In my book of wishes I have my very own private chef. I love cooking and preparing meals, I am a foodie after all, but the idea of having someone else to do the work for me when I arrange a dinner party is an attractive one. Instead of flustering, feeling agitated and apprehensive as to how other people will judge my cooking, I would rather see myself relaxing, glass of wine in hand, chatting to my friends, comparing favourite cookbooks, whilst a trustworthy right hand man is in the kitchen tending to the crispiness of the crackling, the softness of the terrine and the thinness of the bresaola.
So when Paul Collins, an experienced chef who has decided to move into the private dining sector, offered to cook me lunch in my own home, to take the experience from the wish list and place it into reality, I leapt at the chance. All I did in preparation was ensure the kitchen was clean and tidy, and the table was laid. The rest was up to him.
When he arrived, with his wife, the professional food photographer Tory McTernan, he was carrying two huge plastic storage containers filled with kit and a huge cooler box filled with ingredients. Some of the ingredients were already prepared, as in the mise en place a sous chef would line up before service, whilst some ingredients were in small tupperware containers waiting to be washed, sliced and cooked.
Paul has spent twenty three years of his life serving high-end food to fine dining restaurant customers, toiling in one brigade after another, honing his skills to the level where he felt confident enough to set out on his own. Chef Paul Collins private catering was launched a few weeks ago, and there is now no looking back.
“What I envisaged for my business was for me to be the clients’ friend in the kitchen. Whilst they are enjoying their friends’ company, I will have already done all the organic, seasonal and local sourcing and prepared, cooked and served exactly the meal they wanted to eat. So many people are time short, but they want to eat well, in the comfort and cosiness of their own home, with no shopping, no stress and no clearing up.”
He still remembers when, aged ten, he used to help his grandparents in their beautiful fruit and vegetable garden, watching and eating the changing harvest of the seasons. This left a lasting impression, and he set about winning a scholarship to Westminster College’s catering school, from where soon after, aged just 19, he joined Anton Mossiman’s brigade as a Commis Chef at £99 a week.
There followed many years of relentless hard work at the Dorchester, Cliveden, Lucknam Park, The Royal Oak at Yattendon, Llangoed Hall, L’Escargot and The Grove, many times following his loyal mentor, David Cavalier. Awards were won, Michelin stars awarded and milestones surpassed, but throughout his whole career trajectory Paul kept his eyes firmly fixed on the very simple goalposts his grandparents had marked out for him in his childhood: the four seasons. Their rhythms influenced his vision of the planting, harvesting and preserving of nature’s ingredients.
He worked for a total of seven years at Daylesford Organic Farm in Kingham, both as a private chef to the Bamford family and in the café. There he collaborated with the market gardeners and farmers that grew and reared the ingredients that formed the basis for all the menus, and from them he learned the intricacies and cycles of animal husbandry and the rotation of crops and plants from farm to fork, from gate to plate.
As he unpacks his equipment and ingredients, he sets to work making bread and preparing canapés of puff pastry slices filled with Cornish pilchards, one of Slow Food’s protected artisanal foods, which are served warm, salty and crispy out of the oven. While I am feasting on those, he hand moulds individual brown bread rolls which are then sliced into triangular shapes.
He moves very confidently around my kitchen, in an organised, ergonomic fluency that is testimony to the decades spent timing thousands of repasts to split second perfection. I am so glad to be sat and watching, a fortunate reversal of roles that brings pleasure and relaxation in equal measure. I really could get used to this. This must be the life I was destined to have, surely.
I ask him what it must be like to work in a total stranger’s kitchen, not knowing where all the cutlery and crockery are kept, or how the oven works. He says he always arranges an appointment in the client’s home well before any event, thereby familiarising himself with the layout and particuliarities of the equipment. He discusses menus, serving suggestions and the structure of the event with the client, making notes and listening to requirements, but he does not like to pin himself down to specific ingredients too long before the day.
“Like yesterday,” he says, whilst whisking the eggs and grated gruyere that are to go in the soufflé. “I was walking round the covered market in Oxford, and found some really delicious raspberries and new potatoes, so here they are in the Menu”. He has been very influenced by the work of Skye Gyngell, who once came to Daylesford to cook at one of her book signings. The Menu was changed at the last minute because, on an impromptu walk round the gardens, she found a surprising array of different salads, greens and fruit, growing just yards away from the kitchen back door.
The smooth softness of the billowy soufflé, with its warm, creamy saltiness was quite outstanding, and I would very happily have eaten just that with the crunchy, green pea shoot salad. Paul was searing the fillet of organic salmon whilst his potato, clam and parsley vinaigrette was warming in a pot. He told me how his favourite cookbook is “Le Larousse Gastronomique” and he is also a very big fan of Simon Hopkinson’s work. As he works he wipes, washes, cleans, sorts and tidies, moving along the kitchen from left to right as if he has lived here all his life.
My fork breaks into shards of soft, pink salmon flesh and I dip it into the clam sauce, noticing how perfectly minute, square and even his mirepoix of carrots and potatoes is. Yes, having a private chef in your home means that God is in all the little details: he times each serving to al dente accuracy, he shaves and trims every single asparagus stem with equal precision, he places the raspberries upturned on the dark chocolate and olive oil mousse, so you can see their plump, glistening underbelly.
When Paul is at home, his own serving platter looks very different, however, preferring simple breads and cheeses. He loves pleasing, feeding and nourishing other people, and derives pleasure from their happiness. He has two small children, and they are both very interested in food and their father’s work. He is also doing cookery demonstrations all over the country, in cookery schools and on farms, showing people how they too can create simple, delicious meals with mastery and care.
At the end of service Paul scrubs everything down, checking that all the pots are back in their place, dirty tea-towels are placed in the washing basket and all utensils are put away. The room looks sparkly and spotless, the only reminders of my luxurious lunch are now in my head and lingering wistfully on my palate.
When Paul has left I realise it may take me some time to recover from this liberatory experience. I look back at all my years of angst ridden dinner party preparations, and shake my head. In my book of wishes one wish is now crossed out, and a new entry has been written in my little black book of “Really Useful Contacts”.
Paul Collins: www.chefpaulcollins.co.uk
Follow Paul on Twitter: @ChefPaulCollins
Tory McTernan food photography: www.torymcternan.co.uk
Follow Tory on Twitter: @torymct