Cooking at Calcot
PUBLISHED: 10:12 17 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:21 20 February 2013
Katie Jarvis spends the day in the kitchens at award-winning Calcot Manor
Katie Jarvis is a talented eater But whats she like at cooking? Top country house hotel, Calcot Manor near Tetbury, puts her into the kitchen and turns up the heat
Calcot? Would I accept an invitation from the kitchen? You neednt even ask! What time are we eating?
Err.. What do you mean you said in, and not from, the kitchen?
Youd think, wouldnt you, that if a top hotel rings a food writer, theyd be asking me to eat a meal, not to cook it. But here I am, chefs whites on, having a go at slicing smoked salmon; salmon caught on the west coast of Scotland, and cured and smoked at Upton Smokery in Burford. In other words, one expensive fish versus one clueless amateur with a knife. That salmon may no longer be breathing, but it definitely looks scared.
(Proper) chef Zsolt Abrudan shows me how its done with the sort of sleight of hand Derren Brown uses to pick pockets under the noses of their oblivious owners. First the fish is whole. Then Zsolt waves a knife over it, and it miraculously forms itself into such beautifully light slices, you feel like warning everyone round about to avoid creating draughts. Now this looks easy.
I do exactly the same as Zsolt does. But somewhere between me picking up and putting down the knife, my fish nips off, gets into a fight with a combine harvester, which it clearly loses, and returns looking haggard.
We all stare at this mysterious phenomenon.
Perhaps my knife isnt sharp, I say, hopefully.
Its all about technique, says Michael Croft, chef-director at Calcot, whos supervising me for the morning. Instead of sniggering and calling the other chefs round for a laugh, he and Zsolt show me how to maximise the length of the slices: As thin as you possibly can. Glide the knife through slowly no pressure on it. You dont want to end up with half a slice.
So I nervously have another go. This time, I dont press so hard; I let the knife melt the flesh like a hot poker running through ice. Well done! says Michael, and the fish and I let out sighs of relief and satisfaction respectively.
Ive eaten plenty of first-class meals; Ive cooked plenty of fish fingers. But Ive never had time in the sharp end of a professional kitchen before. And its pretty decent of Michael Croft not just to tolerate me on his staff for the day, but actively to encourage it: everyone else here has had to earn their stripes. And theyre all quietly busy, getting on with their work without a question or a murmur.
Steph is in the corner, making a blackberry and apple crumble but not as I know it. This looks like something youd produce in art class: layers of fruit in Escher circles. Tony Everett is in Calcots dedicated bakery, finishing trays of biscuits that guests find waiting for them in their rooms; letting a batch of six-cereal breads cool down, which perfume the air with the irresistible aromas that sell houses.
Television might give the impression that restaurant kitchens are a battlefield. The two at Calcot one for the Gumstool pub and a separate one next door for the fine-dining Conservatory - are more like a perfectly-run military exercise.
The secret? Its simple: get in a chef of the calibre of Michael Croft. Its a bit like being the conductor of an orchestra; the team has to listen to my instructions, he says.
What about the infamous volatility of the likes of Gordon Ramsay? I can understand where that comes from: its about wanting to get things so right. But if someone drops a pan or a waiter drops a dish, the essence of being a good chef lies in how you cope with that. And the reward is the buzz at the end of a big night when everything went perfectly.
I can see, as I pitch in with the crew, that commitment and enthusiasm are two of the foremost skills in this job. When youre working 60 or 70 hours a week, as Michael sometimes does, you have to love it. Hes not simply busy training staff, overseeing their work, or even developing new dishes; one of his main focuses is sourcing ingredients and he whips me off to the storerooms to select some for lunch today. Calcot recently took over Barnsley House just outside Cirencester, inheriting with it a phenomenal vegetable garden. Look at this, Michael says, delving into a basket overflowing with Barnsley produce. He extracts a Crown Prince squash, nestling between two-tone streaked aubergines and heirloom tomatoes; its outer skin is almost translucently blue. It was an absolute thrill for me when they acquired that garden, he says.
At the moment, Calcot is showcasing Phil Vickerys charcuterie. Hes a good friend of mine. Hes raising his own pigs in Bedfordshire, and hes produced an amazing range; its been very well received by diners.
Were looking for good produce all the time. Locally, Im really keen on the Duchy Home Farm veg. We have access to lots of other organic producers but theyre a cut above. You know the produce was dug up yesterday or even that morning, and that really does make a difference. He picks up one of their onions: Burnished mahogany!
If I were a permanent member of the team, Id be visiting farms with the rest of them: seeing where the food comes from is a vital link in the chain. Weve recently been to the fish market in Brixham; weve been to the Real Boar farm in Wiltshire the guys were very enthused by that; and to over to Richard Vaughan in the Wye Valley. We use his Longhorn beef and Middle White pigs, but weve also got a collaboration with Richard Gantlett at Yatesbury Organic Farm near Marlborough, who raises Aberdeen Angus purebred.
In fact, so passionate is Michael about the quality of the food he serves that, early next year, Richard Gantlett will be grazing a herd for the hotel in the fields overlooking the restaurant, in some of Calcots 220 acres.
Indeed, on the block right now is a whole cow, freshly delivered from Broomhalls, the well-known local butcher. It takes about a week and a half to get through this meat, and not a bit of it is wasted, right down to the bones in the stock. Im put to work trimming a fillet of beef in the Conservatory kitchen as the sauces simmer around me: lunchtime might be approaching, but the air is as calm and controlled as this morning. Diners will arrive soon.
Its been hectic; its been fun. Its been a pleasure to be with this young team and their inspiring boss whos worked with the best, and who now is among the best: under Michel Bourdin at The Connaught; under Michael Quinn at Gravetye Manor and The Ritz; as head chef at The Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath and, later, at the Mirabelle Restaurant back in London.
Surely this job has more than its fair share of antisocial hours?
And it could probably be as many hours as you want it to be
Yes! He laughs. But you want to see a day through. My team wants to make that dish from start to finish; they want to serve it to 50 people at lunchtime and 80 at dinner. They dont want to be copping out halfway through.
It is a big job; its like a merry-go-round. You think you can have a calm day but you cant. But I look at the diners, particularly local ones in the Gumstool, who have come here for no other reason than for the food. And I think, how lovely: that people are wanting to come out, eat our food, and be in our restaurant.
Calcot Manor, near Tetbury; 01666 890391; www.calcotmanor.co.uk.