Food: Feeling the heat in top chef’s ‘engine room’

Journalist Jeananne Craig (left) with Tredwells restaurant owner Marcus Wareing at his restaurant, in Covent Garden, taking a masterclass with him and his head chef, Chantelle Nicholson
Journalist Jeananne Craig (left) with Tredwells restaurant owner Marcus Wareing at his restaurant, in Covent Garden, taking a masterclass with him and his head chef, Chantelle Nicholson

He doesn’t mince his words as a judge on MasterChef, but what’s Marcus Wareing like in his own kitchen? Jeananne Craig finds out

Marcus Wareing’s latest restaurant is slap bang in the middle of London’s Theatreland, but his kitchen is a drama-free zone.

A former protege of the famously fiery Gordon Ramsay, the top chef has exacting standards and hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind in the past - in fact, he once left one MasterChef semi-finalist in tears, during a 2013 guest stint on the show.

But the spotless kitchen of Tredwell’s, the West End restaurant Wareing opened last September, is an oasis of calm: all sparkling silver worktops, carefully filed away ingredients, and chefs quietly preparing for the busy evening ahead.

Which all comes as a huge relief, because I’m about to cook for the Michelin-starred man himself.

Before I get my apron on, Wareing admits he has mellowed in recent years - something the father-of-three puts down to professional happiness, mastering the work-life balance, and replacing Michel Roux Jr. as a permanent fixture on the MasterChef judging panel last year.

“The MasterChef directors direct you, all the film crew, all the sound men and all the contestants in a very different way to how chefs direct a kitchen,” he notes.

“They do it in such a calm manner. I’ve used and absorbed some of their expertise and calm direction to be able to create my own way of approaching my team.”

As for his earlier appearances on the contest, the the Southport-born chef smiles and confesses: “You’re asked to come onto a show, you’re dragged out of the kitchen and put in a taxi, you’re still in service mode, you go into the studio and get a load of mediocre food put in front of you, you tell them what you think of it and you get in the car and go again. It happens so fast...”

He promises we’ll have fun in the kitchen - or “engine room” - where we’ll be preparing one of the dishes he’s cooking up at the upcoming Taste of London festival (June 17-21), alongside other foodie stars, including Raymond Blanc and Thomasina Miers.

Wareing and Chantelle Nicholson, group operations director of his eateries (he has two other restaurants in the capital), patiently guide me through the prepping and cooking of the harissa-glazed aubergine starter, a popular choice at Tredwell’s.

Thankfully, it’s a really simple dish to make (see recipe below) - slicing an aubergine, browning it on a hot plate, bunging it in the oven and then brushing on a glossy harissa and agave syrup mix.

When it comes to plating up, however, I’m on my own, with no idea how the dish is usually presented.

“Just imagine you’re hosting a dinner party and all your friends are there, waiting,” Wareing says with a grin. Is that a wicked glint I detect in those piercing blue eyes?

As the heat in the kitchen builds up, I layer the aubergine slices before cack-handedly attempting to pipe some coconut yoghurt and sprinkling an overly generous helping of red chilli on top.

Alas, my yoghurt has melted in no time (I laboured too long on that piping) and the aubergines look more slumped than stacked, but Wareing gamely tucks in as I look on, red-faced.

There’s “too much heat”, he says, because I’ve been too liberal with the harissa and red chilli, but overall, he seems happy enough with the taste. As for my sloppy presentation, he assures me that’s something I can brush up on.

I don’t think I’ll be landing a job here any time soon (“I don’t think you’d want one, it’s quite hot in there!” Nicholson says diplomatically), and there’s no way my dish would have made the grade to be served to a customer.

But I’m delighted all the same when Wareing, no doubt keen to get me out the door before the Friday night rush begins, jokingly tells me: “You’re through to the next round”.

Fancy having a go? Here’s a recipe from Tredwell’s by Marcus Wareing for you to try at home...

HARISSA-GLAZED AUBERGINE, COCONUT, PEANUT AND CORIANDER

(Serves 2)

ingredients

1 small aubergine, cut into 6 pieces lengthways

2tbsp rapeseed oil

1/2tsp sea salt

For the Harissa Glaze:

50g rose harissa paste

30g agave syrup

20ml water

1tsp lemon juice

Pinch sea salt

For the dressing:

75g coconut yoghurt (try Co Yo Natural Coconut Milk Yoghurt, £3.49, Waitrose)

1/2 lime, zest and juice

Pinch table salt

To serve:

50g roasted, salted peanuts, roughly chopped

Coriander cress (or fresh coriander)

1/4-1/2 red chilli, finely sliced

method

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Heat a char grill, char grill pan or griddle pan until hot. Brush the aubergine with the oil and season with the salt. Grill well on each side then place on a foil-lined tray and into the oven to finish cooking for 15 minutes.

Mix the harissa paste, agave, water, lemon juice and salt together and set aside.

Mix the yoghurt with the lime juice, zest and salt, set aside.

Remove the aubergine from the oven and brush liberally with the harissa mix, then place back in the oven for five minutes. To serve, place the aubergine on a large plate and dot the yoghurt around, sprinkle with peanuts and chilli and garnish with the coriander.