookery writer Margaret Costa, and one of the old school. "I got kicked from pillar to post. If he expected a busy night, he'd lay out all the P45's on the hot plate. He didn't hesitate to fire people on the spot."

A chef's hours were long (as they still are), from 8 am to midnight, a split shift with a break after lunch, six days a week. The difference then was that a chef had absolutely no status, "I went to the bank to open an account. `What do you do?' they asked. `I'm a chef.' `Well then, piss off.'"

Then, in 1967, Roger Kearton saw the way the future might go. He joined the Rank Organisation in their experimental kitchens, planning a central quality policy for all their food operations. A few years later he was drafted into Marks & Spencer, then a giant in underwear, but a midget in food. They'd been tentatively expanding their food counter business; from cakes and biscuits to steak and kidney pies, sausages and chickens.

He was rather surprised to be told he was to be teamed up with a top man from the menswear department, Maurice Bough, the jumper expert. However, within the company, it seemed, Mr Bough was as renowned for his appreciation of a good meal as his refined taste in knitwear.

This unconventional teaming-up turned out as inspired as the combination of Morecambe and Wise, or Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. They were given a brief to produce frozen and chilled meals, and to upgrade the product profile completely at whatever cost.

"Some of the first dishes we created were Italian, so Maurice sent me to Rome to work in a hotel restaurant and a pizzeria. When you read an Italian recipe, it seldom mentions chillies, but I noticed in the kitchen that when chefs were heating oil, they would always add crumbled dry chilli to season it, then remove it. The authentic touch."

The Italian range was a success, and they turned to Chinese food. They brought in Kenneth Lo as an adviser and produced the first supermarket sweet and sour spare ribs, chicken with black bean sauce, fried rice with scrambled egg.

The real turning point in Roger Kearton's own career was his first trip to Denmark. "I'd been briefed to go and make shepherd's pie using fish. In other words, fish pie." He worked with a Danish family company, Rahbek Hansen, and invented Fisherman's Pie which to date has netted some £75- million worth of business. It was followed by other successful fish dishes. The company invited him to join them; although he didn't know a word of Danish, he did so and emigrated to Denmark, where he lived for six years.

Roger Kearton makes his job sound simple. Deconstruction. You take a recipe apart and put it together again, allowing for the limitations of factory processing. And yet the scale is awesome. What recipe doesn't have a dozen to 20 ingredients? And each one must be multiplied by a factor of 1,000 or so. Take his cod and parsley sauce; 30 kilos of parsley must be chopped at a time (a £50,000 machine with a rotary blade does the job in 30 seconds).

Roger Kearton keeps a "recipe book" of several hundred dishes, the weight of each ingredient registered to three places of decimals. To scale up for the production line you multiply by the appropriate figure, 100, 500, 5000. But there are exceptions. It would be a mistake to scale up the cayenne pepper. A serious mistake.

Roger Kearton's achievements go unsung, but in my opinion there is one little-appreciated product of his that deserves mention (and who knows, if we don't buy it often enough, it might come off the shelves). Rollmops.

"Ah, rollmops," says Roger Kearton with a gleam in his eye. "That was a breakthrough." Pickled rollmops have been made almost since herring have been caught and preserved. In a rollmop culture, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, North Germany or Holland, you happily pop a raw herring in your mouth, with its scaly silver skin and all. But not in Britain, because the sight of the skin makes us shudder.

Here, too, many of the vinegary rollmops you buy in jars are blood relatives of those throat-burning onions pickled in brown acetic acid or the rubbery pickled eggs in glass jars found on pub bars. They might be designed for palates dulled by an evening's consumption of ale.

Roger Kearton was asked by Marks & Spencer to reconstruct the rollmop for the British market. Instead of fish in a jar with an indefinite shelf- life, he turned out fresh, superior fillets in a see-through pack, stripped entirely of their skins. From his own experience of living in Denmark , he knew that every family boasted its special marinade for pickling herrings, so he created a sweet vinegar cure with dill, gherkins and onions.

It is exquisite, though I consider that M&S selectors insist on too sweet a marinade. But if you find it too sweet for your taste, you might pour off the marinade and serve the drained rollmops in a yogurt, lemon juice and mustard dressing, say with grated coleslaw salad. Put some bite back in it.

Roger Kearton is probably entitled to a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the man who has made more cheese sauce than anyone in history. Here is his recipe, scaled down from a 1,000lb factory run. It contains a larger proportion of cornflour than the traditional recipe, providing a shinier finish - and it also holds out better under chilling or freezing conditions.

MORNAY SAUCE

Makes about 1kg/2lb/134 pints

30g/1oz flour

30g/1oz cornflour

40g/generous oz butter

500ml/scant pint creamy milk

250ml/scant 12 pint fish stock (see recipe below)

20ml/2 tablespoons dry white wine

120g/4oz grated cheddar

20g/1 tablespoon grated fresh parmesan

Seasonings: salt, celery salt, cayenne pepper, made mustard to taste

In a copper pan or non-stick pan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook for two minutes without letting it brown. This is the roux. Add half the milk, gradually, stirring with a wooden spoon to eliminate lumps. When hot, add all the fish stock and the wine. Simmer for five minutes, stirring well.

Dissolve the cornflour in the remaining cold milk, and add it now, cooking for a minute or two till the mixture thickens. Add seasonings to taste. Off the heat, beat in all the cheese.

You can pour this sauce, while hot, over portions of fresh or frozen white fish (cod, haddock etc) arranged in an oven dish. Sprinkle with more grated cheddar, and bake in a hot oven at 450F/230C/Gas 8 for 15 minutes or 30 minutes respectively.

FISH STOCK

1kg/2lb heads and bones of white fish

1 onion, chopped

6-10 parsley stems

1 glass dry white wine

1 teaspoon lemon juice

pinch of salt

Place all the ingredients in a large pan, cover them with cold water, then bring to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes, skimming off the scum that comes to the surface. Strain, and cool. What you don't need immediately can be frozen for later use. !

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