Back by popular demand this year at the Chef Conference were kitchen tours - to three of London's top kitchens - two with Italian links (Zafferano and Theo Randall at the InterContinental) and one with a modern French nuance (Foliage, the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park's flagship fine-dining restaurant). The visits took place at the tail end of the day, before the evening's gala dinner finale.
An institution in Belgravia since the mid-1990s, Zafferano continues to garner plaudits and the respect of the cheffing community for head chef Andy Needham's superlative Italian-based cuisine. The Zafferano brigade were busy preparing evening service in what is a 24-hour operation, with 20 chefs working round the clock on all aspects of the menu. Not lost on the visitors was the fact that the kitchen was meticulously clean - even ceilings, as Needham pointed out, were spotless thanks mainly to his desire to keep the kitchen's miniature deep-fat fryer stowed away for all but a few dishes.
Meanwhile, down the road, on Hyde Park Corner, another Englishman cooking fantastic Italian food also hosted a kitchen tour. After more than a decade being the quiet man at the helm of the River Café's kitchen, Theo Randall opened his own eponymous restaurant in the InterContinental's flagship Hyde Park hotel last November, bringing with him the passion for sourcing ingredients that's the hallmark of the Hammersmith icon.
Entering his, also, spotlessly clean kitchen with its impressive wood-burning stove and quietly dedicated staff, visiting chefs were met with an array of vibrant Italian produce. Randall sources directly from Italy, getting deliveries three times a week. Amalfi lemons, pungent puntarelle, amazingly aromatic sage and rosemary were just some of the produce on display. Interest was sparked by some of Randall's 16-strong staff making pasta. "We use 24 eggs per kilo of 00 flour - and it's 80% flour, 20% semolina," he explained. The visit was finished off with a welcome drop of fizz - Prosecco and strawberry liqueur, aka a Rossini.
Back in Knightsbridge, Chris Staines, head chef of Foliage, which was identifed as a "rising two-star" in the current edition of the Michelin guide, continued John Campbell's science-themed slot with a short and sharp masterclass on alginates.
A product of brown seaweed, alginates have the ability to thicken, emulsify, stabilise and form gels. During the session, 30 delegates were shown a classic Foliage dish - foie gras, chestnuts, apple jelly, pain d'épice (Staines prefers to list the ingredients in a dish and cut back on the detail, leaving an element of surprise for the diner) - which uses alginates in the preparation.
The use of alginates allows Staines to form gels with calcium ions instantly at room temperature or in cold conditions. The calcium penetrates the alginate solution from the outside working inwards, until the gel layer is too thick or until the calcium solution is removed from the equation, ie, from rinsing.
Using these principles, Staines manufactures small gelled spheres (in the case of this dish, apple) by dripping the alginate solution into a calcium chloride bath using a syringe or squeezy bottle, one drop at a time. Staines said: "Once a stable alginate calcium chloride structure has been formed, the gels are heat-stable and can be heated with little or no deterioration to the gel structure."
As Staines dripped the alginate solution into the calcium chloridge bath, he said: "The texture we're looking for is something with a liquid centre. We believe we can use techniques to enhance what we do, and I think that when you see this dish you'll agree that there's a symbiotic relationship between the new and the old."
The foie gras, meanwhile, had been deorged in milk and butter and coated in pain d'épice crumbs and then cooked at a low temperature of 55°C. The foie gras is then served with a chestnut purée, apple jelly and apple julienne.
Staines added that in addition to using this method to make liquid gel drops or "caviar", he uses the technique to mix a hot alginate solution and a hot calcium solution to create heat-stable jellies.