The secrets of delicious dishes on a big scale
Pam Perring, head chef at the Hotel Bristol.
It's one thing to produce stunning intricate seafood dishes for 20 or 30 diners, but upscaling that to two or three hundred requires an entirely different approach and a lot of planning.
The Hotel Bristol has for many years served as Newquay's unofficial town hall, big functions from Mayors' banquets to any and every type of large group event have taken place there. The team have a reputation for being able to deliver consistent quality.
I spoke to head chef Pam Perring about the challenges of catering on such a large scale. Big functions are no problem, but demonstrating at last year's Fish Festival for the first time was a nerve wracking experience for the chef more used to working behind the scenes.
Pam explained what it was like: "I looked down and there was no one watching me so I thought, this is alright. But the next time I looked up there were all these hundreds of faces and people I knew in the front row all looking at me so the nerves came flooding back!"
Earlier this year the hotel catered for a function of 340, this truly is cooking on a large scale and Pam stressed that staying on top of suppliers is crucial: "The big challenge is making sure everything you need is here on time and that people don’t let you down and that you are organised."
Pam and her team of six start at 7am and it's flat out from there. So does the number of diners dictate what is on the menu, is it necessary to choose simple dishes? Pam says not: "We don’t get to choose the menu, we get presented with what they want and have to deal with how we are going to do it. The most complex functions we have done are for the Wildlife Conservation group where we have had seven courses to worry about. Space for preparing that is a major issue We had poached fish on one course and soup on another to keep warm. It’s a challenge but I enjoy it."
What decides what goes on the regular menu? "What's available. Lobster and crabs were expensive recently because the tides were too high. And mackerel is scarce and too expensive at the moment. Everything that was cheap a couple of years ago is expensive now. It's the same with meat, everything people used to turn their noses up at is what everyone wants now.
“We stopped using bass because it's off the scale at the moment even though it's farmed.
“And you've got to go with the weather. If you know there's rough weather coming up you are better off buying your fish before and freezing it to keep it fresh. Otherwise if you've got a storm coming it could be three or four days before you can get fish again. Matthew Stevens our fish supplier will keep us posted. If they've got something they think you are going to like they'll give you a ring."
For the festival Pam will be demonstrating a variation on acqua pazza, which means crazy water in Italian. This seafood dish sometimes uses poached fish but Pam is pan frying cod to bring out the caramel flavours and add colour before it is added to the watery tomato sauce at the plating up stage. It also features clams and mussels and sautéed vegetables, simple and colourful, but Pam admits it wouldn’t be possible to cook this for 200 people because there are too many elements, she adds: "We did this dish at the weekend where we had half a dozen diners who chose it and it went down very well."
The sauce is made first starting with four tablespoons of olive oil in a pan to which is added one finely chopped large onion which is sweated down. To that a large pinch of saffron is added for colour, a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a little salt and pepper. In with three-quarters of a cup of dry white wine once the onions are nice and soft and the pan is brought back to the boil. Add eight sliced tomatoes with skins on and cook it all down until everything is soft. Next whizz it in the blender and pass through a sieve to create a smooth tomato sauce. Note there is no garlic in this and we found the sauce was flavoursome enough without but you could choose to add some.
Next to the cod. Pam explains she wants to cook the fish slowly to crisp the skin without risking burning it. The fish is floured and seasoned and added to the oiled pan skin side down. If the fish is wet it will stick to the pan so the flour helps stop that. Pam explains: "I’ve gone for the tail end of the fish because it’s a little bit thinner and it will cook through quicker."
Most of the work of cooking is on the skin side and it is flipped late on to finish it off and let the fish get a lovely rich golden brown. When you first start to cook the fish it will curl away from from the pan leaving just the outer edges in contact with the heat which can lead to them burning. Push down on the centre of the fish when it is first placed in the pan to get it cooking evenly to and to stop this happening.
Next add chopped peppers and courgettes in the pan to quickly fry off and add colour. Some small tomatoes go in late on as well. In another pan add the tomato sauce and heat that back up before adding the mussels and clams which, as they cook, will release their salty juices into the sauce. The clams take a little longer than the mussels to open.
To serve, first place the vegetables in the centre of the plate with the tomatoes towards the edge of the plate. Take the piece of cod and place on top and arrange your shellfish around that, then flood your tomato sauce onto the plate. For a garnish Pam adds a small amount of micro herb amaranth.
For Pam, cooking cod and the other fresh seafood that is available on her doorstep here in Newquay is a real treat: "I love cooking crabs and lobsters, and teaching people how to take them apart properly. People are scared of touching them because of the dead man's fingers but if you do it properly it's easy. I enjoy prepping seafood and working with such fresh ingredients."