A Charlie Bigham Banquet


We had big excitement this week, when Husband discovered there was a Charlie Bigham Banquet happening.

I will explain: On Wednesdays, when I have my Mandarin lesson, Husband kindly cooks dinner. I hugely appreciate it, so I need to be careful what I write here, but he is not really what you would call an accomplished chef. In fact, his cooking doesn’t go much beyond opening the oven door and placing things inside for a specified amount of time—but he does that bit very well.

I therefore have been looking for meals that involve this amount of cooking, and I discovered Charlie Bigham meals. Have you seen them? They are very expensive, but rather delicious, and when you add chips, and peas in the microwave, it makes a complete meal—one that doesn’t feel as unhealthy as most ready-meals.

We were therefore very interested when we discovered there was a Charlie Bigham Banquet. It was in aid of the Wells Food Week (I didn’t know there was such a thing) and the idea was that you signed up online, bought the list of ingredients they sent, and then on Saturday, log into an online cookery class, where renowned chefs would show you how to turn the ingredients into a banquet. The money raised supported a charity that send chefs into school kitchens, so a worthy cause. What could possibly go wrong?

Husband sent me the list of ingredients, and I bought the ones we didn’t have in the cupboard. I improvised on some (I mean, who has fingers strong enough to grate parmesan cheese when you can buy it ready-grated??) and didn’t buy the things that I don’t like to eat (seemed reasonable to me). Husband audited my shopping, and went to buy the things I had got wrong. We invited another couple for the evening, and I figured that at worse I could get quietly drunk and let Husband lead the cooking—after all, it was his idea.

A package arrived, addressed to Husband. It contained an apron, a tea towel, and a small booklet of instructions. I glanced at it to check there was no equipment that might surprise me, and threw the tea towel into the washing machine. It came out slightly pinker than before (possibly due to the red towel I washed at the same time) but at least it was clean.

On the day of the banquet, we had some things to prepare during the morning. A printed sheet told us to core and peel the apples, cut them into chunks, and dry them out in the oven for 3 hours. But what size chunks? We were not sent entire recipes, all would be revealed later, which partly made it fun and partly was rather difficult as we had to guess things. We also needed to roast the beetroot—but should we peel and chop it first? I guessed from the timings given that whole beetroots wouldn’t work, so we cut them, but someone with no cooking experience could easily have gone wrong at this point. Perhaps there was a minimum level of cooking experience expected—I hoped it wouldn’t be very high.

The kitchen filled with wonderful smells, as the venison marinated in garlic and rosemary, the beetroots roasted (with a few added potatoes because I know the appetite of real people, and half a beetroot as the entire carb was not going to be filling anyone up!)

At the specified time we set up the computer and watched a couple of men—not quite Ant and Dec but they were trying—as they chatted about wine and introduced the chefs. I felt slightly bored, with a sense of foreboding as I waited for what I assumed would be a school cookery lesson. I was wrong.

The evening was tremendous fun—the best evening I’ve had in ages! The chefs were in their own homes, and did a little chat, then cooked a course of the meal. They cooked it very quickly, explaining almost nothing, and we raced to keep up. It was like trying to complete one of those escape rooms—four adults scurrying to solve the task. There was no recipe, so we had to watch intently to see what was being added. Sometimes they went off-piste and added things we didn’t have, like a sudden side-salad made from garden flowers and herbs. (I only have a few late dahlias and dead sunflowers in my garden, so they would be less good.)

There was a lot of shouting as we spotted things. The first course involved raw salmon, put briefly into a brine to pickle it. Some of us worried about the safety of eating raw salmon and shoved it into the microwave. We had a mishap with the brine as the person watching the screen was calling out the ingredients, I was mixing, and brown sugar was mentioned. I added it, but that was for the pears, so we tipped it away and started again. There was a topping of sourdough crumbs and hazelnuts—ours was somewhat darker brown than the chef’s. We placed it all on the plates, and sat at the table feeling somewhat shellshocked, then took a mouthful. It was delicious. Really, the flavours all combined perfectly, it was like eating fine cuisine in an expensive restaurant and suddenly I realised what made these chefs special. They couldn’t teach, but wow! they could cook.

Then there was a chef making a starter with mushrooms and pancetta. He stood in his kitchen with a glass of wine and chatted about mushrooms. Was he drunk? He chatted for a long time. We saw the Ant-and-Dec men pass each other post-it notes, they clearly wondered if he was drunk too! Eventually he started cooking, we raced to keep up, the food was delicious.

Next was smoked haddock. Would that be raw too? It was placed over spinach, covered in sour cream and parmesan (luckily ours was already grated) dotted with tabasco sauce and placed under a hot grill. Served with bread: delicious.

The main course was venison. The chef showed us her kitchen, and chatted, while next to her an empty frying pan smoked on the hob. Had she forgotten it was there? The fire alarm sounded, she rushed off, the camera cut to another chef, who struggled to take over her slot but he forgot bits and plated it up wrongly. We made a paste from liquidised almonds and pine nuts and burnt onions and garlic. The venison was sliced on top, and surrounded with roasted beets. It was wonderful.

The pudding was sticky apple cake with toffee sauce. I made the sauce, which had a whole pack of brown sugar, enough cream for the whole of Christmas and a month’s worth of butter. The chef multi-tasked and made the cake batter, so someone else made that, grabbing my mixer to try and keep up. When would he add the apple soaked in tea? Would he drain them first? Had he added the sultanas? We watched, he was holding a bowl—what was in it? In it went—quick! Add the sultanas! Then the apples—not drained, tip in the cold tea too… We had been told to prepare muffin trays, so I had laid out 8 paper cases in the tray. We made enough mixture for about 150, so abandoned the muffin tins and poured it into loaf tins instead.

My kitchen was full of shouting and laughing and rushing to grab ingredients and throwing away rubbish and washing equipment so it could be reused. As I said, it was like trying to solve a very complicated puzzle within a time limit. But the food we produced was far superior to anything I have ever cooked before. Those chefs knew how to create wonderful dishes. A few things were a bit ‘amateur,’ such as the fire alarm going off, the complete lack of teaching, the (possibly) drunk chef. But to be honest, it added to the charm of the event, and trying to keep up was so exciting!

By the end, we were completely full of fat and sugar, and the kitchen looked as if a bomb had exploded. We thanked out guests, and went to bed. Such a fun evening.

Anne E. Thompson
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