The Smith Travel Blog team does love an outing (only last week we were mixing cocktails, remember), and we’re also partial to a meaty dinner, so when the opportunity came to combine the two with a trip to Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair for an evening with titan-of-the-London-restaurant-scene Mark Hix, we jumped at the chance…
It’s a problem that many will never admit to; one faced on as much as a weekly basis by people across the world. The scene is the Sunday dinner table; a majestic roast has been presented – a tender joint of beef, a crisply coated chicken, a rosemary-pocked leg of lamb – and a knife has been placed expectantly before you…
So what the hell do you do now?
You’re on the spot. You can’t back out. ‘I’m sorry, whenever I take a knife to meat, it ends up looking like it’s been through a wood-chipper’ is not an acceptable get-out. Grown-ups are supposed to know these things. So, you just pick up your knife and, quite literally, have a stab at it.
Sometimes, enough is enough. It’s time to take the knife by the handle and learn how to carve properly – and there’s no-one better to learn from than chef Mark Hix: restaurateur extraordinaire, champion of British produce and a man who, it’s fair to say, is pretty handy with a blade. In the last five years, his ever-growing empire has expanded beyond the first Clerkenwell stronghold, the Hix Oyster & Chop House, and now stretches from Shoreditch to the south coast, with HIX Mayfair taking centrestage at London’s oldest luxury hotel, Brown’s.
Since last year, Mark has been running not-exactly-monthly carving classes at the hotel. For just 10 people at a time, the events are a cross between a meat-slicing masterclass and a gourmet private dinner – the chance to stuff yourself silly on five fabulous courses, and hopefully – wine permitting – pick up a few flourishes to take home to the dinner table.
The classes are a pretty exclusive affair, set in Brown’s private-dining Byron room and tended by a coterie of magically disappearing-reappearing waiting staff. Hix is at the head of the table, a knife-wielding wizard in chef’s whites, stood before a wooden board bearing, quite literally, a cross-section of a farmyard: a rack of pork ribs, a leg of lamb and a chicken, complete with feet.
For a dedicated carnivore, this looks very promising.
We start, however, with smoked salmon. Not your plasticky-pink £2.99 supermarket salmon, but a thick russet slab, cold-smoked with apple and oak dust in Hix’s own Bradley smoker (which sits on the roof of Selfridges on Bond Street, incidentally). One by one, we’re invited up to have a go on Mark’s fish. Given the work that’s gone into preparing it thus far, I feel a bit like I’m taking a marker pen to a Picasso, but with a little guidance (diagonal strokes, half a centimetre apart), the end result doesn’t look half bad.
The taste is even better: rich, complex, delicately woody, and even more delicious when combined with home-baked rye bread, thick pillars of Wye Valley asparagus (both buttered and battered varieties) and – rare joy – a mottle-shelled gull’s egg. These gelatinous creamy-yolked treats are something of a Hix signature; when he pulled the strings in the Ivy’s kitchen’s, they were on the menu, and they’ve turned up in many of his restaurants since. Black-headed gull’s eggs are only in season for three weeks each spring and are sourced under licence by just a handful of foragers each year. You have to know the right people in this business. (It becomes clear later that mark certainly does know the right people: when a bottle of his Tonnix Douro Valley red lands on the table, he explains how, when he and fellow chef Mitch Tonks needed a label for their new wine range, the first thing he did was ring Tracey Emin.)
Over the next two hours, I come to learn without much surprise that I’ve Been Doing Carving Wrong all my life. It’s not as though there are strict protocols for tackling different cuts exactly, more that attempting to saw through a carcass using a blunt knife isn’t the most effective method (deep down in my heart, I think I always knew this).
As the evening progresses, we tackle the leg of lamb (baked in hay, studded with garlic and rosemary), the chicken (doing a sort of handstand on a porcelain stand-type-thing*), and the rack of pork ribs (doing nothing fancy, just sitting there, all piggy and delicious). In between the rapturous appreciation of fine cooking – and the pondering of how exactly one builds a perfectly cylindrical tower of chips – I pick up fistfuls of handy kitchen tidbits:
1. The key to good carving can essentially be found in the Kama Sutra: long, slow strokes. Cut quite thickly – no mimsy slivers – and diagonally, so you get a broader flavour profile in your meat. (NB: that bit is not in the Kama Sutra.)
2. When carving a leg, keep the knuckle on: it gives you something to hang on to.
3. Stay sharp: keep your knives in good nick by sharpening them briefly after every use. My previous technique of honing them once a year, usually to put off completing a tax return, is not deemed best practice in chefly circles.
4. Perfect crackling can be achieved by cooking your pork skin-side down in a shallow layer of water on high for five minutes before roasting.
5. Celery salt is really easy to make. Chop celery leaves, microwave them for a few minutes and blitz with salt. Eat your heart out, Schwartz.
6. Five courses with bottomless wine on a Tuesday evening is not a recipe for a productive Wednesday.
The next Mark Hix carving masterclasses will be held on Wednesday 17 July and Tuesday 10 September. Classes cost £150 a person, and include a five-course meal with wine, Brown’s apron and a Hix cookery book. To arrange a stay at Brown’s Hotel, London, on these dates, including a class – and a free Smith extra of NuBo spa gift, a Hix Fix cocktail in the bar, plus a bottle of Runiart NV champagne if you book a suite – just give us a call.
* There is no actual word for this device; Mark Hix says so.