This article was also published in the Financial Times.
On the night I cooked in my kitchen for Ferran Adrià, the world’s most exciting, highly respected and well-known chef, there was, not surprisingly, an abundance of cameras to hand, as you can see in Ferran to dinner – what we drank.
But, unfortunately, there was no amateur photographer around to take a picture of the moment that I will remember longest.
It was about 10 minutes after we had finished our main course, a roast grouse each, a dish I had specifically chosen because I know that Adrià is particularly fascinated by game and these delicious birds do not exist in his native Spain.
Adrià had just been extolling the particular charms of Japan, a country whose cuisine continues to fascinate him, when, during a brief lapse in the conversation, I stood up and took several of the main-course plates to the small scullery where we do the washing up.
I was rinsing several plates under the tap when I heard someone coming to stand right behind me. I looked round and there was Adrià standing by my dishwasher with his empty plate in his hands and a smile on his face, probably the very last person I had ever expected to see in such close quarters. And with neither of us wearing a chef’s jacket! He thanked me profusely and I said that this went some way to even up the discrepancy between the meals he had cooked for me and the single one I had just prepared for him.
My invitation to Adrià had sprung out of a conversation with Jenny Lea, head of publicity at his publishers Phaidon. After I had accepted her invitation to introduce Adrià at the event he was presenting at London’s wine centre Vinopolis for his new book, The Family Meal, Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià, she sneaked in a restaurant question. After the presentation they would be going to eat at Pollen Street Social in Mayfair, run by Jason Atherton, who once cooked at El Bulli – but where should they go on the Sunday night? I suggested that they should come to our house and back came the reply two days later that Adrià would be delighted to do so.
My wife’s opinion – that this invitation came from a part of my brain not connected to the well of common sense that we Northerners pride ourselves on – seemed to gain validity within hours when I began to smell gas not just by our front gate but also inside the house, very close to the kitchen. A call to the emergency gas number 72 hours before Adrià’s arrival meant that our gas was cut off and was to remain so for the next day. Fortunately, our French cooker, a mature La Cornue, has both a gas and an electric oven. At least I could cook the grouse properly.
As I began to construct the menu, several elements came into play. The first was to give him the best of something he would rarely eat, hence the grouse. The second, as there would be eight of us around our round dining table, was to serve something as a first course that was not too heavy, that was colourful and, in view of the approach in his book, could easily be served from platters passed from one to another. Then there was the notion of offerimg Adrià something quintessentially Spanish on the grounds that if he did not like anything I had cooked for him, then at least he would not go hungry. I knew that Adrià favours simplicity in what he eats, even if not in what he cooked, so I thought I would at the end combine a particularly good cheese with some local plums and end with my wife’s favourite chocolates, Paul Young’s sea-salted caramels, to ensure that the dinner could end quite swiftly as it was a Sunday evening.
Above all, there was the ultimately selfish consideration that, since it was unlikely that Adrià would drop in for dinner again in the immediate future, I, the chef, wanted to spend as much time as possible at the table. The meal’s success would rest ultimately on successful preparation rather than last-minute cooking.
I began by calling Ben Weatherall at Weatherall Foods, Dumfries, Scotland at 2 pm on the Thursday and, fortunately, they had eight grouse left. By 10.30 am on Friday they were in our fridge in London.
My next call was to Vernon Mascarenhas, an old friend whose farm, Secretts outside Guildford, Surrey, now supplies many top restaurants. He not only offered to deliver three types of beetroot – red, golden and a pale white variety – but also some curly kale and charlotte potatoes. And he volunteered that he would happily come along himself if I needed a kitchen porter.
The other first course would be a plate of thinly sliced mojama, wind-dried tuna, which I had recently brought back from a trip to Andalucía, southern Spain. This has a strong, distinctive flavour which I felt confident Adria would enjoy. And so it proved. The plate had fortunately been placed right in front of him and he wasted no time in enjoying several slices – comfort food for a Spaniard who today spends most of his time travelling the world.
The other first course evolved out of gently roasting the beetroot separately, so that their colours did not bleed, in water and Japanese sushi vinegar, then peeling them and tossing them in olive oil and more sushi vinegar before giving them an hour in the fridge to concentrate the flavour. They were then topped with scoops of soft goats’ cheese, toasted pine nuts and chives from our front garden. This was all ready and waiting when we got to the table after a glass of champagne.
This is precisely when I put the grouse in the oven. My particular theory on these delicious birds is that the bacon that invariably surrounds them detracts from their flavour. But to add the necessary colour and moisture it is best to sauté them on all sides in a frying pan for a few minutes before they go in the oven. I then place them on a croute of bread, ideally the Jewish challah because it best absorbs the juices, and I roast them in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes.
For the potatoes, I used a recipe from the initial Silver Palate Cookbook, published in New York in 1982, which enjoins the chef to coat these, and many other vegetables, in sea salt and olive oil and then simply roast them for an hour. The kale I blanched and then threw into a wok with diced shallots, garlic and ginger. Sauce for the grouse would be an old favourite: salad leaves and herbs in a food processor with sea salt, diced garlic and enough olive oil to make it liquid before putting it into a bowl and the bowl into the fridge for an hour before serving.
While keen to show Adria one of the best British cheeses, I was also aware that on the day he confirmed our dinner date, our local delicatessen received its monthly consignment of ‘gorgonzola crema’, a ridiculously rich and creamy cheese, produced by Peck in Milan. It not only tastes delicious but looks impressive in one large slice sitting on the antique sideboard we inherited when my mother-in-law downsized from her family home. And this is a cheese for which the quintessentially British Bath Oliver biscuits are the perfect accompaniment.
While Adrià may have been curious about my cooking abilities, I fully appreciated that his presence was also due to his professional admiration for my wife, the FT‘s wine correspondent. On one occasion he had even referred to her as ‘the Pope of wine’, although I had to correct him, as she is neither male nor Catholic.
She too went to considerable care. On the basis that no chef either of us has ever met dislikes champagne, we began with a bottle each of André Roger, Vieilles Vignes NV, and Billecart-Salmon’s new oak-aged Brut Sous Bois cuvée. These induced Adria to confess that he absolutely loved champagne and that it thoroughly agreed with him, although when it came to still wine, he could only get excited about the very best.
Three interesting bottles followed. A delicately fruity German Riesling, Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Spätlese 2003 Nahe, with the beetroot and mojama; a robust red Rhône, Domaine Santa Duc, Prestige des Hautes Garrigues 2004 Gigondas, of which my wife had astutely bought a case after first tasting it in 2005; and a Grignano, Vin Santo Riserva 1994 Chianti Rufina with the cheese that tasted even better as I cleared up. And, fully aware of Adrià’s association with Estrella, the Barcelona beer for which an overlong advertisement is now playing in British cinemas, we gave him a taste of the pale ale brewed by The Kernel brewery under the arches in Bermondsey, south-east London.
The conversation was wide ranging. From the enthusiasm of the 6,000 culinary students Adrià had recently addressed in Lima, Peru, to all the new fruit and ingredients that particular trip had introduced him to. He was still full of excitement over all that he had eaten in China as well as speculation as to what would happen if the Chinese were to change their style of service from communal platters to individual plates as happened in Europe a century ago. He also described a lunch he had just had with Pep Guardiola, the manager of Barcelona Football Club, where this seemingly unlikely combination discussed at some length how to manage their shared challenge: how to maintain the success both had achieved in their distinct fields.
I would like to think that my cooking, and the wines, contributed to the genial conversation round the table between members of my family and three from Phaidon including a translator . But I know that, as extraordinary a chef as Adria is, these talents are matched by the enthusiasm and passion with which he talks. Silence descended only when I asked whether anyone wanted coffee. Ten minutes later he and our other five guests were gone and I was left with some rather remarkable memories.