Wednesday, 13 February 2013

In Defence of Ernst Van Zyl

Last week several food bloggers took to the comment pages of Manchester Confidential to defend the cooking of Ernst Van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, in response to Mark Garner's disparaging review of the 'Chef's Menu'. It is a testament to Ernst's ambition and disposition, more so maybe than the quality of his cooking, that he received so many supportive comments.

Herein lies the crux of my argument. Gordo writes: 'Constructive criticism is good'. This is true - I've eaten at Etrop and I was not unanimously complimentary about the food. There is certainly room for improvement and I believe Ernst knows this better than anyone. However, I don't believe the review fits into the canon of constructive criticism. How can you write: 'the disaster that came before'; 'smelled of fart'; 'it actually disturbed us'; and term it 'constructive'.

I can't refute that the meal did go 'spectacularly wrong' or that a broccoli jelly 'smelled of fart' (which it very well might have). I know many who've had excellent experiences at Etrop but I'm more than willing to accept that the current menu has some major flaws. What I'm not willing to accept is the heavy-handed manner in which the criticism was delivered. I’m admittedly a neophyte in the food-writing game but one review and one meal should not be the basis for damaging a chef's reputation so. If Gordo has 'high hopes' for Ernst cooking then you'd have to read between the lines with an electron microscope to find them. 

What bothers me more about the review is that Ernst is one of the few chefs trying to do something innovative in Manchester, a city that has seemingly devolved into buffets, burger joints, and brasseries. I'm not remotely suggesting this precludes him from criticism but anything positive about the meal was brushed over: in the mallard dish (7/10) 'the ingredients worked well'; the desserts were 'fine' despite the lemon tart scoring 8/10. The whole preamble about The Fat Duck was there to illustrate how far, in Gordo's opinion, Ernst has fallen from that particular tree. The whole piece was so far balanced towards the low points that it will discourage so many from ever trying Ernst's cooking.

So, my question to Mark Garner is this: How is Ernst ever going to ‘get it’ if one of the most influential food critics in Manchester recommends that everyone 'stick to the steak and chips'? That would render all Ernst's efforts useless. Surely, more 'constructive' advice would be to recommend trying the 'Chef's Menu' - for how indeed is Ernst going to improve on and adjust his cooking style if the customers don't exist to give him feedback?

I understand that Mark Garner and Manchester Confidential do not want to endorse a meal, especially one with a high price-tag, that might end up disappointing a large section of their readers. However, sometimes I wonder if the motives are less than altruistic.‘Gordo will return in the next three months. He sincerely hopes Ernst takes the criticism in the right way.’ Read: ‘Gordo sincerely hopes Ernst starts cooking exactly the kind of food Gordo wants to eat or Gordo will write another scathing review'. 

The most irksome comment was not in the review itself but from a user called Big Ears who, to paraphrase, wrote that we don’t want or need Ernst's type of cooking in Manchester. It is the most galling thing when someone proclaims to speak for Mancunians in this matter - there are those, myself included, who certainly do want this kind of thing! 

Without encouragement the fine-dining scene in Manchester will never grow and we'll always have to go further afield to find a meal that will challenge our expectations or a chef who will inspire us with his creativity. 

Thus I implore you to visit Etrop Grange and try Ernst's more adventurous dishes; and I hope Mark Garner will take this piece not as a personal attack but in the spirit of 'constructive' criticism. 

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

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Q&A with Ernst van Zyl, Etrop Grange

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I found out that Manchester Confidential had begun a new column, interviewing head chefs around Manchester. Jamie came up with the idea at the PR evening at Linen, after we met Jarmoir and saw what a lovely chap he is (there's an interview with Jaromir to follow). We thought it would be interesting to find out more about what inspires the talented chefs of Manchester, not just those with celebrity status. Still, there's room for more than one lot of interviews in the same city!

Ernst van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, has been much talked about in foodie circles of late. After reading about his food on Mrs Petticoat and The Lady Sybil's blogs, I knew I must visit! I casually dropped a few thousand hints to Jamie, and last Monday he met with Ernst to discuss a menu for my birthday (at the end of the month), and took the opportunity to quiz him on his background and inspirations... It's quite long, but listening to it, I found it hard to edit - everything seemed interesting, I hope you think so too!

Jamie: For those of our readers who don't know much about you, tell me a little about yourself, and your background...

Ernst: I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the U.K at the age of 21. I'd already been cheffing for 3 years - I completed a year of catering college, then worked at a place very similar to Etrop, but with a golf course, 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. I started just round the corner at the Hilton, Manchester Aiport, and transferred to London for a couple of years, working at the Hilton Kensington, a 600 bedroom hotel!

When you work for Hilton, everyone talks about the Park Lane hotel... so I worked there for three months over the Christmas period. We would do 1200 covers for silver service - no problems - to see that happen is amazing. Eventually, I had enough of London: it's a cold place and time flies when you're there, because you work so much. I think it's a nice place now, but mostly because I know I can leave when I visit!

After a short spell in Belfast, I came back to Manchester and became the second in command at the Radisson across the road. There, we had 2 AA Rosettes. It was a different experience, we did lots of different functions, and I managed to gain a lot of exposure - for example, if the head chef was off, I was in charge - a hotel with 360 rooms and 20 chefs. It was educational... we would have kosher functions; watching a rabbi turn the oven on isn't something I've seen in my other jobs!

I felt ready to be a head chef, and began working for Prima hotels - a small chain, and I began in Wilmslow. It was a fantastic property and weddings were a massive part of what we did. The MD (managing director) approached me after two and a half years there, asking if I would take on a different role, a sort of executive chef role. I did, and it gave me the opportunity to see a different perspective as a head chef. As a chef, working in a kitchen, you see that as the whole world - but you need to understand how the whole outlet fits in with what you do, because it has a massive effect on your work.

Jamie: Is that why you're into social media?

Ernst: Yes, very much so. It's nice to talk to customers and see how they see things, to teach me as a chef, and us as an establishment. I enjoyed my time as an executive chef, but after a year, I missed wearing my whites... I tried teaching for a while, but I don't think I'm ready for it yet, not quite the right age. At the beginning it was brilliant - to see how excited the kids on apprenticeships were - but then the kids cared less and less, and they didn't turn up... The frustration made me want to look for something else - and the hours! I worked Monday - Friday 8am - 5pm - I've never done that before, not even when I was in a suit for a year.

So, I began handing out my CV at the hotels round here. The GM (general manager) here called me in, and I began in my spare time whilst teaching. He kept asking me if I was still happy teaching, and I ended up beginning full-time in August last year... still here and cooking like crazy, and some amazing opportunities - the GM asked if I would be interested in spending time - doing a stage (a culinary internship) - at the Fat Duck so, I went!

Jamie: How was that? It must have been quite different working somewhere like that...

Ernst: That style of cooking... so much of it is impossible to recreate... but the modernist approach is what I appreciate, the thought behind it. I came back to Etrop and decided to write to Noma. Eventually, I ended up with an e-mail saying there was an opportunity there.

Jamie: And do they use modernist techniques there too?

Ernst: Yes, but in a subtle way... we have this image in our mind of Heston, with his canister in hand, but at Noma they don't shout about it - they just do it and use it. I spent five weeks there - the most educational five weeks I've had in 15 years of cooking.

Jamie: What did you learn? How to treat your ingredients?

Ernst: Exactly... For example, I look at their carrots - grown on a biodynamic farm, no pesticides, natural sweetness - it's phenomenal. I'm looking at food in such a different way now. So much is served raw there, and seafood that's just a couple of hours old... 100 kilos of scallops every Tuesday - they're still moving when you take them out of the shell! Their emphasis is on freshness and quality, the seasonality, the complete respect there - if it's not Danish or Scandinavian, they're not interested. Foraging is core to them - and educating people through foraging. Sometimes things don't get cooked, just placed on a plate.

Jamie: When you came back, did it totally change your outlook?

Ernst: My food is more modernist than ever. Noma has really influenced me - in mentality, and in thought process. I saw some amazing techniques at the Fat Duck, but the strongest influence is definitely Noma... the most mentally and physically challenging five weeks, but amazing.

Jamie: Do you go foraging here?

Ernst: We try... It's something I've become interested in but it can be difficult to explore, and to find someone to come and show us is quite a challenge. We've done a bit, elderflower, nettles, Jack by the Hedge. We've begun growing herbs that I can't get from my suppliers as well - yarrow, lemon balm, lemon verbena.

Jamie: Jack by the hedge... what's that?

Ernst: It tastes like garlic, but as you chew and digest it becomes like mustard. It's stunning - bright green - you blanch it, make a puree... perfect with fish and lamb.

Jamie: I can't imagine getting that anywhere else in Manchester, you're certainly doing something different...

Ernst: Yeah, it's a way for me to challenge myself. I love doing these bespoke menus for people - it's like a blank canvas - to get a list of things people like, pulling on my knowledge from the Fat Duck, Noma, and more recently Le Manoir... It gives me an opportunity to show my guys things they wouldn't usually see, and break service up a bit. My guys feels excited about the bespoke menus - using familiar techniques but with different ingredients. We absolutely love doing that stuff! It gives Etrop a different perspective, and for people to come along and try something unusual...

Jamie: It must be difficult for you to eat! What kind of things do you like cooking and eating?

Ernst: Me? I'm a very unfussy kind of guy. I've eaten at so many places, I like to be unfussy. At this time of year, root veg and game... In South Africa, it was BBQ seven days a week, a lot of seafood and meat, all phenomenal. Ostrich was quite normal for me as a child... crocodile, springbok. I guess I've always been exposed to unusual things. I wouldn't try serving an 8oz steak to a South African, you'd probably end up in hospital if you did that! I just love to eat good food... I don't have a signature dish, I think every dish can be your signature. We do a bespoke tasting menu, there's five signature dishes right there. It's great to be parodied like Heston with bacon & egg ice cream, but there's so much more to the Fat Duck than that...

Jamie: You mentioned before your time at Le Manoir, what was that like for you?

Ernst: different! Classic, but using modern techniques - the same as I found at the Fat Duck and Noma - but no challenging taste combinations, just ones that have stood the test of time. You get a wild mushroom risotto... but it's with seven different kinds of wild mushroom, and a phenomenal mushroom stock, and the best Parmesan money can buy. It's a phenomenal risotto. Their food isn't my style, but two weeks there showed me so much.

Jamie: And what about the garden?

Ernst: It's absolutely amazing, I would go back tomorrow just for that, it's so beautiful. The mentality of the place is about care. One day, Raymond did this speech about leading the way in training and in the hospitality they provide... it was inspirational to hear that.

Jamie: We recently blogged about a TV programme about the madness of Michelin... What do you think of Michelin?

Ernie: I saw the programme... It would be difficult to get one here, but it is a dream of mine. I'm not in a rush... well a big part of me isn't, but there is a small part that is! A star would be a cherry on my cake career. I'd love a thank you one day, given the blood, sweat and tears I've given... but I've eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, and you give yourself to that world. The guys at Noma do 100+ hours a week - and they live for that restaurant: it takes everything you are, your mind, body and soul. I'm still young, so maybe one day.

Jamie: You only went to Noma recently, so you're starting again in a way?

Ernst: True... When I arrived at Noma, it felt like my first day in a kitchen again!

Jamie: Where's next on your stage wish-list?

Ernst: Alinea, Chicago... though there were guys at Noma who had been there who said it was worse, more grueling than Noma! I don't know how it can be worse? I'm apprehensive about that. The French Laundy as well... and more recently, Frantzen Lindeberg in Sweden. They look awesome! Actually, I e-mailed them last night... 11 Madison Park in New York. But if I had a real choice, it would be Frantzen Lindeberg. There isn't even a menu - they cook daily whatever they lay their hands on! 2 Michelin stars, amazing.

Jamie: What books do you use for inspiration?

Ernst: Modernist Cuisine... everything you could ever want to know is in those six books! But I never put down Noma. It takes me back there, gets me going again, inspires me to look at a vegetable in a different way. I always reach for Noma first, followed very closely by Modernist. Marque, 11 Madison Park and the Fat Duck, they're all amazing too. They're on the same table - I end up with the same books around me whenever I write a new menu.

Jamie: I can see how excited you are talking about cooking?

Ernst: Yes, I love it! I would go mad in an office... not being able to play with liquid nitrogen or a water bath?? It would make me mental. That's why I think cheffing is so cool, because no day is ever the same. My suppliers are fantastic - my fruit and veg supplier goes to Paris once a month to get inspiration for themselves - that helps me to get inspired, because they are. The guys - the chefs - they work so hard too. I love just making my sourdough bread, our starter is 8 months old now. It's like a child, you have to feed it, look after it, love it...

Jamie: Yeah, like a pet without the noise!

Ernst: Exactly - it just sits in a corner nice and quietly. It's great, to go with our homemade butter... We're not just satisfied with rolls, we make our bread and our butter... To have the permission to bubble whipped cream is nice... they used to say "don't overwhip that cream!", but here, that's what we want!

Listening to Ernst and Jamie talk (like two kids in a sweet shop!) has made me excited beyond imagination about my birthday menu... I can't yet recommend the food, but I can tell you I have heard few chefs this passionate about what they are putting on a plate, so watch this space to see what I'm presented with on November 30th!