#cookbook2012

I’ve been working on a book project for the last year or so with Dutch-born chef Martijn Kajuiter of the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford. Martijn is an exceptional chef, and his restaurant is one of the most innovative and significant in the country – it was awarded a Michelin star in 2009 and has kept it in successive years, as well as being awarded three AA Rosettes. His food is exciting and progressive as well as being firmly rooted in a very well established repoirtoire of classic methodology.

While not exactly a secret, we haven’t discussed the book publicly over the last year, because the immediate nature of social media would have meant the world was bored stupid by the idea of it, months before it came out. Instead we decided to keep quiet until it made sense to not keep quiet about it.

I still don’t want to say too much about it yet, because The Cliff House is preparing to launch the book and so it’s up to them to publicise it and release images and extracts to the public. However, now that the publication date is drawing near it’s nice to be able to start to acknowledge the book’s existence.

First of all, there are two editions of the book – a normal version and a special edition that has already sold out. (It was mentioned by Martijn casually on Twitter and within 24 hours, all 100 copies had sold out, and there is now a waiting list of over 30 people in case any more come up.)

But of the normal version, what can I say?

Well. the first and most significant thing is the price – €45.

The book is being self published and we’re quite proud to have been able to keep the cost relatively low, given the amount of work and the quality of the finish that’s gone into it. It might not seem low to someone used to buying mass-market food books, but it’s really not expensive for a book like this. It’s not uncommon for self published books of this kind to sell for €100 or €200 and it’s not hard to see why once you start making them.

In our case, there have been multiple photo shoots, spread out over the course of a year in order to shoot dishes in season and at their best. The photography has been presented on high quality paper in a hard back book wrapped in a truly gorgeous cover. The design work has been created from scratch by an excellent design agency and enormous attention to detail has gone into each detail of how the book has been created. Literally every aspect of it has been thought about, considered, explored and decided upon.

The book is currently scheduled to be available in the third week of October. I’ll post more information here as it’s appropriate, along with links to where you can buy the book and perhaps also some of the unused photography and behind-the-scenes material generated during the year we spent working on the project.

Star turn – A day in a michelin star kitchen

This is one of the more interesting commissions I’ve had lately – in March, I spent a 14 hour day working in the kitchen at the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford with Martijn Kajuiter and his team. This piece was published this week as a result. Thanks to Shane O’Neill for allowing me to use his excellent photography. He’s also blogged about this job and you can read his thoughts, somewhat amusingly entitled ‘When Alex met Martijn,’ here.

This story has generated a lot of interest on Twitter, and I’ve picked up a lot of foodie followers as a result. Hopefully you find it interesting – Alex

Star Turn
Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 15th, 2011, by Alex Meehan

How hard could it be? I’ve just persuaded Martijn Kajuiter, the Michelin-starred chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford, to let me do a stint in his kitchen.

Now I’m wondering exactly what I’ve let myself in for.

It won’t be a case of dropping in for a couple of hours – Kajuiter has made it clear that he expects me to do a full shift and that I won’t be getting any special treatment. It’s a little more than I bargained for, but it’s an opportunity that’s just too good to miss.

Kajuiter is one of the very few – six to be exact – chefs in Ireland who hold a Michelin star, and is the only one of that small group who is based outside Dublin. Born in the

Netherlands, the 35-year-old came to the Cliff House in 2008 at the invitation of owner Barry O’Callaghan, having worked with some of the biggest names in the culinary world, including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Henk Savelberg.

A physically imposing man – he is 6 feet 8 inches tall – Kajuiter has established himself as one of the most innovative chefs working in Ireland. Winning a Michelin star in 2010 and keeping it in 2011 has put his restaurant on the map, and made the Cliff House a place that people go out of their way to visit.

While it’s hard to put an exact value on winning a star, at a time when many Irish hotels are struggling to stay open let alone turn a profit, the Cliff House enjoys enviable occupancy rates.

‘‘When we opened, everyone said, ‘oh he’s aiming for a star’ because of what we were serving, but I really wasn’t,” says Kajuiter.

‘‘I was looking for happiness in life, believe it or not. I wanted to work with a great team, be creative and cook in an amazing place. I wanted to do that with my wife and kids alongside me.

‘‘Of course I’m proud of our achievement – I am a chef after all – but the star came because of our approach and our commitment to quality, not because we set out to get one.”

What makes a Michelin-starred kitchen special? Obviously to the diner and the Michelin inspector, it’s the food on the plate – the quality of the ingredients, their seasonality, the design of the dish, the presentation and the taste. But that’s only one part of the picture.

Consistency is the real challenge. It’s one thing to be able to put together a plate of food to Michelin standard, but it’s quite another to do it on a busy Saturday night in a full restaurant, executing each and every plate to the same standard, and making sure that every dish gets to each diner at the right temperature, and at the right time.

Achieving this means starting early.

When I arrive in Kajuiter’s kitchen at 11am on a Saturday morning, the place is already buzzing. It’s relatively small for an operation of this size, but it’s functional. The main kitchen area is constructed around a central island of stoves and ovens, with each station operating in its own distinct area.

Meat and fish are in one corner, as are pastry and desserts, stocks, baking and garnishing.

At the front is the pass, the place where garnishes are finished and assembled dishes pause under the heat lamps for the few critical seconds it takes to get the chef’s approval before they are sent to the dining room.

Kajuiter shows me around, introducing me to a succession of slightly harassed looking junior chefs who are busy making stocks for sauce bases, preparing garnishes, making fresh pasta and ravioli, and otherwise prepping for lunch service in the bar and dinner in the main restaurant that night.

All of the ingredients are sourced locally – on the menu tonight are scallops from west Cork, organic salmon from Bantry Bay, Waterford spring chicken, Helvick monkfish, Black Angus beef, lamb from Lismore and duck from Skeaghanore.

For the kitchen staff, service starts in earnest at around 6.30pm, and once the first guests are seated, there is no longer time to tidy up loose ends.

One mistake can derail the whole effort, and making sure that doesn’t happen takes an enormous amount of advance preparation.

For the senior staff, the working day starts with the daily morning meeting, which is held in the dining room over freshly brewed coffee.

Kajuiter and his second in command, sous chef Dirk Mooren, sit down with Paul and Nick (the meat and fish chefs), and Gareth and Patrick (pastry, desserts, baking and petit fours) to dissect the previous night’s service and discuss their plans for the evening ahead.

Kitchens are notoriously rough and ready places to work, and while Kajuiter is soft spoken and respectful with his staff, there’s no question about who’s in charge. He is ruthless in identifying where things could have been tighter the night before, and when a suggestion is made for a potential special, he quickly points out that it’s not seasonal enough.

‘‘We have a journalist with us today, but I don’t care about that,” he says. ‘‘Everyone is to do things exactly as you otherwise would. He should see things as they are. No pretty faces just for today.”

With that, we’re up and off. The others head back to prep, and Kajuiter brings me out to one of his newly-built greenhouses in the grounds of the hotel, where he grows some of the more delicate and perishable herbs and edible flowers which he uses in his dishes.

There’s cress, marjoram, pea shoots, chervil, beetroot, rocket, fennel, sweet woodruff and edible viola, or Irish molly flowers, as well as a vast array of other unusual herbs he’s grown from seed.

Seasonality and the use of local produce are at the heart of Kajuiter’s food, but that creates its own problems.

‘‘This isn’t Dublin – if we run short of something or sell out of something, we can’t just nip out to get more,” he says. ‘‘We’re in Waterford, and that means careful planning and working with the seasons.”

With this in mind, a few years ago he came to an agreement with the managers of St Raphael’s residential and daycare centre In Youghal to bring its organic nursery back to life.

We spend part of the afternoon in the two large poly tunnels there, picking out fresh produce from the evening service.

Back in the kitchen, as the afternoon wears on things start to heat up, both literally and figuratively. Junior chefs are shouted at when it looks like standards might slip; a fire alarm goes off when someone overloads a tumble dryer, but the kitchen staff barely stop to acknowledge it; and when the staff meal is served at around 5pm, it’s eaten standing up.

It’s an intense working environment, so it’s natural that emotions run high.

The staff are all extremely skilled in their own right – most of them could easily get a head chef job somewhere else if they wanted it – but they stay because they know they’re getting the kind of experience that will stand to them for life.

At one point during the evening service, what seems like a full-scale riot breaks out in the kitchen as Kajuiter picks up on a mistake.

One of the line chefs has got his timing wrong, resulting in three main courses being ready to go at the pass, while one more is late.

The chef is not a beginner, but this is a rookie mistake.

To make matters worse, when he’s asked about his timing, he tries to cover for his error, something which riles Kajuiter more than the initial mistake. He gets a severe dressing down, while around him, his colleagues avert their gaze and keep working.

The atmosphere is extremely tense, but five minutes later things are back to normal and all seems to be forgiven.

‘‘There might be shouting or harsh words, but it’s forgotten about quickly,” Kajuiter says. ‘‘If I’m out of line I’ll apologise. I don’t believe in a culture of fear in the kitchen. It doesn’t get the best out of people, and you don’t keep staff.

‘‘People who work here do it for more than just a pay cheque.

Every single person has a function in the kitchen, and they all make it work. If the kitchen porter doesn’t deliver the goods, we’re all screwed.”

Kajuiter is acutely aware that a Michelin star can be a double-edged sword. While it has sent the profile of the Cliff House sky high, it has also probably led some people to presume that it is out of their price range.

‘‘A Michelin star puts you in a box,” he says. ‘‘It makes people think you are expensive and exclusive, but that’s the wrong way to look at it.

‘‘Having one star means that you are an exceptionally good restaurant in your own category. It’s about what’s on the plate – your restaurant could be in a shed in the middle of the mountains, but if you are cooking fantastic food, you could get a star.

It has nothing to do with being expensive, or Having Wedgwood plates, or what the room is like.”

Prices haven’t gone up in the restaurant since the star was awarded – a three-course meal costs €65,while an eight-course tasting menu costs €85.Matched wines cost €25 or €40 per person with the tasting menu.

If Kajuiter could ask one thing of his customers, it’s that they don’t pre-judge the experience of eating in his restaurant.

‘‘Sometimes people have such high expectations that if one little thing isn’t how they think it should be, then the whole experience is ruined for them,” he says. ‘‘If something isn’t right, it isn’t right – and please tell us if that’s the case – but this isn’t a competition between the kitchen and the guest. It’s a celebration.

We want you to be thrilled.”

It’s 8.30pm, and service is in full flow. The restaurant is packed; 72 guests are eating dinner tonight, and 14 of them are having the tasting menu.

Earlier in the day I’d prepared garnishes and helped with prep, but for the last hour or so I’d been watching from the sidelines, as service started in earnest.

Suddenly Kajuiter is explaining tome what he wants done and how to do it.

The dish is a salmon starter I saw prepared earlier – the organic fish from Bantry Bay is served as a ballotine, as an ice cream and also marinated, along with preserved cucumber and beetroot textures.

It has to be plated up with herbs and leaves in just the right place, and with sauces added dot by dot, in the right order and quantity.

At the pass, it’s topped with a glass dome, and a special gadget is used to ignite oak sawdust, which is then pumped under the dome.

The plate is then whisked away to the dining room, where the server presents it to the diner by lifting off the dome and releasing the smoke. It’s a clever take on smoked salmon – or maybe smoking salmon would be a more accurate description.

By now I’ve watched quite a few of these plates make it to the pass and enjoyed the theatre of the final preparation.

Now, Kajuiter is beside me. ‘‘So you’ve seen how to do it, yes? Okay, time to get those pristine whites dirty.”

He has me plate up with him, watching each step to see if I’ve got it right.

The atmosphere is suddenly tense, and I’m aware that he’s not treating me like a guest in his kitchen any more – we’re working on food that is going out to the dining room.

‘‘Okay, that’s good. Do four more.”

He moves away, leaving a plate for me to copy and I’m on my own, concentrating as hard as I ever have.

The noise and bustle behind me fade away while I hunch over the plate.

A minute later he’s back, examining my work.

‘‘Yes, that’s it. Good. Okay, take them to the pass.”

At the front of the kitchen, the restaurant manager and two servers are waiting.

Kajuiter is beside me, telling me to hurry up.

I load up the smoke burner, switch on the pump and get ready to light the wood. It’s a fiddly job, and Kajuiter is getting impatient with the delay – there are paying guests waiting for this food, and the salmon must go to the table at exactly the same time as other dishes, which have just arrived on the pass.

I’m suddenly painfully conscious of the audience of servers, management and other chefs watching me from the corner of their eye.

‘‘Okay, go! Add the smoke. Like that. No, add more. Okay, and the next plate. Hurry up. Get it right. Too slow! Okay, there. It’s done. SERVICE! Go go go!” The plates are taken away, and I’m struggling to turn the blowtorch off. I’m sweating and my heart is racing. Kajuiter is smiling.

‘‘How did that feel? Scary, huh? That’s how Marco made me feel my first service with him. It’s a buzz, isn’t it?”

Fourteen hours after I arrived, I’m sitting in Kajuiter’s office having a coffee. In the dining room, the last guest is nibbling on petits fours, while in the kitchen, the staff are starting the clean-down process, scrubbing the room until it gleams and is ready for it all to happen again tomorrow.

Including amuses bouches, sorbets, starters, main courses and desserts,430 plates of food have left the kitchen this evening. It has been an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

But, most importantly, it didn’t kill me.

Recipe: fillet steak with bearnaise sauce and French fried potatoes

Okay, I’ve been getting lots of pressure from friends to post this, so here it is, my method for cooking fillet steak with bernaise sauce and French fried potatoes. It’s not particularly revolutionary, but it is awesome and pretty dependable. Try it out and let me know how it goes.

I’ll start with the béarnaise. This method is not the classical method, but it works fantastically and I’m rather partial to it, since learning it from my sister (cheers Alacoque!) who in turn learned it from Maureen O’Brien, the now deceased wife of my also now deceased godfather Mahon O’Brien. The O’Briens ran the well regarded Vale View hotel in Avoca for many many years, and were truly ahead of their time with regards to the food served in the restaurant there. Anyway, this is Mo O’Brien’s method, and it’s a corker.

First, here are the ingredients: Tarragon, unsalted butter, a shallot, salt, pepper, an egg yolk and lemon juice.

Bearnaise is one of the classic ‘-aise’ sauces, along with mayonnaise and hollandaise, all of which are emulsified sauces — made in a way that allows normally immiscible fats and acids to mix, usually by using egg yolk as a binding medium.

In this method, you finely dice a shallot, along with a generous handful of tarragon herb, before adding them to a small saucepan, and covering them with a splash of water. To this you add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and some decent quality salt and pepper.


Taste the water at this point, to check the acidity – it should be quite sharp because you’re going to add a lot of butter later — and set it to simmer gently until the water is cooked off. This creates a flavour base, gently cooking out the rawness of the shallots to create what at this stage should be a slightly harsh, lemon-flavoured herby sludge. Leave this mixture to cool, before adding an egg yolk. This is the crucial stage –if the mixture is hot when you add the egg yolk, it will start to cook and you’ll end up with scrambled egg rather than a sauce. Basically, you want your sauce base to be warm enough to slowly melt butter, but not actually hot.
Take a generous quantity of unsalted butter and dice it into inch-sized cubes. Place your small pan into a larger saucepan containing boiling water, but make sure the bottom of the smaller pan isn’t actually touching the water. The idea here is that you gently heat your sauce base, while whisking in butter one bit at a time. If you do this carefully, using enough heat to warm the sauce but not get it too hot – which is what the water bath is about – then as the egg yolk gently cooks, it will incorporate the lemon acid in the sauce with the unsalted butter. Once it starts to take, you’re away. You can whisk in more butter to get the consistency you like, all the way from thin to thick and mayonnaise like.  Taste it to adjust the seasoning. Your sauce is done and will keep for a couple of hours happily at this stage.

Next, to the chips. This isn’t rocket science really – you want the basic twice fried chips. The key to really good chips is the kind of potato you use – not all spuds are suited to all uses, and for great chips you really want something like a Maris Piper potato – these have a high enough starch content that you can get chips that are lovely and crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy inside. It’s really worth tracking these down if you’re going to have a go at this.


I basically just hand cut mine to a uniform size, rinse them thoroughly to get as much starch off them as possible and then dry them using paper towels, to get as much water off them as I can. Next, they go into the deep fat fryer (in batches, if they won’t all fit in one go) so that they basically stew in hot oil for a while. When they are cooked through, but not crisp, I take them out, drain them off and let them cool down. They can hold at this stage for a couple of hours. Just before serving, whack up the heat on the fryer and put the chips back in to crisp up. The effect is totally worth it. Try it out.

Finally to the main event, the meat. In these pictures, I used a couple of 8oz fillet steak sourced from a local butcher near where I live who really knows his stuff when it comes to meat. It’s aged for 28 days and is really fantastic quality. For a long time, I didn’t eat meat, and now I tend not to be interested in eating it unless it’s of very high quality. Cooking fillet steak isn’t hard – the basic principal is that less is more. I heat a non-stick pan until it’s pretty hot, and then add some rapeseed oil – it’s a good quality oil that can take a high heat without burning, unlike, say, olive oil which doesn’t like high temperatures. Once the oil is smoking, I add my fillets, and leave them be for around a minute. Before I turn them over, I add a generous knob or two of unsalted butter to the pan, along with a couple of cloves of garlic which haven’t been peeled, but have been lightly crushed to break them open. 

As the butter melts and foams up as it hits the hot oil, I turn the fillets over and baste them with a spoon as they cook. After a minute or so on the other side, I flip them onto their side and cook them for a further minute or two on the sides, trying to get them evenly browned. This gives a good medium rare temperature, and so I take them out of the pan to rest for a few minutes. And basically, that’s it.

Recipe: Salsiccia e Lenticchie (Sausage and lentils)

So here’s the first of my recipes – a variation of the Italian class Salsiccia e Lenticchie, otherwise known as Sausage and lentils.

The first thing to say about this is that it tastes much better than it looks! This is a recipe that is traditionally served on New Year’s Eve at midnight as the New Year is rung in. I first had it in Rome on New Year’s Eve in maybe 2002 or 2003. Can’t quite remember now, but that’s not important. Myself and my wife enjoyed a nine or ten course meal in a low key restaurant, complete with wines and champagne. At the end of the night, as the count down to midnight was sounded around Trastevere, and long after desert was served, the kitchen produced steaming bowls of Salsiccia e Lenticchie.

This recipe is my adaption for the original. It’s pretty authentic, but the big differentiator will be the quality of sausage you use, whether it’s Italian or not – I don’t think it matters massively as long as they are good quality properly made sausages. The dish will be as good as the sausages you use. It’s well worth a try- it’s one of those recipes that’s extremely simple and yet tastes absolutely amazing. It doesn’t look terribly pretty in the bowl, but you have to taste it to get it. It’s cheap as chips and makes a great mid-week treat. Enjoy!

First off, the ingredients.

Mise in Place

I don’t have measurements for this, as I don’t use any. You sort of have to judge quanities as you go. Above, you can see all the ingredients laid out. I use a basic Italian soffrito, or equal parts celery, onion and carrot diced relatively finely. In addition, I use garlic, sage, pork and leek sausages, and finally equal parts brown and puy lentils.

I’ve mentioned the importance of the quality of the sausages, so now a word on lentils. Some lentils require pre-soaking but neither puy nor brown lentils do, so you can make this straight away, pretty much from store cupboard ingredients. Brown lentils cook right down to give a lovely gravy-like, thickened consistency to the finished dish but puy lentils retain their shape as they’re cooked so that’s why I’m combining them.

With both kinds of lentils, it’s really important to sort through them to try to find any small stones – I’ve nearly chipped my teeth in the past, but it’s just part of the peril of using a natural ingredient. It’s a pain, but you have to do it. Should only take five minutes really.

Method

We’ll start with the sausages. You don’t have to fry them first, but it does give them better colour and flavour, so start by adding some decent quality extra virgin olive oil to a good sized pot and then add your finely chopped sage leaves. Leave these to sizzle and crackle for two or three seconds while you chop your sausages into chunks and then add them to the pot. They’ll cook out properly later on, so now you just want to give them some colour. After a minute or two, add your garlic – you don’t want it to burn but you do want to flavour the oil the sausages and sage are in. Toss the sausage chunks in the flavoured oil and don’t worry too much if it starts to stick. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t burn so you just need to keep the mixture moving.

I use a classic soffrito to make the flavour base for this dish, so next, I add carrot, celery and onion to the pot and give it a good mix around.

You should have something like this.

Next, add some neat stock – I use Knorr vegetable stock pots – and then then your lentils. Mix this thoroughly to combine all the flavours with the undiluted stock.

(You could also add alcohol here in the form of some white wine if you wanted, but I tend not to, and it’s not traditional to the best of my knowledge.)

All you need to do now is bring this up to a simmer and cook it for around 40 minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t cook dry. If it gets too thick, just add more water and give it a good stir. You’re looking for a finished consistency which is a bit like a risotto in texture. Be careful to taste the liquid before you season it during cooking – some stocks are very salty and some sausages are also quite salty – it’s easy to ruin it by adding seasoning without tasting it first.

To serve

To finish, dress with some good quality extra virgin olive oil, some Maldon salt and and several twists of fresh cracked black pepper.

Food blogging . . .

So one thing that doesn’t get blogged about much here is my love of cooking. Lately I’ve found myself discussing food, recipes and cooking techniques with friends who have independently told me ” you should blog about that!”

So I am. At least, that’s the plan. I’m going to start uploading recipes, book reviews and observations to this blog, and the more observant of you will notice that there is now a new tag above marked “Cooking & Food”

Time will tell how this works out, but basically I’m going to start logging and photographing recipes I cook as I cook them. Starting tonight. I’m making an Italian regional dish made with sausage and lentils. It’s really good, very simple and delivers a bang for its buck which is astonishing. So, I’ll snap that tonight and upload it at some point over the next few days.