Juxtaposition of life and death in food and wine

Every now and then, the polarity of life and death approaches something akin to poignant.

Wine Grapes and Art of the Restaurateur launch menu

As I got ready for my friend José Vouillamoz’s book launch at Caravan King’s Cross (he co-authored Wine Grapes with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding), I happened to see on Twitter that two Fat Duck chefs had died in a tragic accident in Hong Kong. Having staged at both Fat Duck and Dinner, I delved on.

Never in a million years would I have thought that it would be someone I knew. Why should it be? It never happens to people you know. Right?

Except soon it materialised that I did know one of the chefs.

Jorge was the sous chef at Dinner when I staged there in April. I remember thinking he must be very suspicious of me. What was a journalist doing in the kitchen? And I remember thinking that he was very stern and, like a naughty school kid, I wouldn’t want to be told off by him.

Having spent seven long days in the kitchen and spoken to everyone, it was my turn to be curious.

at the pass, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

I polled all the young chefs on who they most enjoyed working with in the kitchen and the majority came back as Jorge. There was a legend building around this man who I didn’t know terribly well but who was respected as a teacher and colleague and who apparently had amazing palate and technique.

Several weeks later, I happened to bump into him at one of the after parties of World’s 50 Best Restaurants at Dego. I asked him about this legend; he was embarrassed. I learnt that he had wanted to work at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon but never did. So I invited him to dine there with me.

Red berry cream sphere, l'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, London

Over counter service and many glasses of wine at  L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, I found out a little bit more about the rather introverted Jorge. About him leaving Colombia; about his late introduction to cooking – from working as a waiter to becoming a chef; about his little girl who he adores; about experimenting with Thomas Keller‘s books at home. All sorts of things.

More than anything, I saw someone who genuinely appreciated good food. Certainly much more than any of my friends who I take to restaurants. Here was someone who studied the kitchen even as he indulged on some of the most delicious and creative food that I’ve ever had the chance to have; who examined the plates for technique while I photographed; who savoured the wine matches even if the food took precedence. A regular working Tuesday for me was a real treat for him and one which he very graciously appreciated.

Why do these details matter?

Well, not really. I didn’t know Jorge terribly well after all. It shocked and saddened me but all the while I felt fraudulent in my emotions. Though we exchanged emails recently, I wasn’t someone who worked with him every day or someone who was in his life. Still, it was poignant.

After sampling six interesting and different Swiss wines at the aforementioned joint launch of Wine Grapes and Art of the Restaurateur, I was back to contemplating.

Why does this bother me so?

And then I realised.

Jorge was someone who I took the time to know, and I’m glad that I did. Someone who was in my life only by coincidence and chance but who I very likely wouldn’t have gotten to know very well or stayed in touch with any regularity. He was also someone who has died suddenly and out of the blue.

Then there was my friend Alex who I invited a Taittinger tasting (the unveiling of their Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 2004) on Friday. I’ve known Alex a long time but he’s someone who I rarely see because he’s in the army. Every time I say goodbye I say “see you next year” because in all honesty, that’s the most likely time-span. Our daily lives couldn’t be more different but in this moment, it merged.

Exponential graph

He’s off to Afghanistan next year. The first time, in my mind, to a war zone. Inadvertently, it seems, I worried. It’s a burden I’ve never wanted. I told him I’d be sad if he died. He laughed. So confident that he wouldn’t. But the probability, as far I’m concerned, has increased exponentially. I’m sure, as a former aeronautical engineer, he’ll draw me more graphs of how it isn’t so; as he did on the back of my Taittinger tasting notes. Still, wells displaced my eyes and I swallowed the lump in my throat to joke some more.

In the end, I guess it all comes down to chance.

Jorge did nothing out of the ordinary and yet he died in a tragic accident; and he will be missed by many who have known and loved him. Alex is fast approaching the front line and I’m making the effort to blur out that moment. Guess I’m already missing him, which is what he always wanted anyway.

Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, Bray, tasting lunch

Menu from a lunch at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, Bray, (I was in the kitchen observing service and trying the food “at the pass”) where a choice of wine flights were available for each course:

Nitro poached aperitifs in vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic, Campari soda

Red cabbage gazpacho, pommery grain mustard ice cream

Jelly of quail, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast

Güney Sevilen 900 fumé blanc 2009, Denizli, Turkey


Lucien le Moine Bourgogne 2006, Burgundy, France

Snail porridge, Iberico Bellota ham, shaved fennel

Antinori Castello della Sala Cervaro della Sala 2008, Umbria, Italy


Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2006, Burgundy, France

Roast foie gras, barberry, braised kombu and crab biscuit

Rene Mure Signature Pinot Gris 2010, Alsace, France


Prophet’s Rock pinot gris 2010, Central Otago, New Zealand

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (c.1850), Mock Turtle soup, pocket watch and toast sandwich

“Sound of the sea”

Miyasaka Brewery DaiGinjo Masumi Nanago, Nagano prefecture, Japan

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, asparagus, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe

Allegrini La Grola Veronese 2008, Veneto, Italy


Quinta Vale das Escadinhas Quinta de Falorca Dão 2004, Terras do Dão, Portugal

Lamb with cucumber (c.1805), onion and dill fluid gel

Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino 2006, Tuscany, Italy


Château la Croix Toulifaut 2001, Bordeaux, France

Hot and iced tea

Macerated strawberries, olive oil biscuit, chamomile, coriander, jelly and ice cream cornet

Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2008, Sicily, Italy


Château d’Yquem 1er cru classe supérieur Sauternes 1996, Bordeaux, France

The “BFG”, Kirsch ice cream and the smell of the Black Forest

Alta Alella Dolç Mataró Alella 2009, Catalunya, Spain

Whisk(e)y wine gums

“Like a kid in a sweet shop”

A few dashed Blackberry photographs are available on the In Pursuit of Food Facebook page.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards 2012

This year I was lucky enough to cover the 10th World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards for Canadian magazine The Tomato. I was pleased to see so many new entries into the top 50 and indeed the top 100, showing a much more diverse collection of restaurants than last year. Especially Dinner by Heston Blumenthal which was the highest new entry at number nine and where I recently did a stage. I was also surprised, as I’m sure many were, to see some of the movers and shakers on the list. And of course, there were some lovely canapés by Massimo Bottura and Rhubarb. More words to the effect of what happened at the awards will mostly be disseminated there, to be posted in due course.

In the mean time though, here are the winners and a few of my snaps of the event before glasses of Veuve Clicquot turned into champagne slur:

The winner’s list:

1 Noma
2 El Celler De Can Roca
3 Mugaritz
4 D.O.M
5 Osteria Francescana
6 Per Se
7 Alinea
8 Arzak
9 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
10 Eleven Madison Park
11 Steirereck
12 L’Atelier Saint-Germain de Joel Robuchon
13 The Fat Duck
14 The Ledbury
15 Le Chateaubriand
16 L’Arpege
17 Pierre Gagnaire
18 L’Astrance
19 Le Bernardin
20 Frantzén/Lindeberg
21 Oud Sluis
22 Aqua
23 Vendôme
24 Mirazur
25 Daniel
26 Iggy’s
27 Les Creations de Narisawa
28 Nihonryori RyuGin
29 Quay
30 Schloss Schauenstein
31 Asador Etxebarri
32 Le Calandre
33 De Librije
34 Fäviken
35 Astrid Y Gaston
36 Pujol
37 Momofuku Ssam Bar
38 Biko
39 Waku Ghin
40 Quique Dacosta
41 Mathias Dahlgren
42 Hof van Cleve
43 The French Laundry
44 Amber
45 Vila Joya
46 Il Canto
47 Bras
48 Manresa
49 Geranium
50 Nahm

The S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, play by close approximation

A potted tale of how it came to be that I made it to the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards last night…

50 Best Restaurant 2011 logo11.39am The phone rings: “is anyone going to this World’s 50 Best Restaurants thing? Someone should go and represent the magazine.”

*ding ding ding*

I perk up, light bulb switches on over head. So that’s what all the hush, hush discussion has been about here and there.

15.35pm Slight excitement in the room. No one has confirmed that anyone is going yet.

“I am well up for that,” I quip in. Naturally said more in jest than anything else. After all, I already had plans to visit a certain Bistro du Vin in Clerkenwell. A marmalade martini had been promised and I was excited. Excited I say. And I had plans I wanted to discuss.

16.42pm The ed. finally gets in touch post Le Manoir experience. He totally has it covered. The buzz subsides and things return to normal.

17.26pm The ed. calls again: “I’m on my way back but I don’t think I can be there in time, can anyone else go?”

*ding ding ding*! (*ding!*)

I perk up again. You have to be in it to win it they say and by some miracle everyone else was busy. The ‘burden’, if you can call it that, falls to me. “Bring back a press pack,” I hear over the excited ding in my head as I email to cancel, at the very last minute, my Bistro du Vin visit (really very sorry indeed!).

I feel like a kid in a sweet shop – one who has already consumed a large amount  of sugared products and subsequently developed a bit of a tick. Most annoying but maybe also slightly adorable too.

17.34pm I dash out of the office, walking with something that’s really between a hop and a skip, concerned that I would be late. The hardcore gym sessions over the weekend has really caught up with me. I berate myself over my choice of shoes, should’ve worn tights too. At least my dress is ok. “Oh my god, is it? It’s a tad on the short side with this no tights business. And what if it was black tie? Arggh, I don’t know what’s going on.” Slight panic.

17.48pm My train still hasn’t arrived. It is late, just like I’m going to be. More panic. I pace up and down the platform in an odd sort of limp, from aforementioned gym sessions. I stop when I realised that I haven’t seen my face for a while and quickly slap on everything I’ve got, make up wise that is.

17.50pm The train arrives at last. “It’s ok, the Waterloo and City line won’t take long at all.” As I sit on the train though, I can’t stop that nervous tick. I open my bag, get out my phone, try to check the time then put it back. Two seconds later I realise that I haven’t seen the time at all but was merely satisfied that I had no new messages. I get out my phone again and repeat.

Eventually, sensing annoyance from my neighbour, I play Solitaire. It keeps me preoccupied for a while.

18.42pm I am here! Who’d thunk it? This is madness. There’s a tonne of people outside the Guildhall. Mostly media types – people carrying cameras, holding notebooks, extending microphones. I go to the entrance only to be told the media entrance is in the other direction. Being turned away, albeit to another entrance, feels like it should be the walk of shame.

I trundle towards the media entrance and spot someone I know and feel instantly reassured. For a second, I was having a Bridget Jones moment. You know, the moment when someone says “Qin, you’re an imposter. Get out of here!”

It didn’t happen. Thankfully. Could’ve just been the Veuve Clicquot flowing alongside the red/white wine and mineral water.

World's 50 Best Awards

20.35pm We have all been bundled into the hall for the awards. I sit somewhere in the middle between two men with contrasting suit textures. A woman sits in front with an extremely fluffy looking feather wrap, which I can’t stop blowing. Must behave. And sit through all 50 restaurant awards. Without water. Or loo breaks. It’s like a school assembly but Twitter is my friend. I ponder the décor.

The rest, as they say, is history. Some were certainly made at the after parties in Sanderson and Milk & Honey

The winner’s list:

1 Noma
2 El Celler De Can Roca
3 Mugaritz
4 Osteria Francescana
5 The Fat Duck
6 Alinea
7 D.O.M
8 Arzak
9 Le Chateaubriand
10 Per Se
11 Daniel
12 Les Creations de Narisawa
13 L’Astrance
14 L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
15 Hof van Cleve
16 Pierre Gagnaire
17 Oud Sluis
18 Le Bernardin
19 L’Arpege
20 Nihonryori RyuGin
21 Vendome
22 Steirereck
23 Schloss Schauenstein
24 Eleven Madison Park
25 Aqua
26 Quay
27 Iggy’s
28 Combal Zero
29 Martin Berasategui
30 Bras
31 Biko
32 Le Calandre
33 Cracco
34 The Ledbury
35 Chez Dominique
36 Le Quartier Francais
37 Amber
38 Dal Pescatore
39 Il Canto
40 Momofuku Ssam Bar
41 St John
42 Astrid Y Gaston
43 Hibiscus
44 Maison Troisgros
45 Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee
46 De Librije
47 Restaurant de l’Hotel De Ville
48 Varvary
49 Pujol
50 Asador Etxebarri