Clare Finney dines in, in style, with the help of the Roving Chef…
Now, let’s get one thing absolutely clear. I am not incapable of cooking. My current repertoire includes a range of dishes, and not all of them involve toast. Nevertheless, when it comes to catering for people en masse, at an appointed time, I’m hopeless: liable at any moment to break down and soak the soufflés in tears and bleeding fingers. So when I discovered Hayley Edwards, aka the Roving Chef, who comes to your house and does the hard graft for you, I can’t pretend I wasn’t relieved.
For one thing, she shops for you. You give her numbers, type of cuisine and any special requirements (‘Shelia’s not a coeliac as such – but bread does make her bloated’) and she’ll devise the menu: buying just the right amount to ensure you’re not swimming in quarter-filled pots of cream the next day. For me this was one of the main economic advantages of this service. Yes, you’re paying for the pleasure, but if you tend to wisely over-estimate the amount your guests will eat, then having Hayley do the calculations for you will leave both your purse and your conscience infinitely happier. There is a technique to it – born of years working in restaurants, she explains – and after you’ve thrown away as many mouldy jars of capers as I have, you suspect that she’s right.
Then there’s the budget part. Hayley is passionate about catering to all budgets, within reason. “I’m honest about it” she tells me. “If someone sets a tight constraints, I’ll say ‘well, you won’t get lobster with that – but I’ll tell you what you can do.’” Nine times out of ten it’s lot more than they were expecting. My budget was tiny and we still got three delicious courses, including such luxuries as aubergines and goats cheese. As I said, Hayley really knows how and where to shop.
This is largely thanks to her background. Trained in Hotel Management and Catering, for the years running up to Roving Chef she was largely on the management side of food. She worked with Marco Pierre White as a personal assistant, then, with his blessing, set up her own business cooking, teaching, catering. Now she’s resident chef at London’s Borough Market – and because it’s centered on buying from its traders, the role honed her skills to the shopping equivalent of medium-rare.
I’d asked for as much British produce as possible, and in the end almost all our food came from the rather pricy market – yet because Hayley was familiar with what was in season she knew exactly what was economical to get there, and what was better bought from the Budgens down the road.
“Not everyone can afford to get their food from a farmers market or Waitrose,” she says simply, “and I’m not at all averse to going to Tesco if they can’t.” The result, in our case, was a meal as cheap and delicious as we could have wished.
Plaice, parsley, butter, potatoes and mint from Borough made for a delightfully British main; goats cheese, red peppers and aubergines from Budgens and a dressing born of a marriage between Hayley’s mind and my store cupboard made a fine first course. Since times were tight and it was summer, dessert was pavlova – a marshmallowey golden crown melded with fresh Sussex cream, blackberries and nectarines, which cost pennies and looked priceless, after which Hayley quietly disappeared. If you want her to, she’ll stay for a glass (“I don’t drink while I’m cooking – I’ve seen too many drunk chefs – but sometimes guests like to chat after”, she says) but is equally content to slink off. There’s just one thing she insists on before going, however: clearing up.
This was, undoubtedly, the high point of the experience. Of course the company was charming, the meal couldn’t have been better, and it was heaven on earth to have table service in the comfort (and quiet) of your own home. But it was when I walked through to the kitchen and saw gleaming sides, sparkling dishes and a considerately hung j-cloth that I knew I was on to a good thing. With the diligence of a house elf, Hayley had quietly transformed the chaos of three hours cooking into a tranquillity I rarely achieve myself. She’d cleaned up everything and even, where possible, put stuff away. “Isn’t it difficult to acclimatise yourself to a new kitchen each time?” I asked incredulously. “Not at all – you’d be surprised how quickly you adapt”.
In fact, Hayley’s knack for adapting had betrayed itself within ten minutes of her arrival. No sooner had I pointed out the homes of all the cooking utensils than she was off, clattering around the cupboards and the drawers with an almost alarming familiarity. If you imagine you’d be disturbed by this ‘other woman’ in your kitchen, however, I’d suggest you think again. Hayley is efficient and bright, but she is also calm, unobtrusive and only as involved in the hostesssing side as you want her to be. “Some people want to serve the dishes themselves, some want to be served – it’s a personal thing” she explains.
Just how much she does is up to you and your budget of course, as flexibility on the serving, clearing and washing up is another way that she is able to accommodate even those with little money. When I ask for an average price she can’t say – “it really is specific to each person” – but as a rough starting point, our evening cost £180 (about what you might spend to have three courses in a quality restaurant with three friends).
What I do know is that the joys of being able to sit with your guests, rather than bellow apologetically from the kitchen; of eating restaurant-quality food in an environment that you can hear and relax in (those hard-of-hearing or catering for elderly relatives take note); and of throwing a dinner party without the hassle of shopping, cooking and cleaning is worth a great deal more than Hayley could ever dream of charging. There’s no fun like having dinner with friends – and there’s no place like home to do it in…
Hayley is based in London but willingly travels to anywhere in the vicinity, Herts and Middlesex included.
For prices & more information:
www.rovingchef.net • 07768 901 550 • firstname.lastname@example.org