I CONFESS that for the last 10 years I’ve been a cooking bore. Just because you’ve taken a course with Raymond Blanc, you think you’re an expert.
So my girlfriend organised the perfect birthday present for me – a whole day working in a real professional kitchen. No ordinary kitchen either, but one of the best gastropubs in Northumberland, the Queen’s Head in Great Whittington.
Steve Murray was chef at a Michelin-rated restaurant in Glasgow before relocating to the North East and he’s brought with him a career packed with experience at the highest level. I brought with me a brand new chef’s jacket and a few handwritten recipes. I don’t know how Joanna persuaded Steve to put his reputation on the line, but he even let me add some of my own dishes to his menu like spiced belly pork, scallops with sweet chilli sauce, and my famous (well, famous to my friends, they’ve had it so many times) butternut squash risotto. Add to this Gary Rhodes’ bread and butter pudding and you’ve got most of my repertoire. Also on the menu were regular Queen’s Head favourites like fillet steak sourced from the rare Galloway cattle you can see from Steve’s kitchen door.
You’d have thought 12 hours was enough to get ready for one dinner. However, the time flew by as we chopped, strained, baked, reduced, whisked and, from time to time, stopped to find another blue catering plaster for my cuts. We baked bread, rolled out pasta and every ingredient was sourced locally.
As 7pm approached and the first customers could be heard in the bar, we seemed to be under control. As the first scallop starters went out, topped with my very own chilli sauce, I cheered. But then a party of 11 decided to have an extra drink in the bar and collided with another party of 10 who’d come early. Three tables of two appeared from nowhere and very soon there was a line of little tickets stretching round the kitchen. That’s when the professionalism kicked in. In the tiny kitchen, in front of 12 burners and two giant ovens, Steve and his team coped with the mountain of orders and a novice in their ranks. And not one Ramsay-type expletive all night.
I can also now definitively report that raw garlic rubbed into open wounds hurts even more than red chilli pepper.
Dinner with Tom
OUR starters of seared scallops with sweet chilli and ginger dressing melted deliciously in our mouths, as did the wonderfully tasty carpaccio of local Galloway beef.
My friend Howard’s satisfaction with his local Galloway fillet was total: "You couldn’t have a better steak than that". His wife was equally delighted with her Halibut Viennoise, while my slow-braised spiced pork belly was outstanding: lean and succulent, with the flavour of top-class spare ribs.
All were perfectly complemented by a shared side order of Tom’s excellent roasted butternut squash risotto.
I concluded with Tom’s legendary bread and butter pudding: crisp on the top and feather-light in the middle, it was simply the best example of the dish I have ever tasted.
We also enjoyed a politically incorrect sponge and raspberry concoction called "Jews’ pudding". Because, as an exhausted Tom came out of the kitchen to explain, it was made with lots of fruit jews.
I do not think that I can sum it all up more succinctly than the well-known local TV personality who said that the food had been "orgasmic, almost as good as sex". She added in a lower voice, "Actually, it was better than sex, but my partner will get a bit upset if I say that."