EVERYONE agreed the attention to detail was phenomenal. From the ice carving emblazoned with the Chef Eats Out logo in the foyer of the Dorchester hotel's Oriental restaurant, to the hand-made chocolates carrying the Chef logo served at the end of a stunning five-course lunch, maximum effort had been made.
Chefs from all corners of the industry were there, including representatives from five-star London hotels such as the Royal Garden, Gardner Merchant contracts at Barclays Bank and IPC Magazines, and the development kitchens of J Sharwood. All were keen to taste the food at the only Chinese restaurant in the country to hold a Michelin star. They were also eager to meet executive chef Willi Elsener and gain a glimpse of the extensive kitchens.
They were not disappointed. On arrival, everyone enjoyed a Champagne reception and a selection of canapés prepared by the Oriental's team of 10 Cantonese chefs, headed by Kenneth Poon.
Here was a chance to enjoy the talents of Henry Gano, the Dorchester's resident kitchen artist. As well as creating the Chef Eats Out ice-carving, Gano, who hails from the Philippines, demonstrated his skill at fruit and vegetable carving. Onlookers were impressed as he swiftly turned a melon into a flower, and further examples of his work were enjoyed throughout the meal - from the Chinese dragons carved from carrots garnishing the appetisers, to the swedes transformed into cabbages which, with arrangements of oriental lilies and roses, formed the centrepiece of each table.
Tony Cheung, who was employed direct from Hong Kong for his dim sum skills, gave a demonstration of his speciality. The tiny dumplings, made from a paste using rice flour and water, were filled with prawns and water chestnuts, and chicken and mushrooms. The Oriental offers customers a special dim sum menu, with a choice of 12 items, at £4 each. All 12 dishes, each made up of three of four dim sum varieties, would suffice for a table of three.
Prices on the Oriental's à la carte menu range from £16.50 for an appetiser of roasted duck with sweet ginger and cucumber, to £24.50 for a main course dish of stir-fried beef with lemon grass and black pepper, and £44 for braised superior shark's fin with crab meat. At just £40 a head, the five-course Chef Eats Out lunch - including wines - was considered by the guests to be amazing value.
To start, guests were served a selection of oriental appetisers, including a scallop with black bean sauce, a shiu mai won ton wrapper filled with chicken and mushrooms, a Chinese puff pastry parcel of chicken with black fungus, and deep-fried taro dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms. A powerful chilli dipping sauce accompanied these beautifully presented, bite-sized appetisers.
To follow was a bowl of silken tofu with spicy minced beef and coriander. It was many chefs' first taste of the soya bean curd. While it carries no flavour of its own, its silky texture, surprisingly, was a perfect foil to the robustly flavoured beef.
The fish - strips of sole and sea bass flavoured with chilli black bean sauce, accompanied by crispy asparagus tips - was perfectly cooked with a slightly crisp exterior and just barely cooked inside.
Wine, duck stock, ginger, spring onions, salt and pepper were combined to make a marinade for the duck, which was stir-fried with more spring onion and ginger, red and green peppers, lychees and pineapple for the main course. The accompanying sauce was based on duck stock.
There is sometimes a perception that Chinese desserts in this country are not worth bothering with, so the guests were a little unsure what the Oriental's kitchens would produce. But it was agreed that they came up trumps in terms of effort. Served on a wooden platter, hand-painted in black and gold with the words Chef Eats Out, the trio of desserts offered something for everyone - a light mango mousse spiked with lemon grass, a crispy banana fritter and a refreshingly cool sago soup.
Service was impeccable, with restaurant manager Benson Zhang and many of his 14 staff working hard to ensure everyone had an enjoyable day.
Following cups of Chinese tea and petits fours, Elsener and the team responsible for putting together the lunch were applauded into the restaurant for a well-earned Santé des Chefs.
Elsener explained that as executive chef of a 125-strong brigade providing up to 2,500 covers daily, he has little chance to do much hands-on cooking these days. As well as the 80-seat Oriental restaurant, he is also responsible for the 81-cover Grill Room, offering traditional British food; the Dorchester Bar, serving Italian cuisine; the Dorchester Club, with its Mediterranean-inspired menu; the 84-cover Promenade, famous for light snacks and afternoon teas; and Chesters restaurant, which caters for the hotel's 600 staff.
Banqueting, in seven rooms, accounts for up to a third of the covers served daily. Room service also keeps the kitchen busy 24 hours a day, with a menu offering Middle Eastern, Moroccan and Malaysian specialities, as well as other dishes from around the world. A kitchen made up of 65 nationalities provides the specialist chefs required for such a wide-ranging menu.
"Managing staff who come from such varied cultural backgrounds can be a very difficult and demanding task," Elsener told guests. "It can make training quite hard, particularly when dealing with health and safety and hygiene issues."
Steve Munkley, executive chef at the Royal Garden Hotel, asked Elsener whether the flavours of the dishes at the Oriental had been adapted to take account of the Western palate. He replied that there had been some adaptations but most dishes were authentic. "When working on the opening of the Oriental, we decided to specialise in Cantonese cuisine because it offers big flavours without being too spicy," he said.
Elsener explained that specialist ingredients - such as abalone, shark's fin, dried scallops and certain fungi - are flown in direct from Hong Kong. And it is to Hong Kong that he looks when recruiting staff.
Responding to a query about the popularity of Chinese and Eastern cuisine, Elsener said that while he believed the British love of Chinese food would continue, he predicted that the next big trend would be towards Middle Eastern food.
Having been executive chef at the Dorchester for 10 years, Elsener admitted it would be hard to move to another employer. "It is a very forward-looking company, with a lot of investment and assessment of the operation on a regular basis," he said. "If I was going to move, the only thing I could do would be to work for myself." n