It was around 6pm at Restaurant Coworth Park when things started to get a bit complicated. There were 23 booked in for dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant but that was just the start. At least one wedding raged gaily on in the hotel above the sensibly massive main kitchen, and certainly one birthday, with the 10 or so chefs and myself busy prepping all sorts of delicate canapés as service ticked nearer.
Meanwhile, the Dubai royal family were in the house, hordes of petit fours were already swarming out of pastry, the 52 booked for afternoon tea were still going strong and all sorts of room service orders were already flying from the ticket machine.
“Right, quiet now please.” Adam Smith, the executive chef and veritable king of Coworth Park, spoke and his brigade simmered and slowed. A 50-table pre-order was about to hit, I was soon to be involved and, already, I was struggling to keep up. This table – a second wedding party – was expecting new season pea soup; pressed foie gras (some dairy and soy-free); 10 Waterford Farm salt-aged beef with sweetbreads, mushroom and Baron Bigod cheese (some without sweetbreads, some with no dairy); seven Cotswold chickens from a menu that I’d not even seen; a shoal of Cornish turbot with broccoli, clams that I had shucked that afternoon, and lemon verbena from the chef’s garden out the back; stuffed rabbit saddles with crayfish, bacon and broad beans, and as much cheese as we dared.
As Adam called the ticket, I stopped balancing caviar on top of crab dishes for an event at The Barn, Coworth Park Hotel’s second restaurant, to take it all in. “You must get paid a lot more than me if that’s your blob!” Nathan Tolley, the ever-smiling sous chef, comments on my caviar distribution. Rooms at Coworth Park may start at £405-a-night, but stock is stock.
After I had digested the mega ticket and calmed my blobbing, the first main dinner service ticket arrived. And then a call for 17 portions of the confit salmon starter with dill crème fraiche, yuzu and marinated radish from another bespoke wedding breakfast event menu (which had only just started). Coworth Park hosts around 38 weddings a year and it seemed as though they’d all come at once.
Then, with my head a sea of cooking times and turbot, I heard Adam call my name, followed by: “The main course – you’re on the purée!” But what was the main course, I thought? Which menu? Which event? Which purée?!
The day had started with breakfast and Graeme, the breakfast chef, was fully in gear when I arrived in the kitchen at 8am. At 66 years old, he has worked at golf clubs, on desert islands, even on a North Sea oil rig during a five-day storm that tore away five of its eight anchors.
He told me all about it while showing me how to plate the Severn & Wye smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and Oscietra caviar – a £75 dish (I’m pretty sure he didn’t make that on the rocking rig during the raging tempest).
During afternoon prep, along with the trough of clams I had shucked with the poissonier, Panos, I blowtorched and then peeled red and yellow heirloom cherry tomatoes for the tomato and avocado amuse – one of three interlude snacks for the evening’s main restaurant menu, paired with a miso avocado purée, tomato consommé, toasted pumpkin seeds, chive oil and sweet cicely.
I also got lost in one of the meadows of the 240-acre grounds of the hotel hunting marigolds for garnish near the staff accommodation village (it’s polo season in Ascot and the horses were being given a runaround next to the helicopter pad). I also investigated the chocolate room and bakery sections, wolfed a portion of lasagne in the staff canteen and helped the all-day dining chefs make towers of crustless fancy sandwiches.
Adam spent a decade at The Ritz Restaurant before winning the Roux Scholarship and moving to the country. And, at times, I felt as if I were back in John Williams’ world famous hotel during my stage at Coworth Park. Coworth is a mini-Ritz in the countryside, you might say, with Adam also a bastion of classic fine dining and a keen advocate for the training of youth.
While I wouldn’t consider myself to be youth, I certainly needed a bit of guidance that evening, what with all the different tickets being called. Adam saw that I had got a little lost and so explained I was on the sweet onion purée for the Kentish lamb dish with braised potato, charred onion and black garlic that was coming after the salmon starter on the wedding breakfast menu. This meant being part of a conveyor belt of plating, with Nathan on the lamb, Othman (another sous) on the potato and onion, this stagiaire with a squirty bottle of purée and Adam bringing up the rear with jus.
It was a test of my consistency at the pass (with Adam watching my every move). And, despite my bottle making a few embarrassing noises, it was a pretty successful one.
Once I’d joined in with main service, with Adam conducting, I started to get into the swing of things. I even managed to calm my nemesis – the espuma gun – while plating the tomato amuse with my previously prepped heritages. I also garnished throughout service with an array of meadow-foraged foliage and even helped to construct extraordinary citrus fruit desserts with kalamansi, yuzu and shortbread.
There was still time enough for me to help one of the room service chefs, a terrifically passionate young commis named Toby (Adam had lobbied for his return to the kitchen after a successful stage from Bournemouth & Poole College, which has a similar deal with The Ritz).
At one point, we got an order for aged fillet, well done, cut into slices and grilled again with no sides or sauce, no butter and just a French vinaigrette on the side. Whether for bride, groom or best man, I couldn’t say..