Culinary queen Sophie McIntyre is happily usurped at her own dinner party by a home cooking maestro from La Belle Assiette who treats her guests to a memorable meal.
The kitchen is a place for unwinding. A place in which to drink Gin and Tonics; smoke slim menthol cigarettes through the French doors; and to chat and chop and (occasionally) burn oneself trying to pull off extravagant feats on a Wednesday night. It is a playground in which we can legitimately show off. And, as all good dinner party chefs know, there is a certain level of satisfaction that is only attainable when someone makes a borderline orgasmic noise just after popping a chunk of your four-hour-slow-cooked-Moroccan-lamb into their mouth.
Worktops, hobs and an industrial style island chopping-space make up my after-work domain; and I have been known to get somewhat controlling over said space and any culinary activities taking place in its surrounds. Friends and family have even gone as far as to describe me as a ‘Kitchen Nazi’. If you've never encountered such a creature, let me shed a little light. A helpful guest volunteering their services at an early summer BBQ, was recently quizzed as to whether they could ‘actually chop properly,’ before I allowed them access to a board and a knife – heaven forbid if a guest were to ruin the ragù with chunkily-diced onions.
So, in short, the hardest (and ‘hardest’ really is a stretch here) thing about having a private chef cater for myself and friends on a Thursday night was having a stranger in my kitchen; someone else clipping away on my chopping board and someone else getting the credit for the culinary creativity. I need not have worried, however, as the experience was relaxing, unobtrusive and totally delicious.
Zoe, a bright, young Cordon Bleu trained chef in her early twenties arrives at my door bang on time and bubbles over with undemanding chat about her life, her boyfriend, her training and La Belle Assiette – the private dinner party company she represents.
‘It’s great for the chefs, actually, because we get independence. We get to plan our menus and when you’re working in a big restaurant you can’t always do that’.
I give her a quick orientation lesson and Zoe gets to work. Pulling out my pots and pans like she’s lived there longer than me, she tells me about her time at La Trompette in Chiswick and how she was the only one in her year at the Holborn Cordon Bleu School to be awarded a scholarship. She’s a keen Instagrammer, but her menus are predominantly inspired by her travels. I am very comfortable leaving her in my kitchen. I take a glass of wine upstairs and take my time getting ready – an option not normally open to me when hosting a dinner.
The doorbell goes and people begin to arrive, laden with White Burgundy and a nice bit of Thursday night joie de vivre. At this point, Zoe gets her head down. I jabber away and can actually, for once, focus on talking to my guests – something I have been known to struggle with when something is in the oven and I haven’t made a dressing/salad/side dish/pudding/the whole meal in advance. We wander round the garden, discussing Brexit, how to kill slugs and, most importantly, the advantages of evergreen architectural foliage in a bedding arrangement. Important stuff.
Before we know it, my friends and I have left the working day behind and are seated at the dining table sipping a shot glass of crab bisque. And all I’ve had to do is provide an aperitif and some nibbles and open the wine (Zoe recommended a few bottles to me in our jolly and efficient emails exchange running up to my dinner).
The starter that follows is declared a triumph (and this is quite a feat, as at my table are at least three gastro-obsessives). Rabbit Agnolotti (smaller than Ravioli, ‘better for getting the sauce to stick to it’, Zoe tells us as she introduces the course) served with soft mushrooms and even softer, butter-like rabbit loin. One of my party exclaims with delight as he bites down to chew – seemingly encountering pretty much no resistance. ‘How did you get it like this? Rabbit is always so stringy. Amazing!’ We then grill Zoe about the rabbit’s provenance and she is more than happy to disclose her trade secrets to the curious crowd. Zoe’s fish is from Moxons in South Kensington, her meat from traditional butchers, HG Walters in Barons Court.
Wild garlic peppers the plate – it’s a real leitmotif for Zoe today. She is a conscientious and seasonally focused chef and she is picky about her produce - replacing the monk’s beard listed on the menu as part of our light and sharp caper and fish-based main for samphire because the stuff in the shop looked a bit tired and cockles for whelks for the same reason. She knows her suppliers well and you get the feeling, it would cost you a bucket load to shop for this meal yourself. Zoe isn’t a scrimper.
A light chocolate moelleux followed the fish, the petit fours arrived and before we knew it our restaurant-quality meal was over. Zoe quietly slipped out the door, the kitchen sparkling clean in her wake. There was no loading of the dishwasher, no washing up, no mess – just a gentle movement up the stairs to the sofas, drinks trolley and after dinner games. All in all, La Belle Assiette provides you with a modern day Mary Poppins, offering a break from kitchen chores, a delicious and innovative meal and something fun to talk about over dinner.