Does cooking get tougher than this?

by Sam Bilton on September 21, 2012 2 comments

I have often toyed with the idea of entering Masterchef. Not because I particularly fancy myself as a professional cook but I do like the idea of the challenge and the opportunity to work under the tutelage of talented chefs. The thought of cooking for John and Greg doesn’t faze me too much but cooking for paying customers or restaurant critics? That’s another matter.

At the first Brighton Food Society event ‘Sussex Rocks’ I was happy to act as a general dogs body under the guidance of Andy Lynes, Pat McGuigan and Joe Lutario. Although food writers now both have had experience of working in professional kitchens. The evening went well and gave me the confidence to put my hand up to do one of the courses for the society’s following event, Beyond the Pier. With the canapés, starter and dessert claimed by other members I boldly said I would take on the main.

The theme for the evening was the seaside with a fishy main course taking centre stage. As I scoured my cookbook collection for inspiration it gradually dawned on me how rash my decision had been. We would have 37 paying guests at the event many of whom would be food writers themselves. As Greg says at the beginning of every Masterchef episode “cooking doesn’t get tougher than this,” (well at least not for me). I decided to call my main course ‘Beachcomber Bisque’ which would feature a pan fried fillet of plaice with a prawn bisque sauce and a ‘driftwood’ smoked potato and ‘seaweed’ rosti.

Initially I felt quite calm and organised. I had baked some seaweed bread and smoked the potatoes for the rostis the previous day. The distinctly unfishy scented plaice and prawns arrived bang on the appointed hour fresh from the shores of Sussex. I had even acquainted myself with the unfamiliar Brighthelm cafe kitchen. “I can do this,” I said to myself. But it’s amazing how time seemingly evaporates when you’re busy doing something you love (like that really good bottle of wine you only intended to have a glass of but wind up drinking the whole thing). One minute it was 10am and we had the whole day ahead of us. The next it was 6pm and the countdown to the guests’ arrival. I began to feel like the white rabbit who was more than a little tardy for an important date.

I had quite literally had nightmares about cooking 37 portions of fish. My mind was plagued with doubt. What if I overcooked the plaice (easily done with such a delicate fish)? What if the bisque sauce split or the rostis fell apart? What if I burnt the kitchen down?! I think the others sensed my panic. Fortunately, Andy and Joe gallantly stepped up to the mark and offered to cook the fish leaving me to plate up with help from fellow blogger Becci Edmondson. This proved to be a feat in itself as I tried to juggle fried fish, hot rostis, buttered samphire and bisque sauce. It has to be said my plates probably wouldn’t have passed the muster of most chefs. But between us we managed to get 37 plates of food out and received very positive feedback from our diners.

Plating up

I can see now why working in a professional kitchen is alluring to those who love cooking. I was buzzing after the service. My legs felt like lead, my back ached and my fingers were scorched but I would happily do it again. If truth be told, I’m disappointed with myself that I didn’t cook the fish but I think it was right to leave it to the pro’s on this occasion. And who knows, the experience may even spur me on to become a real life participant on Masterchef rather than a voyeur…

The Beyond the Pier recipes, including the bisque sauce, are on the Brighton Food Society website. You can find the seaweed bread recipe here.

Smoked potato rosti and ‘seaweed’ rosti

Makes 6 x 7.5cm individual rostis

There’s a bit of effort required in the preparation of these rostis but you can make them in advance and they only need 20 minutes in the oven to finish cooking them. I’m afraid a stove top smoker is essential to achieve the smokey flavour. The seaweed element is actually spring greens or cabbage. This can be omitted if you prefer.

These rostis are also great as a brunch dish served with thinly slide ham and a poached egg.



  • 600g Desirée potatoes (ideally use smallish potatoes weighing 100 – 150g each)
  • 1 tbsp oak chips
  • 80g finely shredded spring greens or savoy cabbage (prepared weight, don’t use the stem)
  • 2 small leeks (about 200g trimmed weight)
  • 75g butter
  • 2 sprigs fennel fronds or dill (about 2 tsp chopped)
  • Pinch of smoked paprika (about ⅛ tsp)
  • Fine sea salt and pepper to season
  • 50g duck or goose fat (or 3 tbsp rapeseed oil if cooking for vegetarians)


  1. Wash the potatoes and prick the skin all over with a sharp knife. Place 1 tbsp of oak chips in a stove top smoker. Place the potatoes in the smoker then put the smoker over a direct heat. Smoke the potatoes for 25 minutes. Remove from the smoker and allow to cool. If you have larger potatoes (i.e. anything more than 200g each) I would parboil them in salted water for 5 minutes prior to smoking. The potatoes need to be part cooked to avoid discolouration when grated but make sure they are not completely cooked otherwise they will be impossible to grate (you’ll end up with mashed potato). I would also recommend turning the potatoes over after 15 minutes so that they don’t burn. Stove top smokers get surprisingly hot.
  2. Meanwhile, blanch the greens for two minutes. Refresh in cold water. When cool enough to handle squeeze out as much of the moisture as possible.
  3. Melt 25g butter over a medium heat. Gently cook the leeks until soft but not coloured.
  4. Peel and coarsely grate the potatoes. Place in a large bowl with the greens, leeks, chopped fennel fronds or dill, ½ tsp fine sea salt, pepper and a generous pinch of smoked paprika. Melt the remaining 50g butter. Add this to the vegetables and mix until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined. I find this easiest using my hands (although you could use a couple of forks) as you need to tease clumps of greens, leek and potato apart so that everything is evenly distributed. Adjust the seasoning according to taste.
  5. Divide the mix between 6 x 7.5cm presentation rings. Press the mixture down to form fairly compact ‘cakes’. Remove the rings, cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least 1 hour to firm up.
  6. Heat 50g duck or goose fat (or the rapeseed oil) in a frying pan over a medium high heat. Brown the top and the bottom of each rosti. If needs be do this in batches. Drain on absorbent paper and return to the fridge until required. Alternatively, you can cook them straight away.
  7. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the rostis on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper or a silicone liner. Bake for 20-25 minutes until crisp and golden.

Great brunch dish

Sam BiltonDoes cooking get tougher than this?

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  • Janice - September 29, 2012 reply

    ooh I love this, rosti is fabulous in any form.

  • nicola - September 22, 2012 reply

    Live your dream sam, would love to see you on masterchef and willing to act as guinea pig to sample menus!

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