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Chef Bainbridge: Inspiration

Some things nag at you for a while. Yes, indeed. This one has been nagging at me for just over two years now… cripes!

The great thing about social media is that, in the midst of composing my own meanderings, I am occasionally brought up short by the presence of much more accomplished, purposeful and committed people. I was completely side-tracked by a tweet from BENEDICTS Restaurant Head Chef, Richard Bainbridge. Posted on a day which would not recur for another four years, it really appealed to my interest in the creation of menus, especially the more developed and thoughtful menus of people who have devoted their life to the challenge of providing food for which I'll gladly pay.

Posted on Twitter - 11:27 AM - 29 Feb 2016 - Giving a new meaning to 'Chefs Table'

Posted on Twitter - 11:27 AM - 29 Feb 2016 - Giving a new meaning to 'Chefs Table'

These few words accompany chef's picture:
"Spring is in the air !!! #inspiration @RestBenedicts..."

I scanned and scoured the picture until I was happy that I'd identified most of the books which Richard had chosen to use for his planning session.  This would be part of his 'spring clean' just nine months into opening the restaurant. It brought home to me the huge difference between what goes on in a professional kitchen and what I attempt at home. I will rarely plan meals for more than a week ahead, with a few extra considerations in the background for upcoming dinners with friends. In Norfolk a new season and new styles of cooking were being considered. Everything to be studied, embraced or rejected (maybe kept simmering for eventual use) and worked into new menus. With the added elements of deciding what is achievable, available, economical and viable in a commercial setting... not to mention having the confidence that the results of those decisions will appeal to diners. 

You can see from my unanswered question on the original tweet that one book at least remains a mystery (Yes, chef, I fully realise that you have a wealth of better things to do than slavishly review and respond to all social media... no offence taken!) but here are links to those which were definitely in the frame and on chef's desk at the time:

‘Heritage’ by Sean Brock
‘Relae: A Book of Ideas’ by Christian F. Puglisi
‘The Desserts of Jordi Roca: Over 80 Dessert Recipes Conceived in EL CELLER DE CAN ROCA’ by Jordi Roca
‘Daniel: My French Cuisine’ by Daniel Boulud
‘Bistronomy: French food unbound’ by Katrina Meynink
'Biota' by James Viles
'Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest' by Blaine Wetzel
'Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste' by Dominique Crenn
'Kimchi: Essential Recipes of the Korean Kitchen' by Byung-Hi Lim
'The Nordic Cookbook' by Magnus Nilsson

I have some books with similar themes but none of those specific publications. 'Kimchi' is no surprise. At the beginning of each year food journalists are clamouring to predict what the trends will be for future months. In 2016 many had identified the fermenting of vegetables as a coming thing. This year one of the competitors from the most recent series of MasterChef: The Professionals has helped to put the fermented-related Kombucha in the spotlight (thank you Matthew Campbell). I'm pretty sure that neither Chef Bainbridge or Matt are really interested in 'trends'... but I expect they keep their options open in case a filthy great commercial deal to front 'flavour of the moment' comes along!

Trends alone will not provide the variety of flavours and cooking techniques which Richard offers. They might appear as an element but only if they complement and balance a dish. There might be other trends in the rest of the books on the desk but they would also distract from my main thrust here. Which rather forces me to focus on that thrust.

The reason I was brought up short by a seemingly simple picture was... erm, simple. I would love to have sat next to Richard on the day he took that picture for however many hours it took before he picked up a pan or a kitchen tool. If I was part of a group of keen like-minded cooks that would be great too. It would mean that Richard was running a session unlike any he has previously led except with his professional team. If any cooking ensued, fine. But, for me, it would be enough to join in the process of research and planning which ultimately leads to the creation of a brand new menu and deciding which excess exciting ideas are to be kept on the back burner.

Richard still offers demonstrations and gives talks. Here is his diary for this year. Much success and recognition have led to new commitments which have altered the complexion of courses run at Benedicts. So the chances of me sitting in on the creation of exciting new menus by this top chef are slim now. Maybe I should have contacted Richard two years ago to see if he needed a page-turner for 'The Nordic Cook Book'.

Maybe we should all message him now, two years later, and see if he might squeeze in a day which allows us to watch a magical menu being born.

A cookery class without any cooking isn't everyone's dream ... but it's an idea which I would love to see happen.

Making Norwich even finer

Benedicts, Norwich

My wife, Jan, and I ate at Benedicts on November 5th 2015. We were hoping that this new restaurant would be one more great reason to visit our favourite city. We were not disappointed.

The Place

The restaurant looked most welcoming as we approached on foot in darkness and drizzle. Inside the décor is stripped back and functional. Nothing is imposed on you except the obvious task of choosing your food and drink. I like that approach. People and good food are surely enough ingredients to create a successful atmosphere. I had walked in with the person I love most in the world but we were soon to find out that Benedicts surrounds you with special people as well. More about them later.

The Food

We had already decided to have the tasting menu.  Here it is with my pictures of some of the food. The quality of my photography is rather awful. The quality of the cooking was truly terrific.

Prawn cocktails and Cheese and Pineapple to start... but not for starters. These were delightful amuse-bouches. The prawns had a light smokiness due to some Jack Daniel's in the sauce. The cheese and pineapple had been ripped away from any evidence of halved oranges and cocktail sticks. They had been given new texture and flavour as well. A good beginning.

A more substantial 'snack' came next. The sumptuous potato mousse and the deep, dark, desperately delicious gravy combined perfectly to show what can be done with simple ingredients.

The lamb dish which was served at the Women's Institute dinner followed. Jan loves lamb and this was a treat for her. Yes, the meat was great and the egg yolk added luxury but our talk all centred on the Jerusalem artichokes which were a revelation. Three approaches leading to unexpected textural and flavour hits. Parsley sponge, lovely as it was, fought, along with the rest of the elements, to combat those artichokes. We tucked in and just enjoyed the struggle. 

The smoked trout is a sophisticated but gentle course which offers relative respite from the richness of the other dishes. The fish was perfect and the buttermilk began to supply some contrast but the plums were too bland. It was the one time when I judged that the quality of produce had been lacking. Among such excellence, it hardly mattered.

The Norfolk quail prep was posted to @twitter a couple of weeks before our visit. The bird is given royal treatment with a glorious herb stuffing. So easy to eat. Vegetables were just right. A further plus was Richard's conversion of my wife to the pleasures of pearl barley... previously scorned by her due to other chef's mistreatment. It will now appear in my risottos, soups, breads and puddings.

Nanny Bush's Trifle rounds off proceedings. You should be aware that the GBM Tasting Menu is not being served from the end of January but this and other winning dishes will still be available on the à la carte menu. Like any successful chef, Richard will be gladly 'saddled' with these dishes for some time... Glynn Purnell is still serving a version of his own winning dessert five years later! The need to satisfy customers with their favourites while continuing to challenge them with your latest innovations is a task I gladly leave to the professionals.

The trifle is glorious. No-one should mess up a trifle and Richard doesn't. Ah, we did have that lovely sweet 'cocktail' as well. Both will certainly be made in our house after our post-Christmas diets are relaxed and I have bribed chef to give me the full recipes!

My simple black coffee is so often a disappointing end to a meal out. Here it was properly brewed from properly roasted beans. Just as good as this fussy individual makes at home ;)

The People (the best bit!)

Richard is magnificently backed by a great team. Katja, his wife, is there supporting the business and making a fuss of all the customers in the best possible way… by not making a fuss about it. Working in a marriage and in a business with your partner has much potential to strain a relationship. I see every sign that it will instead provide challenging, but lovely, opportunities to bring these two closer together.

They have recruited young people to their cause, some less experienced than others. Each one who we met was very good at their job and made it hard to believe that they are still very much at the beginning of their careers. They must take credit for the fine qualities they already have. I am sure those qualities will be developed, nurtured and refined even more by the very much older Richard… he is thirty-three! The only drawback of Adam Vass joining as General Manager is that he must have raised the average age of this lovely, youthful lot by twenty years! I only fail to mention the names of others who looked after us so well since they are embroiled in a fierce contest to gain the most 'Likes' and 'Follows' on social media... I refuse to get involved!

If you watched The Great British Menu 2015 you will know that Richard also recognises the influence on him of some very strong women in his family; his mother in particular. After plating up Nanny Bush's trifle for television judging he attempted to read his written tribute to their inspiration. The love and passion which choked him into handing the task over to another was completely understood and very moving. All in all, there is great human strength behind the ‘Benedict’s’ venture.

To Finish

It is heartening, even though expected, that Benedict's is developing strongly in a very short time. There have been well-deserved awards and glowing reviews. I have referenced some of those below. Extra dining space is being offered and a Private Dining Room can be booked. Cookery demonstrations are available and, of course, the menu will change - but only in ways which will further display @ChefBainbridge's passion.

As you can see from the picture above, Richard looks over your shoulder for the whole meal to check that everything is to your satisfaction. It's either that or a clever, looming threat to ensure the bill is paid. I did do the sums before settling up but, to be quite honest, it is silly to put a price on such an experience. The only pain suffered during the evening was the sight of each finished plate. Everything else was perfect pleasure.

The final pleasure was when Richard came into the restaurant for a chat after service. He was genuinely interested in our experience, anxious to find out if anything might be improved. In our opinion the kitchen had been right on top of their game so it was very poignant that he admitted to constantly fretting over each dish as it goes out. Let's listen to Gordon Ramsay here... "The more confident a chef, the less he needs to hide." It's a fine ideal but only a misguided chef would think they achieve perfection time after time with every dish. However, while Richard's humility is a lovely thing, his rich talents really demand that he stand in the spotlight taking the plaudits instead of ever trying to find any hiding place.

Certainly our most enjoyable and memorable meal of last year. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit. I do that with a bit of reluctance. Bookings are pretty solid and I want to go again soon... leave me some dates!

We mentioned that Jan and I had met in Norwich many years ago and this was not forgotten in the short spot of Twitterland nonsense which followed:

There is one thing that has nagged at me since seeing his picture on the telly and meeting the man in person. Just where does Richard get the inspiration for his effortless style and panache from? I reckon I've finally found the answer in this iconic plaything for girls and boys.

Our very sincere thanks, much respect and a lot of love to the entire Benedicts team. 

benedicts, norwich: review - olive

Number 3 in The Times 25 best new restaurants in the UK

Richard Bainbridge on Great British Menu and opening his own restaurant By Sophie Witts, 25-Sep-2015

Benedicts, Norwich: ‘I love a chef who gets jiggy with the animal fats’ Marina O’Loughlin

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