In life, you don’t get to choose your family; as a chef, you don’t get to choose your signature dish. It chooses you – or rather it’s chosen for you by your customers.
I have to admit that I have always disliked the term “signature dish”; it seems so puffed-up and full of self regard, and chefs as a species don’t need any help in that department. I was looking at a chef’s Instagram the other day, and it helpfully informed me that said chef had “created” a certain dish. It was a piece of steamed fish with sea herbs: hardly the Sistine Chapel. As chefs I actually don’t think we “create” that much. We put together certain combinations of ingredients and they either work or they don’t.
Then after a while I realised that however much I resisted, I did have a signature dish. People would come to the pub and ask for it, and even check that it would be on the menu when they booked. It became a regular on social media timelines, often displayed as a “before and after” photo. “Before” showed a slip sole – a small Dover sole – all alone on a rectangular white plate, flecked with bright green seaweed butter. “After” was a perfect fish bone, stripped of meat and looking like something from a cartoon.
When we did our cookbook, this was the dish that everyone talked about, and I had to admit that I had joined the ranks of chefs who have a signature dish.
However I may feel about the phrase, I am very proud of this dish as I do think it is truly original. There is something charming about a neat, small, whole fish, perfectly cooked, bathed in seaweed and salt – things it will have swum around in when alive – all united on the plate with the help of a bit of homemade butter. Our presentation of the dish has always been pretty minimalist: nothing is allowed to distract from the taste of the fish and the seaweed.
Despite being proud of this dish, I can also look at it from a different point of view. I first ate slip sole at Chez Nico in the early 1990s, when he called them by their French name, solettes, and I have been eating them ever since as they are a well-known local fish where I live.
The seaweed butter, now made by us from local ingredients, was inspired by the great beurrier of St Malo, Jean-Yves Bordier. I remember going to his shop, an unlikely-looking place in the cobbled backstreets, and being surprised that a product that was lauded in the three-star restaurants of Paris should come from such a humble origin. All I did was put two great ingredients, the fish and the seaweed butter, together.
There was a problem though. For some parts of the year we would not have any seaweed growing on our quiet stretch of beach and so the dish wasn’t on the menu. I thought back to my trip to St Malo, and remembered two other butters made by Bordier: one with smoked salt, the other made with piment d’Espelette, a type of smoked chilli from the Basque country. I combined the two ideas and came up with the butter that features in this week’s recipe. This version of my slip sole dish filled the gap when seaweed wasn’t available.
When I was helping put together the menu at Noble Rot in London five years ago, I suggested that they serve this dish and it soon became a regular on their menu, even causing some people to think that we at The Sportsman had nicked the dish.
The new branch of Noble Rot, in the building that used to be occupied by the Gay Hussar in Soho, opened last month, and we have put a third slip sole dish on the menu there, this time cooked in truffle butter. So I may not have chosen my signature dish, but I now have a whole family of them.