It was an invitation I nearly refused. I’m glad I didn’t.
It was for an internal contest of the Chaine des Rotissuers at the Fairmont The Norfolk in Nairobi hosted by Nils Rothbarth the new Fairmont Hotel & Resorts cluster general manager.
I almost declined because the invitation fell on a Saturday, my rest day but also the fact that for the longest time, Chaine des Rotissuers has never been a big thing in Kenya as it should, or has it? Well to the best of my knowledge, no, so I had my doubts.
The idea of having to taste 10-plus meals of the competing chefs, also made me wary. I am not a foodie, especially when it’s of five-star meals.
The standards of gastronomy at these institutions are always on another level, and that goes without saying.
Lots of spices, different cooking techniques and styles and hundreds of ingredients, among others.
The food here is always about experience, the art, the craft, something I am never so keen on when it comes to personal preference.
If you know me, I am a gym rat and so I prefer my meals simple. The less spicy the better, the less oily even much better.
Well, when I write about food at a given restaurant then it’s always about the ambience rather than the menu that I mainly dedicate most of the time to.
But hey, don’t get it twisted, I love binging cooking shows or watching chefs do their thing, they fascinate me every time.
Anyway, for starters, let me explain Chain des Rotisseurs.
It is a society devoted to promoting fine dining, preserving the camaraderie and pleasures of the table.
The International Gastronomic Society was founded in 1950 in Paris but traces its origins back to 1248.
After the fall of the Roman empire, gastronomy in Europe took sanctuary in the monasteries.
The monastic orders lived off the land, produced wines and spirits and made their own bread, cheese or honey.
Bread accompanied by roasted meat and wine was the centrepiece of the diet of the nobility, the elite.
The cooking of the monasteries helped to shape regional gastronomy and with the noble households developing the culinary art.
Therefore, the rotisseurs, (the roasters) apart from the cuisiniers were a crucial part of the noble household.
The rotisseurs took the sole responsibility for roasting, which was a highly sophisticated art. They had to choose the meat, lard it and then supervise the roasting process.
They were also in charge of basting the meat and poultry during cooking to reduce the loss of moisture by evaporation.
Roasted meat had to have a uniformly crisped and deeply caramelised surface to enhance both the flavour and appearance.
Years to pass, at the time, the French King Louis IX then ordered the establishment of several professional guilds one of which was the roasters (rotisseurs).
The vocation of this guild was to perpetuate the standards of quality befitting the royal table but also to learn from one another, improve skills, provide mutual assistance and make sure that their trade secrets were strictly controlled.
More than 200 years have passed and the guild morphed into a global society now with over 25,000 members in over 80 countries, with the sole aim of uniting professional and amateur gastronomes to promote the culinary and hospitality arts.
And to mark this year’s World Chaine Day, celebrations, The Norfolk hosted a competition of its apprentice chefs.
“The idea of this competition to mark this day was to have our chefs who are normally at the back house come out in the front and shine. And we thought the best way to do that was to have an internal competition and a judging panel and provide them with a platform to showcase their skill,” Rothbarth said to me at the table.
To Rothbarth, who now intends to make the competition an annual affair at The Norfolk, this is an important step.
“It’s just not about the cooking, but actually also how I present the food, how to I plate it, how do I present myself because very often we forget about them.”
When I arrived, albeit late as I debated whether to show up or not, the judging had begun with three apprentices showcasing their best dishes to the panel of five judges.
The session was long, starting at noon and dragging to dusk, but was worth the wait. It was beautiful to see the panel unable to pick the winner at the end of it all with two cuisines dividing the judges.
The chicken ballotine and an American medium well-cooked lamb served with Moroccan couscous, had the five judges stutter on which was the winning meal.
“I roasted the lamb, basted it then marinated it with legano and should melt in your mouth with the first bite followed by a mint finish. The lambs go well with a Moroccan couscous. On the sides is dried red cabbage with a potato cracker laced with saffron” Chef Bernard explained.
Chef Sam's (an intern) chicken ballotine presentation had one of the judges describing it as ‘cute’.
“For the outside part of the chicken krest I treated it with paprika few ingredients then blended it, pan-fried it then wrapped it in a cling film for the shape the stashed it in the oven to give it the golden colour.
“Its accompaniment is butternut fried on a pan to get the golden colour and crispy texture. The sauce on the sides is sweet barbecued chilli.”
For the desserts, there was no tussle with all the judges picking the Kenyan mint mousse cake.
After all the wine that came with the meals, I am glad I hailed an Uber home. Now I’m pondering on how to inveigle an invitation to join the Chaine des Rotissuers growing community.