Friday, 21 December 2012

Q & A with Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd

Eddie Shepherd is the author of Modernist Vegetarian and, it would be fair to say, one of the most pioneering vegetarian chefs in this country. I met up with him in Chorlton to gain an insight into his culinary background, his influences and his thoughts on modernist cuisine. You can download a copy of Eddie's book at the Modernist Vegetarian website and see a slideshow featuring his beautiful and innovative dishes on Youtube.

Jamie: Did you consciously decide to become a chef or was it something you fell into? 

Eddie: It was something that I wanted to do. I was doing a philosophy degree in Scotland and working in kitchens as a pot-washer initially; but I was a very enthusiastic cook at home. At first, it was just lucky circumstances - a chef left and the guys saw some potential in me as I'd been helping them out already. As soon as I got my first chef's jacket I knew that's what I wanted to do!
I was 20 then so I learnt the basics there (I was a vegetarian by that time but still working in restaurants that served meat) then moved around a few restaurants until I got to work in a vegetarian restaurant in Glasgow where I moved up to sous and then acting head chef. Then I moved down to Greens and spent a couple of years there.

Jamie: Was it an aim of yours to work at Greens because it is such a respected vegetarian restaurant?

Eddie: Well, I initially came down to work with Simon [Rimmer] for a week and they offered me a job at the end of it - I wanted to keep learning and progressing within the vegetarian cooking scene and it seemed like the best place to be at the time. I also went and did a week at Terre A terre [in Brighton] around the same time. At Greens I got the chance to do more "restaurant-y" vegetarian food for the first time.

Jamie: What made you become a vegetarian?

Eddie: It was a mixture of things. I'd become vegetarian at uni in part because I was studying a philosophy degree - it wasn't a particularly ethical decision but the philosophy raised enough questions that I didn't feel entirely comfortable eating meat. I didn't really enjoy it any more. I think it's more that it suited me.

Jamie: Do you find it limiting being a vegetarian chef or does it have the opposite effect?
Eddie: Initially it did seem limiting to me as a chef but having some sort of constraint can actually be quite useful - very few places try to cook all types of cuisine: places like Noma will only cook with food that comes from within a small radius of the restaurant - that fuels their creativity. It forces you to work hard with your ingredients.

Jamie: Obviously you are somewhat of a spokesperson for modernist vegetarian cuisine so how did you get turned on to Modernist cooking methods in the fist place?
Eddie: Being vegetarian, I was trying to find interesting ways to do new things with vegetarian cooking. A lot of the modernist techniques are to do with creating different textures and finding new ways to serve the same ingredients. The first time I used modern techniques was when I was asked to a veggie version of a dish that used gelatin, so I had to start researching that. I was at the same time getting interested in Ferran Adria and what he was doing at El Bulli. I went to a festival in Madrid called 'Madrid fusion' and saw Grant Achatz [chef/owner at Alinea], then bought the Alinea cookbook and was blown away. It changed the way I thought about food.

Jamie: Your book, Modernist Vegetarian, as well as being ground-breaking, is very artistic. Is art part of your food philosophy?

Eddie: For me, flavour and texture are paramount. It takes a while to work out the finished version of the dish, what it will look like on the plate. I really wanted to get away from this 'brown stuff in a bowl' type of veggie food, which is the negative stereotype - that it's all the same colour and mushy! I wanted to get so far way from that! People can have quite a strong preconception of what a vegetarian meal will be like so you can really play with their expectations.

Jamie: When did you first think about writing your own cookbook?

Eddie: It had been in my head for a while that I wanted to do a book at some point and it was only earlier this year that I started to focus on freelance stuff and had more time to research and try new dishes. I would love to do a print version one day but an ebook is easy to publish and you can sell it at a more reasonable price. I'm glad it's out there, it's no good having all these ideas in my head!

Jamie: What's the reaction been like from your peers?
Eddie: I was really pleasantly surprised. I had good feedback from chefs, especially Marc Poynton from Alimentum, which got its first michelin star this year. He wrote a review saying how much he liked it. Things like that are fantastic.

Jamie: Through the likes of Heston Blumenthal, foodies are being exposed to more modernist cooking methods and ingredients. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the modernist movement?
Eddie: I think these things are tools like anything else and now we just have a larger range of tools to work with as chefs. I'm a huge fan of sous-vide and I use hydrocolloids a fair amount but only when necessary. I think there's a danger of chefs using them purely for effect without understanding them. More and more I like the idea of presenting a plate of food like Ferran Adria and ReneRedzepi do - it looks natural but a lot of modernist techniques and technology have gone into it. It's much more hidden, not necessarily shown on the plate. I would never do the caviar which has become such a cliche!

I’ve been asked before whether I think sous-vide technology de-skills chefs – I think the opposite is true. If you know that you don’t have to worry about that one element of your dish and can leave it in the water bath, it gives you time to do lots of extra things for a dish.

Jamie: Are there any cookbooks that have particularly influenced your cooking style?
Eddie: Certainly, there have been a few that were very important to me. There Noma’s, The Fat Duck's, Alinea's. I just got Sat Bains’ new cookbook which is beautiful. Those are the important ones.

Jamie: So at the moment are you just freelancing? 
Eddie: One of things I've been doing for a couple of years is working with a company called Cream Supplies who sell all this modernist cooking equipment. I do development work with them - when they get new equipment or new ingredients they send them to me and I figure out what they can be used for. I’ve had a chance to use equipment before it goes into professional kitchens – like an ultrasonic homogenizer. It’s like a stick blender without the blades [and works through ultrasonic vibrations] I played around with it for a few weeks then it went to L’enclume! Simon Rogan is such an inspiring chef in terms of modern cooking.

Jamie: Being a chef, are you a picky diner? And are there any restaurants you rate highly in Manchester? 
Eddie: I try not to be fussy as a diner. If something’s done definitely wrong then you can spot it. You set your expectations to where you’re going, so I’m quite easily pleased. I liked The Rose Garden in West Didsbury. Looking to next year, there’s some really exciting things with Aiden Byrne and Simon Rogan opening restaurants. Another place just outside Manchester that I rate is Aumbry.

I tend to cook at home a lot but I don’t live in a vegetarian household – my girlfriend’s not vegetarian. I practice new dishes at home and I try to keep my eye in with things like making pastry and fresh pasta, which are simple things you need to practice

Jamie: Finally, have you got any good cooking tips for our readers?
Eddie: Something in the modernist vein which i like to do is make a fluid gel, which involves setting a gel then blending it so make a smooth puree or sauce. It gives you so much control over flavour as you can start with a juice – so you can make a puree out of, say, apple juice and get that pure apple flavour or make gels out of ingredients that don’t lend themselves to being pureed. The other thing that’s good for vegetarian cooking is the different ways to add the ‘umami’ flavour to dishes – you can get a meatiness from kombu seaweed and dried shiitakes by adding them to stocks or to the actual dishes. Vegetables have a lot of flavour but not necessarily that depth of flavour you get from meat.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Aumbry, Christmas Dinner

The pass at Aumbry

To quote Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian circa 2010, ‘Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Prestwich, the suburb’s suburb.’ I would go further and venture to say that Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Manchester.

With the exception of the Wine Glass at Etrop Grange, Manchester doesn’t boast a wealth of restaurants where the chefs have honed their skills at the Fat Duck. Nor does it boast many restaurants that have garnered national acclaim: Mary-Ellen McTague won Up and Coming Young Chef of the Year in the Good Food Guide 2011.

With this in mind, Anna and I had high expectations of this small but much-lauded neighbourhood restaurant. It had been on our ‘to-go’ list for some time and then all of a sudden came an invite from Echo PR to attend a Christmas dinner.

We took the tram and found ourselves, fashionably early, sipping champagne and snacking on some wonderful smoked almonds in the upstairs reception area. A light snow, the first this winter, had just begun to fall and, as I eyed the Christmas decorations and the 9-course menu, a sense of contentment washed over me. I felt as though we were in for a real treat.

The reception area
Right, overblown rhetoric out of the way, let’s talk food.

To whet our appetite we are given bread accompanied by an ornate bowl of beef dripping and roasting juices, cleverly masquerading as oil and balsamic. The conversation turns on the idea of beef fat solidifying in your arteries. It’s so delicious that no-one cares.

The amuse-bouche was pig’s head terrine – a delicious morsel that it is hard to say much about, so I shan’t.

Pig's head
The obligatory smoked fish dish was an undeniable favourite. The mackerel was so delicately cured; it makes a nice change to see it cold-smoked. The garnishes of pickled beetroot and mustard cream were, albeit standard, perfectly judged. The presentation, too, was spot on (we're still wondering whether the beetroot was the most perfect puree I've ever seen or a spherification).

Smoked mackerel
Heston’s influence shows through in the next dish – Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg. Anyone who watched the How to Cook Like Heston series or owns a copy of Heston at Home will be familiar with his warm scotch egg hiding a perfectly runny yolk in the centre. It is a tricky feat to pull off but so satisfying – bursting a perfectly cooked yolk always seems to elicit quasi-sexual moans from diners. No wonder this dish has become a signature at Aumbry.

Black pudding Scotch egg
The celeriac soup which followed will become the stuff of legend, the story passed down from generation to generation about the origins of the world’s greatest soup. Prestwich in the 2020s will be full of well-heeled types mumbling to themselves: "celeriac, truffle, chestnuts.." Never have I heard such ecstatic praise for a bowl of soup in all my life. And it wasn’t even superfluous. Perfectly seasoned, light yet rich celeriac soup with a perfect amount of truffle oil and some meltingly soft chestnuts at the bottom. Go and try it!

Celeriac soup
Everyone is in high spirits as we move on to the main courses. The Royal Roast consists of a ballotine of duck, pheasant and partridge with bread sauce, stuffing, roast potatoes, and brussel sprouts. There was some speculation in the taxi home as to whether the meat had been cooked sous-vide. It was exceedingly tender but the texture of the duck in particular was strange. To my surprise, the highlight was the brussel sprouts, thinly shredded and cooked with bacon and chestnuts. Mental note to try this at our Christmas dinner and to recreate the seriously flavoursome stuffing. Anna was a little disappointed with the roast potatoes - not quite as good as ours!

Three-bird roast
The Lyme Park venison stood out for me as the richest and most savoury of the dishes. The medium-rare, scarlet loin paired with slow-cooked haunch, sweet parsley root and woody, bitter brussel sprout tops – close to perfection! This is the kind of dish I long for. This was served with a Austro-Hungarian wine, Meinklang 'Konkret', a bold red with soft tannins which complemented the venison perfectly.

By now I will admit to being sated and not at all in need of dessert. My memory also becomes hazier the more wine I drink. Funny that. The sherry trifle etched itself into my consciousness with the mandarin and thyme syllabub that accompanied it. A flavour combination I don’t recall having before. The Christmas pudding was notable for the sheer amount of dried fruit it contained. And the mince pie was, well, a very good mince pie. I have admittedly glossed over the desserts but I do think although appropriate on a Christmas menu, they were never going to have the impact that the savoury courses did. A special mention goes to the 2009 Chateau Jolys, a buttery wine with hints of honey and peach, it worked well to enhance some of the slightly more bitter notes of the syllabub.

Christmas pudding
I’ll end on a note about service. I wish I had noted down the name of our waitress because throughout the nine courses she gave a masterclass in how to wait on a table. Her timing, knowledge, humour and the right degree of formality made the whole meal flow beautifully - not to mention that she also doubled as a fantastic sommelier. I hope Mary-Ellen reads this review and gives her a Christmas bonus!

Christmas is a time of year for comfort and decadence, yet it can sometimes prove difficult to merge these two feelings. Aumbry have managed to grab hold of both of these feelings and delicately transformed them into a beautiful tasting menu. At £45 for seven courses, it is exceptional value. We were lucky enough to be guests of the restaurant, but would have gleefully paid this amount for food of such quality. I have it on good authority that dishes of such high standard aren't just a Christmas treat for Aumbry visitors, and look forward to returning in 2013 to see what else I can be simultaneously soothed and seduced by.

2 Church Lane, Prestwich
M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841

Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Wineglass, Etrop Grange

Etrop Grange
I'd been looking forward to eating at the Wineglass at Etrop Grange ever since I first saw it spring up on Twitter. When I saw photos of Ernst van Zyl's dishes, I could see he had his presentation nailed, but I wanted to know whether it would taste as good as it looked. As it turned out, the proof really was in the pudding.

Just so readers know, Ernst was more than aware that we were coming to the restaurant, as he had insisted upon creating a bespoke menu for me. As regular readers will know, Ernst loves a challenge (see our Q&A with him, & DineInOut for more information on that!) and enjoys teaching his kitchen brigade new skills and flavour combinations; a personalised menu creation is a perfect opportunity to do that. We were pleasantly surprised with a complimentary glass of Prosecco, but other than that we did pay for our meal in full (I say we, I mean Jamie, it was my birthday after all!). Before I get lost in the details of the dishes, let me mention that the service was brilliant, and we also had a beautiful selection of wines to match each course. I haven't gone into detail about them here, as the food really was the star, but they all complimented the food delightfully.

Beetroot 'Aero', watercress puree and beetroot crisps
I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant where I haven't read the menu at least once before dining, so this was to be an unique experience (oh, and because of the food itself, of course!). Seeing the menu placed in front of me as we were sat in the conservatory area was incredibly exciting. I had an inkling that a venison tartare might appear as it is something that I've wanted to try for a long time. Funnily enough, this turned out to be the dish on the menu I least enjoyed. So after an amuse bouche of a beetroot 'aero' (think beetroot with the texture of marshmallow) we settled down to enjoy the most interesting five courses of food we'd ever tried.

I apparently leapt back in time to my first year of university when I became vegetarian for a year as a moral experiment, and suddenly couldn't stomach the taste of the raw deer in my mouth. It was clearly good quality meat, but entirely wasted on myself. I began wishing I'd grown up in a Scandinavian country where eating this would almost be the norm. Funnily enough, my childhood didn't change, and I sat there, a girl from inner city Birmingham - with no accent, mind! - unable to appreciate the beginning of what would soon turn into my favourite ever meal (except Jamie's Hanger steak, & his version of Heston's fish & chips - ah the Brummie in me appears!). Jamie enjoyed his starter but was unsure of the inclusion of fir pine. I'm sorry Ernst, but I don't think Manchester's ready for this dish yet!

Venison tartare/ bitter chocolate/quince/douglas fir

I was excited to see that two of my favourite foodstuffs were to be included in the next course, but was completely clueless as to how they might turn out when combined. Celeriac and granola! When I took a bite of all of the components of the dish, which included to name but a few: cranberries, whey jelly, fresh cheese, and yoghurt, there was a total harmony in my mouth. The celeriac was perfectly cooked, so earthy and sweet, and worked beautifully with both the granola and fresh, bitter cranberries. Despite being the second course on an evening menu, I would love to eat this for breakfast every day, and if I were more sophisticated, perhaps I would go to some efforts to make that happen. Whilst every morsel of it was delicious, it did seem unusual eating it on a tasting menu. I mean no criticism in that, as whilst Ernst loves a challenge, I think he might enjoy challenging his diners even more. Fortunately that's a game I like to play.

Celeriac/granola/cranberries/fresh cheese
Another surprising combination next, but now I felt myself really slipping into the comforting, delicate touch of the meal. Sole, which Jamie spotted had been filleted then glued back together to create the perfect fillet - what attention to detail! - served with brussel sprouts, grapes and a spelt sauce. These were probably the best brussel sprouts I've ever tasted, though we later found out that they were simply boiled and buttered. I need to get my hands on Ernst's brussel sprout supplier in time for Christmas I think! Grapes, both in their fresh and dried form. I was expecting a modernist take on the classic sole Veronique when I read of their inclusion in the dish, but with the addition of chicken skin seasoning the fish, and the robust flavour of the spelt jus, it was a world away. Everything worked beautifully and I really began to allow myself to sink into the tasting menu.

Sole/grapes/brussels sprouts/spelt
Total, utter comfort was next - though beautifully executed as ever. Duck, served pink - sous vide, I imagine - with butternut squash, blackberries and feta. Not too wild I thought, and was somewhat glad of that. I think sometimes with a main it's important to dial down the crazy and allow the diner some time to pause before hitting them with dessert. Words are beginning to fail me for this one, because I don't know how I can ever get across how delightful it was to place all of these ingredients on my fork in one go. The blackberries were the most perfectly ripe fat little berries I've ever tasted, and the duck perfectly cooked. The feta broke through the sweetness of the rest of the dish and danced around the palette. Just go there, and ask Ernst to make this dish for you - seriously, you won't ever regret it.

Duck/feta/sweet potato/blackberries
And, though sad it is to say, all great meals must come to an end, and here was ours... the wittiest and most beautiful take on lemon meringue pie I have ever witnessed. Soft little peaks of meringue sat next to butternut squash curd, all on a bed of gingerbread puree. I remember watching Great British Menu one year and the judges announced that if they arrived at the gates of heaven and the dish they were judging were placed in front of them, they would be happy. At the time, I thought their comments ridiculous. At the time, I had never eaten this dessert. Now I understand what prompted them to utter such superfluous words. This was the perfect end to a beautiful meal.

Butternut squash/granny smith/gingerbread/meringue
I didn't like everything I ate at the Wineglass, and nor would I eat some of it again. Other dishes I could be fed for the rest of my life, and I'm not sure if I would ever get bored. If someone told me this was their regular tasting menu, I would be impressed, even knowing that this was served every night, but to know that this was an ad hoc creation, is remarkable. Ernst's skill level, attention to detail and sense of adventure is witnessed on every plate, and cooking of this level - I believe - deserves more than 2 AA Rosettes. Michelin, listen up! I've heard people talk about restaurants they love so much they don't want to tell anyone about them, for fear they'll lose sight of what was once great about them. I'm confident that Ernst won't fall prey to that game. Jamie treated me to this meal as my Birthday present, so here, dear readers, is my Christmas present to you: dine at Etrop Grange, let Ernst know, and experience your very own tasting menu: you won't be disappointed.

The Wineglass, Etrop Grange
Thorley Lane, Manchester Airport
M90 4EG
0161 499 0500

The Wine Glass Restaurant at Etrop Grange on Urbanspoon