Throwing a dinner party always seems like such a fabulous idea, doesn’t it? And it is, of course, as you look round the table at smiling faces, empty places and have two minutes to bask in the glory of having got it all to go to plan.
That is, of course, after you’ve necked half a bottle of wine to get rid of the stress of the past two days of menu planning, shopping, preparation, cleaning, table laying, and last-minute panicking to get to that point. It’s also the calm moment before you face the destruction in your kitchen that looks like Storm Brian’s just whipped through and face a mountain of washing up as big as Mount Etna.
Imagine then, if you will, someone taking all the crap bits away. You still get to transform your dining room into a restaurant for a night, have all your nearest and dearest over, feast on fine food and quaff wine that you got from the supermarket at a quarter of the price you’d pay in a restaurant. But you don’t have to do the shopping, the cooking, the dishing up and (perhaps most importantly), the cleaning up.
Ladies and gents, I’ve got the answer. Private chefs.
I know, I can hear you saying it. It’s too expensive, it’s only for rich people, blah blah blah. That’s what I thought too, until I was asked to try out La Belle Assiette. It’s basically a directory or booking service for private chefs. You put in where you are and what date and time you want and they find you a chef.
It doesn’t even have to be a complete break-the-bank moment – they have three price brackets: Temptation at £39 a head, Prestige at £59 a guest and Signature at £89 a guest. Compare that to how much your restaurant bill at a nice venue would be by the time you’ve gone and got your wine from Aldi or Lidl (which, by the way, do bloody good wines) and I think you’ll find it’s not all that much more.
As luck would have it, the guys at La Belle Assiette invited us to try their service around the time I was trying to think of what to do for Mr M’s birthday. Cue the perfect dinner party occasion. We booked the night of his birthday, didn’t have to stress about the fact he and I were both working that day and eagerly awaited to hear who our chef was and what we’d be eating.
If there’s such a thing as a long straw (as opposed to a short one), we definitely drew it with Stuart Brown. Stuart’s grown up around cooking. From being a hotelier’s son, he went on to work front of house before moving into the kitchen. Two decades on, he’s done everything – from fine dining to brasseries and huge events as well as private work. He now runs his own business and is one of La Belle Assiette’s approved chefs too.
When Stuart called me with his proposed menu for Jamie’s birthday feast, I actually did a jig on the spot. I knew it would be good, but he uncannily seemed to have picked dishes that I know for a fact Jamie would most likely have picked out himself on a menu. Not to mention the fact he was friendly, laid back and right to the point with the instructions of what I’d need to do. Not that there was much for me to do at all – lay the table, provide the glassware (not the crockery, he brings that himself) sort the wine and be ready for him to arrive a couple of hours before our chosen dining time to finish preparing.
So……here’s the menu:-
Starter- Poached salmon, beetroot cubes, horseradish cream, pea shoots, honey, orange & wholegrain mustard vinaigrette
‘Fun course’ (my description, not his) – ‘Make Mine a Kebab’
Main course – 6 oz fillet steak, bearnaise sauce, crispy garlic potatoes, black pepper roasted tomato, fine green beans
Pre-Dessert – Chef’s sorbet of the Day – Textures of Champagne
Dessert – Double Belgian chocolate brownies with mango coulis, vanilla cream & salted caramel popcorn
Stuart arrived on time two hours before dinner started. We’d decided to give him some space and go with our guests for a nice dog walk (via the pub) to tire out the pooches and let him get ready. Oh yes, he didn’t mind dogs being in the house which is another massive pro to having a chef come to your home rather than go out and either have to leave your four-legged friend at home or hope they behave themselves in a fancy restaurant.
As we walked home I nearly did another jig as I caught a whiff of some delicious aromas emanating from my home. There’s nothing quite like walking in to the smell of fabulous food – and it’s even better when you haven’t had to lift a finger to execute it. We zipped in, got changed, poured the wine and the next thing we knew we were having our introduction from Stuart and tucking into the selection of homemade breads, infused oils and butter that he’d CHURNED HIMSELF, while he put the finishing touches on our salmon starter.
Yes, the starter tasted as good as it looked. Four different textures of beetroot, including a jelly as well as some poached with the salmon itself, horseradish cream made with real horseradish to provide the warmth that it should rather than the mustardy burn that so many shop-bought horseradish creams come with. And let’s not forget the crispy salmon skin that was almost like a refined scratching, as well as the sea-tasting samphire that added colour as well as flavour.
Next up was the fun course. I loved that as well as cooking great food, Stuart brought with him a bit of theatre. It really was a kebab, but probably the most refined kebab I’ve ever had. The disposable trays may have been similar to something I’ve found in my kitchen the morning after the night before, but that was where the similarity ended.
The flatbread was homemade, the chicken – while not cooked in a tandoor – was succulent, smoky and delicately spiced. Add to that a simple tomato and onion salad, raita-style sauce, sriracha and a few other extras and it was the perfect kebab. We all agreed we could have probably eaten three of these each as a main course and called the evening a triumph.
Of course, spotting this kind of scene across the room meant no such thing would happen. As one of the biggest beef fans I know, the main course was right up Jamie’s street. Simple, good quality and tasty as hell. Again, he got the presentation just right – a big fat board covered in perfectly-cooked beef, roasted vine tomatoes and a jug of bearnaise sauce to drench it all in. Perfect food for friends and family that you comfortable enough with to just dig in.
One of the real pleasures of having Stuart cook our dinner was that we could grill him (no pun intended…) on everything from his background to how he cooked certain dishes, where he gets ingredients from and what he thinks about certain food-related stuff. It’s not often you have someone with this level of talent and experience right there in your kitchen.
For Stuart to have accidentally picked some of Jamie’s favourite dishes was uncanny enough. But when we saw the pots he was using to serve our palate-cleansing pre-dessert in, things took a step closer to the bizarre. Yes folks, fire buckets for the fireman. I’d love to say Stuart had done a shedload of research and bought them deliberately but it seems it was just a case of sheer luck. A wonderful touch all the same, and even if Mr M hadn’t been a firefighter it would have been great.
Dessert was another dish Jamie would have picked above everything else on a menu, without a doubt. When Stuart told me about it on the phone he described it as “basically indulgence” and he wasn’t wrong. The brownie was rich and ever-so-slightly bitter suggesting it definitely was made with decent quality chocolate (not that we’d expect anything less from Stuart), the vanilla cream sweet and silky, coating your tongue like a luxury bed sheet, the popcorn light and crunchy and hidden underneath the pile of sweet treats was a seductive, slightly salty, caramel sauce. A hard-hitting ending to a deliciously indulgent evening.
Except that wasn’t quite the end. As he wiped, polished and shone my kitchen to the cleanest I think it’s been since we moved in, we faced the final hurdle of Stuart’s own homemade petit fours, from tooth-rotting, sugar-coated fruit pastels to chocolate florentines.
It seemed like dinner had hardly started when it was already over. The plates not only virtually licked clean but also washed, dried and packed up, the wine slurped, the kitchen scrubbed, and the guests not just satisfied but left happy and high on indulgence. As we waved goodbye to Stuart we reflected on a one-off experience that we were all confident we’d want to repeat.
I know what you’re thinking. Nice if you can get it for free, but would you pay for it? The answer’s yes. I get that £39 per guest isn’t dirt cheap – especially if it’s a bill you’re footing yourself as the host. And yes, I’m sure you guys who love cooking could knock up a great meal for far less than that. But let’s take a step back here. Let’s say you’re celebrating a special occasion and you all agree to go out to a nice restaurant. You’d probably spend around that amount per head and that’s probably without the wine.
Add to that the convenience of being at home, the novelty of having the chef right there in your kitchen and available to engage wholly with you and your guests (not to mention the added dimension it brings to your evening), and a MUCH smaller wine bill. When you put that all together, I really don’t think it’s unreasonable. Yeah, I might not do it every weekend but for special occasions it’s a no brainer, especially if you also want to save yourself time, stress, and for me the stark reality that anything you could cook could well end up inedible. I certainly know how I’m celebrating my next birthday! (Let’s just hope Mr M reads this….)
Our meal was complimentary, courtesy of La Belle Assiette, but I wasn’t asked to write a positive review. If you want to hire your own private chef, you can visit La Belle Assiette here. You can find Stuart’s profile on La Belle Assiette here. He also has his own catering company B13 Bespoke Catering.
Pin this for later