I remember my third birthday cake well; it was gigantic, covered in cream and chocolate, and in the shape of a number three. Looking back at the photos, I still chuckle when I see my then tiny three-year-old self being dwarfed by cake – stuff of dreams really! I always thought my parents went all out on my third birthday cake until I was invited to a third birthday party for Jenius Social, a cooking school and events space in Holloway, and discovered that they were having not one but three cakes, and each of them would be three-tiered. Yeah, that’s really going all out!
Like any good party, there were plenty of nibbles and prosecco, but as an incorrigible sweet tooth, I was most excited about turning up at a party with three cakes! However, before we got to eat cake, there was a catch – we had to decorate them first! Most of you will know that I like a bit of a challenge in the kitchen and needed to make up for the fact I failed miserably at spinning rotis recently so I threw myself into this challenge with enthusiasm. That’s not to say that I was actually any good… just keen. Thankfully for me, I didn’t have to create this cake masterpiece on my own; my team consisted of a Baking King and Instagram Food Styling Queen. So obviously they drew the short straw getting stuck with me.
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!
The first time I tried matcha, I decided that the bitter taste wasn’t for me and I’d better off trying to absorb all those health benefits in cookie form. My second experience made me realise that I had made it all wrong the first time – less is more, and the whisking part is quite crucial. When left in the hands of a true tea expert, the results were far less grassy and gross than my attempts and I actually didn’t mind it. However it took a bartender, a delectable set of canapés, and a roof terrace to really convert me into a regular matcha consumer. Third time’s the charm, as they say.
Standing in the middle of the Teapigs Matcha on the Terrace at Harvey Nichols in the heart of Knightsbridge, there was absolutely no mistaking what we were here to sample and celebrate – matcha, matcha, matcha. We were welcomed to the terrace with a Matcha Rum Punch, a vibrant concoction with plenty of rum and pineapple, and quite obviously from the colour, a good heap of matcha too! A cool, refreshing cocktail was just what I needed after a long, muggy afternoon in the office, but I enjoyed it even more knowing I could perhaps claim that it was actually good for me too…
Cheese is not an ingredient that inspires much invention in my kitchen, but not because I don’t like to cook with it. Quite the opposite actually, I love adding cheese to my food and use it a lot… just in the most predictable of ways. I know what I like: cheddar grilled on toast, mozzarella on pizza, feta in salads, parmesan on pasta, camembert or brie to nibble on. I was more than satisfied with my stock standard approach, but then the team at Comté Cheese decided to get me in the kitchen and prove to me the error of my ways. Their motto is that ‘Everything is Better with Comté’ and they have their cheesy little hearts set on convincing everyone that this is the case!
But we before we donned our aprons, we had a lesson in comté – where does this cheese come from, what makes it so special? I’d already brushed up on my knowledge during a comté cheese and wine pairing, but for those of you who aren’t as familiar with it; it’s a unique variety of cheese made from raw milk from around 2,700 family farms in the Jura Massif of France, under very particular circumstances. Though it’s all classed as one variety, the cheese comes in many different flavour profiles from sweet and creamy to rich and nutty, determined by both the age and the season in which the milk was produced.
Until a certain someone met me, I’m not sure he ever considered food markets to be a legitimate tourist attraction. Who in their right mind would want to spend any part of their time in a new city wandering through food markets or supermarkets? Me. What’s the point of browsing the stalls or aisles when you don’t need to buy anything? Er, no point necessary. And by golly, does the long-suffering certain someone know that now.
I could waste hours pacing up, down and around the aisles of food markets and I get embarrassingly excited when I see new produce or speciality local ingredients. My mind usually oscillates between devising ways to smuggle things home and imagining what my weekly shop would consist of if I were a local. It’s not as weird as you (and a certain someone) might think, I’m sure there are others who do the same…
I have a long history with cake and photoshoots. The earliest record of our connection dates back to 1987; I’m chubby, fairly bald and celebrating my first birthday by being photographed next to a cake with a tiger on it. I don’t remember what it was the next year but my third birthday saw me posing with a giant cake shaped in the number three completely bordered by chocolate fingers… and so on, and so on it continued. Me, cake, photos.
Flash forward to 2016, and almost thirty years later from that first photo, the tables were turned. I wasn’t in front of the camera with the cake, but rather behind the camera and taking photos of just the cake. No one cared about me looking pretty or smiling, it was all about how the cake was going to look… this role reversal took some getting used to.
When recently asked about my plans for the evening, I almost told a little white lie for fear of ridicule. Before you start chastising me, the thought might have crossed your mind too if you were in my shoes and remembered that time a colleague of a similar age was teased for admitting he makes chutney. But I didn’t lie, and as expected some eyebrows were raised. A pickling class?! For clarity’s sake, vegetables were getting pickled, not the attendees – this was not some advanced masterclass in sustained drinking.
I could tell my colleagues were still far from convinced when they said they were sure it’d be fun while exchanging knowing looks between them. Well they were right; about the fun part – it was! And as a genuine pickle enthusiast, it was quite a tasty class too. I might be going out on a limb here but I think pickles are making a comeback… I’ve noticed pickled elements popping up on restaurant dishes across the spectrum of styles and cuisines, and I am a fan. So my theory is, if it’s good enough for the Michelin star kitchens, it’s good enough for mine.