Monday, 16 May 2011

My Vege-Gel Hell and Supper Club Stories So Far......


To be confident and have confidence running through your veins is an admirable trait. When the heavy burden of fear and doubt starts weighing heavily on your shoulders, sometimes all you need a quick burst of self-belief, a little whisper in your ear of "you can do it" and yeeehaaa you're off, over the posts, waving your cowboy hat in the air. I'd say that when it comes to running a supper club, confidence is a necessity because the prospect of feeding numbers in excess of 20 people can be quite daunting. So yes, I have approached this whole adventure so far with a certain joie de vie because it helps to get you through the task in hand. However, complacency can often be mistaken for confidence and can bugger things right up. To quote Ed from Shaun of the Dead, "I'll do it on the night" is a mantra that I will never ever adopt again. Because for Food Urchin Supper Clubs in future, I never want to have that feeling of bowel wrenching, sweat dripping panic as people come traipsing into the room. It's not a nice feeling at all. Welcome to my Vege-Gel hell.

We had returned to the Brentwood Theatre on April 29th to commemorate the Royal Wedding and to run a pre-theatre supper club for people attending a production by Eastern Angles. 8 out of the 24 covers booked were vegetarians so I came up with two different menus. The fact that I originally put fish on the vegetarian menu sums up what I know about vegetarian cooking but at least after a conversation on the phone ("You don't eat fish? Really?" - who knew?) I was put firmly on track. And as I was making Red Wine and Rhubarb jelly as part of the dessert, I soon realised that an alternative to gelatine would be needed so when I did the food shop I bought packets and packets of Vege-Gel, which is made by the curious Dr Oetker, Willy Wonka of bakery products throughout the land. Oh and as I was making a Chicken and Leek terrine starter for the meat eaters, I thought 'what the hell, might as well stick to using the veggie stuff for that too, I know I haven't used it before but how different can it be?' Quite a lot different as it turned out. Making the jelly the night before was quite traumatic simply because Vege-Gel works very fast on cooling and as I was trying to achieve as clear a jelly as possible I poured the liquid through a fine sieve. Which set as soon as it made contact with the mesh. Now you know when you see a small child in a supermarket throw themselves on the floor when Mummy does let them have their own way? Well that was pretty much my reaction in the kitchen, late on a Friday night. But I gathered my wits and with some gentle reheating, fast work and a supportive hand from Mrs FU, I was able to produce 24 individual jellies (in muffin tins by the way) and felt quite pleased that we overcame that challenge with confidence, yes confidence and vigour. The jellies set quickly and although they had a strange, almost slightly salty tang, they still looked and tasted good. And so we went to bed.

The next day came and it was the usual case of loading the car up with as much stuff as possible including portable hot plates and slow cookers as the theatre doesn't have a kitchen as such. More a cupboard with sink and microwave really. With Mrs FU on board and plus help from my Mum and Dad, we transformed the studio into a presentable little pop-up restaurant, complete with bunting, flags and pictures of Will and Kate, sorry Catherine and soon the space was filled with smells of pot roast lamb, red wine sauce and er broccoli soup. Which does smell nice, I promise. We had a short break at 4pm and then returned half an hour later to get ready for the impending arrival of our diner guests. At 5pm I took my pressed prosciutto wrapped terrine and placed it in a freezer to firm up some more. A terrine that I had lovingly assembled the day before with layers of chicken meat, leeks, mushrooms and herbs. A terrine which had received lashings of warm, rich chicken stock, heavily dosed with Vege-Gel and ladled in between each layer to help the terrine to set. A terrine that looked bloody amazing once it was taken out of the freezer 20 minutes later and eased out of a loaf tin onto a chopping board. A terrine that started the crumble and collapse with each painful slice as people started filing into the room. As the horror unfolded before my eyes the best I could do was to stuff my fist in mouth to prevent anyone hearing the torrent of profanity that was gushing from my mouth. A clip around the ear from my mother also helped. But that was that, the terrine that I had such high hopes for looked at best like malformed meat and veg slices of squished Soreen and we had no other choice but to serve it up because we certainly didn't make enough broccoli soup. Of course, a true craftsman never blames the tools he works with but I fucking well blame Vege-Gel for that travesty.

I am possibly being too hard on myself here and after that 10 minutes of sheer hell, the one saving grace was that nobody seemed to notice, the plates came back empty with full compliments to the cook. Still the lesson learned here is that nothing should be left to chance and in future I am going to properly test recipes before releasing dates for more supper clubs. Especially if I am trying out something new or using an ingredient that I have never used before. I still say confidence is a good thing to have on board when cooking though, therefore and with great aplomb, I would like to announce the new menu for the next Food Urchin Supper Club.

Dun dun daaah!

Celery and Leek Soup with Truffle Oil

Pan-roasted Chicken with Lentils, Roasted Tomatoes, Aïoli and Basil Oil

Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool (OK I still haven't quite tested this out but it will be fantastic, no it really will)

This will be held at a secret salubrious location in Brentwood on Saturday 28th May and at present there are 4 places left so if you are interested then please contact me via email at The menu includes homemade bread and a palate cleanser, suggested donation is £20.00

On one last note, a general comment that people make when you tell them that you run a supper club is "what you let strangers into your home?" and I often respond to this with a nonchalant smile and a shrug as if there was nothing to fear. It's that confidence thing again. But the Royal Wedding supper club certainly bowled us a curve ball, in terms of how to deal with some members of the general public at large. And there are some strange ones out there. In this case, we had a gentleman who was vegetarian and who was actually expecting fish for his main course (see they do exist). I was first alerted to this by Mrs FU who discreetly whispered in my ear "there's a guy on table 4 who really wanted fish and he looks really, really pissed off". Using all my charm and guile, I wandered over and explained that we had decided to take fish off the menu because er it actually wasn't vegetarian. "Ha! Stupid me" I said "but I am sure you are just going to love the Sharpham Park Spelt Risotto with Asparagus, Wild Garlic and Lemon I've made for you."

He just looked up as if he wanted to kill me but silently nodded that all was fine. And then proceeded to spend the rest of the evening looking over at us, looking as if he wanted to kill us. Towards the end of the night, Mrs FU was up for giving him a complimentary bottle of Reina María Cristina Cava to compensate for his woes. This was by means of shoving it up his jacksy by the way, a typically feisty gesture from my beloved wife no less but the whole experience was quite unnerving I have to say.

But still this is all an adventure, this supper club business and one must remain confident at all times.

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