I have come here to see if my pre-conception (derived of course from television programmes) of egotistical chefs swearing and panting their way through service is true.
Standing in the tiny kitchen at Restaurant Sauterelle in my over-sized chef whites and apron, I feel slightly foreign. I peer out into the restaurant, which is situated on the mezzanine level of the grand Royal Exchange, benefitting from a spectacular view over the buzzing courtyard below. I imagine myself sitting on a blue club chair, sipping on a glass of wine and eyeing up the menu. This morning however, I am staying in the kitchen. I have come here to see if my pre-conception (derived of course from television programmes), of egotistical chefs swearing and exploding their way through service is true. I'm also here to find out out how the whole culinary operation is coordinated, from preparations and sourcing to timing and management.
Head chef, Robin Gill, immediately puts my presumptions of ‘scary’ chefs to rest. He is incredibly affable, composed and shows great respect towards his fellow four chefs; Simon, Rupert, Glen and Besmil. The five of them work as a tight team, serving an average of 55 covers at lunch and 40 for dinner. And it’s all orchestrated in an impressively small kitchen that can’t be more than a couple of metres wide. The food is contemporary French cuisine, which draws on Robin’s wealth of knowledge gained from ten years of working in Michelin restaurants across Europe. “My menu focuses on clean, incisive flavours” he says. “The menu constantly evolves from dish to dish sometimes on a daily basis or weekly nature. Using the best of foraged fruit, vegetables and herbs, I like to incorporate an abundance of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients creating innovative flavours and textures as a playful take on classic European combinations.”
Robin and his team arrive each morning at 7am to start preparing the elements of the dishes, including the foams, jellies and mousses. I however have arrived at 11am, where the last minute preparations are being undertaken. To my right, Rupert is arranging the side vegetables in bowls, ready to heat up at the last minute. Glen the pastry chef is making vanilla panna cottas and to my left Simon is preparing sauces and marinades. In one corner, sous chef Besmil, is quietly assembling the Cornish Crab ravioli. His fingers carefully handle the moist sheets of pasta, which enfold the crab, binded by a delicate mousse of scallops. “I love fresh ravioli and had a nice recipe for the pasta from Naples, where I worked ” explains Robin. “I learnt the base recipe for the scallop mouse from Raymond Blanc, which I added fresh Cornish crab to. I wanted something in the dish to taste of the sea so we added samphire and salted cucumber which adds great texture and balance. The dish is a big hit with the regulars here”.
As I look around the kitchen, I notice there is surprisingly only one stove (which is so hot, I’m convinced my hair will frazzle if I get too close). Robin explains to me that he mostly adopts a sous-vide method of cooking. This involves vacuum packing marinated meat, fish and vegetables and then slow cooking them at a low temperature in a water bath. By doing so, the ingredients maintain maximum flavour, moisture and of course it allows an element of precision and consistency throughout the cooking. “You could probably do it at home, with a freezer bag” says Robin. Somehow I don’t think it will be the same. Here, there is a great emphasis on technique to create each part of the dish. From the delicate foams and vegetable infused jellies to the Guinness and squid ink flavoured crisp sourdough and curls of puffed up, deep-fried fish skin. The food is certainly not something you would rustle up at home. It’s instead a thoughtful and innovative execution of playful techniques and refined flavours that make dining out, the enlightening and fun experience that it has the potential to be.
At 12pm, one by one, the regular clientele of City locals take their seats in the restaurant and place their orders. The chefs all appear slightly anxious and excited at the same time about commencing service. I can tell they definitely get a buzz out of it as they grab the order that comes out of the receipt machine, and spring into action. In fact I get a little buzz as well, as things heat up, smells start wafting, timers are set and dishes and ingredients are passed tactfully across the narrow kitchen. There is no swearing or yelling. On the contrary, Robin Gill and his team orchestrate a fairly quiet culinary operation of immaculate timing, presentation and attention to detail. They work as a team, assisting each other when they can, so that the dishes come together at the right times. And even whilst they are all concentrating on juggling the orders, they still seem to find the time to pass me bowls of food to taste; citrus fregola, salted grape vierge, potato gnocchi, micro herbs and pickled vegetables to name a few. I manage to convince Glen to let me plate up the beetroot gazpacho. It sounds simple enough, but this chilled soup is served upon a fair-ground of golden and deep red beetroot chunks, folded pickled beetroot, a squeeze of salted yogurt, a scoop of apple sorbet, a scattering of sugared pumpkin seeds and a wobble of tart beetroot jelly. My attempt looks meek and dishevelled compared to his perfect arrangement, but I guess you've got to start somewhere.
I decide it’s time I get out the way before I lower the standard of any more dishes, so I take off my chef whites and head to the restaurant to taste some dishes in their complete form. I start with the beetroot gazpacho, a refreshing medley of textures and sweet and tart flavours. Raw marinated mackerel follows, which has a sumptuous sashimi consistency and combines well with a subtle lemon wasabi sorbet. A dish of smoked eel, (which Robin later tells me is from Lake Bruiniuse in Holland), leaves me in awe of its rich depth, offset by a fine mixture of cauliflower, apple, celery and horseradish. The Cornish Crab ravioli sits in a heady lemongrass frothy sauce and is a complete pleasure to devour. A dish of red mullet with avacado puree, Sicilian tomatoes, Kalamata Olives and salt cod is not only a beautiful vision of colours but is also an impeccable combination of flavours that whisks you away to the Mediterannean. The Devonshire lamp rump is tender and paired readily with white coco beans, earthy kalamata olives, smoked aubergine and a fresh salsa verde. Phew. I finally finish off with Robin’s take on an ‘Eton Mess’; peach with a salted caramel mousse, crunchy honey comb and anise peach sorbet. A hint of thyme perfumes the caramel which envelopes the plump and juicy peach and proves to be a creative and successful amalgamation of flavours. Unlike a lot of French food, the dishes here are not laden with heavy jus, creamy gravy’s and buttery reductions, instead Robin has managed to whisk away these pre-anticipations of French cuisine and replaced them with light sauces and delicate marinades.
Having seen the enthusiasm and passion in the kitchen and the meticulous attention the chefs give each dish, I find myself not only enjoying the food more but also understanding and appreciating every aspect of the dish. It’s a form of conscious dining, which is always a good thing.
A three course meal for two will cost around £75. Alternatively the three course set menu costs £21 per head.
**Restaurant Sauterelle: **The Royal Exchange Bank London EC3V 3LR Tel: 020 7618 2483 www.restaurantsauterelle.co.uk
**Written by:** Leila Sarraf.