Chairman of judges in a new professional cooking competition designed to promote California wine in the UK announces the winner.
On the grounds that there are very few original ideas in this world and that we survive and prosper on reinterpretations and improvements on what we collectively consider have proved to be the best of the past, let me explain my role in the initial Cook with California competition – the winner of which I announced earlier this morning in the studios of 67 Pall Mall TV.
The whole notion was based on something similar that originated in the 1980s and was called the Mouton Cadet Menu competition. Professional chefs were invited to submit their three-course menu and to pair it with any wine from the Mouton stable. Their paper entries were pored over by a fearsome collection of wine and food judges – Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler, Jancis, the late Michel Roux and Bill Baker, inter alia. The whole enterprise was overseen by David Russell, then king of the wine PR world (he represented both Ch Mouton Rothschild and Krug). I benefited from the fact that the judges were paid in cases of Mouton. Those were the days…
When we were in California in February 2020 I mentioned this competition to Honore Comfort, the highly enthusiastic vice president of international marketing for the California Wine Institute, who loved the idea of replicating the Mouton Menu competition. We discussed it in London in early March 2020 and then COVID-19 struck.
While there was some progress, thanks to the enthusiasm of Justine McGovern and Damien Jackman, who together represent the California Wine Institute in the UK, Ireland, UAE and India, there was precious little initially from the restaurants or the chefs themselves. They all had far greater preoccupations: the notion of ‘pivoting’ to takeaway, furlough, and the prospect of very little in the way of positive cash flow for the foreseeable future were all far more immediate concerns. But there was no hiding the Californians’ enthusiasm for the project.
When UK restaurants finally reopened, this competition, called Cook with California as chefs were urged to pair the best British produce with the best California wine, was finally launched on social media with Decanter magazine. The judges were chef and food writer Rowley Leigh, Jancis and the knowledgeable Lisa Markwell,who, until very recently, was food editor of The Sunday Times.
Concern about a paucity of entries proved groundless. By the time the call for entries had closed in early August this year there were more than enough for the judges to produce an exciting shortlist of five: 67 Pall Mall, Noble Rot, The Ritz, Etch from Hove in Sussex, which was the only restaurant to thoughtfully provide a written menu alongside their dishes, and a team called Bessi Britt, the combination of sommelier Beatrice Bessi, head sommelier at the Chiltern Firehouse, and chef Sven-Hanson Britt from the soon-to-open Oxeye restaurant in Embassy Gardens, London. The judging of these five three-course meals was set for Monday 27 September.
Monday proved to be a clever day on which to hold the competition. Not only is it the quietest day of the week for the competitors, but it is also the day of the week when our son’s two restaurants which happen to be no more than a short walk away from each other are closed. Negotiations were amicably conducted and the idea that we four would sit down to California wines at 10 am complemented by three courses and then get up from the same table at 3 pm after 12 more courses and 12 more wines quietly came to pass. (Three of the meals were cooked and served in Portland restaurant, the other two in Clipstone – the short walk between the two providing the judges’ only exercise!)
We then adjourned to the private dining room in the basement of Portland to decide on the winner. I know that every chairman of every judging panel of any competition in the world observes how difficult the judging process has been and what a close-run thing the whole process was. But in this case it really was. It was interesting that we judges were presented with no fewer than three fine, mature Napa Cabernets: Matthiasson, Dead Fred 2014 Coombsville from Etch; Mt Brave 2013 Mt Veeder (The Ritz); and Grace Family, Blank 2011 from Rutherford in Napa Valley. There was also one wine, Arnot Roberts North Coast Trousseau, that was presented twice: the 2019 from Bessi Britt with the very pretty starter of Park Farm wax beans braised with salted favas and shallot with a sauce of smoked eel and geranium and, less successfully, the 2018 with Etch chef Steven Edwards’ wonderfully accomplished Ambanja chocolate ganache.
Even my decisive intervention as chairman once we had all been fortified by a cup of tea that two of the contestants, 67 Pall Mall and The Ritz, had not really been of the standard of the other three did not help that much. This still left three very strong candidates. (Criticisms ranged from a weak selection of California wines to cooking that lacked the finesse of the others to a slightly too talkative, over-fussy sommelier.)
The final, unanimous decision of all the four judges was that it was the combined cooking of New Zealand chef Mike Murphy and the wine pairings conceived of by his Australian sommelier Joshua Castle that made Noble Rot the first winners of the Cook with California competition. Murphy’s food was excellent: a re-interpretation of Thomas Keller’s ‘pearls and oysters’ dish (pictured below), with the Lindisfarne oysters definitely special, paired with a bottle of Matthiasson’s 2017 White Blend; a rich roast quail with grapes paired with a Joseph Swann 2009 Trenton Syrah (interestingly there was not a bottle of Zinfandel from any entrant); and a slightly too sweet combination of pain perdu and hokey pokey ice cream (hokey pokey being New Zealand's famous honeycomb sweet) paired with a particularly interesting bottle of 2013 Late Harvest Viognier from Kunin in Santa Barbara.
So, many congratulations to Murphy and Castle, who have now won the top prize of a trip to California in April/May 2022, and also to the other four finalists, especially Etch and the Bessi Britt pair, both of whose entries had real merit.
The repercussions may be less significant than those of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 overall but the result was just as close.