Reaching For The Stars
I first went to Amsterdam when I was 11. I was with my mum, my stepdad and my sister. My memories involve someone trying to get the FA Cup commentary on the coach's radio, a canal boat tour and the tulips at Keukenhof Gardens. It's fair to say then that I didn't really see the Amsterdam most people go to Amsterdam to see. You just don't when you're 11 and with your mum, etc etc.
Ridiculously, even though it's only really an hour away, I'd never made it back to Amsterdam until last year. Twice. Even more ridiculously though both visits were for less than 24 hours. The first was to cover a game preview for The Guardian which finished with a pretty decent Indonesian meal, a lot of karaoke and very little sleep. There are photos but nobody needs to see them.
The second trip however... now that is one to brag about. I mean, any opportunity that means you can answer the question "up to anything this weekend?" with "yeah, I'm going to Amsterdam for dinner" earns many, many smug points - doubly so when you can answer the follow-up "really, anywhere nice?" question with "yes, The Grand. Sofitel have flown various Michelin-starred chefs in to cook a six course meal..." The fact that my very good friend Adam was going along to cover the event for another title just added to the general hand-rubbing glee.
The event is called Stars, Food and Art, and it's a regular charity event organised by the hotel. The next one will be in London on March 21 at Sofitel St James with the likes of Christophe Muller, Michael Moor, Raymond Blanc and Guy Krenzer taking part. I know many don't rate the Michelin system particularly but, for those that like a bit of food pomp, circumstance and eccentric plating, that's got five stars: Muller's three plus Blanc's two. We had six or, arguably nine, if you include the three Claire Clark helped keep during her stint at The French Laundry.
Patisserie legend Clark provided the final course - more on that below - but before she got to dazzle, the likes of Wolfgang Becker, Atul Kocchar and Ron Blaauw got to do their thing with, admittedly, one of the most organised brigades I've ever witnessed.
Lebanese chef and TV presenter Joe Barza got things rolling with Trilogie de Mezze, which translates as you'd expect. While not the most photogenic plate of the night - I took about 43 of the dish and none of them were especially pretty - it was an intensely flavoured but suitably light start.
Next up was Becker, of Becker's in Trier, Germany with St Jacques aux fines tranches de truffe d'automne et d'artichauts which sounds so much nicer than the English option I'm leaving it at that. Whatever you call it, it was the stand out dish of the night, the sort of dish that stops you dead in your tracks, stunning you into silence except for the odd whimper and a slightly louder one when the last mouthful was done.
The job of following that fell to our own Atul Kochhar. On another night, Magret de canard fume, chaat de poires at oignons de printemps would have dazzled. Here, while impressive, it drew the short straw following Becker's subtle fireworks.
Fourth course saw Amsterdam's Ron Blaauw step up to the plate(s). His toadstool-referencing Sole grillee de la mer du Nord, chou blanc, moelle de veau et cepes aux sauce 'vina jaune' was the best presentation of the night and, for me, another great course. It probably helped that it was matched with a little Henschke action - Tilly's Vineyard to be precise - and part of it was probably also down to be being allowed into the kitchen to watch the brigade assemble the plates.
Made up of juniors and the event's other chefs, this was an exercise in teamwork and remarkable to watch. There's an argument that such presentation and precision is a bit silly but, actually, I like a little insanity to my dining, even if it did add make me feel slightly guilty for eating it.
The "main" - if course five can be called that - came from David Higgs of The Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. Bizarrely, two days later, I'd find myself in a huge London house eating more of Saxon's (excellent) cooking including a second go at Filet de faon rotie, radis bebe pochee, mais et coing. Yeah. Exactly. It was, essentially, venison, but sweeter and more tender as befits its youth - faon / fawn, in case you hadn't twigged.
By now, with the matching wines working their respective magic, it was all something of a blur, albeit it a glitzy one. Claire Clark's dessert then captured the moment perfectly. Mania floral, was how it was billed - yaourt de roses cuit a la vapeur, framboise et pistache, l'abondance de petales de rose the explanation. It could have all been so much showing off and, yes, to be fair, it probably was. But it was also the sort of pudding that makes you giggle, with flavours, textures and beautifully judged sugariness summoning fleeting memories of childhood, while also being decidedly grown up. Keller clearly has the pick of patissieres. On this evidence, it's easy to see what he saw in this unassuming Brit.
And then, suddenly, it was all over. Well, I say "suddenly", but somehow four hours had passed in a haze of exemplary service (by a team of hundreds), lively debate, musical numbers (by professionals, you'll be glad to hear, not by me as a tribute to my previous visit) and more delicious calories than I probably want to think about.
As mentioned above, the next Stars Food & Art event takes place in London on March 21, at Sofitel St James. To book / for further info, all the essential info can be found here.