Thursday, 05 August 2021

Heaven is Gershwin, Gregory Porter and gobi gosht pasanda

“RUSTY knackered wheelbarrows wanted.” The Henley Standard advert I placed back in May.

“RUSTY knackered wheelbarrows wanted.” The Henley Standard advert I placed back in May.

Inundated, we collected over 100. Planted with nasturtiums, dahlias and trailing lobelia the colour of wine gums, ready for the Crooked Billet Pop Up Restaurant throughout this year’s Henley Festival.

Rustic garden relics I’ll need to sneak past the artistic eye of the festival’s creative director Stewart Collins — the man responsible not only for an awesome mix of entertainment, art and roving company of eccentrics, but also that slick festival ‘look’.

Poor man. I stressed the living daylights out of him last year with the Crooked Billet’s quirky “shabitat” look — particularly with my restaurant enjoying pole position opposite the festival entrance.

Stewart has the sharpest eye for feng shui, wabi-sabi, cushions, curtains and all things ‘soft furnishing’. Early mornings, catch him mowing green stripes on to the festival lawn. No doubt he’ll tell me where to stick my bunting, having asked if I’ll be seeing a barber before Wednesday, July 12.

Quite surprised Stewart invited us back after last year’s electrical hitch, when I tripped out power to the floating stage when plugging in the espresso machine — just as The Jacksons were about to go on.

Local company Beckhoff are sponsoring the festival’s Salon Quarter and have swapped white plastic patio furniture for 200 lovely wooden chairs and tables on the riverside around the Crooked Billet. Hope this puts me back in Stewart’s good books. Maybe I’ll get a haircut.

The Crooked Billet champagne, real ale bar and kitchen adjoins the stars’ dressing room.

Forget the complexities of cooking crispy duck and chocolate fondants in a field. Jessie J and Lionel Richie’s backing singers are getting changed three centimetres behind me — it takes massive concentration focusing on cooking.

Note to self: Must introduce Lionel Richie to Brakspear’s Oxford Gold — embellish his image walking on stage with a tankard of real ale.

Last year many of the stars hung out with us — meet the performers before and after their shows. Try and tempt the Gipsy Kings to an after show party and jam. The Crooked Billet is doing relaxed, informal al fresco dining. The perfect riverside location. No need to book — seating for 200. Delicious unpretentious Crooked Billet dishes. Affordable and unstuffy. Wine I’m proud to serve, gorgeous Provence Rosé, sensibly priced Prosecco and champagne.

It’s like a culinary Glastonbury. There’s a brilliant eclectic mix of eateries and chefs at the festival — Atul Kochhar’s Indian fine dining, Albert and Michel Roux Junior, La Scala, Movenpick’s delicious ice creams, ‘Fish Dog’ from chef Mark Hix’s wonderful vintage Citroën van, Jason Atherton’s Tapas at the BMW lounge.

Such a catering offering reminds me of the Henley Food Festival (hope that returns next year). Lots of chefs and their egos (mine’s the worst). Foodies, fun and camaraderie.

I’m delighted Henley Spice Merchant are bringing their delicious contemporary Indian flavours and magical friendly service to the festival. Gershwin, Gregory Porter and gobi gosht pasanda, I’m in heaven.

We’re building an open plan canteen kitchen. Get your wild bass, herbed chicken, funky salads, salt beef, king prawns, sticky toffee pudding, chocolate knickerbockers, etc, directly from me at the kitchen counter.

I’ll be cooking every night; better not drink ... perhaps on the last night. Hopefully Spandau Ballet will join me for a pint of Brakspear’s after their Sunday slot. See you at the festival.

Paul Clerehugh is the chef patron of the Crooked Billet at Stoke Row and the London St Brasserie on the riverside in Reading. Catch Paul every week for Food on Friday, BBC Radio Berkshire at 2pm.

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