How to Make a Michelin-Starred Dinner in a Tent in a Forest
Chefs Elizabeth Allen and Lee Westcott’s recent dinner at a Lincolnshire music festival was a feat of careful menu planning and extreme barbecuing.
All photos courtesy Lost Village/Andy Hughes.
"Dinner is half past six but people will start arriving at six. I want you here for quarter to six."
It's a little after 3.30 PM and I'm sitting at a long communal dining table with chefs Elizabeth Allen and Lee Westcott. She is best known for earning a Michelin star at East London's Pigeon; he for being the understated head chef of Typing Room, and tonight they're cooking a six-course tasting menu for 100 people. Hence the calm but firm instructions currently being issued by a managerial looking guy to a team of aproned waitstaff. "He's cracking the whip now," one waiter jokes.
It seems to be working. The table is already set with cutlery and long-stemmed wine glasses, and an arrangement of dried flowers and ornamental feathers hangs above it. Unopened bottles stand promisingly on the bar, forming long shadows in the late August sun.
The service and surroundings might be serene, but we're not in an airy London dining room or any kind of Michelin-starred eatery. This is a marquee in a field, somewhere in Lincolnshire. Westcott and Allen's dinner forms part of the opening night of Lost Village, an electronic music festival headlined by Moderat and De La Soul. Groups of friends with glittered faces and plastic cups of beer lounge around the lake outside the tent, preparing themselves for the first night of partying, with bass from one of the stages already thudding in the background.
"It's nice to do something different," says Westcott, sipping a glass of wine. "We both love music."
"We've been to Sonar together recently," adds Allen.
"Yeah, we've been to festivals together and we've been friends for a long time," he agrees. "It's nice to do it together and get out the kitchen a bit and do new things."
It's common knowledge that today's festival-goers expect more than polystyrene trays of chips. Indie and alternative music events like Festival Number 6, Latitude, and Wilderness are known for the quality of their food vendors, and even Parklife—that favourite of flower crowned teenagers—has a pretty solid food offering. But taking festival food to fine dining level, and at an event where you'd expect attendees to be more concerned with pingers than aperitifs, is a big ask. As the dinner from Michelin-starred Sergio Herman at Belgium EDM festival WECANDANCE proved last year, even the most delicately constructed dishes risk being sidelined by dry ice and techno.
"Michelin-star fine finding kitchen in a forest for four days—it's definitely not without its challenges," Lost Village co-founder Andy George agrees over the phone a few weeks before the festival. But he sees millennials' much documented interest in food and dining as a reason for these kinds of high-end eating experiences to become more commonplace, even at the more sesh-heavy festivals.
"We're all super passionate about food and it's an area that we all enjoy, so it felt like a natural progression," he says. "There's a huge focus in life now on what people are putting in their body. It's important that festivals realise that the days of dodgy burger vans are gone."
Last year, George and his team invited experimental Leeds chef Michael O'Hare, whose dinner featured a sous vide cod dish that in retrospect, might not have been such a great idea ("Maybe barely cooked cod isn't what you want to eat at a festival," admits George. "That was a big learning curve.") This time, they approached several chefs whose cooking had interested them in London. After Westcott and Allen's first-night dinner, James Lowe and Richard Turner take turns to cook in the marquee.
"The food element kind of just snowballed," George explains.
Westcott and Allen came up with the menu together, then worked with a pop-up food specialist to ensure that it was achievable in a makeshift outdoor kitchen. The dishes combine Southeast Asian-skewed flavours from Singapore-born, Maidenhead-raised Allen (tempura nori, furikake brioche) with Westcott's focus on British produce (heritage tomatoes, smoked cod)—plus a few concessions to the fact that what they're doing is basically very elevated campfire cooking. Namely the lamb rumps Allen will be grilling on a barbecue in full view of diners.
"The barbecue's a bit too hot for you though isn't it, Lee?" Allen says.
"Yeah I can't handle it," he agrees. "I said, 'Liz do you want any help?' But then it was like, 'I can't do this, I've gotta get out.' I'm a wimp."
Live barbecuing aside, the chefs wanted the dishes at the dinner to replicate what they serve in London, using the same suppliers and a similar combinations of seasonal ingredients.
"I wanted people to experience stuff that was applicable to what we do [in the restaurant] but then we kept it quite summery and seasonal and if I'm honest, quite simple but tasty," explains Westcott. "At the moment, it's my favourite time of the year for produce because everything is picked from the trees and it tastes fucking great. You don't need to do much to it."
Allen agrees, pointing to the fourth course of clam, pickled potato, Sichuan chili oil, and chive as an example.
"I love the clam dish," she says. "It's really fresh and then you lead straight into the sauerkraut lamb rump and pickled cabbage, which is good for digestion for all those who are drinking excessively."
"Helps them go to the toilet," laughs Westcott.
"No it helps your stomach calm down when you're on the booze all day!" she replies.
Ah, yes. Booze. Given that the dinner takes place on the first night of a festival (always the wildest, despite those promises to "pace yourself"), it's a given that diners will go heavier on the wine than perhaps they would in the more sedate setting of a restaurant. Is that a problem?
"They're all rowdy and it's great—blowing air horns and cheering," laughs Westcott. "If that was in the Typing Room, they'd get booted out."
When I take my seat at the table later that evening, people aren't blowing air horns but the marquee is definitely in high spirits. Sitting with strangers on a warm summer's night, it feels like being on the fun young people table at a wedding. After vodka spritzes and introductions, the dishes arrive: first sweetcorn crackers with truffle oil, then tomatoes with camomile and that lamb rump with ragu and Furikake brioche.
As the sun sets over the lake, barbecue aromas still wafting gently in the breeze and bowls of peaches with honey and pistachio placed in front of us for dessert, I almost forget we're at a music festival. Or in a tent in the woods.