Little Hallingbury chef Alistair Dibbs, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and with the likes of Tom Kerridge and Tom Kitchin, extols the virtues of growing and cooking your own food
Top chef Alistair Dibbs, from Little Hallingbury, extols the virtues of growing, cooking and eating your own food in his new Plant to Plate column...
I had always had an interest in cooking as both my grandmothers were excellent cooks. But it was when I first saw Gary Rhodes on TV more than 20 years ago that I realised I wanted to be a chef. He was incredibly passionate about British seasonal food, and his style and enthusiasm were incredibly infectious.
After a few pretty disastrous attempts to impress my parents with my cooking skills (or lack of!) I went to chef's college in Southfields in my home town of Leicester – and towards the end of the two-year course I was absolutely delighted to be picked to do my three-month work experience (called a 'stage') at the Michelin-starred Relais & Chateau Hotel de la Plage in the French port city of Brest in Brittany.
Here the chefs had access to the most amazing produce imaginable – fish such as John Dory and freshly-landed sea bass, enormous scallops and lobster as well as seasonal fruit and vegetables.
After an initial few weeks of being given the most menial of kitchen tasks – washing fish and cleaning mussels – I progressed to being allowed to prepare and then cook for paying customers (under strict supervision, of course!) with these fantastic ingredients.
Returning from France, I went to work at Rudding Park in North Yorkshire before moving to the beautiful Peak District and the Michelin-starred Fischer's at Baslow Hall, where I worked with chef and owner Max Fischer, a fanatical gardener and talented chef.
We worked with the very best ingredients available – local venison and beef, spring lamb and hare in season. Amazing fish, scallops and langoustine would be delivered from Scotland. Truffles and cured meats and cheeses would be delivered weekly from France. Salads and vegetables were grown on raised beds in the grounds of the restaurant and would be picked daily by the chefs.
Stages at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford and Hibiscus in Ludlow followed too.
After a couple of years at Fischer's, I went to work at Pied a Terre in London, which was known as one of the toughest kitchens around – cooking some of the very best food in London – before being asked to go back for a second stint at Fischer's, this time on the pastry section.
It was an intense work schedule. Bread and brioches were made twice a day for each service, ice cream and sorbet making, chocolate tempering, petit fours and souffle making were all skills that I perfected.
I then went on to work for Harrods. The food halls and restaurants business within Harrods is huge and varied, and is a miracle of organisation. There is a team of 150 chefs throughout the 18 in-store restaurants and production kitchens, which are in the basement of the building.
I began my time there managing the kitchen operations in the in-store restaurants and then moving on to running the main kitchens and developing dishes for Harrods' seasonal food ranges with chefs such as Tom Kerridge, Helene Dorroze, Tom Kitchin, vegan chef/author Anna Jones and nutritional author and lifestyle expert Madeleine Shaw. I also travelled extensively through many of the major European cities, sampling new and exciting food destinations.
The interest in growing produce came later, although I have always had a keen interest in produce and seasonality. Each spring growing up, myself with my brothers and sister would help our father plant runner beans, courgettes, salads, radishes and sunflowers.
My grandmother was a keen gardener too. Every year she would grow delicious wild strawberries and rhubarb in the border around her lawn and in the summer tended a large greenhouse bursting with all manner of tomatoes and cucumbers, and a fruit-bearing cheery tree.
Come with me on a culinary journey
If you managed to get your seeds planted at the beginning of lockdown then now is about the time that you should be starting to reap the rewards from your garden.
In our garden, March was when we spent a couple of back-breaking weeks building and planting new vegetable beds and installing a green house. The greenhouse has been a revelation and has enabled us to plant a variety of produce than we would have normally and to get a bit of a head start!
Beware though! During the recent warm weather the green house has reached 52C – (125F) and that was during April! Needless to say that there were more than a few vegetable casualties and some hasty replanting was needed.
Over the next few months I will be sharing with you some of my favourite recipes utilising garden produce. Some of them are straightforward and some a little more ambitious. This is also a journey for me as, although I have many years of experience as a chef, the world of growing my own produce is a more of a recent passion!
Salad of beetroot, radish, orange and creamed goat's cheese
This delicious and vibrant salad has four elements that you can grow yourself if you are feeling ambitious, but it is almost as good with shop-bought items if you don’t have home-grown produce.
400g medium-sized beetroot
8 large leaves of lettuce (I use baby gem or oakleaf)
Chopped chives or coriander
400g chevre or other goat’s cheese
100g double cream
2 large oranges
80ml extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
First wash all the produce.
In a large pan, cover the beetroot in cold salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer it slowly until the beetroot is cooked through but still has a little bit of bite and then leave it to cool in the water.
Discard the water and peel the beetroot when it’s still warm (this is the easiest way to peel it). Slice it very carefully into thin discs about 2mm thick.
Segment the oranges by removing the top and bottom inch of skin. Next, place the orange on a chopping board and remove all the skin with a sharp knife as evenly as possible. You can then cut out each segment from the orange. Reserve the juice too.
For the dressing, add two tablespoons of the orange juice to the lemon juice and add the olive oil, then season with the salt and pepper. Place the beetroot in the dressing to marinade for half an hour.
For the goat’s cheese, remove and discard the skin and dice into chunks. Place it in a microwave for a few seconds to slightly soften it. Mix the cream into the softened cheese until the lumps have gone and it is smooth but firm. Grate the zest of the lemon in too and add a little black pepper. Put it in a container and place it in the fridge to firm up.
To assemble the dish, place around 10 beetroot discs on your plate to form a ring then scatter some orange segments on top of them. Dress your leaves and place them on top of the beetroot.
Next, heat a large tablespoon by dipping it in some hot water, then scoop some of the goat’s cheese with it, trying to keep it as neat as possible (this is called a quenelle) and place it on top of the leaves.
Finish the salad with some thinly-sliced radishes, the chopped herbs and a little bit more dressing around the plate.
I make this using King Edward potatoes, but others will work well. Early potatoes like ratte would be good, or if you’re feeling adventurous then try it with purple potatoes.
Hasselback potatoes have recently regained popularity and make a stunning side dish for a barbecue or roast chicken.
8 medium-sized potatoes
4 cloves of garlic
1 sprig of thyme
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
200ml beef or chicken stock (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Wash and dry the potatoes and lay them on a chopping board. Trim a little bit off the base of the potato so it sits flat on your chopping board. Next, insert a metal skewer horizontally into the potato a centimetre or so above its base.
With a sharp knife make a series of even cuts through the potato, working your way down it. The skewer will stop you cutting fully through the potato and give a fan effect when it is cooked. Ten cuts per potato is fine. Remove the skewer and repeat for the remaining potatoes.
Peel and slice the garlic thinly and insert one slice of garlic into each cut of the potato. Do this to all the remaining potatoes.
To cook the potatoes, heat a heavy frying pan on a medium heat. Add the butter and wait for it to start foaming. Add the potatoes cut-side down and season with the salt and pepper. When they are golden brown, turn them over and add the thyme.
Place the pan in the oven and cook for around 40 minutes, basting with the butter every 10 minutes. If you are using the stock, add it after 30 minutes and baste the potatoes with it during the last 10 minutes of cooking – this will give the potatoes an extra richness.
Check the potatoes are cooked by inserting a knife in the centre. The potatoes should be soft all the way through but not falling apart.
Alistair runs Hallingbury Events Company – www.hallingburyeventscompany.co.uk – a creative food-led weddings and events caterer based in Bishop's Stortford. They will cater at your home or venue and also have an events space, the Red Lion in Weston, near Hitchin.