There’s a good reason why the cooks in a restaurant kitchen are called a brigade. It’s not just the hierarchical structure working under one commanding officer. It’s the military precision required to complete dishes of many parts prepared by different people. I do not have a brigade. I have me. That’s why, at the end of a dinner compiled from kits supplied by Elite Bistros in the English northwest, my kitchen looked like a war zone. There were sauce-slicked pans tottering over each other, sheaths of packaging lying hither and yon like the fallen, and slumped around them every tea towel and oven glove I possess.
If a battle had indeed been fought, there was no doubt I had won. I had got to eat Gary Usher’s crowd-pleasing food, while sitting at my table at home in south London. Usher will want you to know that the menu was actually devised by his executive chef Richard Sharples, but Usher leads from the front so he takes the blame for the mess in my kitchen. Usher and I have spoken a number of times during the current crisis about its impact on the hospitality industry. His group of neighbourhood bistros, the likes of Sticky Walnut in Chester, Burnt Truffle on the Wirral, and Wreckfish in Liverpool, serve muscular food drawing on the French classics without being beholden to them.
Their success is a better marker for the quality of British restaurants than any blinged-up, sushi-wrangling, pan-Asian gastronomic sink hole could ever be. Usher’s mini empire must survive, but to do so, they need a business model. And lo: a full menu of dishes in kit form available for national delivery. Orders open at 9am each Friday and are selling out within a few hours. Starters are around £6, with mains at between £10 and £19.
This is a complex moment for restaurants. As I write, all the talk is of them being able to open in some form right now. A few have been taking bookings since mid-June. It’s been an outburst of sweet hope and optimism, because they hadn’t been given any approval to do so. Added to that, this column is delivered two weeks in advance. It’s like the light from a star, a snapshot of the past. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. All of which explains why restaurants might now be open, but I’m still writing about food kits at home. Expect chaos for a little longer.
Those Elite Bistro kits bring both very lovely things to eat and a lesson in what plating up restaurant food requires. For those now mentally heaving their mighty bosom with their forearms like some northern matriarch by Les Dawson while muttering, “About bloody time that filthy, entitled food-hoover learned a thing or two”: I know how restaurant food works. Now it was happening in my own kitchen.
As per last week, do not order this if you want a break from the kitchen. It’s the opposite. What’s more, trying to feed more than two of you on many different dishes might prove a stretch if cooking by yourself. I found feeding three courses to four people at times challenging. It does, however, come with beautifully designed instruction sheets. Read them. Then come up with a robust plan of action. Perhaps call a therapist for support. Each dish is made up of bagged parts, all of them in-turn, in a sealed bag. My dozen dishes had at least 60 elements. All that plastic is recyclable though some of it, being sauce-smeared, is unlikely to be eligible.
A starter of burrata is straightforward. Put the globe of creamy infant cheese in a bowl, drench it in the smoky burnt spring onion dressing, then scoop away with the fennel seed and chilli crisps and feel pleased with yourself. A thick plank of smoked belly bacon, pre-braised and pressed, must be fried until golden, then given three minutes in the oven. There’s a pot of podded broad beans and another of lemon oil. Introduce one to the other, add salt and the chopped parsley. Dress the bacon with the green beans. Add the sauce gribiche, a pokey mayo-style affair full of Dijon mustard, capers and intent. It’s a piggy starter I’d be very happy to eat anywhere, let alone at home.
The mains require a big pot of boiling water. Almost all the key ingredients are pre-cooked and vac-packed. Into that pot, in their bags, go the confited duck leg, the braised half-cylinder of beef featherblade, alongside the truffle mash for that beef, the saffron sauce for the lamb, the butterbean mash for the roasted cauliflower and so on. Watch the labels peel off in the water. Now I have three bags of purées in varying shades of beige. It’s an edible Farrow & Ball colour chart.
I worked it out. I did not get every ingredient in the right place. I started the lamb rump and the cauliflower in the same pan as they both had to go through the oven. This became problematic when I clocked I had to anoint the lamb with a Turkish-inspired sauce of red peppers, chillies and garlic in the frying pan without getting it on the cauliflower. Argh. And none of those purées were whipped in a saucepan after being heated in the water as advised because I have only two hands, six hob rings, and limited patience.
Still, dinner. And a very good one. There was duck confit with a sprightly red cabbage and mango salad and a punchy BBQ sauce, which was like HP that’s been to finishing school. The roasted cauliflower with sumac and toasted almonds on the nutty butterbean mash was a brilliantly strident piece of non-meat cookery. But the star was the slumping featherblade of beef with a lip-smacking red wine sauce and outrageously rich truffle mash. It was the kind of classy bistro cooking you can never be bothered to do yourself.
Among the desserts was the spiced Yorkshire parkin, in a pond of salted butterscotch sauce with clotted cream, which I reviewed at Kala in Manchester. It was just as good at my table as at Usher’s.
We have a rule in my house. If you’ve cooked you don’t clean up. I voluntarily broke the rule. I felt I ought to own this mess. Not least because the end result had been worth it. These are not normal times. We are fighting our way back to normal. In the meantime, what better way to pass an hour or two than with a little gastronomic chaos? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Don’t feel the need to answer.
For details and the full menu, including the wine list, visit elitebistros.com; delivery is £12.95
Although some restaurants are starting to reopen this weekend, delivery services are not coming to an end. The national steakhouse group Hawksmoor has just launched the Hawksmoor at Home box. It serves two people and costs £120, including delivery to anywhere in the UK. Inside you’ll find a hulking 35-day-aged Porterhouse steak, the makings of a bone marrow and madeira jus, alongside a bottle of Malbec and a bottle of pre-mixed Hawksmoor Martini based on Hepple Gin, plus a few other things besides: 500 boxes are available each week. Visit thehawksmoor.com.
This weekend has seen a digital food and music festival called The Great Feast of London, which, among other things, has enabled people to order food deliveries from a range of restaurants across the capital including Hide, The Ninth and Salon. The founders, Dominic Cools-Lartigue and Bejay Mulenga, have decided the delivery platform will continue after the festival, offering a competitively priced alternative to other high-commission delivery apps. All delivery vehicles are carbon-efficient (either bikes or electric-powered). For the full range visit greatfeast.com.
And another new model for the struggling Hospitality industry: the site APT offers a roster of big name chefs including Jackson Boxer, Selin Kiazim and James Cochran who will cook for your ‘social bubble’ of between two and 10 people – basically a bunch of your mates – in an apartment at the Town Hall Hotel in London’s Bethnal Green. Apparently other venues are to follow. Visit aptand.co.