Admittedly, the only Masterchef series I can bring myself to watch from beginning to end these days is the Masterchef: The Professionals series. It’s not so much that I don’t like John Tarode (I prefer him to Gregg Wallace), but I *much* prefer Michel Roux Jr to all of them. Actually, another reason I like MC:The Professionals is the introduction of Monica Galetti to our TV world, I just *love* how severe she is with people and plenty has already been mentioned about her various facial expressions as she watches a hopeful hopelessly messing up the skills test like hacking a fish to pieces whilst trying to fillet it. Seriously, I could just watch an hour of her skills tests. This year’s series was no exception, there’s a fine line between self-belief and arrogance and too many young chefs are sadly on the side of arrogance as when given a chance to shine in a series like Masterchef, in which they fail to prove themselves, they still insist they’re the best and are beyond a competition like MC (in which case why bother entering?). But still, a highlight of this year’s competition was to finally see some good young, local talent in Claire Hutchings do well. She did so well that she was a finalist (the title eventually went to Ash Mair), but she applied herself impressively throughout the competition and her food genuinely looked exciting, and it must have tasted pretty good too as she got to the final! When you consider that this was all happening around the same time she was going through her final exams at University College, Birmingham, you realise that not only was she creating and cooking brilliant and delicious food in the various tasks she was set on MC: TP, but all this was on top of the added pressure of Finals. Yet, she kept her head and soldiered on with both which is a testament to her dedication and bodes well for her future.
I thought I had missed the opportunity to try her food as her initial couple of nights scheduled at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in King’s Heath, Birmingham sold out very quickly and I missed the announcement of extra dates (It was around the time we were organising the Mothership’s funeral so checking my Twitter wasn’t really something I did that often). Luckily, I caught Lap’s tweet that he may have a couple of tickets spare so I jumped at the chance. Graciously, I was given first refusal as he needed to check if someone else wanted the tickets, but once I was tweeted that the tickets were mine, there was no going back! Claire’s cooking was genuinely exciting with interesting flavour combinations, and after rooting for the local girl throughout the series, this may have been the only time it’s impressed me enough to want to try their cooking.
Purposely, I avoided any write-ups or talk about her pop-up until the day I was going: I wanted to be surprised by the menu on the night. However, I did know that the menu was going to feature the Bitter Chocolate Sorbet which so impressed Michel Roux Jr that he asked for the recipe – Would it live up to the hype? Well, the day of the meal rapidly approached and we were about to find out for ourselves.
The Kitchen Garden Cafe is a nice little cafe just off the High St in the King’s Heath part of Birmingham, it’s certainly quite warm and cosy so it was nice to see this venue was chosen for the pop up rather than some more established restaurant which probably had a better equipped kitchen but possibly charged a lot more to use the venue. As we entered, we tried not to knock over anything in the garden centre and were seated straight away. It looked like a sell-out which was heartening to see so many people supporting Claire. Drinks were ordered and the girl herself stepped out from the kitchen briefly to say hello to everyone and hope that they all had a good time. And with that, she went back into the kitchen and we all waiting for the magic to begin:
The menu was quite simple, a 4 course meal with some petits fours and cupcakes to finish. First up was a Leek and Potato Velouté with cucumber and caviar which saw some finely diced cucumber underneath some deep fried juilienned potatoes and a small dollop of caviar on the side in soup bowls, only for the velouté to be poured at the table. It was a very good start, the consistency of the velouté was perfect – not too thick or watery, the contrast of the slight crunch of the potatoes and the cucumber was welcome and neither overpowered the other. The caviar added a touch of luxury to a velouté which already packed a punch with flavour – A terrific start.
Next was the cured mackerel with avocado, coriander, soy jelly, lime and sesame which was one of the favourite dishes of the night; There were echoes of the Flame Grill Mackerel dish at The Ledbury and of the stunning Flame Grilled mackerel dish I had at Hedone, but this dish held its own against the other 2 heavyweights – The fish was perfectly cured and cooked so that the flesh was still creamy to eat, contrast that with the sweet sesame brittle, the tang of the lime and pickled mouli, the savoury hit of the soy jelly.. My only gripe was that it was a small portion, then again, I think we all could have eaten this dish non-stop. Sensational.
The meat dish was a braised Ox cheek, with Truffle mash, pickled celeriac, chestnut mushroom, braised onion and kale. Visually, I liked the deep green of the kale contrasted with the deep mahogany of the braised ox cheek and I thought it was brave of her to put on the menu something like Ox cheeks which is a cut of meat most people are not accustomed to eating, but this dish was no less enjoyable than all those preceding it. If I were to be ULTRA critical, the ox cheek was the teeniest bit dry and wasn’t as soft and tender as I hoped it would be, but it still came apart easily when I took a knife and fork and well, I finished the whole lot so it wasn’t like I was *that* unhappy about it! YKL thought the sauce was a bit heavy on the seasoning but mines was fine and we all lapped up the whole lot.
Dessert was a lime and vanilla cheesecake with lime gel, basil and the famed bitter chocolate sorbet (which I later overheard Claire saying that she *had* to get it on the menu somehow as that’s the one thing everyone was asking her about). The cheesecake was light, yet packed full of flavour, helped by the lime gel and all in contrast to a basil oil which was drizzled over the cheesecake at the table. The bitter chocolate sorbet was every bit as good as we all hoped: smooth and rich without being too moreish but completely delicious – I see why Michel Roux Jr wanted the recipe!
To finish, we were treated to some coconut and chocolate bonbons and vanilla cupcakes. Actually, they were homemade Bounty bars and mini cupcakes topped with a very intensely flavoured raspberry. Seriously, it was only a quarter of a raspberry on top of a mini sponge, but it was intensely raspberry-flavoured. A lovely light end to go with our teas and coffees and rounded off a very good meal. Graciously, Claire came out at the end of the meal and stopped by even table to chat to everyone. Her immediate plans were to go travelling for a bit but was hoping to get some work in a Michelin-Starred kitchen for some more work experience before she thinks about setting up her own place. We told her that she needs to come back to Birmingham and open a really good restaurant as there are only a handful at the moment. It was clear early on when she was chatting to us that we’ve all eaten in some great restaurants and when Lap commented on how the mackerel dish reminded him of the mackerel dish at The Ledbury (which he loves), I was greatly amused by Claire’s comment: “Oh! you eat out a LOT!” Well, I guess you could say that we recognise high quality cooking when we eat it..
It was so refreshing to see such a level head on someone so young (she’s only just graduated, remember?) and she obviously recognises that whilst making the final of Masterchef: The Professionals has given her a bit of exposure to the public, she still wants to work her way through the kitchens so that when she’s finally ready to open her own place, she’ll have earned it through hard work, dedication and graft rather than because she was on the TV. I must say that based on this one meal, Claire Hutchings has an exceedingly bright future ahead of her and if she carries on with what she has been doing so far, she deserves every success, accolade and plaudits that’s heading her way. Don’t stay away too long Claire – Especially from Birmingham – More people need to be able to taste your cooking!
You can find out more about Claire Hutchings at her web site