Paul Cunningham translated his cooking philosophy of simple comfort food at his remote restaurant, Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark, to wow diners at one of hospitality's glitziest awards ceremonies, held at London's Grosvenor House. Amanda Afiya reports
For example, can their highly decorated cooking make the journey to the sprawling underground kitchens of one the world's most famous event spaces? Does a dish that people travel miles to taste lend itself to being served, banquet-style, to 1,200 people? And, if this is the sole time a diner experiences their food, will it bear any reflection on the carefully sourced and crafted delights served in their own restaurant?
Which explains why, when The Caterer rang the chef chosen to consult on this year's Cateys menu - Paul Cunningham of the two-Michelin-starred Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark - we were left wondering if his battery had died mid-conversation. For Cunningham, chomping on a crab sandwich at Stansted Airport at the time of the call, after tentatively saying yes, he then rang his partner in crime, Henne's general manager Garrey Dawson, and said, "What have I done?"
Cunningham, one of the most charming, hilarious, kind, thoughtful, talented and gifted chef exports this country has ever seen, is an Essex boy done good. From humble beginnings and an atypical early career, today he runs an enchanting restaurant with rooms, hidden away in a tiny corner of southern Denmark in the small, picturesque village of Henne, which boasts just 206 inhabitants.
But parachuting in "a taste of Henne" to the Cateys was only going to go one of two ways for Cunningham, a person who, at times, is paralysed with stress and anxiety.
"It's helped me immensely to do this," said Cunningham two days after the event. "When I was on stage, Garrey and Paul [Proffitt, Henne's head chef] were backstage, saying 'there is no way Paul could have done that six weeks ago, he would have been sick with worry'."
However, Cunningham, who recently returned to work following an extended period of sick leave, said the thought of doing the Cateys never stressed him out. "At the back of my mind, I had the utmost confidence in Nigel [Boschetti, the executive chef of Grosvenor House], and I know The Caterer wouldn't have asked me to cook if they didn't believe I could do it, so that's what I focused on.
"Now I feel absolutely incredible. I've cooked for 400 before, but never 1,200. Working alongside Nigel, Stuart [Bowery, general manager], the whole team - it's not one person's doing - and to have people like Pascal Aussignac, Pierre Koffmann and Sat Bains say to you, 'that was really tasty, the lamb was so tender and beautiful', I'm very proud that I have done it. It's helped me immensely to get over that barrier as I have been so down this year."
Helping him in the task has been the warm welcome at the Grosvenor House. "You couldn't wish for lovelier people," adds Cunningham. "When you walk into the Grosvenor there is eye contact - it's a genuine West Coast feeling. What I mean is if you fly to New York, you can get the best of everything, but if you take the trouble to go to the West Coast you will get genuine service like you have never had before. We try to give that at Henne, not because we are trained to do it, but because it comes naturally.
"That's exactly what I found at the Grosvenor, and Nigel, who is professional through to his fingertips, knows what he can do and he knows what he can't and there's an honesty behind it. He'll just say, 'no, we can't do it, mate'. During the course of the tastings in the run-up to the event, I have spent a lot of time at the Grosvenor and I will miss it immensely."
Cunningham's thought process behind the menu was to pick dishes that would hold well on the day that also reflect Henne's style of cuisine, which is "comfort food, seasonal food, and as much as the chefs can get from the garden - and we try not to do too much with it".
He started with three types of cured meats. The hay-aged neck fillet was salted and burned in hay - "you get these big lumps of ham and set fire to bales of hay, and you get this hay crust around the ham, then you slice it thinly." This was served alongside four-year-old Henne ham and one-year salted rack, a portion of pickled onions and a cold glass of King Cobra.
At Henne, butter is made every day, whipped up just before evening service and flavoured with "lemony herbs and flowers" from the garden. "On the night, we served house butter," says Cunningham. "It was flavoured as we do at Henne. We served it with Han Solo sourdough, which is named after our sourdough at Henne.
"When you make a sourdough, if you don't name or christen the starter, the mother won't rise, so you need to give it a name. When I first started messing around with sourdoughs, I called it Elizabeth because I put the sourdough together on Queen Elizabeth's birthday. The second one was Keith Moon because we first made it on the day he died. Then, when we started at Henne and I got an H brand to brand the bread, we started calling it Helena (after the model Helena Christensen, because she always used to come to the Paul, the restaurant I had in Copenhagen before Henne), and this is Han Solo because, well, I'm a bit of Star Wars freak."
The first course was a pressed vine tomato water, basil leaf and poached Scottish lobster. "The starter is a pressed water of overripe tomatoes, made with the vines, some basil, garlic, sugar and mineral water blitzed up rough and left to drip. If you press it through you don't get a clear water because you push all the impurities through. The idea is that it smells like my grandad's greenhouse. When you walk into a greenhouse, it's not the tomatoes you smell but the vines and the leaves, so this has got vines and leaves and all sorts in it. The idea behind the whole menu is that it should all be refreshing."
The main course - roasted Yorkshire lamb DNSV (which stands for 'do not sous-vide', one of Cunningham's pet hates), pea, mint and morel vol-au-vent - is similar to a classic Henne dish. "Lamb is a very summery thing, you then have a lovely, crisp sweetbread, and with some acidity in the sauce to lift the flavours. The more liquid you have in the buttery peas that are poured into the vol-au-vents, the better. We have a word in Denmark, "snask", which means greasy and horrible or filthy, and vol-au-vents are that - they dribble down your chin."
And finally, for dessert, Cunningham's Anna Pavlova 1920'ish. "Who doesn't like pavlova?" he laughs. "Everyone loves a meringue and some cream and fruit. We serve it with grapefruit, orange, lemon, limes and then it's balanced out by the cream so you've got quite a sharp salad and a sweet meringue with a very creamy, fatty double cream on top, dressed with quite a bitter syrup and little pepper that comes through from the olive oil."
It certainly hit the right note with a number of the diners declaring it the best Cateys menu they have had. "The dessert was fantastic: the chewy Pavlova and soft cream balanced with the sorbet was terrific - the simplicity and flavour shone for me and we all enjoyed it," commented multiple-Catey winner and 2016 Hotelier of the Year Craig Bancroft.
Catey Chef Award winner 2015 and fellow two-Michelin-starred chef Sat Bains said: "I'm so glad that The Caterer pursued the legends Paul, Garrey and Paul Proffitt and persuaded them to come back home for one night to cook for industry friends. Paul should have his own show - he's one of the funniest guys I know! It was fantastic food and I can't wait to go to Henne and experience it for myself. It was an impeccable meal, chilled out, super flavours, not too frilly and perfect for big numbers - they nailed it."
Henne-cured cuts Varde Adal organic Danish Black pig King Cobra
Han Solo and lemon'ed butter
Pressed vine tomato water, basil leaf and poached Scottish lobster Waipara Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Marlborough, New Zealand
Roasted Yorkshire lamb DNSV, pea, mint, morel vol-au-vent Le Clos de Reynon 2010, Cadillac Cotes de Bordeaux, France followed by Les Hipsters, Barbe 2014, Cotes de Bourg, France
Anna Pavlova 1920'ish, citrus fruits and sorbet Bottega Limoncino Limoncello, Italy
Chocolate toffee flavoured with Balvenie single malt
Grosvenor House goes to Denmark
As general manager of Grosvenor House, Stuart Bowery is responsible for the success of the Cateys in his hotel. The hotel regularly collaborates with guest chefs, but Bowery said the visit to meet Paul Cunningham at Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark last December to start the ball rolling for the event was truly inspirational.
"Paul is a wizard in his two-Michelin-starred restaurant. His commanding, warm welcome and Anglo-Danish team have created a restaurant of wholesome earthy food with simplicity in its cleverness," he said. "We observed the quirky touch points in his kitchen garden and the complexities of the genius that is Paul, who conjures up straightforward fare for the dining table. It was a pleasure to participate in the collaboration between the mastermind Paul Cunningham and Nigel Boschetti."
For Claire Byrne, director of event management at Grosvenor House, who has overseen 15 Cateys' nights, the process of finalising the menu for this year's Cateys was equally captivating: "Our experience at Paul's restaurant was superb - his team are very engaging, they all have a tremendous passion for F&B. Both chef and I thought the dessert that day was one of the best we have ever tasted - simple, clean and very delicious.
"The day was educational and entertaining but, more importantly, it helped us to understand the philosophy behind what is key to Paul's passion: customers who leave his restaurant happy and with a plan to come back. I hope the guests enjoyed the menu as much as we loved planning it together."
Nigel Boschetti, who oversees 250 banquets a year in the hotel's Great Room, said preparing for and cooking at the annual Catey awards is one of the highlights of his job as executive chef at the Grosvenor House. But he says this year has been "extra special" after being given the opportunity to travel to Denmark and experience Cunningham's "natural cooking".
"The simplicity of his cooking is not to be undermined by the amazing produce grown and sourced by Paul and his team. It has been a real pleasure working with him - his philosophy is great and he has an incredible passion, and yet, at the same time, he's down to earth and very funny - we had lots of laughs with him.
"His menu is perfect for large numbers, but still challenging. I love that his food is all about taste and, in his words, to 'make it dirty - the dirtier the better', which my team thought was hilarious. He meant lots of aromats, great ingredients and great flavours.
"Particular highlights for me were the homemade charcuterie with delicious citrus butter and crusty bread, and the lemon pavlova drizzled with olive oil, which I have to say is one of the best desserts I have had the pleasure of eating. The tomato water with lobster was light and delicious and the lamb just oozed wonderful summer flavours."
In keeping with the style at Henne, the tables at the Cateys were decorated with an arrangement of mismatched vases and flowers, following a very specific brief from Paul Cunningham and the team. The challenge fell to Manchester-based creative floral studio Maybe May, which ensured that the flowers looked like they had just been picked "from your grandad's garden".
Selecting the wines, by Nick Zalinski, Matthew Clark
We've only met a couple of times, but I get the impression that it's men like Paul Cunningham who have made the word "bromance" common parlance.
A down-to-earth guy proud of his Essex up-bringing, he's full of stories that emerge like an honest but humorous stream of consciousness - one minute recalling his childhood food memories, the next ardently explaining how he makes the hay-smoked ham at Henne Kirkeby Kro, before revealing his guilty takeaway cravings back in the UK.
Nice guy he may be, but he also has the highest standards and knows exactly what he wants - he just has a charming way of getting it. So, very helpfully, the first draft of his Cateys menu contained useful pointers on what wines they would serve with each dish in the restaurant. My challenge was to use these suggestions as a starting point and, as with the dishes, to make them work for 1,200 guests.
To kick off the evening, we added a British twist to an on-trend American gin - Aviation. Cucumber, elderflower and pink grapefruit are all flavours consumers love at the moment, and they marry beautifully. Paul's homemade charcuterie was served with a flavoursome hoppy beer, as it is at Henne, here supplied by Cobra.
I loved the tomato, basil and lobster starter and I wanted a wine to enhance that summery freshness. I selected a zesty, citrus and herb-laden wine from Waipara Hills, in Marlborough. Their 2017 Sauvignon Blanc is subtle, crisp and more elegant than some New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
For the lamb main course, Henne's sommelier recommended a fine Bordeaux. I took this as inspiration to unearth a mature, dusty Clos de Reynon, Cadillac - a pretty obscure bottle made by the legendary Denis Dubourdieu (chateau owner, consultant and Decanter Man of the Year 2016), who sadly passed away two years ago. The wine is from his family estate and the 2010 vintage was stunning. Not only is it drinking at its peak, it also matched the dish perfectly. It was the first wine we tried; sometimes you just get lucky. Feeling rather smug, I confirmed I would prefer to serve this over the more modern (but also delicious) Les Hipsters, Barbe 2014, Cotes de Bourg - what "the kids" are drinking.
It was then that, jotting down a few numbers on the back of my trusty envelope, I realised that even if we used all the cases of 2010 in existence, we'd only have enough for one glass per person. "Why don't we serve them both?", suggested Paul. "You know what? Let's do exactly that", I smiled.
For dessert, I always want to put sweet wine into the hands of Catey Awards guests, but an off-the-cuff comment when the menu was under discussion led us to try something a bit different to match Paul's lemony pavlova - a chilled shot of Limoncino (Bottega's superb grappa-based limoncello). There were smiles on the faces of the diners, and, at the end of the day, that is what our industry is all about.
Nick Zalinski, national wine controller, Matthew Clark
Water for the event was supplied by Procure4, and whisky was supplied by William Grant & Sons
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