Enjoy a private chef in your own home
PUBLISHED: 14:05 03 February 2020 | UPDATED: 14:05 03 February 2020
Andras G Batiz
Lara Cory enjoyed a romantic dinner with her husband, cooked for them by an experienced chef in the comfort of their own home
Parisians love to entertain at home, and apparently, they love using private chefs to take the hassle out of the whole affair. To be honest, it's not really the sort of thing I would normally do, but then, I'm not Parisian. The whole idea of having a stranger come into my kitchen and make dinner seems like fertile ground for awkwardness. But, I was wrong.
La Belle Assiette is a private chef service that began in Paris six years ago by two friends, Stephen and Giorgio, and has since flourished and expanded to the UK. Designed to take the stress and effort out of entertaining at home, the process is remarkably easy; from the simple pricing structure to the menu selection, and all the way through to the end of the night when there isn't a dirty dish in sight.
One of the chefs servicing the Berkshire area is Mark Apsey, who specialises, but isn't limited to, dairy-free, vegan and modern gastronomic cuisine. Born and raised in Reading, Mark is now based in Tilehurst with his wife and two children. Before going into private service working freelance as well as with La Belle Assiette, Mark had been head chef of Bompas and Parr, The Idle Rocks in Cornwall and L'Ortolan in Reading, starting his career in Michelin-starred restaurants including Nathan Outlaw, John Campbell at Coworth Park and The Atlantic Hotel in Jersey.
Mark's 'Temptation' menu (the entry level menu at £45 per person) has five courses, which sound wonderfully exotic and seemed like the perfect choice for a cosy meal for two. Being married for so many years, and with two kids, the hassle of going out for dinner often sucks the romance right out of it. So, having an experienced chef come to us, and not only cook and serve us dinner but wash up afterwards, was as luxurious and indulgent as any restaurant experience.
Mark arrived on time, which was an hour before dinner would be served. With his big black bags of food and equipment containing everything from live scallops to plate-warmers, he made his way out of the cold winter's evening and into our kitchen. We had the table set, candles lit and music on, the only thing left to do was pop a bottle of bubbles and toast our good fortune.
I'd never had a special occasion dinner at home where I wasn't flustered in the kitchen. We almost forgot Mark was there until after a while, he entered the living room to announce that the food was ready to be served.
Some warm bread was brought to the table with a goat's milk butter, and to arouse our palates, Mark bought us both a small glass of Thai consommé. A few slivers of spring onion, coriander and a scattering of miniature mushrooms swam about in the gold and fragranced broth, which was perfectly nuanced and utterly divine. We were off to a good start.
The second course, Drunken Scallops, is one of Mark's signature dishes and I can understand why. We savoured this course slowly and in silence, so as not to mindlessly squander one precious mouthful. Sliced, ceviche scallops lay in their shell, sprinkled with pomegranate, super-fine shards of chilli, micro herbs and tiny globules of ponzu gel (soy and yuzu juice). The scallops, Mark told us, were alive until only moments ago, and were marinated in a blend of pisco (Peruvian brandy) and tiger's milk, the name given to the Peruvian citrus marinade to cure the fish in ceviche. Mark used lime juice with ginger, chilli juice, coriander and lime zest, which we slurped down rather greedily after the tender, sweet scallops were all eaten. Because, of course, you can do that sort of thing when you don't have to worry about restaurant manners.
Fish brought up from Cornwall that morning featured in the next two courses, with torched mackerel served with foraged mushrooms and a crispy potato ring up first. If I had made this dish, it would have set off my smoke alarm for sure, but Mark managed to whip up this sculptural speciality without a fuss. Despite its blackened appearance and the strong umami flavours, the mackerel tasted beautifully sweet and fresh, and was cooked to perfection. Following this came pan-fried wreckfish served with a saffron emulsion and potato dumplings. A shift in flavours, veering into a more Italian-style realm, this dish was less visually dynamic but equally delicious and hearty enough for a winter night.
Dessert was a vanilla set cream with caramelised chocolate and passionfruit sorbet. Each dish was flawless; everything from the freshness of the ingredients, the technique, the flavour combinations and presentation - this was a meal that you would easily pay upwards of £50 a head at a restaurant of repute. Tonight though, we ate in the comfort and warmth of our home for less.
The evening flowed seamlessly from amuse-bouche to dessert without a whisper of awkwardness. Our meals were served and plates collected with perfect timing and discretion. Our chef described each course as he served it and was happy to answer any questions we had about the ingredients or inspiration. We didn't have to deal with overly-attentive waiters and crowds or the long journey back from London. We didn't have to worry about a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen, in fact, I think it was left cleaner than when Mark arrived. It was as if it was all some sort of delicious dream.