“You’re never going to be happy cooking for someone else.”
I first saw the film Chef three years ago, when my relationship with food was not even remotely close to what it is now. I was a fussy eater growing up, I hated garlic, tomatoes, onion, ham, cheese, bacon, mushrooms, anything spicy, and most vegetables except peas (to name just a few). My parents are both wonderful cooks, and regularly offered up a vast array of dishes from all over the world, but I was spoiled by this and took for granted having access to so much nice food. It was only really when I came to Oxford that I realised the extent of my good fortune, and while I now had the space to eat all of the fast food I wanted (which I was never allowed at home), it never left me feeling entirely satisfied. I also acutely felt the loss of a nice kitchen – Trinity is not renowned for its communal cooking spaces, in fact we only have the one, and its stale smell and glaring prison lighting was a different world from the cosy culinary environment I was used to.
My new environment shifted my attitude toward food almost overnight – instead of looking for all the things I didn’t like, I suddenly was just eating it all anyway, who wants to be the picky person at hall who just gets jacket potatoes day after day? I found myself missing the home cooked comforts I had so long taken for granted. Since that first Michaelmas, my interest and delight in food has only increased, to the point where my parents will now regularly admit bewilderment upon tasting anything I cook nowadays, which is often loaded with chilli, garlic and more often than not, vigorous amounts of cheese.
This new found passion for cooking and eating has manifested itself in watching a lot of cooking shows. And not just the standard Jamie or Nigella, – my greatest love has to be the shows Netflix has to offer, especially Chef’s Table and The Chef Show. Although very different, they have at their heart an appreciation for the craft of professional level cooking. Already being a fan of the film, The Chef Show quickly became a staple – I can watch and rewatch episodes, fascinated by the enthusiasm and creativity of the talent shown. Jon Favreau’s commitment to his craft is evident in his long term friendship with Roy Choi, the owner of the famous ‘Kogi Tacos’ food van, who personally ensured that the film did not stray from realism in its depiction of the intricate mannerisms of real-life chefs. They explore recipes from the film in early episodes of the show, and as it has developed over a further two seasons, you begin to feel very invested in their foodie escapades and the incredible dishes they cook up. I have been wanting to replicate some of these for a long time, and isolation seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do so. I created a three course meal, picking the recipes at random from ones that had always struck me as looking especially tasty.
Starter: ‘Shrimp Toast’ (or Prawn Toast to us English folk), (Season 1 Episode 3)
“When you say no butter…then we put more in.”
This dish had to be altered slightly due to Covid related restrictions, I only had frozen pre-cooked de-shelled prawns, so couldn’t quite do justice to the wonderful juicy looking ‘shrimp’ that they use in the show. Nor could I whip up a wood fired oven capable of reaching 700°, so had to settle for getting a pan of oil really hot on the stove and just frying them the old fashioned way. They also use a ‘chile de arbol’ paste, and sadly arbol chillies are not readily available in humble old Norfolk, but I improvised and used two fresh and three dried chillies, four cloves of garlic and a whole red onion, which I roasted in the oven at 220°C for around 20 minutes (until everything started to look ever so slightly burned). This was then whizzed up in the food processor and honestly, it tasted so damn good, very very spicy but with a rich smokiness (aided with, I must admit, a few drops of Tabasco Chipotle sauce) that was more than a little moreish.
The process of cooking the prawns was fairly simple, I added around half as much butter as they did on the show – not something I’d recommend, if you’re going to go all out you really can never have too much butter, do not make my over-hesitant mistakes…
We had some slightly stale ciabatta and it crisped up beautifully in a pan with some oil and (yes, more) butter, the whole dish came together so well and I was quite impressed with myself, especially considering the rather sizeable differences between the recipe and the ingredients we had available. I could have eaten about four more helpings. It was wonderful.
Main Course: Aglio E Olio (Season 1 Episode 2, also featured in the film)
“This was to show how much he cared about the pasta”
Now, I had already made Aglio E Olio once before with my brother, and although it was delicious, I remember thinking to myself that I definitely needed more garlic. And that is the central tenet of this dish – Never ever, can there be too much garlic. I ended up putting eight cloves in, finely chopped, however I could have easily gone for a few more, but at this point my parents were frowning at me and telling me not to use the entire supply of garlic that mum had only just restocked earlier that day on the weekly shop. But take my advice here, if you think there’s enough garlic, add a couple of cloves more.
This dish is really simple so every tiny detail makes a huge difference. It turned out great, and although my attempt to mimic Jon Favreau’s smooth placement of the pasta into bowls using a carving fork was far from elegant, in all honesty, it was an entirely unnecessary step, I was just trying to show off.
If I remake this dish, I’m tempted to add the lemon zest as well as the juice, as the subtle tang really pulls all the flavours together, and it can get a little lost if there isn’t quite enough of it (and a little bit of zest never made anything worse). I would heartily recommend it for a quick week-night or even weekend dish, it’s good enough for both.
Dessert: Berries and Cream (Season 1 Episode 2, also featured in the film)
“Almost like you’re putting a cloud on top of a mountain”
Another slightly improvised version of the original, the Berries and Cream was a ridiculously appetising looking feature in both the film and the show, with the rich colour of the berries and the soft white fluffy cloud on top, dusted with that delicate looking brittle. We had a bag of frozen summer fruits in the freezer which seemed perfect, plus I added a few extra strawberries and blueberries as well to create a nice blend of fresh with frozen. We sadly didn’t have any Grand Marnier, and after hunting around in the back of some cupboards, I thought Pimms was probably the closest we were going to get. Surprisingly, it worked really well, the berries looked positively delectable, with the sugar and alcohol making them softer and juicier than before.
The fresh mint is an absolute must with this, it adds such a delicate undertone to the sweetness of the fruit and the richness of the cream. I must hang my head and say that I got too enthusiastic and over whipped my cream so it did end up slightly less cloud-like than I had anticipated, but it still tasted good. Even if you can’t be bothered making the brittle – which I totally understand,
boiling sugar is a terrifying process and I was convinced the entire time that it was two seconds away from burning – the fruit and cream combo was so light and delicious it would work great without it, but make sure you leave the berries to sit in the sugar and alcohol for at least an hour as this really does something wonderful to their texture and flavour that makes it entirely worthwhile.
This worked really well as a three course meal, I was impressed by every dish and they all complimented one another in different ways. Also, none were too heavy, in fact, they all had a lightness of flavour that left you simultaneously satisfied and rather disappointed that there was no more to come. Both the show and the film are a huge part of why my relationship with food and cooking has changed so much, demonstrating the craftsmanship and dedication to producing good food, as well as the playfulness and creativity. I would recommend these dishes to anyone wanting some quarantine inspiration, as well as The Chef Show for emphasising the important relationship between food and connecting to others.