Every couple of weeks I spend a day in the kitchen with a chef.

As a result, I have improved my cooking exponentially - each chef being kind enough to explain everything in simple terms and give me step by step guidance.

Normally this sort of one-on-one access to professional chefs is not readily available. However, Alan Murchison of L'ortolan in Church Lane, Shinfield, has given the public an opportunity to watch him prepare dishes from his a la carte menu, complete with tips and tricks of the trade built up from his 17 years of cooking at Michelin-star level alongside such luminaries as Raymond Blanc and John Burton Race.

I went along to one of the first of these demonstrations to soak up the man's knowledge for myself.

The morning began at 10.30 in L'ortolan's lounge with coffee and biscuits and a chance for the six people attending to get to know each other.

The lessons are held upstairs in L'ortolan's demo kitchen - small and intimate, it can seat up to eight guests and guarantees a close-up view of proceedings.

Alan is a natural at giving these demos. He does not take himself too seriously and has a good understanding of what is and is not possible for the home cook. He cracks a lot of jokes and makes everyone feel relaxed, emphasising that no question is too embarrassing to pose.

First, a masterclass in scallop cookery: how to open a scallop and cook it perfectly every time, and then giving us some inspiration by explaining the mushroom, artichoke and celeriac garnishes he serves his scallops at L'ortolan during autumn.

After tasting some incredibly fresh scallops, we tackled the dish I've featured here - halibut with Vietnamese-style broth.

First Alan demonstrated a failsafe method for pan-frying any fillet of fish, then showed us how to use authentic Vietnamese flavours, and finally how to lightly cook the various vegetables.

Now it was on to meat cookery, with Alan taking us through a venison dish. Here we got to see a foolproof way for cooking a tender cut of meat to our preferred stage of doneness in any oven, and he talked us through how each of the five garnishes he serves with venison are made.

The final part of the day was more interactive. If someone asks you to name a dish that is hard to cook, does souffl�© spring to mind at all?

Well, imagine if you could make a souffl�© from start to finish in 10 minutes that always worked? Alan used the most basic ingredients - including jam from Asda - to show how easy the process was, even banging the souffl�© before it went in the oven and opening the door during cooking to illustrate that the myths surrounding souffl�©s are just that.

By the end of the session each of us had made four perfect souffl�©s with great ease.

Finally, we had champagne and canap�©s in the conservatory, followed by lunch (made by the professionals!) and wine in the L'ortolan dining room.

The day was a great mix of observation, fun and practical learning that improved everyone's understanding, confidence and ability in the kitchen.

Alan and his various guest chefs are happy to offer bespoke courses in the demo kitchen, so if you fancy learning all about a particular dish or style of cooking, or you want to get your workmates in for some team-building, L'ortolan are happy to oblige.

As for this recipe, Alan suggests you can substitute for any type of white fish, or even chicken, and if you want to cut down on washing up, add the fish to the broth with the chilli and mushrooms to poach it, making this a really easy one-pot meal.

For details on the chef experience email rowena@lortolan.com or visit the website www.lortolan.com



4 x 150g fillets of halibut

2 tablespoons vegetable oil


750ml white chicken stock

55ml light soy sauce

50ml Thai fish sauce

100g fresh ginger

10 sticks fresh lemon grass

1 bunch fresh coriander

1 red chilli

1 lime


2 heads pak choi cut lengthways into four

Batons of red chilli

400g mixed mushrooms (shitake, oyster, enoki, or button)

1 bunch spring onions


1. Make the broth by bringing the chicken stock and other ingredients to the boil. Simmer for five minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to infuse for one hour. Strain through a sieve.

2. Heat a pan big enough for the halibut to smoking point and add the oil, then after a few seconds the fish, presentation side down. Cook until gradual colour change from opaque to white has reached about halfway up each fillet. Turn, remove from the heat and leave to cook in the residual heat for abut three minutes.

3. Bring the broth to the boil and poach the pak choi for three minutes. Add chilli and mushrooms, and simmer for three minutes. Correct seasoning and serve, finishing at the last minute with the spring onions and coriander cress and topping with a fillet of halibut.

Have you tried this recipe? Leave a comment to let us know how it went.