We chat to chef Sophie Michell about eating at London In The Sky, the 14-day pop-up restaurant where the table is suspended 25 metres above ground
We're all used to the idea of extreme sports, but 2015 looks like it's the year of extreme dining.
So far this year we've been offered Peruvian tapas to be eaten in bikinis in hot tubs and the owl bar that caused much twit-twooing. But nothing has been quite so terrifying as the idea of being strapped into seats, suspended up in the air, and eating a three-course dinner 25 vertical metres above where any sane person would normally eat.
Called London In The Sky, this temporary restaurant will put the 'up' into 'pop-up' when it arrives on South Bank from the 17-22 September. A host of the city's best chefs including Martin Morales, Tom Aikens, Peter Weeden and Dan Doherty will be cooking up either breakfast, lunch or dinner for a table of 22 people who'll be dangling at a height the equivalent to five double-decker buses.
One of the chefs who'll be braving the extremes is Sophie Michell of Pont St. Michell cut her teeth in big kitchens from an early age, working at Le Gavroche, The Embassy, then a stint as a private chef for A-lister celebrities before going on to become the UK's youngest executive female chef at the Belgraves Hotel; she now heads up Pont St restaurant there.
But all of that seemingly wasn't enough of a challenge, which must be the reason she's volunteered to travel up high with her chefs whites. We chatted to her about her plans for her sky feast – hold on to your stomachs …
Our first question has to be: how are you with heights?
"Well, I do get vertigo actually! I get a bit dizzy when I go up in a lift quickly, so I'm nervous about it, but I'm told that the bit I'm standing on does have a floor, as when you're a guest, you're actually suspended in your seat. It's all madness really, but it's such a fun idea I thought I'd go for it."
How do you prepare for cooking in such a strange setting?
"I've got a practise run coming up in the next few weeks so hopefully I'll be able to get my nerves out the way with that. I'm just not going to think about it too much when I'm up there and pretend that it's a normal service."
If you have your team around you, we guess you can just pretend it's a normal service – if you don't look down.
"Well, it's just me and an assistant chef up there. I'm doing pretty much all the cooking for the main courses as we'll have the starters prepped before we go up. It's great for the guests as they'll get to interact with me; I'll be cooking in front of them so they can chat to me about everything."
Other than the fact you're dangling high in the sky, what are the other challenges of cooking up there?
"It's the space factor and the fact I'm used to cooking in a big kitchen with 16 chefs whereas up there it's going to be just me, an assistant chef, a tiny oven and not much space at all, so that's going to be a bit challenging."
What's the one dish we have to try on your menu?
"I love venison this time of year so we've got a venison with a beetroot fondant that has been slow-cooked in beetroot juice; it doubles up on the flavour. With that, I'm doing little roasted figs as they're so fragrant right now and I'm also doing a foie gras-stuffed French toast. It's very decadent but will complement the rest of the dish perfectly."
What ingredient can't you get enough of at the moment?
"Fennel – it's such an interesting ingredient for salads, ceviche and coleslaw, but I also love it braised and roasted. At the moment, we have a saffron-braised fennel that we add a bit of pernod and orange juice to it. It's really amazing and we serve that with cod and Dorset cockles. It's my favourite dish at the moment."
You were one of the UK's youngest executive chefs – do you think it's still hard for women to get ahead in the kitchen?
"It's challenging in any industry, not just the catering industry. It's a bit sad and I don't know if it's women thinking we can't reach executive levels or whether it's because it's actually challenging for us. It's probably the latter. When women get to executive level, it's often the time when people start thinking about having children. It's challenging and it's one of those eternal debates, really."
Do you think it's beginning to change?
"There are lots of female cooks on TV now, which is really good and positive. But we don't see that many female cooks who go on to do media and then it starts to appear [to the general public] that it's not a real job for women. The fact is that in the industry at the moment, we're really short of chefs. Male or female, we just need more!"
Which other female chefs do you admire?
"Angela Hartnett is amazing. I just love the way she cooks, her restaurants and her mannerisms. Clare Smyth at [Gordon Ramsay's] Hospital Road, she's brilliant and I admire her hugely. We've got some amazing female chefs in our country and we're quite pioneering compared to other countries."
Will you be checking out any other chef's offerings at London in The Sky?
"I'd love to see what Dan Doherty's up to – also so I can wind him up while he's trying to cook! And because I love his food. I'd love to see Nuno Mendes as well."
Tickets are still available for London In The Sky meals from £50-200 from here.
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