Ican still recite the entire menu from my most memorable meal of the year. It took place six months ago, and it began with a cool cherry gazpacho followed by a creamy asparagus mousse. Two fish courses followed: delicate brochettes of squid with tarragon vinaigrette and two large sea bass cooked in the oven “fisherman style”. Then came a slow-roast duck with pear chutney, the thigh meat gently falling off the bone, followed, as I bowed to family pressure, by a birthday cake.
This meal marked my 60th birthday with my family and oldest friends at Almadraba Park Hotel, outside Roses, north-east Spain, with the moon and stars hovering over the Mediterranean outside.
I had been dreaming of this menu long before the dinner took place. I had used it to try and lull myself to sleep every night of my four-week stay in the London Clinic in March and then every night of my subsequent convalescence. This was not so much a case of good food as good medicine: the prospect of the meal provided the support my body, mind and spirit then required.
Alongside all the very happy memories from the Almadraba, there is one detail of the service that is also unforgettable. This hotel is family-owned and run by Jordi Subirós and his father Jaume, who, sensitively, does not step out of the shadows too often. But as the two sea bass were served, there was the elder Señor Subirós leading from the front. His jacket off, an apron tied around his waist, he proudly showed off what the local fishermen had caught that morning.
I cannot help feeling that the restaurant industry is at a significant tipping point: that those who set the highest standards are now ready to hand over to a younger generation. (Indeed, our son has followed in my footsteps as a restaurateur and has recently reopened The Quality Chop House in Farringdon Road, London – the first and last mention of it you will find here.) For those who enjoy restaurants as much as I do, this leads to one inescapable conclusion: the standards of cooking, service and hospitality will only get better.
One reason for this is that there is now so much benevolent experience to go round. In west London, Ruth Rogers has now spent 25 years at the River Café dispersing the principles of Italian cooking alongside those of relaxed American hospitality. She prospers, as do a string of her former disciples: Jessica Boncutter at Bar Jules in San Francisco; April Bloomfield at The Spotted Pig, New York; and Tim Siadatan at Trullo, north London.
In Paris, New Zealander Drew Harrié has used his restaurant nous to bring together a young kitchen brigade and chef Eric Trochon, who has passed the rigorous Meilleur Ouvrier de France exams, and put them on show in a modern, open kitchen inside an old building on the Left Bank. The result, Semilla, is great food, fun and value.
In London’s Soho, brothers Sam and Eddie Hart obviously have the advantage of the hospitality gene inherited from their father Tim, who has made Hambleton Hall in Rutland so welcoming over the past 30 years. But it took great perspicacity on their part to revive the flagging fortunes of Quo Vadis by bringing in (from the Blueprint Café) the highly experienced Jeremy Lee as head chef and partner. Turning around an underperforming restaurant requires considerable tact, judgment and taste – qualities that this restaurant, a warren of four interconnected buildings, now exudes.
Similar skills have been handed down by Michael and Judy McMahon, 12,000 miles away on the seafront at Catalina in Rose Bay, Sydney. The ease with which Kate, their daughter, threads her elegant way between the packed tables is obvious proof that this restaurant seems sure of a successful future. For Michael, it reaches its apogee on Christmas day when it will host three generations of the same family at several tables.
Three wonderful meals, in England and France, were entirely the result of the experience accumulated in the kitchen and the restaurant. The first was at Reads in Faversham, Kent where David and Rona Pitchford make running a restaurant with rooms seem effortless. Their excellence is now closely rivalled by The Sportsman, nearby at Seasalter, run with exuberance and charm by brothers Stephen and Peter Harris.
My professional heart was lost this year on a return trip into the hands of Guy and Tina Jullien, who have now spent 37 years together at La Beaugravière at Mondragon in France’s Rhone Valley. The fun of the truffles and the great wine list over dinner was enhanced by the sight, at half past eight the following morning, of the chef hauling an 8.3kg turbot out of his truck to the kitchen. He had just bought it, he explained, “because it was too magnificent to resist”.
The opportunity to deal with such produce is one of several reasons why many in their twenties are seeking to make a career in hospitality, and others are choosing to move into this exacting world from more lucrative careers. As they do so, they are drawing on an unprecedented bank of advice and counsel.
This is built on the fact that many chefs and restaurateurs have achieved a level of fame, fortune and recognition over the past decade that eluded many of their predecessors. Most are willing to pass on their wisdom and experience – a benefit to all, not least the customer.