People want to enjoy a meal rather than worry about calories when they eat out, surely. So why is chef Chris Horridge combining one-Michelin-starred cooking with a near-absence of cream, milk and sugar at his restaurant in Bath? Janet Harmer examines whether the star of this year's Great British Menu is cooking the food of the future or merely losing the plot
John Walsh in the Independent described Chris Horridge's food as "the most imaginative cooking I've encountered this year". Zoe Williams in the Sunday Telegraph said it was "subtle and experimental". In the same review, however, Williams accused Horridge of having "some kind of eating disorder" because of his nutritional approach. Walsh, meanwhile, described Horridge's justification for his type of cooking, as printed on his menu, as a "tang of baloney hard to stomach".
*Paillette of Mr Eades's baby vesgetables, hedge herbs and flowers of the moment*
"Stuff you," is Horridge's response. "Get with the times, guys. To credit someone for their food and then criticise the nutritional aspect of it just doesn't make sense. I cook the way I do because I want to help people to a better diet."
This Jekyll-and-Hyde stance on the part of journalists is perhaps an understandable response to the very new direction that Horridge is taking with the food he offers in his current position as head chef at the Bath Priory hotel. Horridge uses scientific journals rather than cookbooks as inspiration for his food. He eschews all milk, cream and sugar, and he cooks in a way that ensures that vitamins, minerals and nutrients can be most effectively metabolised by the body.
At the start of a meal, for example, a red pepper and mandarin sorbet, served as a palate cleanser, is full of red-pigment lycopene, capsaicin (believed to enhance the immune system by detoxing), carotenes (which may be cancer inhibitors) and vitamins B, C and K.
Diners can then move on to pigeon with watercress, cured with birch sap wine, and a smooth orange zest purée using the skin of the fruit. Apparently, the ascorbic acid in the purée assists the absorption of the iron in both the pigeon and the watercress - it's also being analysed for its flavonoid content. Slices of the pigeon breast are then wrapped around small herbs, and the dish is finished with beetroot towers, wildflower petals and pumpkin, coriander, sesame, hemp and sunflower. The magnesium in the omega-rich seeds could also help with calcium absorption in the watercress.
This is quite an arrangement, but Horridge insists that every element is vital for its health-giving properties. "Most people throw away the peel on fruit," he says, "which is funny, as it's the very thing that may potentially help them absorb more of the vitamin C in the segments."
*Neston Park lamb with layered roots and goats' cheese , honeycomb and pollen*
The challenge is at its most acute when it comes to the final course. But this is where Horridge also ramps up the evangelism. He says: "Half of the world's population is lactose-intolerant to some degree, so it makes sense to accommodate this without alienating those with no problems. And I'd like to replace sugar at a time of global obesity crisis. Doing this also helps prevent tooth decay."
Instead of sugar, Horridge uses xylitol, an alcohol sugar that has a fresh flavour but, unfortunately, also has one major drawback - it doesn't caramelise. When he's making crème brûlée, therefore, he uses xylitol in the custard and sprinkles fructose on top. He has recently been able to replace milk and cream, too, but declines to say what he is adding instead. A TV series and a book are being negotiated, and Horridge dangles the possibility that he will reveal all in one or other of these projects.
Horridge's profile shot up following his appearance on BBC TV's Great British Menu earlier this year, and he certainly has a different angle on things that the commissioning editors love.
"We combine ingredients, wherever possible, for maximum nutrient retention and bio-availability or intolerance reasons," says Horridge. "We aim to have a menu where one dish synergistically and nutritionally leads to the next, although this is a little way off yet."
For now, Horridge is working with a nutritionist based in Reading, Tanya Page, and has been in contact with six different universities during the course of his research - at Bath, Nottingham, East Anglia, Cardiff, Reading and Newcastle. He has also spoken to a herbalist, and is soon to consult psychologists on the effects of a lack of sugar in a person's diet. The World Cancer Research Fund has contacted him, keen to find out how diet-enhanced wellbeing can speed up patient recovery times, and he has also been invited to speak to MPs at the House of Commons.
*Home-cured wild pigeon with tamgarine pureé and roast barkey*
This is quite a lofty academic profile for a man who gained only four CSE passes from school, and who 10 years ago was working in an RAF mess kitchen.
Perhaps the most powerful push behind his health drive was the death of his mother 12 years ago. She died of cancer, and Horridge began to wonder whether she might have been helped by a better diet. Subsequently, while himself recovering from an operation he had during his service with the RAF, Horridge read a Government handbook on recommended daily nutrient intake. He devised a diet based on what he'd read and when, a few weeks later, he visited the doctor, he was amazed by how quickly Horridge had recovered.
The Michelin element in his cooking was initially separate from the health-promoting component. Horridge insists that this part of his work is a result of a TV sitcom on the BBC in the mid-1990s. Chef, which starred Lenny Henry, is "what opened my eyes to the Michelin star scene", Horridge says. "I liked what I saw, and set myself a target that within a decade I had to be in charge of a Michelin-starred restaurant."
That's quite a target to hang on the back of an entertainment programme, but it's precisely what Horridge has achieved, as he now manages the kitchen of the one-Michelin-starred, 47-bedroom Bath Priory in the West Country.
He left the RAF after completing a nine-year stint and came across a vacancy at Le Petit Blanc in Oxford. He saw this as a stepping stone to working at Le Manoir au Quat'Saisons and, sure enough, Horridge swiftly caught the eye of the main man, Raymond Blanc, although he admits that this was thanks to a rather bizarre creation.
Horridge made a blown sugar model of a saxophone player that he called Sax Life. The pun was clear enough, but it wasn't immediately obvious how someone who'd worked in a bistro and an Armed Forces kitchen could manage such a construction. In fact, it was thanks to time Horridge spent on a sugar art diploma in Switzerland, while with the RAF, that he was able to produce the towering piece.
Blanc was suitably impressed, and Horridge was to become senior sous chef at Le Manoir within just five years. "Gary Jones and Raymond were crucial influences," Horridge says. "I had to work my balls off, but for anyone who can stick for long enough, Le Manoir really is the most fantastic place to study."
Now with a Michelin star to his name, Horridge is a cut above the cook in the average organic caff, and is not just a chef who makes healthy food. He secured his current position after a cook-off at Bath Priory in front of owners Andrew and Christina Brownsword, as well as top chef Michael Caines - a frightening ordeal. And he is drawing in punters, not just the Michelin inspectors.
"I cook my food because I passionately believe in it," Horridge says. "We're beginning to attract people here who are interested in their health as well as merely a top level of cooking."
Chris Horridge CV
- Born 2 June 1970
- 1986-88 Gainsborough College of Further Education, Lincolnshire completed City & Guilds 705/1 general catering certificate, 706/1 & 2 basic and advanced cookery for the catering industry, 707/1 food and beverage service
- 1988-97 Senior Aircraftsman Cook, Royal Air Force included stint at RAF Laarbruch, Germany, and tour of duty in the Falkland Islands
- 1997-98 Senior chef de partie, Le Petit Blanc, Oxford
- 1998-2003 Commis chef, rising to senior sous chef, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire
- 2003-05 Personal chef to Canadian entrepreneur John Macbain
- 2005-present Head chef, Bath Priory
A taste of the future?
Three courses: £60.50, including service charge
- Summer vegetable paillette, olive ice, and essence of tomato, nettle tempura
- Warm confit salmon and Bramley apple, ginseng and watercress
- Boudin of quail and garlic chive, roast breast and egg, daub of chervil
- Subtle piccalilli, red mullet, cumin and salsify, bronze fennel fronds
- Pork belly, papaya and pain d'épices, rhubarb - poached and sorbet
- Lamb neck and loin with root vegetable laminate, goats' cheeses and honeycomb bee pollen
- Sorbets and ices with mango petal paper
- Burnt cream of our garden flora including rosemary
- Passion fruit with young coriander herb, chocolate infused with celery seed, kumquat on sour cherry snow
Root vegetable laminate for the Neston Park lamb, layered roots and goats' cheese, honeycomb and pollen
(Enough for 20 portions)
700g cream substitute or cream
Salt to taste
Prepare the vegetables by washing and peeling as required. Using a meat slicer, cut the vegetables into thin strips. Dissolve salt in cream and combine well. Mix well with the individual vegetable ribbons. Layer in a lined terrine, either in alternate layers or mixed. Cook at 175°C until a knife easily penetrates the vegetables. Turn out and cut into desired share.
Wild pigeon cured with birch sap and citrus zest
6-8 boneless pigeon breasts, skin off (1 breast per starter portion)
50g low-sodium salt (eg, Solo)
1 x 6in sprig of savory or thyme
3 bay leaves
9g garlic cloves
6 black peppercorns
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
250ml birch sap wine
10 juniper berries
Crush all spices and herbs before using. Add the salt and xylitol to the wine and bring to the boil. Remove from stove and add the other ingredients. When cool, place pigeon in marinade, cover and chill. Turn every 12 hours, leaving for a total of 48 hours.
When the meat is sufficiently cured it should be fairly firm to the touch. If it still feels tender, then continue to marinate for a further 12 hours. Wipe off the excess marinade, wrap in clingfilm and freeze until solid. Unwrap and use a meat slicer to finely slice. We slice the pigeon breast lengthways, which allows us to roll it up around some herbs.