The Chefs Forum Lunch, UCB, Birmingham

Some things are worth knocking off work early. A nativity play or Sports Day spring to mind, but I don’t have any children of my own and ‘borrowing’ them is apparently illegal in the eyes of the law. Mealtimes are my baby, all 8lb 9oz of it, and I am never one to turn down an opportunity to mingle with the big guns of the industry. Offer me a chance to have a lunch cooked by some of the UCB’s success stories and I am going to snap your hand clean off. Tell me two of those have just finished on Masterchef The Professionals and I’ll have that annual leave booked so quickly Google wont have time to tell you about the time I got in trouble for ‘borrowing’ a child. It was for a Sports Day. I enjoy the competition.

The premise of the lunch is to fund raise for The Chefs Forum Education Forum, a rather marvellous foundation that helps to alleviate some of the financial worries of young people training within the industry. We get four courses from five chefs, each associated with the college, or foundation, in some way. It’s a line-up that attracts the finest of the industry; restauranteurs, suppliers, chefs. It’s a privilege to be involved with something so worthy.

The food is a success from start to finish. Masterchef finalist and chef at The Wilderness, Louisa Ellis, works with little more than a cauliflower and yeast to pickle, roast, and purée the vegetable into a layered dish which is rich and, dare I say it, meaty. Head chef of Opus, Mark Walsh, dusts butter poached halibut with a tarragon powder that seasons with a subtle anise. Discs of kohlrabi cloak cubes of swede, whilst cockles nestle around a buttery Jerusalem artichoke purée. There is a lot going on, but it’s all held together by a burly chicken dressing. A sorbet appears from Alicias – a new company that I suggest you keep a firm eye on.

We get pork and smoked eel from the Modfather of culinary Brum, Luke Tipping, and his Masterchef disciple, Leo Kattou. It tastes like pork wrapped in smoked bacon, with leek and nuggets of squid ink dyed tempura pumpkin that I’m nicking for home. All presented in that clean and attractive manner that anyone familiar with Simpsons will easily identify with. Dessert is from The Edgbaston’s Olivier Briault, a dark chocolate cremeux sitting on a dacquois and feuillentine base, which is a posh Kit-Kat to those that don’t have a slight obsession with classic Ducasse desserts. I do. The addition of blood orange is not only seasonal but clever as it brings enough acidity to stop this and the cognac ice cream being too rich.

The triumph of the day is two fold; good money is made for the foundation and the UCB shows off the future of the industry. Not a beat is missed in service from those still in training. Glasses are topped-up regularly, every dish plated at the same angle. We finish on a roll call of the chefs and the students to much applause. Chefs never seem to be able to take ovation; it’s not in their nature. They work mostly out of sight with the desire to feed and nothing else. It’s what I admire about them and it’s what the students look up to. It is clear the foundation is doing great things and long may that continue.

This was a pay what you want event and I made a sizeable donation to the foundation.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here;

Romdeng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, springing back from its horrific past to become a wonderful city, rich with culture and tinged with a Western edge from the dollars spent by rapid tourism growth. More bijou than the vast capitals of it’s South-East Asian neighbours, it is a walkable city; the couple of kilometres on the river bank from the night market to the Palace lined with bars and restaurants, ranging from traditional Khmer cuisine to French restaurants that touch on previous empires, to Irish bars. There is always an Irish bar, wherever on the globe you may be.   It is possibly the most hospitable place I have ever been.  Phnom Penh, that is.  Not the Irish bar.

But Cambodia is also a relatively poor country, one that turns over a large proportion of its money from agriculture and is still playing catch-up with much of the world. With this comes a sector of poverty, and with poverty comes exploitation.  Children are being taken away from the education to provide income via other means; begging, or worse.  The Tree Alliance is a charity organisation which focuses on these at risk children, providing them with skill-set training to progress in life.  They have a beauty parlour in Phnom Penh and two restaurants.  Much more is happening outside the city and further afield in other countries, each with similar issues.  The Tree Alliance are good guys.  They do good work.


Of their two restaurants in Phnom Penh we opt for Romdeng, a smart colonial building five minutes walk from the palace.  It still feels like it could be someone’s home; a large outdoor terrace weaves around to the swimming pool, which we were sat at the edge of.  Inside there is a small charity shop and vast areas dining areas, upstairs and down.  Every table is full on a warm Sunday night.

The menu is traditional Khmer and we start with deep fried duck spring rolls, greaseless, but with a ratio of too much pastry to the filling.  A dip of tamarind and honey was the star, all sweet and sour and sticky.


Amok is the national dish of Cambodia, a fish curry similar in profile to a Thai yellow curry, only steamed in a banana leaf to a custard consistency.  Amok is on every menu and we tried plenty during our trip, with Romdeng the best we found.  The chunks of catfish were accurately cooked, the slightly muddy flavour of the fish masked by the vibrant sauce of lemongrass, galangal, and lime.


From the meat section comes crispy strips of pork belly, mercifully light on the advertised five spice, stir fried with onions, red pepper, whole cloves of garlic and green peppercorns.  The cooking was faultless; the meat tender, the vegetables still retaining a little bite.  A stir fry of beef with less successful, though only down to meat which was on the chewy side.



We choose to take liquid desserts in the form of frozen cocktails and very good they were, too.  The bill, with a good amount to drink, fails to hit twenty pound a head despite our best efforts.  We ate at Romdeng very earlier on in our trip and it would transpire that better food was to be had elsewhere.  This isn’t the point of course, which remains that in those kitchens are youngsters being given a better chance at life.  Our server couldn’t have been more helpful, despite his obvious youth – he genuinely deserved the tip we left (all of it shared amongst staff).  If you ever find yourself over this part of the world you could do far worse than search out a Tree Alliance restaurant.  I personally can vouch for the quality to be found at Romdeng.  Like I said, they are good guys.  They do good work.