Dining From Underground! Love the Food!

A new underground dining-movement is taking London by storm and its secret chefs are experimenting with world cuisine in the privacy of their homes. With the desire to cook for others and share their food, they are happy to set up their own tables, cutlery and plates and to create a convivial atmosphere. With a new post-code falling to the trend every week, nobody knows the full count of these secret dining chefs and clubs. Just today, I heard that the movement has reached Turin, Italy.

So who are these guys and what are they up to? As luck would have it, I was invited to a rare feast to celebrate the birthday of an American lady named Shelley who is a secret chef who goes by the name of ‘Nomad Chef’. She took the initiative to get eight secret chefs together in her beautiful home in the Holland Park area, whom she had found online via social media. As fellow foodies, each brought a dish with which to impress so that there was endless fare that I lost count after the eighth course.

United by a deep love of all things culinary, the secret chefs agree that one of the reasons for going underground is that they yearn for good honest conversation, the type of which can only take place around a private dining room table with an intimate atmosphere. Even as many of them have day jobs too, they can’t stop themselves from collecting recipes and wanting to try them out on others and feeling great when they get positive feedback. Shunning restaurants is one of the things they have in common too.

Over dinner I was able to chat with the eight chefs and realised how they derive great pleasure from feeding others; and, they also all agreed that this becomes addictive and unstoppable. Like chefs in normal restaurants, they are on a mission to tap into the rich diversified history of food, cooking different cuisine and experimenting with fusion and adapting menus.

On the night, we were treated to: watermelon with feta cheese and mint salad, Moroccan tortilla with black olives, red peppers and harissa, Swedish fried meat balls with a beetroot and apple salad, Scandinavian seafood and turkey sandwich cake, Chinese pancakes with dill, tofu, egg and yellow bean sauce, Vietnamese pork patties with chili, sugar and lime juice, a lasagne with pancetta, pork sausage, parmesan, rocket and field mushrooms and a Mexican enchilada casserole. Not to be out-shown for dessert we had Mitty’s scrumptious ‘Sweet Justice’ dark chocolate cake that perfectly sealed the banquet.

Mingling With The Secret Chefs

Chatting with our gentle American hostess Shelley, she said the Nomad Chef persona was her way of healing the pain and the darkness of having lost her only son a year ago who was only 32 years old. She had shared with him an infatuation for food and mother and son had spent many days together in the kitchen cooking.

She said that her son had been a successful chef himself and had cooked private dinners for rock stars, actors and anyone who heard about his fusion food. To honour his memory, she got into secret dining and now offers amazing soul food, specialising in vegetarian dishes. With her French partner Bruno helping her in the kitchen, they take painstaking care to ensure their guests enjoy every mouthful and feel welcome.

I next spoke with Nicos who is a super confidant 28 years old who has just arrived from the United States. He boasts that he turned down a sous-chef position to work for Gordon Ramsey and that his Meridian Supper Club, based in Greenwich, offers seasonal, free range and locally sourced food that he buys from Borough’s Market.

Coming to London to change his life and travel, he said: “The restaurant business, which I have been in for fifteen years, is a tough lifestyle. You keep working for others who don’t appreciate the time and energy you put in. I would rather be poor then to give my life to 35K a year and slave for 65 hours a week.”

I then chatted to the petite Ning who is the creator of the Mama Lan Supper Club. A chartered accountant by day, her family’s history in the food business and old recipes used at home took her to the kitchen and cooking for others. Based in Cricklewood, she serves traditional Northern Chinese fare and teaches her guests a little bit about her cultural heritage.

The other secret chefs included the Somalian Ayan and her Swedish friend Pia who host the Claptonian Club in E5. Originally an Art gallery, they have turned the venue into a food venture where they rustle up a choice between East African fusion and Scandinavian recipes. Lastly, I met the hip Nigeria Shay who is a founding member of the Rebel Dining Society in EC1 where secret dinners can summon up to a hundred guests. His mission is to push the boundaries of fine dining and to also brings experimental live music and art performances too.

The Underground Dining Experience

Everyone is welcome to the supper clubs but you need to book in advance and know which cuisine is going to be served. Please note also that a financial contribution is usually made to the host or hostess with the rule to bring your own alcohol. There are on occasions also cooking workshops and demos and special brunches for families with children too.

Note: This article was first published circa May 2010

Ruby Wax Sermon: The School of Life

August 2008 saw the launch of ‘The School of Life’ in London, an adult open-type university led by a group of intellectuals and artists whose goal is to bring modern individuals with a hectic life-style – and presumably with not enough time or a place to think! – together in a safe environment to discuss the essence of life through the core subjects of: Love, Family, Work, Play and Politics.

By drawing upon the wisdom of ancient and modern philosophy, literature, the visual arts and psychotherapy, the aim of their classes, workshops, dinners and other gatherings is to provide good ideas to live by, offer guidance in turbulent times and to re-introduce certain core values to a vastly secular and existentially plagued world.

Although fronted by a small shop in the Bloomsbury area, their unusual style and structure of education seems to have struck a cord in many ready participants’ hearts and minds. The number of their students keeps expanding; and, in order to book a place on one of their courses or to join in a breakfast or dinner meeting can take up to months in advance. Not to mention their intellectual holidays.

So I decided to see what the fuss was all about and managed to get a ticket for a Sunday sermon. This was to be the tenth of the series where the idea is for the School to get an expert to speak for 45 minutes about a hot topic that has a moral or philosophical edge to it. These are conducted at the metaphoric parish and with this particular sermon going to be led by none other than the comedienne turned psychotherapist Ruby Wax on the subject of ‘How to Love Your Ego.’

The Parish Congregation

On the Sunday, I made my way to Conway Hall in Red Lion Square for the sermon to begin at 11.30 am. Although it was pouring with rain outside with windy, there were about 400 (the full capacity at Conway Hall) super keen people ready and chatting in the reception area before being let in. Many were regulars as they greeted each other and fell into conversation, as we waited to be let in. Once inside the hall, I got a good seat near to the front and I noticed also clearly etched at the top of the stage was a quote: “To Thine Own Self Be True”. All I good I thought, just the right motto to live by.

But then bizarrely, a very tall fellow (seven-foot point-four inches man – I asked him!) was wearing a shiny red leotard with small red lycra horns and acting cheeky and coming up to people. I thought how strange this was, but then maybe because it was the Halloween weekend and they were just getting into the spirit of things to break the ice.

But then it got a bit more bizarre and frankly weird. For once we were all seated and welcomed by the host speaker, we were ordered to stand up to sing a hymn. This is not anything from the Bible but the lyrics of the Eighties popular song by The Righteous Brothers – “You’ve lost that loving feeling.” And yes, to my horror, everyone started to sing and sway and getting all worked up. I sang along, of course, but wondered what was the ethical or philosophical significance of this? And what does this song hold for modern man?

Anyhow, once this was out of the way, Ruby Wax finally took to the podium for her speech, but not before the place was screaming down with cheers and claps for her.

Ruby On How to Love your Ego

Ruby said that the title for the subject was not her idea and warned that her speech would not be of the self or group-congratulatory type of the popular – but intellectually derided – American self-help programmes best known for their ego or confidence boosting. Rather, she wanted to discuss the essence of the “I” or better the “ich” in German as the centre of the self and person and one’s core identity.

Ruby expounded on the experience of fame and fortune. In particular, she said that being in the public eye might well provide one with a huge surge to the ego, but that will only lead to a greater fall when the attention dies out. In her own words, she said: “When you are up and flying close to the sun, people will treat you as a star with perks and privileges. But once you are down in the midst of despair, nobody will hear your call.”

She then argued that the reality of fame has an ugly side that is not often spoken about; that the public’s fascination with stars is also laced with a bigger resentment and a secret wish and desire for your demise. Further, that when you are high on fame, it is easy to create a different persona to your real self and get confused; but, that unfortunately, the real you eventually does come out in pathology.

With her signature irony and jokes, she confided about her childhood demons of being bullied at school, being fat and unpopular and then having tough parents. But that one day, “the loser learnt to speak comedy” – and that is how she found herself on the public stage.

Wax of course became widely known in the Nineties when she started to interview celebrities in an up, very close and personal style; and with her witty approach in handling these became a TV favourite to watch. However, as she explains, despite being at the height of all this fame and success, her real self came back to haunt her and she experienced an awful melt-down, became depressed and found herself at the Priory Clinic.

Closer to the end of her speech, she says that, fortunately, it was the shock of this stint in rehab that made her decide to finally deal with her monsters; by questioning her life choices, re-assessing her values; and, significantly, returning to her studies in psychology and neuroscience in order to find out what goes on in the mind. And that through these studies, she has come to learn the importance of understanding and harnessing “detached compassion – not to be confused with love – cause love can be stifling.” And just as it was getting to be very interesting, her forty-five minutes were done and she had to wrap up.

Once Wax got off the stage, the crowds were clapping again with myself included. But before I knew it, the devil in the red leotard returned to the front of the hall in order to begin the chanting of the second hymn – this time the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” – to which I chose not to sing along. Personally, I do not believe that Jackson is the right teacher for me on the matter of looking at or studying myself in the mirror!

When the song eventually came to its agonising end, we were invited to drink tea or coffee and have biscuits to mingle and chat with other attendees. Although I could have stayed to talk with some people, I decided to leave because I felt a little out of place and I wanted some time to think to myself.

I admit I enjoyed the talk and was pleasantly surprised by Wax’s down to earth approach. At least it made me think and scratch my head for a whole hour after as I walked back home from Holborn to Maida Vale. Even the following morning, I found myself still troubled with the intricacies of the subject of the “ego” and whether or not I agreed with the gist of what she said. In fact, it was only after I wrote back my notes that I was finally able to make some kind of intelligent sense out of it.

However, this also made me wonder: Would the average man or woman on the street have been able to understand any of this philosophising? Would it give them any guidance in these turbulent times? For even this is speculation as very few can afford to regularly attend these sermons by the proclaimed intellectuals, artists and philosophers of our time.

Sadly I have to sat that I felt a little intimidated by the composition of this parish congregation and its leaders, even if they did try in many ways to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. But I felt that you already have to be privileged nd of a certain class in order to fit in or to make sense of what they are on about.

I can’t lie that I won’t be seduced to return for another subject dearer to me, as I’m a glutton for punishment. The truth is there are very few places in London – bar universities – where one can address the big philosophic issues of life and being without feeling out of place. Just please don’t ask me to sing along to another Michael Jackson song! And please get rid of the red devil!

I do also have a serious suggestion to make to the School of Life. Could they perhaps begin to offer some of their classes, workshops and events to the less fortunate? Or maybe to introduce a community project to reach those who are truly in desperate need of ideas to live by? For that would definitely turn them into a more benevolent social enterprise and begin to truly personify the wisdom of the ancient and modern thoughts. Can they open their doors to everyone? I dare them to!

For more information: www.theschooloflife.com.

Note; This article was first published circa November 2009

What Is In a Game of Polo?

Reading of Prince Harry’s first official trip to New York last week, he visited Ground Zero to meet up with New York’s Governor and the emergency fighters who helped quench that mad raging fire. There Prince Harry paid tribute to the victims of Nine-Eleven and opened the British Memorial Garden in Hanover Square to honour the 67 British casualties. He then planted a Magnolia tree.

Although this was a solemn affair, the star-struck Americans were completely bowled over by this young bad-boy royal. Many adoring young and old female fans had come from all over the United States, to catch a glimpse of him as he lay a wreath and hoped to get in line to shake his hand.

Exactly the following day, fantastic, racy and sexy pictures came out of the Prince as he played Polo at Governor’s Island. Not disrespectfully, the small game event turned out to be a greater highlight of his short visit.

New York’s stars and celebrities all fought to get a seat; and, the likes of Madonna, her toy-boy Jesus, Kate Hudson, the Rapper LL Cool J and his wife reportedly paid up to $50,000 to be there – all going towards charity of course.

Admittedly, he is a handsome prince and I understand how this attractive, young and athletic male on horseback – all sweaty and hot from riding – is a turn on for any woman, irrespective of age. Still, I’ve never manically followed the Royals and I cannot understand the frenzy surrounding their love and fascination with horses. But who could I judge the Americans when I don’t know a thing about appreciating a game of Polo?

Call it synchronicity. On the following Monday, I got an unexpected invite to attend a game of Polo between the English Guards and the United Gulf Cooperation Council, the GCC. They were having their annual match at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park and I was promised there would be drinks, lunch, a charity auction, speeches and scones with clotted cream.

When we arrived after a two-hour drive from central London, we found the place surrounded by greenery, peace and quiet. As we entered the white gates, the ushers indicated where to park the car and led us to the large white marquee where everyone had already gathered for lunch.

It was clear that this was not your average run-of-the-mill sports event but something highly exclusive. There were no more than a hundred and fifty attendees and the women were dressed in designer outfits and the men in formal suits and tie. The tables inside were also decorated with expensive flowers and tea lights and the especially prepared food served on china plates and silver cutlery.

Unusually for such a small group, there were ten professional photographers snapping away and a couple of Arabic TV crews taking coverage and interviewing the guests. In jest, I was nudged to be on good behaviour because I was in the presence of royalty. What? Royalty? My friend pointed to the head table.

Sitting in traditional garb was HRH Prince Abdel Aziz Bin Ahmed of Saudi Arabia surrounded by dignitaries. Next to our marquee also was the Royal Box for HM, the Queen for when she arrives. Apparently, it is tradition that she presents the Polo trophies. Ashamedly, I squealed in delight before I could check myself! I was excited to see, for the first time, this constitutional imperative of an individual and the face of Great Britain. Where was she? I couldn’t wait to see her.

Before her arrival, the game started. I thought to learn a few things. Polo is a truly graceful sport with four members on horseback playing for each team. They have mallet sticks with which to hit the ball – usually made of wood or plastic – in order to reach the goal post on either side of the field.

It is played in four quarters or six round – called chukkas – that normally last seven minutes with up to thirty seconds for overtime. And, in between, the horses rest for some minutes to recharge. That is it! Nothing too complicated. But it is clear how the players have great skill and training to get the horses to play in such an elegant way.

On the day, the GCC team won four and a half points to three by the Guards. When it was over, the players disembarked from their horses and got ready to receive their prizes.

“This is my moment to see her!” I thought. So, I ran near to the field for the ceremony and minded I didn’t slip on the grass with my high heels. As expected, everyone else was trying to get a good view too. And she finally walked out of her Box. Total silence descended and then, quickly, the cameras began to click and roll. It was all I could hear for five minutes- click, snap, click.

HM the Queen did not disappoint. Close up, she is impeccable charm, style and refinement. For the occasion, she was wearing a floral white and fuchsia dress with matching long jacket, white shoes and signature pearls. As it was slightly raining, she also had a matching pink umbrella held by her assistant.

I cannot say that I heard her speak or that I shook her hand. She just stood five metres away from me and presented the BMG Trophy and medals. Before I had more time to satisfy my curiosity, it all ended and she was escorted back and everyone cheered and clapped for her.

I realise now that I was got too eager and excited to see the Queen. So, yes, I’ll eat and enjoy the humble pie I owe to the Americans. As for the game of Polo, I highly recommend you go if you ever get an invite. Just dress your best and take your camera. You never know which royal you might bump into.