The only compliment I can give myself in the kitchen is that I'm a competent, if plain, home cook. By that I mean that I can open the refrigerator and look at a random selection of unpromising ingredients, usually a few days' worth of leftovers, and assemble them into a somewhat more promising pie or stew. On a good night the result is delicious enough that it all gets eaten, and the remainder doesn't go back into the fridge and get re-entered into the dinner lottery.
I admire chefs, those food alchemists-cum-artists who seem single-minded in their pursuit for the lightest sauces, or flakiest pastry, or (what I really admire) an unexpected presentation. I read cookbooks knowing that I'll never make most of the recipes, although I would love to eat them. We've tried for a year to get reservations at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons . Unfortunately, we have no social clout to procure a table, and we can't dial the 'phone fast enough when the last spots are thrown open to the dining proletariat.
Mike loves good food, but is content with a regular diet of toast and roast dinners. He never reads cookbooks, and the only meal he can make aside from browning bread or meat is spaghetti. His portion size reflects the size of whatever pan he can lay his hands on first, so sometimes it's an appetizer portion, other times it's enough to feed whatever small country is currently in food crisis.
Mike has a bad history with chefs. When Marco Pierre White shot here, Mike asked Marco when he cooks, how does he keep the beans from sliding off the toast and into the toaster. "Oh F*%k off, Mike" was Marco's response. I told Mike that not everyone appreciates his offhand humour. (In Marco's defense, he was a charming and generous guest, and a champion shot.)
The next time Mike ran into another TV chef was out fishing. Terry, our vet and Mike share the same passion for fishing and practical jokes. Let's just say that somehow the chef got the impression that Mike was judging the prestigious international dog show class that the chef's clumber spaniel was entered in. Technically that gaff was Terry's fault, but I know Mike's hoping the chef doesn't come as a guest one day and recognise him.
So, when I read the guest list for Monday and saw Michel Roux, renowned patissier and Michelin-starred chef was coming, I felt excitement, then dread. I begged Mike to rein in his sense of humour. The Le Gavroche cookbook is a staple in my kitchen. If Mike irritated Monsieur Roux I would never be able to crack that book's spine again without feeling humiliation. I would be doomed to a life of dry toast and roast.
Mike behaved impeccably. He introduced me to Mr. Roux who was almost painfully charming in that way that older Frenchmen are. We had a conversation about cooking (how he can, and I can't) and I could feel myself blushing, trying not to sound sycophantic. Mike stood me behind Mr. Roux to pick up on the last drive. I had Spud the flatcoat picking up for me.
Have I ever mentioned that, as a breed, flatcoats have a propensity for burping? Really loudly?
BRUUUPPP! Before the drive started so Mr Roux didn't have his ear defenders in yet (not that I'm sure those would have saved us). He said nothing, but I saw him sneak a look out of the corner of his eye back to me. Oh God. Do I tell him it was the dog? And who's going to believe that, when 90% of the wind passed in this world gets blamed on the family dog. I just looked at Spud, sighed, and accepted the meal that the universe dished out to me.
Even after that, Michel Roux took my address and promised to send me a copy of his new pastry cookbook, so I could work on my technique. Such a gentleman. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I'd had such a long day in the field, I would be dishing up dinner from our local takeaway. And we'd probably be eating it straight from the plastic container it came in.