Tuesday 23rd November 2004 15:57
As culinary experiences go, £130 for a dinner cooked by a bunch of food critics turned amateur chefs doesn't sound too tempting but, in this case, the dinner was titled "Too Many Critics" and was the grand finale to the annual Restaurants Against Hunger Week, held this year from 9 to 17 October.
The event is organised by charity Action Against Hunger to raise money to help people around the world who suffer from malnutrition. The concept behind Too Many Critics is simple: a group of top food writers and critics get to experience the heat of the kitchen by cooking for a selection of the industry's top chefs, restaurateurs and industry figures.
This year's dinner - hosted by restaurateur and hotelier Soren Jessen and his executive chef Herbert Berger at the Michelin-starred 1 Lombard Street in the City of London, with special guest Rick Stein - was a fantastic success and raised a staggering £28,490. With all food and drink for the evening being donated by suppliers, every penny raised could go directly towards funding worldwide aid programmes in places such as Ethiopia, Kosovo and Iran.
This year's intrepid critics comprised Charles Campion (London's Evening Standard, Metro Life and Rough Guide to London Restaurants), Jill Dupleix (the Times cook), Kate Spicer (Evening Standard, Metro Life), Caroline Stacey (Independent), Jeremy Wayne (Guardian Guide and Tatler), Tracey Macleod (Independent) and Terry Durack (Independent on Sunday).
Also with their work cut out for the evening were Berger and his brigade, who had the unenviable task of keeping a watchful - and patient - eye on the hapless amateur chefs.
To turn the temperature up a little higher, the team's efforts were screened live from the kitchen directly to the eagle-eyed restaurant audience, which included such leading industry names as Heston Blumenthal (the Fat Duck), Jeremy Lee (Blue Print Café), Andrew McLeish (Chapter One), Iqbal Wahhab (Cinnamon Club) and Theodore Kyriakou (the Real Greek).
Despite the challenge of creating a five-course menu for 130 of the industry's most discerning diners, restaurant critic and food writer Bill Knott, the creator of the Too Many Critics concept and a long-term supporter of Action Against Hunger, sees this year's event as being the biggest and best yet.
"Everyone really pitched in, and the quality of the cooking was very good," he says. "Although it's a funny idea to have ham-fisted critics cooking in the kitchen, the food does need to be of a high standard - and this year I thought everyone excelled. We did have a wobbly moment with the jelly, which should have had bubbles in it, but apart from that it all went smoothly. And we didn't even have any kitchen casualties - unlike last year."
Host Berger agrees that the critics all worked hard. "We had a great day and I was very happy with the food," he says. "Probably the most difficult was the game course, as we cooked 150 birds, but there were no disasters or panic."
Following dinner, the evening's proceedings moved on to a luxury raffle prize draw, offering treats such as dinner for four at the Cinnamon Club and a £250 Jimmy Choo voucher, not forgetting a weekend in Milan for the winner of the mystery wine tasting competition.
Under the skilful hand of Christie's auctioneer David Elswood, the serious bidding got under way for goodies such as a magnum of 1995 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, which sold for £600, and a weekend for two at Hotel d'Angleterre in Geneva, which raised a fantastic £1,500. A private-dining lunch for four at Coutts & Co went for £600, while a hotly contested pair of Berluti men's shoes finally sold to one of the team from the Fat Duck for a very impressive £850.
An unexpected donation of a 1995 bottle of Pingus Ribera del Duero from host Jessen boosted the auction's grand total, raising a cool £500, while an all-inclusive night out at London's Milk & Honey bar was bought as a team effort for £2,400.
Speaking after the dinner, special guest Rick Stein, who also supported Action Against Hunger's BBC appeal, thanked the critics for all their hard work and warmly praised the quality of the cooking, while Action Against Hunger trustee Frances Mason thanked everybody on behalf of the charity for their support and involvement.
Pleased with the success of his brainchild, Knott says: "We've raised a fantastic amount of money this year, nearly twice as much as last year, helped by brilliant prizes and all the support from the sponsors and suppliers. The success of Too Many Critics and Restaurants Against Hunger (see panel above) just goes to prove what an enormous contribution the hospitality industry can make to helping the world's hungry."
Restaurants Against Hunger 2004
Between 9 and 17 October more than 180 participating restaurants, caf‚s and pubs up and down the country were raising funds to support humanitarian charity Action Against Hunger.
Now in its fourth year, Restaurants Against Hunger Week has raised a combined total of more than £150,000, with those taking part ranging from famous restaurants such as London's River Caf‚ and the Simply Heathcotes chain to small local caf‚s and office canteens.
This year's goal of £50,000 looks well on the way to being achieved, with restaurants just starting to send back their donations and the running total already in excess of £40,000.
Some of the ways in which the hospitality trade has been raising money include:
- Rukshmani's Indian restaurant in Bolton, Lancashire, hosted a "curry-oke" night, with 20% of the ticket price going to Restaurants Against Hunger.
- London restaurant Fina Estampa held a silent auction of a meal for two.
- Some restaurants created a special dish or menu - for example, the Bermondsey Kitchen in London with its hot chocolate pudding, Brazz in Exeter with a chocolate brownie, and Haldane's restaurant at the University of Stirling with its shortbread.
- Many venues made extra contributions by matching customer donations or through staff handing over their tips for a week.
- Participants of particular note this year included RAF Halton's Catering Training Squadron, six universities and colleges, the Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth in London, and Avenance catering at the National Assembly of Wales.
Too Many Critics menu
- Canapés and oysters
- Breakfast salad (watercress, dry-cured Worcestershire bacon, oeuf mollet and "peace soldiers")
- Red mullet, Singapore laksa sauce, herb salad
- Mound of seasonal game with all the trimmings, celeriac mash
- Kir Royale jelly with cream, biscuits