I’ve always loved a bit of intrigue on an island. Throw in a suave but rugged alpha male with an eye for the ladies, and I’m entertained for hours. Series like Magnum PI (Tom Selleck making women weak in Hawaii) and Bergerac (John Nettles being beddably stern in Jersey) made their mark on me at an impressionable age. So when I’m invited to Guernsey for the British Game Gala Dinner, I’m breathless with anticipation – how impossibly glamorous!
My flight’s on a Friday lunchtime, and I find myself next to a finance guy, who’s on his way home for the weekend. ‘I’m going to the British Game Gala Dinner!’ I announce grandly. Finance guy has not heard of it, and it later becomes apparent, as I sit at a table of sales reps, that it’s not the resplendent tradition I imagine it to be.
It turns out the gala dinner began last year, as part of the first Guernsey International Food Festival. Last year they had lamb on the menu, this year they’d chosen game. Would the women be very glamorous, I ask Simon McKenzie, the executive chef at the five star hotel where the dinner was being held. We are sitting in the sunshine, on the hotel’s terrace, overlooking the pool. ‘Er… I’m a guy,’ he says. ‘You can’t ask me about fashion.’
To be fair, fashion’s not Mckenzie’s specialist subject. Training in London, under chefs including Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White, he spent a 115 hours a week in the kitchen. I ask what he learnt from Ramsey and Pierre White. He says, “The dedication to succeed and challenge yourself. Things are never perfect, even when you think they are. Keep going, get better, push through when you’re tired. When you want to go home, stay an extra hour!”
McKenzie’s dedication has paid off. Since moving to Guernsey three years ago, he’s twice been named Channel Islands Chef of the Year. What’s he hoping the food festival will do for Guernsey? He says, ‘We want to remind people we’re here – just half an hour from Gatwick if you get the jet!’ I laugh and McKenzie panics, ‘not that you need a jet to get here – Guernsey tourism’s going to kill me!’
On Friday night, I go to a dinner with chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, one of the events taking place over the ten day festival. Novelli swans about in chef’s whites and admits he made none of the food, but he’s handsome and charming, so nobody cares. I sit next to a man who sends me flowers at my hotel the next day – Guernsey’s getting exciting!
At lunchtime on the Saturday, I’m booked in for the curry masterclass, headed up by Brighton based Curry Leaf Café chef, Kanthi Kiran Thamma. The wine for the gala dinner is from a Sussex supplier (I’m repeatedly told), and there’s a cooking contest on the pier, hosted by the owner of The Beach BBQ in Brighton. I’m starting to notice a theme here. It turns out that Guernsey’s food festival is organised by Nick Mosley, who’s run the Brighton food festival for over five years. Basically, he’s brought along his mates.
Saturday night is the main event, the British Game Gala Dinner. McKenzie has told me he’s aiming to seat 60, so I wear a red strapless cocktail dress, to stand out amongst the jet set crowd. In fact, there are 18 of us, most of whom are involved in the food fair. One is wearing a cardigan.
The five courses, which include terrine of wild duck and loin of venison, are beautiful. I am opposite a food writer who asks what I do. “No offence,” he says, when I tell him, “but I’m fed up of blonde lifestyle journalists in their mid-twenties who know nothing about food!” I attempt to look angry, but it’s some time since I’ve seen my mid-twenties, so I’m secretly pleased.
On Sunday morning, I make my way to the pier where McKenzie’s on stage, demonstrating how to cook truffle risotto. As he thanks his kitchen porter, who’s running round doing the grunt work, I have a lightbulb moment: I too could be a great chef, if only I had someone to prepare everything, and clean up afterwards!
Guernsey is beautiful and the food has been fabulous, the only thing that’s missing is some dinner guests who aren’t part of the festival. The company has been lovely, but rather like the equivalent of getting a Valentines card from your mum. I say, they should re-package the gala dinner as black tie, and get it on the events calendar of the upmarket matchmakers. The menu’s game, but I’m not sure about the guests – what Guernsey needs is fresh meat.
With thanks to the Duke of Richmond hotel.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.