The time had finally come for Simon Rogan to take on the challenge that is the Cateys kitchen. "I've been asked a few times to do industry events - including the Cateys - and I've always shirked away from them," he admits. But 2016 was the year he said yes.
The difference here was strength in numbers. Rogan brought the head chefs from three of his restaurants with him - Dan Cox, executive chef at Fera at Claridge's, Tom Barnes, head chef at L'Enclume, and Adam Reid, head chef at the French at the Midland hotel. With each focusing on one dish each, Roganville had truly come to the Cateys.
Dan Cox, Adam Reid, Simon Rogan, Nigel Boschetti and Tom Barnes
Rogan, who runs five restaurants, including the two-Michelin-starred L'Enclume and one-Michelin-starred Fera, has never catered for more than 600 people, but he met the challenge head on. "Obviously you can't be too ambitious; you've got to work within the parameters. There are a lot of people to serve, so you've got to keep it quite simple and use ingredients that are easy to regenerate."
As if to attest to the forethought that went into the menu, Nigel Boschetti, executive chef at the Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, says that the team's menu seemed pretty doable from the outset, and that nothing had to be largely altered.
Out of a hat
The chefs decided who was going to do which course by pulling names out of a hat - Rogan chuckles at the fact he still ended up with the main course, where expectations would naturally be high. "I asked them all to do something that they felt comfortable with," he says. He wanted each dish to be reflective of each chef's individual style, naturally hoping they would fit together. "Obviously we work in restaurants with a similar ethos and style, so it wasn't that difficult, really," he says.
So far, so good. The ideas each chef submitted were not drastically changed to make them possible for a function the size of the Cateys, nor was there any repetition in ingredients across the dishes. "It was quite lucky actually," says Rogan. "We must have some sort of sixth sense together."
Pea, smoked pork and marigold
Fera chef and 2008 Roux Scholar Cox was the first to put forward a dish and set the tone. His starter brief was to construct a snack in a whisky tumbler. He says he thought seasonally, and about what would be easy to make. Cox also had to keep in mind that his dish would have to sit in the fridge for several hours before service, but would still have to retain its structure, taste and appearance by the time it went out. He ultimately decided on a set pea mousse with smoked pork jowl and marigold.
Pairing pea with smoked pork and marigold was a familiar choice - ingredients he is used to and a flavour combination he knows works well: "Marigold is my thing, it's been something I've been growing for quite a long time. It's one of my favourite herbs, and smoked pork and marigold are two flavours we work with quite a lot," he says.
Although he describes finding the challenge "daunting" initially, he says it was "all good fun, just another one of our crazy events". While it is always a struggle going into someone else's kitchen, the Grosvenor House team worked hand in hand with Rogan's. In fact, several other members of the L'Enclume team were also there to help out. L'Enclume head chef and 2014 Roux Scholar Tom Barnes says that, even though it was everyone's day off, he had to pull names out of a hat to decide who was going to be joining them in the kitchen that day, as his entire team volunteered.
Cured mackerel with smoked eel, cucumber, caper and horseradish
Barnes himself was excited by the challenge ahead - if a bit nervous. Before this he says he had probably catered for a maximum of 180 people, and 1,200 had proved a big leap. "The volume of work is ridiculous," he says. "I couldn't have imagined how long it was all going to take. I thought prepping cucumber yesterday would only take an hour, but six of us were stood there for about five hours chopping cucumber. It has been pretty tough. But we got there."
In terms of his dish, he was happily allocated the second starter and immediately wanted to do a raw dish, similar to those served at L'Enclume. "Initially I was told I couldn't do anything raw," he says, "but I've eaten at the Cateys before and I had raw mackerel [Gary Usher's flamed and tartare of mackerel, apple and grape]. I fought my corner on that one, and I'm happy I did."
Barnes came up with the idea of a plate of cured mackerel and smoked eel served with caper jam, a horseradish emulsion, grilled and pickled cucumber and crystallised fennel drops. "It's a simple dish, and I knew all the flavours would go together, but there is still technique in there with the caper jam and the crystallised fennel. And it gave us a bit of leeway in case anything went wrong," he adds.
Which, unfortunately, it did. There was an issue with the mackerel delivery and so, after ringing around suppliers and having 350 mackerel sent down from Scotland at 7am on the day, Barnes and his team spent the whole day filleting the fish, skinning it, curing it, washing it, portioning it - and by the time they'd done all that, it was time to plate it.
He remains happy he fought his corner and content with the dish he sent out. The Cateys was also Barnes' birthday, which this year was marked by 1,200 of the industry's most famous faces singing 'Happy Birthday' to him.
The main affair
The main course had to be simple, taste good and look nice, says Rogan. Lamb was the obvious choice: "It tastes great and it's a braised dish so you don't have to worry about the cooking too much." For the suckling lamb shoulder, he paired salt-baked turnips and Jersey Royals, alliums and sheep's milk.
Suckling lamb shoulder, salt-baked turnip and Jersey Royals, alliums and sheep's milk
That left the French head chef and Acorn Award winner Adam Reid with dessert. He wanders over, blinking like he's been staring at the sun too long. "I've just been looking at the same spot for two and a half hours," he explains. "Please keep me as long as you want," he laughs.
Having previously worked in hotels and at venue functions, he was, to an extent, already aware of the required approach for things on this scale - taste first, appearance second.
"You just simplify things and focus on flavour rather than presentation. If everyone turns round to me tonight and says 'your dessert looked like a load of rubbish, but it tasted really nice', then I'll be happy. I'm a chef, I feed people," he explains.
He seems to have taken the whole thing rather in his stride, joking about winding his team up. "I walk past them and poke them and go 'are you happy with that?' They go purpleâ¦ you've got to keep it fun. It can get very stressful if you're not careful," he says.
Macerated strawberries with poached green rhubarb, chamomile custard, green apple sorbet and hazelnut crumble
When it came to his dish, he also had seasonality in mind. "It's the middle of the year, Wimbledon season - if I didn't do strawberries I'd probably have got lynched," he laughs. "We've got some lovely ones from Shropshire. They're the size of tennis balls." He came up with the idea of serving macerated strawberries with poached green rhubarb, chamomile custard, green apple sorbet and a hazelnut crumble.
Making a dessert with outdoor rhubarb is one of Reid's signatures. Not a lot of people use it because of the tartness, he explains, adding that he sees it as a challenge, and while it is normally stewed or used in a crumble, he likes to poach it. "I love the sweet and sour effect, playing the flavours off each other," he says.
He often pairs it with chamomile cream and green apple snow. However, as using liquid nitrogen wasn't possible for the number of people required, he instead settled for a sorbet. "It's still nice and fresh and light, and it's got a little bit of acidity in there from the apples. You've got all the flavour profiles that you need on there with lots of nice gentle, floral, aromatic flavours."
But compromises did have to be made. While Reid would normally poach the rhubarb in a bag in its own juice, instead they used the traditional method of oven braising. Not that it ruffled him in the slightest: "You maybe don't have the refinement you would in a 50-cover restaurant, but it's about what you eat, not necessarily always what you're looking at," he says.
And that was not necessarily a bad thing. The team came up with the idea on the day of having a soup at the bottom of the dish in case anything leaked or seeped. They mixed the strawberry and rhubarb liquor that both fruits were poached in, then thickened it to a soup-like consistency and filled the bottom of the dish with it. "And actually I think that's improved the dish," Reid says. "A way of compensating for the presentation has actually enhanced the flavour."
Boschetti says that each year is challenging in its own way, and while Rogan's food is particularly complex, the team relished the challenge of making it work. "They're the brains behind the menu; we're the brains behind the delivery and getting it prepared and scaling it up," Boschetti adds. "Even when we do our own menus, even with years of experience, there are things that happen that you didn't foresee. But I think they've enjoyed it."
This year's menu was even more challenging, he says, not only because of the extra course, but also due to Rogan's reliance on small suppliers. "That's really been the challenge: getting the supply line right," he says. He recalled one incident where the marigold leaves arrived and were five times the size they should have been - which thankfully happened early enough to be easily remedied.
"They're all great. They all understand the challenges," he says of Rogan's team. "When they get the feedback, it brings it all into context. That's the nice bit."
Rogan says he takes his hat off to the Grosvenor House banqueting team: "The sheer magnitude of the work and the prep and the organisation of it is something you can really stand back and admire. We were all together in London sharing each other's workloads and having a laugh about it. That's the best bit - being together and having a good laugh."
- Pea, smoked pork and marigold
- Cured mackerel with smoked eel, cucumber, caper and horseradish
- Suckling lamb shoulder, salt-baked turnip and Jersey Royals, alliums and sheep's milk
- Macerated strawberries with poached green rhubarb, chamomile custard, green apple sorbet and hazelnut crumble
- Coffee and petits fours
Prepared by: Nigel Boschetti, executive chef, and the brigade at the Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel; Simon Rogan, Catey Chef Award winner and Independent Restaurateur winner 2013; Dan Cox, executive chef at Fera at Claridge's and Roux Scholar 2008; Tom Barnes, head chef at L'Enclume and Roux Scholar 2014; and Adam Reid, head chef at the French and Acorn Award winner 2014
Nick Zalinski, business director, national accounts, at Cateys wine sponsor Matthew Clark, explains his Cateys menu choices
Apéritif Distell PongrÁ¡cz Brut
Desiderius PongrÁ¡cz, a count from Hungary, helped shape the South African wine industry by introducing some of the grape varieties we now take for granted. The Cap Classique that bears his name is a highly respected and delicious blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Pea starter Flagstone 'Tributary' Chenin Blanc 2015
Just 15 years ago, Chenin Blanc was still regarded as a workhorse varietal in South Africa. Today, the nurturing of older bush vines is allowing this grape to produce some of the country's best wines. This new release from winemaker Bruce Jack is a great example: deep-flavoured but fresh.
Cured mackerel Jean-Luc Colombo Picpoul de Pinet 'Les Girelles' 2014
Picpoul is fast becoming a must-have wine for any list - consumers love its freshness and honesty. Laure Colombo's wine has plenty of zip and citrus fruit but also displays a level of richness and complexity not often found here. It's this interplay which makes for a successful pairing with our fish course.
Suckling lamb shoulder Don Jacobo Rioja Tinto 'Viticultura EcolÁ³gica' 2011
Bodegas Corral's philosophy is to carefully balance the traditions of the region with the tastes of the modern consumer. This cuvée is fascinating: a blend of organic/sustainable Tempranillo and Mazuelo grapes, aged for four years without oak influence. It shows deep flavours of blackberries, spices and a rich underlay of savoury, meaty notes.
Macerated strawberries Concha y Toro, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2014
A heavenly dessert wine produced from grapes grown in Concha y Toro's Lourdes Vineyard. Harvesting in autumn allows the berries to raisin, partly under the influence of noble rot. Tropical fruit and honey aromas lead into a sweet yet crisp palate, with flavours of rhubarb and summer fruits.
Simon Rogan - the morning after
"Things don't always go according to plan - that's to be expected with such large numbers, as even the smallest things can become massive because of the number.
"But all due respect to Nigel and his team, who are doing these numbers day in and day out. The standard they produce is unbelievable and although what we did was a little bit adventurous and perhaps a little bit of a struggle, the next day we had a chat and a good laugh about it. We enjoyed it.
"We had strength in numbers - we worked as team with the Grosvenor House, and on the whole it was good.
"We've had loads of messages and e-mails from various chefs, hoteliers, restaurateurs and suppliers at the function and I've been taken aback by how the food was received. I'd like to thank everyone for their kind words - I'm really appreciative.
"Although I jokingly said I would never cook at the Cateys, I have no regrets about doing it. In fact, although Tom [Barnes] was the biggest winger throughout the day, at the end of it all he said 'when are we doing the next one?'.
"We enjoyed each others' company, we had a laugh, and although it was really hard work, we had a great day. When we finished we had a few drinks, it was good fun.
"Do I have any advice for future Cateys chefs? Do it, it's so worthwhile. The Caterer has supported my business beyond belief and it was absolutely right that the magazine should ask me. My only advice for future chefs is don't try making it as technical as we did unless you take an army! Perhaps, next time, less hand movements on the plate.
"Everyone at L'Enclume wanted to be part of it, which is testament to the Cateys and its appeal. They all wanted to be involved and now they can say they've cooked to a fairly decent standard for all the stars of the industry."
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