It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That’s a lie, obviously, but I had a long argument this week about the best opening line of any novel ever and Nineteen Eighty-Four came second. It was actually a warmish, sunny-with-a-chance-of-showers day in July when the intrepid Jackie Lee and I arrived at the Chancery Court Hotel for an afternoon which, we were promised, would change our attitude to barbecuing forever.
Jun Tanaka’s name is becoming more recognisable on an almost-daily basis – his impressive CV (think stints at Le Gavroche, Chez Nico and Chavot), combined with an innovative approach to fine dining which owes much to the fresh, clean and uncomplicated flavours of his Japanese heritage, have done an extraordinary job of raising the profile of the CCH’s in-house restaurant, Pearl. But this is a chef who’s anything but content to stay in the kitchen. He regularly appears on TV programmes from Saturday Kitchen to Cooking It, and his new venture StreetKitchen is a revamped Airstream trailer which pops up around London offering restaurant-quality takeaways to hungry suits.
However, our trip to Holborn was to experience another aspect of Jun’s evident passion for liberating food from the kitchen. Throughout the summer, the Chancery Court’s cavernous courtyard will play host to a series of Seafood Barbecue Masterclasses, during which Jun personally demonstrates a selection of original fishy recipes on a (massive, terrifying) barbecue before the audience tucks into the same dishes as recreated by his team. Strictly limited tickets make everything feel rather intimate, and the CCH’s polished and perfect staff are as welcoming as they are happy to top up the glass of Veuve Clicquot with which guests are met.
After drifting round the courtyard for half an hour, we were ushered to our seats – which, regrettably, were organised in two regimented columns reminiscent of the dreadful Historical Society I used to attend when I was fourteen and a prig. A semi-circle of seats, or failing that a screen showing Jun’s hands at work for the benefit of the back row, would have done a lot to boost the cosy atmosphere. Resplendent in whites and his trademark ponytail, Jun had the audience captivated within seconds of taking the stage, weaving anecdotes and cooking tips into his confident patter. Rolling a chilli between his hands to loosen the seeds before tapping them out, he related a recent mishap where, brushing away a friend who was painstakingly scraping a chilli clean, he managed to fire a seed straight into his eye – “If it had happened to someone else”, he finished ruefully, “it would have been hilarious.” A roar of laughter proved him right.
Jun produced five new recipes for the event, all of which he prepared from scratch in under half an hour. First up was a whole mackerel, simply gutted before being smoked over a huge bunch of well-soaked rosemary – this emitted great gouts of fragrant smoke, adding a welcome hint of Smell-o-VisionTM to the proceedings as Jun whipped up a garnish of fresh horseradish cream. Blackened salmon rolled in a potent mixture of ground spices was accompanied by both a raita-style dressing and another story, this one about Jun’s failed attempt to cook salmon on a pine plank (“I went down to the DIY shop for some wood, and they had oak but I thought ‘No way, too pricey!”) which subsequently burst into flames and annihilated the unfortunate fish – the scorched plank itself was produced as a punchline. The salmon was deliciously fresh, firm and tangy, although regrettably I didn’t get to try the mackerel; the small team working the BBQ after Jun’s demonstration could have done with some reinforcements in order to keep up with demand.
A fascinating mini-lecture on the art of brining meat to keep it moist when cooking over coals was followed by two demonstrations of fish dishes en papillote – the great advantage of barbecuing in a tinfoil bag being, of course, that the impossibility of cross-contamination means meat and fish can finally share a barbecue. Mussels were steamed to perfection with fresh herbs and coconut milk, although the red mullet with chorizo, baby cherry tomatoes and red wine could have done with a gentler touch – as it was, the chorizo nobly sacrificed itself and was burnt to charcoal to preserve the mullet’s moist, succulent integrity. Buttery, gingery scallops cooked in the shell with powdered yuzu were a particular delight, with freshly cooked flatbread and a variety of rich salads on hand to mop up the juices.
Happy though I am to wolf down its charred and smoky delicacies, I loathe actually using a barbecue to the extent that I doubt even Jun could talk me round; the combination of unmanageable heat, unpredictable timing and being required to behave in a macho manner with a huge fork are anathema to me. However, Jun’s recipes did genuinely seem pretty foolproof – and they certainly tasted as good as they looked. If you want me this summer, I’ll be visiting one friend after another with a printed recipe, several mackerel, a disposable barbecue and a hopeful smile…
Jun Tanaka’s seafood barbecue masterclass is at Chancery Court Hotel, 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN. For more information, visit the website. To book a place, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7829 7000. The final masterclass takes place on Sunday 7th August 2011. Places are limited.
Photography (c) Jackie Lee.