The original plan was to go to Stockholm, but that would have involved handing over our hard-earned dosh to Ryanair, something we had pledged never to do again… so that plan was never going to take off. Thankfully, with the help of Google and our trusty 36 Hours in Europe book, it didn’t take long to conjure up an alternative: Gothenburg. Sweden’s second city caught our attention because it was often lumbered with the tagline of being a little rough around the edges but undergoing a resurgence. We like the sound of places like this, they are usually a little more under the radar and less chaotic than the main tourist haunts.
After spending a long weekend in Gothenburg, I would whole-heartedly recommend it as city break destination for those who are content with strolling the pretty streets, browsing through the trendy shops, and wandering down the halls of their excellent museums. We did all that, but mainly so we could walk off all the food we were devouring. The city is covered by both the Michelin Guide and its specifically Nordic counterpart, the White Guide, so there is a lot of great food to be had at all times of the day. We dabbled in the Swedish ‘fika’ culturewith stops for tea and buns, while also enjoying a mix of traditional and modern Swedish cuisine – here are a few ideas for you if you ever find yourself in Gothenburg…
There I was sprawled across our couch with a cup of tea to my left, a stack of cookbooks to my right, and Saturday Kitchen bumbling along with its forced laughs in the background; a familiar scene that happens most lazy Saturday mornings in our flat. I was ready to complete my favourite chore of the weekend: planning that week’s menu. What a rock and roll life I lead, eh? I had already spent the last ten minutes debating the merits of using up the rest of my gochujang in a Korean stew from ‘Our Korean Kitchen’, or making Tom Kerridge’s barbeque pineapple chicken for the hundredth time when I had a different brainwave. Flipping through our well-thumbed copy of his ‘Best Ever Dishes’ one more time, I decided to take a break from Tom’s recipes in my kitchen because I would rathertrythem out in his kitchen instead…
The thing is, the recipes in this book are quite involved. We’ve cooked from it many times but have rarely followed all the steps because unlike Tom, we don’t have the patience nor dedication; and yet, most dishes are still rib-tickling winners. So imagine how good his food must be when someone doesn’t cut corners. And with that thought I was sold. Alas, getting a table at The Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin star pub, is easier said than done. It is notoriously hard to book, even harder if you also want a room reservation, as I did. Near impossible if you were looking for a specific day or date. Thankfully I was not; with the end of my work contract and the start of our travels looming, the one thing I did have on my side was flexibility. A random Tuesday night in two month’s time? Mission accomplished.
I have settled into my new status as a ‘lady of leisure’ with the enthusiasm of a child starting school holidays and the breeziness of a trust fund baby. It took me a couple of days to get into the swing of things but my days of sweaty tube scrums and clock-watching in the office are now distant memories. Instead, I am luxuriating in this sudden abundance of spare time. I can sleep in, I can stay up late, I have time to read the books I’ve been hoarding from the library and do the exercise I never got round to. Or… I can just do absolutely nothing and not feel one single iota of guilt. In short, my time is mine to do as I choose and it is all strangely liberating and deliciously luxurious.
So with all this freedom, what do I actually choose to do?! It turns out that being a lady of leisure can, at times, be not very leisurely at all… despite having no office to go to and no deadlines to meet, I am still very busy. But the fun kind of busy that involves indulging in all the things I love and embracing the lady of leisure stereotype by also transforming into a lady who lunches. I never understood nor had I truly experienced the joy of long, lazy midweek lunches until now, and for extra status points, I now occasionally do long, lazy Michelin star lunches.
When did cooking become a spectator sport? I can just remember the days when chefs had reputations for being sweary, pot-swivelling hot-heads who were best kept behind the closed doors of the kitchen. In my youth, I had ventured beyond those doors into my dad’s restaurant kitchens a few times… they were hot, sweaty, generally loud, and usually frenetically paced. To the uninitiated, they were chaotic, but my dad assured me that there was always a rhythm in amongst the noise. Times have changed since those days. I’m sure that many chefs are still as hot-headed but the doors have been flung open and not only do people want to taste their food, people want to see the chefs cooking it too. How many restaurants have we all been to where the kitchens are visible from the dining room? How many times have you not so subtly rejoiced in that discovery?
Perhaps not as many times as me but admit it, you enjoy being a beady-eyed kitchen watcher as much as the next person because the inner workings of a professional kitchen can be fascinating. More and more restaurants are being designed with these ringside kitchen seats in mind, while others are choosing to let a select few be up close and personal at the chef’s tables they put inside their kitchens. Then there are restaurants like Kitchen Table who really take it to the extreme – one kitchen, one u-shaped bar wrapped around it, twenty chairs – that’s it. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is a bum on every seat, every night the restaurant is open and diners willing to pay a not so insignificant amount for the pleasure of sitting there, especially when you throw caution to the wind and opt for the wine pairing too.
I think I was around twenty when I first heard of the Michelin Guide and decided that sometime in my future, somewhere along my travels, I would experience a Michelin star meal. Just once would do. At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, I had that first experience. What I didn’t know at the time was that there would be more to follow; lucky lady, eh? Many, including myself, would say that the Michelin guide is just that, a guide. It’s just another list of recommendations so definitely not the be all and end all of restaurants, but I do think it provides a fairly solid benchmark of quality. We’ve had one experience that we didn’t think was quite up to scratch, another couple which were so-so but overall, they’ve been worthy of the recognition.
Now, at the riper, older age of thirty, my current count of Michelin star meals is twenty-three – I’ve comfortably exceeded my goals by a smidge, don’t you think?! Our latest one was in celebration of my big 3-0; until I get the call up to be a Michelin inspector or have no cares in the world about my finances, these meals will still be reserved for special occasions only. I toasted to the end of my twenties and welcomed by thirties in beautiful Seville with some of my nearest and dearest friends, and we ended the day at the city’s only star adorned restaurant – Abantal.
How many successful restaurants does it take to build a restaurant empire? Five, ten, twenty, or something in between? Asking someone like Jason Atherton could be a smart move, the man has fifteen restaurants in The Social Company. That sheer number alone would constitute an empire, but then you also consider their locations – London, New York, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Cebu, and Sydney – and wow, that’s what I call a proper empire. In a climate where opening one successful restaurant in any of those major cities is an achievement, having fifteen under your belt is quite a miraculous feat.
Whether he managed it through sheer skill, hard graft, or dumb luck, I was curious. So where better to start my investigation than Atherton’s flagship, Pollen Street Social, the first of three Michelin star restaurants, in The Social Company. We arrived on Pollen Street to find a refined and much larger than expected dining room, it was well-kitted out but not ostentatiously so; I like that sort of restraint.
According to everyone, 2016 has been a stinker of a year. There have been very few highs, a great number of lows, and bad surprises lurking at every corner – shock exits and the rise of a certain powerful oompa loompa, just to name a few. But if I crawl into my rosé-tinted, food-filled bubble of a world, according to me, 2016 has been quite scrumptious and a most fitting way to see out my twenties… yep, today is my birthday and yours truly is officially thirty!
Contrary to the sexist self-help magazines and old wives tales, I’m not cowering in the corner lamenting the loss of my twenties, nor am I looking up the closest botox clinics for my first nip/tuck of the new decade… I’m feeling content, happy, and hungry. Just the same as I was yesterday, when I was only a baby at twenty-nine. I started the last year of my twenties in Madrid, and here I am in Spain again, marking the start of my thirties in Seville… but where else did I dine when I was twenty-nine?!