Have Knife Will Travel: Tales of a Head Chef
The photos are deceptive, not giving perspective to this opulent monolith that is Grade II listed mansion, Buckland House. The House goes back to the time of William the Conqueror and was given to one of his returning soldiers, Richard de Filleigh. The small village of Buckland Filleigh is so named. When we turn into the driveway, we gasp.
I’ve made the four hour journey from London to Devon, for a gathering of friends from all over the country. A crazy weekend of fun and frolicks is planned for all. As the Head chef for the weekend, I am a touch concerned that arriving two hours late doesn’t leave much time to prepare. I have to create three courses for this evening’s dinner for thirty people. But since I cut my teeth at the The Ivy and The Royal Albert Hall, I’m confident that we can deliver on time. We being myself and the handful of people I’ve roped in for deep prep and dogsbody detail. Luckily, our grocery delivery has arrived at its allotted time, including the 6kg of local Devonshire 42-day, matured rib-eye steak.
I quickly check in to my room, which is conveniently situated above the kitchen. The house sleeps 30 over 15 bedrooms. The steaks are removed from the fridge and are cut and trimmed into 30 portions. The 15ft long oak dinning table, running down the middle of the kitchen heaves with flesh. It is reminiscent of Mrs Bridges’ kitchen in Upstairs Downstairs. Old dented pots, frying pans all lit by imposing floor to ceiling windows. The steaks are kept at room temperature for two hours before they are shocked in the freezer for half an hour before cooking. This shocking lowers the surface temperature to give a better crust whilst keeping the centre at room temperature and medium rare. Three of the guests enter and start discussing the quantity of meat and the ethics of meat eating. In reply, Lucy says “If we aren’t supposed to eat animals, then why are they made of meat?” Touche.
Now 10 kg of Mozart potatoes – a rather daunting task – which I’m assisted with by the eager triptych of newcomers, must be peeled and sliced for the gratin dauphinois. The suitably large 20 litre pot, now half full of double cream, a touch of whole milk, garlic, bay and thyme is brought to a simmer. The potatoes are added and stirring every minute lets the mixture thicken. This happens from the starch released and mixing with the cream. The added benefit of stirring is allowing the seasoned cream to coat each slice and give an even flavour. Time to leave it.
There is a booklet in each room regaling us with the history of the house and its 289 acres of grounds. A large shield hanging in the entrance hall, in reference, no doubt, to Richard de Filliegh. He used his shield to save William the Conquerer from arrows attacks, on three separate occasions, the arse licker.
The potatoes, now ready, are transferred into two large gastro trays and adorned with a generous grating of 500g of Parmesan. One hour to go. More guests are arriving and the house is filling with laughter and introductions. Many talking about the sheer size and grandeur of this house, others glad to have a few days of away from kids and work. I myself am relishing cooking in a beautiful kitchen and actually seeing daylight. Professional kitchens are immune to natural light and fresh air. This and the freedom to travel and interact with the client are the main reasons why I work privately now. All we have left to make now are the starters. These comprises of large wooden platters of prosciutto, garlic stuffed olives, oven roast tomatoes and pine nuts with mozzarella and topped with well balsamic dressed rocket leaves. Seven platters in total are ready with 20 minutess to spare. Giving just enough time to knock up a large tray of gluten free chocolate brownies. Baked at 160°C for 30-40 mins. A warm chocolate aroma now filling the kitchen and billowing through the corridors up among the mezzanines, tempting the weary travellers down to dine.
The table has been set, the candles lit and the sojourners are making their way through the halls and galleries. With a little help form my new skivvies, I mean, friends, the platters are taken through to the grand hall. The table is of monumental size built for 30-40 people, depending on their build and that of the menu on offer. We manage 30 comfortably. I put a large pan of salted water on to boil before sitting down for starters. I have enough time to join in the first course and toasts before slipping of to start the mains.
On return to the kitchen I check the brownies, another 10 mins is needed. The two comedy-sized 25 inch black pans are on to heat up for the steaks. The rib-eyes are oiled and seasoned. I add a touch of oil in the pans until smoking. I fit 8 steaks into each pan, turning every 15 to 20 seconds. Turning them frequently gives a perfect crust on the outside whilst keeping medium rare inside. As they are only an inch thick they take only 6 mins each. I remove my brownies and turn oven down to low. The dauphinois have a golden brown patina whilst bubbling around the edges. The water is boiling so the 3 kgs of beans are added. The steaks are left to rest in a large tray and covered in aluminum foil and a towel to keep the heat in.
Now. plating. I find it best to do batches of 6 to 10 plates depending on how many ‘hits’ on the plate are required. I lay out 8 plates and get out one tray of daupinois. Within 6 mins everyone is tucking in.
Only a handful of items to wash up 2 big pans, 2 gastro’s, a water pot and the rest in the dishwasher. They’re washed and put away allowing me to go and enjoy the dinner party. Before I leave I put 30 dessert plates in the Aga and the browine covered with foil to warm on top.
Over supper there is an overwhelming sense of joy and anticipation of what this magical weekend would hold. The warmed brownies take 10 minutes to plate, sliced on the diagonal, latticed with molten white chocolate and accompanied with cardamon ice cream. Smiles all round and toasts galore, I even got one myself, bless them.
Sure as hell beats working 100 hours a week in a basement restaurant in London doing 1,000 covers in a 20 hour shift. Plus it enables me to regale you with how it’s done. And more importantly, go and join in with the debauchery. Bottoms up.