Tony Tobin gets the mood right

PUBLISHED: 16:52 14 September 2010 | UPDATED: 16:15 20 February 2013

Surrey Life's Tony Tobin cooks up another treat

Surrey Life's Tony Tobin cooks up another treat

Kitchen diaries: Our celeb chef Tony Tobin on why the ambience in the room is just as important as what's on the plate

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2009

Kitchen diaries: Our celeb chef Tony Tobin on why the ambience in the room is just as important as what's on the plate

Where's the best place you've ever eaten a meal? I suspect the school teachers, lecturers, exam paper markers and interview trainers among you will have noticed already a cast-iron chance for a basic error when answering this question. You see I'm not asking: 'What's the best meal you've ever eaten and where was it?' I'm asking: 'What's the best place you have ever eaten a meal?' Any meal.

It's an important distinction because this month I would like us to take a moment to consider the role that ambience plays in our enjoyment of our meals and, believe me, it plays a big one. The best meal you've ever eaten in terms of pure taste might be an also-ran in your memories if the accompanying experience didn't work for you.

Ambience is a lubricant that can either elevate people's meal experiences to sublime levels or an irritant that can ruin what's on the plate as much as any sunken souffl or undercooked chop! Like most things in life, it's the whole package that counts and all the accompaniments - from the candles to the music to the curtains - can make a difference.

Now, chefs can't cook ambience (but if we did, we would poach it - ho ho!) but we do take a lot more interest than you would imagine over the way our restaurants look and feel. Certain elements are fundamental and they are as important for a weekend dinner party at your home as they are for a top West End restaurant. Get them right and you'll leave your guests desperate for more. Get them wrong and it might be the last time you count them as your guests!

The best place to learn those 'certain elements' is in the words of the restaurant critics of national newspapers. You'll notice that a restaurant review usually starts with the same two things: the critic's judgement of the ambience that greets them and a description of the expectations placed on them via PR and hearsay before they even arrived. So when summing up the ambience, he or she will tend to ask the following questions.

  • How did I feel when I walked in?

  • How did the dcor and environs set the tone of the establishment?

  • Did other diners appear to be relaxed and enjoying themselves?

  • Was it hushed and reverent or loud and buzzy?

  • Were the waiting staff suffocatingly intrusive, irritatingly stand-offish, plain invisible or perfectly attentive?

  • Was the music too loud or the light too bright?

  • Was the maitre d' overly sycophantic or warm and authoritative?

When you entertain, you should take the same sorts of questions and apply them to your own space and the ambience you are trying to create. If you are inviting new neighbours round and want to make the right impression, don't have mismatched cutlery and leave your children's iPod playing a 'Best of Grunge' compilation. Imagine how you want them to review their evening to each other when they're back in the privacy of their own home. Then make all the adjustments you need.

As a chef, everything I was taught in the colleges of my youth and the restaurants of my formative years focused single-mindedly on the food and its journey to the plate. Ambience was something people called out after an accident! It's only later that a more holistic view emerged and I realised that ambience - along with presentation - are at the heart of the dining experience.

Next month, I will deal with the presentation of food on the plate but, for this month, I leave you with the thought that eyes and ears of our diners are already consuming the experience long before their forks touch the plate.

I will also leave you with a recipe that lends itself to creating some romantic ambience around it. With Valentine's day still a long way off, our love lives need a fillip before the nights start drawing in. So, try my special Roast Guinea Fowl on the link below and don't forget the candles!

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