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Wednesday 5 November 2014

#BehindTheScenes at The May Fair Kitchen

The newly opened May Fair Kitchen invited me to spend a couple of days with them to show me what really goes on behind the doors of a busy West End restaurant. An experience like no other I have had in my 5 years of food blogging, so how could I resist?

#BehindTheScenes at the May Fair Kitchen was an exciting 2-day project that saw me travelling around the Southeast to visit the farms and meet the families responsible for growing the vegetables and the livestock for this restaurant. I also had the opportunity to visit their meat supplier Aldens in Oxford, have a butchery demo, and back at the restaurant, shadow the Head Chef Matthew Downes during busy service hours for a day.

 May Fair Kitchen's Head Chef Matt Downes

May Fair Kitchen offers a simple dining concept: with no starters or multi-course tasting menus, it focuses on serving a single, perfectly executed dish from a choice of top quality meat, fish or seafood from the grill. An accompanying sauce and perhaps a side dish are the only other choices diners need to make.

At the heart of this restaurant’s philosophy is provenance. But why is this so important? “The food at May Fair Kitchen is all about the ingredients we get from our suppliers” Head Chef Matt Downes tells me “We try and do as little as possible to them so as to maintain their natural flavour and freshness. Knowing where our ingredients come from, and keeping tight control over their quality are key to what we do at May Fair Kitchen” he explains.

It was an early start as the May Fair Kitchen team and I set off on our first visit to Holland Farm near Oxford. Owned by Johnny Alden, this farm has been in the Alden family for generations and supplies some of the meat to the family’s butchery business. Here, we spent a couple of hours in the company of Johnny who was kind and patient enough to answer all my questions about his steers and heifers (these are male/female beef cattle, whereas the word used for dairy cattle is cow, I was surprised to learn).

Farmer Johnny Alden at Holland Farm

I learnt among many other things about the process of grading the quality of meat in the UK as cattle are slaughtered. Following slaughter, a beef sample from each carcass is scanned and scientifically analyzed to give an independent quality grading.

The quality and flavour of the steaks you prepare at home is really anyone’s guess if you are not purchasing meat from a reputable butcher or at least one who strives to retail highly graded meats.

So if you think you are about to get a terrific deal for exactly the same cut of beef you have seen dearer somewhere else, think again. Higher grades will demand higher prices and vice versa. And indeed it all comes down to provenance – knowing your suppliers and where your meat comes from will help you buy better quality meat.

Same Cut, Completely Different Beasts!

The quality of meat is not only dependent on genetics – better heritage bloodlines will yield better quality meat, but environment is also key. Cattle that are well looked after and fed, that roam freely whenever possible and are not under stress, will produce more flavoursome meat. The beef at May Fair Kitchen is sourced from family run farms where cattle are reared using traditional practices. They are given the freedom to roam and are outdoor reared for about 9 months in the year, as are those beautiful beasts I saw at Holland Farm, raised by Johnny Alden.
Beef Cattle at Johnny Alden's Holland Farm

From there we hit the road again for a visit to Aldens Butchers. The supplier for all the meat for the grill of the May Fair Kitchen, Aldens was founded in 1793 by Isaac Alden and is still owned and run by the same family.

Headed today by Matthew Alden, I was lucky enough to meet him and be shown around Aldens’ state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities in Oxford where 4-5 tons of meat are handled every day.

Matthew Alden of Aldens Butchers, Oxford

Again, this was a fascinating experience – the sheer volume of meat under one roof was staggering. We were given a butchery demonstration by one of Alden’s master butchers. It was a privilege to be shown the quality of beef used at Aldens as well as tapping into such expert knowledge.

Butchering is an art - in addition to the rigorous training (a minimum of 5 years), this is hard labour and physically demanding. I came away from this experience with a profound respect for this skilled trade – one that I am told is sadly in short supply in the UK.

We took to the road yet again heading towards one of the Watts Farms in Orpington, Kent. Watts Farms supply all the vegetables that come into May Fair Kitchen - started by Donald Watts in 1952, it is still owned and run by the Watts family.

Today the Watts Farms have 10 different sites totaling 600 hectares spread across Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire. They produce over 60 types of produce including vegetables, fruits, salads and herbs as well as being one of the UK’s largest growers of fresh herbs and chillies.

A purple kale forest at Watts Farms

Ed Gray of Watts Farms
Back in London the next day, I made my way to Stratton Street in plush Mayfair for the opportunity to work alongside head chef Matthew Downes at the May Fair Kitchen during lunch service. Service hours are busy as I know from first hand experience, so I just hoped I would not be in the way!

Open plan kitchen at May Fair Kitchen

Chef Downes welcomed me into his kitchen and introduced me to the team on duty that day – Matt his sous-chef who has recently returned from 6 years working in Antigua, his two chef de partie Abdulla (a fellow Cordon Bleu graduate) and Pascale, and lastly Nico, a young Italian commis chef who recently joined the team.

Abdulla shucking oysters

From station to station, I shadowed each one of these guys, and was truly impressed to see the care and diligence as well as a great sense of pride that each one had while preparing their dishes.

Head Chef Matt Downes showing me the ropes at the stock section

The grill station was particularly fun – Pascale was in charge here – grilling fish or seafood and meat, and sometimes a mixture of the two as in the impressively huge tiger prawn and Iberian chorizo skewers, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

Pascale in the grill station

Italian Nico, as well as being in charge of the bread rolls (these are supplied by Franconia Bread House), was also dishing out the amuse bouche – a delectable thimble of hot celeriac cream soup with a piece of salty and umami-laden blue cheese.

Nico, the the newly recruited commis chef at May Fair Kitchen

The restaurant offers a few vegetarian options, and these were being taken care of by Abdulla. I loved the presentation of his quail’s egg, blue cheese and lemon ravioli as well as the mouth-watering creaminess of the wild mushroom and truffle risotto he prepared. Perfection!

The head pastry chef for both the May Fair Hotel and Kitchen is Rana – his dessert trolley is a work of art, showing great patisserie skills and a highly sophisticated eye.

Befitting its location (the restaurant is inside the swanky May Fair Hotel), no expenses were spared in the design and look of the place. The restaurant has gorgeous wooden floors and wall paneling, marble stone tops, and huge glass windows allowing plenty of natural light to flood in.

The fish and seafood display is possibly the most impressive I have seen in London – very fresh and delivered every day, most crustaceans were displayed still alive and kicking on huge amounts of crushed ice.

After service, it was time for lunch, which I shared with Chef Matt Downes and Steven Humpherson, the restaurant’s food and beverage manager and front of house guru. Steven is responsible for training and managing the restaurant’s front of house staff – and he is doing a brilliant job, as the skilled service I was about to experience showed me. Each of the waiters has visited the restaurant’s meat, fish and vegetable suppliers just as I did, and know their provenance at first hand.

But as we all know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So how did May Fair Kitchen’s simple, no fuss cooking approach, and their focus on provenance and quality of ingredients measure up, judged by the food on my plate?

How could I resist these bad boys?

I went for the Iberian spiced chorizo and smoked garlic tiger prawn skewers (£29). Simply grilled in paprika and garlic infused olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, these were the juiciest and possibly the most delicious surf and turf combination I have ever tried. They were so good, my stomach rumbles as I write this.

I also ordered a side of triple cooked hand-cut chips. The potatoes were cut into thick chips, steamed, deep-fried and then drained. Before serving, they were deep-fried again in duck fat giving them a wonderfully rich flavour and perfect crispness.

I thoroughly enjoyed my two days behind the scenes at the May Fair Kitchen. This is a restaurant with a vision I hope other UK establishments will follow – that of serving top quality ingredients of impeccable provenance prepared with great skill and minimal fuss. Perhaps a lesson to us all.

The May Fair Kitchen
The May Fair Hotel
Stratton Street
London, W1J 8LT
For reservations call: +44 (0)20 7915 3892

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