Magic and it has to be that, happens in the kitchens in the basement of the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge. It’s here that Mourad Khiat and his small brigade of steady-handed chefs create haute couture with pastry. It’s the only afternoon tea in the world where the catwalk gets a sugary makeover. If you’ve not heard of his Prêt-à-Portea created six years ago, then you just have to try it but with a three-month waiting list, it’s clearly not just a winner with the designers. Lanvin, McCartney, Louboutin, Valentino to name just a few, want him to recreate their current catwalk trends.
And what’s amazing is that Mourad is so very humble I met him at a gathering during Chocolate Week and when he told me what he did I almost wet myself. I asked if I could come and spend the morning in the kitchen, and bombarded him with excitable e-mails. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s lived the tea for so very long or whether he’s unaware of how very skilled he is. He allows me into his telephone box sized office where he shows me some sugar-crafted flowers he’s painstakingly made. Learnt from a Chinese woman he tells me and what a teacher. The hand painted detail, the only thing these particular flowers lack, is smell. But he’s no boaster, he’s totally aware of how successful the tea is, but doesn’t take that for granted, and it’s not the only thing he’s responsible for. His kitchen at the Berkeley has so much going on and the tea is a small part of their daily duties.
Strawberries were being dipped; oats were being spiced and baked for the muesli and fruit compotes stewed. Plates were being iced for special birthday celebrations, delicate chocolate domes sprayed for a lemon tart; this really is a place where many more culinary creations are born.
For those of you not particularly enamoured with fashion then you’ll be less excited about this post then me but here we have a Head Pastry Chef getting sent handbags, shoes and coats from the fashion world’s haute couture collections to have him put his creativity into recreating that for an afternoon tea plate. And the tea travels; he took it to New York in February 2009 and created a pop-up tea at Bergdorf Goodman, expecting a small frisson of excitement. A tea collection featuring Chanel, Louboutin, Michael Kors, Thakoon, Oscar de la Renta, Philip Lim and Marchesa were served alongside tea and Veuve Cliquot. However, a television interview sent the public rushing to the department store and Mourad and a colleague worked flat out from five in the morning until seven at night during Valentine’s weekend. His wife and daughter who joined him on the trip ended up pretty much holidaying alone. I ask about taking it elsewhere, I ask about a book for us mere mortals to create his tea at home, and what about biscuits to sell in high end stores? I bombard him with a series of questions all of which he has answers for but this tea could travel from London to the rest of the world. For the moment it will stay here in the capital but when I push him maybe the UAE and from the plates on the high performance cars on the forecourt I think they’ve fallen in love with the hotel and tea already.
I also find out about Mourad’s relationship with his fax machine and whilst it’s not a piece of kitchen equipment, he just couldn’t live without it. It’s from here his free hand patterns are sent to his cutter maker. Forget your thin, stainless steel gingerbread man cutter, here you get a crude, hand-made cutter, complete with forged joins but after all a Burberry Prorsum coat needs a bespoke kitchen utensil. This coat is formed on a chocolate biscuit that is cut and baked, it’s then that a fine hand-piped outline, complete with a wispy waist, is flooded and left to dry. Each coat is then given buttons, and lapels, in white and a quick piping bag swap to complete a knotted belt. peplum and cuffs in black. And whilst his chefs may wonder why it is there is so much attention to detail for one biscuit, eaten in the time it takes to pipe all the trimmings, Mourad absolutely insists upon it for it’s this that ensures they stay a cut above the competition. The biscuit is then finished with a spray of pearlised glitter.
The tea is served on and in Thomas Goode’s fine bone china with Paul Smith’s signature multi-coloured stripe, which works well with pretty much all the collections. However, when designing the collections Mourad is aware of what he has to work with in the colour department, the ingredients he can physically make work so some items don’t make it into the collection because of these factors.
Mourad doesn’t take the collections and recreate each item, it could be that he likes a pattern, knows he can work it up into a creation and that appears on top of a cake. But each season he does recreate a handbag and this season it’s Valentino. I joke that he must have the most accessorised wife in the business but he uses Vogue for inspiration and the samples that are sent usually go back. Valentino’s satin shoulder bag is an orange and ginger Victoria sponge wrapped in orange modelling chocolate.
Stella McCartney’s spot ‘it dress’ seen on so many celebrities recently hasn’t gone unnoticed. The spot has been taken from the dress and created on a sponge. A Valrhona chocolate mousse with crunchy pearls is sandwiched between.
Sonia Rykiel’s striped gold dress is a rolled chestnut cream wrapped in almond Genoese sponge and topped with gold leaf
Lanvin’s violet washed ‘Gazar’ dress has been recreated in a cassis bavarois with crème de mure jelly. This is topped with a sea shell meringue and spun sugar. So, how on earth do you recreate this sea urchin shape? Mourad sees the pictures, remembers he has a piping nozzle, which is fifteen years old and will absolutely recreate this shape. The electric blue spun sugar sits perfectly into the opening.
Inspiration for a prickly pear mousse is taken from the Bottega Veneta block colour boucle suit in fuchsia and orange, a highlight from the label’s ladylike collection. The mousse is given a stripe of clementine cremeux and topped with a two-tone macaron. The kitchen was whipping up the egg whites to create a batch of them when I visited.
Jil Sander’s Humphrey Warp-Print hasn’t escaped the Portea make-over. The busy pattern has been given the Mourad thought-process, another contact and a flower transfer has been created. That is applied to wafer-thin chocolate and crowns a bright red pomegranate and grenadine mousse.
Although it’s so difficult to pick a favourite the éclair has to be it for me. Dolce & Gabbana’s star print sits fantastically well on top of a chocolate draped log. Each individual star is hand cut, there are three on each, and placed on a two-bite Gianduja pastry cream filled éclair. The simplicity of the pastry does it for me and I just love the contrast.
No wardrobe is complete without the shoe and it’s the turn of the Miu Miu glitter heel. A five-spiced biscuit is flooded with coloured icing – yellow, blue and silver platforms are finished with edible glitter.
Then what happens to the tea once it leaves the kitchen? Each waiter and waitress is given a lesson in how the tea should look on the plates, a ‘cheat sheet’ on the designers and how each piece is made and they spend time in the kitchen watching the process. Their role is as important as the chefs who spend the time making each piece.
And, if sweetness is not your thing, expect a series of miniature savoury skewers, taster spoons, canapés and sandwiches.
There is simply no better way of treating yourself, or the person who’s difficult to buy for. Who’s got a few thousand pounds to spare to spend on just one piece anyway, especially when we’re all trying to tighten our financial belts? And, for just under forty pounds you can while away an afternoon with the designers, without trying a single thing on!
Prêt-à-Portea is served in The Caramel Room at The Berkeley from 1 to 6pm every day and it’s £36.50 and if you want a glass of Laurent Perrier it’s £46.50.
Call 020 7235 6000 to make a reservation.