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Guess who’s coming to dinner?

2022 December 17
by Paul Vallely

Guess who’s coming to dinner

If you give ‘The Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year a stinking review, is it really a sensible idea to ask its chef round for a meal at your place? Paul Vallely thought so. But then he asked his distinguished guest to review his own efforts…

I’m not sure what kind of sauce you’re supposed to serve with humble pie. Only that you have to be careful not to put too much nutmeg in it. I came to that conclusion late last Saturday night, only a matter of hours before my guests arrived for Sunday lunch. One of them was a chef with a Michelin star. Actually it was worse: he is chef at The Good Food Guide‘s new English Restaurant of the Year. Hubris or what?

All week I’d been trying out the different courses each evening. At first my wife thought I was having her on. “You haven’t really invited him. Tell me it’s a joke,” she said each night with increasing desperation, as I shouted at her things like: “Don’t open that wine. I’m saving that for the chef.”

So how exactly did I get into this culinary pickle? Attentive readers may recall that recently I wrote about an unhappy experience I’d had in the Restaurant of the Year. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t good – in my review I described some of it as exquisite, and said that Paul Kitching, the chef at Juniper in Altrincham, was clearly a masterly cook. The problem was that the dishes seemed fussily overdressed, the portions too small, and some of the staff came across as over-reverential or even intimidating. It was quite a broadside.

The day it appeared the chef rang. “Something obviously went terribly wrong that night,” Paul Kitching said. “Please come again. I want to show you that I can cook.” I had never doubted that, but it was a gracious invitation and it would have been churlish not to go.

When I turned up with Robert Cockroft, a friend and also one of the country’s best food critics, Juniper pulled out all the gastronomic stops. It was, said Bob, one of the finest meals he had ever eaten.

First came a waggish drawing of a fish, made from intense smoked-salmon mayonnaise. Then a cappuccino soup of white chicken stock, cream and puréed salsify, all in beautiful balance. Next a succession of plates that assaulted the tastebuds with things like sweet clusters of hazelnuts, and dried pimentos with mayonnaises delicately flavoured with everything from HP sauce to beetroot piped in a pattern like Mickey Mouse’s head.

But the utter triumph was a saddle of hare – mildly gamey and beautifully rare without being bloody. “The best hare I’ve ever tasted,” said Bob. It was served on a round of crisp, sweet, caramelised onions, flavoured – unorthodoxly but masterfully – with chopped dill, and placed in the centre of a plate sprinkled with freshly dried herbs, peppers and vegetables.

But the chef was not finished. Next came an assiette of venison, pigeon and rabbit in a black truffled sauce, garnished with excruciatingly gorgeous rabbit kidneys. Then a plate with tiny slices of 22 cheeses, all at the point of perfection. And finally the glazed lemon tart which, on my original visit, had told me that Paul Kitching is a chef of rare technical accomplishment.

We did not have that much to drink. So it is a bit of a mystery why, when the chef came out to chat afterwards, I invited him to lunch. I had learnt to cook in Paris years ago but knew there was no way I could compete with him. Perhaps I wanted to show him that there was more to a good meal than food. Perhaps it was because when we praised the hare and onions he said that that was the easy bit; it was the dried herbs and odd mayonnaises that were the interesting thing. Perhaps it was just a way of reciprocating his graciousness. Anyway, I invited him, and told him that he could write about my cooking in retaliation.

Which is how I came to the nutmeg problem. I had decided quite quickly what to cook. A timbale of four vegetables with a pea purée sauce would display technical skill. Monkfish with lime and ginger was an interesting flavour combination. Pork with glazed onions, couscous and prune and Marsala sauce, because pork features rarely on Juniper’s menus. Oranges with sticky Seville orange peel in brandysnap baskets would provide something light (even if I did add a novel passion fruit cream studded with stem ginger) and would not overpower the 1970 Fonseca port, with Stilton to finish.

Above all the menu was designed so that I could do most of the work the day before (it took nine hours to make the timbales – what with chopping, cooking and puréeing five veg, and then laboriously rubbing each one through a fine drum-sieve). In between I also made fresh fish and chicken stocks for the sauces, formed the brandysnap baskets, made the caramel and sticky peel, and peeled the tiny onions to glaze in red wine and chicken stock next day. All that was left to do on the Sunday was slice the oranges, dice the stem ginger, juice the passion fruit, whip the cream, trim the fish, zest the limes, julienne the root ginger, bake the meat (75 minutes on gas mark 2), steam the couscous and sauté the fish.

No wonder when the chef arrived and I was sitting insouciantly drinking champagne, he said: “You look more relaxed than I thought you would.” I immediately rushed out to check my timbales.

There was a certain tension in the initial conversation. It was heightened when the chef told the other guests, with what I hoped was a twinkle in his eye, that he was here to do a killer review. And – crisis, crisis – I knew I had overdosed the nutmeg in the timbale’s spinach layer.

“Where’s the recipe from?” he asked as he stuck his spoon in it. I’d learned it at the école de cuisine in Paris, I said, except that I’d changed the cabbage to swede, which I thought was better. “The French don’t like swede,” he said. “But I do.” Phew.

“It’s very Eighties,” he said.

“Outdated is the word you’re after,” said my food critic friend, Bob, mischievously.

“But it’s not bland,” said the chef, “though a child would like it.” (The strong aftertaste of the nutmeg seemed to have been diluted by the flavours of the other purées.)

“Outdated and childish,” said the helpful Bob.

“It’s good,” said the chef. “And it’s very brave, this starter.”

He ate only a quarter of the portion, but I was prepared for that. “You do know he’s the pickiest eater I’ve ever met?” another chef had said when he learnt of my invitation. More alarming was the fact that Paul ventured into the kitchen as I was sautéing the monkfish. “Can I help?” he asked, instinctively giving the leeks a stir and then getting some kitchen towel to wipe away the stray bits of sauce I’d dropped on the edges of the plates.

“Did you blanch the ginger?” asked Bob.

No, why?

“It would have made it more mellow,” said the chef.

“It’s delicious. Life’s too short for blanching ginger,” said Maggie, my actress friend.

“No,” said Kitching. “It’s doing things like that that makes you part of a great tradition. You are in conversation with the chefs of the past,” he said, “Carême, Escoffier, Bocuse, the frères Troisgros… now, here, today in Altrincham.” But he ate only half the fish dish and rather less of the pork.

“You’re not eating much,” Maggie said. “I’d be worried if I was in the kitchen and I got your plate back.”

“I never do,” the chef replied. “The food is fine. I just don’t eat much.” During the week, he said, he just forages in his restaurant kitchen. At the weekend, said his partner Katie, “we either go to a Michelin-starred restaurant or to a Burger King – we’re not much interested in all the stuff in between.” Yikes, I think, since without a doubt what I am serving falls into that category.

There was something very revealing about this. Throughout the meal the conversation ranged widely across history, theatre, books, chefs, films and football – the Juniper couple are manic Newcastle fans. In all of this Paul Kitching participated with charm and amiability. But when it came to food he was transformed.

Some inner force takes over when he talks about new tastes. “I’m working on a leek fudge – why can’t fudge be savoury? And on a beef meringue. I’m trying to dry out meat to work out what it must have tasted like to a caveman.” It is as if his relationship with food is cerebral. It’s about tasting rather than eating. And once he’s tasted something – even if it’s good – that’s enough. The rest of us might lust for satiation, but he eats with his head, not his stomach. It explains why he’s so skinny and why he frequently boasts that he’s never had his cooker at home connected.

“The thing is,” said Malcolm, who’s an actor, “art, like the novel, can succeed with the support of one educated patron. But in cooking, as with the theatre, you have to take the public with you.”

The chef agrees, and then tells a story of how one table recently returned untouched the soup course he served in a demitasse. “They didn’t seem to know what to do with it,” confirmed Katie, “so they left it.” Yet the Juniper team seemed unperturbed by the incident.

I thought about what I had served. The revolution that was nouvelle cuisine threw out the rigid structure of traditional French cooking and paved the way for the high level of creativity we now see in restaurants all round us. That seemed enough for me. But Paul Kitching is clearly on some other plane and sees the need for another revolution. Maybe, I began to think, my initial problem with Juniper had been as much in my presuppositions as in his restaurant’s performance that first night.

What he wants, when you start to see a meal through his eyes, is for people not just to enjoy eating but to enjoy thinking about food. There is something about him of the visionary. He is besotted with food, utterly focused on his total commitment to go somewhere new with it. And because he’s ablaze with passion there’s something inspiring in hearing him talk about it.

It is not an easy task he has set himself. Most of us are stuck in the compromises of what Katie dismissed as “all the stuff in between”. And perhaps we’re happy there. But this high priest of avant-garde cuisine clearly isn’t. He thinks about food in a way other people don’t. And he has the self-certainty which creativity and imagination need in order to flourish. Which is why, I suppose, he’s chef at the Restaurant of the Year and the rest of us lesser mortals need some time and assistance to catch up.

It was late when the party broke up. Paul and Katie were the last to leave. “No one ever invites us to lunch,” she said. “They all just say: ‘How can we cook for someone like you?’ So thanks for inviting us.”

Come again, I said. If they do I might suggest my wife goes away for the week while I prepare.



The chef bites back: Paul Kitching assesses our correspondent’s culinary creations

I have never understood dinner parties. It makes no sense to me: the mess, the aggravation, the host and hostess toiling away. If the food is too cold, too hot, too sweet or too salty, should the guest say something? If the wine is bad, the glasses are cheap, or there is a chip in your soup bowl, what can you do?

In a professional eating establishment you’d instantly bring such things to the attention of the waiting staff. But domestically you go in blind. That is why I hate dinner parties.

When I read Paul Vallely’s account of his unhappy experience at Juniper, I fell through the floor, wanted to die, felt totally useless as my heart sank. So I found the number he had given when he booked and rang him. We spoke, chatted, and eventually chuckled. “You must return. I will cook you a meal you will never forget,” I boasted nervously.

He arrived a week later with his mate Bob, who turned out to be a top food critic. I cooked a red-hot lunch. It was a great meal – “These two have nowhere to go,” I said to myself. Five hours later, as they were about to leave, I said to myself: “Good afternoon, Paul and Bob, thank you for coming, now I’m vindicated, I am a marvellous chef and a very generous super chap to boot.”

But then the skies darkened. Just before he left Paul invited me and my partner Katie (who runs things out front at Juniper) to lunch at his house. Could we make it next Sunday? A dinner party (oh shit). I was tense all week.

Sunday morning I got home about 4am, had a few drinks, off to bed by 6am – couldn’t sleep. Then it was off to Paul’s home. In all there were eight of us: a couple of actors, a lecturer, a food critic, a broadcaster, Paul, Katie and I. The dinner-party dream team. Aargh!

A few days later, I was thinking how many perfect days we are allowed in a lifetime; I’ve had around a dozen and would add that day to them. Everything fell into place. The meal was wonderful, and the starter in particular was perfect. The whole style of cooking reminded me of happier times – Michel Guerard, Roger Vergé and the brothers Troisgros, nouvelle cuisine and the early Eighties. I’ve eaten a lot worse in many a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The greatest thing I took from my visit, and something I’d never realised before – I’m a chef, so why would I? – was that it is the people around the table that make the occasion. Our chosen eight chatted non-stop for six hours. It was for me like taking a drug, one full of kindness and gentle thoughts. We “came down” around 10.30pm, and with lots of hugs, left smiling. I slept very well Sunday night.

Now I know why you lot have dinner parties, you bunch of unprofessional cooks, and, yes, I’m very open to any domestic invitation.

Paul Kitching is head chef at Juniper, 21 The Downs, Altrincham, Cheshire (0161-929 4008)

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