If you've never been to one of these, it works like this: Ben is joined by a fellow chef (usually Michelin-starred, always extraordinary) and they work together to produce a twelve-course menu. Some dishes are from Ben, some from the guest chef and some are cooked collaboratively. Previous luminaries have included JP McMahon (Aniar), Adam Handling (The Frog) and Calum Franklin (Holborn Dining Room), creator not only of legendary pies but also of the world's best Twitter hashtag. (No, I'm not telling you, go and look.)
In the interests of transparency — about which I have pretty strong views — it's worth mentioning here that I've been lucky enough to have been invited as a guest to several of Ben's dining events recently (although not this one; I bought these tickets, back in February after blogging the Meat Lust bus tour). I will remain, as always, fully open and honest about my opinions - I have long thought him an extraordinary talent, and the evidence is only building — but this has given me a little more insight into what motivates and drives him as a professional, which has been fascinating.
The event hit the ground running with a selection of Table Nibbles, waiting for us as we were shown to our seats by the lovely Sarah. Arnaud contributed the spelt crisp with soft cheese and smoked duck along with the liquid Greek salad, which not only looked beautiful but was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. A perfectly bite-sized, glistening red globe with a tiny basil leaf garnish, this bursts in your mouth to release a flood of fresh, complex Greek salad flavours — an experience not unlike the tomato sphere in the Prairie Oyster at The Bar with No Name (in other words, wonderful).
Ben provided a varied range of nibbles, my favourite of which I think was the caramelised kohlrabi, buttermilk jelly and white chocolate skewer. Characteristically inventive, this might sound like an unlikely combination of flavours but it was marvellous — as was the roasted pickled onion in chicken butter and spicy ginger wrapped in nori. Spalding's dishes are regularly outside-the-box creative, but never for novelty's sake; every single component adds to the flavour and balance of the final dish.
One of the fabulous things about the #AllGunsBlazing dinners is that it removes the barrier between chef and diner. Ben and Arnaud were not hidden away in a high-tech kitchen but mere feet away, preparing and plating everything right in front of us, introducing the dishes and interacting with guests throughout the evening. I can't help thinking that this must be a welcome change for the chefs as well as extremely cool for the guests. I should probably point out here that all this is being prepared and served in an event space above a corner shop in Hackney, with very few of the standard toys and equipment which chefs at this level are used to. I have huge respect for professionals willing to step so far outside of their comfort zone.
Here, opinion on the table was divided. I really liked this dish; for me, this was the closest thing to eating an oyster without actually eating an oyster — cool, briny, slippery, tasting of the sea. One of my companions however was not a fan of the texture. (I ate hers. I'm not too proud to admit it).
This dish was another of my favourites: cauliflower, slow-roasted in beurre noisette with garam masala, shaved almonds, yoghurt, black garlic crumble, marmite cream cheese and grated bitter dark chocolate. Every component intensified and enhanced the flavour of the cauliflower, bringing out an extraordinary, unexpected, satisfying depth. You know when you bump into the unattractive kid you went to school with and they're now unbelievably hot? The Neville Longbottom thing? Brad Pitt in Friends? That.
I'm going to mention here the hand model for this particular shot; my neighbour for the evening, Head Chef Asimakis Chaniotis of L'Autre Pied. Another thing that makes these evenings such fun is that the vibe is so buzzy and relaxed (Ben also curates a playlist of rare funk, groove and classic disco from the music side of his business) you end up brazenly chatting to the perfect strangers sitting next to you — and no, this time its's actually not just me.
Confession time; my camera skills may have been deteriorating slightly at this point and, by the time much faffing had been done, the mousse had melted into a rather unphotogenic blob. It was great fun though, and utterly delicious.
This was Black is Back, a visually dramatic and intriguing dish of meltingly tender lamb neck with aubergine and harissa providing a wonderful, deep smokiness.
The intensity of the fudge was beautifully balanced by the accompaniments and it was so interesting to see how the aromatic warmth of the cardamom came out differently in each of the three chocolate fudges.
The #AllGunsBlazing dinners are a steal for both the quality and quantity of food, even without meeting the chefs and seeing them at work. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it - I think there is one more booked (with Jonathan Tam of Relæ) and, at least at time of writing, there were tickets available. It is so chilled, so much fun, and the food is awesome. And, please, go hungry.
Yours, in foodie heaven,
London Girl About Town xx