Private chefs

Neighbouring couples engage in some culinary one-upmanship

Image: www.phildisley.com

“What the hell is THAT?” Edward asked, poking at it with a fork.

“Pluck and lights, darling,” Philomena replied.

“It looks like something’s lung.” Edward picked it up, chewed, and spat it into his napkin. “Urgh. We can’t serve that!”

Phil looked huffy but, after tasting the concoction, quietly struck it off the list.

Ever since their new neighbours, the Fearne-Warners, had moved into the Glebe, Phil had been food crazy. Purves, whose stout but exquisite English fare (they’d poached him from Rules 20 years ago) had been one of Edward’s great pleasures in life, already looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

It had all begun six months ago. They’d had the Fearne-Warners round, brought a bottle of something dusty out of the cellar and asked Purves to push the boat out: a haunch of their own venison – forestière – creamed spinach and, at Phil’s insistence, pommes soufflées. Purves had grumbled about the potatoes (they’re a bitch to prepare, apparently), but the whole thing had been a triumph. Right up until Anna Fearne-Warner, fork poised before mouth,  had exclaimed, with poisonous brightness: “How wonderfully quaint!”

Phil had kept her voice level. “Quaint?”

“Between you and me,” said Anna, “all I want to eat is old-fashioned nursery grub, too. But Mark’s such a foodie...”

“For my sins!” her husband piped up.

“Every meal has to be yuzu this or togarashi that,” she continued. “I think he spends more on chefs than he does on me!”

That night, Edward had been kept awake by the sound of his wife yelping to the empty air: “Chefs?”, “Quaint?” and “Nursery food?”. Invited to the Glebe a fortnight later, they sat down to six courses, not one ingredient of which he readily recognised.

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As far as Edward was concerned, the Fearne-Warners could eat what they bloody well liked. But for Phil, war had been declared. The theatres of conflict were the dining rooms of the Hall and the Glebe and the enemy outmanoeuvred them every time. Phil had responded to the six-courser with a seven-courser (Purves having been supplemented by a small brigade of chefs-for-hire at dreadful expense), the gimmick being a dish from every continent. Anna had responded with a knight-move: a “simple kitchen supper” of homemade pasta, tossed in some completely unobtainable single‑estate olive oil and with a white truffle the size of a football slivered delicately onto it at the table.

One party would go all Womad – homemade injera with zilzil tibs cooked on a charcoal-burning clay brazier – and the other would shoot back with modernist Chinese. Wham! Dozens of small plates covered in jellies and foams. Bam! The head of a baby pig whose other organs had provided the abundant rough charcuterie, and whose belly had spent the whole week cooking sous-vide.

Back and forth it went – Purves now all but a stranger in his own kitchen, Phil utterly obsessed and those damn Fearne-Warners seemingly imperturbable. Whatever Phil commanded, whatever they spent, however far from the comforting shallows of Heston and Yotam they swam, the Fearne-Warners would murmur a faint, perfunctory compliment and, a fortnight later, trump it.

Now it finally looked as if Phil had more or less given up. This weekend, the usual international chefs-for-hire had not been engaged and Purves – whom she’d sent on a sushi-making course – would produce a simple Japanese meal.  

“Oh, sashimi,” said Anna, reaching out with a chopstick. “How divine to have a no-fuss supper! You two are marvellous, you really are. It’s all about the company, isn’t it, after all?”

“Exactly! Do dig in!”

Anna dipped a morsel in soy sauce and chewed thoughtfully. “Hard to place the taste,” she said. “Is that yellowtail?”

Fugu,” said Phil, her face emotionless.

“Gosh,” said Anna. “Isn’t that…”

“Pufferfish? Yes. Purves has raised his game so much these days – thanks entirely to you and Mark – that I thought I’d let him have a bash.”

“A bash?” said Anna. But the sibilants at the end of the word sounded faintly mushy. Anna put her hand up to her mouth. She frowned. “Ah... Muh wips fee a bit numb.”

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“Many a slip,” said Phil.

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