Michael and Sarah Bedford own a café, restaurant, delicatessen, bakery and cookery school in the heart of Tetbury, Gloucestershire, called The Chef’s Table. They have been there now for four years, and previously they owned The Trouble House Pub nearby, where Michael was awarded a Michelin star. Having started his training aged just 17 and working with chefs such as Gary Rhodes, Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc, the style of The Chef’s Table is very much gourmet food, sourced, prepared and presented in the classical French manner, but without pomp and circumstance.
The moment you enter through the door of the building the scene is set for a gastronomic feast: there is a small but well stocked delicatessen with wonderful fresh fish, shellfish, larder essential ingredients, fresh bread from the bakery’s ovens, eggs, charcuterie, cheeses, confectionery and ice creams.
Once inside the main café area there are armchairs and sofas where you can relax with morning coffee, magazines, newspapers and Michael’s very famous dark chocolate and hazelnut brownie. It’s worth driving from afar just to taste that, I assure you.
The cookery school is located on the first floor, in the restaurant kitchen, which runs open plan along the back wall of the entire restaurant dining room. Students can sit on stools, watching chef Michael demonstrate each course, and then move over the other side of the table to work with him, getting hands on, industrious and technical.
Today, it being Mother’s Day, the student group was only 4 people, but normally there are groups of 8. Michael explained that the way in which he teaches is very technical, very much treating each student as if they were a real chef for the day, showing them all the tricks of the trade. We were going to make proper restaurant food, and as a result, he tends to keep the numbers small, to give each student as much focus and attention as possible.
The menu was extremely ambitious, and quite daunting: three types of homemade breads (white loaf, malted loaf, ciabatta), a rabbit confit, four types of risotto (crab, shallot and parsley, Parma ham and Parmiggiano), blue cheese and crab gnocchi with a butter sauce, saffron tagliolini, pan fried cod, ling and halibut fillets with caper sauce and (hurray) the chocolate brownie.
All through the preparations we were shown the secrets of the house: Michael’s way of kneading, proving and seaming the dough to make loaves good enough to sell in the shop. The rabbit was cooked in the confit oil and herbs till it was all shredded into tiny pieces. We killed and de-fleshed two giant male crabs from Salcombe. We were shown the best way of cooking a really creamy, rich risotto base which can then be served with as many different flavours as we wanted. We sieved mashed potatoes which we then mixed with eggs and crab and rolled out to make gnocchi which were boiled, cooled in ice water, then floured and pan fried, and served with a creamy, frothy sauce in the style of a “cappuccino”. The fish, pan fried and served with a shallot, parsley, garlic and caper sauce was so soft, delicate and moist, placed on a finely shaped oval of silken mashed potato. Tender, handmade saffron linguini were coiled round a carving fork into a pyramid spiral and truffle butter sauce poured over them. And what could be said about that brownie: soft, chewy, sticky, yielding, fragrant and dark, with crunchy whole hazelnuts and a crumbly texture, served with a velvet pistachio ice-cream.
We ate as we went along, wines were served and we laughed and joked at one another’s attempts to be restaurant chefs for the day. Michael and Sarah’s dedication to their profession is indeed exemplary, and through all our mess making Sarah diligently went round cleaning, wiping, sorting and washing, setting out the bowls and ingredients for the next recipe, an endless, co-ordinated loop of human endeavour.
On average The Chef’s Table serves around 300 – 350 covers every single week, cooked by three full time chefs. Some of the staff has been with the couple a long time, whilst others come and go with speed and lack of commitment. Finding the right quality of staff who are consistently good enough is their main problem. They talked frankly and openly about the challenges that they face on a daily basis, and having two small children, aged 3 and 6, and not living on the premises, does pose juggling difficulties. Their industry takes its toll on family life: long hours, stress, tight profit margins and demanding (sometimes rude) customers underpin a carrer choice that is definitely not for the faint hearted. Basic food prices have soared and ensuring they maintain a very high level of service and quality of ingredients means overheads are constantly increasing.
Michael shared stories from his youth, and he would advise any young person interested in becoming a chef to go and work in a very good restaurant which can take the time to train and guide its new recruits. “You have to go the distance”, explained Michael, as chefs who leave before 12 months, historically, get no reference, without which they are unable to obtain the next placement. He himself will only take recruits who are tenacious, level headed and do not become flappable during service. The whole kitchen is visible to the paying customers. There can be no swearing or shouting, just disciplined concentration. During his early years in restaurants Michael did experience bullying and being shouted at, and he believes you have to be very resilient and tough to work in this industry, as it is very male oriented and the top chefs in the top kitchens are extremely driven and uncompromising.
We learned how Michael negotiates the price of seafood with traders who are juggling the supply and demand of fish from day boats in Fowey and Salcombe. We heard about his suppliers of eggs (Sherston and Cherington), meat (Rose’s of Devizes) and the many companies that supply him with international deli goods and wines, fruit, vegetables and equipment.
By the end of the course, at around 4 p.m. we were absolutely exhausted, our heads ringing with information and inspiration. Michael looked as if he had not even broken sweat, despite cooking in sweltering temperatures over an enormous gas stove. After cleaning the kitchen, Sarah and Michael will return to work first thing tomorrow morning, to begin the lunch service preparations, open the café and delicatessen and welcome Tetbury residents and visitors to their establishment.
I would recommend this cookery course to anyone and everyone, but particularly to those who want a cooking masterclass, enabling them to step up a level with their culinary repertoire and spend a day with a chef who is at the very top of his craft, grafting daily at the coal face of restaurant cooking. It is one of the best value for money cookery course I have ever been on, owing to the sheer range of dishes, methods and techniques we learned. And I have a chocolate brownie to die for.
Michael and Sarah Bedford
The Chef’s Table
49 Long Street
Telephone: 01666 504466
E-mail: [email protected]