CHEF Cary Brown is waffling on . . . about waffles. “Right on trend,” he coos, looking at his plate. It’s a reworking of a reworking of a classic Southern USA dish, duck with waffles.
There’s a tasty duck confit, a shiny bronze coloured Belgian waffle, some slinky bok choi in a nod towards China because when you think of duck it’s either confit or crispy, and a plummy sauce. And it’s lovely.
He and I are judging a heat at Whirlow Hall Farm Trust’s annual Sheff’s Kitchen cookery competition, in which the area’s leading chefs cook off for the charity with a bit of a laugh.
Tonight Charlie Curran, chef-patron of the highly rated Peppercorn on Abbeydale Road South, and Stephen Wallis, Whirlow’s own head chef, are going head to head on the theme, Flavours of Breakfast for 50 paying guests. So we are looking for wit and imagination and some good cooking.
There is plenty of that but we get the result wrong! We hand the prize to Charlie but there’s barely the thickness of a spatula in it, it’s so close. The diners have other ideas and give it to Stephen. Cary and I also got it ‘wrong’ last year so Whirlow may not be asking us back!
Cary, who seemingly has had more restaurants than I’ve had hot dinners and is now wowing them at Barlow Woodseats Hall, is looking for technical skill and expertise, among other things. With some 1,400 meals under my belt while reviewing professionally for the Sheffield Star, I’ll be looking at it from the angle of a seasoned diner. The two approaches are not always the same but should come up with the same result.
With the theme of breakfast in mind, Charlie gets his duck main course on the menu by using the waffle as the hook. For best results eat a bit of saucy duck with the waffle so the flavours soak in.
Stephen, remembering the mornings after the nights before some beer-soaked curry evenings and reheating the left-overs for breakfast, does a clever riff on Ruby Murray. There’s a roundel of chicken stuffed with lentil dahl, a fish bhaji of tilapia and a ‘tandoori potato’ plus the usual accompaniments, chutney, coriander and a sliver of poppadom.
As last year, Stephen sportingly handed over his kitchen to Charlie and worked from the store across the courtyard. Both chefs were given a £150 budget and had a sous to help: Charlie’s was Jamie McGonigle while Stephen had Amy Lee.
Stephen opens his menu with that breakfast favourite, kippers. He did it all from scratch. He made his own kippers, cold smoking the herrings and turning them into little cylinders of delicate pate, accompanied by a slug of Bloody Mary and brioche. There was a lot of work in that dish.
Charlie went for a mini croissant and a coffee cup filled with a light, lustrous chicken liver parfait ‘coffee’ topped by a cream froth.
While we are not comparing scores it is obvious they are close so it all comes down to the last course. Stephen, riffing on croissants with marmalade, does a yumptious whole orange cake partnered with croissant ice cream covered in an almond crumb, the sort of dish which would be the highlight of a posh afternoon tea.
But Charlie’s makes me smile, then laugh. That’s got to be worth an extra point. His assiette, entitled cereal killer, includes a yoghurt panna cotta, treacle tart and a cheeky little porridge soufflé.
Both Cary and I agree, it’s the porridge wot won it for Charlie but it was as close as a rolled oat. We compliment him afterwards.
“You know what, it was Ready Brek in that soufflé!” he says.
*Earlier versions misspelt Stephen’s surname. Apologies.