Jonathan Harrison, chef de cuisine at the Birmingham Swallow Hotel, joined forces with a brigade from Redcliffe Catering last Saturday to prepare a memorable dinner for the world's leading heads of state. Janet Harmer reports
A telephone call from the Home Office in January was the first inkling that Jonathan Harrison got of the major task ahead of him. Four months of thorough planning ensued, culminating in his British-Mediterranean-inspired menu served at the G8 dinner for nine heads of state and their wives at Birmingham Botanical Gardens last Saturday.
"It was a great honour and a fantastic opportunity to be asked to do it," says a proud Harrison. "I was particularly pleased to be able to cook a menu that we could just as easily have created at the Swallow - all the dishes we served have appeared in some form or other on the restaurant menu."
Harrison was brought on board at a relatively late stage of the planning process for the event after Prime Minister Tony Blair specifically asked for the involvement of a chef who demonstrated youth, excellence and experience. Being from Birmingham, the summit venue, Harrison was the ideal choice. At the age of 32, he has been chef de cuisine at Birmingham's Swallow Hotel for four-and-a-half years. Just prior to his appointment, he spent three months in Monte Carlo working alongside chef Alain Ducasse at the three-Michelin-starred Hotel de France - his prize as winner of the 1993 Roux Diners Club Scholarship.
The complex planning of last weekend's dinner began more than a year ago when food service company Redcliffe Catering was invited to hold discussions with the Foreign Office about potential venues for the function in Birmingham.
Given its track record in the city, Redcliffe was the obvious catering company to approach. In 1987, it had won a 20-year contract to run the new Business, Banqueting and Conference Centre at the 15-acre Birmingham Botanical Gardens in the heart of Edgbaston. Opened in 1832, the site is the only remaining private gardens trust left in the country and the venue, which incorporates three banqueting suites and a public restaurant, has been used many times in the past for functions attended by the Royal Family and cabinet ministers.
It was eventually confirmed in September last year that the gardens would indeed be the venue for the social dinner of the G8 summit.
Secure But Relaxed
"It was a huge honour to be chosen," says Clive Stone, managing director of Redcliffe Catering. "As well as being picked for our experience and the quality of food that we produce, we were undoubtedly also chosen for the opportunity to provide somewhere the world leaders could meet in a secure but very relaxed and pleasant environment."
The view over the Botanical Gardens made the Pavilion restaurant the ideal location for the dinner. However, logistically, it was probably the most difficult room within the banqueting centre to prepare. Usually open to the public, it houses a number of service units which all had to be removed before redecoration of the room could begin. The plan was to bring the gardens into the restaurant and create the feeling of an English country retreat. Design consultancy Caribiner was chosen to work on the decor, and it brought the national bonsai tree collection from one of the garden's glass houses into the room. China by Wedgwood, glasses from Dartington and cutlery from Arthur Price all helped add to the idea of the English country scene.
In the months leading up to the dinner, 48 delegations from around the world visited the Botanical Gardens, along with the other venues being used during the three-day summit. "There was a great deal to be worked out," explains Stone. "As well as all the food and service aspects of the dinner to be decided, there were also the complications of protocol and security to be considered."
From the outset, Harrison had made it clear that he would only be prepared to cook his style of food. But before he could even begin to work on the menu, he had to consider the design of the room, the crockery being used, the style of service, and the layout of the kitchen.
The style of service, in particular, was a major consideration. While the starter and pudding had to be plated, the main course was to be butler-served. The guests would be offered the dish on a silver salver, allowing them to take as much or as little as they liked. "Apparently it is the traditional form of service used at dinners for heads of state," says Harrison. "It overcomes any difficulty with language, and allows someone like Mr Kohl to enjoy a more hearty meal."
Harrison's choice of ingredients was limited. He had to steer clear of shellfish and lamb (not eaten by Chancellor Kohl) and chocolate (not eaten by President Clinton). British beef was also off the menu, for political reasons, and Harrison had to be careful not to clash with the other dinners and lunches taking place during the summit. As well as official functions at the Edwardian Tea Room at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and Weston Park, a private dinner was also held at Chequers.
Three menus were submitted by Harrison to 10 Downing Street, where the final choice was made by the prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair. The style of food was very much a reflection of Harrison's cooking at the Swallow Hotel, mixing British ingredients and ideas with Mediterranean influences picked up during his time with Ducasse. "This worked very well, as I was told that Mrs Blair particularly liked Italian food," says Harrison.
Dover sole was selected as the starter. "It's a very good English fish," says Harrison, "although I had originally hoped to use asparagus, as we are very close to the Vale of Evesham and it's just coming into its peak season, but it was already being served at another event."
The sole was originally to have been roasted on the bone for maximum flavour but, following a tasting with staff from 10 Downing Street and the Foreign Office, it was decided that the remote chance of someone choking on a fish bone had to be avoided. There was also the concern that it could be too fiddly so filleted sole was pan-fried with baby leeks and seasonal mushrooms, and served with a Mediterranean-style sauce, based on a classic piperade using fish stock (minus any shellfish), white mirepoix, tomatoes, peppers and basil.
Pork, an unusual meat for a banquet, was the centrepiece of Harrison's main course. To ensure it didn't dry out, large fillets of pork were wrapped in Parma ham the previous day and covered in clingfilm overnight. It was roasted in a pan to brown the Parma ham, then braised for 40 minutes with garlic, shallots, veal and chicken stock and Marsala.
Accompanying the pork, served in slices, were quenelles of creamed polenta and a braised artichoke base, filled with roasted peppers, aubergines, fennel and courgettes. Slices of pork, together with the vegetables, were served on a silver platter, from which the guests helped themselves. "The dish was inspired by a roasted loin of pork, served with Parma ham, garlic and onions, that I once ate on holiday in the Basque region," says Harrison.
A glazed lemon and mascarpone tart was an appropriate choice to clear the palate at the end of the meal. "The mascarpone provides an extra creaminess and richness to counteract the sharpness of the lemons," says Harrison. Fresh seasonal red fruits in their own coulis, flavoured with chopped mint, a lime sorbet topped with caramelised zest, and ribbons of tuile biscuit added contrasting flavours, textures and colour to the dish.
The three-course dinner was served to a total of 56 guests - the main party of 18 VIP guests in the Pavilion, with interpreters, senior advisors and Foreign Office personnel being served in the adjoining Terrace Suite and Palm Room. An elaborate buffet was also served to more than 200 medical and communications teams and US secret service staff in the Orchid Room.
More than 20 chefs, including Harrison, a small team of chefs from the Swallow Hotel, executive head chef of Redcliffe Catering Andrew Simpson, and the 18-strong Redcliffe brigade worked together to produce the food.
After the dinner, Mr and Mrs Blair set off with their guests from the Botanical Gardens for a concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall, happy in the knowledge that their guests had enjoyed a superbly presented dinner, created by one of Britain's most talented young chefs.