A swanky London hotel is challenging diners to bring their own ingredients for their chefs to turn into a gourmet feast. But could they really make anything delicious out of Alexi Duggins’s Wotsits and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs?
Wotsits are a legitimate cooking ingredient. They just bloody are. If Heston Blumenthal can get us to munch on edible pocket watches and the Green Juice Brigade can swill beverages that look like foetid pond slop, then it is utterly normal to ask a top chef to cook you a meal that uses Wotsits as an ingredient. Thus, there is nothing weird whatsoever about the fact that I am currently standing in a high-class restaurant, clutching a multipack of ‘Really Cheesy Flavour Corn Puffs’.
You see, the Ten Room restaurant in Piccadilly’s Hotel Café Royal has just started putting aside one early evening table a night – when the kitchen’s not too busy – which offers diners the chance to bring up to four ingredients for the restaurant’s chefs to create a menu from, ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’-style. You email them your planned ingredients 48 hours in advance and they come up with a bespoke meal either using your ingredients, or inspired by them. On arrival, the chefs explain the menu to you over a pre-dinner chinwag in the kitchen and give you one of the recipes to take away and try at home. Then you’re seated in the swanky, dimly lit dining room while they whip you up a four-course dinner.
Hence the Wotsits. Any chef can create an amazing meal from impeccably sourced haute cuisine ingredients. But it takes a real creative genius to conjure tantalising morsels out of something you find lurking in a newsagent’s. But just to give the chefs some options, I’ve also brought four Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, 30 slices of Sainsbury’s Basics ham and three chicken thighs. After all, it’s important to cover all the main food groups.
‘Wotsits was a brilliant choice!’ says executive chef Andrew Turner as I step into the restaurant kitchen to present my ingredients. ‘The whole point of this thing is that I want you to see what we can do,’ he adds as we start the first part of the evening: a glass of champagne and some canapés behind the scenes as the chefs chat through my bespoke menu. There’s talk of how the ingredient list I emailed him was ‘no problem’ and that ‘the Creme Eggs were the most challenging…for about a minute’. This throws me. After all, there’s Sainsbury’s Basics ham in there. Surely that must have made any chef’s heart sink?
‘Mate, it’s your meal: it’s what you want to eat,’ says Turner. ‘Although I will try to talk to people a bit about their ingredients: “Hey, if you like Basics ham, you might love this ham.”‘ So there’s nothing that people can bring that’d be turned away? ‘If someone brought in a whole side of venison that we needed a day to prepare, then maybe. But I’d probably just tell them to bring it in a day earlier,’ says Turner. ‘Between the three chefs here, we’ve got 120 years of experience, so we should be able to cope with anything.’
I’m inclined to agree. Because before I even leave the kitchen, Turner holds up a slate tray topped with a bonus canapé he’s created: ‘I made you a deconstructed Wotsit,’ he says. It’s comté cheese sauce, formed into a tube with the same technique used for sugar-coating medical tablets, and then rolled in grated Wotsit dust. It’s delicious: not a million miles away from Cheese Moments – those crisps from the makers of Scampi Fries that you only seem to find in ropey pubs. Fortunately, many of the finest moments in my life have been Cheese Moments, so this is totally to my taste.
A few minutes later, though, as I’m seated at my table, I begin to worry. After all, this isn’t the first quirky ‘bring your own’ joint of recent years. I was excited when bring-your-own-booze bar BYOC opened in Covent Garden a few years ago. But after taking along a bottle of Tesco value vodka, I wound up with the sort of concoctions you could pick up at Belushi’s Happy Hour. And, sadly, at the kind of prices that’d see your bank manager having a ‘not-so-happy hour’. As the waiter places our first dishes upon the table, I find myself wondering: have I totally ballsed up my choice of ingredients?
Not totally. But yeah, a bit. Despite some parts of the meal being brilliant, there’s obviously a limit to what the chefs can do. Thus, despite a Wotsit dust-crusted popcorn chicken salad coming with impressive additions like avocado-flavoured ‘snow’, there’s no ignoring the fact that my cheapo chicken thighs have curled into such tight little balls they might be cowering from a fox attack. Full marks to the chefs for trying to render my budget ham edible by coating it in cheese and pastry, then rolling it around asparagus stems. But sadly the bland meat never manages to escape its roots.
Thankfully the Creme Eggs save the day. An ‘Eggstreme dessert’ transforms the sickly treats into a sorbet side dish. Then the chefs excel with their own take on the Cadbury’s fave: a chocolate sphere, which oozes mango yolk and chocolate ganache egg-white exactly like a real egg would. If eggs tasted like Soleros, that is.
Newsflash: Wotsits aren’t going to be declared this year’s superfood. You won’t see street food stalls dedicated to Salisbury’s Basics ham any time soon. But all the problems with my meal were my own fault. Given the quality of some of the dishes they’ve created, if I’d purchased decent ingredients, I could have had a fantastic dinner. Still, there’s no point in complaining about my own stupidity. The name of this menu wasn’t ‘Bring Your Moan’.
The Hotel Café Royal BYOI menu is available at £70 a head for a minimum of four people, Mon-Wed and Sun.
Fancy some non-Wotsits based food? Check out the top 100 best restaurants in London.