Chris Hale relaxes around my kitchen table with a well-earned glass of wine as he remembers his MasterChef adventure, when he battled through as far as the quarter-final of the BBC’s perpetually-popular cookery contest.
“It was an incredible experience,” says Chris, a father of two. “Especially being surrounded by people who are just as passionate as I am about food. That was very inspiring.
“It really let my career alight; to get on the show, you aren’t allowed to have had kitchen experience, so it has opened up a whole new world to me.”
And set him on a path that ended, via a host of pop-up restaurants across Yorkshire and beyond, in my kitchen. His journey hasn’t literally ended there, of course; Chris’ talents, and our tastebuds, suggest he’s on the way up, rather than down. But he’s here as the latest chef to join La Belle Assiette, which describes itself as “a food start-up revolutionising the dining industry by bringing tailored experiences to people’s homes.”
The premise is simple; swap the sometimes cramped restaurant, the often rushed experience and mostly expensive wine list for the comfort of your own home, without the need to lift a finger.
Chefs are hand-selected and then validated to ensure quality, while hosts can browse menus and book online. Chefs make contact, make final arrangements and then take care of the rest.
“I have always worked for myself and saw a gap in the market for private dining, pop up restaurants and event catering,” adds Chris, who also runs his own altitude training company.
“I have done a fair bit of private dining before, and it is the sort of work I love.
“I am very laid back and sociable, so cooking a special meal for someone in their own home is a wonderful experience.”
He’s right. It was. A classic starter of roasted tomato soup set the tone for what was to follow, and it was Chris’ combination of mains - lamb with cauliflower, chocolate and raisin, and Henderson’s Relish pie with mushy peas - that were the resounding highlight.
Despite initial reservations about combining chocolate with lamb - despite having a partner who thinks nothing about dipping chips in ice cream, a phenomenon I later discovered isn’t unique to her - the end result was excellent; great portions of lamb with the sauce a pleasant, and surprising, complement.
Chris may originally be from Wakefield, but he channeled the spirit of Sheffield by using the Steel City’s favourite sauce in his pie and it received a similarly resounding thumbs-up from the guests.
His repertoire also includes an Indian sushi menu - which wowed the MasterChef judges last year and includes a sushi platter boasting tandoori chicken nori roll, tuna-cumin nori roll, beef nigari, tamarind & date chutney and South Indian pepper water - and a more traditional Taste of Britain, consisting of our chocolate lamb or a beef fillet ash, with a delicious nod to God’s own county courtesy of the Taste of Yorkshire menu.
The food, though, only told half of the tale and, as we mused in the days beforehand, personality is almost as important. After all, by their very nature, chefs are usually hidden away in an unseen section of a restaurant, rarely seen or heard by punters but tasted and judged.
Here, especially in our open-plan apartment kitchen, Chris was very much a part of proceedings and achieved the perfect balance; being involved, without being intrusive.
“There is something special about creating a unique dining experience in a setting where people are naturally very relaxed,” he smiles.
“It also means I am continuously cooking a variety of dishes.
“But of course, service is a huge part of the experience, which means spending time chatting to the guests, having a real knowledge of what you are doing and respecting that you are in someone’s home.
“I think it is incredibly important that you are personable.”
No complaints there, either. Chris buzzed around to ensure that food was served promptly, but was on hand to chat about what went into it and almost blend into the background while we savoured it.
Dessert was split between seasonal Eton mess and chocolate soil, the latter served with vanilla ice cream, tempered chocolate and salted caramel sauce which melted the chocolate when poured over it.
We’ve experienced a similar gimmick before, where almost half of the dessert itself disappeared.
Chris’ version was a triumph of substance and style. My 82-year-old grandmother was smitten, and half-jokingly insisted Chris should cook for her every week. And luckily, there were leftovers.
Will the novelty eventually become the norm? Chris certainly thinks so. “It’s an experience that most people don’t know is available to them,” he says.
“But, when you cost it out, by the time you have paid for taxis and alcohol in a good restautant, you can get the same experience at home for the same price.”
One thing’s for sure: Jane Devonshire, who won MasterChef last year, must have been good.
n Chris, and other Sheffield chefs, are available to book at www.labelleassiette.co.uk/private-chef/sheffield.The meal was paid for by the company, and was not anonymous like usual Telegraph reviews.