CHEF Cary Brown and I are peering at a little pyramid of pink peppercorn meringue. I take a bite and after the initial burst of sweetness comes a very peppery hit. “Too much!” I say. He shakes his head. “Now have that meringue with the pineapple.”
I cut a piece of the fruit, which has been macerated in Sheffield rum and Malibu, then blowtorched, pop some meringue on my spoon and eat them together. The pepperiness has retreated gracefully into the background but is still there in a bath of pineapple and coconut flavours.
“That’s very good and I don’t even like pineapple” says Cary, late of the Devonshire Arms, Middle Handley, and like me a judge in a heat at Whirlow Hall Farm’s annual cheffy contest, Sheff’s Kitchen. It may be for charity but the chefs take it seriously so we do, Cary even turning up in his whites.
Whirlow’s own head chef Stephen Wallis is up against Scott Philliskirk from the Hidden Gem. They have each got a budget of £150 and one sous chef to cook for 23 paying guests and one judge. Diners eat either from the red or black menu and don’t know who is who.
Cary and I decide the fairest way to judge is to eat liberally from each other’s plates and compare notes as we mark the scores in a series of categories. We quickly realise that while guests may have paid £30 a head they are getting a bargain with meals easily worth £40 – £45. And what is also impressive is the high degree of skill and dedication on show as well as different styles of cooking.
“We are being very picky,” I murmur as we carefully deconstruct each course – is this pork too dry and this sauce too reticent? – which other diners are happily wolfing down. “We have to be,” says Cary, relishing the task.
Dish of the night is red menu Scott’s cannon of lamb, an explosion of flavour and so tender it almost hurt, rolled in crushed pistachio (“with a little bit of garlic,” notes my fellow judge) with a stunning roast cauliflower puree. Even the fact that the fondant potato could be softer doesn’t detract.
Yet Scott, who won the popular vote from diners, didn’t win the contest. Stephen inched ahead, first with a complex starter of a ‘Scotch egg’ with a yolk made from pureed mango and carrot. He lost out on the main as the lamb rump delivered to the judges was a little undercooked. We’d been served first and noted that other plates would have rested that little bit longer and the meat would have been that much better. Chefs in future rounds may want to take note of this.
But he won on a Battle of the Spuds, his carefully constructed smoky potato terrine fighting off the fondant.
By now there was only a point or two in it. Which chef would get his just desserts? And that was the course we were judging. Was it Scott’s peppery pineapple backed up by a ginger mousse, coconut milk ice cream and ginger crumb? Or Stephen’s Whirlow strawberries, dark chocolate terrine, honeycomb and dark chocolate tuille?
Perhaps it was the richess of the terrine or the unexpected sherbet hit from slices of dehydrated strawberry that just tipped him over the line first.
I found it extremely instructive sitting down with a professional chef and examining the food mouthful by mouthful. Of course, you can get too technical and I was there to provide the viewpoint of the experienced diner with some 1,400 restaurant visits under his belt.
“What dish would I eat again, the one with the technical expertise or the one which blows me away?” muses Cary. We hope we got it right but in a sense we didn’t. “Both of you deserve to be in the final,” he tells the two chefs.
Charlie Curran of Peppercorn takes on Chris Mapp from the Tickled Trout in the next heat on August 13 but all the tables have been fully booked. There are tables available for the semi-final at Sheffield College’s Silver Plate restaurant on September 28, a much bigger venue than Whirlow Farm. To book visit http://www.sheffskitchen.co.uk
*Cary Brown judged just 24 hours after quitting his excellent restaurant at the Devonshire Arms, Middle Handley, a fish-orientated stay which lasted only 14 months. It would be accurate to say the parting was not amicable. He’s considering his next move. “I’ll come up with something.”