Mark Kebble heads to Chelmsford to find out how Channels Estate are taking us on an Essex foodie trip like no other
Food and memories are indelibly linked. I had a very unadventurous childhood when it came to food, but I smile when I think back to my obsession with corned beef sandwiches and brown sauce, which I demanded every time I returned home from school. My palate diversified somewhat into adulthood, and working as a journalist I have had incredible food experiences that I will never forget. And, now, it looks like Channels Estate in Chelmsford will be adding to that list.
Under the expert eye of head chef Dan Pitts, they have recently launched a Chef’s Table, something that has been bubbling away in the background for some time. “I wanted to do a regular tasting menu for a small number of guests to really showcase the amazing producers we have here in Essex,” Pitts takes up the story. “The Chef’s Table is also tied into having our own chef’s garden and beehives on site, so we can use our own produce throughout the year, as well as the honey. It gives the team and I the chance to be much more creative and makes the whole experience have more meaning for our guests.”
The Chef’s Table, which takes place every Friday, with either lunchtime or evening books for a minimum of four people and maximum of eight, certainly packs a lot in. For a start, the history of Channels is interwoven into the event – “There is so much interesting history about the venue that goes back over 50 years,” Pitts points out – and it’s a real showcase for what Essex has to offer, as the name Menu 25 indicates. “My idea when first thinking about the menus for this experience were to use locally produced ingredients as much as possible,” Pitts explains, “including fruit and veg from our garden, honey from our hives, fresh fish from Mersea, and local farms, all within a 25-mile radius of us here at Channels.
“It’s very important to support and use local suppliers as these little, often family-owned businesses have been going for generations,” he continues. “They know their craft and you get the best ingredients lovingly produced from start to finish. You can tell the difference using local produce. For example, buying a strawberry that has been mass produced in Spain to one that we’ve grown 20 feet from the back door – there is just no comparison in taste and quality.”
What’s more, Menu 25 features a whopping seven courses. “Every course is named,” Pitts says. “We have The Beginning, Flour & Water, The Garden, The Sea, The Farm, The Sweet and The Finale.The Beginning consists of different bite sized snacks. Flour & Water is the bread course featuring our homemade sourdough and treacle bread made with local beer and my 67-year-old sourdough starter, served with a chicken butter that is smoked at the table under a glass cloche. The Garden course is based around fruit and veg from the garden, The Sea is the fish course, and The Farm is the meat course. Then, we crossover from savoury to sweet. The Sweet course is the dessert course which features our incredible chef, Ben. The Finale is the last course – a surprise to round up the food journey around Essex.”
The response, it appears, has been quite something. “We have done a few now and it’s always such a great night,” Pitts smiles. “I’ve been hugged, we’ve had guests in tears after remembering their own childhood food memories brought back to life throughout journey. Every guest always leaves with a smile on their face and hearing their positive comments at the end makes all the work we put into this worth it. It’s quite a magical experience to watch every week.
“I take a lot of inspiration from my childhood in my cooking,” he adds. “I grew up in the industry as my parents ran different public houses around Essex, so if I wasn’t watching chefs in their kitchen, I would also spend a lot of time with my grandmother who I cooked with all the time. We have based some dishes around trips to the seaside and The Finale course is inspired after my great grandmother and her iconic chocolate tin.” It sounds fascinating – and I’m certainly ready for a new experience to be added to my food memory bank.