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Master Chef Article
"FIRST CATCH YOUR SPINACH . . . "
By Nathan Rous wrting in the Shropshire Magazine
Thanks to Delia Smith, you could say that everyone knows the rudiments of boiling an egg. The rise of the celebrity chef has been inexorable and it is fair to say that our knowledge has risen with it. So much so that little is off limits for the amateur cook who is desperate to impress friends with a culinary feast.
It was just such desperation that led me to The Hundred House Hotel in Norton, near Bridgnorth, for a Master Chef day under the tutellage of renowned chef Stuart Phillips.
Stuart may not have a good book out, a TV show, or a range of vinaigrettes which bear his name, but he certainly knows his onions when it comes to cooking. And his artichokes. And his wild mushrooms for that matter.
Stuart was classically trained in France, under the watchful gaze of a Michelin-starred chef, before working at the Grosvenor in Chester and then in some of London's most famous kitchens. Returning to Shropshire to man two kitchens at the Hundred House - owned by his parents Henry and Sylvia - Stuart has gained the very best of reputations.
Indeed, when it comes to championing local produce, he has no rival. Everything on the menu bar the Dover sole comes from independent producers in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Staffordshire.
The personal relationship he has developed with each of his suppliers means the customer gets the best of everything. The prime cuts of beef that have been hung for six weeks; the asparagus that has been picked hours earlier at nearby Lees Farm; the free-range eggs that are still warm.
He's doing his own bit too. Sylvia has created a simply overwhelming herb garden at the rear of the hotel which is packed with goodies and could easily keep a dozen kitchens going as well as her own.
It is here that the Master Chef day begins. Me and seven other wannabe chefs in our aprons in amid the sorrel.
"I thought I'd bring you here first to get your senses going," says Stuart, snapping leaves off a variety of herbs as he navigates the garden and handing them out for taste and smell tests.
"We try to grow all the herbs we need here because the fresher they are the better they taste. There's thyme, lemon thyme, rosemary, mint, sorrel, sage ... pretty much everything you would ever need.
"One of the dishes on the menu you will be cooking today is sorrel, pea and lettuce soup so we need to collect a fair amount if we're going to feed you all."
Yes, I forgot to mention, everything we cook goes home with us. With a dinner party of my own that evening, it's more than an added bonus.
I wasn't alone. Three of our party who had travelled up from Worcester, Monmouth and Tettenhall were also entertaining in the evening and were delighted they could pass off Stuart's excellence as their own.
"We've got 16 to feed," informed one. "I hope he gives us enough," laughed another.
The menu was mouthwatering, even on paper. We would make the soup to start, along with a sunflower seed bread, sumac-seared mackerel fillets with a tomato salsa, lamb with harissa and cous-cous, wild mushroom and asparagus risotto, crema Catalana and a coffee granita.
Armed with sharp knives, a box of blue plasters and a chopping board, we were divided a into two teams before we started to tackle the men.
Now, I've seen the bullish Gordon Ramsay in full flow on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, and I've watched Jean-Christophe Novelli hurl cutlery at an unsuspecting chef in Hell's Kitchen, so when Stuart barked the first orders of the day in my direction it was difficult not to flinch.
But this is what a real kitchen is like. It's hot, hectic and there's no room for error.
"We have got 85 covers for lunch and my 3 second chef is off work after spraining his " ankle," explains Stuart. I'm not sure if this means he wants us to fill in, or whether it's a roundabout way of saying he won't be suffering fools at all, let alone gladly.
"But the customers don't want to know about that," he continues. "They come here for a great meal and a chance to relax. That's why it has to be perfect every time, regardless of who is in the kitchen and what the problems are behind the scenes. It's about being professional. "
Stuart is certainly a great teacher. Every course begins with a brief run-down of what's to do, and then he gets stuck in to it while we all assist.
The bread is a real hands-on experience, while the competition between the two teams reaches fever pitch over the crema Catalana. I'm in the blue team and ours is perfect. The red team are trying to pass theirs off as the ultimate dessert, except it's beginning to look like scrambled eggs. I feel it is my duty to point this out.
The rest of the day continues in the same vein. The risotto looks hard work but is actually harder when we have a go ourselves. The boneless shoulder of lamb literally melts on the tongue when it's smothered with harissa and owner Henry has a fit when the mackerel we are meant to be practising our filleting technique on turns out to be sole.
But this is a day to remember for all sorts of reasons. The opportunity to learn the finest cooking skills alongside a highly regarded chef is extremely rare in Britain, let alone in Shropshire. Thankfully there are more Master Chef days planned. You will just have to get in the queue.
Reproduced by kind permission Shropshire Magazine