Friday, 21 December 2012

Q & A with Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd is the author of Modernist Vegetarian and, it would be fair to say, one of the most pioneering vegetarian chefs in this country. I met up with him in Chorlton to gain an insight into his culinary background, his influences and his thoughts on modernist cuisine. You can download a copy of Eddie's book at the Modernist Vegetarian website and see a slideshow featuring his beautiful and innovative dishes on Youtube.

Jamie: Did you consciously decide to become a chef or was it something you fell into? 

Eddie: It was something that I wanted to do. I was doing a philosophy degree in Scotland and working in kitchens as a pot-washer initially; but I was a very enthusiastic cook at home. At first, it was just lucky circumstances - a chef left and the guys saw some potential in me as I'd been helping them out already. As soon as I got my first chef's jacket I knew that's what I wanted to do!
I was 20 then so I learnt the basics there (I was a vegetarian by that time but still working in restaurants that served meat) then moved around a few restaurants until I got to work in a vegetarian restaurant in Glasgow where I moved up to sous and then acting head chef. Then I moved down to Greens and spent a couple of years there.

Jamie: Was it an aim of yours to work at Greens because it is such a respected vegetarian restaurant?

Eddie: Well, I initially came down to work with Simon [Rimmer] for a week and they offered me a job at the end of it - I wanted to keep learning and progressing within the vegetarian cooking scene and it seemed like the best place to be at the time. I also went and did a week at Terre A terre [in Brighton] around the same time. At Greens I got the chance to do more "restaurant-y" vegetarian food for the first time.

Jamie: What made you become a vegetarian?

Eddie: It was a mixture of things. I'd become vegetarian at uni in part because I was studying a philosophy degree - it wasn't a particularly ethical decision but the philosophy raised enough questions that I didn't feel entirely comfortable eating meat. I didn't really enjoy it any more. I think it's more that it suited me.

Jamie: Do you find it limiting being a vegetarian chef or does it have the opposite effect?
Eddie: Initially it did seem limiting to me as a chef but having some sort of constraint can actually be quite useful - very few places try to cook all types of cuisine: places like Noma will only cook with food that comes from within a small radius of the restaurant - that fuels their creativity. It forces you to work hard with your ingredients.

Jamie: Obviously you are somewhat of a spokesperson for modernist vegetarian cuisine so how did you get turned on to Modernist cooking methods in the fist place?
Eddie: Being vegetarian, I was trying to find interesting ways to do new things with vegetarian cooking. A lot of the modernist techniques are to do with creating different textures and finding new ways to serve the same ingredients. The first time I used modern techniques was when I was asked to a veggie version of a dish that used gelatin, so I had to start researching that. I was at the same time getting interested in Ferran Adria and what he was doing at El Bulli. I went to a festival in Madrid called 'Madrid fusion' and saw Grant Achatz [chef/owner at Alinea], then bought the Alinea cookbook and was blown away. It changed the way I thought about food.

Jamie: Your book, Modernist Vegetarian, as well as being ground-breaking, is very artistic. Is art part of your food philosophy?

Eddie: For me, flavour and texture are paramount. It takes a while to work out the finished version of the dish, what it will look like on the plate. I really wanted to get away from this 'brown stuff in a bowl' type of veggie food, which is the negative stereotype - that it's all the same colour and mushy! I wanted to get so far way from that! People can have quite a strong preconception of what a vegetarian meal will be like so you can really play with their expectations.

Jamie: When did you first think about writing your own cookbook?

Eddie: It had been in my head for a while that I wanted to do a book at some point and it was only earlier this year that I started to focus on freelance stuff and had more time to research and try new dishes. I would love to do a print version one day but an ebook is easy to publish and you can sell it at a more reasonable price. I'm glad it's out there, it's no good having all these ideas in my head!

Jamie: What's the reaction been like from your peers?
Eddie: I was really pleasantly surprised. I had good feedback from chefs, especially Marc Poynton from Alimentum, which got its first michelin star this year. He wrote a review saying how much he liked it. Things like that are fantastic.

Jamie: Through the likes of Heston Blumenthal, foodies are being exposed to more modernist cooking methods and ingredients. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the modernist movement?
Eddie: I think these things are tools like anything else and now we just have a larger range of tools to work with as chefs. I'm a huge fan of sous-vide and I use hydrocolloids a fair amount but only when necessary. I think there's a danger of chefs using them purely for effect without understanding them. More and more I like the idea of presenting a plate of food like Ferran Adria and ReneRedzepi do - it looks natural but a lot of modernist techniques and technology have gone into it. It's much more hidden, not necessarily shown on the plate. I would never do the caviar which has become such a cliche!

I’ve been asked before whether I think sous-vide technology de-skills chefs – I think the opposite is true. If you know that you don’t have to worry about that one element of your dish and can leave it in the water bath, it gives you time to do lots of extra things for a dish.

Jamie: Are there any cookbooks that have particularly influenced your cooking style?
Eddie: Certainly, there have been a few that were very important to me. There Noma’s, The Fat Duck's, Alinea's. I just got Sat Bains’ new cookbook which is beautiful. Those are the important ones.

Jamie: So at the moment are you just freelancing? 
Eddie: One of things I've been doing for a couple of years is working with a company called Cream Supplies who sell all this modernist cooking equipment. I do development work with them - when they get new equipment or new ingredients they send them to me and I figure out what they can be used for. I’ve had a chance to use equipment before it goes into professional kitchens – like an ultrasonic homogenizer. It’s like a stick blender without the blades [and works through ultrasonic vibrations] I played around with it for a few weeks then it went to L’enclume! Simon Rogan is such an inspiring chef in terms of modern cooking.

Jamie: Being a chef, are you a picky diner? And are there any restaurants you rate highly in Manchester? 
Eddie: I try not to be fussy as a diner. If something’s done definitely wrong then you can spot it. You set your expectations to where you’re going, so I’m quite easily pleased. I liked The Rose Garden in West Didsbury. Looking to next year, there’s some really exciting things with Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan opening restaurants. Another place just outside Manchester that I rate is Aumbry.

I tend to cook at home a lot but I don’t live in a vegetarian household – my girlfriend’s not vegetarian. I practice new dishes at home and I try to keep my eye in with things like making pastry and fresh pasta, which are simple things you need to practice

Jamie: Finally, have you got any good cooking tips for our readers?
Eddie: Something in the modernist vein which i like to do is make a fluid gel, which involves setting a gel then blending it so make a smooth puree or sauce. It gives you so much control over flavour as you can start with a juice – so you can make a puree out of, say, apple juice and get that pure apple flavour or make gels out of ingredients that don’t lend themselves to being pureed. The other thing that’s good for vegetarian cooking is the different ways to add the ‘umami’ flavour to dishes – you can get a meatiness from kombu seaweed and dried shiitakes by adding them to stocks or to the actual dishes. Vegetables have a lot of flavour but not necessarily that depth of flavour you get from meat.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Aumbry, Christmas Dinner

The pass at Aumbry

To quote Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian circa 2010, ‘Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Prestwich, the suburb’s suburb.’ I would go further and venture to say that Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Manchester.

With the exception of the Wine Glass at Etrop Grange, Manchester doesn’t boast a wealth of restaurants where the chefs have honed their skills at the Fat Duck. Nor does it boast many restaurants that have garnered national acclaim: Mary-Ellen McTague won Up and Coming Young Chef of the Year in the Good Food Guide 2011.

With this in mind, Anna and I had high expectations of this small but much-lauded neighbourhood restaurant. It had been on our ‘to-go’ list for some time and then all of a sudden came an invite from Echo PR to attend a Christmas dinner.

We took the tram and found ourselves, fashionably early, sipping champagne and snacking on some wonderful smoked almonds in the upstairs reception area. A light snow, the first this winter, had just begun to fall and, as I eyed the Christmas decorations and the 9-course menu, a sense of contentment washed over me. I felt as though we were in for a real treat.

The reception area
Right, overblown rhetoric out of the way, let’s talk food.

To whet our appetite we are given bread accompanied by an ornate bowl of beef dripping and roasting juices, cleverly masquerading as oil and balsamic. The conversation turns on the idea of beef fat solidifying in your arteries. It’s so delicious that no-one cares.

The amuse-bouche was pig’s head terrine – a delicious morsel that it is hard to say much about, so I shan’t.

Pig's head
The obligatory smoked fish dish was an undeniable favourite. The mackerel was so delicately cured; it makes a nice change to see it cold-smoked. The garnishes of pickled beetroot and mustard cream were, albeit standard, perfectly judged. The presentation, too, was spot on (we're still wondering whether the beetroot was the most perfect puree I've ever seen or a spherification).

Smoked mackerel
Heston’s influence shows through in the next dish – Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg. Anyone who watched the How to Cook Like Heston series or owns a copy of Heston at Home will be familiar with his warm scotch egg hiding a perfectly runny yolk in the centre. It is a tricky feat to pull off but so satisfying – bursting a perfectly cooked yolk always seems to elicit quasi-sexual moans from diners. No wonder this dish has become a signature at Aumbry.

Black pudding Scotch egg
The celeriac soup which followed will become the stuff of legend, the story passed down from generation to generation about the origins of the world’s greatest soup. Prestwich in the 2020s will be full of well-heeled types mumbling to themselves: "celeriac, truffle, chestnuts.." Never have I heard such ecstatic praise for a bowl of soup in all my life. And it wasn’t even superfluous. Perfectly seasoned, light yet rich celeriac soup with a perfect amount of truffle oil and some meltingly soft chestnuts at the bottom. Go and try it!

Celeriac soup
Everyone is in high spirits as we move on to the main courses. The Royal Roast consists of a ballotine of duck, pheasant and partridge with bread sauce, stuffing, roast potatoes, and brussel sprouts. There was some speculation in the taxi home as to whether the meat had been cooked sous-vide. It was exceedingly tender but the texture of the duck in particular was strange. To my surprise, the highlight was the brussel sprouts, thinly shredded and cooked with bacon and chestnuts. Mental note to try this at our Christmas dinner and to recreate the seriously flavoursome stuffing. Anna was a little disappointed with the roast potatoes - not quite as good as ours!

Three-bird roast
The Lyme Park venison stood out for me as the richest and most savoury of the dishes. The medium-rare, scarlet loin paired with slow-cooked haunch, sweet parsley root and woody, bitter brussel sprout tops – close to perfection! This is the kind of dish I long for. This was served with a Austro-Hungarian wine, Meinklang 'Konkret', a bold red with soft tannins which complemented the venison perfectly.

By now I will admit to being sated and not at all in need of dessert. My memory also becomes hazier the more wine I drink. Funny that. The sherry trifle etched itself into my consciousness with the mandarin and thyme syllabub that accompanied it. A flavour combination I don’t recall having before. The Christmas pudding was notable for the sheer amount of dried fruit it contained. And the mince pie was, well, a very good mince pie. I have admittedly glossed over the desserts but I do think although appropriate on a Christmas menu, they were never going to have the impact that the savoury courses did. A special mention goes to the 2009 Chateau Jolys, a buttery wine with hints of honey and peach, it worked well to enhance some of the slightly more bitter notes of the syllabub.

Christmas pudding
I’ll end on a note about service. I wish I had noted down the name of our waitress because throughout the nine courses she gave a masterclass in how to wait on a table. Her timing, knowledge, humour and the right degree of formality made the whole meal flow beautifully - not to mention that she also doubled as a fantastic sommelier. I hope Mary-Ellen reads this review and gives her a Christmas bonus!

Christmas is a time of year for comfort and decadence, yet it can sometimes prove difficult to merge these two feelings. Aumbry have managed to grab hold of both of these feelings and delicately transformed them into a beautiful tasting menu. At £45 for seven courses, it is exceptional value. We were lucky enough to be guests of the restaurant, but would have gleefully paid this amount for food of such quality. I have it on good authority that dishes of such high standard aren't just a Christmas treat for Aumbry visitors, and look forward to returning in 2013 to see what else I can be simultaneously soothed and seduced by.

2 Church Lane, Prestwich
M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841

Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Wineglass, Etrop Grange

Etrop Grange
I'd been looking forward to eating at the Wineglass at Etrop Grange ever since I first saw it spring up on Twitter. When I saw photos of Ernst van Zyl's dishes, I could see he had his presentation nailed, but I wanted to know whether it would taste as good as it looked. As it turned out, the proof really was in the pudding.

Just so readers know, Ernst was more than aware that we were coming to the restaurant, as he had insisted upon creating a bespoke menu for me. As regular readers will know, Ernst loves a challenge (see our Q&A with him, & DineInOut for more information on that!) and enjoys teaching his kitchen brigade new skills and flavour combinations; a personalised menu creation is a perfect opportunity to do that. We were pleasantly surprised with a complimentary glass of Prosecco, but other than that we did pay for our meal in full (I say we, I mean Jamie, it was my birthday after all!). Before I get lost in the details of the dishes, let me mention that the service was brilliant, and we also had a beautiful selection of wines to match each course. I haven't gone into detail about them here, as the food really was the star, but they all complimented the food delightfully.

Beetroot 'Aero', watercress puree and beetroot crisps
I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant where I haven't read the menu at least once before dining, so this was to be an unique experience (oh, and because of the food itself, of course!). Seeing the menu placed in front of me as we were sat in the conservatory area was incredibly exciting. I had an inkling that a venison tartare might appear as it is something that I've wanted to try for a long time. Funnily enough, this turned out to be the dish on the menu I least enjoyed. So after an amuse bouche of a beetroot 'aero' (think beetroot with the texture of marshmallow) we settled down to enjoy the most interesting five courses of food we'd ever tried.

I apparently leapt back in time to my first year of university when I became vegetarian for a year as a moral experiment, and suddenly couldn't stomach the taste of the raw deer in my mouth. It was clearly good quality meat, but entirely wasted on myself. I began wishing I'd grown up in a Scandinavian country where eating this would almost be the norm. Funnily enough, my childhood didn't change, and I sat there, a girl from inner city Birmingham - with no accent, mind! - unable to appreciate the beginning of what would soon turn into my favourite ever meal (except Jamie's Hanger steak, & his version of Heston's fish & chips - ah the Brummie in me appears!). Jamie enjoyed his starter but was unsure of the inclusion of fir pine. I'm sorry Ernst, but I don't think Manchester's ready for this dish yet!

Venison tartare/ bitter chocolate/quince/douglas fir

I was excited to see that two of my favourite foodstuffs were to be included in the next course, but was completely clueless as to how they might turn out when combined. Celeriac and granola! When I took a bite of all of the components of the dish, which included to name but a few: cranberries, whey jelly, fresh cheese, and yoghurt, there was a total harmony in my mouth. The celeriac was perfectly cooked, so earthy and sweet, and worked beautifully with both the granola and fresh, bitter cranberries. Despite being the second course on an evening menu, I would love to eat this for breakfast every day, and if I were more sophisticated, perhaps I would go to some efforts to make that happen. Whilst every morsel of it was delicious, it did seem unusual eating it on a tasting menu. I mean no criticism in that, as whilst Ernst loves a challenge, I think he might enjoy challenging his diners even more. Fortunately that's a game I like to play.

Celeriac/granola/cranberries/fresh cheese
Another surprising combination next, but now I felt myself really slipping into the comforting, delicate touch of the meal. Sole, which Jamie spotted had been filleted then glued back together to create the perfect fillet - what attention to detail! - served with brussel sprouts, grapes and a spelt sauce. These were probably the best brussel sprouts I've ever tasted, though we later found out that they were simply boiled and buttered. I need to get my hands on Ernst's brussel sprout supplier in time for Christmas I think! Grapes, both in their fresh and dried form. I was expecting a modernist take on the classic sole Veronique when I read of their inclusion in the dish, but with the addition of chicken skin seasoning the fish, and the robust flavour of the spelt jus, it was a world away. Everything worked beautifully and I really began to allow myself to sink into the tasting menu.

Sole/grapes/brussels sprouts/spelt
Total, utter comfort was next - though beautifully executed as ever. Duck, served pink - sous vide, I imagine - with butternut squash, blackberries and feta. Not too wild I thought, and was somewhat glad of that. I think sometimes with a main it's important to dial down the crazy and allow the diner some time to pause before hitting them with dessert. Words are beginning to fail me for this one, because I don't know how I can ever get across how delightful it was to place all of these ingredients on my fork in one go. The blackberries were the most perfectly ripe fat little berries I've ever tasted, and the duck perfectly cooked. The feta broke through the sweetness of the rest of the dish and danced around the palette. Just go there, and ask Ernst to make this dish for you - seriously, you won't ever regret it.

Duck/feta/sweet potato/blackberries
And, though sad it is to say, all great meals must come to an end, and here was ours... the wittiest and most beautiful take on lemon meringue pie I have ever witnessed. Soft little peaks of meringue sat next to butternut squash curd, all on a bed of gingerbread puree. I remember watching Great British Menu one year and the judges announced that if they arrived at the gates of heaven and the dish they were judging were placed in front of them, they would be happy. At the time, I thought their comments ridiculous. At the time, I had never eaten this dessert. Now I understand what prompted them to utter such superfluous words. This was the perfect end to a beautiful meal.

Butternut squash/granny smith/gingerbread/meringue
I didn't like everything I ate at the Wineglass, and nor would I eat some of it again. Other dishes I could be fed for the rest of my life, and I'm not sure if I would ever get bored. If someone told me this was their regular tasting menu, I would be impressed, even knowing that this was served every night, but to know that this was an ad hoc creation, is remarkable. Ernst's skill level, attention to detail and sense of adventure is witnessed on every plate, and cooking of this level - I believe - deserves more than 2 AA Rosettes. Michelin, listen up! I've heard people talk about restaurants they love so much they don't want to tell anyone about them, for fear they'll lose sight of what was once great about them. I'm confident that Ernst won't fall prey to that game. Jamie treated me to this meal as my Birthday present, so here, dear readers, is my Christmas present to you: dine at Etrop Grange, let Ernst know, and experience your very own tasting menu: you won't be disappointed.

The Wineglass, Etrop Grange
Thorley Lane, Manchester Airport
M90 4EG
0161 499 0500

The Wine Glass Restaurant at Etrop Grange on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Q & A with Jaromir Hlavsa of Linen

As we were sat at the Linen bloggers evening, a brainwave overcame Jamie. The head chef, Jaromir, had been out several times to introduce his dishes. It was a nice touch: it enabled us to learn who the man behind the, er, magic was. He didn't have the fierce demeanour of the stereotypical head chef, but instead, seemed a pleasant and humble fella. The rise of the celebrity chef means that we may well know where Ramsay trained, or what Heston's favourite comfort food is, but rarely do we know the same about the man (or lady!) who's putting our dinner on the table tonight. Jamie decided to get in touch with Jaromir shortly after the tasting evening to find out more about what made him tick...

Jamie: Firstly, what's your culinary background and why did you decide to become a chef?
Jaromir: It was a little bit random, I didn’t know what career to choose. I knew that 2 of my cousins were chefs and I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do when I was 14-15, so I said to myself I’m gonna be a chef like them. I had a chance to select my school quite carefully and it was a good place because it was always 1 week on placement and 1 week in college - you definitely learn best when you’re working.
The management of the school were quite good in that if they saw that someone was doing well they would push them into better placements. I said to myself if I'm gonna do this job I'll do it the best I can. They saw that and got me a placement in a really good hotel in  Prague. The head chef at the time actually does the Czech version of Kitchen Nightmares. I was 18 when I got that job and I was there for 5 and a half years in Prague. The hotel restaurant was the first to get a Michelin star in the Czech Republic, it’s difficult to get in Eastern Europe so it makes me proud that we got a Michelin star
I started as a pastry chef; it wasn’t as easy to get promoted. In the Czech Republic it's different, a lot of the positions here are about money - you know, 'if I'm a commis chef can I become a chef de partie and get paid more'. There it was less about money, it was a really good job but when you start someone tells you you can get £2000 a month working in a pub or £300 in a kitchen. You have to think seriously whether you really want to do it.
Jamie: Was the food at the Radisson influenced by Czech food? Do you cook Czech food at home?
Jaromir: There was a lot of French cuisine at the hotel, not quite fine dining but close. A lot of Czech food isn’t that easy to do it’s quite heavy and takes a few hours to be done properly. When I’m at home I prefer to cook some pasta, or something with rice, something healthy and relatively easy to make. I like the idea of a taking a few good quality ingredients and not messing with them too much .
I quite like looking at home, after cooking here for two hundred people it’s quite easy to cook for yourself.
Jamie: So, After 5 years in prague you came to England?
Jaromir: My friends moved to Manchester. They transferred from the Radisson in Prague to the one here, they didn't like it and went to work in Malmaison, they sent us a message saying they had jobs there and at first we intended to come over, work, improve our English for a year, then go back to Prague…but it’s going to be nearly 8 years now that I’ve been in Manchester. I spent seven and a half at Malmaison - I started as a chef de partie, then became a junior sous chef, then sous chef and I was head chef for the last few years there. Every time I wanted to change there was a new opportunity and it’s a really good company to progress in.
Jamie: What made you move from Malmaison to Linen?
Jaromir: I spent most of my professional life working in a hotel, I'd never really worked in a restaurant. Linen is somewhere in between - it’s still more like the hotel than the restaurant because the building is open 24 hours, the bar’s open 'til early in the morning, there are quite a lot of meetings in the Icon. I really like this restaurant, I think it’s got great potential, if you get the right produce and people start talking about it. We do really well at the weekend,  we did three hundred [covers] last Friday... people come here for a special occasion. I’m trying to change people’s minds and show them you can still come here on a Tuesday and have a great meal at the same price as other restaurants in the area.

Jamie: Is your ethos at Linen to take a few good ingredients and make a simple meal?
Jaromir: I'm quite a comfort eater. It’s nice to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant once in a while and get eight taster courses then get a takeaway on the way home, but I like decent-sized portions and the classic sequence of starter, main course, dessert. The dishes here are good value for money. I'm also trying to do things seasonally. These days you can buy a strawberry all year round and have the same menu on all year, but I don’t like to do that. If you buy tomatoes in the middle of winter, they’re gonna look like tomatoes but they won’t taste like it. I like to use produce when it’s at its best, as it makes a big difference.
Jamie: Is part of your future plan to change people's perceptions of Linen? Will you stay here and make it your own?
Jaromir: I don’t like to get jobs for a just a few months. I like to have a vision, a project. I knew this restaurant had had its ups and downs and that it wasn’t really consistent. It was a chance for me to kind of make it my own right from the start. What I didn’t like about Malmaison was that in the last few months they started to have group suppliers and group menus, someone in London decides on the menu and it kills creativity. Until then everyone knew Malmaison for its creativity and every hotel had its own concept and individuality. Then they introduced the American diner concept, which I didn’t understand.
Jamie: Are there any restaurants in Manchester that you really rate?
Jaromir: You know, I really like to eat Asian food and I don’t think I can make it as well at home as they do in restaurants. So it  might sound silly but I like Chaophraya or Tampopo, what they do is great and cheap. I pop in when I’m in the city centre and have a light lunch, it’s an open kitchen and what they do is really good.
Jamie: Are there any cookbooks or chefs that have particularly influenced you?
Jaromir: Lots of different chefs have influenced me but since I was really young I’ve liked Jamie Oliver because he has great passion. I know a lot of people hate him here because he was on T.V. so much, but if you think about what he does, he just wants people to eat healthily, eat good food rather than just put something frozen in the microwave.
As far as cookbooks go, the last couple of ones I've bought are called Apicius with different techniques from Michelin-starred chefs. If I served some of the dishes from it, there would just be three pieces of spaghetti on the plate and the customers here would probably want to come and get me from the kitchen! But a lot of the dishes are beautiful. They want to make you try something new. I've probably got almost every cookbook by Jamie Oliver and they're really good for inspiration too.
Jamie: What's the most unusual dish you've made or tasted?
Jaromir: I'm trying to do most of the dishes quite locally so there’s nothing that weird on the menu here. When I was in Prague we used to do promotions for different cuisines at the hotel. One time we did Australian and another time South African, so we actually had a chef fly over from Cape Town to show us how to cook alligator, antelopes, which was really interesting and a good chance to taste dishes we’d never tried.
Jamie: Finally, have you got any good cooing tips for our readers?
Jaromir: I've got loads but it's hard to think of them when you're put on the spot... A good tip for making dauphinoise potatoes is not to wash the potatoes after you've cut them. I see a lot of young chefs do that. Same goes for boulangere potatoes [cooked in stock rather than milk/cream - Jamie]. If you wash them you rinse off the starch which then stops the potato slices sticking together.
Head to Linen Restaurant at Manchester 235 to see how Jaromir's training has influenced his current style.
Our next Q&A will be with Eddie Shepherd, of Modernist Vegetarian. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Chicken with wild mushroom risotto

Given that we've still got roughly a month until winter officially sets in, I thought it would be fitting to post a recipe for a most autumnal dish - chicken with wild mushroom risotto and braised lettuce.

'Boring!' I hear some of you exclaim; after all, there is nothing original about the combination or the cooking techniques involved. However, though this may seem a relatively simple meal to prepare, there are a few pitfalls to be avoided.

Risotto, as John Campbell believes, should 'just hold its own weight and [be] free from an excess of butter or stock'. I tend to agree with him. I'm in favour of a risotto where the rice can still be distinguished as an ingredient rather than some glutinous slop. Be careful not to overcook the rice or to add too much liquid.

There are also two schools of thought when it comes to risotto making - the add-the-stock-gradually and the bung-it-all-in-at-once. The former inevitably gives you more control but requires a little more attention - it has always worked well for me so I can't fault it.

Nevertheless, if you want to ease the culinary strain, this is a great method: sweat the onions and rice then add the wine (reduce) then the stock; cook the rice until it is just underdone, with a slight chalkiness to the bite; then, remove from the pan and spread in a thin layer on a silicone mat/parchment paper on a baking tray. (Place the baking tray in the freezer beforehand to facilitate cooling.) This prevents the rice cooking further and you can keep it like this in the fridge for up to 8 hours until you're ready to finish the dish.

How risotto should look (ie. not like rice pudding)
I now use this method for cooking risotto almost exclusively as it then takes only a few minutes to finish off the risotto when you're ready to eat - and you can keep the other elements of your dish warm while you concentrate on the final stage.

As an aside, Anna and I rarely buy chicken breasts as they are so incredibly expensive. I prefer to buy a whole free-range chicken and butcher it reserving the wings for stock and the legs for slow-cooking. Good free-range chicken has an earthiness to it (completely absent in the supermarket produce) which works brilliantly with the wild mushrooms.

Chicken with wild mushroom risotto and braised lettuce

Serves 2


100g carnaroli or arborio rice
700ml chicken stock
1 shallot, finely diced
100g fresh or dried wild mushrooms (soaked), thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, bashed with the back of a knife
Tbsp butter
Tbsp parmesan, grated
Dash of truffle oil (optional)

Chives, to garnish


2 Chicken breats, skin on 
200ml chicken stock

1 little gem lettuce, separated into leaves
50ml water
50g unsalted butter 

- For the risotto, sweat the shallot and garlic clove over a medium heat until translucent then add the rice and cook for a few minutes without colouring.
 - Add the wine and reduce to a glaze, then begin adding the stock in small increments, allowing the rice to absorb the liquid before adding more and stirring constantly (or add about 400ml of stock at once).
- Repeat until the rice is nearly cooked then remove from the pan and spread in a thin layer on a baking tray and allow to cool.
- Place in the fridge for up to 8 hours.

- Meanwhile, season the chicken breasts with salt and heat a frying pan over a medium heat until hot.
- Place the chicken breasts in the pan skin side down and cook until the skin is golden brown and most of the fat has rendered out.
- Turn over and colour the skinless side then add the chicken stock and baste the chicken with the stock until cooked (approximately 10-15 minutes). 
- Let rest.

- To braise the lettuce, add the lettuce, butter and water to a saucepan, cover with a lid and place over a medium heat. It is done when the leaves have wilted but the core retains a slight crunch (this will not take long).

-To finish, add the cooled rice, some of the remaining warm stock and the butter to a frying pan and cook over a high heat until the rice is done and there is a smooth emulsion of stock and butter
- Add the mushrooms, parmesan, chives, and truffle oil if using and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

- To plate up, start with a base of braised lettuce leaves, top with risotto then the sliced chicken breats.

- Accompany with the rest of the wine you opened to make the risotto and enjoy.  

Friday, 16 November 2012

Restaurant Bar & Grill, John Dalton Street

We were recently invited to the Restaurant Bar and Grill - in conjunction with Manchester Confidential - to try out their new menu and heated terrace area. Unfortunately there appeared to be a function taking place outside, so we did not get the chance to check out the terrace, but we did enjoy a delightful meal, courtesy of the restaurant.

When I lived in Birmingham, I often thought of 'Bank', one of RBG's sister restaurants, as a real treat to visit. Despite not having visited any member of the Individual Restaurants chain since living in Manchester, I was looking forward to finding out whether the Restaurant Bar and Grill would live up to my fond memories of Bank.

We dined at 7pm on a Wednesday evening, and were seated in the main dining area, overlooking John Dalton street. Despite the road not being the most picturesque of streets, it was still pleasant to be seated next to the large glass window. We were introduced to our waiter for the evening, Kenny, who - from reading other reviews - is either their only waiter, or the only one trusted enough to look after bloggers! Either way, he was a fantastic server, informative and friendly, attentive and unobtrusive. I certainly hope he is getting a big pat on the back from his manager for all of his hard work, as every blog I have read has said what a great waiter he is.

We were given our menus, which were quite a battle in themselves. Restaurant Bar and Grill appears to counter the Ramsay theory of keeping your menu short. From what I've read, and seen, they certainly seem to manage to produce high quality dishes despite having such a large choice. I might, however, recommend that they reduce the physical size of their menus: as a petite lady of 5'1, the luxurious leather bound item was nearly as big as my upper body!

Whilst we decided on drinks, bread was brought over with a Vietnamese style dipping oil. We had noticed that their menu features quite a lot of Asian influence. Whilst the dipping oil was perfectly balanced, I'd prefer this on a beef salad, and would rather stick to salted butter. I'm just being fussy though as Jamie certainly seemed to enjoy it.

To drink, I opted for a small glass of the South African Sauvignon, as I had already decided that I would be opting for a fishy starter. Jamie had decided on the chicken liver parfait, and complimented this with a glass of the Valpolicella.

Chicken liver parfait

Unfortunately we didn't get a shot of the accompanying sourdough bread, which was served in a mini toast rack. I loved this idea, and Jamie agreed - the accompanying toast for parfaits can so often cause problems with presentation that this mini breakfast item was a lovely idea. The parfait was just as one should be - incredibly rich with a delightful apple & pear chutney sitting alongside. Jamie was very pleased to see it encased with clarified butter... In his words, 'if you're going to eat parfait, you're basically going to eat a whole stick of butter, so you may as well have some more'. God help his arteries.

Thai squid

Having drooled over the Gourmet Kitchen's recipe for salt & szechuan pepper squid earlier in the week, I couldn't resist the Chilli squid with Thai herb & noodle salad; very well balanced I thought I could taste notes of white peppercorn, fennel seed and star anise, but I might just be making that up! It was a good dish, but I couldn't help but wish I went for the naughtier option of duck spring rolls (nothing against the starter I did have, just a case of food regret...).

Our mains nearly ready, Kenny came over to ask if we would like a wine to accompany our mains. He recommended a Malbec to go with my duck, and a Chilean Sauvignon for Jamie's fish. I should mention now that at the start of the meal, I had merely suggested to Jamie that we should each try a fish and a meat dish for both starter and main, to showcase the restaurant's variety, and perhaps try out their specials. After reading about the 35 day dry-aged steaks, he was wavering as to whether this idea should be carried out. I think he didn't want to be too cheeky by having one of the most luxurious items on the menu, and instead went for the salt-baked sea bass. We were intrigued to see what this was like, as it is something we had tried ourselves at home a few months earlier.

Before our starters arrived, but after we'd ordered, we saw fellow blogger, Simon who raved about the steak. Instant regret washed over Jamie's face. I suggested we ask if he could change his main - it would be unlikely that they would have started cooking sea bass already! He stubbornly refused & insisted I would be to blame if he didn't enjoy his main course.

I almost felt like we were on the Michel Roux documentary about Escoffier when the waiter appeared table side with the salt-baked sea bass. He appeared to fillet it well, and it's certainly no easy feat, especially with an audience! Jamie did however find a few bones, which I don't think really matters, but unfortunately Jamie is more of a scaredy-cat when it comes to fish bones than I am. I did take a photo of the impressive salt-bake around the fish, but our stupid camera must have deleted it. Grr!

Salt-baked sea bass
The sea bass came with either chips or house salad, and Jamie, of course, when for the former (not that I was complaining!). Having realised that orange actually works very nicely with sea bass the night before, he also opted for a rosemary & orange sauce. We also had a side of broccoli with cashew nuts and chilli oil. It tasted a bit like they had used chipotle or ancho chilli with these, which seemed unlikely - but I would love to know what chilli they did use if the kitchen reads this?

I, for some ridiculous reason, went for the most man-sized portion of food ever. Jamie managed to stop being huffy about not having gone for the steak, as he basically got to eat one and a half mains, as I struggled with mine. I'd also been craving duck (hmm...lots of food cravings.. I'm definitely not pregnant though!), but knew I wasn't going to be able to have it as I had seen their menu online. Lo and behold, my luck was in - it was on their specials list! Served with orange and er, I think it said "aromatics", I was very pleased to see this on the menu.

Half a Gressingham duck
It came with a deliciously rich jus and a perfectly-cooked fondant potato. This was very impressive as I've never had one cooked so well in anything other than a starred restaurant. The portion was huge, and though we were not paying, I felt would have been very good value for money. The plate had a whole duck breast and leg! I literally only managed half of it and Jamie ate the rest. The deep sauce and salty bird - cooked to perfection - was beautifully complimented by the segments of orange littered throughout. Kenny's recommendation of Malbec was a great choice - the aroma of cherries were bursting out of the glass which compliment the gamier flavours of the duck beautifully. Jamie also said his white wine went well with the bass.

We were pretty stuffed after all this, but when I saw that they had macarons on the menu - and that they were made in house - I couldn't resist. I also thought I would only get three as it listed three flavours, but there were actually five! Again, Jamie did well for himself, as he got to eat a significant amount of these. Though pretty to look at, they weren't at room temperature and the shell seemed a little too dense. They were still tasty, but have a little way to go before reaching Pierre Herme's standards. Looking at the menus online now, I wish we had have asked for a standard drinks list, as I see they have chocolate sazeracs on their menu, and I would have happily replaced macarons with one of these for dessert! - my absolute favourite cocktail.

Jamie opted for the black forest gateau Eton mess! Two of his favourite desserts combined - all they needed to do was pop a little creme brulee on top and he would have been in heaven. It was beautiful to look at, but very rich. I think someone with a sweeter tooth than Jamie's would have adored this, but Jamie felt it would benefit from more forest fruits running through it to counter the richness of the chocolate brownie and ice cream (actually, I added in the 'forest', Jamie said it should have had strawberry or banana as that's what Heston said was served in the messes at Eton...blah blah blah). I tasted the chocolate ice cream and it was gorgeous!

Having always associated Restaurant Bar & Grill with the clientele of Panacea, I didn't know what to expect of our dining experience. I can honestly say that the food was delightful and well-cooked, and I was pleased to hear that absolutely everything is made on site - even down to the ketchup that goes with their burgers! We felt that this would be a great choice for somewhere to eat as a large group, or a family meal, as the menu offers something for everyone, and it appears that you can rest assured that it will be as tasty as it sounds. I'd like to thank RBG for their generosity in inviting us as guests.

Restaurant Bar & Grill
14 John Dalton Street, Manchester
M2 6JR
0161 839 5511

The Restaurant Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Dining in the Dark at the Living Room

This week, Jamie and myself were invited to 'dine in the dark' at the Living Room Manchester. When the e-mail appeared in my inbox I was rather excited having heard about restaurants that serve in the dark on the continent and elsewhere. This, however, was a much safer option, with blindfolds to obscure our vision rather than pitch blackness (especially good for me as Gregor Schneider's Kinderzimmer scarred me for life).

The evening took the form of a "pub quiz", as we were asked various questions about the dishes we blind tasted. This was a well-received format, although the bloggers did differ to the author of the quiz with regards to the definition of ingredients vs. flavours! We were pleased to see Jules from goodgobbleblog, and also had the pleasure of meeting Lex from LadyNom and her lovely friend Sarah, as well as Louise from the Lone Gourmet. There were two other fellas there though I'm afraid I didn't catch their blog name. I shan't embarrass anyone else with blindfolded photos of them, so will dutifully share one of us!

Us at our best... barely visible that is!
There was little opportunity to take photographs, what with all the quizzing and being blind-folded, so all the ones on this post are provided by the Living Room and Flamingo Creative. The stand out dishes of the night were easily the dolcelatte & butternut squash tart, and the lamb tagine. The former with its delightfully crisp pastry and deliciously rich filling had many of us stumpted when it came to guessing the ingredients. The latter was rich and unctuous and was also served with giant couscous which I absolutely love.

Dolcelatte, butternutsquash, walnut and honey tart - not sure what's on top of this one here though!

Lamb tagine with giant couscous, easier to work out the flavours blindfolded on this one.

Another dish which I really enjoyed were the vegetarian sausages. Though I was ridiculed by my scoresheet marker for suggesting a Lancashire cheese was used in the Glanmorgan sausages, I really had the last laugh as I only went and won the quiz! I was the most shocked by this, particularly as I scored a fairly low 14 out of 40. I was inwardly cheering for joy - just at beating Jamie. I have never met anyone with as good a palette as Jamie's and so could not believe I had beaten him! This was practically a double win, as I also no longer need shun veggie sausages (although I fear that all may not be as tasty as the Living Room's).

Not usually a fan of vegetarian sausages but these beat Linda McCartney's hands down!

Another dish which gets a special mention, though unfortunately there is no photograph to accompany it, was the sea bass with orange & broccoli. This was really delicious - and the sea bass was cooked to perfection! This even prompted Jamie to try this combination when we went out for dinner the next evening (more on that later).

We were also given shots of some of the cocktails on the menu, including the Living Room's signature drink - the Basil Grande. This is a drink I have enjoyed since I discovered cocktails, and I would recommend trying this out. It's an unlikely but gorgeous combination of basil, strawberry, black pepper and Grand Marnier.

Trying a menu out in this fashion was great fun & a brilliant PR idea. However, we did not get to try as much as the menu as I would have liked to be able to recommend all of their dishes. I was also very disappointed by their creme brulee, which supposedly tasted of passionfruit and coconut... though I definitely got more of a under-caramelised sugar & over-cooked egg taste. However, the savouries we tasted were well made, and - judging by the photos - well presented! As the saying goes, you eat with your eyes, so to be able to still enjoy the dishes that I've mentioned here without seeing them is quite a success!

Thank you to the Living Room for hosting the evening and Flamingo PR for coming up with such a fab concept for a menu-tasting!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Wholemeal loaf

I've recently been overcome with the desire to make my own bread.

This is due in no small part to Paul Hollywood's book 'How To Bake' and to the Channel 4's 'The Fabulous Baker Brothers'.

This isn't the first time, mind you. I think anyone who's serious about food and interested in living sustainably/cheaply will have attempted to make their own bread, with varying degrees of success.

I'll admit that my first few attempts gave me some good old 'brick' loafs, most likely the result of a lack of technique coupled with a lack of experience. The more practice you get, the more you get a feel for when a dough has been kneaded sufficiently and when it has proved enough, and more likely you will end up with something palatable.

There are also some invaluable tips which will speed you on your way to making brilliant bread:

- If using dried yeast, such as the Doves Farm Quick Yeast, you don't need to reconstitute it with warm water. Adding warm water decreases the proving time, which, although making the whole process quicker, detracts from the flavour of your final loaf and can cause the dough to over-prove. Use cold/tepid water and knead the dough enough to warm and then let rise until doubled in size.
 - Add a little oil or butter to your dough and it will retain a moister crumb. I'd go for rapeseed oil and unsalted butter in regular bread and olive oil for the richer ciabattas and focaccias. Also oiling your work surface instead of flouring it actually makes it easier to knead the dough.
- When you turn on your oven to preheat it, add a baking tray with a little water to create a steamy environment in your oven. It makes for a lighter crust.
- In general, the wetter the dough, the more moist your final loaf will be. So if the dough is dry don't be afraid to add a little more water. It will be harder to work with but persevere! I've had some very wet doughs that will come together with a good bout of kneading. By all means use a stand-mixer if the dough is unmanageably wet.

 The recipes here are Paul Hollywood's and I've added any observations as I see fit. The recipes call for slightly more dried yeast than other recipes I've seen - and the bread is markedly better for it. If you use the ratio 500g flour/ 10g salt/ 10g dried yeast/ 20-40g butter or oil/ and enough water to make a sloppy dough, I don't think you can go far wrong. I've added photos to help you gauge what your dough etc. should look like.

I've been using Dove's Farm flours and their dried active yeast. The amount of water you need to add to the dough will vary depending on the flour you're using.

A quick tip from Mary Berry for softening butter is to put it in body-temperature water (35-40 degrees). This will make it much easier to incorporate into the dough.

Wholemeal Loaf


400g strong wholemeal bread flour
100g strong white bread flour
10g salt
10g instant yeast
40g unsalted butter
Roughly 320ml tepid water

- Put the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, adding the yeast and salt to separate sides
- Add the butter and most of the water and mix with one hand (keeping one hand dough-free will make the whole process less messy - you can grab a jug of water, oil, some more flour without coating them in sticky dough)
- Keep mixing until you form a rough dough, using the mixture to clean the insides of the bowl

- Tip the dough out onto an oiled work surface and knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough forms a smooth soft skin.

- Roll into a ball and place in a lightly oiled large bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to rise until doubled in size, or at least one hour.

-When the dough has risen, tip it out onto a lightly floured surface, then fold it in on itself and punch it to knock the air out. At this point you can roll the dough into a sausage shape (see below) or make it into any shape you desire, divide it to make rolls or place in a proving basket. I rolled mine then tied it into a knot.

- Place on a tray line with baking parchment or a silicone mat. Cover with a large clean plastic bag and allow to prove for about an hour or til the dough springs back quickly if you prod it with your finger.
- In the meantime, preheat your oven to 200 degrees and place a baking tray filled with a little water in it
- Bake the loaf for about 30 minutes, then check if it's cooked by tapping the base. It should sound hollow.

The loaf worked beautifully with mackerel pate made with smoked mackerel from the Lancaster Smokehouse.

I'll be back soon with posts on how to make brioche and some great crusty dinner rolls.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Q&A with Ernst van Zyl, Etrop Grange

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I found out that Manchester Confidential had begun a new column, interviewing head chefs around Manchester. Jamie came up with the idea at the PR evening at Linen, after we met Jarmoir and saw what a lovely chap he is (there's an interview with Jaromir to follow). We thought it would be interesting to find out more about what inspires the talented chefs of Manchester, not just those with celebrity status. Still, there's room for more than one lot of interviews in the same city!

Ernst van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, has been much talked about in foodie circles of late. After reading about his food on Mrs Petticoat and The Lady Sybil's blogs, I knew I must visit! I casually dropped a few thousand hints to Jamie, and last Monday he met with Ernst to discuss a menu for my birthday (at the end of the month), and took the opportunity to quiz him on his background and inspirations... It's quite long, but listening to it, I found it hard to edit - everything seemed interesting, I hope you think so too!

Jamie: For those of our readers who don't know much about you, tell me a little about yourself, and your background...

Ernst: I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the U.K at the age of 21. I'd already been cheffing for 3 years - I completed a year of catering college, then worked at a place very similar to Etrop, but with a golf course, 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. I started just round the corner at the Hilton, Manchester Aiport, and transferred to London for a couple of years, working at the Hilton Kensington, a 600 bedroom hotel!

When you work for Hilton, everyone talks about the Park Lane hotel... so I worked there for three months over the Christmas period. We would do 1200 covers for silver service - no problems - to see that happen is amazing. Eventually, I had enough of London: it's a cold place and time flies when you're there, because you work so much. I think it's a nice place now, but mostly because I know I can leave when I visit!

After a short spell in Belfast, I came back to Manchester and became the second in command at the Radisson across the road. There, we had 2 AA Rosettes. It was a different experience, we did lots of different functions, and I managed to gain a lot of exposure - for example, if the head chef was off, I was in charge - a hotel with 360 rooms and 20 chefs. It was educational... we would have kosher functions; watching a rabbi turn the oven on isn't something I've seen in my other jobs!

I felt ready to be a head chef, and began working for Prima hotels - a small chain, and I began in Wilmslow. It was a fantastic property and weddings were a massive part of what we did. The MD (managing director) approached me after two and a half years there, asking if I would take on a different role, a sort of executive chef role. I did, and it gave me the opportunity to see a different perspective as a head chef. As a chef, working in a kitchen, you see that as the whole world - but you need to understand how the whole outlet fits in with what you do, because it has a massive effect on your work.

Jamie: Is that why you're into social media?

Ernst: Yes, very much so. It's nice to talk to customers and see how they see things, to teach me as a chef, and us as an establishment. I enjoyed my time as an executive chef, but after a year, I missed wearing my whites... I tried teaching for a while, but I don't think I'm ready for it yet, not quite the right age. At the beginning it was brilliant - to see how excited the kids on apprenticeships were - but then the kids cared less and less, and they didn't turn up... The frustration made me want to look for something else - and the hours! I worked Monday - Friday 8am - 5pm - I've never done that before, not even when I was in a suit for a year.

So, I began handing out my CV at the hotels round here. The GM (general manager) here called me in, and I began in my spare time whilst teaching. He kept asking me if I was still happy teaching, and I ended up beginning full-time in August last year... still here and cooking like crazy, and some amazing opportunities - the GM asked if I would be interested in spending time - doing a stage (a culinary internship) - at the Fat Duck so, I went!

Jamie: How was that? It must have been quite different working somewhere like that...

Ernst: That style of cooking... so much of it is impossible to recreate... but the modernist approach is what I appreciate, the thought behind it. I came back to Etrop and decided to write to Noma. Eventually, I ended up with an e-mail saying there was an opportunity there.

Jamie: And do they use modernist techniques there too?

Ernst: Yes, but in a subtle way... we have this image in our mind of Heston, with his canister in hand, but at Noma they don't shout about it - they just do it and use it. I spent five weeks there - the most educational five weeks I've had in 15 years of cooking.

Jamie: What did you learn? How to treat your ingredients?

Ernst: Exactly... For example, I look at their carrots - grown on a biodynamic farm, no pesticides, natural sweetness - it's phenomenal. I'm looking at food in such a different way now. So much is served raw there, and seafood that's just a couple of hours old... 100 kilos of scallops every Tuesday - they're still moving when you take them out of the shell! Their emphasis is on freshness and quality, the seasonality, the complete respect there - if it's not Danish or Scandinavian, they're not interested. Foraging is core to them - and educating people through foraging. Sometimes things don't get cooked, just placed on a plate.

Jamie: When you came back, did it totally change your outlook?

Ernst: My food is more modernist than ever. Noma has really influenced me - in mentality, and in thought process. I saw some amazing techniques at the Fat Duck, but the strongest influence is definitely Noma... the most mentally and physically challenging five weeks, but amazing.

Jamie: Do you go foraging here?

Ernst: We try... It's something I've become interested in but it can be difficult to explore, and to find someone to come and show us is quite a challenge. We've done a bit, elderflower, nettles, Jack by the Hedge. We've begun growing herbs that I can't get from my suppliers as well - yarrow, lemon balm, lemon verbena.

Jamie: Jack by the hedge... what's that?

Ernst: It tastes like garlic, but as you chew and digest it becomes like mustard. It's stunning - bright green - you blanch it, make a puree... perfect with fish and lamb.

Jamie: I can't imagine getting that anywhere else in Manchester, you're certainly doing something different...

Ernst: Yeah, it's a way for me to challenge myself. I love doing these bespoke menus for people - it's like a blank canvas - to get a list of things people like, pulling on my knowledge from the Fat Duck, Noma, and more recently Le Manoir... It gives me an opportunity to show my guys things they wouldn't usually see, and break service up a bit. My guys feels excited about the bespoke menus - using familiar techniques but with different ingredients. We absolutely love doing that stuff! It gives Etrop a different perspective, and for people to come along and try something unusual...

Jamie: It must be difficult for you to eat! What kind of things do you like cooking and eating?

Ernst: Me? I'm a very unfussy kind of guy. I've eaten at so many places, I like to be unfussy. At this time of year, root veg and game... In South Africa, it was BBQ seven days a week, a lot of seafood and meat, all phenomenal. Ostrich was quite normal for me as a child... crocodile, springbok. I guess I've always been exposed to unusual things. I wouldn't try serving an 8oz steak to a South African, you'd probably end up in hospital if you did that! I just love to eat good food... I don't have a signature dish, I think every dish can be your signature. We do a bespoke tasting menu, there's five signature dishes right there. It's great to be parodied like Heston with bacon & egg ice cream, but there's so much more to the Fat Duck than that...

Jamie: You mentioned before your time at Le Manoir, what was that like for you?

Ernst: different! Classic, but using modern techniques - the same as I found at the Fat Duck and Noma - but no challenging taste combinations, just ones that have stood the test of time. You get a wild mushroom risotto... but it's with seven different kinds of wild mushroom, and a phenomenal mushroom stock, and the best Parmesan money can buy. It's a phenomenal risotto. Their food isn't my style, but two weeks there showed me so much.

Jamie: And what about the garden?

Ernst: It's absolutely amazing, I would go back tomorrow just for that, it's so beautiful. The mentality of the place is about care. One day, Raymond did this speech about leading the way in training and in the hospitality they provide... it was inspirational to hear that.

Jamie: We recently blogged about a TV programme about the madness of Michelin... What do you think of Michelin?

Ernie: I saw the programme... It would be difficult to get one here, but it is a dream of mine. I'm not in a rush... well a big part of me isn't, but there is a small part that is! A star would be a cherry on my cake career. I'd love a thank you one day, given the blood, sweat and tears I've given... but I've eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, and you give yourself to that world. The guys at Noma do 100+ hours a week - and they live for that restaurant: it takes everything you are, your mind, body and soul. I'm still young, so maybe one day.

Jamie: You only went to Noma recently, so you're starting again in a way?

Ernst: True... When I arrived at Noma, it felt like my first day in a kitchen again!

Jamie: Where's next on your stage wish-list?

Ernst: Alinea, Chicago... though there were guys at Noma who had been there who said it was worse, more grueling than Noma! I don't know how it can be worse? I'm apprehensive about that. The French Laundy as well... and more recently, Frantzen Lindeberg in Sweden. They look awesome! Actually, I e-mailed them last night... 11 Madison Park in New York. But if I had a real choice, it would be Frantzen Lindeberg. There isn't even a menu - they cook daily whatever they lay their hands on! 2 Michelin stars, amazing.

Jamie: What books do you use for inspiration?

Ernst: Modernist Cuisine... everything you could ever want to know is in those six books! But I never put down Noma. It takes me back there, gets me going again, inspires me to look at a vegetable in a different way. I always reach for Noma first, followed very closely by Modernist. Marque, 11 Madison Park and the Fat Duck, they're all amazing too. They're on the same table - I end up with the same books around me whenever I write a new menu.

Jamie: I can see how excited you are talking about cooking?

Ernst: Yes, I love it! I would go mad in an office... not being able to play with liquid nitrogen or a water bath?? It would make me mental. That's why I think cheffing is so cool, because no day is ever the same. My suppliers are fantastic - my fruit and veg supplier goes to Paris once a month to get inspiration for themselves - that helps me to get inspired, because they are. The guys - the chefs - they work so hard too. I love just making my sourdough bread, our starter is 8 months old now. It's like a child, you have to feed it, look after it, love it...

Jamie: Yeah, like a pet without the noise!

Ernst: Exactly - it just sits in a corner nice and quietly. It's great, to go with our homemade butter... We're not just satisfied with rolls, we make our bread and our butter... To have the permission to bubble whipped cream is nice... they used to say "don't overwhip that cream!", but here, that's what we want!

Listening to Ernst and Jamie talk (like two kids in a sweet shop!) has made me excited beyond imagination about my birthday menu... I can't yet recommend the food, but I can tell you I have heard few chefs this passionate about what they are putting on a plate, so watch this space to see what I'm presented with on November 30th!