Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Fire and Knives Mixed Grill: the caterer's point of view

Loading up the van at 5.30am and driving very very slowly down to Conway Hall.

I'm sure there were great and interesting talks at the Fire and Knives Mixed Grill event on Saturday, it's just that I didn't get to see any. I did the catering. I made a four course set lunch for 70 people and ran the snack/wine/coffee bar. After only two hours sleep on the Friday night, I spent Saturday in a spaced out daze, trying to remain upright and vaguely polite. It would have been a shame to have undone all my hard work by snapping irritably at all the movers and shakers from the food scene that populated this event.
I couldn't have done it without James Benson of My Cotswold Food. This private chef is an expert at outside catering. He never sleeps. He's like some sort of catering shark, always on the move, only catching a bit of shut eye while stirring a pot. James had even less sleep than me on Friday night, and that was in my shed! He lives in his chef's whites.
Conway Hall, where the event was held, has only one tiny domestic oven and one small fridge. Clearly, as much food as possible had to be prepared beforehand.
This was the menu I settled upon:
Scallops cooked on salt blocks seasoned with vanilla salt
added to Cream of scallop soup 
I also gave a short talk and demonstration on cooking with salt.

Dressed whole salmon in aspic

Pea shoot, blood orange salad

Truffled potatoes in a bag with truffle salt

Almond Blancmange with rhubarb jelly

Rhubarb syllabub

Swan meringues with rose water, almonds and blackberries

Plus Italian cheeses by The Deli Station

Coffee by Douwe Egberts

Vintage tea cup candles by Me_old_China

James trained at Claridges and so knew how to do classic French hotel food which was exactly the vibe I wanted. I love old fashioned hotel dining rooms, with the clinking of fork against china, of glass against bottle, the murmured civilised conversations, the silverware, the formality, the white linen, the stiff backed waiters, the domed platters.
I roasted the whole salmon in the Aga. I had to do five, so this took some time. The fish has to be curved around in the baking trays to fit. I filled the trays with water, adding lemon juice and the skins, sliced onions, peppercorns, bay leaves and sea salt, and covered the top with foil After 45 minutes to an hour, I plunged in a temperature gage; when the thickest part reaches 70 degrees C, it's cooked.
The skin came off easily.
At 3.30 am, with James' tutelage, I was still dressing the salmon; piping home made mayonnaise into the spine, layering fine slices of cucumber as scales, criss-crossing the sides with thin strips of dark cucumber peel, as if it were a pin cushioned upholstered chair, studding the triangles with circles of anchovy olive, garnishing the back with capers and proud tufts of flat leaf parsley.
I also learnt to worship the god Clingfilm. How to transport stacks of precious vintage plates and not break one? Clingfilm. Everything was wrapped tightly so nothing jiggled.
We partly loaded up the vans the night before, I was just about to carry out the glasses and James passed on another piece of wisdom: "Don't do that until the morning. The glasses will get condensation on them overnight and we will have to wash them again in the morning."
James is the master of the checklist: "Serving spoons...check; salad dressing...check; serving dishes...check; glitter...check; clingfilm...check (because we will need to wrap it all up again when we drive home)"
The blancmange took forever. I loved blancmange as a kid; my mother had a rabbit shaped metal mould but she made it from a packet with cornflour. Nobody eats blancmange, 'eat white', a sick bay dish of choice, anymore. I made it the authentic way, soaking ground almonds in hot milk for several hours. Some guests said it was their favourite dish, that they had never had proper home made blancmange before. If having a go at home, choose a recipe that add gelatin at the end, it's almost impossible to strain otherwise.
The swans? Chefs laughed when I told them my idea. Undaunted I piped bodies, wings and necks, with a few to spare in case of breakages. I added rosewater to the egg white and the cream. People gasped as front of house marched into the big hall. Each swan had it's own character.
 I used Xanthe Clay's recipe for poaching rhubarb
Forced rhubarb from Yorkshire is in season right now, the middle of 'the hungry gap', so I made a lurid syllabub, served in glass bowls, contrasting the Barbie pink with edible glitter.
The tables looked fantastic, with blue and gold glasses, pretty tablemats, a facsimile of the cover of my book and a mix of my vintage dishes and those from Bristol Vintage, who kindly lent their plates, napkins and babycham glasses.

 Blowtorching the mould to try and get out the blancmange. Note to self: oil with almond oil next time.

 Plating up on the radiator

Like angels...

Rhubarb syllabub

The sandwich and coffee bar, despite St John's sourdough, Taleggio and home-cured salmon sandwiches, stayed empty and so I made a loss on the whole event. It's not easy to make money from food.
Here is James' blog post on the event; as a non-Londoner, he was horrified by the parking charges! And he got a ticket five minutes before free parking started.
Thanks also to Josh, Amy and Mike from Blanch and Shock; Reena Retuta, Helen Gibbons of Corney and Barrow, Yinka Opaneye, Sienna Rodgers; Maria Grist; Alissia Durbridge of Bibendum.


  1. Wow! You must have been exhausted!


  2. Massive respect MsMarmiteLover. Your attention to detail and working under such difficult conditions leaves me in total awe. Will you do it again?

  3. wow! this looked amazing, I wish I had gotten myself together and booked to have eaten this food, all looks really nice. Congrats.

  4. Oh it was amazing!!! So glad I got to experience it all. Those swans!!! I can remember the taste!! Lucky me!

  5. Thanks everybody for your comments! It was exhausting, I guess because I'm not used to doing outside catering.
    But I was very happy with the results....

  6. What an amazing menu and a great deal of hard work. I must remember the tip about cling film and crockery.

  7. The Swans were spectacular!!!! was everything else...Well done..loved every biteful..and the rest of the event was pretty good too!!

  8. My goodness - those swans! So gutted to have missed the Mixed Grill, sounds like you did a brilliant job with the catering. St John sourdough going uneaten is a crime - I hope it went to a good home x

  9. Absolutely stunning; and how on earth did you find time to do photography as well - such excellent photos. Really, really impressed - I've been to Conway Hall and it is not a food event friendly environment so creating, transporting and serving that meal was a real tour de force! Bravo!

  10. Katy: I've been living off the sandwiches three times a day ever since! Actually yesterdays...I was halfway through it and realised it smelt and tasted a bit musty so chucked it. But St John's there any better bread?
    Chumbles: thank you sir!
    Lynn: clingfilm...I'm a convert. Everything was bandaged in it.

  11. Wow - thanks for the write up! :)

    You'll be doing 10 events a week before you know it. Maybe.

  12. Oh. My. Gracious. That just looks amazing. Simply amazing. Was so sad to have missed the day (a diary muff up with a weekend in Cornwall). That was such a fantastic post too. Congratulations on it all.

  13. My word lady! This is impressive stuff! Truly, madly, seriously! I love the fish!! Can I ever stop complimenting you? I must sound so gushy...but you just keep on amazing me! No.1 food hero of mine you are! :) xxx

  14. Philippine catering services7 September 2011 at 13:35

    Wow! I amaze the design of the fish nice catering services. Keep up the god work!


  15. Being new to the world of food blogging I can only hope my food photography skills and blog, aimed at inspiring others to experiment with new foods and techniques will continue to improve. I can only hope to make it onto your list in the future!


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