Press Gang October 2003

July 3, 2013

Who in their right mind would want to pay £100 for a seven-course meal provided by a group of hacks? It seems that the chance to dish the dirt on some of their greatest critics proved too good to miss for some of Paul Heathcote’s cheffing mates when earlier this month, on a cold, wet Sunday night, he handed the back of house of Simply Heathcotes Manchester to some restaurant critics and invited chefs to dine on the other side of the kitchen wall.

The victims – sorry, chefs – for the night were four local critics (Ray and Trudi King of the Manchester Evening News, City Life’s Jonathan Schofield and Andrew Fraser of Metro), the Guardian‘s Matthew Fort, the Independent‘s Caroline Stacey, Waitrose Food Illlustrated‘s Liz Marcy and yours truly. Those queuing up for our own version of humble pie included culinary godfathers Michel and Albert Roux, fellow Michelin-starred chefs Paul Kitching of Juniper in Manchester and Nigel Haworth of Northcote Manor, and TV celebs Andrew Nutter and Kevin Woodford.

The plan was flawed from the start. Heathcote wanted us to provide the recipes. Wasn’t this just a PR stunt? He wasn’t really expecting us to cook, was he? Surely we would just flounce around the kitchen slurping wine, while his brigade did all the work? Oh no.

I got off lightly I suppose. Heathcote suggested that I do the bread with him. “Just supply the recipes,” he had said, “we’ll do it together.” So I duly sent through three recipes – John Campbell’s white, brown and walnut and raisin breads – but when I arrived at Simply Heathcotes at lunchtime, Heathcote was nowhere to be seen and his right-hand man, Max Gnoyke, simply pointed to the pastry section (where I would be working for the next 10 hours) and told me to get on with it.

Fortunately, a chef called Paul Gray, who has recently joined the Heathcotes clan, heading up the Preston outpost, was overseeing the section. Gray had started the white bread already. “Is this the consistency you get when you do this at home?” he asked me while groping the dough with his hands. Something about the smirk on his face suggested that he knew I’d not made bread for 170 people before. But I think I had the last laugh. “I’ve never made it at home. In fact I’ve never made bread before.”

I know I’ve been writing about food for 10 years, but that doesn’t necessarily make me an accomplished cook. “If I wrote for Autosport, would you expect me to be a racing driver?” I asked Gray. He remained silent.

Well, at least we knew where we both stood. I assumed my role as commis, weighing, mixing, proving and eventually knocking back, shaping and baking the dough.

I realised I was a disappointment to Gray, so I thought I’d try and make myself useful. He started decanting 170 portions of a rather dodgy looking chocolate mousse (made to a recipe supplied by Fraser of Metro – who, incidentally, hadn’t turned up early enough to make him itself) into ramekins. It looked easy enough, so I offered to help. But as the task unfolded into something reminiscent of the Generation Game I regretted that as well – and so did Gray. I do hope that in a year or two, he will be able to look back on the whole episode and laugh.

About two hours away from service I was starving. I’d driven up to Manchester from Surrey that morning and hadn’t eaten since breakfast. “What time do we have our staff dinner?” I asked. This seemed to be the funniest thing the chefs had heard in years and I was ribbed about it all night. But you can’t fool me, I’ve been through enough kitchens pre-service to know that you guys do have a team meal together, although it clearly wasn’t going to happen tonight at Heathcotes. The chefs had obviously made a pact to make our punishment even more enduring by starving us as well.

Somehow, as we stumbled from course to course, the Heathcote boys managed to keep their tempers in check. That is, of course, until some of the critics started drinking. Gnoyke had arranged for a large ice bucket of wine and beer to be deposited into the chef’s office and said we could help ourselves as often as we liked. Although I’d been whinging about having a glass of wine all afternoon, I thought I’d hold out until we were closer to the end of service. But a couple of the critics (and I’m not going to name names, but let’s just say they’re based in Manchester and of the male variety) obviously couldn’t resist the temptation. I think the chefs were quite relieved when they finally left the kitchen and went and sat with the suited chefs out front.

The word was that the meal had gone down reasonably well, although I suspect people were being polite. Most importantly, though, the evening raised £15,000, which Heathcote split between two charities – Restaurants Against Hunger and The Kirsty Appeal, a fundraising initiative for the Francis House children’s hospice in Manchester.

The experience had certainly given me an insight. Would I do it again? Probably. Would Heathcotes have us back again? Unlikely.

Critics’ menu

  • Canapés
  • Grilled courgette salad with olive oil, oregano and lemon juice, served on sourdough bruschetta and served with Parmesan shavings
  • Carrot and artichoke soup
  • Pan-fried eels and wild mushrooms in a red wine sauce
  • Mackerel rosemary brochettes with onion confit
  • Chilli orange duck
  • Selection of cheeses, oatcakes and home-made chutney
  • Chocolate mousse with mixed berries

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