The cut and thrust of life in a professional kitchen is the stuff of which legends are made – or at least top-rated TV programmes. But in two decades as a food writer, it was something I’d never witnessed at first hand.
Okay, the vogue for open kitchens has given us a peephole into the mysteries of a chef’s life, but it hides much of the gritty reality. So imagine the excitement when we were invited to try out the newly-enlarged Kitchen Table at Baslow’s prestigious Cavendish Hotel.
It was with a sense of impending revelation that we presented ourselves for champagne and canapés in the lounge. Then came the moment we’d been waiting for as we were ushered through the hallowed swing-door to the inner sanctum.
Anyone familiar with the fire and brimstone of Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen will know exactly what to expect, with pressure mounting as the orders build up...
Harrassed chefs bustle anxiously, juggling steaming dishes and spitting pans; red-faced underlings jump to carry out barked instructions, with flustered cries of “Yes, Chef!”.
Except it’s not like that.
Disappointing though it may be to some, I have to admit that the Cavendish kitchen is an oasis of organised calm.
In charge is head chef Mike Thompson, who had his own place for several years – which may explain how he keeps things running so smoothly. But add to the job’s everyday demands an awareness that every move is being watched by a fascinated audience – and the fact that his first baby is due at any time – and it’s astonishing that he can carry on with such apparent ease.
Mike started out along a very different career path, as a semi-professional footballer with teams including Sheffield United youth and Chesterfield FC. When knee problems forced a rethink, he followed older brother Brian to catering college.
A series of jobs followed, at high-profile hotels including Bath Priory, Hambleton Hall and Fischer’s, then he was lured away to Thyme in Crosspool, where he became head chef for owner Richard Smith.
That led to a partnership in The Druid at Birchover, which won a Bib Gourmand and remained in the Thompson family until 2012. At that point, seeking a new challenge, he joined the Cavendish.
“I like it here,” he says. “I was old school when I first came in, but I love what we do now. We’ve built up a good team and I can be creative without all the paperwork that goes with running your own business.”
The Cavendish Hotel – once the Peacock Inn – has been part of the Chatsworth Estate for nearly 200 years, enjoying an elegant air and magnificent views across the park.
The Kitchen Table was thought to be the first of its kind in the country when it was introduced some 20 years ago. Originally seating only two, it was literally just a table in the corner of the room.
However, following recent refurbishment of some bedrooms, interior designer Rachel Mclane was asked to upgrade the feature. It is now a comfortable booth for four, complete with solid wood table, its own air conditioning system and a grandstand view of the kitchen.
Senior chef de parti Ed Poole, manning the pass, talks us through what’s happening as we sit back to enjoy this taste of real-life food theatre.
Mike checks if there’s anything to avoid food-wise, then serves our first course: beautifully light fois gras terrine, balanced with a stuffing of prunes and confit duck and finished with textures of pineapple – soft gel, firm jelly, juicy flesh and a crisp, paper-thin ring that shatters like glass.
Our meal comes with a flight of carefully chosen wines, each introduced by restaurant manager Stuart Bond. The first, a Sauternes, is a revelation, perfectly marrying the creamy sweetness of the duck.
Next comes aromatic tarragon-crusted halibut and a contrasting ox cheek, braised for 48 hours to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness and topped with a shard of crispy bacon.
It’s all beautifully presented and appears before us as if by magic while all around the work goes on to produce dishes for the restaurant.
There’s an air of concentration, punctuated by the sizzle of grilling meat, the occasional beep of a timer and the regular ‘ding’ of the service bell.
Game next: pigeon two ways on a bed of spicy, cumin-scented puy lentils with deep fried sage leaves and crisp onion rings, fine as rubber bands.
Then scallops, beautifully succulent, with little nuggets of earthy black pudding, crisp dehydrated pork skin – like savoury honeycomb – and batons of apple.
We continue with venison, always a favourite, shot on the Chatsworth estate and butchered by the kitchen team. There are steaks and a Bolognese with just a hint of sweetness, orange segments to cut through the richness and little bursts of flavour: beetroot, marinaded cherry, melted stilton, chocolate soil and micro-basil garnish.
Then a dessert of hot and cold crumble: apple sticks, sweet purée and salsa, crisp pieces of sticky toffee pudding, crumble and ice cream.
And finally lemon tart with textures of dark chocolate, raspberries and strawberry.
We leave them washing the floor with soapy water and head for coffee in the lounge.
Dinner at the Kitchen Table is £85 per person, plus £29.95 for wines and a 5% service levy.
l The Cavendish Hotel, Baslow (01246) 582311 Cavendish Hotel