I'm standing in the headquarters of the Compass Group UK and Ireland, in fashionable Chertsey in Surrey, waiting to meet one of my heroes, Albert Roux. While waiting, I'm listening to statistics about who eats what, when, and for how long, in various regions of the UK. Did you know the average worker takes only 29 minutes for lunch, only three times a week? And that single people take a lot longer over lunch than the married, separated, divorced or widowed?
This stuff is meat and drink, so to speak, to the Compass people, who bought up Roux Restaurants in 1993, thus making Albert and his little brother Michel part of Compass Group plc, the largest caterers in the world. The company makes around £11bn before tax every year, and their influence is everywhere. Whatever you eat at Cheltenham races, at Wimbledon or Goodwood or Twickenham, at almost every hospitality suite in the nation, whatever is dished up for your delectation in work canteens, catered boardrooms or government committee rooms, whatever your children are given to eat at state schools, whatever's being eaten in war zones, police canteens or prisons, whatever is put before your ailing mum in her maximum-security twilight home, chances are the Compass Group will have a hand in it. They have fingers in every catering pie, from "fine dining" at the House of Lords to the notorious Turkey Twizzlers.
As we visiting foodies wait impatiently for the Main Event, we're given a guided tour of their state-of-the-art cooking systems: World Marche, Taste of the Mediterranean, Thai Market, Best of British, Zona Mexicana, Green Masala, Trattoria, Steamplicity, Deli Marche, Mondo Subs ... They're all gleaming, highly-coloured, portion-controlled, tried-and-tested, shining (literally) examples of cooking technology; the company is exceptionally proud of them all, and keen to stress the ingredients' freshness and authenticity. But as you absorb this stuff, it seems increasingly diametrically opposed to the haute cuisine culture of Albert Roux. While their main concern is cooking for the lowest common denominator, for the standardised, the universal and the typical, Roux's passion has always been cooking for the highest levels of appreciation, the aristos, the individual, the finely-tuned. He's been a consultant for Compass for years and is now something more: an eminence grise, a noble figurehead. And today, I'm in for a treat: to see what it's like to help make lunch in his kitchen.
Suddenly the great man is in our midst. Albert Henri Roux OBE is a fabulously distinctive figure, a diminutive Titan of haute cuisine. Now 74, portly as a barrel, white-haired and in need of a stick to get around, he is a puckish, gleeful figure. His face reminds me of a septuagenarian Griff Rhys Jones, but it's his eyes that are his key feature: immensely sad, brown, spanielly eyes, half- hidden behind half-moon spectacles through which he views the folly of the world.
Born in the Saône et Loire region of France in 1935 (where his father ran a charcuterie), Albert first showed off in a kitchen at 14, as an apprentice patissier. At 18, he came to England to work as commis de cuisine at Cliveden, Nancy Astor's famous country pile. Thereafter he cooked for embassies in London and Paris, and for the family of Major Peter Cazalet, the trainer of the Queen Mother's horses, before starting Le Gavroche with Michel, in 1967. They were awarded three Michelin stars in 1987, the first British restaurant to receive the ultimate foodie honour.
Albert says hello, surveys the company of rookie chefs with distaste, twinkles at the ladies ("Ah usually get a kees at zis point") and introduces his lieutenants: Allan Blackmore, who runs the leisure-and-hospitality empire, David Simms from Le Gavroche who's now in charge of Cooking for Royals and Celebs, and Andrew Walker, the big cheese behind Education Catering ("I'm basically the dinner lady"). After a little pep talk about health and safety, and doing what you're told, we're kitted out in whites and aprons, and get to work.
Lunch today, ladies and gentlemen, will be a soufflé suissesse, or cheese soufflé, a bavette steak with spinach, shallots and cep mushrooms, in a sauce bordelaise, followed by whisky jelly with raspberries and Drambuie sauce. Pas mal, hein? I'm not expected to knock up all three courses, but have to choose one, so I choose the main course. How hard can it be, searing a piece of meat?
As if someone flicked a switch, the kitchen at Compass House becomes a bustle of figures slaloming around each other, tacking purposefully between prepping tables, hobs, ovens and sinks. Several things become quickly apparent. 1) Everyone calls everyone else "Chef!" with no sense of a hierarchy. 2) You have to kick, elbow and eye-gouge to get your pan of shallots onto one of the rings. Nobody waits their turn. 3) Despite having the classiest technology in the world, top chefs use saucepans with heat-conducting handles which scald the unwary and leave you with arms engulfed in a sinkful of cold water for minutes on end. 4) The smaller the element you're cooking, the longer it'll take to prepare it. Cooking the steak took 90 seconds. Making the jus took 25 minutes.
All the ingredients were laid out in bowls for us, as if by Delia-loving fairies: cooked Royal Kidney potatoes waiting to be sliced; bolted-looking yellow cep mushrooms, long banana shallots, spinach, garlic, parsley. I chopped and sliced and ground and risked removing the top of my thumb by reducing the garlic to mush on a microplane. I was told off for cooking with a knob of butter without a pan-lining film of oil to stop it burning. I slung everything into the pan, added thyme, bay leaf and a slug of red wine and boiled it with fury: it was probably my first conscious sauce "reduction".
Albert Roux ambled over. The twinkly Maurice Chevalier had gone. In his place was a stern-looking, bull-headed, Napoleonic figure, his brow furrowed with concentration, his brown eyes gazing in horror at the abominations on the stove. Nervously, I removed my saucepan from the rolling boil and stuck it under his nose. He looked disgusted. Heedless of the boiling wine, he reached in, fished out the bay leaf and tore it in half.
"You're using far too much bay," he grated. "This stuff is so strong, it's poisonous. You could bump off your muzzer-in-law wiz it." He stopped as if to consider the possibility. "Though it would per'aps take several evenings of infusions ... "
All around me, chefs whisked egg whites, butter and milk to make soufflés, or manipulated gelatine and whisky for the pudding. Could it, you think to yourself, ever be like this at home? After all, it's only a matter of buying a few constituent items, preparing them simultaneously at high speed and subjecting them to hot liquids and scorching heat. It can't be as impossible as it sometimes seems. What's to stop me knocking up a fancy cheese soufflé for after-work supper? Why didn't I use more gelatine (and whisky) for a late-night snack? Did they sell bavette steaks in Tesco Metro?
I added the veal stock and watched my reduced wine sauce thicken into a dark, sinful nectar. I fetched the roundels of kidney potatoes, fried them on the pan with thyme and garlic, and added a touch of butter, the size of a 5p bit. This was not, I discovered, what chefs do. I watched in fascination as Andy, the "dinner lady", a chef built on spectacular lines, a dead ringer for Swelter, the chef of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, set four frying pans to cook the bavette steaks, turned the heat to 10, added oil and butter until the pans smoked like power stations, hurled the steaks on – then gouged up handfuls of butter to fling on the sizzling meat. It was spectacular, a veritable hecatomb being enacted before my very eyes. Ninety seconds later, the dazed, incinerated and comprehensively buttered steaks were left to rest in warm trays, like the victims of a spectacular car crash ...
Then some idiot opened a door at the end of the kitchen. The smoke poured out and set off the fire alarms. We all trooped out, and joined the rest of the 120-odd staff of Compass HQ in the open air. The staffers looked at us coldly. Bloody amateurs, their eyes said. Couldn't have a simple lesson in cooking lunch without setting the house on fire. We were outside for 25 minutes, and all that concerned me was whether my sauce was congealing.
The steaks were fine. They seemed to benefit from their protracted nap on the warming trays. I threw myself into the plating ritual, as we hunched down, faces level with the plates, and arranged the shallot here, sautéed spuds on the left, ceps on the right, the spinach here with the steak plonked on it, a touch of marrow bone ... I ladled the sauce over each steak, and did an artful dribble around the plates for that, you know, professional finish.
"Service! I called, though there were, in fact, no actual waiters. The chefs smiled.
And then we ate lunch. Twenty of us, foodies, chefs and kitchen assistants, sat down to a tremendous DIY repast. Albert Roux looked at our exhausted faces. "Ees like Waterloo at three o'clock in zer afternoon," he said. "The battle is over, zer battlefield is strewn wiz corpses ... " The soufflé was a wonder of lightness, flavoured with grilled Gruyere. The bavette was juicy, chewy and slightly charred and all the better for it. "Meat's so much better when it's been rested," said David Simms. "Bring back the hostess trolley, I say." And the jelly with raspberries was absolutely to die for. Albert made a little speech, kissed all his chefs twice on the cheeks (he's a big kisser) and signed our white uniforms. And we departed like souls beatified.
I loved it all, the chopping, the fussing, the microplaning, that self-important walking to and fro, the fetishism of plating; I liked learning to shake the sauté pan as if flipping pancakes and finding out that real chefs cook with kilos of butter. I particularly liked the moment when one mentor said: "Those potatoes look wonderful; you can be proud of them." As for having Albert Roux, the Chèr Maître of French cuisine, trying my sauce without retching or clutching his throat – well, it's like having God the Father come down from on high, walk up to you and pinch your cheek between his finger and thumb.
Bavette steak, spinach, shallots and cep mushroom, sauce bordelaise
4 6oz bavette steaks
4 2in bone marrow
400ml veal stock
160ml red wine from Bordeaux
5 banana shallots
40g sliced button mushrooms
1 bay leaf
2 black peppercorns
12g crushed garlic
1 clove of garlic
800g Royal Kidney potatoes
1 sprig parsley
4 fresh ceps
400g baby spinach
1. Bring the potatoes to a simmer and cook until tender, allow to cool and slice them into 1cm-thick discs.
2. Finely slice one shallot and cook gently in a little butter until soft and light brown.
3. Season the potato slices with salt and colour in a non-stick pan until golden brown, then add a few knobs of butter, a little garlic and thyme to infuse and allow the butter to foam and cover the potatoes.
4. Drain and arrange the slices with the cooked shallots and finely-shredded flat parsley.
1. Bring the red wine, two of the sliced shallots and button mushrooms, garlic, a sprig of thyme and bay leaf to a simmer and reduce to a syrup.
2. Add the peppercorn and veal stock, simmer until a sauce consistency is achieved. Pass through muslin and reserve.
1. Cut the remaining banana shallots in half and colour in a pan with the skin on. When a good colour is achieved, add butter, garlic and thyme and cook at 160c until soft – approx 15 minutes.
2. Thickly slice the cleaned ceps and pan fry in a little oil and butter with 1 garlic clove, until tender and golden brown. Season well.
3. Cook the baby spinach in butter until it wilts, remove from the heat and drain well.
1. Season the steaks with salt and pepper and pan fry in a hot pan with a little oil and butter until cooked to medium rare. Rest in a warm place for several minutes.
2. Slice the bone marrow and season with salt. Quickly fry in a hot pan with very little oil, until golden.
Whisky jelly with raspberries and Drambuie sauce
2 leaves of gelatine
80g light brown sugar
1 punnets of raspberries
a vanilla pod
2 egg yolks
1. Soften the gelatine in cold water and squeeze dry.
2. Melt the sugar and honey with the water and bring to the boil.
3. Remove from the heat and whisk in the gelatine and whisky.
4. Line individual moulds with a layer of jelly and leave to set.
5. Add a layer of raspberries, cover with another layer of jelly and leave to set again.
6. Repeat, finishing with a layer of jelly. Refrigerate overnight.
1. Bring the milk and vanilla to the boil and remove from the heat.
2. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick. Pour the boiling milk onto the yolk mix, whisking continuously.
3. Return to the pan and stir over a low heat until the custard thickens.
4. Leave to cool slightly and add the Drambuie.
Dip the mould into warm water to release the jelly, gently turn out on to the plate, spoon some of the sauce around the jelly, garnish with a few fresh raspberries and mint leaf.