Marcus Wareing: You Ask The Questions

(Such as: so, head chef at the celebrated Pétrus and Savoy Grill restaurants, how do you make sprouts taste nice? What's the point of bread sauce? How do you cook a goose? What can I serve an Atkins dieter? And will you be doing the washing up?)
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Marcus Wareing was born in 1970 in Southport, Lancashire. After a City and Guilds course in catering, he got his first job at The Savoy Hotel, aged 18. He worked in New York and Amsterdam before returning to London and becoming Gordon Ramsay's sous-chef in the restaurant Aubergine. Two years later, in 1993, he moved to work in Paris, where two years later he took the Restaurant Associates young chef of the year award. He was back in London in 1996 to open Restaurant L'Oranger with Ramsay, and was head chef there for two years. He then opened Pétrus, with Ramsay's backing, in 1999. Pétrus was awarded a Michelin star in 2000 and was French restaurant of the year in 2002. This year, Wareing won the Catey award for chef of the year. He lives in London with his wife and two-year-old son Jake.

Every year since 1976 my mother has insisted that we have prawn cocktail as a prelude to our Christmas dinner. She refuses to budge, so can you give me a sexed-up prawn cocktail recipe?
Monica Hardcourt, London

Well, it's very hard to jazz up a prawn cocktail. I know exactly the type you mean; we used to do them when I was training a long time ago. The thing is to take all the elements of a prawn cocktail and make it into something: buy king prawns or tiger prawns from frozen and, if you want to push the boat out, char-grill or barbecue them. Use Marie Rose sauce as a dip, then use little elements - like tomato and onion - to make a beautiful little side salad. So you have a nice light dressing and beautiful big prawns that you can just pick up with your fingers and dip into the sauce.

I normally hate stuffing. Can you suggest an alternative to sage and onion?
Christine Jarvis, Wandsworth

Sausage meat and rosemary. The reason I say sausage meat is because sausage meat is what we use in the little chipolatas wrapped in bacon. So, rather than use chipolatas, put it inside the turkey. Alternatively, what I normally do is bone out the leg of the turkey and combine it with sausage meat. I get bored waiting for turkey to cook for five hours, so I do it in two hours instead.

Is there any way to make Brussels sprouts taste nice?
Harry Whitmore, Cheshire

Yes. Boil them first until they're al dente - slightly crunchy - then refresh them in cold water. After that, cut them into halves or quarters and then just finish them in a very hot pan with clarified butter, goose fat or olive oil. Sauté them really, really hot until they're crunchy and crisp. It takes away that cabbage taste that you sometimes get with them. It adds a little bit of crispness - like a charcoal taste. They'll be really nice.

How do I cook a goose?
Tom Boyle, Bristol

Roast it. You could do it like the Chinese do - Peking style and all that - but it's too complicated. Personally, I'd just roast it and serve it with exactly the same trimmings as you would a turkey.

My four children all hate Christmas dinner. What could I cook them that might appeal, but would maintain the festive spirit?
Tessa Paterson, by e-mail

Nothing. They don't want to eat it, so that's that. I have a two-year-old son and we've been very disciplined with him from the day he was born - vegetables, potatoes and all the things that were once horrible to him he probably enjoys now. Christmas lunch is hard enough for some people without having to cook children's food as well. If you have to, make something like a sandwich really early at lunch-time, and then it's a normal day for them. I know it's a bit boring, but really the festiveness of a Christmas lunch is about having all the vegetables with all the trimmings and turkey. They don't like vegetables, and the turkey's already in the oven cooking for everyone else, so too bad.

What is your favourite Christmas tipple?
Ben Watkins, Dorset

Champagne.

What Christmas food tradition should be done away with?
Hannah Saunders, Leeds

None: keep it traditional.

If Santa's elves could come and do one Christmas chore for you, which would it be?
Harriet Winter, by e-mail

On Christmas morning we'll all be up opening presents, so that's fine, but on any morning during the Christmas holidays, they could keep my son occupied from 6.30am when he wakes up to about 11.30am. That way my wife and I could have a sleep and then breakfast. He's hard work; they could definitely come to help.

Does the menu at Pétrus get festive at this time of year?
Louise Fulton, Holland Park

We don't do a festive menu apart from mince pies. It's not that we don't like Christmas: the main reason is that creating a menu is time-consuming. We spend a long time working on it. The reality is that for us Christmas is only really this week and next week. I don't think people go out for Christmas meals anyway - they get them at home on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. I think the reason people come to Pétrus is to experience our specialties, rather than the food of Father Christmas.

Do you have a traditional Christmas meal in your house? Or do you play around with it a little?
Grace McVicker, by e-mail

Traditional. All the way. But I cook my turkey in a different way, I think. Rather than leave the turkey as a whole, which takes four or five hours to cook and puts everyone under pressure, I take off the legs and backbone, so the breasts are left on crown. I cook the legs on their own and open the meat up, stuff it and roll it back up so that it looks like a very large sausage shape. Then I wrap it in tinfoil and roast it. It only takes a couple of hours. Also, the day before, when I've boned out the legs, I boil the rest of the carcass with vegetables and herbs for two to three hours to make a stock. I leave it to cool with the bones in, and then on Christmas Day I use the stock to make the gravy.

Is Pétrus open on Christmas Day? Do you think people who go to a restaurant for Christmas dinner have got the right idea?
Lisa Steele, North Ferriby

No, Pétrus isn't open; my other restaurant, The Savoy Grill, is. If people go to a restaurant, it's the right idea because that's how they want to spend their Christmas. If they don't want the fuss of cooking and all the stress, then yes, go for it. Personally, I'd rather be at home in the house with the Christmas tree and the TV and everything that goes with it.

What's the best sort of pastry to use for mince pies - shortcrust, sweet shortcrust or puff? And how do you stop them from turning into bullets the next day?
Adam Greenwood, Banbury

Ruff-puff pastry. It's flaky and a bit greasy, which I quite like. And to stop them turning into bullets, just make sure you put them in an air-tight container.

Bread sauce - what's the point?
Charlotte Rampton, by e-mail

No point. I don't like it. But I'll make it if other people like it, and I do it with mustard, which gives it other dimensions so that it is really quite nice. Make sure that you boil the milk with an onion studded with bay leaf and cloves; incorporating that gives it such a nice flavour.

My boyfriend is on the Atkins diet and doing very well. Can you think of any low-carb sweet treats he could indulge in, so that he doesn't fall off the wagon and get stuck into the Christmas pudding, Quality Street, satsumas etc?
Anthony Braben, Manchester

Diets! Fruit salad. Put a meringue in if he wants, and a bit of cream.

What are your suggestions for a Christmas dinner à deux (a turkey would be too big)?
Jess Mackay, Brighton

I recommend duck. Cook it just as you'd cook a turkey, with all the trimmings, and everything works out well.

How do I make nice mulled wine? I had a bit of a disaster the last time I tried it.
Sophie Day, London

I don't usually drink wine, but I'd follow a recipe step by step. Pick a recipe by a good cook - Delia Smith or a someone who has a book - and follow it to the letter. I think the key to good mulled wine is following the recipe and making sure that you have good ingredients to throw into it. With the right spices and sweet wine, it can be really nice. It's actually really simple. A tip is to make it the day before to give it time to really soak up the flavour, and then just heat it up.

I am visiting my family at Christmas. They all eat turkey and I don't eat meat. I don't want to put the chef to any more work, so I said I'd take something along. Do you have any ideas for a veggie dish I could prepare on Christmas Eve, and that will go well with sprouts, parsnips and the traditional trimmings, which I do enjoy?
Elizabeth Reed, Belfast

We make sweetcorn parcels with truffle in Pétrus, and I'd do the same for vegetarians. It's a base of risotto rice, which is a bit overcooked, with tinned sweetcorn and chopped truffle, all bound together and made into parcels with pastry. Put them in the freezer and they can be cooked from frozen. Or pumpkin ravioli parcels as well, with a little bit of Amaretto inside. That's really nice.

Who does the washing up on Christmas Day in your house?
Simon Allan, Acton

I am a chef with 14 cooking chefs and about six kitchen porters in my kitchen. At home I don't have that, so I try to clean as I go along. The key - and this is one of the things I'm really proud of - is that on Christmas Day when I've served the lunch, I can look around my kitchen and it's spotless - every pan clean, every roasting tray clean. The only things that are dirty are the plates we're eating off, and I have the dishwasher empty so that everything on the table can go straight in there when we've finished. I find that a challenge. I love it.

I'm looking for ideas for a light, easily digestible lunch for Boxing Day that won't need much preparation. Any suggestions?
Sue Hayward, Edinburgh

On Boxing Day, I'd go for a really nice brunch: have a full English breakfast, which is grilled, so it isn't too stodgy. If you aren't keen on that, go for eggs Benedict with toast, and then a little later make a Caesar salad for a light snack. You can cheat and use the pre-packed ones, because they're often better than what you can cobble together yourself.

Give me an alternative to Christmas pudding. It's far too stodgy to eat after a roast dinner, so it always goes to waste.
Tessa Adams, Liverpool

This year, I'm going to make sticky toffee and date and apple pudding. It looks heavy, but it's so much lighter than Christmas pudding. The sponge is light and the toffee really sweet, but only on the outside. Delicious. It's my Christmas Day dessert.

I need some quick party-nibbles I can throw together after work without me slaving over a hot stove for the whole of my Christmas party. What do you suggest?
Bill Higgins, Falkirk

For something that's easy but impressive, get some nice Italian focaccia bread, slice it, put a bit of olive oil on each slice with some rough chopped olives, a slice or two of parma ham, and cheese on top. Pop the bread under the grill until the cheese is melted and brown. It's great. Serve as individual slices or chop them up into bite-size pieces. Don't waste time trying to make canapés. We do them here at Pétrus, and they're the most overlooked thing - they're the first impression of a restaurant, but they're gone in seconds. Just get some fantastic Italian meats and olives, nibbles and canapés that are already made; people can just pick.

I can't take any more turkey curry! What else can we do with all the leftovers?
Nick Tomlin, by e-mail

Use them to make a winter broth. Cut a good selection of vegetables (carrots, leeks, celery etc) into small pieces, and put them in a chicken-based stock to cook. Make sure you have lots in there, cooking really slowly. Meanwhile, remove the fat from the turkey and dice it. Drop in the turkey pieces and let the whole thing simmer for five or 10 minutes. When the turkey has broken down a bit, throw in some fresh herbs at the last minute: parsley, sage and tarragon are good, but anything you like will work well. Serve it with crusty bread, and it's delicious.

If you had to live without one, would it be knife or fork?
Chris Robinson, London

That's a good question. I could live without a fork; I'd use my fingers. I couldn't live without a knife.

Can you recommend a hangover cure?
John Wilson, Glasgow

Plenty of water.

Marcus Wareing will be cooking Christmas dinner at The Savoy Grill, London WC2 (020-7592 1600). Banquette, his take on an American diner, has just opened at The Savoy (020-7420 2392)

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