Sunday 7 August 2011

The Box Tree – Chef for a day

“All cooks dream of a (Michelin) star.”  - The words of Martin Berasategui, himself the holder of no less than seven of the coveted celestial distinctions. Correspondingly, closer to home, La Becasse’s Will Holland said upon achieving his first such accolade, “It’s unbelievable. It is an amazing, amazing achievement. For me personally it’s all I’ve ever dreamed about doing.” Before going on to say, “Every chef’s dream is to earn a Michelin star.”

As a keen cook, I too have this dream. Although in my chosen career as a primary school teacher I am more likely to be handing out gold stars for good work than receiving Michelin stars for my cooking. That is until I recently had the wonderful opportunity of cooking in a Michelin starred kitchen! (Albeit for just one day.)
A summer's evening at The Box Tree,  Ilkley
What is more, not just any Michelin starred kitchen, but the kitchen of The Box Tree in Ilkley. The Box Tree in Ilkley that in Michelin’s 1974 first publication of the modern guide to the British Isles, was among the original twenty-five restaurants to be awarded a star. The Box Tree in Ilkley that, in 1977, was among first four restaurants in Britain to be awarded two stars. The Box Tree in Ilkley, where Marco Pierre White first, in his own words, “Caught the bug” which sent him on the road to culinary superstardom.
The lounge
The dream became a reality when for my birthday my beautiful and thoughtful wife handed me a box containing a pair of black and white checked Vans (the same as Marco Pierre White wears) and a letter printed on Box Tree notepaper informing me that I would be a ‘Chef for a day!’
The Box Tree’s website ( states, ‘For those who would like to experience a "hands on" day in a real kitchen, then the chef for a day experience is perfect. Join the team at 10 am where you will be issued with personalized Box Tree whites, you will then have a 6 hour shift learning exactly how our dishes are created. In the evening you are invited to take a table for two in the restaurant to sample the fruits of your labour.’ Exciting stuff!

As mentioned in my previous post (click here) about my last visit to The Box Tree, the restaurant has had a long and rich history but is now owned by husband and wife team, Simon and Rena Gueller. Prior to regaining The Box Tree one of its Michelin stars, Simon previously held stars at Rascasse and Guellers in Leeds.
As an eighteen year old Simon travelled to London to work with his friend Marco Pierre White (the pair even went to the same school, Allerton Grange High), eventually working alongside him as Sous Chef. This relationship has now come full circle with Marco, no longer having Michelin starred restaurants of his own as a result of ‘handing them back’, joining forces with his old friend once again at his ‘spiritual home’, The Box Tree.
Think of all the amazing food that has been sent through these doors.
So, after much excitement and anticipation I found myself, on a warm August morning, knocking on the door to one of the most famous and celebrated kitchens in the country. I stepped inside to behold a scene of young chefs busily chopping, mixing, stirring and loading what turned out to be vichyssoise into the blast chiller. All the team gave a quick nod of hello and diligently returned to their tasks. One man stepped forward and introduced himself as Dan, the Head Chef.
Chef Dan Birk is a young talented chef with an impressive past and I’m sure equally successful future. Dan has recently joined The Box Tree, fresh from the head chef position at the Devonshire Fell (sister to the Michelin starred Burlington at the Devonshire Arms). Dan first came to prominence when he was crowned York Young Chef of the Year and offered a job with Germain Schwab at the two-starred Winteringham Fields, where he eventually became Sous Chef. In 2008 Dan went on to achieve second place in the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship and in 2010 won a respected Acorn Award (previous Acorn winners include Gary Rhodes, Jason Atherton and Marcus Wareing).
Although, Simon Gueller does not always run the service, with Head Chef Dan Birk obviously taking main the responsibility, he was on hand much of the time in the kitchen. A lot of Simon’s time is taken up with ‘Box Tree Events’ arranging details for catering events, such as weddings. He did spend time talking to Dan about such things as the quality of produce and suppliers, and even the Christmas menu!

Dan handed me a ‘Box Tree with Simon Gueller’ bag, containing my personalized whites. I did feel a little embarrassed (not evident in the picture of me grinning away outside the restaurant) about wearing these, having once read Marco stating, “You have to earn your whites.” I put them on and got straight down to work, preparing the amuse bouche – Celeriac Espuma with Bacon Foam.

The dish involved many steps, starting with peeling and dicing 2 kg of celeriac, which I had to ‘sous vide’ by placing in a vacpac and then cooking in a water bath. I also had to prepare the milk and cream and later season and blend in the powerful Vitamix blender. Finally, this was placed in an espuma gun to form a thick creamy foam. I then diced pancetta and roasted it, before mixing with chicken stock and infusing with milk. Later, soy lecithin was added and whipped-up to order with a stick blender, creating a light and airy foam. The bacon was placed atop the celeriac in a cup and saucer and, “Voilà!” – the lunch and evening’s amuse bouche, of which I was rather proud!

Throughout the day my other duties included: easing the bone marrow from some hearty thigh bones; chopping lamb offcuts for the stock; picking the greenest and highest quality herbs for garnishes and helping to remove the skirts from ninety fresh hand-dived Scottish scallops that Dan expertly shucked. Later Andrew, the maître d’, kindly said that in two and a half years of them offering the ‘Chef for a day’ experience, he was particularly impressed with how much I got, “Stuck in.”

Shucking ninety hand dived Scottish scallops
Although, during the lunch service, I did take a step back and generally observed. Throughout the service (and indeed the whole day), I was impressed with the calm purposeful atmosphere that permeated the kitchen. A check would come in and Dan would call some thing akin to, “Two ballotine, one chicken, one turbot!” To which the brigade would collectively respond, “Oui, Chef!” then instantaneously spring into action like the refined workings of a gentleman’s watch.

The mainspring of a watch stores mechanical energy to power the watch and when the customer places their order the whole process is set in motion and the service powered into action. The maître d’ or waiter becomes the gear train which has the dual function of transmitting the wish of the mainspring to the balance wheel (kitchen staff) and calculating the swings to get seconds, minutes and hours (or indeed to prompt when to send the amuse, breads, starters and subsequent courses.) The balance wheel, moves back and forth, each movement timed to precision. Precise timekeeping allows the escapement mechanism (the head chef) to keep the balance wheel vibrating, giving it a push with each swing and keeping the whole process ticking. Finally the server, acts like the clock face, the face of the restaurant, presenting the food to the customer in the time honored fashion. 

During the lunch service, I witnessed the ‘plating up’ of various courses. The artistic presentation of dishes in Michelin starred restaurants always impresses; each plate of food, often a visual delight, paying full complement to the quality ingredients involved. Dan orchestrating the pass with skill and expertise, his light touch building and dressing the dishes in all their glory. Everything that left the kitchen was perfectly cooked and immaculately presented. Classic, elegant food!

The turbot
When we took delivery of one of the seasons first and terrific looking turbots, (far too big for your average turbotière) I saw the chef’s skills come into their own. Dan swiftly and expertly filleted the ‘king of flatfish’ leaving nothing on the bones and four large, white, fresh fillets on the tray. Tout de suite, I knew what I would be ordering that evening!
Turbot fillets
At about four o’clock my work there was done; I returned, with a big smile, back to the hotel and my wife, excitedly telling her about my kitchen adventure that morning and thanking her for one of my best birthday presents ever! I got out of my whites and into my glad rags and returned about half seven, popping into the kitchen on the way to wish my day’s colleagues luck for the service and to drop some beers off to thank them for welcoming me, being so patient, teaching me so much and generally making me feel part of the brigade.
Arriving at The Box Tree always feels special but being greeted by Andrew that evening, after having worked there all day was a princely feeling. My wife and I sat in the lounge and enjoyed the usual canapés of smoked almonds, olives and crostini; on this occasion served with a dip made from artichokes.
My amuse bouche
Making our way though to the dining room, we were presented with what I feel was the best dish of the evening - my amuse bouche, the Celeriac Espuma with Bacon Foam. (Don’t quote me on that one; I may be letting a dash of bias creep in.) Although, looking around the dining room and watching other people clearly enjoying the ‘fruits of my labour’ was particularly gratifying.
Ballotine of Salmon, Herbs, Salad of Langoustines
For my wife’s starter she ordered, on my recommendation, the Ballotine of Salmon with Herbs and Salad of Langoustines – featuring the herbs, hand picked by yours truly and starring a wonderful herb encrusted ballotine, topped with salmon roe and served with delicious langoustine tails and toasted brioche.
Seared Hand Dived Scallops, Cauliflower, Smoked Eel, Granny Smith Apple, Summer Truffle
I opted for the Seared Hand Dived Scallops, Cauliflower, Smoked Eel, Granny Smith Apple and Summer Truffle. This course, truly (and unbiasedly) was the best of the evening. I knew the scallops were of the highest quality, but the team in the kitchen had certainly done them justice: cooked to absolute perfection, not easy with such large, plump scallops. The slices of truffle were suitably indulgent, the cauliflower wonderfully smooth and the crisp batons of apple textually very welcome. Scallops aide, the real delight on the plate came from the firm fleshed, smoky cubes of eel. A triumph of a dish!
New Season English Lamb, A La Printaniere, Rosemary Roasting Juices
Despite my assurances and inside knowledge that the pigeon would be excellent, my wife went for one her favourites, the New Season English Lamb, à la Printanière with Rosemary Roasting Juices. A generous serving of tasty pink lamb served with the complementing fresh baby vegetables. The jus had great clarity and depth of flavour.
Fillet of English Turbot, Essence of Oranges, Confit Lemon, Fresh Coriander
For my main I had the much anticipated Fillet of English Turbot, Essence of oranges, Confit Lemon and Fresh Coriander - the previous month, my dining companions had both had a sea bass dish that was also accompanied by the ‘essence of oranges’ of which they spoke very highly. I’m not always a fan of fruit in dishes such as this, often finding them a little sweet for my taste. However, the result here was befittingly summery and the robust flavour of the turbot stood up well to the overall balance of the dish.
Creme Brulee,  Jus Granny Smith
My wife’s dessert was the Crème Brûlée with Jus Granny Smith – although, the vanilla flavoured brûlée was controversially turned out from its ramekin, this positively enabled the sweet apple jus to form a moat around its perimeter, which was then studded with crisp shards of dried apple. A visually striking and tasty dish.
Passion Fruit Souffle, Valrhona Chocolate Sauce
For my dessert, I chose the Passion Fruit Soufflé with Valrhona Chocolate Sauce – The hot Valrhona chocolate sauce complemented the exotic passion fruit like a dream. I had been watching Simon Miller, the Sous Chef, making these throughout the lunch service. They were not always super straight (whose are?) but every one had terrific height and proved to have astonishingly good flavour! I’d go so far as to say, the best soufflé that I have ever tasted!

To accompany our deserts we indulged in some of The Box Tree’s fine ports – 1968 and 1978 Krohn Colheitas. Followed by coffee and petit fours back in the lounge. The perfect end to a perfect day!
Thanks to my wife, and thanks to all at The Box Tree (past and present) who have always made the place what it was and is today - one of the finest restaurants in the country! I can’t wait to return, but in the meantime will continue to dream that one day…

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