Five friends from Norfolk travel the globe on magical Michelin-starred tour
- Credit: Stuart Hall
It's a stellar challenge: visiting the world's best Michelin-starred restaurants for Champagne dining experiences on cider wages.
Sam Matthews, duty manager at The Assembly House in Norwich, Chris Mann and Stuart Hall, respectively sous chef and junior sous at Titchwell Manor, David Figg who now works in Malta and Cal Williams, duty manager at Dunston Hall, met on their first day of hospitality training at Norwich City College when they were 16.
A year later, their adventure began with their first Michelin meal: a hotly-anticipated trip to Petrus, owned by Gordon Ramsey and, at the time, run by chef Marcus Wareing.
'Five of us crammed into my little Fiesta, all aged 17 and 18, staying at the cheapest hotel in London – we can't have looked like the normal customers that came to Petrus,' laughed Sam.
'There we were in our over-sized cheap suits, none of us having a clue what to expect because we'd never been anywhere quite so grand in our lives. It was a bit intimidating – but we loved it. That was what got us hooked.'
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Sam has always had a passion for food, preferring Ready Steady Cook to Blue Peter and agonising whether to watch Soccer Am or Saturday Morning Kitchen when the pair clashed on rival channels.
When he was growing up, he lived next door to The Old Beams Restaurant, now The Lavender House, and ate there with his family regularly (his Dad is a well-known Norfolk face and voice: the BBC's David Clayton), later returning for work experience to spend a fortnight with Richard Hughes before he began his college course.
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Originally planning to become a chef, Sam soon realised that he preferred being front of house.
'I love seeing people's reactions and you can't see that if you're stuck behind a stove. I still love cooking, but for me, front of house is far more rewarding – great service makes all the difference,' he said.
The next star-studded trip was made by 60 per cent of the original Michelin Musketeers – Chris, Stuart and David – who travelled to New York to eat at Per Se and WD50 in New York in 2009.
A year later, the trio was joined by Sam for a trip to California to eat at three of Thomas Keller's restaurants, The French Laundry, Bouchon and Adhoc. The bill at The French Laundry was a staggering $2,500 ('that took a while to pay off!').
In 2011, Sam, Chris and Stuart flew to Chicago to experience four incredible restaurants in four, gut-busting days.
There was futuristic Moto – which boasted an edible menu card – Charlie Trotters and L20 before the highlight of the trip, Alinea, which remains Sam's favourite ever dining experience (and with 40 Michelin stars under his belt, there are plenty to choose from).
'At the time, it was one of the top 10 restaurants in the world and it was just incredible,' he said.
'The Americans are masters at service and at Alinea the service was part of the experience. Our sommelier looked like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons and instead of telling us details about grapes and soil and so forth, he told us funny stories about producers. It was like a bit of theatre.
'The food itself was stunning. When we arrived, the table was empty apart from a centrepiece which looked like flags on poles. That turned out to be part of one of the later dishes.'
Another dish of Earl Grey, lemon, pinenut and caramelised white chocolate with rose, fennel jam, rose pate de fruit and vanilla was served over a pillow containing an Earl Grey aroma that gently diffused as the dish was eaten. The party arrived at Alinea at 5.55pm and finished eating their 17 courses at 12.15am.
'I think it's fair to say that it was a pretty expensive week!' laughed Sam, 'but if you work in our industry I think it's essential to eat at places that really push the boundaries so that you really know good food.'
And it's not just foreign Michelin starred restaurants that the group have visited: there have been trips to Norfolk's Morston Hall and The Neptune in Hunstanton, Gordon Ramsey's Hospital Road and a host of other UK-based one, two and three-star dining establishments.
Last month, all five former City College students reunited for the first time since their meal at Petrus for a grand tour of Spain taking in the fourth, eighth and number one restaurants in the world according to The World's Best Restaurants Awards, sponsored by San Pelligrino and Acqua Panna.
The first restaurant was Mugaritz (number four, bill 220 euros each) in San Sebastian. After checking in to their cheap-as-chips hostel, the five asked reception to book them a taxi to the restaurant.
'They looked at us and asked us if we realised that it was a very expensive restaurant and that we'd need a booking – I don't think they could believe we were staying in a hostel and eating at Mugaritz!' said Sam.
Dishes from the 21-course menu included edible stones – potatoes wrapped in edible clay served with truffle mayonnaise - pig's blood macarons filled with foie gras, egg yolk tucked in with an anemone blanket, a stew of weeds and crisp potatoes, 'The Cow and the Grass' and roasted peach and rock tea.
The next morning, the party travelled to nearby Arzak (number eight, bill 225 euros each), for lunch, deliberately booked early so that they could travel to the world's number one restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca (bill 330 euros each), a six-hour drive away.
'We'd made the latest reservation we could so that we could make it to El Celler – the lunch tasting menu took three hours to eat and we had to drive through France to get to Girona on time,' said Sam.
'In the end, we were so pushed for time that we had to get changed into our suits in the car park!'
Dishes on the 20-course tasting menu included oysters with Agusti Torello cava, apple compote, ginger, pineapple, lemon confit and spices, a sphere of cinnamon and viola with coconut and honey truffle and white asparagus and truffle viennetta.
'It was amazing – we ate through eight Michelin stars in 24 hours and could see why these restaurants have been singled out as some of the best in the world. It was a totally incredible experience,' said Sam.
'I dread to think how much money I've spent on eating out, but I don't regret any of it. None of us are huge earners, so we have to save up before we make a trip and I think that makes it even more special.
'Eating the best has made me far more picky about what I eat. The milk in my fridge might sometimes be a funny colour and my bread might be stale, but there'll always be two types of truffle oil in my cupboard…'