Ever fancied cooking a dinner fit for a Roux restaurant? The new Sauce school at The Langham, London offers home cooks the chance to learn classical cookery techniques under the watchful eye of one of Michel Roux Jnr’s most trusted colleagues. The Journal enjoys the highs and sauce-scrambling lows of one of Chris King’s classes
Words: Clare Finney
It is the August bank holiday weekend. Outside, temperatures are soaring in a valiant attempt to deliver one last hurrah before summer abruptly finishes. There are protestors demanding Tommy Robinson’s release, and other protestors protesting against their protest, their shouts blending with the cacophony of sirens, car horns and traffic light beeps you’d expect from Oxford Circus on a Saturday. But from where we’re sat, on high wooden stools in a kitchen of The Langham, London, the walls around us laden with hanging alliums, herbs and saucepans, we could just as easily be in an (exceedingly well kitted out) French cottage in the middle of nowhere.
This is not the hotel’s professional kitchen. We’ll get a glimpse of that later, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the hotel’s labyrinthine network of kitchens and storerooms. This oasis, with its exposed brick walls, marble tops and pine drawers filled with gleaming De Buyer cooking equipment, is a cookery school, Sauce, the heavy oak doors of which opened for the first time in July. Our teacher is Chris King, The Langham, London’s executive chef, responsible for overseeing Roux at the Landau, Palm Court, Artesian and The Wigmore, as well as the hotel’s banqueting halls and room service. Bar a two-year stint at Per Se in New York, Chris has worked with Michel Roux Jnr for almost two decades: as commis and sous chef at Le Gavroche, on the opening of Roux at Parliament Square and then here at Roux at the Landau. In short, when it comes to the Roux repertoire, the only person who could feasibly better Chris as a teacher would be Michel Roux Jnr himself (with whom classes are available, although I’d be even more intimidated cooking in front of him than I am in front of Chris).
This sense of intimidation fades fast, fortunately. For one thing, Chris is funny, kind, calm and clearly spoken, a natural teacher. For another, my classmates—a friendly mix of men and women in their thirties and forties—seem to share both my apprehension and my culinary limitations. “There is no qualification or skill level needed,” Chris insists when I ask him what they’re looking for in potential students. “These classes are for anyone who enjoys cooking.” At one point, Richard and Joana reveal they own a KitchenAid—a sign of culinary commitment I find momentarily daunting until they reveal they got it two-thirds off in a Robert Dyas sale because it was missing a part—but for the most part, we’re on a level: people who just love cooking, eating, drinking, learning and, it seems, talking about food.
It takes Chris a while to get us to shut up and start listening to the first of what will eventually seem like 300,000 steps—this being a course on classic French techniques. “We need to make the clarified butter for our hollandaise first. Do you know how to use induction hobs?” The class makes doubtful noises. “It’s going to be a long day,” Chris grins. But the demands of the stove are nothing in comparison to what Chris has in store for us. And so it begins.
Set the curriculum
Chris likens his role as executive chef to that of a headteacher: “I set the curriculum, I give the team what they need to succeed, but I don’t teach them personally anymore.” In the comfort of Sauce cookery school, however, his talent for hands-on teaching is very much in evidence. In his eagerness to explain the whys and wherefores of each technique and pepper his lessons with facts and anecdotes, he’s like the physics teacher I never had. “Clarified butter is used for hollandaise sauces,” he continues. “It is pure fat, like an oil, so you can also use it to cook meat and fish in the pan. Fresh butter will burn, but clarified butter can be cooked to a higher temperature. You can make clarified butter in advance, or buy ghee, but you need to remember to bring it to room temperature if you’re making hollandaise with it. Not hot, but it needs to be in liquid form.”
The way Sauce lessons work is as follows: Chris (or the teacher taking the lesson) demonstrates the first course. We proceed to our individual work stations—each one of which is larger and better stocked than my entire kitchen—and attempt to recreate it. At this point, it becomes rapidly apparent who among us is used to cooking from cookbooks; who cooks from instinct and habit; and who learnt to cook from the TV. It’s the latter—those who grew up on a diet on MasterChef and Ready Steady Cook—who seem to fare best.
Though Chris’s instructions could not have been clearer, almost everyone stumbles over the first course—which, just to confuse us, is in fact pudding. “We’re going straight into dessert, which sounds crazy, but we need to do some work now to ensure it’s ready later on,” Chris explains, pointing to the little recipe booklet we received on arrival: îles flottantes with poached cherries, we read, beside an intimidatingly long list of steps. “It’s just meringues cooked in milk floating on custard,” Chris tries and fails to console us, “it’s delicious.” The few of us who have heard of it before have only ever seen it on the menus of fancy French restaurants, and have certainly never contemplated making it at home. Still, you don’t go to a Roux cookery course to learn about apple crumble.
It begins easily enough. Cherry beer is combined with brown sugar, spices and ginger—sliced, not grated—and placed over a low heat, as is a pan of milk into which Chris scrapes fresh vanilla seeds, popping the wrinkly black pods in for good measure. As these two liquids simmer and infuse, we destone the ripe Kentish cherries then pile them into the spiced, sugared cherry beer. So far, so simple until I hear that we need to “temper the egg yolks” to make a custard. Like a roller coaster cresting a peak, things take an abrupt dip.
Tempering, in this instance, involves putting a spoonful of hot milk inside the egg yolks to ready them for being added to the milk pan. “There’s a way to make this fool-proof, by adding cornflour”—my ears prick up—“but that will give you a Bird’s Eye texture. We want a silky smooth custard, so we play with the temperature a little bit.” If you pull the egg yolks in directly, the eggs will scramble. If you cook the milky, eggy mix for too long, or on slightly too high a heat, the eggs will scramble. If like me you decide to glance at your cherries at a suboptimal moment—well, the eggs won’t scramble, necessarily, but the custard will be thick and grainy: something Millie Simpson, Chris’s able assistant on this course and a talented teacher in her own right on others, has seen many times.
Safe to screw up
My saucepan is rushed to a tray of ice and, having immersed its bottom, Millie whisks frantically. You don’t get this at home. You don’t get this on telly either. If there’s one thing good cookery lessons offer that little else can it’s the chance to screw up, safe in the knowledge that you will be rescued by someone more skilled than you. You can have another go or, like my custard, you can have your attempt put on life support. Fortunately, I’m not the only one struggling: Richard could serve his custard on toast with smoked salmon and avocado, it’s so scrambled. “I could make a Portuguese custard tart instead? Put it in pastry?” he says optimistically. “Absolutely, Richard. You do you,” Chris replies, taking the pan of softly scrambled vanilla milk gently away.
On we push, undaunted by our failures. The list of techniques we cover is by no means exhaustive, but it is exhausting, with everything from dicing onions and carrots the ‘cheffy’ way (fingertips back, knuckle to the knife, fast) and making a bearnaise sauce, to searing a salmon properly and using a cartouche instead of a saucepan lid: a round piece of grease-proof paper that covers the surface of a stew, stock or sauce to reduce evaporation and keep the components submerged. All the while, Chris’s dispatches flow thick and fast. “Lids don’t exist in professional kitchens. Consider how many pans we have. There’d be lids everywhere.” “You can also use greaseproof paper to make a pan non-stick—the lining of non-stick pans doesn’t last that long.” “The belly of smoked salmon is prized by the Japanese, as it’s fatty and perfect for sushi and sashimi. The royal fillet is prized by the French, as it’s firmer and perfect for fillets.” Every step is an opportunity to broaden both our culinary abilities and our minds. We learn about the Norwegian who first introduced the Japanese to salmon in the 1960s (“I’ve met him,” says Chris, “fascinating guy”) and we learn that no ingredient in a professional kitchen is wasted. From the thick, sharp bones of the john dory to the stripped stems of the thyme and tarragon, as he works, Chris compiles a pile of trimmings for the stock in the kitchen downstairs: a ‘stockpile’, if you will (I make a mental note to look that etymology up when I get home).
But I’m getting ahead of myself: the john dory and diced vegetables come later, for our main course. First, we need to make and eat our starter: seared salmon and sauce choron with a buckwheat tuille. “Is there a chance I could scramble this?” I ask tentatively, as Chris slips some egg yolks into a bain marie along with a bearnaise reduction and whisks rapidly. “Absolutely,” he grins. “This is the jeopardy right here.” The yolks are gently cooked, and whisked at the same time, until thick and fluffy. “You can see it changing colour as it cooks. We’re looking for the whisk to leave a visible trail in the mixture. Once you can write your name in it, it’s done” Chris signs his name with a flourish, and takes it off the heat. “Now we add the clarified butter, very, very gradually—if you add it all at once, it will go wrong.”
We get a rundown on egg-based French sauces courtesy of Chris and Millie, who have worked together for years, “hence the banter,” Chris grins, as Millie chucks him some tomato concasse she made earlier. Here’s the other great thing about Sauce that you don’t get with the telly: the easy but tedious preparations are done for you, on the premise that they either take too long or are too boring to watch in class. Thus Millie has prepped, not just tomato concasse (peeled, chopped tomatoes), but the bearnaise reduction of white wine, vinegar and tarragon, and, most impressive of all, the buckwheat tuille. Sauce choron is a bearnaise sauce with tomatoes. Sauce paloise is bearnaise sauce with mint instead of tarragon. Sauce Dijon is hollandaise with Dijon mustard, while sauce Maltaise is hollandaise with blood orange. Millie pauses for breath. There are more—many more—but we’ve not got time to go through them. Chris has made his starter (and, with seven forks, we’ve demolished it) and now it’s our turn.
Oily orange juice
Reader, I almost ruined it. Remember when Chris told us to add the clarified butter gradually to the warm egg yolk mixture? I don’t. I chuck the whole lot straight in, and wonder why, after five minutes of fevered whisking, my sauce is like oily orange juice. Millie looks over, puzzled. “Let me have a go,” she says. “You did add the clarified butter gradually?” I slap my hand to my face, like the emoji, and Chris looks over. “You added it all in one go?” he exclaims—but his ensuing laughter is kind. I’m not on Kitchen Nightmares. Chris isn’t going to go all Gordon on me. He will get some more clarified butter from the kitchen (another perk of the school!) and I will simply start my sauce choron again, this time under Millie’s watchful eye.
The rest of my starter—indeed the rest of my dinner—proceeds without incident (I don’t count burning myself as an incident, because I burn myself routinely at home). Having learnt my lesson, I spend the rest of the class listening intently to Chris, rather than daydreaming about the food and wine that will eventually ensue. I slow down, recap using the recipe book, and observe my fellow students, who also improve as the class goes on. With Millie by my side, I complete my starter only a couple of minutes after the others and then join them in The Pantry—Sauce’s elegantly rustic dining room.
The table is laid: white wine, red wine, sourdough bread, butter. Despite the difficult journey, everyone’s plates look perfect: their buckwheat filigree crowning a tricolour of pink salmon, fresh, zesty herb salad, and a deep sunset yellow puddle of sauce choron. “How is it? Is it what you were expecting?” asks Martin, as the wine is poured. “I love it,” says Joana, “although I can’t imagine putting that much butter and oil in a casual dish at home!” We agree that, in the words of The Great British Bake Off, this is a showstopper: “I’d definitely do this for a dinner party,” says Richard who, having learnt his lesson with the custard, has absolutely nailed his bearnaise. As all the dishes we cook are basically dinner party dishes (unless you want a one-way ticket to gout), Chris takes care to school us in how we could upscale each course: roasting the salmon instead of frying it, for example, or buying ghee instead of clarifying butter; being a chef, he knows all the tricks of the trade and describes catering en masse as “like Lego. All the building blocks are there; we just snap them together when you order.”
Five hours later (you wouldn’t believe the amount of love and labour that goes into a Roux recipe, nor how much time you want to luxuriate over eating it), Chris takes us round The Langham’s many kitchens. Sure enough, the Lego blocks (“mise en place, it’s called”) are all in place: in storage boxes, in tall, ordered fridges, or piled neatly on the side. At 5pm, a sense of anticipation is building before the evening’s diners arrive, but the chefs seem psyched rather than psyched out at the prospect: they have great teachers, after all. We step out on the madness of Oxford Circus on the last bank holiday Saturday of summer, but inside The Langham’s many kitchens, all is calm.