Special deliveries

Do you dream of serving gourmet dinners but lack the know-how or ingredients to make them? Take heart. A new service brings to your door all you need to re-create dishes by top chefs.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Isn't there a problem with cheffy cookbooks and cheffy dishes? Even if you think you can follow the recipes, where would you get the signature ingredients, let alone the consistently high-quality, pre-prepared meat, poultry, game, fish, off-the-wall vegetables and so on that professionals buy from specialist suppliers? And even if you could, who would deliver the tiny quantities required for a dinner party for six when such services are intended for restaurant quantities?

Isn't there a problem with cheffy cookbooks and cheffy dishes? Even if you think you can follow the recipes, where would you get the signature ingredients, let alone the consistently high-quality, pre-prepared meat, poultry, game, fish, off-the-wall vegetables and so on that professionals buy from specialist suppliers? And even if you could, who would deliver the tiny quantities required for a dinner party for six when such services are intended for restaurant quantities?

A case in point comes from Sally Clarke's excellent new cookbook. Even if you can find rocket and samphire for her crab salad recipe, you'll be hard-pressed to put your hands on chervil, the delicate anise-flavoured herb, or organic pea leaves, which are surely very esoteric.

But suddenly such ingredients are easily attainable, courtesy of Club Chef Direct, an offshoot of Heritage Fine Foods, which has been providing custom-prepared foods to top restaurants in the UK for the past 10 years. The new service could transform the whole concept of preparing a dinner party. So how does it work?

On Tuesday, Clive Denning, head of a sixth-form college in London, clicks on to ClubChef Direct.com and surveys the recipes. He's not yet a paying member (£100 a year) but that doesn't matter. From anywhere in the country he can still select a menu for his dinner party and have the required ingredients delivered the following day. He is offered a choice of four dishes, a starter and a main course from Michel Roux Jnr and Sally Clarke. He chooses Sally's crab salad for his first course and Michel's leg of lamb in salt crust for the main. He could have ordered Michel's red mullet and pea risotto or Sally's grilled and roasted squab pigeon. (Recipes change monthly.)

Clive makes his order and prints out the recipes from the website. He is promised that boxes of ingredients for each dish (along with laminated recipe cards, illustrated with colour photographs) will be delivered to his door by around noon. All he has to do is cook, serve and eat.

On Wednesday I joined Clive at his home, gatecrashing his party and taking with me the talented chef from Putney Bridge restaurant, Anthony Demetre, who made his name as Bruno Loubet's head chef at the Four Seasons and L'Odéon. Our purpose was to see how the service works in practice. Clive loves to entertain on a regular basis and had chosen to cook a pre-theatre meal for his wife Margaret, who runs an employment agency, and a couple of their neighbours. He liked the idea of cutting out the shopping while still getting unusual ingredients that might be difficult or even impossible to find on his own.

Clive calculated that the price was competitive against the high street. And there's the added frisson that the club is supported by 15 or so well-known chefs, each of whom has contributed tried-and-tested recipes. It's a fantastic line-up to have at your side - a fantasy foodie team. As well as Sally and Michel, there's Michelin two-starred Pierre Koffmann and Philip Howard, television favourites Rick Stein, Jennie and Paul Rankin, Alastair Little and many others, such as Shaun Hill, Rowley Leigh, Richard Corrigan, Eric Chavot, Peter Gordon and joint founder of the club, Stephen Markwick.

Clive duly recruited neighbour Billy Elliott as co-cook. All was going smoothly. The ingredients, sent from Bristol by Interlink, had been promised to arrive by 12.30pm and did so.

Clive and Billy were impressed by the quality of the boned lamb and picked-over crab. Not only did the box include a pack of French sea salt, but there was also Maldon salt aplenty (only a few grams of which are called for in the recipe). And there were the esoteric herbs for the crab salad.

Everything was simmering along nicely. The ingredients were all there, the recipes were straightforward enough to follow, assembling the crab salad had been a doddle - but then came the saltwater crust for the lamb.

A salt pastry crust forms a shell like pottery in the cooking (it is not designed to be eaten), creating the effect of steam cooking to preserve flavour and reduce shrinkage. Billy mixed the flour, salt, egg white and water in the given proportions but the mixture was anything but pliable. "It was like rolling out concrete," he said. They managed to wrap the leg of lamb as best they could, and where it cracked they dabbed it with egg white to seal it as the recipe advised. It was a bit of a botched job but it worked in the end.

Anthony said that it had simply needed a little more water worked into the dough. "It's difficult to lay down precise quantities as you can't be sure exactly how much water the flour and salt will take up. Also, it's a good idea to put the pastry-wrapped leg of lamb in the fridge for as long as possible before cooking. But it cooked well."

Clive and Billy held their nerve and left the meat to rest a full 20 more minutes after the first burst of 40 minutes' cooking (the meat goes on cooking inside its shell). There was a great sense of triumph when the crust was peeled back to reveal the tender pink meat within.

In addition to the ingredients supplied by Club Chef Direct, Billy had roasted some new potatoes in olive oil and prepared some delicate carrots and courgettes to accompany the meat. Desserts are not offered by the chef service.

Clive and Billy were impressed by the bill, £58.77 (including £10 carriage) for six people (a fraction of a restaurant bill for six). And felt a great sense of satisfaction at what they'd cooked up.

Members would have paid £62.86 for the same meal, but this would have included free carriage and two bottles of wine from top merchant Bill Baker's list. Membership also offers a monthly magazine, a helpline, money-off offers at some seriously good restaurants and 5 per cent off catalogue prices for chefs' food supplies.

Anthony, our attending chef, said: "It is a real challenge to produce dishes as professional as these at home. You don't often get crab as fresh as this. The lamb was pink and tender and as good as any good restaurant serves. I did wonder, though, if the recipe allowed for domestic ovens being less hot than professional ones. The lamb might have been a little too pink for some," he admitted. But this was a small flaw in what he thought was a classy meal which offered fantastic value.

Club Chef Direct, tel: 01275 475 252; fax 01275 475 167; website: www.clubchefdirect.co.uk; e-mail: lnfoatclubchefdirect.co.uk

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