Norfolk diners hoping for the success recipe
09:43 03 September 2013
The timing couldn’t be better: as the EDP Adnams Norfolk Food and Drink Festival gets into full flow, four amateur cooks from Norfolk will be showcased on dinner party show Come Dine With Me. STACIA BRIGGS caught up with two of the contestants ahead of the programme airing on Thursday.
If the heat in the kitchen wasn’t enough to bring James Houlder out in a sweat, the fact that millions of people will soon be able to watch him host his first ever dinner party very well might.
James is one of four Norfolk contestants taking part in this week’s Come Dine With Me which is based in the north of the county and sees amateur cooks from Sheringham, Holt, Happisburgh and North Creake competing for a £1,000 prize.
The show has become a cult hit, combining people-watching, conflict, comedy, cat hair in trifles, kitchen meltdowns, biting narration, people storing cheese in their trousers “to soften it up”, sushi being served off scantily-clothed hairy men, snakes defecating on dining tables and some of the most dubious dinner party entertainment ever aired on television.
There were no snakes or naked sushi dining during the North Norfolk CDWM week, but James, 29, a commercial sales manager for Archant Dialogue, a sister company of the EDP, promises an hour of entertainment regardless.
Filmed in February when the county was in the midst of a cold snap, James was the first contestant to cook his menu of home-smoked venison with fig compote, shiso cress, parsnip crisps and parmesan to start, a main of pork tenderloin medallions with wild mushroom sauce, jasmine rice and fine beans wrapped in pancetta and raspberry and blackberry tart for dessert.
“I used to watch CDWM when I could because I loved the idea of watching people cook for random strangers and hear their criticisms,” he said.
“I wasn’t a fan of seeing them rummage through people’s underwear drawer in the longer programmes, though. For me, a dinner party is about great food, great wine and having a laugh with some great company, not snooping about in their bedroom and trying on their pants!”
James has a fine food pedigree: his father, Clive “Mushroom Man” Houlder is a former chef and restaurant owner who now supplies other chefs with ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and, of course, mushrooms. He has cooked since he was a child, becomingly increasingly experimental in the past 18 months.
One of James’ recent experiments involved recreating Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit”, a six-day cooking process to replicate a medieval recipe for chicken liver parfait with an outside layer of mandarin jelly.
“The ingredients and equipment cost me £130 to make six meat fruit, but it was worth it!” said James, who recently ate at Heston’s Dinner at The Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hyde Park.
“I like spending the money I earn on food – whether it’s cooking food or eating out. Since I’ve been with my girlfriend Vicki, we’ve been on a culinary journey together and it’s been great to try new things and really enjoy food together.”
For CDWM, James juggled the four-day filming schedule with work. After his own night of cooking, he would then go to work, race to the next dinner party, arrive home at around 2am and then start all over again.
“There’s quite a lot of waiting involved in the programme – after your main course everyone except the host is interviewed in separate rooms which can take up to three-and-a-half hours, and that’s before you get dessert,” he said.
“Each contestant on the show gets about 15 minutes, down to about 10 minutes with ad breaks, and when you take into account how much you’re drinking, you probably look sober in the first three minutes and then completely sloshed by the end of each segment!”
In addition to being filmed in the kitchen (James used his parents’ kitchen in North Creake, he has a flat in Norwich) the keen amateur chef was also filmed shooting pigeon on location.
“You have to worry about how that’s going to come across on telly,” he laughed, “I’ll either look like a posh country boy, a straw-chewing yokel or an idiot covered in blood and feathers.”
Each contestant was given £120 for ingredients but James ended up spending an extra £250, making his first ever dinner party (“unless you count cooking a Sunday roast”) a £375 extravaganza for his three guests.
“I’d practised once and taken notes, but I think that on the night, everything went to plan and went as well as it could,” said James, whose dream dinner guests would be Heston (of course), Albert Roux (his father’s first ever trade customer: “he supplied him with a morel mushroom so I’d like to cook something with that”) and girlfriend Vicki.
“I absolutely loved every minute of it and I’d do it again without a second thought. I’d do it every single week if I could.
“I loved the company, and in particular have found a really great friend in Dave, who I now go fishing with, the crew were great and it was a week that I’ll never forget.
“Watching the show will be weird. I kind of want to go home and hide behind the curtain and just peer out every so often but the people I work with want to get off an hour early and watch it with me in the pub. I’m not sure about that, yet!”
Dave Parks, who recently moved to Holt but was filmed in his previous home town of Sheringham, has always been a fan of CDWM and jumped at the chance to be a contestant.
A particular fan of voiceover man Dave Lamb, whose commentaries on dinner party disasters and fine dining faux pas have elevated the show to cult status, he will be watching Thursday’s show with a degree of trepidation.
“I’m pretty nervous, because I’ve given Dave quite a lot of ammunition!” he laughed.
“At one point I was dancing Gangnam style, there are my Boycey and Sean Connery impressions…there’s a lot for him to work with! I don’t really care, though, because I had a great time and I was myself.
“I have no idea how I’ll come over on screen – I just hope I don’t look like too much of an idiot!”
Dave cooked his menu of deconstructed prawn cocktail (“it sounds easy. It isn’t”), a main of roast partridge stuffed with lemon and rosemary and wrapped in bacon with dauphinoise potatoes, honey roast parsnips, carrots and a red wine reduction and a double chocolate cheesecake with homemade vanilla ice cream, chocolate dipped fruit and a chocolate cup with raspberry coulis on the last night of filming.
“My initial game plan was to try and cook first, get everyone bladdered, give them some good food, be utterly charming, get my high scores and then slate everyone else all week,” he said.
“But then I found out that I was cooking last and so I had to be charming all week instead! In a way, I think it worked in my favour because I was able to know a few of the guests’ quirks by then. But really, it’s just about cooking the best food you can.”
Persuaded to enter the competition by wife Kerry and children Ryan, 23, Jordan, 20 and Lauren and Inez, 15, Dave’s love of cooking was fostered by his mum, who used to run the restaurant at the family hotel, the Seaview in Sheringham.
“I can never hope to be as good as my mum, but she inspired me to get into the kitchen and start cooking,” he said.
Eating four three-course meals on consecutive nights was, said Dave, harder than it sounds. By day he would be at work at his property maintenance and framing company, at night he would be wining and dining with three relative strangers.
“On the first night, I told my wife I wouldn’t drink much and I’d be charming. Instead, I came home drunk because the second my wine glass was empty, James would fill it up,” he said.
“By the end of the week I was absolutely shattered. Some nights we weren’t getting home until 2am and then I’d be at work, but we had such a good time and I met some great people.”
Dave will watch Thursday’s show with friends and family (his dream dinner guests would be cook Lorraine Pascale, former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher and street magician Dynamo), although he has told them that he won’t be cooking.
“I told them that if I had a chance of winning £1,000, I’d cook for them. Otherwise, they could forget it!” he laughed.
“The other day, before I went to work, the kids were asking for pizza. They said: ‘can you manage that?’ and I said: ‘love, I’m a TV celebrity chef now. I can do anything!’”
Other contestants on the show, which airs on Channel 4 on Thursday at 5pm, are Labour’s prospective candidate for North Norfolk, Denise Burke, who lives in Happisburgh, and funeral director Helen Wicks, from Sheringham.
The EDP Norfolk Food and Drink Awards 2013 form part of the EDP Norfolk Adnams Food and Drink Festival which runs from August 31 to October 6. For more details, visit www.norfolkfoodanddrinkfestival.co.uk and www.edp24.co.uk/what-s-on/norfolk-food-and-drink-festival where you will find recipes – including James’ recipe for his CDWM raspberry and blackberry tart - quizzes, interviews and more.