It takes a very calm and controlled chef to let restaurant guests into their kitchen because once these civilians pass the threshold, there’s absolutely no turning back. They’ll have their beady little eyes on the chefs’ every slice, dice, and swivel of the pan while simultaneously being a hazard to those very chefs trying to slice, dice, and swivel their way towards service. They’ll have no idea of the kitchen protocol, they’ll get in the way, and… in some cases, they might even bring the kitchen to a grinding halt with something spectacularly silly like slipping over and finding themselves smack bang on the kitchen floor. The hot-headed chefs panic, the cool chefs just sort it out and carry on.
I know; because I was that clumsy guest, and I can confirm that Phil Fanning was that cool, calm and collected chef. My embarrassing incident unfolded at Paris House, a three AA Rosette and frequently top-rated restaurant housed in the most striking building. This was the original Paris House built in 1878 as part of the Paris International Exhibition – the 9th Duke of Bedford happened to be so enamoured with it, he had it dismantled, shipped, and rebuilt on the Woburn Estate. The estate itself is equally stunning and both combined to give Paris House the most dramatic entrance of any restaurant I have ever been to… the scene was well and truly set for what would be an eventful masterclass and lunch at their Chef’s Table!
Masterclass with Chef Phil Fanning
The very affable Phil Fanning, Head Chef and owner of Paris House, opens his kitchen up to hazardous non-chefs such as myself once a month to run masterclasses which cover anything and everything from making macarons to conquering the cooking of salmon. I’ve been to many cooking classes before but what I particularly liked about the Paris House masterclasses is that they’re small, and held in the kitchen alongside the other chefs who are prepping for lunch service! After much deliberation and diary checking, I settled on the Pasta Masterclass because for someone who eats as much pasta as I do, I thought it was a crying shame that I’d never properly learned how to make it!
Our first task was to make different types of pasta dough; one with semolina for spaghetti and tagliatelle, and one without for our ravioli and tortellini. We mixed, kneaded, rolled, shaped, and all the while were also chatting away to each other and asking Chef Phil a million and one questions. This is exactly as a masterclass should be – fun but also informative. A highlight was creating an egg yolk raviolo which I have admired on too many cooking shows before; and yes, it was as fiddly as it looks on television! My only minor disappointment from the masterclass was that we didn’t actually get try any of our creations, but that seemed trivial considering we had a five-course lunch ahead. And my biggest lessons from the day? Homemade pasta is absolutely achievable but it takes a bit of patience and elbow grease, and floors in professional kitchens are slippery!
Lunch at Chef’s Table
I thoroughly enjoyed the class but after about three hours in the kitchen, I was more than ready to take my seat at the Chef’s Table and watch the real chefs continue the hard work. With the start of lunch service, there was a subtle but evident shift in the atmosphere of the kitchen; the focus of the team was palpable. Meanwhile we diners set out to polish off some champagne and canapés before greedily inhaling a simple yet sumptuous dish of confit egg yolk and orzo covered in lashings of shaved truffle. This was cleverly followed by something much lighter; the ‘leche de tigre’ which as the name suggests was a ceviche inspired combination of hamachi, chilli and sweet potato. The fleshy white fish was so sweet and succulent, and each bite provided a burst of fresh flavours!
The best thing about sitting at Chef’s Table is watching the chefs plate up the dishes. I’m always mesmerised by how methodical and precise they are, and geekily take note of all the techniques they use to ensure all the elements are ready at the same time and at their optimum when they leave the pass. However, the worst thing about those front row seats has got to be the suspense as you wait to see whether the delicious plate of food coming together in front of your eyes is yours or not! There was a combined look of joy at the table when the pork belly with smoked eel, red pepper and artichokes we had watched Chef Phil create was sent towards us. The sharp and sweet elements amiably balanced out the intensity of the pork, and overall this was an inspired departure from the ‘Asian-style’ pork belly dishes which chefs usually conjure up.
A dainty lychee granita with rose jelly and pistachio ice cream succeeded in cleansing our palates. Who knew so much joy and refreshment could come in such small, sweet packages? It was little more than two or three mouthfuls at a stretch, yet the essence of each ingredient seemed heightened. But just as I was feeling virtuously light and airy, the final dish of chocolate fondant, goat’s milk and hazelnut parfait with candied hazelnuts and chocolate biscuit sent me straight back down that sugar-infused rabbit hole. I’m shameless in my love of chocolate desserts, particularly when they’re devilishly rich and come complete with a warm, gooey centre. That should have defeated me but I managed to make room for the lovely petit fours of mini matcha macarons and berry jellies, with a nice cup of tea!
This was a sensational meal from start to finish, and one of those rare tasting menus where every dish was a success. For me, being in the heart of the kitchen and being able to watch, listen, and ask questions utterly enhanced the dining experience at Paris House and it’s an experience I would recommend to anyone. Don’t come in expecting to witness Ramsay-like debauchery and abuse, what you’ll see instead is controlled urgency, passion, and a close-knit team. And the food is better for it – they’re trying new combinations, they’re growing some of their own ingredients, and they’re delivering flawless, flavoursome food!
Have you ever been let loose in a professional kitchen?
The Paris House Masterclasses start bright and early on a Sunday morning so for those who live out of town, I would suggest making a weekend of it and checking into the nearby Woburn Hotel the night before! We had a splendid stay in one of their cottage suites, and also spent some time exploring the village and Woburn Abbey!
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