I've just spent the most entertaining hour of lockdown on my laptop listening to a lot of people in their kitchens trying to keep up with chef Derek Steele in one of his weekly cook-along shows he partners with footballing legend Gerry Armstrong.
Derek has a reputation for quality, having spent time in Salty Dog and Harry's Shack among others. The north Antrim man has felt the chill winds of restaurant closures as badly as any others. Where does a chef go when there's nowhere to cook and nobody to cook for? Zoom, naturally.
Gerry Armstrong, who has built up a huge international following with his weekly Thursday Facebook chat show, recruited Derek to set up a series of cook-alongs which are so engaging they could, if they're not careful, feasibly end up as an interactive TV show broadcast to thousands. For now though the pleasure is confined to a select group of 12 devices whose owners have been happy to fork out £25 to join in the Monday night's craic.
By signing up to the 7pm event you receive the ingredients list for the week, click on to the zoom link emailed to you and suddenly, you're transported into Derek and Gerry's kitchens as well as any other celeb who might be participating that week. Earlier this week the pair were joined by Steve Parrish, the former motorcycle ace and truck racing driver (yes, and I've been to the British Truck Grand Prix and it is a thing) and current leading commentator. A mystery guest will join them this Monday.
The subject of this week was something everyone should include in their repertoire: spaghetti carbonara. There are 10,000 approaches to making a carbonara but chef Steele says this one is authentic. I've seen authentic carbonaras. I was taught how to make one 35 years ago on a beach outside Venice by two Italian men and they used one egg, some pancetta and a dusting of nutmeg. The pasta was boiled in seawater. I'll never forget it. Maybe it was the magic of a late summer's evening on the beach where we were sleeping under the stars, or maybe it was just the precision of the Italians' approach.
Derek Steele has the same forensic attention to detail and thanks to the pre-issued instructions I was able to follow his lead, as were the 11 others, to the letter.
You need to have these ready in advance because things get lively, the banter warms up very quickly after the 7pm kick-off and to be honest, Derek's guidance can be quickly swamped by Gerry Armstrong's and the others' delight at just being there. It's that sense of excitement and release, spending a little time with others who have been locking down and the simple joy of listening to people pulling each others' legs which gave this hour its magic.
But what's more, I ended up with a version of the carbonara which came as close to the Venice beach one as I can recall. Even if there was garlic and mushrooms in this one and no nutmeg, it was still brilliant. The fact that Derek used a whole egg and three egg whites caused me further fear that I'd end up making a pasta omelette. But this was ungrounded. His instructions were sound: even down to the spooning of a little of the original pasta water into cooked pancetta, garlic and mushrooms, before adding the pasta and the addition of the three tons of grated parmesan to the egg mix, keeping some over for sprinkling at the end. I shrugged my shoulders as we followed Derek, thinking this will not end well. And I was proved wrong. It was outstanding, the pasta just beyond al dente, the sauce rich but not heavy.
If you get a chance to participate in the next (and last in the series for now) Monday evening event you won't regret it. It will cheer you up. There's no pressure on anyone to perform or join in the banter. You just need to be there and they'll be glad you dropped by. And you'll learn from a master.
The bill ............................................... £25
For further details see Derek Steele on Facebook.