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Chef Conference 2007: The highlights

24 May 2007
Chef Conference 2007: The highlights

Last week the 25th Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference took place at London's Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel. Here are some of the highlights including photos and footage from Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton's masterclass.

Prue Leith keynote speech

Newly appointed chairman of the School Food Trust, Prue Leith, called on delegates at the 2007 Chef Conference to work harder at developing the skills of enthusiastic young chefs.

In her keynote speech, she told the audience that while it was generally recognised that the best place for trainees to learn is in a real live kitchen, not enough chefs were doing anything positive to ensure this was happening.

"As a group we are very quick to complain, but less good at doing anything about it," she said, pointing to the fact that there had been a lukewarm response to the new Triple A (Applied Ability Award), designed by the British Food Trust to test a range of cooking skills following consultation with leading chefs.

"For years we have complained that the problem with NVQs was that you could not tell from the bit of paper if the cook could cook," said Leith. "We all bemoaned the disappearance of a practical test to see if a trainee chef could make an omelette or joint a chicken."

Yet, despite a grant from the Edge Foundation and endorsement from all the chefs' organisations, Leith said, it was a battle to get chefs to sign up to the qualification or give their staff the support and training they required to pass the exam.

"Of course, some chefs - organised, modern managers not relying on Personnel to wipe their bottoms - were brilliant," she continued. "They are the ones who now have the benefit of a better skilled and motivated team and a system to check newcomers' abilities and provide development for the existing workforce."

"The wonderful stream of Polish workers is not going to last forever," warned Leith. "We have a huge amount of latent talent in our kitchens - in the potwash, in the veg prep - and we should try harder to develop them."

On a lighter note, Leith also spoke about her role as one of the judges on the BBC TV programme, Great British Menu. "Of course the food is good," she said. "But there were some surprising, and to me sometimes shocking, shortcomings.

"Over the Queen's birthday menu last year, for example, we saw just how hopeless top chefs are at menu planning. It's true they were planning in February for a meal due to take place in June, but you'd think we had winter all round."

Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton masterclass

The first masterclass of the afternoon saw Gordon Ramsay Holdings duo Marcus Wareing, chef-patron of the recently two-Michelin-starred Pétrus in London, and Jason Atherton, chef-director of Maze, also in London, which won a Michelin star within eight months of opening, demonstrating dishes from their respective menus.

Wareing delivered a poached and pan-fried quail with spring onion fondue, pickled carrots and nutmeg plus a braised halibut with artichokes, truffle purée and confit potato while Atherton let visiting chefs in on the secret of the techniques he uses when making Duart salmon, squid paint, micro squid, Kentish peas and maple-roasted chicken skin and pineapple carpaccio with a seaweed croquant and caramelised spice and lime.

Atherton mentioned the fact that he has only induction power, solid-tops and planchas in his Maze kitchen. "It's a control thing. We get better control on the heat," he explained.

During a Q&A session, he also told delegates about the forthcoming launch of Maze Prague, expected to open this autumn, while Wareing described how he heard the news that he'd won his second star. Wareing stressed to delegates that after telling his team it was "business as usual" in the kitchen.

"It was a relief," said Wareing. "Even the best of us question ourselves when we don't succeed. I'm glad they made me wait, though, because of what I've learnt in the process."

He said that despite the recent publication of his first book, How to Cook the Perfect, which he wrote in his own time, he would continue to be at his stove for most services. "I think a chef should be behind his stove. The minute you walk away and let your sous chef do your cooking for you, that's when it all falls apart," he said. "I thought writing a book would be easy, but it isn't. You have to take restaurant food out of the equation and focus on your own comfort food."

Atherton has also enjoyed extraordinary success at Maze, picking up awards along the way. Asked if he would be spending much time in the Czech Republic following the opening of the second Maze, at the Prague Marriott hotel, Atherton said that the new restaurant would be based on the Maze concept but he would not be running it. "My job is in London, at Maze, evolving the food," he told delegates, "but I'll be going out to Prague three or four times a year, acting in a consultancy role for Gordon Ramsay on the project." He added that the Maze Prague contract would include banqueting and that there was a great opportunity to spearhead the fine-dining revolution in the city.

Watch the masterclass here >>

(Note: Check back soon for more footage from the Chef Conference)

Tom and Robert Aikens masterclass

It was a case of seeing double during the conference's first masterclass when identical twins Tom and Robert Aikens took to the stage to give their first-ever joint culinary demo. Luckily, a miniscule height difference and a divergence in haircuts pointed delegates in the right direction (Tom being shorter and going for the "just got up" look).

While taking their audience through a dish each, representative of their cooking styles - a pigeon salad wth pickled vegetables from Tom, and a chilled pea and mint soup with crème fraîche and crushed peas from Robert - the brothers chatted about their divergent careers to date and Robert's new role as operations and brand development manager for Tom's restaurants, London's Michelin-starred Tom Aikens and its near-neighbour, the phenomenonly succussful casual diner, Tom's Kitchen.

Joining these two eateries on the Aikens restaurant roll call in September will be Tom's Place, a fish and chip shop-cum-restaurant located just down the road from Tom's Kitchen in Cale Street, Chelsea. The restaurant, revealed Tom, will have an eco-friendly ethos. "We won't have cod on the menu - only fish from sustainable sources, like ling, gurnard and pollack." He added that either recyclable or things made from recycled materials would hold sway: wooden spoons, recycled paper for wrapping the fish in, etc. "We're working with a lot of day boat suppliers and aiming for 14 hours from water to plate," he said.

He also revealed that he would be going out with a supplier on a fishing trip to see for himself what was involved in delivering the produce to the kitchen "… the day after his wedding," added Rob.

Tom Aiken's Pigeon salad with pickled vegetables >>

Phil Howard and John Campbell masterclass

The final culinary masterclass of the day saw the yin and yang of cooking techniques - John Campbell from the Vineyard at Stockcross and the Square's Phil Howard (both restaurants holders of two Michelin stars) - take the stage to demonstrate a dish each from their respective menus.

While Campbell's scientific approach might be a world apart from Howard's more instinctive, classical methods, the pair did find common ground with their use of foam. Mango foam adorned Campbell's cucumber and lime sorbet with vanilla panna cotta, cucumber soup and lime jelly, while Howard's wild salmon fillet with asparagus and gull's egg was finished with a Jersey Royal foam. "Foam's a great vehicle for flavour," said Howard.

The dishes demonstrated the stark differences between the pair's cooking, and Howard admitted that the scientific approach to food was not part of his methodology. "I get off on the touchy-feely side of food: seeing the raw ingredients and using them," he said, "not the other side, the more theoretical, scientific side." But he went on to say that aspects of that approach, in time, might have to be adopted at the Square. "You can't just serve classical food these days, so looking at the science of food makes sense. It may not be the way I cook, but we've got four of John's chefs [at the Square] now, and maybe they'll be the ones to drag it into the 21st century."

He added that his demonstrated dish could be traced in a direct line back to Simon Hopkinson, with whom he worked at Bibendum in the early part of his career.

While many chefs might not be able to get their head around the scientific approach Campbell takes, in his part of the demonstration he stressed the simple reasoning behind its complicated façade. "The approach I take is scientific, but the food is based on classical dishes," he said. "All the science helps us to do is to stay consistent. The technology takes away the risk element. For example, using sous-vide means, when cooking a steak, the meat can be kept at the right temperature and consistency for over an hour, while pan-frying only gives the kitchen a one-minute 15-second window to get the meat to the table before the temperature and consistency is different than intended. It's about consistent standards, quality and taking the pressure off the kitchen staff."

Philip Howard's Soft-boiled gull's egg with flaked wild salmon belly, jersey royals and asparagus >>

Chef Conference in pictures

Hover over each thumbnail to reveal the full picture from Chef Conference.

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