Masterchef

Sauce Supper Club: Laurence and Claire, St Johns House, Lichfield.

I’m a bit of a Masterchef geek. Okay, I’m a huge Masterchef geek. One of my earliest TV memories was the Sunday evening version with the transatlantic drawl of Lloyd Grossman and his elongated vooooeeeeeweeeels. I have a hazy memory of some ageing French chef being a guest judge and talking about how a dish would have been more haute cuisine had they removed the vegetable garnish and just served the duck breast with the sauce. So one of my first TV memories is someone essentially saying that vegetables are bad, to which infant Simon concurred. Years later I enthusiastically tuned-in to watch Tomasina take the inaugral title of the rehash, and subsequently tuned-off when I tried the first Wahaca site she opened. I’ve seen every episode of every season since, the good, the bad and the ‘celebrity’ version. For me, the most interesting development has been the professionals format. This is where the real high and low points happen; the little bits of genius and the chocolate cake with guinea fowl. I’ve booked restaurants purely off the back of that show, I’ve watched a beautiful, bearded Greek almost crash out the first round and then storm through to the semi-finals, and I’ve considered my sexuality watching Michael Roux Jnr before Gregg Wallace opened that huge gob of his and confirmed I will always be heterosexual. I’d quite like Gregg’s job.

The chance to see two of the sucess stories from Masterchef The Professionals is too great to turn down, even if it means leaving the confines of Moseley for a forty minute drive to Lichfield. The winner of this years show, Laurence Henry, is joined by The Rematch champion, Claire Hutchings. Both sous chefs at two star restaurants, the former works at a restaurant in Nottingham which we’re visiting this summer, whilst the latter is based in Spain. We are seated on communal tables in the pristine St Johns House, on thick white chairs and heavy white linen draped tables. Snacks preceed the four courses, a delicate cone of salmon tartare which I am told is delicious (the stuff makes me gag), a gougere that is a tiny bit dense to be up there with the best, a pork croquette with kimchi puree, and most interestingly, a lightly spiced cracker with raw lamb and bulgar wheat that riffs on the Middle Eastern dish, Kibbeh.

Laurence is up first. The first course has mackerel two ways; a delicate fillet soused in a mixture involving beetroot juice which provided a copper sheen, and a panfried fillet which I’m not sure needed to be there. With this was beetroot thrice: as a puree, teeny raw discs, and beautiful cooked white beetroot, with a quenelle of horseradish tempered enough to stop it blowing everything out of the water. His next course wins no beauty contest, though for me was the best of the day: beef short rib, braised down until it retains just enough texture. The meat has a little underlying heat and the gentle funk of dried crustacean; it is a very refined take on some big, pungent flavours, delivered with skill and finesse. The roast onion puree, crispy onions, and shredded scallion it shares the plate with pull it back towards these shores. I could have eaten three more plates of this and left very happy.

Alas, that was not to be. Up steps Claire Hutchings with the dish that won the Rematch over Christmas. Lamb breast slowly cooked until only just holding shape, glazed in a curried sauce which pays homage to her Birmingham roots. It looks like a two star plate of food, with a row of neatly postioned cubes of mango and folds of cucumber, the latter alternating with pipings of mint yogurt and sweet mango puree. We get rice with crispy coconut and a jug of that curried sauce, with which I manage to transform my plate into a biriyani in record time. You can’t take me anywhere. But still, what a dish. Two different chefs, each with very different takes on spice. Both instantly marked out as ones to watch for the future.

Claire is on desserts today, with a set mousse of sheeps yogurt, sorrel granita, compressed apples in some herby liquor (I think), meringue, and dehydrated olives that had taken on a leather-like texture. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it – it took me back to the four ‘dessert’ courses at L’Enclume that featured parsnips and other stuff that should never end a meal. In short I loved it; the complexity and unexpected pellets of sweetness, the balance of it all and how the olive tasted almost candied when combined with the rest of the plate. We finish on wedges of salted chocolate, neck the wine and say our goodbyes to the rest of the table.

I’ve followed Sauce Supper Club for sometime, accidentally so on occasion (we’ve been eating in the same dining room twice in the last year), and I’ve wondered if these events really are for me. They undoubtedly bring a class of chef not usually found in Lichfield, though the travel is part of the fun for us. But these events are really something, delivering a very high quality for the £75 ticket fee. We ate four courses of their own food from chefs presently cooking somebody else’s menu on a daily basis. It was a glimpse into the the next generation of star chefs. If this lunch was anything to go by, the future of our restaurant scene is in very safe hands.

Thanks to A2B for getting us over the Staffordshire border and back

Leo’s Modern Greek Food Night, Pure Bar, Birmingham

If you’ve been watching Masterchef the Professionals you’ll probably recognise Leo Kattou of Simpsons restaurant. The softly spoken and impeccably mannered Greek-Cypriot from Coventry has a distinctive look that would be described as a Bear in some circles. A man bun, big beard and bigger smile about sums up that large, rotund head of his. Now before I proceed and the observant of my Twitter feed protest, I will disclose that I know Leo; I have feed him my beef ragu at 4am and he has beaten me at pool, so I was personally super chuffed to watch him reach the Semi-finals of Masterchef. He’s one of the good guys of the local scene and deserves all the success it brings.

Part of that increased public exposure is tonight’s sell-out pop-up for which we’ve shelled out £55 each for in advance for five courses with matching beers. The first course is familiar to anyone who has dined at Simpsons. Tapioca crackers dyed with squid ink and a splodge of the creamiest of Taramasalata to dredge through. Bread and butter is served at the same time. The crust is taut, the crumb loose. It’s a simple, yet effective start to the meal.

This wouldn’t be a homage to Greek food without halloumi. We have a Jenga stack of them fried to a Midas crisp, with a crown of olive tapenade, smoked aubergine purée and the nights only mis-step, a fat slice of tomato that tastes of very little. The rest is a composed collection of stuff that transports us from a rainy evening in Birmingham to far sunnier climes.

The fish course is a nod to his parents owning a chippy in Coventry of their own. It’s simple enough; panfried cod with tartar sauce and ‘chips’. The chips are really puffed potato pieces seasoned with salt and vinegar powder, the tartar closer to a bearnaise with chopped caper and fresh peas running through it. You could argue whether or not the peas needed to be there, which we did and I lost, but it’s a clever bit of cooking. Obvious enough to be a direct reference point, yet light enough to sit within a five course meal.

I know all is going to be well with the lamb kleftico main the second I slide the bone clean out of the shank. Ooh, Matron. The meat breaks down at the nudge of a fork, it’s inherent fatty qualities tempered by some smartly dressed bulgar wheat and kale. An anchovy emulsion seasons it all and is textbook in delivery. It’s hard to believe that this has come from the same man who messed up a lovage emulsion so badly on national telly. But he did, and it makes great viewing on iPlayer if you need a laugh.

Dessert is, to quote a food critic often found on Masterchef, a bunch of creamy things with some crispy things on top. But what creamy and crispy things they are. Layers of aerated honey and yogurt hide a sticky reduction of cherry juice, whilst shards of crisp filo stick out like Leo on a police line-up. This man understands that if the menu says cherry then we want physical cherries and they are here, boozily macerated in Kirsch and obscured under those creamy bits. A word now on the beer pairings from the manager Matt. Properly clever and well considered, these varied from using the less-than-obvious citrus back notes of an unfiltered lager, to the cherry beer that went with this course. Truly excellent work from top to bottom.

Now back to Leo. A few things were very obvious from the dinner. Firstly, his tenure at Simpsons has grounded him within their principles – respect for ingredients was obvious, in most cases simplicity was key. Somewhat more importantly for Leo it showed his true potential; a chef capable of taking the classic technique associated with the French and apply it to a more rustic Greek cuisine. He has shown a wit and playfulness, delivering plate after plate of well conceived and precisely cooked plates of food. He’s young and hungry. His role of senior sous at Simpsons is the perfect job for him at present, but every one of the packed-out dining room earmarked Leo Kattou as a star of the future.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com

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; http://www.a2bradiocars.com