Supper club: As Yeo like it
12 October 2016
"Steve places a slice of salmon on each tiny slice of melba toast, and tops with crème fraiche and feathery fennel leaves"
We join Steve James and his pals for dinner at home in Yeovil to celebrate the launch of his brand new private chef business...
Words by JESSICA CARTER
Photos by TORY McTERNAN
Depending on how you look at it, Steve’s mates are either really jammy, or a bit unfortunate. Y’see, if the dinner party he had for them recently – which we happily got to crash – is anything to go by, then they know when they’re invited ’round for dinner that they’re going to be in for a stonking feed. But, then there’s the small matter of the returning of the favour... There’s going to be some pressure, there.
Steve is a Somerset-based private chef; having trained and worked at the cookery school of former Leiths head tutuor, TV chef and author Lesley Waters, he set up his own food business. It’s no surprise, then, that he has some proper A-game in the kitchen.
This evening, dinner is at Roxanne and Paul’s digs – a gorgeous townhouse in Yeovil (Steve has been in the West Country his whole life, moving to Yeovil form Weymouth five years ago). Having had to completely gut the building when they moved in, the pair have made the front room – previously a bedroom – into a cosy living area. It was a pretty hefty project, they tell us over the pear Bellinis we were handed on arrival.
“It was a multi-occupancy rented house before we moved in,” Paul explains. “It had been so badly bodged.”
Roxanne adds: “There was damp everywhere. Nothing had been stripped for years, it was just layered up; I had to chisel away four layers of tiles by hand!”
A spacious dinning area adjoins the lounge, sporting painted white brick and hues of lemon yellow – a rustic but modern family area. The dining table – a polished glass top supported by a raw wood frame – has a natural look, echoing the seasonal theme of the food, and is laid out with slate placemats and a mixture of small plants.
The kitchen is very light and contemporary, with plenty of room for Steve and colleague Bobby to prep the proceeding five courses – and matching cocktails. It’s a good job there’s plenty of space in there too, ’cause we’re loitering around annoying Steve with questions and conversation for quite a while...
“I’d say my food’s a modern take on traditional, British seasonal dishes,” he tells us while slicing his fillet of cured salmon for the canapés. “The menus I’ve created for my business are in that style, but change to make the most of the different ingredients available each season.
“I’ve been cooking ever since I was little – my auntie actually found an old photo recently of me and her cooking for a dinner party. I could only have been about five!”
Steve places a slice of salmon on each tiny slice of melba toast, and tops with crème fraiche and feathery fennel leaves. These join the goat’s cheese and red pepper canapés, which he carries through to the lounge for his guests. (Way to get us out of the kitchen, Steve.)
As well as Paul and Roxanne, Steve is also cooking for mates Simon, Abbey and Lisa – although Rupert the chocolate brown spaniel does come tentatively enquiring as to whether he’s involved in tonight’s culinary activities too. (Soz, Rupert. You probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway. Honest...)
Having made short work of the perfectly bite-sized canapés, we each grab a seat at the dining table, and are brought a warming, autumnal cocktail from Bobby – clementine juice with vodka, cinnamon and star anise. (Steve used to work in a cocktail bar so knows his stuff when it comes to washing his food down, and often matches his courses to clever concoctions.)
Right on cue, the cats descend from upstairs to eye up our starters through the banisters. That’s a well-honed sense of smell they have there. Super-soft slices of duck – the flesh a precise pale pink – are muddled with pickled blackberries and shavings of beetroot, on top of a swirl of subtly spiced elderberry sauce and spots of coriander oil. The tangy berries and elderberry sauce give the dish the right amount of punch, hitting those autumnal notes while not overpowering the more delicate flavours.
Bobby comes to collect our empty plates and serve the next cocktails. Having the format this way means that, while the atmosphere is still very much chilled-out dinner party with pals as opposed to anything more formal, the courses flow really nicely and there’s none of the usual spanners thrown in the cookery works by vino- or chat-induced distractions. (That’s not only the norm at our dinner parties, is it?) A really, really good strip of braised and pressed pork belly appears in front of us next – the fat meltingly tender and topped with a thin layer of brittle crispness. It comes with cannellini bean purée, pomme Anna, thyme and honey carrots, Brussels sprout leaves and a cider sauce, which added a delicious sweetness (and slight booziness) to the rich meat. The honey and thyme carrots, meanwhile, had us all talking, and diving straight into the bowl of extras that, if I were Steve, I would have kept quiet about.
With the cats still sitting quietly hopeful on the stairs, we tuck into our salted caramel chocolate fondant, with malt ice cream, salted popcorn and chocolate sauce – served with a White Russian. And just as we think we’re at capacity, pistachio nougat arrives with the coffee and proves us wrong.
Clapping the powered sugar from our hands, we peek and see how our host is doing in the kitchen. Pretty good, as it turns out – too calm, surely, to have just knocked out all those impressive dishes to a full table of hungry mates? Someone get this guy a drink...