Lucked out with the duck, again


The duck looked nice but . . .

TIME was when I ordered duck breast in a restaurant the waiter would lean over his notepad and say in hushed tones, to prepare me for the bloody spectacle to follow, “We serve our duck pink here, sir.” Ah, those were the Eighties when customers expected all meats to be incinerated.

Of course, chances were it would appear anything but pink, perhaps pinkish but very often grey.

There were two possible reasons. First was inept over-cooking. Secondly, when a duck breast is thinly sliced and fanned – the juices running out to add resonance and depth to your sauce – oxidation quickly sets in and pinkness fades.

Now I have not been having a lot of luck in the duck department while eating out lately and I’m wondering if there’s been a cheffy twist in fashion I have not yet caught up with.

On two recent meals chefs have treated duck like steak, serving it up as thick, bloody, chewy, inelegant tranches of meat. Perhaps they are worried it will go grey. Worse, each time the breast retained a sliver of gristle or cartilage from where it was attached to the breastbone. Inexpert butchering: I wonder whether they have the same supplier?

This last was at the otherwise excellent Silver Plate training restaurant at Sheffield College (I go back far enough to remember it as Granville) which is well worth that proverbial detour if you want a more than decent luch or dinner.

The £25-a-head Wine and Dine evening had rattled through splendidly: excellent canapes which included a dinky little falafel; smoked eel, perhaps not Capstan Full Strength but with just a whiff to balance against delights such as a soft-boiled quail’s egg and a first class cabernet reduction; then hot mackerel fillet strips partnered not with the more usual gooseberry (not yet in season) but rhubarb puree, which is. It delivered just enough tartness on the palate.

Our table of four chortled happily, praising the precision of level three students under the guidance of chef-lecturer Neil Taylor.

Then we had the duck.

It was described as: “Caramelised duck breast (with) glazed pear, truffled gnocchi, celeriac, duck parfait emulsion.” Which sounded lovely.


Mackerel with rhubarb puree

Sadly, my duck was nowhere near caramelised and the skin was flabby. It was lukewarm at best and a bit of a chew. Oddly, the taste was fine but that strip of ligament prevented me cutting it up properly and I gave up wrestling with it. In Man versus Duck there was only one winner and it wasn’t me. By contrast my wife’s duck was cooked to grey.

A pity, because the other elements were fine: the pear delicate, the gnocchi generously truffled, the foam tasted good (Heaven knows what a duck parfait emulsion is) while the jus was excellent.

But if the central element is off kilter it doesn’t work. A double pity, because the wine pairing in our wine flight (£10 a head), was a little stunner. Look out for Poderi Parpinello ‘San Constantino’ from Sardinia.

The duck apart, the kitchen’s handling of ingredients was impressive. Our dessert, Opera Gateau, a French sponge classic looking like a little like a Tecnhnicolor liquorice allsort came with roast pineapple (makes a change from grilled) with a malty ice cream.

But I don’t want this to be one big grouse: beside, I am going back later in the year, virus permitting.

I want to add a word of praise for the breads, particularly the focaccia and light-as-a-feather rolls.

Just as important in a training restaurant are the front of house staff. They were a delight. I like the way my serviette, accidentally dropped on the floor when I went to inspect the facilities (sparklingly clean by the way), was replaced on my table shaped like a cardinal’s hat.

And our server fielded our grumps over the duck well. It appeared we weren’t the only table. We were promised extra petit fours (petit eights?) but it didn’t appear we did, looking at other tables. But coffees were deleted from our bill.

If you want  a different take on this meal check out Craig Harris’s review here as he was sitting at our table.

Not every meal out works 100 per cent but I do know one thing – next time I order duck I’ll get it in writing how the chef cooks it first!

*Because of the corona virus the Silver Plate has now closed until at least after Easter.**The restaurant lighting is a curious pink so my photographs came out in a bilious colour. These pictures of dishes have been taken from the restaurant’s Twitter feed.


Opera gateau with malt icecream







Flying high: Silver service at the Silver Plate

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Some rather good pork belly

I SHALL probably never fly first class and get served dinner at 50,000 feet with silver service but at least young Chloe is giving me a taste of it at zero feet.

We are lunching at Sheffield College’s admirable Silver Plate training restaurant on the main Granville Road campus and the vegetables – broccoli and green beans – are being served silver service: that is directly from a dish via fork and spoon on to your plate by the waitress.

I smile wryly. Didn’t this sort of thing go out with the ark, along with synchronised cloche lifting and serving gloves?

The reason, says instructor Shelley Kirk is that Chloe and co are on the Cabin Crew Course and need to know this sort of thing. Well, chocks away as waitresses unfold and place our (paper) napkins in our laps. At 50,000 feet it would be linen. But you might not get Sheffield cutlery as you do here!

I haven’t eaten at the college, one of the best for catering in the country, for years. Lunches are a steal: £11 for two courses, £13 for three, while you have to book the evening wine and dines months in advance. There is a waiting list.

It’s ideal for silver surfers wanting a taste of middle of the road dining they might not be able to afford regularly, or those who just want to support the next generation.

Things don’t start well: we are all squashed like sardines in a lobby with the size and atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room before the doors open. Silver Plate’s predecessor, Sparks, had a decent lounge where students could practice their drinks ordering skills.

It’s a highly enjoyable meal, cooked for us by eight second year level 2 professional cookery students under the supervision of lecturer Andy Gabbitas, formerly chef-proprietor of the Wortley Arms.

The menu is short with just three choices at each stage but first some really good breads (focaccia, black pudding and herbs) and a sip of better than expected pinot grigio.

For starters there is mushroom soup, goats cheese parfait and red mullet on shaved fennel, which I have. My pan-fried fish has only just been cooked – it is on point, as they say – with the flesh a little too translucent but still acceptable. My wife approves her parfait as ‘not too goaty.’

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Instructor Andy Gabbitas

For mains there is roast belly pork with a parsnip mash, pan-fried salmon and a butternut squash and spinach tart.

My pork is a treat. The meat is soft and sweet, cutting almost like butter. The skin, detached, is crisp and crunchy. It’s on a bed of mash, possibly slightly over-nutmegged, with some partially dehydrated apple rings for garnish.

Here come the vegetables. Of course students must learn but silver service does muck up the kitchen’s presentation skills, which are good. I adjust my napkin on my lap. Experience has taught me stray vegetables served this way can end up there but Chloe’s trajectory is true.

That broccoli came with a hollandaise sauce, by the way, and like lecturer Andy, I agree it was very creditably done.

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Steamed pudding and custard

My dessert, a simple steamed, not messed about with syrup pudding with a thin custard, rounds off an  excellent meal. My wife’s chocolate torte is a belter. “Didn’t have to touch the sable pastry,” says Andy later.

A final accolade: the coffee is first class with a good crema.

You’d have easily been happy to pay £22 for this at a little side street bistro and it’s not hard to see why the college and the restaurant keeps earning plaudits. It only just missed out being in the AA’s top three training restaurants this year. Don’t miss out on a visit.

*Lunches run Tuesday-Friday in term time. To book call 0114 260 2060 or e-mail

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The Silver Plate







The Star Maker still twinkles


Mick Burke takes it steady with an orange juice

A magazine once dubbed him the Star Maker. A former student affectionately referred to him as “the old wizard.” Whatever you call him, an awful lot of chefs, some now with Michelin stars, are very grateful to Sheffield College chef-lecturer Mick Burke, who has just retired.

So when his friends, staff and former students organised a farewell lunch for him at Sheffield’s Copthorne Hotel there was a big turn-out to pay tribute to the 62-year-old chef whose culinary skills,particularly in patisserie, are a legend in the industry.

 They weren’t just content to sit down to a slap-up meal and swap stories. Some, like Rupert Rowley, of Michelin-starred Baslow Hall and Nathan Smith of the Old Vicarage, both Burke protégés, teamed up with chef-lecturers Neil Taylor and Len Unwin to plan and cook the lunch. Joining the brigade was Will Haythorne of Jersey’s Langueville Manor, where another of Mick’s Michelin Men, Andrew Baird, is in charge. Andrew couldn’t make it but gave the nod to Will, another ex-student, to lend a hand.

 Naturally the college, which is losing the brightest star from one of the country’s leading catering sections, made the most of the do: trainee chefs helped out the star names while other students brushed up their waiting skills under the eye of lecturer Maxene Gray.

 It’s a good job there was so much talent in the temporary kitchen offered by the Copthorne. It was Friday the Thirteenth and bad luck struck early when the power went off and stayed off. Food had to be cooked in the hotel’s kitchen and ferried upstairs. “The room we used turned out to be a changing room!” grinned Rupert. But only afterwards.

 Guests wouldn’t have known as they tucked in to game terrine with anise, a terrific crab and lobster ravioli in langoustine sauce, roast sirloin and a wickedly citrousy lemon tart. “That’ll have woken you up,” said Andrew Baird, drily, retired executive chef of the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel, a lifelong friend. One of Mick Burke’s greatest strengths was his connections. He could send students to the best places, get the top chefs to do demos, and call in favours. I recall him getting Michael Gaines down to star in the new kitchens that he had a big hand in commissioning in 2009.

 His involvement didn’t stop at picking up the phone. The room was full of tales of him ferrying students to competitions in his own car or a minibus, from which they all seemed to return with a medal, very often gold.

 “He gives back twice as much as you give him,” said Tom Lawson, now co-owner of the often dazzling Rafters restaurant. “It’s just his enthusiasm as a chef and his ability to instil that in you,” added Marcus Lane, previous owner of Rafters. He, like other former students, now grown up and perhaps wealthier than him, still refers to ‘Mr Burke. Why? “To me he is till my lecturer.” Among other well known local chefs there to pay tribute were Jamie Bosworth, Richard Irving, Christian Kent and Chris Hawkins.


Mick Burke in his chef’s whites

 Mick, a miner’s son from Bolton on Dearne, was the first boy in his domestic science class at Pope Pious secondary school, Wath. Going home with his box of buns on the bus could be challenging. He studied catering at Rotherham and passed with honours as student of his year. Before long he was at Claridges, later coming back to Sheffield’s Grosvenor Hotel as chef tournant, the bloke who can fit in anywhere when needed.

 But Mick never stopped learning. He went to Granville (a predecessor of Sheffield College) to take his 7063 City & Guilds and finished up student of the year again.

 It was around this time he thought of a career in education. As one of his colleagues put it, he could have worked anywhere and would doubtless have influenced many chefs: by choosing education he influenced thousands. It was his pastry work that singled him out. Typically, he made sure he had the right teacher, Roger Taylor, then pastry chef at the Connaught. At this time Mick was lecturing at Granville and the course was in Birmingham. He would teach until noon, catch the train at 1pm and not return home until the following morning.

 Mick is 62, still relatively young. “I have worked here for 37 years and 109 days. There is life outside Sheffield College,” he said enigmatically. Whatever it will be, and he was giving no clues, he will be up to his old wizardry.


Students made Mick this retirement cake


And also:

*Mick said the lunch had disrupted his retirement plans – it was held on the day he and his wife Jill had designated ‘Tidy Friday’

*Each table had a butter hedgehog, in memory of a competition for a themed dinner, in the college’s case Sheffield Steel. Asked by judges how the hedgehogs fitted into the theme a bright female student explained that in Sheffield the little beasts hibernated in the city’s warm steelworks