How to throw a large-scale party
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I love large-scale entertaining. Professionally, I am known for six-foot-tall shrimp towers, chocolate fountains and life-size cake chairs. I have somehow figured out how to make a living doing what every child dreams of doing, and what every parent tells their children not to do: playing with my food.
This surrealist, Willy Wonka-esque world that I’ve created has allowed me to collaborate with many other artists, designers and fashion houses. Sometimes it feels as though I am living in a dream, one in which I get to have my cake and eat it too. The thing I enjoy most about these over-the-top creations is that they disarm people – like instant ice-breakers – specifically in spaces that tend to be a bit stuffy. Take fashion parties, for instance. There can be a too-cool-for-school attitude in the air. People walk, scan the room, see if they can spot a friend… When you bring, say, a tower made of marshmallows into the equation, it is an instant leveller. Everyone is equally amused, confused, delighted. Guards come down and people open up.
I have a similar philosophy when it comes to domestic dinner parties. While the food doesn’t need to be as labour-intensive as some of the projects I take on professionally, I am always thinking of amusing ways to get people involved and show them something they may not have seen before. People love to get their hands dirty. Cooking together creates an air of conviviality and a sense of ease in the room.
On a recent Friday night I decided to invite some industry friends over and make a salt-baked fish. I love that salt-baked fish appears fancy and complicated while being deceptively simple – you need very few ingredients and very little can go wrong. The premise is straightforward. You take a whole fish (skin and bones on), cover it in salt and bake it in the oven. The salt forms a crust, seals in the moisture and acts like a little oven around the fish.
You can salt-bake many different varieties. One of my favourites is Arctic char. Char is a rich, orange-fleshed fish that is similar to trout or salmon. It is a beautiful, fatty fish, so it won’t dry out. It is also a more sustainable option than salmon as it is easier, less polluting and more affordable to farm. If you’re going to make this for just a couple of people, smaller trout or cod are great options too. Count on about 1lb/550g of total weight per person. Once the fish has been baked, the salt hardens and needs to be gently cracked and removed. This is where my friends got very involved. One friend in particular really got his hands dirty, and to my delight replicated the recipe just a few days later and sent me photos of his own salt-baked masterpiece. Few things make me happier and more proud than teaching someone a skill that is there for a lifetime. I love putting together menus that are simple yet abundant and generous. The menu that night really hit the nail on the head: blanc de blancs champagne, chablis, salt-baked Arctic char, aioli, boiled potatoes, sautéed rapini, big bowls of lychee, cherry and pomegranate.
Few pleasures in life come as close to being greeted with an ice-cold glass of champagne, then sitting down for a mouthful of perfectly cooked fish with a bite of potato and a little tangle of bitter greens. Dessert feels almost extraneous, but just to end things with a little burst of sweetness, I served lychee, cherry and pomegranate on ice.
Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C/gas mark 8.
Make the crust. Whisk the eggs until frothy. Add the salt.
Add a cup of water at a time till you have a thick, sludgy, cement-like consistency that is sticky but not too wet.
Place a thin layer of salt on a baking sheet, like a bed for the fish. Place the fish on top and put a bay leaf in the fish cavity.
Cover the fish with more salt, packing it tightly. Bury a few more bay leaves in the salt. Make sure it’s all covered. Repeat on another baking dish with the second fish.
Place the fish in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove and rest for another 10 minutes.
After the fish has rested, gently crack the crust. Do this at the table for added drama. It should come off in large chunks. Discard the salt and brush the fish off to remove any remaining bits of salt. Move to a clean platter, peel back the skin using a fork, and serve.