You have your picture. Now for the thousand words!
It’s been a while since I had time to write. In the past week I’ve consolidated my role in Cocoa Runners (CR. Because I can), celebrated CNY, invented wonderful baked beans and other sides so natural to a delicious bacon roll. The biggest event was not CNY, but Stories from Sevilla-the title of a Supperclub night that I host, along with the three other chefs that make up The Unlikely Collective (TUC henceforth).
It was definitely the hardest one so far. We’d been “away” for two months, and the system I use to spread the word works slooooowly. I’m a fan of good old-fashioned word of mouth. Most things nowadays are so very easy on the surface-that is when you realise you won’t get any depth.
“There’s an easy way. Then there’s the right way”- (I have no idea where I heard this, but it is true)
It can be incredibly frustrating at times. Staring at the short list of confirmed guests and then panicking at rising costs (Will we even break even?); I caught myself thinking of Groupon and proceeded to self-flagellate with Larousse Gastronomique. My role within TUC is primarily that of the organiser and PR. The three others all have years upon years of experience and the cockiness of male chefs. I’ve handled sections. They’ve handled restaurants.
One of the biggest kill-joys has to be dealing with “foodies”. Yeah, that is the F-word to me. I will take constructive criticism, just not from some yuppie that demands group discounts and complains that £55 for 8 courses is too dear. The final blow to his credibility was the clear enjoyment of a white Rioja that had been ordered (from the suppliers, not by him) by accident. I would just about cook with that wine. Just.
I miss holding a knife. My knives miss it too. They get hungry and bite people. I understand. They want to be used for what they were made for, they want to dance and gleam and make little staccato noises instead of living in a knife bag and coming out to play a few days a month. (Note to self: remember to consider the possibility of projecting self’s thoughts onto knives)
On the day of the Supperclub (last Sunday), I was stressed to the teeth. We were one chef down and all of us were running on at least one night of little to no sleep. Communication, patchy enough between Spanish speakers and the lone English speaker (me!me!) at the best of times, had broken down massively. Ingredients and equipment were elusive. We had to travel to prep in one place, then move the whole operation over to the restaurant. It would be the first time we cooked in the kitchen. And the first time we had a guest chef (which was my doing, and therefore my responsibility. I was so worried that Aneesh, an incredible chocolatier, would be taken aback by the chaos as he had never worked in a hot kitchen before). Plus the space we were using was owned by a honest-to-quantum sonofabitch megalomaniac Cuban.
There was this hideous feeling that everything was my fault because I had wanted so so much to set at least two of us on our/their (?) way(s?) to having their own restaurant. Unfortunately the Americans that were meant to be coming had decided patriotically in favour of the Superbowl, so all the rush to pull off an eight-course meal had been for naught. Juanpe was exhausted. We were all sniping at each other, it looked like we would be losing money and it was ALL my fault. I felt like I was losing one of the few things in life that made me feel truly alive.
That was when the magic happened.
Guests started arriving. Leo (that would be the missing chef) trotted up, fragrant as a flower, wonderfully invigorated by a fantastic slanging match with his ex-girlfriend. Furi raspberried me. We all had chocolate.
And the show began.
One of my friends took it upon himself to perform the role of maitre’d. No surprise, as he had been head waiter at The Ivy. The tension that had been brewing like a humid rainstorm in a teacup broke. We were cooking.
The menu was Strictly Southern Spain. Juanpe had grown up in Sevilla and the food was a homage to his place of birth.
A vibrant shot of gazpacho was followed by a salad of cod and orange, interspersed with guests laughing over mystery clues. Given the more reticent British nature (at social gatherings) and an ever-present urge to experiment (once a scientist blababla), I had instructed guests to prepare four sentences about themselves, which did not need to be true. Upon arrival (that was the plan), I would take payment and the four sentences in exchange for a menu and my sparkling wit. The pieces of paper, covered in lies, were randomly re-distributed and guests would take a stab at identifying the owner according to the bits of misinformation. It’s amazing what you can get people to do when they pay you money.
The third and fourth courses were received less warmly. Personally, I thought the Spanish chickpeas with fresh baby spinach and toast with cumin oil was beautiful. The puchero was indeed a bit too salty and the dish too bland in appearance, but the homemade ramen did make up for it. (Ok, full disclosure: IT LOOKED LIKE FUCKING INSTANT NOODLES! MAGGIE MEE CHICKEN FLAVOUR!)
It was disappointing that the stew was over-seasoned. Puchero, done well, is a celebration of Pig. Jamon bones and tocino are simmered together for hours before adding chickpeas, blood pudding and chorizo. You are meant to mash the fat with bread and eat it all in a great big mess, preferably at noon in summer. You then give up the week-long struggle against siestas and fall asleep, glass of wine in one hand, while your hostess offers you a bewildering assortment of objects to smell, and perhaps consume.
We found out that there was a “secret problem” when the fifth course went out. She claimed to be “allergic” (bollocks. You have an intolerance. An allergy is a full-scale reaction, normally requiring medical treatment. ) to gluten and seafood. But the cod and orange salad had been eaten, without comment. Always, always one of these specimens in the group. She was also”afraid of large amounts of food”. I despair, and pray she does not reproduce.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, we were well into the second bottle of wine. I produced some incredible chocolate (remember the company I was talking about in the previous post? That shit is..THE SHIT) to wake us all up. I love that fish course. Sea bream in rotena sauce. Rotena sauce is made from grilled red and green peppers, blended with fish stock. The colours, smell, texture….Juanpe really got me there.
Now for the last hot dish-pig cheeks with artichoke chips and pumpkin puree. The cheeks had been cooked in a sauce of courgette, wine, and water. Nothing more. We had the devil’s own time tracking down seitan-Japanese gluten “loaf”. Not a particularly hard ingredient to locate, or even that expensive, but on a Sunday hunting is a pain. I had to phone 6 different health stores, which I will admit to enjoying. How often does one get to ask for Satan?
Satan was expensive though, £10 for two jars from Wholefoods which would have cost next-to-nothing in Chinatown. Tut.
Of course, the ungrateful vegetarians didn’t even touch it.
We were almost done with the night. All that remained were the two desserts, and fuckmesideways they were unbelievable. The first, by the brilliant Aneesh was an architectural display of mastery. Halved cherries, rolled in almond meal and vanilla, with zig-zags of javanese milk chocolate water ganache, essence of grapefruit, lime and orange, cheery granita and cherry coulis.
Very, very clever.
The second sweet course though..that stole my heart. Something about the sphere-ish shapes of coffee ice cream and torta de aceite mousse and their muted caramel and cream colour, after the display of the first course really brought it home-that this menu came from the heart.
That was when I KNEW that we were doing the right thing.
The rest of the night was a blur of cleaning down, packing up, plate-counting (Incidentally, we’d had to borrow 13 spoons from a pub down the road.I’m surprised I don’t have more white hairs), and hanging out with guests. Getting to know people-that’s such a big part of our supperclubs. It’s hard when people miss the point, but I think I’m getting better at, uh, showing them the point?
Was it tiring? Always. Frustrating? Definitely. Will I do it again? In a heartbeat.
PS-she the chef glaring at some Italian-looking dude. That’s me, and that’s my friend. He’s a manager, and therefore always in the way (Kitchen truths 101) I was trying t o plate.