The food we’ve missed

Home food delivery has helped to keep us sane over the last 12 months. But dining in the confines of a home school, home office, overnight accommodation and entertainment venue has been ‘plan C’ at best – all a bit stale. Gastronomy is a big part of our event itineraries and as the delivery riders have rung our bell over the last 12 months, we have reflected on the sensational restaurant dining experiences that we have enjoyed over the years.

As with most things in life, a quality dining experience is greater than the sum of its parts. The swagger of the Italian waiter, the views from a Spanish terrace, the incomprehensible industry and cohesion of a Japanese kitchen, the scent of a French wine – they all come together to enhance the dining experience. Food is all about context, the last 12 months have conclusively proven that. So, what have we most missed during our confinement?

The Italians turn a gala dinner into theatre. We had 400 clients dining on the shores of Lake Garda a couple of years ago. Aperitif glasses were lined perfectly across the white linen, the lake shimmered under an early evening sun and the 13th century church reflected the sounds of the port. You could sense the Dolce Vita with every wine poured and each plate served, the passion for and quality of the product are hard to match anywhere in the world. I recall the Risotto dish being served by the waiting team – led by the immaculate head waiter, it was like a Bolshoi production, plates streaming from the kitchen to the place settings. The service, setting, cuisine and wine all came together to create something extraordinary – it was a work of art, true theatre.

Like the Italians, the Spanish can transform the most basic ingredients into otherworldly experiences. During an event in Barcelona in late 2019, a roof top lunch at the historic Majestic Hotel was a real highlight. Lunch consisted of a glass of wine, Pan con Tomate and Jamón Ibérico, whilst the horizon was filled with the ocean, mountains and La Sagrada Família – boxes ticked. You have to marvel at how bread, tomato, olive oil, garlic, and salt can become Pan con Tomate, a taste sensation that defies the simplicity of the ingredients. That though is the essence of exploring great regional cuisine, the surprise at how good, something so simple can be.

If I think of indulgence, cheese fondue comes close to top of the list. Such a simple concept - melted cheese and bread - but take this to a hut overlooking Chamonix-Mont-Blanc and the experience is truly magical. January, nighttime air in the high alpine with fire baskets and mulled wine was the ideal starter for the dining experience. Inside the hut, the scent of the fondue, the ruggedness of the furniture and the free-flowing wine all added to the occasion. Fondue for 1 doesn’t work, it is best enjoyed in small groups - this is a land-grab experience where it pays to watch the progress of others as the pan level sinks and the bread mound disappears. One thing I learnt from a Swiss local some years back, was to get a spoon and hack off the burnt cheese at the bottom of the pan. These are the championship rounds of fondue, for those looking to raise their calorific intake to the mesosphere. Fondue is one of those guilty pleasures that come around once in a while and when that is on a January night looking over to a moonlit Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc, then the occasion is something to behold.

Steak and chips might be a mainstay of UK pub dining but in the Swiss Alps, the dish is elevated to a whole new level. Cooked rare, the Sirloin is sliced and draped over a rösti potato that extends across the skillet. Sauces, bread, wine and an open fire ensure that this is one extraordinary dining experience. Solid tables, a roaring fire and frigid alpine air to freshen up clients on departure are all part of the experience.

For a rare treat, my favourite dining experience would have to be a restaurant in downtown Osaka. Helped by the English downing of the mighty All Blacks during my rugby world cup stay, my evening went from sporting celebration to gastronomic adventure. With google translate on ‘Listen’ (speak) mode and equipped with a restaurant tablet to order the food, our group set out on a truly Japanese gastronomic adventure. To watch the open kitchen function under such intense pressure was remarkable. The rumble of the kitchen and customers, the smells of the dishes and the sights of the towering flames all added to the spectacle. When the food arrived, it was one of the greatest dining experiences I can ever recall. With the tablet in hand, the idea was to order small and often, it was a joy to sample such a range of authentic Osakan cuisine. Japanese trips might be less frequent than European sojourns but if I could teleport to any restaurant in the world, any day of the year, the dial would always be set to Osaka, Japan – it’s like nothing & nowhere else.

Pan of cheese fondue.
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