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"You can say my food is embedded in South-east Asia and Japan - but with all the other influences and techniques that come into play"
At last year's judging session for the Menu of the Year Catey, one of the judges picking the winner reminded the rest of the group that this award was "also about pushing back the boundaries". It was a comment that hit the mark, and without doubt applied to both the previous two winners, Australian chef Christine Manfield at East@West in 2004 and Nottingham trailblazer Sat Bains in 2003.
Manfield was lured to London from Sydney (where she had run her very successful restaurant, Paramount) by Chris Bodker - just at a time when sceptics had declared fusion dead. It was a fad, a fashion, they said, soon to be forgotten. Well that obviously was not the case. Manfield wowed critics with her take on the cuisines of Japan, Vietnam and China - and was not afraid to call it "fusion". "That's how all cuisine has evolved, after all," she points out. "But the word does get bastardised - and murdered in the press. You can say my food is embedded in South-east Asia and Japan - but with all the other influences and techniques that come into play."
What impressed the judges was Manfield's use of exotic and at times outlandish ingredients - think enoki mushrooms, flying fish roe and cape gooseberries - and making them into dishes that not only "made you think" but crucially "made you hungry". Together the judges acknowledged that combinations like green peppercorn duck tree, spiced duck, lychees, pickled shiitake mushrooms had the capacity to engage diners all night.
Similarly, in 2003 Sat Bains's decision to replace the … la carte menus from his restaurant with a series of d‚gustation ones was considered radical, but it won the hearts of judges and guests alike. Like Manfield, Bains had managed to marry creativity with accessibility. He stood out from the crowd, but was still embraced by it. In dishes that combined scallops with Indian spices or even butternut squash soup poured over Parmesan sorbet, Bains created just as much variation on a no choice menu as he would have done on an a la carte.
This year, as before, the Menu of the Year Catey will be chosen from the 12 menus shortlisted by judges from all those featured in the Menuwatch pages of the Caterer. Previous winners have included the Glasshouse in Kew and Bruno's in Dublin, and this year establishments will again represent all areas of the country, with an eclectic mix of styles. The judges will be looking for innovation, good use of seasonal produce and, of course, value for money. All the finalists will have met those criteria already, but as Bains and Manfield both proved, it will take an extra special effort to win the award.
The judging will take place on 10 May at Brown's hotel, London.