But just as some singers struggled to keep up with the high adrenalin life-style, so too chefs. Benoit Violier, whose Restaurant l’Hotel de Ville was awarded three Michelin stars, proved recently that suicide is not confined to rock ‘n’ roll. The film Burnt, showing a chef driven to drug addiction by the fear of performing, captured the pressure well. Marcus Wearing, who trained the actors Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller to do do everything from shuck oysters to break down fowl so they could star in the film, said: ‘My intention was for them to walk away thinking, “F*ck, I don’t want to be a cook.” Wearing could teach intensity because he has lived it: I remember booking a table at his restaurant and bringing as my guest Heston Blumenthal. Wearing came out to chat and gave a brilliant acting performance of assured calm – but imagine the sweat pouring off the team in that kitchen.
And that’s what we don’t appreciate. Our moment of leisure is their moment of pressure. While we are sighing over a pre-dinner sharpener, behind those swing doors is a man (or woman) bent over hot stainless steel, wondering whether their soufflé – and at that moment, it seems their world – is about to cave in.
No wonder Paul Welburn has decided to go for a quieter life as head chef of the Leconfield, Petworth, having supported Gary Rhodes in London (for five years he had a Michelin star at W1). But even this elegant, smart rural restaurant has not been without stress. Welburn took over late last year intending to retain the existing French menu while he slowly designed a replacement. But he quickly decided the status quo would not do, so in the Christmas rush he introduced a new menu with his more traditional English fayre, presented in the modern manner. Stressful on the chef, but it works; after just six weeks he picked up a second rosette; amazing.
And he deserved it because here is a chef who thinks about his food, and isn’t afraid to have fun with it. Take the amuse bouches: one looks like a tiny red hamburger, in fact goat cheese curd sandwiched between beetroot macaroons; seeing it just makes you smile. Packed with even more flavor is the accompanying morsel. This looks like a Chinese prawn cracker but made of puffed brown rice sprinkled with crispy chicken, served with curried mayo and coriander – Welburn’s take on Coronation chicken, but not for a world of Spam fritters into which that dish was born, but a modern world where you can find every style of food on a city street corner.
Attention to detail delights. Fresh soda bread comes in a brown baker’s bag on a wooden board with three butters: salted, cep mushroom and Marmite. The latter is especially tasty on the scrumptious soda bread.
The inventiveness extends to names, so the starter is described as “gin and tonic cured trout”, and what’s not to like about the sound of that? This is melt in the mouth smooth, while zingy lemon and dill adds fresh, aromatic notes. Crunchy slightly, treacled crutons provide a contrast in texture, adding subtle sweetness; a really well balanced dish, and Michelin standard cooking.
Next we have pulled pork, covered in golden breadcrumbs. As the knife descends, the pork falls apart. Burnt apple sauce and slivers of green apple make for a classic combination, but these old friends have been dressed in daringly modern garb – think an elderly couple on their ruby wedding anniversary with an S&M makeover.
My favourite dish of the evening – yes, we can’t resist, we go for the tasting menu – is the fleshy chargrilled monkfish served with a crab dashi broth, chargrilled gem lettuce. Smoky flavours from the really quite chargrilled pair are set-off perfectly by this delicious Japanese broth, with slightly pickled paper-thin slices of turnip and radish. This dazzling dish shows that Welburn is happy to take risks beyond his otherwise very British menu.
Against such super-high standards, I am not quite so taken by the veal loin with veal tongue and caramelised onions, carrot puree and roasted carrot with watercress. The loin is incredible but whilst the tongue is another interesting contrast in texture, it struggles to compete in terms of taste. Or maybe I just think tongues are for activities other than eating: my hang up.
But Welburn’s pre-pudding is as good as you could find anywhere , the chef’s brilliant take on pina colada – a cocktail which most diners in this decidedly upmarket joint would regard as the sort of thing their au pair gets chucked down her neck on a night out in Crawley. Yet in Welburn’s hands this becomes a sophisticated palate-cleanser: fresh and poached cubes of pineapple with pina colada granita, while a few grains of desiccated coconut are thrown in for texture – above which sits the lightest, fluffiest cloud of coconut spuma.
After that you don’t really want pudding, but needs must. It is a study of rhubarb in various forms and textures, served with an intense vanilla ice cream. It is a subtle way to end, showing restraint in not bowing out in a blaze of chocolate greatest hits glory.
Our waitress could not be more charming or better informed and is furious with herself on the one occasion she can’t answer a (very technical) question, and insists on running to the chef to ask.
This is cooking to a high standard, already enhanced by excellent local suppliers now available to Welburn in Sussex. Incidentally, his girlfriend also works in the kitchen, something Cooper is warned off when he hires Sienna Miller as his sous chef in Burnt. But if any meat-cleavers are being hurling through raw flesh in the kitchen when we visit, it is only the loin of veal that suffers.
I didn’t need to watch Burnt to know I didn’t want to be a cook. But with Welburn in the kitchen, I do so want to eat…
To read more download the April 2016 Issue of Sussex Style for Tablet: