Calm down! It's not what you think. The “F” word I refer to in this context is “free”.
Life as you all now has its ups and downs; an example of a recent 'up' was when the husband of my wife's best friend called to say that to celebrate his good lady wife's 40th birthday, he would like the company of me and my better half at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Claridges hotel, London. Quick! Dust off the credit card, call the bank. No, wait. The deal was that he would pay for the food, with the only the drinks bill being shared between the six of us (3 couples) that were attending. And it got better; the reservation was for a Chef's table. I had not heard of this before, but people I mentioned it to assured me it was in the kitchen. This would ensure at least, I thought, that the food would not be cold when served.
We arrived at Claridges in Mayfair and I do not mind admitting I felt a little out of my depth. We glanced in a yacht salesroom window that showed pictures and models of yachts roughly the size of Wales. Who could afford these gorgeous multi-million pound yachts I wondered? The answer to this was swiftly answered as two Prada-clad Russians walked past.
We walked into the hotel and advised the Maitre de we had a reservation. We were shown to a table at which we served vintage champagne and Hors d'Oeuvres. Our waitress for the evening explained we were to be served a meal of 8 courses (not including the Hors d'Oeuvres) and introduced us to our sommelier (goodness me, I haven't written so many French words since school. C- Could do better, see me). Our sommelier was a very nice Australian chap, and, the only non-French sommelier in the restaurant.
We were shown the restaurant 180 covers, tonight, a Monday, there were 110 people in and then were lead into the kitchen. Here we met the waiters, the service waiters and the chefs, 15 in all. Our table was in a booth exactly opposite and about 6 feet away from the food preparation area. Here the components of a dish are assembled and dressed into wonderful looking and tasting food.
Our sommelier told us that for 8 courses and 6 people, he would advise a bottle of wine per course. He raised the sticky subject of a price per bottle. This was the moment that I and my bank manager were dreading. Samantha, the birthday girl ventured “£30 per bottle?” this he said was not possible. “£40?” he thought about it. “I think I should be able to do that”. Phew, just as well.
The first course was champagne and parsnip soup. Our sommelier recommended a bottle of Sherry. Not being a fan of Sherry, I found it surprisingly drinkable.
As the third course came (and remember, the third bottle of wine) the detail of the food and wine began to get hazy. But, more relaxed, we began to enjoy ourselves. As each course was brought out, a chef would come over and explain what we were eating and how it was prepared. Being able to ask questions, most of mine were crass; “how do you get the sauce frothy?” etc. But all queries were answered expertly and without condescension. The kitchen was busy, but relatively orderly and the atmosphere was very relaxed.
We asked our waitress how often Gordon cooked in the restaurant. The question was answered honestly and without any embarrassment. The answer was never. Gordon was really a marketing exercise and he only came in for the odd meeting to discuss menus etc. The kitchen staff, however, is fiercely proud of the Michelin star that they have helped to achieve.
For one course, sea bass on a bed of wilted lettuce, three of our group were invited into the kitchen to cook it. As they began to cook, one of the chefs came to the table and said “those guys are cooking your dinner. Go and give them hell!” Which of course we duly did. Their efforts tasted excellent, but the presentation ranged from good to awful.
A number of the courses featured truffles. We were discussing this with one of the chefs when he said “hang on a minute” and came back with a container full of truffles. He estimated that based on the current price, the box contained almost £2,000 worth of truffles.
Following the main course, which was pork saltimbocca served with copious amounts of roasted vegetables, I was beginning to feel full. Still to come was the pre-dessert, the dessert and the cheese courses. These all went down very well (as did the wine) and we started to get the hint that the night was over when the kitchen staff began to clean the kitchen. And I mean clean it. They were scrubbing every surface and even inside the extraction hoods. We exited the kitchen, and passed through the deserted restaurant. In the lounge we were brought tea, coffee and chocolates. As we were all full, the chocolates went untouched. The waitress kindly put them into Claridges boxes for us to take away. A very nice touch, but based on the fantastic night we had just had, not an unsurprising one.
I guess that the wealthy denizens of Claridges could, if they wanted to, eat at the chefs table frequently. But I would like to think that it would never be as special or as much fun as we had that night.
More information can be found at http://www.gordonramsay.com/claridges/chefstable