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Chefs’ tables – over-priced gimmick or heightened dining experience?

July 17, 2011

Entering a professional kitchen is not the norm for bejewelled ladies teetering in high heels and gentlemen that have taken the trouble to swap their normal Saturday casuals for something which they consider far more in keeping with a Michelin-starred environment (but are never quite sure since the appearance of establishment dress codes seems to be petering out).  However, if you visit a Chef’s Table, as I did with a party of six friends at one Michelin-starred Paris House in Woburn on Saturday, you find the lines between the realms of the diner and the chef blurring into one.

This was my second visit to the restaurant in four months (it seems rude not to visit often when they went to all that trouble to be awarded a star in less than a year of opening and are practically on my doorstep), but my first opportunity to experience dining at any Chef’s Table.  Seated on a large high-backed red couch, the curve of the seating arrangement allowed us all to face the pass and action in the kitchen, whilst also being able to converse easily with fellow diners.  I have to say, my one reservation (and it was the smallest of small ones at that) was that it might feel a little awkward to be plonked in the corner of the kitchen, gawping at a band of busy chefs going about their business.

I can’t speak for other restaurants, but the Head Chef at Paris House, Phil Fanning, soon quashed that niggle as he made us feel welcome, introducing us to the brigade and insisting we make ourselves at home in whatever way we wanted to.  And with the help of lovely Ludovick, who was pouring the wine almost more quickly than we could drink it (…I said “almost”, let’s not get silly now…), we were soon joining in with the kitchen banter and asking questions of Phil and his team in a way that felt like we’d known them for months, rather than mere minutes.

Whilst all this was great, I guess it all comes down to the food to decide whether this experience is all it’s cracked up to be.  I wouldn’t like to pass judgement on something I hadn’t experienced, but we felt that the concept of a Chef’s Table at say, well, a Harvester, might not cut the Colman’s in such the same way.  Fortunately for us, it’s not a mere fluke that Paris House was awarded its first Michelin Star in January this year, and I would be lying if I said we weren’t all 100% bowled over by the quality, the taste, the presentation, the seasonality and the perfect portion judgement of the food, that meant we were able to eat eight highly indulgent ‘tasting’ courses and still walk out of the kitchen without holding our sides.  Matched wines to each course was the perfect finishing touch.

As a very enthusiastic home cook, I would never pass up the opportunity to chat to a bunch of professionals in the hope I’ll pick up some nuggets that will turn my home cooking into restaurant quality, but you don’t want to pay through the nose for a ‘jolly nice chat’.  By sitting in the kitchen, not only do you get a real feel for the importance of what strict processes and preparations mean for a restaurant in a way that you’d never understand when you’re cooking for a family of four at home; for the time you are there, you also enter into magical world of what it’s like to do a job that you really truly love – otherwise, how else would they keep you there from 8.30 in the morning until the early hours of the following day, six days a week?  Experiencing that ‘love’ first hand, matching that passion and creativity to the food you can see being prepared, plated and then you can taste, is what Chef’s Tables are all about.  So, gimmick or heightened experience?

For me, than answer is simple.  We’re already planning our return trip…

What do you think of the Chef’s Tables? ‘Gimmick’ or ‘Get Me There Now’?

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