Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Most Memorable of Meals

I you were to walk up to any Londoner or maybe even Englander and say the two words “British” and “chef”, 9 times out of 10 the first thing that would come to their minds is Jamie Oliver.  Although now gaining popularity in the states, he has been a huge deal here for quite a while and I see his face plastered on posters in every tube station.   But, having already been obsessed with him before this trip, I am even more so now.
Starting his cooking career since teenage years, Jamie’s outgoing nature and lovable personality quickly made him a celebrity and landed him TV spots on cooking programs.  Now, along with raising four children, he has published a multitude of cookbooks, hosted several shows, opened many restaurants, and, as you may have seen, was involved in working to change Britain and America’s school food system, as presented in his shows Jamie's School Dinners and Emmy Award winning Jamie’s Food Revolution.  He is not only an amazing and extremely innovative chef specializing in classic British and Italian cuisine, but a really good-hearted and caring guy who does a lot to help people too.

So after 4 failed attempts to see him around Borough Market, I finally had to fulfill my Jamie Oliver fix because apparently my purchasing of yet another one of his cookbooks wasn’t enough.  So to do this I went to his restaurant Fifteen in London, which is no ordinary restaurant.  It and its three sister restaurants in Cornwall, Amsterdam, and Melbourne were started under the Jamie Oliver Foundation to serve two purposes.  The most important was to help disadvantaged youths dealing with drug or alcohol problems, homelessness, etc. to find and outlet in cooking.  Jamie uses the restaurants as an apprenticeship program for these people where they become the chefs to learn the skills of cooking, gain confidence, and have a second chance to hopefully land them careers in the restaurant business.  The program also raises awareness about eating good quality, local, and organic food and inspires all people to develop a relationship with cooking and good ingredients.  So, going to this restaurant really meant a lot not only because it is the restaurant of one of my idols but also because I knew that the chefs cooking my meal would be the very people whom Jamie has helped and introduced to the wonderful world of cooking.

So although the restaurant serves Italian food, I really felt that I could not fully experience London food culture without a visit to the restaurant of one of London’s most celebrated and popular chefs.  So off I went with my mom, mere hours after her plane landed, for a chance to relax and fill our stomachs.  I half expected it to be touristy and overrun with people but was pleasantly surprised to find it was quite the opposite.  Tucked down a slightly ominous side street and next to a decrepit fireplace shop, the building was discreet with only the hot pink Fifteen logo on the awning giving away the restaurant’s name.

A hurried glance at the menu out front made me ever more excited for the meal.  And from the first step inside, I got a sense of the highly unique interior.  It was made to look very urban and hip, with lots of metal furnishings, blue and purple lighting, and brick walls.  Many of the sitting areas in the dining room downstairs were tucked into little alcoves in the walls had slight views of the streets from windows high above.  But at the same time, it was quite cozy.  The low lighting was soothing and the air was warm and welcoming after walking in the drizzle outside.  I could feel the heat coming from the open kitchen and was wonderfully pampered by the attentive and friendly staff.  I was feeling very in the moment and in an awesome mood…and I hadn’t even gotten to the food yet.

We started with amazingly moist rosemary focaccia and olive oil to munch on as we painstakingly pored over the choices on the menu.  It changes every day for seasonality and in the end, we both decided on the comfort food route with quintessential fall dishes, Italian style.  For starters, my mom chose a cannellini bean soup, topped with a strip to toast, Parmesan, and a drizzle of olive oil.  I chose their “lightest potato gnocchi” with pears, scamorza cheese, and radicchio.  And the gnocchi really held true to its name.  As my fork cut in, the gnocchi pulled apart in gooey strands and literally melted in my mouth.  It was so creamy and paired with the melty, salty cheese, slightly crunchy and sweet pears, and bitter greens, it was a perfect combination of flavors.  And although light and small portioned, the starter really emanated comfort and was a warm, “stick to your ribs” kind of dish.

But we still had plenty of room for the main.  My mom chose a roast pork loin chop with braised celeriac and apples and swiss chard.  I however, went for a more Christmas-style dish and chose the roasted leg of duck with creamy polenta, purple sprouting broccoli and orange marmalade.  It was so unbelievable that it is almost indescribable.  The duck was cooked to perfection and fell right off the bones.  It was moist and tender and with a delicate gamey flavor that signified the freshness and high quality of the meat.  The little bit of skin on top was so crispy and added that slightly sinful touch of melting fattiness.  The duck was sweet from its slow long roasting so it paired really nicely with the bitter marmalade.  And the intensity of the meat’s succulent flavor was balanced with the mild polenta, just barely spiced with red chiles .  The sommelier recommended a 2005 Framingham Classing Riesling from New Zealand to go with the dish and I was very pleased with this pairing of sweet, citrusy wine to cut though the richness of the duck meat.

And don’t forget about dessert.  My mom ordered the classic chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and I picked the roasted fig and almond frangipane tart with amaretto ice cream and butterscotch sauce.  Both were actually quite small, which we enjoyed because it was just the right amount of sweet after such a filling, savory meal.  Their vibrant flavors were amazing as well, of course, and we shared them so we could each have a bit of a chocolaty, fruity, and nutty ending to such an amazing meal.

I had literally been planning on a trip to Fifteen since last November when I was accepted into this study abroad program and was not disappointed in the slighted bit.  In fact it exceeded the absolute highest expectation I already had.  My visit to this unique restaurant proved that anyone can make delicious food and that anyone can change their lives by discovering this beautiful art form of cooking and feel enlightened by sharing that product with grateful others.  I am proud to have eaten at the restaurant because my visit supported the Fifteen Foundation and its mission to get people into the kitchen instead of out on the streets and to care more about the quality of food they eat.  And again, as I have observed in my time here, this focus on good food and home cooking really seems to be such an important part of the food culture in London.  The visit created a restaurant memory to last a lifetime and hopefully the menu and the experience will influence my own endeavors in the kitchen.  So thank you Jamie Oliver for this contribution to the great city of London.

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