You can keep your X-Factors and your Strictly-Come-Ice-Dancing-in-the-Jungle. In our house, it’s all about Masterchef. Not only do I tune into every episode, it’s the only reality TV show that I am secretly convinced I can win. I know that I could be the one to reduce shouty John to an awed silence and bring a tear to the eye of dessert-loving Greg, as I unmould the perfect chocolate fondant, the pudding which has seen off many a lesser contestant.
And of course, the very best bit is when the hapless contenders are packed off to a hot, busy professional kitchen where they either thrive or dissolve into a puddle of sweaty despair. So when the call comes to spend the day in the kitchen at Sussex’s premier fine dining venue, The Pass at South Lodge, I’m out the door, apron in hand, quicker than you can say ‘Yes Chef!’
Thinking to get a sneak preview of the task ahead, I secretly ate in the restaurant the night before and, if I am being honest, I have rather intimidated myself. Plate after plate of carefully crafted morsels passed before us and it was proper fiddly high-powered food. Stunningly presented, explosive flavours; in short, I had no idea how any of it was conjured into being and faced with the prospect of trying to cook at this level, I’m quite frankly a bit nervous.
Head Chef, Matt Gillan, sits me down for a chat before we get started. He’s been at South Lodge for five and a half years and running The Pass kitchen since it opened three years ago. Previously he was cooking in the hotel’s Camelia Restaurant – perfectly turned out country house-style fine dining – but nowhere near as exciting as masterminding the menus at The Pass, I would imagine.
He explains how he constructs such complex dishes. “First of all, I find the initial ingredient and build the dish around it. It’s always seasonal and usually local and then I start to experiment, making lists of things that will definitely work, things that might work, and things that probably won’t work but might just be genius. We use a few fancy bits of kit – foams guns and pacojets – but we don’t do fancy just for the sake of it.”
Blimey, it all sounds a bit Heston Blumenthal.
Matt admits that the groundbreaking cuisine at The Fat Duck has been a big influence. “A visit there earlier in my career really got me thinking and at The Pass, we put a lot of thought into understanding why certain ingredients work well together. Of course we’d love to get a Michelin star one day – who wouldn’t? – but I know our audience and I want people to enjoy their meal and feel it’s great value for money.”
Enough chat. It’s time to get down to some cooking and when Matt pushes me towards a big bowl of miniature carrots I sense I am being put to work where I can do the least damage. I expect Matt to swan off to make some foam or something, but he picks up a peeler and gets stuck in right beside me. It takes just a few minutes to give the tiny carrots a close shave (I should point out that I managed to do about six whilst Matt polished off the rest of the pile) and I am moved up to the meat section. Along with Chef de Partie (or Head of Section) Steven Edwards, there is a line of whole quails waiting for my attention. Steven shows me how to break the legs of the tiny quails with a sickening crunch, peel back their skin and slice off the breast meat with a wickedly sharp knife.
I manage not to disgrace myself and merrily hack my way through six quails as Steven makes short work of the remaining twenty-four. The little breasts are wrapped in Serrano ham, squeezed into a cling film roll and vacuum-packed ready for a water-bath later in the day. I know that this water bath or sous-vide technique is popular with chefs and Dan explains that it seals in all of the flavours, allowing any of the meat juices to be re-asborbed back into the meat as it rests.
I’m starting to get into my stride, but what fresh horror is this? A huge tub of live langoustines are put on the counter before me. Aha! They are probably about to be boiled or frozen or despatched in some other non-confrontational but humane way? “No”, says Steven, “That would be cruel. The quickest way to kill them is to sever the spinal cord.” He calmly rips the head off one of them and pushes the tub over to me.
Quite a crowd has gathered now, so not wanting to look like the girlie amateur I secretly am, I grasp a smallish one firmly with both hands and twist its head off. It’s horrible. Not the twisting part – that’s easy – but both bits keep squirming for a few seconds afterwards and embarrassingly, I drop the tail part on the floor and let out a little squeal. Oh dear, but they’re tasty little things and my desire to acquit myself well outweighs my squeamishness and soon Steven and I companionably beheading the live langoustines and lining up their plump bodies for cooking.
They will become part of a deconstructed prawn cocktail which currently features on one of the seasonal menus. By now, I’ve realised this isn’t going to be any ordinary prawn cocktail and when it’s time to plate it up, Steven puts no less than nine tiny pans on the hob to prepare the various elements which make up the dish.
It’s time for me to step up to the pass and plate up my dish. Admittedly, it’s Steven who has stirred the various concoctions, cooked the piece of salmon and brought everything together with impeccable timing, but hey, what else are the kitchen brigade for if not to answer the every whim of the master chef? I am ready to fulfil my destiny.
It’s fiddly. I put the beautiful cube of salmon in the wrong place and have to start again. I apply streaks of seafood reduction, shellfish froth and balance a stack of teeny tiny micro leaves on top of the froth-covered salmon cube. And now the moment I’ve been waiting for – Matt hands me the foam gun. From the crowd of chefs gathered round the hot plate, I gather this is the moment they’ve been waiting for too. I am poised, ready to deliver a perfect sphere of prawn-flavoured foam to complete my work of culinary art. I release the trigger and whoosh, a foamy mess the size of a tennis ball erupts onto the plate. Disaster. Humiliatingly, Steven has to re-plate and at this point I admit defeat. He deposits the perfect amount of the dreaded prawn foam and voila, my dish is finished.
I admire it long enough to take a photograph and scoff the lot. So would Matt pick me if I was a Masterchef nobody? Of he would, he says gallantly, gently ushering me out of his finely tuned kitchen. John, Greg, I couldda been a contender….!
[stextbox id=”tmk-box”]DINE IN STYLE
Book a table at The Pass at South Lodge right here [/stextbox]