Saturday morning, Kenilworth food festival, near Warwick. I’ve been asked to do a food demonstration to promote my book. Arriving by train from London, I arrive on site at 12.30, my demo should begin at 1.30. We make our way through the stalls of the food festival to where I’ll be doing the demo.
“Look at our specially built kitchen!” says the lady who will be introducing me.
I look. It’s a kitchen in a trailer.
The only food demos that I’ve ever seen are at shows like The Real Food Show, with slick shiny modern mini kitchens built around islands where women hoisting canvas goodie bags crowd around smouldering Italian chefs like Giorgio Locatelli. Chefs today are Donny Osmond for the middle aged. Only the screaming has turned into scoffing. But this kitchen is one up from a caravan.
I’ve decided to demonstrate three simple dishes which are, hopefully, interesting but easy so I won’t get too flustered.
- Cooking scallops and fennel on a pink Himalayan salt block
- Marmite palmiers
- Asparagus mimosa with edible flowers.
I was asked to provide a list of ingredients. I brought my own brick.
I put the brick in the oven straight away as I knew it’d take about an hour to heat up. “Not that one!” shouted a hovering chef “that one doesn’t work. Use the other”. I just hoped the other oven was working.
I’m going to set everything up now, I thought nervously. I look in the bag of ingredients. I asked for puff pastry, in a roll. It’s in a block. I look for a rolling pin. There isn’t one. In fact, looking around the trailer kitchen, I realise that neither is there washing up liquid, oven gloves to take the salt brick out, tea towels, or…knives. There isn’t any flour to roll out the pastry either. I’m starting to shout a bit. I’m looking like a prima donna ‘I simply can’t work in these circumstances!’
“Is this normal?” I mutter to the PR from Harper Collins who has accompanied me. “Is this how Jamie started out?”
“Yees” she drawls “but normally they do have knives”
“If only they’d told me I would have brought stuff with me”I look at the nice lady who brought us.
“I’m sure I asked for puff pastry on a roll. Then I wouldn’t need a rolling pin or flour” I said to her, rifling through my memory of emails exchanged.
I try again “Do you sell pastry on a roll here in Kenilworth?”
“Ooh yes. We have very good supermarkets here”She looks at me sympathetically “The trouble is, the lady that did your shopping never cooks, she knows nothing about food”
Choking back a ‘then why the fuck was she asked to do the shopping?’ I ask “What shall I do? Use a wine bottle?” They’d given me a bottle of wine as a present for coming. My first food demonstration is starting to look ropier by the second. This is turning into a cookery version of Spinal Tap.
At that, they went out to buy some flour and found a rolling pin.
Two chefs in whites, who looked greasy and exhausted, were backstage, ie.standing on the grass next to the trailer, with me. “I’ve just come off a 16 hour shift” said one. “I’m the head chef at the local Holiday Inn, but I’m letting my sous chef do the demo, he’s more confident. Any help you need, let me know”
The demo with the sous chef was starting, so I asked the head chef to thinly slice the fennel, boil me two eggs for the mimosa and roll out the pastry. He blended into the background, whereas I would have stood out, in heels and shocking pink, prepping away behind the other demo.
My moment is drawing closer. I’m given a headphone mike as a local camera crew is filming it. I feel like Cheryl Cole, about to do a dance routine. I realise that my every breath and utterance will be broadcast to the entire festival. Must. Not. Swear. I tell myself.
I start by taking the salt brick out of the oven with the hastily purchased oven gloves. It’s hot, but not really quite hot enough. I dig the scallops out of the fridge and place them on the brick, explaining brightly to the audience about how you don’t have to season when cooking on salt bricks. The scallops are making a puddle. They are cooking too slowly.
Meanwhile, I put the asparagus in a griddle pan and soften them in butter and hot water. I’m talking. I don’t know what I’m saying but I hear laughter. The audience are with me it seems.
I hand out some of the scallops. “What do you think?” I perkily ask the audience.
A shrivelled lady in the front says “they are too salty”.
I grimace, try to explain.
I take the rolled out pastry and spread Marmite on it. I roll it into a palmier shape and display it to the audience. The head chef, who is assisting me, cuts it into slices and puts it on a baking sheet into the oven.
I have a massive burn on my forearm. I tell the audience that this is how you can tell someone who cooks for a living. The head chef holds up his arms, they are blotched with repeated burn scars. I wonder if I’m impressing this small town audience with our displays of Anthony Bourdain style hard-core Apocalypse Now cheffery.
I dish up the asparagus, pile the grated egg onto it, and decorate with viola flowers, a recipe from my book. It’s handed round, there are approving nods. I smell burning.
I open the oven and half the Marmite palmiers are burnt. The chef, who was supposed to be keeping an eye, bows his head. Still, I’m grateful for his support. Much easier to do a demonstration with a sidekick. I’m a lurid Fanny to his Johnny.
I hand round the palmiers. I ask for questions. I get some applause. ‘Johnny’ gets more applause. I sit down next to a pile of books, sell one or two and sign a bunch of others. A signed copy is a sold copy. One man with thick glasses, a combover, and wearing an anorak is looming silently.
“Hi, is there something you wanted to ask me?” I say to him finally.
He starts, droning like a serial killer: “I heard you on the wireless yesterday” He means Woman’s Hour. I look at him, actually beneath the terrible clothes, he’s about 50. Why is he saying ‘wireless’? No one has used that word since the 50s. It’s pure affectation, designed to draw attention to his basic weirdness. He’s still talking, I’m nodding politely. The PR from Harper Collins steps in ‘I’m afraid Ms Rodgers has an interview’. I’ve waited all my life to hear phrases like that.
“Thank god you broke that up” I say to her.
“I figured I’d give him a minute and a half then get you outta there” says the PR.
It turns out that the local film crew want me to do a little interview. An orange male ‘presenter’ with dyed blonde hair, a thinner Ollie Smith, asks me a few questions. At the end I say, ‘How was my demo?’
“It was great, it was just like an ordinary person talking. You weren’t doing all that rapid chopping like chefs. It felt like anyone could do the recipes.”
I think that was a compliment?