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I was talking to a well-known chef last week – the London wunderkind du jour if you will and we were very drunk and he kept saying that I should open a restaurant in Soho. It’s very easy to get over-excited when you’re whisky-drunk in the presence of a super-talented, incredibly successful, human-dynamo who wants you to open a restaurant and I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t spent most of the waking minutes since thinking about it.
I can’t of course because I’m 41, have a wife who works full-time and two young children who need to be fed, clothed and you know, in my presence occasionally. It’s important to know that I wouldn’t change any of that for a single second – I’d rather have a happy marriage and see my kids all the time than have a banging review from Marina and a full restaurant.
But I dream; Maybe I could have both? (I can’t have both).
If I could though I’d cook simple.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my food and how it’s changed as I’ve got older and less stupid. The main thing is that every recipe has at least four fewer things in it than it used to and you’d be amazed at how much harder that is.
I thought yesterday about the kind of dish I’d have on my menu (recycled paper, no caps, price in fractions natch) and I thought about lamb and onions. Then I had the revolutionary idea of somehow enhancing the flavour of the lamb and the onions with mint and anchovies. Lamb with onions, anchovy and mint. Visionary. Like snail porridge or meat fruit.
I got in an argument once on Twitter with the chef wunderkind of that particular month and he said with barely disguised contempt ‘Yeah but what have YOU done to change dining’? He didn’t understand that I don’t want to change dining, I’m perfectly happy eating my pate on bread and using bricks to build walls, ta (bit of a niche reference that, but if you know, you know). I sort of took that ‘zinger’ as a badge of honour – I want to cook (and eat) food that tastes of itself and is served on a plate, thank you very much.
And it’s really hard to do that – it’s hard to cook like Fergus Henderson or Stephen Harris because there is nowhere to hide – each of your five or six ingredients must be sourced carefully and then cooked perfectly.
A good place to start is Borough Market (have I mentioned that I’m the new host at the demo kitchen – every thursday and friday from this week until Christmas?)
I bought a rack of lamb, an onion, anchovies, mint, rosemary and butter.
One of the (many) things that annoys me about most cookbooks is when they say ‘cook the onions in a pan……’ You need to cook onions for ages. I chopped up 1 very large onion and I cooked it in a heavy pan with a lid with a lot of butter and 8 anchovy fillets for about 85 minutes – this is why simple cooking is hard – you have to watch and listen and smell and stir and love until the you have a sticky, sweet, savoury mulch that is something more than fried onions. Then you blitz it and push it through a tamis or fine sieve so that you have a silken puree. That’s nearly 2 hours for some onion.
Finely score the lamb fat and cook it in a heavy pan in oil and butter infused with some rosemary. You have to stand at the stove and hold the lamb with your fingers at every possible angle so that it cooks evenly, constantly spooning over the foaming butter. You have to render out as much of the fat as possible without burning it, you have to feel when it’s nearly there and pop it in the oven for five minutes and then let it rest for twenty minutes before you even think about a knife.
You have to take a large bunch of mint and pick off every leaf from the stem, you have to blanch the leaves then plunge into iced water. You have to perfectly balance vinegar, water and sugar so that your sauce is neither too cloying or too sharp – you have to remember that onions and lamb are sweet but that sweetness has been tempered by salty anchovies so maybe another splash of vinegar? Or sugar? And then you have to wait for that liquid to cool down completely so that you don’t kill the vibrant mint green that you have so carefully maintained.
Three things on the plate – Lamb, onions and mint.
My services are available whenever and wherever you may need them – I will consider any enquiry and provide a bespoke quotation and menu. I can provide all cutlery, linen and furniture as well as waiters, waitresses, cocktail bar staff and event managers if required. Email me at email@example.com or call 07814493028. There are some recent photos below. Nowadays I cook simple food, perfectly, using the best ingredients from the best suppliers – many at Borough Market where I host the twice weekly demo kitchen. I can flex the ‘fine dining’ muscles if you like too. I also specialise in Barbecue (both Southern US low and slow style and more European grill style) as well as canapés, hampers and hot and cold buffets. I can cater for an intimate dinner for 2 or a wedding for 2000 and everything in between. In the past I have cooked for significant dignitaries including Bill Clinton, Raymond Blanc and Pippa Middleton.
In a review of my restaurant The Hour Glass, Fay Maschler wrote in The Evening Standard in her 4• review:
‘Mackay is an unusual animal, a cook who understands rather well the great scheme of things and can express it cogently. In a blog on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth inveighing against an incident of customer bullying by Michelin-starred chefs, he writes furiously, “It’s cooking. I do it, you do it and my 90-year-old nan does. It’s just cooking.” In another piece he hopes the “the next foodie fad is less about the chef and more about the customer”. As you might imagine, this bodes well for punters ……’
Squab pigeon with sorrel
Gurnard with peas and wild garlic
Red mullet and saffron aioli
Slow roast lamb shoulder with Lyonnaise potatoes
Custard and nutmeg tart
Fresh sea urchin with squid ink tagliatelle
Char-grilled octopus and samphire
Red mullet, saffron aioli, jamon and pickled shallots
Roast duck, pickled and tempura shiitake and tamarind
Halibut with morels and beurre blanc
Dover sole, caviar and shallot sauce, poached leeks
Blood orange posset with balsamic glazed fig
Gurnard with porcini puree and peashoots
Steak tartare with truffles
Burrata with N’duja and avocados
Pub snacks platter!
Beef fillet, oxtail bonbon and smoked corn
Low and slow smoked beef rib
Rabbit with liquorice, salsify and carrots
If time and money were of no consequence then it is not summer sun that I would chase across the globe but instead the soft glow and sharp snap of autumn. Not for me the gamboling lambs and showers of spring, nor the disappointment of successive summers. Winter I like but it can be interminable and bleak; No, it is autumn that most often puts a spring in my step. I adore the golden hues and the scent of wood smoke on the air and I live for the crackle of the first frosts and the accompanying morning mists.
And it is my favourite time in the kitchen too, when at last my favourite cheap cuts of meat and accompanying gnarly roots come to slow simmers filling the house with scented steam rich with herbs and spice. Much as I adore grilling prime cuts over hot coals and wood, they have an aggressive charm, all flames, salt, acrid smoke and pungent marinades. With an autumnal braise there is comfort from a barely blipping pot, a gentle presence that doesn’t demand attention like it’s brash summer cousin.
And if you’re going to braise in October and November, and of course you should, a lot, then one thing that you must braise at least once is venison which is one of those things that we do better than anywhere else in the world. And it’s still not ‘there’ you know and it makes me cross that we don’t really eat it because we don’t, no matter that places like Borough Market actively promote it. Every year we write the same recipes and knock out the same articles about the health benefits and providence and it pops up on tasting menus and the occasional sad burger in ‘gastro’ pub but where are the haunches? The fillets, the T-Bones, The LIVER? Why can I go to my supermarket now and buy a frozen leg of New Zealand Lamb but I can’t buy a haunch of venison. Friar Tuck would turn in his ample grave.
Are we squeamish because of Bambi and The Monarch of the Glen? Or because they are shot with guns and there is blood and skinning involved? I wish it weren’t still overwhelmingly preferable to get our protein from grotesquely bloated abominations, bred behind locked doors and living out their absurdly short lives on concrete and faeces. On a similar theme, my personal mission for the last decade or so has been to get more people eating offal (and drink more Riesling but that’s a fight for another day) so my next demo at Borough Market will be venison offal which is some of the best offal you can get – I’ll be doing deer tongue tacos, a venison offal keema and skewering the sweetest livers, pungent with Sichuan pepper and cumin amongst other things.
If you’re not sure about venison or offal, I promise this will be a great ‘gateway’…. Darren from Shellseekers will be shooting my deer in the days before my demo and the offal will be as fresh and uncontaminated as can be, from a wild animal, majestic in the gloaming and we will cook it together and hopefully it will be something to which you will return again and again.
There is a sublime moment during the tasting menu at The Sportsman in Seasalter when your knife but whispers at slip sole bone and pearly, iridescent flesh pares away with nary a fight. This morsel – underside ridged from contact with ribs but pristine; outside speckled green with seaweed butter, arrives at your mouth moist and perfumed with the nearby sea and melts away leaving a trace of iodine, sweet meat and eye-rolling joy. The Tom and Jerry fish skeleton of a thousand instagrams is testament to the perfect cooking, devoid of clinging dry or pulpy raw flesh; clean as a beach pebble every single time. Which is the point that I’m gently meandering to for I’m guessing that The Sportsman have cooked tens of thousands of slip soles and I’d bet that each was as starkly beautiful as the last. I’d bet all the money in my pockets that each and every slip sole is delicately plated and given the slightest push with the warm finger of a chef who just knows. I can’t say for sure but I’ll bet there are no probes to take the ‘core’ temperature and if there’s a sous-vide machine for fish in that kitchen I’ll eat all the money in my pockets and the sundry detritus of yours. You feel when a fish is cooked right. You know, or you don’t and The Sportsman do.
Which brings me to Rick Stein in Barnes, by the river where The Depot used to be. It’s a handsome restaurant, but it always has been, a pretty courtyard awash on a cold November night with fairy lights and fog is enticing, as is the dark water flowing slowly, tar-like, past the far side widows. Early, we sat at the bar for a Negroni upon which is perched a soft pickled walnut, about which I simply cannot make my mind. It was a stunning addition or a calamitous folly. I don’t know which so we’ll go with the former lest you reach the end of this and think me unkind.
I took fifteen minutes to drink my Negroni, walnut and all and for that entire time, four plates of food sat on the bar, at my elbow – two plates of sashimi and two of fresh white crab. I’m guessing that the cold starter station is behind the bar, perhaps to aid logistics, perhaps for a bit of theatre but plated starters of raw and delicate, fresh sea food, wilting in the heat of a public bar for twenty minutes seems strange and speaks to me of a culture not obsessed with perfection. Cooking the same slip sole, the same way, thousands of times is about kitchen culture. It is about perfection and zeal and shame. In some kitchens the idea of waste, of incorrect cooking, of cutting corners is anathema. The culture infects everyone from the Head Chef to the porter and at all the levels in between each of a hundred jobs is done with quiet skill, application and pride. We moved to our perfectly nice table.
The wine list is a thing of beauty, keenly priced and interesting. They have Burklin Wolf Riesling, an Estate that I visited in my youth and swam, drunk and naked in a ceremonial pond with a wine merchant pal who was genuinely bitten by a snake. Thirty two quid for some of the best Riesling that you can buy that retails for about thirteen is fantastic value and a nostalgia trip all at once. I order the cheapest starter but the one that will tell you more about the kitchen than any other, Fish soup with rouille and croutons. The soup was OK but was not possessed of the ‘funk’ that true Provencal fish soup attains. The tang of small whole fish, of guts and heads and bone, boiled, crushed and strained. Anise and orange zest adding flora. This was a polite fishy soup rather than a fine fish soup. Perfect, I’m sure for the Barnes lunch crowd but I want my fish soup to slap me in the face with pungent piscine aggression. This was a theatrical air kiss of a soup, prim and proper and just a bit dull.
And then I got cross because I paid forty-eight pounds and eighty-eight pence (including service) for a piece of Turbot, some chips and some cavalo nero. A quid shy of fifty notes for a plate of food. I implore you not to think that I am the kind of person who minds paying fifty quid for a plate of food. I don’t. I’ve rarely had to mind, even at some of the best restaurants in Britain (that slip sole is a tenner, a la carte), but whenever I have, every element has been faultless. If I pay fifty quid for a premium ingredient, perfectly cooked I’m happy as a clam. My turbot was a bit overcooked. That’s all. Maybe a minute or two, maybe it had sat under a hot lamp for too long (the plate was literally scalding). It was a wee bit over done. It’s not the end of the world and yes it’s a first-world problem for a middle-class chump in Barnes to spend the weekly budget for some families on a piece of slightly over-cooked fish but fuck it. It’s my fifty quid and they overcooked my turbot.
I’m not expecting (my ACTUAL food hero) Rick to cook my fish in his restaurant, or even his son, but I expect, when you’re charging Michelin star+ prices, for the culture to be right and it just wasn’t. The service was kind of sweet but scatty and no one knew anything about the wine list. The food left on the bar, the burning plates and the imperfect soup. A bog standard pudding of chocolate ‘pave’, crushed peanuts and bought in Jude’s ice cream (dull) and top end prices all left me feeling a bit sad. I’d hoped that Barnes might finally have a jewel to behold and be proud of but beautiful, shimmering Rick Stein, Barnes is more costume jewellery than precious gem. Its a shame therefore that here, in Barnes that won’t matter and it will be fully booked for years and years to come.