Harry Lomas, a judge at next week’s Cholent Fest shares his views on what it takes to make the perfect version.
HARRY LOMAS is Executive Head Chef at Hertfordshire’s opulent five-star hotel, The Grove. He is also a judge at next week’s Cholent Fest. He is not Jewish. So what is he doing judging a cholent making competition? He was persuaded to join the judging panel — which this year includes Ilana Epstein, a trained pastry chef and Rebetzen at Southgate Synagogue — by United Synagogue Rabbi Josh Zaitschek, himself a trained chef.
“I first met Josh at Gefiltefest about four or five years ago, and then again at an event here at The Grove. He was very persuasive” says Lomas. “I’ve always tried to link in with the Jewish community and how they eat. The owners of the hotel are Jewish and we entertain a lot of Jewish guests.”
Nonetheless he admits he was initially nervous. “I asked Josh if he’d be better using a cholent expert. I didn’t want to say anything wrong or to offend anyone so I felt I had to learn a little about the Jewish way of life. I’d already learned a little during my army career when I served as a school governor with responsibility for religious education. I spent a morning with a rabbi. More recently, the hotel’s HR Director, Danielle Matthews has been my go-to person on all things Jewish.”
This will be his third outing as Cholent Fest judge, so he’s becoming a bit of an expert in the field. “I now know it’s an emotive dish and I have a better idea of how it ‘should’ taste. The first time I had no idea what to expect, and judged on my chef’s principles. It was quite awe inspiring being faced with 20 steaming pots of cholent. In some ways I was the ideal judge, as I have no bias at all. I don’t know anyone taking part and my view is based on what I like. Food is food.”
In his gleaming chef’s whites and toque — that towering white hat — Lomas cuts a striking dash. Almost as impressive as his CV — which includes a 34-year military career, cooking for no less than the Queen herself and supervising catering for London’s Olympics and Paralympics.
“I joined the army when I was 15 years old and spent four years training as a chef. Since then I have served around the world, including Germany, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan. I’ve seen active service in several countries. In Afghanistan, I was responsible for setting up the kitchens at Camp Bastion. We fed up to 25,000 people each meal, catering for multi-national audience — we had to start cooking at 8am for dinner. There were 100 chefs in Afghanistan at any one time.”
He went on to serve as Master Chef to the UN in Cyprus; looked after catering in Northern Ireland and ended his military career responsible for State and Ceremonial feeding for the Queen. “We catered for events like the Trooping of the Colour and the Queen’s birthday parade, feeding Her Majesty and her guests. We tried to keep to British food. The Royal Family prefer to eat British food and generally promote local provenance.”
Post army, he took on another mammoth task — as venue manager at Excel for the Olympics and Paralympics. “We fed 147,000 people a day — athletes; judges and officials; spectators; the workforce and supporting staff. Each needed different menus in a variety of locations plus I provided inspiration for the menus for the opening and closing ceremonies. We tried to keep to a theme of British-grown, sustainable food.”
At The Grove Lomas remains focused on provenance, seasonality and sustainability. These principles are at the forefront when we discuss cholent.
What will he be looking for when he is judging the competition? “You have to think about the reason we have this dish and that’s because it can cope with the long, slow cook. The ingredients should be right for this. I’ll be looking for the right meat cut — lamb and beef work well, but chicken can get stringy. I’ll also be looking at texture — you should have slop and crunch, to get the teeth working and Lomas (above) was asked to judge by foodie organiser of Cholent Fest, Josh Zaitschek (left) the body engine ticking over.”
He’ll also be judging on seasoning, colour and whether he could eat a plate of it.
If contestants are going meat-free then they’ll need spices and plenty of colourful veg to fill the gap. “I’ve noticed people using more spices like paprika, turmeric and cayenne which is great, but you want them subtle and not overpowering. A vegetarian or vegan cholent should have a good selection of seasonal, local vegetables. Turnips, carrots, leeks, celery and golden beets all work well.” He even suggests adding brassicas — Brussel sprouts hold well absorb lots of flavours. Cabbage works, but chopped into chunky squares instead of shredded.
Will we be seeing cholent on the menu in any of the The Grove’s restaurants? “Actually, we did put it on the menu once. I explained to my chefs how to make it and we made one with duck. We offered it as the stew option for a Sunday buffet service but didn’t advertise that it was cholent — I think they thought it was cassoulet. It all went!
More information at: www.myus.theus.org.uk/events/