I started cooking at 9.15 am. The last course went off at 10.25pm. I got to bed at 2.30am. And aside from a bit of a nerve tonic at about midday, I was preparing my Sicilian dinner in the kitchens of Quo Vadis in Soho the whole time. The whole time. Not a single moment of repose.
It all came about because I went to a tequila-fuelled dinner at Quo Vadis masterminded by Tom Parker Bowles, who feels about Mexican food as Christian missionaries do when faced with a tribe of pagans.
‘Wouldn’t you like to cook here, Matthew?’ said the irresistibly charming Sam Hart, who, , along with his brother, Eddie and that irrepressible maestro of the kitchen, Jeremy Le, is proprietor of Quo Vadis.
Perhaps one tequila too many had disarmed my usually highly developed sense of self-preservation, I said yes. What kind of menu? he said. Oh, Sicilian, I said.
I am as excited about Sicilian food as Tom is about Mexican, only more so. I had ridden a Vespa around the island a few years back, and written about it in ‘Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons’ (Ebury Press, in case you’re interested), and my ardor had been had been made all the more intense by Giorgio Locatelli’s brilliant book, ‘Made in Sicily’ (Fourth Estate). It seemed such a good idea at the time.
And then I forgot about my undertaking until I had a note from Sam telling me that they had sold an unprecedented number of tickets.
‘For what?’ I asked.
‘Your Sicilian dinner,’’ he said.
‘Cripes,’ I said.
And that was how I found myself in the steamy heat of the kitchen of Quo Vadis that Thursday morning, bringing new meaning to the word ‘butchery’ as I dissected (sic) one entire kid, surrounded by people who knew exactly what they were about.
I can’t say that the menu was hugely complicated:
Fritto Misto (of prawns, zucchini, squid tentacles and artichokes)
Busiate al pesto trapanese (pasta with tomato & almond sauce)
Capretto ai acciugghe, rosamarino e limone (kid with anchovies, rosemary and lemon)
Con bobbia (potatoes & peppers braised in white wine)
Granita di caffe con panna e brioche (coffee slush with whipped cream & brioche)
And the ever-generous Signor Locatelli offered to get his team to make the busiate, which look like slender corkscrews as, very sensibly, he didn’t trust me to it properly. He also send along some schiacciate, a kind of foccaccia, only more billowy and stuffed with sweet onion; and the prawns and some tiny squid. And two of the recipes were his as well, the presto trapanese and the capretto.
So, you might ask what was mine about the whole dinner? Blood, toil, tears and sweat, that’s what, particularly the last. And the fritto misto, bobbia and granita di caffe con panna e brioche.
The numbers were larger than I usually cook for, 25 in all, and,if you’re not used to scaling up to that degree, you don’t really appreciate how long it takes to peel enough potatoes (4 kg), slice up peppers (3kg) peel and deseed tomatoes (4 kg), peel garlic cloves (60), track down the ingredients for the brioche, etc etc.Or at least, I didn’t.
One day I will write in detail about the deeds of that day. For now, I will simply say that I could not have got through it without the kindness and support of the entire kitchen team at Qui Vadis, who were ready at every turn to help rescue me from my own foolishness. Jeremy Lee leaped and cackled around the kitchen like Prospero with a Dundee accent, one minute a martinet (‘That is the mo-o-o-o-st miserable bit of lemon I have EVER seen on a plate. Take it away, Take it away and replace with something that speaks of GENEROSITY.’), hooting like an owl with laughter the next, forever pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Around him a team of hard-bitten professionals and bright young chefs smoothly went about their business.
In the midst of all of this I plodded on. Cooking is 10% dreaming and planning, and 90% drudgery. It requires discipline, concentration, energy and stamina. I am deficient in all four. And in that heat, I was rendered down like a block of lard. I reaffirmed my admiration of the chefs who do this day in, day out. I couldn’t do it, not day in, day out, but, pushing-through-the-pain-barrier, in a grace-under-fire, we’re-all-in-this-together kind of way, I really enjoyed myself
I won’t say it was a flawless meal. The fritto misto passed muster, I thought. The busiate were a triumph, in part because of the exquisite quality of the Locatelli pasta, and in part because the tomatoes from Pacchino in Sicily had a brilliant balance of acidity and sweetness to offset the rich, toasty, ground almonds and the garlic in a sauce that was only heated by the residual heat from the pasta. The flavours of the kid had a penetrating, lingering intensity, even if the bits of meat were a bit rough-hewn. There probably wasn’t enough of the bobbia, although it the potatoes had the ping of white wine in which they and the peppers had been braised, and the peppers had melted to an almost toffee-like consistency. Finally, the granita has just the right austere hit of straight coffee, even if it didn’t quite hold it’s slushy texture for long enough, and there should have been a deeper drift of sweetened whipped cream on top.
But the noise coming from the dining room was like the roar of breakers on the shingle strand. Faces were flushed with bonhomie and good cheer. Friendships were made. Views exchanged. Giorgio Locatelli was there with Plaxy, his wife. Ed Wilson, the culinary powerhouse behind Terroir, Brawn and Soif turned up. They seemed in pretty cheerful nick. I can’t help feeling that the tide of good will flowing this was and that owed much to the succession of wonderful wines (Ram 2010 Cos, Vittoria, IGT Sicilia; Erse 2009 Tenuta di Fessina, DOC Etna Rosso; and Marsala Superiore 10 Year Old Marco de Bartoli) tracked down by Jack Lewens, master sommelier at Quo Vadis, but I like to think that some of it was down to the food.