30 July 2014

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Ascot – A royal affair


The Berkshire racecourse has drafted in a couple of culinary thoroughbreds to make its Royal meeting a front runner in this year’s hospitality stakes.

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Four out of six horses came in. And not just each way – they actually won. We left Royal Ascot’s preview day rather happy. But it wasn’t just the pocket-tearing sum of £18 – if only we’d stuck more than £2 down – that made us smile. In a single day, our tongues had travelled to India, a Michelin-starred pub in Marlow and the Mad Hatter’s tea party, landing on a picnic rug in the Berkshire countryside.

Our day’s dining was organised so that each course showcased a different example of the new food offerings at this summer’s Royal Ascot. It was between courses that we made our cash, while hastily trotting round the venue’s myriad hospitality options, fuelled by a flute or two of Bollinger Special Cuvée (the event’s Champagne partner).

Showing us everything new, in one day, was an achievement. The event’s hospitality offering has gone through the roof this year – or the walls at least, but more about that later – with more celebrity chefs, restaurants and packages than you can shake a Union Jack at. Don’t believe us? Check this out.

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High Five

Things must have gone well for Tom Kerridge (below centre) in the Panoramic restaurant last year: he’s been invited to take another short sabbatical from his beloved Hand and Flowers. This time, though, he won’t be back in the same place. Ascot has gone and given him his own restaurant, high up in the Grandstand. It’s called On Five.

When we had a look in February, it was still a building site, with Tom – complete in a fetching hard hat – painting a fine picture of what will be.

Our main course – treacle-cured fillet of Lancashire beef with Hand and Flowers chips and Béarnaise sauce – was a fine example of what to expect in the new 196-seater restaurant (which has its own terrace to watch the action from) and what Tom does best: British classics, made modern. The beef was pink and perfect, but it was those chips that lingered in the happy parts of our minds.

Spicing up the Panoramic

Shortly after Royal finished last year, Atul Kochhar (below left) received a phone call, probably while in his Michelin-starred restaurant Benares on Berkeley Square. It was an offer to head up the team cooking for the discerning guests of the Panoramic in 2014.

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After an immediate yes, Kochhar got to work, moulding his style – British ingredients with a spiced Indian twist – into an event-ready format. We were lucky enough to try the fruits of his labour in our starter, which arrived as pan-fried sea bass and beet mash, with a tumeric and coconut sauce. To achieve this level of detail in a dish en masse really will be a triumph.

Bienvenue à Ascot

The race course’s brand new two-tier structure will be taken over by a group of very talented Parisians. Caterer Lenôtre, whose team includes chefs from the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Pre Catelan, will be taking care of things in the Balmoral (starting at £600+VAT per person for a five-course lunch), Carriages (starting at £450+VAT per person for a four-course lunch) and Sandringham (starting at £330+VAT per person for a three-course lunch).

Lenôtre will receive a daily order of ingredients from its usual Parisian market suppliers to create a range of inventive French dishes.

Clever thinking

Looking after this year’s lively Village is Smart Hospitality (options here start at £299 +VAT per person for a five-course lunch, tickets available from www.smartexperiences.co.uk) and we had the chance to sample its playful finger food on preview day.

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Groups of up to 10 guests will be greeted with a glass of Pimm’s from the Garden Bar, followed by a four-course lunch, with access to the Grandstand for the racing.

Once that’s all settled and the betting stubs are made into paper aeroplanes, Smart will reveal its ace card, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, complete with multi-coloured sweet treats, neatly cut sandwiches and a selection of teas.

If you manage to snap up tickets for Friday, make sure to stick around once all the racing’s done for an after-party, with live music to keep the beat going.

Cream of the crop

Royal Ascot’s top offering is The Parade Ring restaurant (starting at £1,200 +VAT per person for a five-course lunch) which, of course, is located in the Royal Enclosure.

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One of the main attractions for groups of up to 12 people is the likelihood of seeing the Queen up close, as she makes her way from the Royal Box to see the best of the racing stock in the parade ring itself.

Long-time executive chef Steve Golding will oversee an à la carte lunch and, by the taste of his After Eight dessert – dainty mint and chocolate variations – it’s set to be a knockout.

Lay out the rug

At the other end of the spectrum is the Silver Ring Enclosure, where tickets start at £16 per person. Caterer Centreplate has taken over the helm this year, offering guests a best-of-British menu.

Working with Centreplate is artisan deli Sourced Market, who will give guests the chance to pre-order a tailored picnic hamper – with options including British cheeses, charcuterie, olives, handmade scotch eggs, pies and sausage rolls – so you needn’t lug your own along.

Guests can also place an order at the Sourced stand on the day. With the venue assuring us it’s been voted England’s favourite sports-event picnic, it’s hard to argue with that option. We were lucky enough to leave with a mini hamper – it didn’t make it to the station.

60 seconds with Atul Kochhar

How has it been working with Tom Kerridge on the menu?

AK: Tom’s been a hero of mine for a long time. We’re now friends and I’ve always admired his kind of cooking: straightforward non-bullshit British food, that’s what I call it. I adore his food.

How did this all come about?

AK: I got the call last year. I’ve never been to Ascot before, and it was an instant yes. No looking back, no thinking. It’s an honour, I’ve always been a champion of the UK and this is as British as it gets.

Have you had to change the way you cook to fit the Royal Ascot mould?

AK: Not at all. My restaurant is already soaked and steeped in British culture. I use techniques and ingredients from the British Isles and simply add spices.

How have you adapted to high-volume event catering?

AK: Well, we chefs always want to put our mark on it, and ensure that it’s dressed really well, but you have to make it practical and really plan out how you’re going to cater to 170 guests in one go.

Will you do more event catering in the future?

AK: Benares will always take priority, but this gives me a break to work slightly differently. It’s also a huge marketing event for me.

Do you enjoy horse racing?

AK: I love horses, even though I’m a bit nervous of them, but I don’t bet. Running a restaurant – I don’t think there can be a worse bet than that.

What’s next for you?

AK: Well, I never say never to opening a new restaurant.

This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, spring 2014.

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