Few kitchens in London serve as many leading chefs in one year as the Grosvenor House hotel does on the night of the Cateys, and many illustrious chefs have taken the helm with the menu. But for 2014, The Caterer decided to ask an up-and-coming chef, Sticky Walnut's Gary Usher. Tom Vaughan reports
So when The Caterer bucked tradition and asked an up-and-coming chef - rather than an established name - to come up with the menu for hospitality's biggest evening, it proved a major shock to the chef: "My first reaction was being speechless," says Gary Usher, chefpatron of Chester's Sticky Walnut and winner of the Menu of the Year at the 2013 Cateys.
"I was absolutely gobsmacked. Then I started to question why we were being asked - us, a friendly bistro outside of Chester. When I thought of all the people who have done it before us - Tom Kerridge, Jason Atherton - I suddenly felt very out of my depth."
For Usher, just being invited to the Cateys for the first time in 2013 was an honour: "It was the most glamorous event I'd ever been to - walking into it I thought I was in Hollywood. So cooking for it? I had this 'we're not worthy' thought going through my head. I had a long think about it because I wanted to make sure I could do the Cateys proud."
As winner of the Quorn-sponsored 2013 Menu of the Year, The Caterer firmly believed that not only would Usher be able to deliver, but that his simple, seasonal cooking would wow the Cateys' renowned guest list. Yet, having accepted the challenge, it took Usher a little while to realise this himself: "At first
I tried a few bits and pieces out, but every time we did something fancy and poncy, we felt it just wasn't us. We wanted to stay true to the restaurant and soon realised that we could achieve what we wanted if we did that."
With 1,250 guests expected at the awards, catering for this number of people was a completely new experience for Usher. What was the most he had ever catered for prior to this? "Er, the restaurant seats 45, and we do about 100 covers on a Saturday. When I was at the Chester Grosvenor I helped out at a few functions, but that was 15 years ago."
So to help him every step of the way was Nigel Boschetti, executive chef at London's Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel. Visiting Usher for lunch at Sticky Walnut, Boschetti could immediately see the potential in his cooking: "I love his style of cooking - it's contemporary bistro cooking, for want of a better
description, with nice clean flavours, seasonal ingredients and no over-complication."
The thought behind the menu
Borrowing successes from his restaurant, Usher decided on a starter of flamed and tartare of mackerel with grape and apple.
At Sticky Walnut, the size of the kitchen means there is no space between hot and cold starters, so Usher water-baths the mackerel then crisps it with an industrial blowtorch. "It's a really simple, really clean dish and I thought it would lend itself to a function, but it doesn't work like that."
Restaurant chefs' unfamiliarity with the differing demands of function catering is very common, says Boschetti, but can almost always be overcome: Sometimes something can seem extremely simple to a restaurant chef, but it just doesn't work with large numbers," says Boschetti.
"Little things you can do in a restaurant - little touches as you finish a plate - you can't repeat on a large scale. However, I always say to chefs that my job is to get their food out as close as possible to their identity."
So while the blowtorches remained, giving the mackerel its flame-licked smokiness, the waterbath was replaced with a traditional oven.
For the main, Usher knew from the outset that he wanted something braised. "Whenever a chef comes into our restaurant, we always know what they will have - it's always something braised. They will always order the simplest thing and I can relate to that. When I was in London, my favourite place was Arbutus -
I'd sit at the bar and order something that fell apart with a fork. Then, when we started Sticky Walnut, we braised a lot of things because of space reasons in the kitchen. So braised things became something of a signature for us."
The choice for the Cateys was braised Jacob's ladder with a broad bean and tomato salsa and celeriac purée. While a braised dish might seem simple in theory, Boschetti - who has helped Catey consultant chefs for four years now - admits that Usher's Jacob's ladder dish proved one of the trickiest. "In some respects, Gary's main has been the biggest challenge - getting the beans and tomato on the plate while keeping their freshness; getting the celeriac purée on the plate without it getting a film; and glazing the meat." Whereas Usher would normally glaze the meat in a pan during service, the team at the Cateys glazed the meat portions twice while in the oven.
Finally, Usher wanted to bring in another Sticky Walnut signature, its fruit tart. However, making pastry casings for 1,250 people was simply impossible, so Usher successfully found a compromise with a dish of raspberry mousse, almond frangipane and honeycomb.
"We bake tarts at Sticky Walnut twice a day. But with 12 portions per tart and 1,250 people at the Cateys, it would have been very, very difficult. So I cooked off some frangipane, but without the tart casing, and it comes out like a sponge finger. It was great and I thought, 'Let's go for it'. It's a way of getting a fruit
tart on there without the pastry. Instead, the honeycomb is the texture element."
Usher was determined to bring in one last signature element of Sticky Walnut and a first for the Cateys: baking his own bread. "When he first suggested it I thought, 'Wow, we've never done our own bread before'," says Boschetti. "But when he explained that it was focaccia, and that it goes in the oven in trays and each tray feeds 60, I realised it was possible."
For Usher, Sticky Walnut's focaccia is a big part of its DNA: "I'm really passionate about bread. We make it twice a day and it is an integral part of the restaurant - it's the element we get the best feedback on."
It was a roaring success, but Boschetti admits that the decision to go with Usher's bread was one of the hardest: "Gary asked me what would happen if it
didn't work on the day, and I joked that we'd better have some bread rolls in the freezer."
The experience saw Usher in a very hands on role, shutting Sticky Walnut and bringing his two sous chefs down to London to work with Usher and the Grosvenor House team on Monday and Tuesday - and while Usher headed out front for the event proper, his chefs helped serve. "The staff morale at the moment is incredible. We're just a tiny little bistro outside of Chester, so for us all to be involved in an event like this is incredible," he says.
With time to reflect on the event, does Boschetti think Usher was a sound choice? "Gary and Sticky Walnut have both been incredibly successful. His cooking is very suitable for 2014 - it's not fine-dining, it's just great cooking, and that is what food today is all about."
•Flamed and tartare of mackerel, apple and grape
•Braised Jacob's ladder, broad bean and tomato salsa
•Raspberry mousse, almond frangipane and honeycomb
•The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, aged 14 years
•Coffee and petits fours
Menu devised by 2013 Menu of the Year Catey award winner Gary Usher, chef-owner, Sticky Walnut, Chester, and prepared by Nigel Boschetti, executive chef, and the brigade at Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, and Michael Wong and Luke Richardson from Sticky Walnut.
Opened on a shoestring budget, Sticky Walnut is the baby of chef-patron Gary Usher. With periods at the Chester Grosvenor and Chez Bruce, York & Albany and Jamie's Italian (all in London) under his belt, Usher took the plunge to open his own restaurant in Chester in January 2010.
Distinguished by his simple, rustic cooking and a no-frills interior - part design choice, part the result of a miniscule opening budget - the 40-cover restaurant quickly won fans for its seasonal, uncomplicated menu, with dishes including the likes of crispy lamb's tongue with chickpea, goat's curd and green charmoula (£7) and roast stone bass, saffron paella, squid ink and basil (£17). After The Caterer paid the restaurant a visit, it was shortlisted for the 2013 Menu of the
Year at the Cateys, and a panel of industry judges deemed it a worthy winner to walk away with the award.
"The minute I read the menu, it made me want to visit and try everything," said judge Rob Kirby, chef-director of Lexington Catering. "It's a confident, edgy, urban menu with food you want to eat without being stitched up on price. It's similar to what you saw a few years back in now trendy Shoreditch. The chef is playing a part in developing this area of Chester."
And it was with this in mind that The Caterer decided, for the first time, to turn to an up-and-coming chef for the 2014 Cateys and invite Usher to consult on the menu.
In honour of the Fifa World Cup, Cateys sponsor Matthew Clark chose to serve a Caipirinha cocktail, created using Sagatiba CachaÁ§a, the spirit of Brazil.
Bottega Gold Prosecco
"Bottega's 'liquid metal' bottle, already a sensation in the world's leading department stores, is set to take the UK on-trade by storm. Bottega premium Prosecco has also won numerous awards for its quality. A taste of gold."
Durbanville Hills, Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Durbanville, South Africa
"This winery, with views over Cape Town and the South Atlantic, is located in and is named after the Durbanville Hills region. The estate's microclimate allows the winemaking team (mostly ex-rugby players, headed by Martin Moore) to produce a range of elegant, sophisticated wines. Visitors to Cape Town can't get enough of this crisp, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc - a vibrant and flavoursome wine."
Kleine Zalze, Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Stellenbosch, South Africa
"Wine has been made at Kleine Zalze since 1695. Today this family-owned winery, located in Stellenbosch, continues to be regarded as one of the leading lights of South African producers. The estate's glorious Cabernet has won numerous medals. It is powerful yet balanced, with French oak and typical notes of
cassis and cedarwood."
ErrÁ¡zuriz Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca Valley, Chile
"This estate is in the hands of the descendants of its founder, Don Maximiano ErrÁ¡zuriz, and it produces some of the country's most spectacular wines. Handpicked grapes affected by botrytis are transformed into a rich, sweet nectar that brims with aromas of honey, raisins and dried apricots."