How to Cook Like the Chef at the Ritz
(Bloomberg) -- You might not think that the Ritz London needs putting on the map.
Since opening its doors in 1906, the hotel has become a global byword for luxury, long before Julia Roberts stopped there in Notting Hill. Suites can cost thousands of pounds a night. Fancy afternoon tea? The wait for a table can be nine months, even though there are five seatings a day, beginning at 11:30 a.m. and finishing eight hours later. Prices start at £57 ($73).
Yet the restaurant, housed in one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Europe, has received fewer accolades than you might expect. It only won a Michelin star two years ago, and many diners still don’t realize that the food and service are superb. Yes, prices are high, but the luncheon menu at £57 would be in reach of the thousands of guests trying for afternoon tea.
Chef John Williams is trying to achieve the wider respect and recognition that the restaurant deserves, and he just published the hotel’s first cookbook in its 112-year history, with recipes for everything from scrambled eggs with salmon, through honey-glazed duck with lavender & hay to the Ritz trifle.
OK, you might not want to try them all at home. The ingredients alone for a dish such as mosaic of game en croûte (including “equal quantities of woodcock, pheasant, wild duck and Bresse duck breast) present a formidable challenge before you even attempt to make it. But not all are so difficult, and Williams himself is a remarkably down-to-earth chef from a working class family in the northeast of England. He still speaks with his distinctive Tyneside accent.
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is Aromatic Nage of Dublin Bay Prawns. Williams, 60, cooks it for me in the basement kitchen at the Ritz, when he speaks fondly of his childhood.
“My dad was a fisherman,” he says. “So these prawns, I was never able actually to have the tails. The tails were sent for scampi. But the claws, he used to bring and he’d say, ‘Here lad, crack that open.’ And I used to suck on it like a lolly. And it was such a special thing. That’s why they have become special to me today. I came from a family of six kids, and my mother chose me as the helper. The first thing she ever taught me to do was to scrape the Jersey Royals.” He helped her prepare those potatoes with mint sauce.
As a young chef, he walked past the Ritz and decided he would work there one day. He has gone on to cook for kings, queens and leading politicians. The late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was a particular fan of his apple & bramble dessert. Williams has come a long way from his childhood in South Shields, a five-hour drive north of London.
“It’s one hell of a journey,” he says.
Here is his recipe for those prawns:
Aromatic Nage of Dublin Bay Prawns | Serves 4
12 Dublin Bay prawns (live raw langoustines)
1 quantity Cauliflower Purée
For the court-bouillon
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, trimmed, cleaned and chopped
½ celery stick, chopped
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
1 carrot, finely sliced
20ml (¾f l oz) white wine
1 litre (1¾ pints) water
1 bay leaf
1 bouquet garni
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 star anise
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
5 black peppercorns
½ lemon, sliced
For the blanched vegetables
4 baby carrots
20g (¾oz) pearl onions
20g (¾oz) celery batons
20g (¾oz) trimmed and finely sliced
For the nage
about 50g (1¾oz) butter
80g (2¾oz) shallots, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 star anise
40ml (1½f l oz) vermouth
100ml (3½f l oz) Chicken Stock
1 tbsp good-quality vegetable stock
1 tbsp double cream
1 tsp chopped chervil
1 tsp chopped chives
10 tarragon sprigs
juice of ½ lemon
sea salt flakes
To finish (optional, or use other herbs of your choice)
8 bronze or green fennel sprigs, 8 lovage cress sprigs
The first task is to make courtbouillon. This aromatic vegetable stock is often used for poaching and takes its name from the French for “short” (court) and “boil” or “broth” (bouillon). It is made within 30 minutes. All of the courtbouillon ingredients – except for the sliced lemon – are placed in a large saucepan, brought to the boil and reduced to a simmer for 20 minutes. The pan comes off the heat and the lemon is added to infuse as the broth cools. The courtbouillon is ready. Set it aside and turn your attention to the prawns.
Take a prawn. Break the shell and remove the intestine – also known as the vein – from its tail using a paring knife. Now do the same with the other prawns. Wash them under cold running water and pat them dry with kitchen paper.
Now put the court-bouillon back on the heat and, when it comes to a proper boil, slide in the prawns. Cook them for 2 minutes – no more – and then remove them with a slotted spoon. Once cooled, remove the shells from only the tails of the prawns. Keep the shells as you’ll need them soon. Set the prawns aside.
Now blanch the carrots, pearl onions, celery and fennel. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, add the vegetables, bring back to the boil and after about a minute of cooking, strain the vegetables and refresh them in cold water. Set them aside, too.
Next, the nage, traditionally a liquor in which fish is poached. Nage is French for “swim,” though there’s not much swimming done in this pot. Melt 30g (1oz) of the butter in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Sweat the shallots with the reserved prawn shells, bay leaf and star anise. Keep the heat quite high. Pour in the vermouth and let it bubble away until it has reduced to a syrupy consistency. Pour in the stocks, bring back to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and continue like that for 20–25 minutes.
Pour in the cream and bring it, again, to the boil. Cut the remaining butter into small cubes, and add them, a little at a time, to the nage, constantly stirring with a balloon whisk to produce a hot, buttery foam. Pass the sauce through a chinois or fine-mesh sieve and season to taste with salt and Espelette pepper. Return the pan to the heat, add the blanched vegetables, chervil, chives and tarragon. Add a squeeze or two of lemon juice.
The dish is finished like this: spoon cauliflower purée into the center of each bowl; arrange 3 prawns in a circle around the purée; spoon the blanched vegetables on top; pour over the nage and garnish with the fennel and lovage cress, or any other herbs of your choice.
And don’t fight over the claws.
For the cauliflower purée
30g (1oz) butter
120g (4¼oz) cauliflower, sliced on a mandolin or very finely chopped
120ml (4f l oz) double cream
120ml (4f l oz) milk
To make the cauliflower purée
In a saucepan, melt the butter over a medium-high heat. When it starts to foam, add the cauliflower slices. Cook them for about 5 minutes, or until they have softened, before pouring in the cream and milk. Cook over a high heat, stirring as the milk and cream bubble, reduce and thicken. Once cooked, drain and blend to a purée. Season, cover with clingfilm and set aside.
“The Ritz London: The Cookbook,” by John Williams MBE, is published by Mitchell Beazley in hardback at £30 in the U.K. It will be published in the U.S. on Oct. 2 at $40.
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