WHEN the Scottish Chefs Association was invited to cook the official dinner to mark the restoration of the country's parliament after three centuries, its chief executive, Brian Hannan, didn't have to go too far to look for volunteers. Not only did top chefs Nick Nairn, Jeff Bland and Ronnie Clydesdale each undertake to create and cook a course, but 50 other chefs from all over Scotland offered their services free of charge simply because they wished to be part of the historic event.
"Most had never seen each other before [the day of the banquet] - there were chefs from the Isle of Skye to the Borders - but everybody who took part was so proud to be involved they just got stuck in. It was marvellous to see," says Bland, executive chef at Edinburgh's Balmoral hotel.
Bland, who devised the function's main course, had worked on similar events in the past with Nairn and Clydesdale - chef-proprietors, respectively, of Glasgow restaurants Nairns and Ubiquitous Chip - and his two colleagues had already earmarked the starter and dessert courses for themselves before he was brought on board. "Jeff had the difficult course," admits Clydesdale readily, "but then he has more experience in banqueting than Nick or myself."
The ground rules were to use Scottish produce and not to try anything over-elaborate. Although there were no other constraints, one overriding practical factor had to be taken into consideration when drawing up the menu. The kitchen at the banqueting venue - Edinburgh's flagship millennium project, the Dynamic Earth centre - was located two flights down from front of house. This made it essential to create dishes that could be assembled and served without them deteriorating in the time lapse between the two areas. It also made the team decide on only one hot dish, Bland's main course, flanked by a cold starter and dessert.
Kicking off the dinner with a cold dish meant that it could be placed on the tables before the guests were called in to dinner, thereby eliminating time wastage caused by having to delay service until everyone was seated. Nairn's starter was a recreation of a dish he had previously served at a banquet in S‹o Paulo, Brazil. It consisted of a bed of hot-smoked salmon, topped with a whole langoustine from Scotland's West Coast, avocado salsa and salad leaves. "We got a lot of good feedback about it in Brazil and it's really easy to do," says Nairn, adding that the salad leaves, all 8.6kg of them, were supplied from his own market garden.
"It took six-and-a-half hours to cut the leaves the day before the banquet," he says. "We washed them and stuck them in the fridge overnight - the only bit of prepping off-site that we did, because the last thing you want is a slug on the first minister's salad!" Included in the selection were red Russian kale, red mustard leaves, Japanese parsley, mizuna, rocket, flat parsley, coriander and chives.
Chives also formed the basis of a herb oil drizzled around the dish's central bed of salmon. Two further oils, a lobster oil and balsamic syrup, were alternated with this to provide complementary colour and flavour.
Unlike the starter, Bland's main course of spring lamb cutlets accompanied by woodland mushroom haggis, rhubarb jus, onion mash and an aubergine gƒteau was a new creation. "I wanted to do something that was essentially simple but not too safe," he says, "and I felt that I could just about manage to keep the lamb pink for 610 people. I also wanted to be Scottish without being too twee, too 'haggis, neeps, and tatties'."
So although haggis was an integral part of the dish, its farce differed from the traditional offal and instead consisted of wild mushrooms combined with garlic, shallots, barley, oatmeal and mixed spice. Potatoes appeared in the form of an onion mash, and rhubarb jus (made with lamb stock and 30lb of rhubarb) and aubergine gƒteau gave the dish a further contemporary edge. The latter comprised layers of plum tomatoes and aubergines cooked in garlic herb oil, topped by a garlic crust.
To overcome the problem of the distance between kitchen and banqueting area, a plating station was set up near the banqueting room so that the main course could be finished and sauced at the last minute. And in order to ensure that the lamb was hot when it reached the table, the cutlet was placed on the plate last rather than having the rest of the dish plated around it.
Clydesdale, who had the opposite task of keeping the raspberry parfait dessert sufficiently cold, alleviated his melting problem by using carton rather than metal moulds. "We had about 10 minutes to take the parfaits from the freezer to the tables," he says, "so we brought them rapidly up to the plating area where the carton moulds meant that the heat in our hands was enough to loosen the parfaits and get them out but retain their firmness for serving. My fear was that the master of ceremonies would call an unscheduled toilet break and muck up all the timings but, luckily, that didn't happen."
The parfaits - made with 1,000 egg whites and using 60lb of Scotland's renowned raspberries - were made on-site the day before the dinner, while the accompanying raspberry tuiles were made in the Dynamic Earth kitchen on the day. Ideally, the tuiles should have been made one hour before serving in order to retain their crispness, but the numbers involved made this impractical. Clydesdale had planned to make the tuiles then store them in boxes with silicon gel (used in biscuit tins to keep their contents fresh) but the magic gel failed to materialise, so he had to be content with refiring the biscuits at the last minute - a trick which, fortunately, worked well.
Clydesdale's parfait was served with a sabayon made using a raspberry eau de vie, garnished with two raspberries "placed like two pearls on a necklace". Like the dinner's two other courses, it was served without any major hitches (the loss of one batch of tuiles, the spillage of some rhubarb jus in the process of transferral from pot to muslin and an early loss of electricity being par for the course). Given that the dinner marked Scotland's launch into the next millennium, such smooth running was a relief to all concerned. n