As a food writer I go to a lot of food events and chef demonstrations – tough life, I know. Some are amazing, some not so good; others are contrived to the point of ridiculousness and then there are those where it’s not at all clear what it's all supposed to be about. The best are where the chefs are passionate – ideally about the particular subject of that event – but mostly, if they are crazy about well-prepared, great tasting food, then it's a joy to watch. And it’s the best kind of learning; when you don't even realise you're taking in the information
Now, I'm biased. I have more than a soft spot for fresh produce and I was involved in the organisation of the chef demonstrations at The London Produce Show and Conference for the first-ever event in 2014, but this year’s show had such a diversity of performers at the demo – all using and pushing forward fresh produce in their own ways – that a real balance of opinions, influences and different fruit and vegetables, was created.
The personal approach
Bristolian radio producers and TV presenters turned overnight Made In Bristol channel cookery sensation, Sherri and Pat Hart brought a personal touch to the demo, with laughter, Caribbean and Asian fusion tips, reggae musical interludes and a general give-it-a-go attitude towards food.
Cooking their Jerk chicken kebabs in Indian bread roti, they packed their wraps full of vegetables they use in their fusion cookery on a day-to-day basis for their cookery show, using red cabbage, spinach, plantain and chilli, to name a few.
“You have to experiment with fresh produce,” Pat enthused, explaining that experimentation was how the wife-and-husband team created their CaribAsian brand and fusion of cooking. “Go to the supermarket or market and pick up weird looking fruit or vegetables, take them home and cook with them. We are not trained chefs, we are just homemakers, cooking for our family. You can quickly rustle up something fresh and wonderful in the time it takes to cook a couple or so ready meals. People are still eating like this in kitchens all over the UK and we need to get the message to adults and kids that fresh is best and you shouldn’t be afraid to cook.”
Keeping with the home-cooked personal approach, Hari Ghotra, who heads up her own interactive cookery website of the same name, showed us how to make a quick homemade spicy tomato chutney and the wonder of chickpeas and chickpea powder (aka gram flour) with her courgette and pea fritters. Used to talking to many through her YouTube-style cook-along videos on her website, she told us that different chillies have different uses, and for the chutney she was using Kashmiri chilli, in its dried form, for its vibrant colour – the colour that should be used in chicken tikka.
Show and tell
Veg-mad chef, Jesse Dunford Wood deconstructed his dish, raw vegetable ravioli, including a vegetable show-and-tell taking everyone through his roots and veg of choice – candy, golden and stripy beetroots, purple carrot, yellow carrot, golden courgette and kohlrabi. Describing the latter as a “large cabbage heart”, he says that, as well as it being high in nutrition, it is extremely malleable sliced and lightly pickled – a theme of his dish.
Based on a dish the Parlour head chef came across while in Italy, the recipe involves no pasta at all, and uses lightly pickled, thinly sliced vegetables to encase a goat’s cheese cream. “It’s basically a posh goat’s cheese salad,” says the chef of one of his best-received dishes at his north-west London restaurant. “It’s a balance of the agrodolce – the Italian term for sweet and sour.” Dunford Wood sandwiched the vegetable slices together with the cheese, and dressed it with alfalfa sprouts and edible flowers, as that’s what people who like goat’s cheese salads liked, he reasons. The final flourish was delivered by a dressing made from sour capers, sweet golden raisins, the crisp punch of freshly chopped shallots, and a bit of parsley for colour. It was a lesson for us all, but especially any aspiring chefs in the audience or, indeed, the student chefs helping.
In fact, one student from Redbridge College, assisting on the demonstration stage, got his chance to shine in the spotlight, when chef Allan Pickett was called away and couldn’t make his demo of white gazpacho (think grapes, watermelon and almonds). Host and chef Peter Gorton stepped in with student Lee-James Hickey took us through the recipe, with ease, telling us to remove cucumber seeds with a teaspoon to make a better consistency of cold soup. A hyper-organized RAF Club head chef, Michael Dutnall made everyone jealous with is mise en place and waxed lyrical about the joys of English asparagus and young broad beans in this risotto, with a more traditional feel.
Consultant chef Damien Wawrzyniak finished off the day of culinary demonstrations with a real dose of energy and enthusiasm for his Polish background and clear love of good, filling food. Fresh from making 400 pierogi – a hot pastry parcel of usually fermented cabbage and meat or cream cheese, somewhere in between a ravioli and a dumpling, and the mainstay in Poland – for Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen pop-up night, Wawrzyniak brought in his own wild mushrooms foraged and then brined and vac-packed (you’re not a chef if you’ve not got your head in a sous vide machine, at the moment) in Poland two weeks previously.
“Pierogi is an art – there are many different types and different ways of making the pastry and so many different vegetables you can fill them with,” says Wawrzyniak. “Some are easier than others, but traditionally there should be six thumb prints to fix the parcels. They are the next big thing for the UK.”
Each chef came to the event with a different message, using different elements to welcome and involve the audience and getting us all thinking about both how to promote fruit and vegetables through our cookery and how to use fresh produce more in our home lives, on our blogs and in our everyday work. But they also showed us chefs really do want to engage with a wider audience and a lot of them enjoy it. The time when a chef was someone to fear and admire – at arm's length – is definitely disappearing.