Cooking for 1,200 of the industry's most famous faces at the Cateys is one of the more daunting challenges in hospitality. But this year Mark Sargeant, aided by Grosvenor House's executive chef Nigel Boschetti and two of the industry's most promising young chefs, rose to the challenge. Tom Vaughan reports
Be careful what you wish for was a lesson that chef and restaurateur Mark Sargeant, the man behind this year's Cateys menu, took from the Cateys 2014. "I was suitably oiled at the end of last year's awards and I went up to [The Caterer editor] Amanda Afiya, waved my finger under her nose and said, ‘Whensh it gonna be my turn to cook?' It was Hemingway who said ‘Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk', so when the email came from The Caterer a few weeks later, I realised I had landed myself right in it."
"But replicating that across 1,200 covers is impossible. From the start, I wanted to do a simple menu that Nigel [Boschetti, executive chef at the Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott hotel] and his team could reproduce properly."
Mark Sargeant and Rocksalt head chef Simon Oakley
On one condition
Sargeant was so determined to keep it simple from the outset that he accepted The Caterer's invitation with one proviso: "I was adamant that I wanted to do roast chicken. At these types of functions there is always lots of lamb and beef and there are so many ways to cook it, but there is only one way to cook chicken, and it has to be perfect and moist."
Part of this burning desire was down to an awareness of the guests he was catering for: "98% of those people out there are my mates, and I can pretty much speak for all chefs when I say that all we do all our livesis cook fancy food, and when we're at home we want something simple like steak and chips or a roast chicken."
The exact make-up of the chicken dish took some batting to and fro between Sargeant, Boschetti and Simon Oakley, head chef at his Folkestone restaurant Rocksalt, with some of his original ideas seen as particularly difficult to pull off for a function the size of the Cateys.
"One of Mark's original ideas was to serve it on a board as a roast chicken, but getting crispy skin for 1,200 people and to find all those boards was too big a challenge," says Boschetti.
Instead, Sargeant came up with a chicken pot au feu. The chicken crown is poached in stock, then removed and allowed to cool and dry, while whole summer carrots, leeks and cabbage quarters are then poached in the stock. "If you do it right, the vegetables should be tastier than the chicken because they soak up that lovely chicken flavour," adds Sargeant. The chicken breasts are then patted dry and pan-fried to crisp up the skin, before being served with pea shoots and a herb aÁ¯oli.
Chicken pot au feu
In his role as executive chef, Boschetti's job is often to temper chefs' expectations of what can be achieved in a banqueting kitchen: "It can be the silliest things that don't work," he says. "A few years ago one chef wanted to finish their dish with a deep-fried anchovy.
But if we had done them in prep they'd have been soggy by the time they reached the table. And you can't deep-fry 1,200 anchovies at the last minute - there aren't even fryers in the service kitchen."
However, Sargeant's cooking lent itself perfectly to the differing demands of banqueting. "I say to chefs that whatever we do in preparation doesn't matter, even if it takes forever. For example, Mark's crab roll starter was a lot of work in man hours but when it came to delivery, they were simple."
A take on a sausage roll devised for his new London restaurant Morden & Lea, Sargeant's crab rolls were recently voted the most talked-about dish in the capital. "I hate the phrase 'signature dish'," he says. "You don't decide your signature dishes, the customers do, and they have really taken to this."
White crab meat with herbs bound with a light salmon meat was wrapped in puff pastry and served with pickled cucumber and a brown crab meat ketchup, piqued with Tabasco and Lea & Perrins sauce.
Crab roll with pickled cucumber and brown crab ketchup
Even something so simple as this ketchup overwhelmed Sargeant with the skill of Boschetti's team: "You can't make 1,200 portions of it up in one batch. So each batch has to be seasoned perfectly and identically. Even pulling that off is mind-boggling to me."
The crab roll followed another of Sargeant's signature dishes, his taramasalata, which was served as a pre-dinner snack. "It's been with me since Claridge's and followed me to all my restaurants. I'm not going to pretend it's my recipe; I'm not sure whose it is, but it's just the best taramasalata you'll ever taste," he says. Combining smoked cod's roe with bread soaked in milk, garlic and olive oil, the dip comes together like a creamy, fluffy mayonnaise and was served in scallop shells.
Rocksalt taramasalata and sourdough
Bake three, ditch two
To finish the menu, another of Sargeant's more established dishes: his take on a chocolate fondant. "At Restaurant Gordon Ramsay we used to make the Michel Bras chocolate fondant. It was so delicate, three went into the oven for every order, in case two split. When I opened Claridge's, we were serving 180 covers a night, so couldn't do something so complicated, but we wanted a fondant on there."
So Sargeant came up with a take on a fondant: a light, velvety chocolate mousse, into which is encased a frozen ball of sorbet that melts as the mousse sets in the fridge and oozes out when cut into.
Cold chocolate and sea buckthorn fondant
While he has done all manner of flavoured sorbets over the years, for the Cateys Sargeant wanted a nod to his Folkestone restaurant Rocksalt, so chose a sea buckthorn filling. "I read a lot about it and saw Nathan Outlaw using it a few years back. But when I first tasted it I thought it was bitter and horrid. But with some sugar and pectin it becomes delicious and pairs really well with chocolate. It is a unique dessert but so simple, and I really wanted to do something different to finish on."
For Boschetti, the whole menu hung together perfectly. "It is light and summery and also one of the simplest for us to execute faithfully. This is the type of food people want to eat," he says.
On the day, Boschetti's 24-strong team was responsible for cooking and plating up the food, including two of the industry's most promising young chefs, Observer Food Monthly Best Young Chef April Lily Partridge and Young National Chef of the Year 2014 Luke Selby, both of whom were brought in especially to experience and learn from the occasion.
Sargeant - who spent the evening at the event proper - says he can only marvel at the achievement of replicating his food so faithfully across so many diners: "It's hard enough cooking for 100 people, let alone 1,200. If I had gone down there and started trying to help, I'd have messed the whole thing up. So the safest place for me was out the front, drinking Champagne."
Cateys wines 2015
Nick Zalinski, business director, national accounts, at Cateys wine sponsor Matthew Clark, explains his Cateys menu choices
Aperitif Pinot di Pinot
We always try and do something different for the aperitif. Last year we did a caipirinha to celebrate the World Cup in Brazil. This year I picked a Pinot di Pinot, which is a mix of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Bianco. It's made by a house called Gancia, who were the first business in Italy to produce a sparkling wine at the end of the 19th century. This is a very modern, dry Pinot.
Crab roll Waipara Hills Pinot Gris, 2013
Crab is a really sweet meat, so we are always looking for something that has some residual sugar or fruit notes and then some acidity to go with that. Then there are some herbs in there, so you're looking for aromatics. We tried a few things and ended up with a classic match - a New Zealand Pinot Gris. It has an off-dry character and zesty aromatic notes on the finish, so cuts through the richness of the crab.
Chicken pot au feu Da Luca Primitivo 2013
Normally you'd pair a full-bodied white with a chicken dish but we wanted to go for a red. We tried a few Pinot Noirs that were good but not great. I had a Primitivo with me, which is the Italian name for the Zinfandel grape, and it really worked. Zinfandel can be a rich concentrated wine, but because this one is from Puglia it is a lighter, midweight wine with lots of berry, some spice and almost a leafy character that picks up on the herbs in the aÁ¯oli.
Cold chocolate and sea buckthorn fondant Torres Floralis Moscatel Oro
Fermented and fortified with spirit brandy, this has well-balanced alcohol and a natural sweetness. Very unctuous, it has a marmalade flavour that marries together the astringent sea buckthorn with the rich chocolate.
Cateys menu 2015
- Rocksalt taramasalata and sourdough
- Crab roll served with pickled cucumber and brown crab ketchup
- Chicken pot au feu
- Cold chocolate and sea buckthorn fondant
- The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, aged 14 years
- Coffee and petits fours
Prepared by: Nigel Boschetti, executive chef, and the brigade at the Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel; Simon Oakley, head chef of Rocksalt; Luke Selby, 2014 Young National Chef of the Year; and April Lily Partridge, 2014 Observer Food Monthly Awards Best Young Chef
Up and coming talent: Luke Selby and April Lily Partridge
Given Mark Sargeant's reputation as a mentor to emerging talent, The Caterer was keen to bring in some of the industry's brightest young chefs to help prepare the Cateys menu. Step forward Luke Selby, sous chef at Belmond Le Manoir and 2014 Young National Chef of the Year, and April Lily Partridge, 2014 Observer Food Monthly Awards Best Young Chef and soon to be demi-chef de partie at the Clove Club, London. Their eagerness to learn blew Sargeant and Boschetti away.
"They've come in with a brilliant attitude," says Sargeant. "Both have huge futures. I judged on the Young National Chef of the Year and Luke was a standout winner. April got through to the semis two years in a row and was devastated the second time not to get to the final. I told her to take a year to concentrate on her career, not competitions, and she listened to me - so much so she won the Observer Food Monthly Awards Best Young Chef."
Boschetti was just as impressed: "They've been amazing. I collected April from the restaurant when she arrived and by the time we got to the kitchen I would have offered her a job if she'd been applying. Her enthusiasm and desire to learn are fantastic."
Over the course of two days in the Grosvenor House kitchen, the pair were involved in every dish, right up to the point of delivery when they were members of the four five-strong service teams.
For Partridge, the demands of banquet dining took her completely out of her fine-dining comfort zone, but she relished the challenge: "Doing those huge numbers was mad. I've never seen so much food in my life. Doing so much of the same thing is really hard. When you are stood cutting pastry and rolling crab rolls for seven hours, you need to make sure the last one looks exactly the same as the first."
The chance to work with one of her heroes, Mark Sargeant, made the two days extra special: "I admire him so much. He's one of my biggest inspirations in the industry."
April Lily Partridge, Mark Sargeant and Luke Selby