On my first day working on the shop floor at Melrose and Morgan, the chef kept picking on me.
“She’s so slow!” (I was by the way) “Why do they keep hiring these useless people?” She asked, no one in particular. I was standing right in front of her at the time and was positively mortified.
Anxious to get out of the line of fire, I went into the walk in fridge, preferring to freeze my butt off at 2 C rather than be bullied, and started labelling the soups (putting stickers with their name and ingredients on them). Stephen, noticed my distress and came in after me, “Don’t worry about her, she can get like that. She’s leaving anyway and I am taking over as Head Chef, so stay.”
He moved back to the Ledbury after a time and then became the head chef at The Harwood Arms (during his tenure, it was the first gastropub to get a Michelin star). We always kept in touch and while I was in London, I made sure to eat at the Harwood regularly (and send everyone I knew) there. When he emailed me to say he was coming to visit me in Berlin for a couple of days, I was over the moon!
Stephen is a rare breed among chefs. He is gentle and he loves to impart knowledge. Every small interaction prompts an insight. Like the other day, we were at Rogacki standing in front of the smoked fish counter, when he told me never to throw the skin away from smoked eel “It’s robust, stays intact during cooking and is full of delicious smoky flavour, it goes wonderfully well in a celeriac soup, because it’s gutsy enough to stand up to celeriac.”
He has worked at Michelin restaurants since he was a lad out of college (The Square, The Ledbury, Anchor and Hope – not a Michelin but one of the original gastropubs) and fed a lot of international culinary super stars at his pub (and they all loved it), but still he is the most down to earth guy. Only when I mention someone does he say, “Oh yeah, he came with his whole team to eat at the Harwood when they were in London for the San Pellegrino awards”. During these moments, I try not to act like a teenage groupie but still squawk “What? No Way! That is so cool!”
There are chefs out there who dumb down their recipes so that they are easy for the masses to make but ultimately disappoint because all those short cuts lead to food is not tasty enough. Conversely, there are those that have elaborate complicated recipes which rely on hard to find ingredients and time-consuming techniques, so that a home cook (even a seasoned one) is bound to fail. Stephen taught me how to take readily available ingredients and coax out the flavour, using methods that I am familiar and comfortable with.
He volunteered to cook for a girlfriend and I (are we the two luckiest gals in Berlin? I think so!). We picked up a Bourgogne chicken from the food hall at Galleries Lafayette and then, because we happened to be in the area (having had lunch at Meierei,) picked up the vegetables from LPG Biomarkt. As we stood in line, I looked at what he had selected, (2 leeks, 4 salsify, some parsley root, 3 onions, a bunch of small radishes, a handful of lambs lettuce and a bunch of thyme).I didn’t want to second guess a chef but I couldn’t help exclaim “Is that going to be enough?”
At home (in the time it took me to change Layla), he jointed the chicken, leaving the breasts on the carcass so they would stay moist. He peeled the salsify (which I see all the time in Berlin and had tried, and failed to cook), cut them into 5 cm pieces and plonked them in some water with a few drops of vinegar to keep them from browning. He simmered them for 20 minutes before draining them well, wrapping them in black forest ham and roasting them alongside parsley root for 40 minutes.
I was given the task of halving baby radishes, keeping the greens (which you can eat! who knew?) intact. He made a thick mustard vinaigrette, into which we could dip the radishes. Simple, beautiful, inspired. Just look:
To go alongside, he made an incredible dish of bread sauce stuffed onions. I am going to write-up the recipe and post it separately so as to do it justice but… Let me just say, that I normally avoid onions. Not because I don’t like them, but because people can’t cook them – chefs, can’t cook them. They are either raw or burnt, or both! But those onions, let me tell you, browned on the outside, silky, soft, sweet and yielding on the inside, filled with the fluffiest bread sauce (I know bread sauce is very English, but done well, it’s very good, I will make it for you and you will see!).
Oh, and he poached some leek rounds. First he made a quick stock from the knees, wing tips and some chicken bones, then he quickly poached the leeks. When he couldn’t find my baking parchment, he put a used butter wrapper on top. So cheffy, don’t you think? Rather than forgoing the cartouche (as I would have done) he improvised with what’s on hand. Love it.
I didn’t even mention the roast chicken. It was smothered in thyme and garlic, pan-fried to brown and then cooked in the oven. It was juicy and delicious.
My girlfriend and I ate like heroes, going for thirds and finally – just eating out of the pan.
Stephen is going on a world tour before settling in France for four months to cook French food at Auberge de Chassignolles (starting in May). I am trying to work out a way to go and visit while he is there.
You should too!