The thing I miss most about fancy restaurants is knowing someone else will be doing the washing up. Yes, I also miss having my food prepared for me by someone so good at cooking they make a living out it, and yes, I do hanker after the softly inebriated evening conviviality of a well-appointed eatery. But it’s the sheer awfulness of the Fairy Liquid Hour that follows an ambitious moment in the kitchen that I can’t wait to be rid of.
That said, I am still extremely grateful that during these interminable months of lockdown so many of the nation’s finest chefs have taken to sending us their food, even if whipping up their confections leaves a pile of washing-up that makes rinsing Christmas Day pots and pans look like a pre-Covid hand-wash
Such solipsism, I realise, is typical of Generation Pandemic, and in my defence I did manage to put such pressing private concerns to one side when talking to multi-Michelin-starred wonder chef Tom Aikens about the Easter lunch kits he and StarChefs will be mailing out to families around the country early next month.
In their place came a slightly awkward concern for Aikens and his peers, whose métier these days is left to find its fullest expression in the layman hands of accountants, lawyers and, worse, journalists, who, unable to dine out, are left to play chef at home. Knowing this must be like sucking on a particularly sour lemon, no?
“Whether or not it comes out as the picture should look, as long as the heart and the passion is there, it’s amazing for people to be able to reconstruct something they wouldn’t normally do,” Aikens says graciously, although I can’t help wonder if he’s looking at me and wondering just how much damage I could do to his Peas à la Française.
Aikens, who managed to pick up a Michelin Star for his Muse in Belgravia during the pandemic, is the latest super-chef to collaborate with StarChefs, which is making a name for itself bringing the best food in the world (well, the best partially prepared food) to our doorsteps at significant points in the calendar. For Chinese New Year, A. Wong stepped in; then came Dublin’s Robin Gill for St Patrick’s Day; and now it’s taking orders for Aikens’ Easter Sunday lunch.
The lunch, which StarChefs have invited me to take for a whirl, is very much a family affair, inspired by Aikens’ childhood experiences of his mother’s Paschal lamb and his current role as a father to two young children. Inside the box are four courses, gently elevated spins on classics designed to keep parents’ palettes entertained and children from asking why they can’t just have shepherd’s pie.
“Easter is about a celebration with the family, and getting everyone involved,” he says, leaning forward on his sofa. “This is what this menu tried to replicate. Getting my kids involved. Sharing dishes.”
It kicks off with a soft scrambled egg with a herb sabayon and maple syrup, which only requires assembly, and which is utterly delicious. Then there’s an asparagus and edible flower salad with a delicate and yet entertaining lemon emulsion that’s a bit more taxing to put together, but far from impossible. The meat of the menu is a leg of lamb, freshly brought in from Lake District Farmers, with a truffle gratin potato, baby artichokes and the aforementioned peas. I managed to nail the lamb while overcooking the gratin, symptom, I swear, of being the new owner of a very old Aga.
Desert, though, is the course children will remember – the show-stopper as my GBBO-obsessed offspring had it. A chocolate egg that you fill as a family with white chocolate mousse, meringue and poached rhubarb, and then smash before a bit of spoon-sword fighting to determine who gets the last moussey scraping.
No doubt none of my interpretations would have left Aikens’ kitchen in anything other than a black sack, but despite the presentation nil points and the slightly soggy peas, it was a success. It took me, resident spade hands, two hours to fix, a ravenous family 45 minutes to eat, and my wife an hour to wash up (swerve).
For Aikens and his team, the task was more demanding. “It’s quite a lot of work,” he says, admitting no chef doing home kits is ever going to make “a tonne of money”. Figuring out and sourcing a menu that works seasonally and that’s within the culinary range of most home cooks is a head-scratcher, meanwhile, as is packing it up in reusable and recyclable containers that can be couriered to any UK postcode.
Back on his sofa, Aikens remains determined to see the upsides of a year during which the hospitality industry has been smashed sideways. “Many people stuck at home have gone back into the kitchen and created some good food,” he says. “And that’s been a massive positive.”
Showing what got him to the top of the food chain in the first place, he adds: “As I said to my chefs, use the time wisely, rather than sitting around all day on your own being bored.” Good advice. Although I can’t imagine ever being bored enough to want to do the washing-up.
Tom Aikens & Family Easter Lunch is available to pre-order for nationwide delivery on April 1, 2 or 3. Boxes cost £165 for two people, or £285 for four people, including nationwide delivery.