Wood fired pizza is something that is very close to my heart. Growing up in Australia, you cook a lot of food over fire – you could say that it’s in my DNA. Over many weekends of hard work, I’ve built a pizza oven in the back garden of my home in Cornwall. It’s taken many months of practice to get anything resembling decent pizza out of it. Until I visited the Perfectionists’ Café for a shoot recently I thought I was doing a really good job of cooking in my oven, but they made me realize I’ve got a lot to learn. Probably the most extraordinary thing about the Perfectionists’ Café is that they have managed to get a wood-fired pizza oven into an International Airport Terminal.
The Perfectionists’ Café was inspired by the Search for Perfection TV series, where Heston Blumenthal travelled the world to find the perfect versions of some classic dishes, such as pizza and fish and chips. The café produces amazing quality classic meals, using the lessons learnt from the TV series. There was never any question that a restaurant from the Fat Duck Group would produce quality, delicious food: the main clue is in the apostrophe – “Perfectionists’” means that it’s a café for perfectionist customers, as much as perfectionist chefs. However, the other thing a restaurant in an airport has to provide is fast food: the Perfectionists’ Café is airside, which means that every customer who eats there is flying out of Heathrow Terminal 2, and probably has a restriction on how long they can wait for food. The menu has been carefully designed so that the dishes served are meals that benefit from being cooked quickly: the pizzas cook in around 60 seconds, creating a crispy crust, but leaving the middle of the pizza deliciously sloppy. I was also fortunate enough to be able to have a really long chat with Ashley Palmer-Watts (you can find his twitter feed here) about the food they are producing and the ideas behind the café.
I was a little nervous about how difficult it would be to shoot a restaurant in an airport, as I had quite a lot of kit to take through security. However, it was surprisingly straightforward and no different from flying with hand luggage. Fortunately, the night before I’d remembered to remove my favorite OPINEL French camping knife from my kit. Possibly my favorite part of the shoot was watching them make ice cream using liquid nitrogen: definitely a new experience for me. The food very much reminds me of the food I shot for the Fat Duck group earlier in the year at the Crown at Bray, which serves exceptional pub grub, though the cooking is a bit more dramatic at the Perfectionists’ Café!
I was absolutely delighted to be shooting pictures of food going in and out of a wood oven. Knowing how much difficulty I’ve had cooking edible food in my oven, it’s mad to think that chefs at the Perfectionists’ are serving around 1500 people a day using one. Although it’s harder to manage, it definitely creates far better pizza: in a wood oven the heat radiates far more evenly that in a conventional oven and can reach far higher temperatures, the perfect environment to cook pizza! In the TV show Heston travelled to Naples to learn pizza cooking from the best: in the café they really try to replicate what they’re doing in Italy, as Ashley said “there is a real set of values and guidelines about how you operate the oven; what temperature it runs at, etc. Trying to emulate that with gas or even electric is just not possible and the reason being is that the idea is that you cooked a pizza within 60 seconds and it goes in the oven and cooking it that quickly means that the topping doesn’t get too hot, certainly the cheese isn’t all brown and cooked like we’re use to in this country. This kind of charred and light and crisp around outside, there’s a slight crispness and then it’s wet and sloppy in the middle.” Being situated in an airport they have to be very careful about the kind of fuel they use; they have managed to find a compressed log, which is Neapolitan, accredited. This is important because the café has applied for the True Neapolitan Pizza Association award – this is only given to restaurants making pizza in wood ovens using authentic ingredients and proper technique. The oven is about 425 degrees at the edges and around 450 degrees in the middle: they cook the pizzas ridiculously fast; so quickly that the traditional basil leaf on top of the pizza doesn’t even have time to brown.
However, the wood oven isn’t the only attraction in the Perfectionists’ Café. The batter on their fish and chips was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen come out of a deep fat fryer. All the fish they use is Cornish, sourced from the Flying Fish Seafoods, who are just down the road from the studio. Flying Fish supply all of the Fat Duck group restaurants, as well as a lot of other famous names. Ashley has only good things to say about him: “we use him in all our restaurants because even at Terminal 2 you just know that everything he deals in is sustainable, it’s all traceable and it’s all really above board and you’ve got access to the information and he’s not a massive company which I really like. He’s big enough but it’s manageable for him and his relatively small business and he’s got a great outlook. He only takes on restaurants once a year. You can want to buy but he might not take you depends if it really works for him and what he’s trying to do which I kind of like that.” They’re totally committed to sustainable fishing and quality produce, and guarantee the fish goes from fishing boat to kitchen as fast as possible, more a bespoke buyer at the highest level. At the café the chefs use a beer batter that is aerated from a syphon to maximise the air bubbles in the batter, yielding the lightest and crunchiest batter. With quality fish and great beer batter you just can’t go wrong. They also provide customers with an atomizer of pickled onion juice, so that you can add that nostalgic smell of the chippy.
The other staple on the menu is the grill, serving burgers, steak and spit roast chickens. The chickens look phenomenal on the rotisseries, and are sourced from a farm in Worcestershire, where they apparently lived a very good life. Cooking them slowly on a rotisserie really brings out their flavor without overcooking them. The chefs baste them using a brush of fresh herbs, and they are served up with fries and some of the roasting juices.
The Nitrogen ice cream parlor is probably the most theatrical part of the restaurant. As Ashley says it’s a product that really sells itself: “basically the more you sell, the more you’re making. The machines churning, liquid nitrogen vapour flowing out, creates real child like excitement at the entrance”. It was amazing to photograph. It is as near to made to order ice cream as I’ve ever seen; they have to make a certain amount each time, so they don’t make every portion to order, but with the footfall through the café you can be pretty sure that your ice cream was made not that long ago. Like the pizza oven, the liquid nitrogen is super speedy, and the speed of the freezing means that the ice crystals in the ice cream are tiny and the ice cream is super smooth. The ice cream has to be made slightly differently to stop the flavors being cloying, and Ashley has promised me a couple of ice cream recipes, which we are itching to try out in our non nitrogen powered ice cream machine. They also have a great variety of toppings, including popping candy and freeze dried raspberries. These are lined up on the counter in old fashioned sweet jars, which with the gas billowing from the ice cream machine totally reminded me of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
5 years ago you would never have found a restaurant like the Perfectionists’ Cafe in an airport. My family recently travelled up to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games and whilst on the road (on our outward AND return journey) we stopped at Tebay services. We were blown away by the quality of produce and food available and I even picked up some handmade pottery, which I use in shoots as props. Gloucester Services, run by the same people as Tebay, also recently received an Observer Food Monthly Award for Best Newcomer. All of this demonstrates the growing trend for quality fast food, which the Perfectionists’ Café totally embodies. More and more, people on the road are looking to eat quality food made from local produce, rather than a burger from a high street chain. Now all we need is a Perfectionists’ Café on the A303, for me to stop at on my way back and forth to London.