Goodbye Hell's Kitchen, this is culinary heaven
Learn the art of cooking from a Michelin-starred chef. Rory Ross checks into a London hotel for a master class with one of the best
Sunday 26 September 2004
Eric Chavot is one of the leading chefs in Britain. For the past five years he has been "nestled" - to use a technical culinary term - in the kitchens of the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. His CV glitters with Michelin stars: he's got two of his own, and he has trained under chefs who, in their prime, could lay claim to many more: Pierre Koffman, Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc and Nico Ladenis. If there's such a thing as a culinary grand slam, Chavot has done it. In terms of provenance, pedigree, upbringing, background, he's probably the finest ingredient in his own kitchen. His fruit and vegetables have much to live up to.
The Capital, however, is an awkward place: too small, too twee, and too suffocatingly chandeliered for a quality chef to cut loose and express himself. It's the very opposite of Chavot, who is a charming, amusing, out-going "people" person. His plus-size personality demands a larger audience than can fit into the Capital's 33-seat restaurant, so he has bravely opened his kitchen up to a series of monthly "master classes" so that people can get to know him better and see what it takes to be a top toque.
One problem with culinary master classes is the kitchen. Not all of us have professional kitchens, by which I mean ones fitted with all the kit, the stoves, chiller blasters, meat thermometers and a brigade of sous chefs, commis chefs, chefs de parties, plongeurs and fairy confectioners on hand to help. Putting that thought aside gently to cool off, you get to glimpse two-Michelin-star talent in the raw. There is nowhere for Chavot to hide. You see him in action, with no special effects, and no televised re-takes. He takes only small groups, not more than four or five true believers, and helps them embark on a voyage of self-discovery - himself, that is. Today, he was going to show us how to cook bouillabaisse, salade Landaise, and a Granny Smith and rhubarb tarte tatin, three classic French dishes ideally suited to autumnal dinner parties. But first, a wine tasting. The Capital's sommelier is Matthew Wilkin, from South Australia. It is good to see the sommelier getting a look in early on. Wine accounts for 30 per cent of restaurant bills, yet restaurant critics rarely weight their reviews accordingly, and usually dispatch the wine list with a half-line brush-off. But Wilkin is one of the best, as is his wine list, so he deserves a hearing.
To go with the bouillabaisse, he chose Mesh Riesling 2002 by Grosset-Hill Smith from Eden Valley in South Australia, a beautiful wine with great length, named after the "meshing" of the respective "philosophies" of its collaborators, Jeffrey Grosset and Robert Hill Smith, two of Australia's finest interpreters of Riesling. To rinse down the salade Landaise, Wilkin plumped for Gosset Grand Rosé Brut from Aÿ in France, a full-bodied champagne with a palate, body, and structure which reminds you that champagne is first a wine, and second a fizzy drink.
To match the tatin, he plumped for Tokaji Cuvée Ilona, Kiralyudvar 1999, from Tarcal in Hungary, produced by Istvan Szepsy. This wine was spectacular. It slips down like a deep-bronze syrup whose perfume of honey, apricots, and oranges paints a vivid picture of endless sunsets, and leaves your nerve-endings tingling with a feeling of almost post-coital bliss.
After a quick lunch, it was time to meet Chavot. I know this will disappoint some readers, but Chavot's hallowed lair is not Hell's Kitchen. You can be fairly certain Eric will not scream at you, abuse you, assault you, swear at you, or subject you to any other of the normal working practices of a professional kitchen - unless you pay extra of course.
The key to successful cooking - assuming you've got half-decent ingredients - is preparation. "My mother cooked for parties of 50, and began two days beforehand," says Chavot. "She was organised, and would go to the market. When you are brought up like that, it becomes second nature. When I worked for M Koffman at La Tante Claire, people would arrive at the kitchen door at 10pm with six hares which had to be skinned and gutted and cooked overnight."
We began with the bouillabaisse. This Mediterranean fish stew was invented in Juan Les Pins, where Chavot spent much of his childhood, so it's like coming home. Eric's version uses tiger prawns, langoustines, scallops, red mullet, John Dory, sea bream, monkfish and mussels served in fish stock with Charlotte potatoes.
"Once you've got the ingredients ready, it only takes about eight minutes to prepare," he shrugs, "but you have to make the fish stock the day before and leave it aside to mature." Chavot had made the fish stock that morning, so turned his attention to the fish. "The purist will simmer the fish and shellfish directly in the stock," he says. "I prefer pan-frying the fish. It brings a sweeter flavour."
Then he switched to the Granny Smith and rhubarb tatin with vanilla ice cream. "I do the ice cream the day before," he said, "to make the vanilla explode in lovely flavours."
He grabbed a knife. "For a sharp apple tarte," he said, peeling the skin off an apple in one go, "always use Granny Smith, and always use a clean knife. You don't want garlic on the blade." He caramelised sugar, added rhubarb, stem ginger, grenadine syrup and quartered apples, then covered the lot with a disc of puff pasty, and thrust it in the oven for 90 seconds. Then he removed it, added butter and returned it to the oven for a further 12 minutes.
"Now we go to Arcachon in the Gironde for salade Landaise, made from force-fed duck," announced Chavot. "Force-fed duck is best at the end of September. You can eat the whole bird. We confit one leg, turn the other into stuffing, and keep the heart. Ah yes," he added, misting over, "the first restaurant I worked in was 200 yards from the seafront at Arcachon."
I found the plot - "recipe" fails to convey the sense of drama and complexity - incredibly complicated, like barging into the middle of a Charles Dickens novel. While Chavot toyed with duck-gizzard confit, foie gras, duck breast, and cured duck breast, and Wilkin handed round glasses of (excellent) Pettental Riesling 1998, it occurred to me that salade Landaise is definitely not a dish to attempt at home when you've got five ravenous guests and you've had one drink too many.
My mind wandering, I became intrigued by Chavot's hotplate. It appeared to have a subtle and obscure topography. Certain parts were clearly hotter than others, with subtle gradations in between. Every few minutes, Chavot shifted pans from one part to another. Meanwhile, Wilkin, who by now was on a roll, produced a slightly sparkling Italian red Brachetto D'Acqui 2002.
By now, an unstoppable timetable of events had been set in motion, and was approaching a crescendo. Appliances began going "Ping!" and "Bleep-bleep-bleep!", heralding an urgent new phase in each recipe. Chavot was moving faster and faster. The bouillabaisse demanded attention: Charlotte potatoes had to be steeped in stock, and seasoned with saffron, salt and pepper. Bleep! The tatin had to be removed from the oven, turned out of its pan and buttered while still hot. Ping! The salade Landaise was getting impatient. For a moment, Chavot himself, who maintained his bonhomous patter throughout, seemed about to go Ping! too. Just when I began to fear a serious breach of health and safety, hey presto, everything was ready, and Chavot was standing back admiring his own work.
What sort of people will benefit from Chavot's master class? Only M Chavot does the cooking. One is merely his audience. In that sense, his master class is more Blue Peter than The Generation Game. The experience is fun, and you taste great food and wines. There is an intimacy to the occasion, so you feel free to ask stupid questions. As for learning anything new, well, I learnt how to cut a lemon (roll it first, then cut it at an angle; that way it squeezes better) and that a professional chef is an octopus with juggling skills.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
The Capital Master Class starts at noon with a wine-tasting, then lunch, then the master class. Guests stay the night in a luxury room with a full English breakfast the next day. The package, which costs £259 per person, can be booked by contacting Carol de Juan (020-7591 1212; firstname.lastname@example.org). The Capital Hotel (020-7589 5171; www.capital-london.net).
The Capital recently won the Hotel Restaurant of the Year category at the 2004 Restaurateurs' Restaurant of the Year Awards.
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