Best chefs contest culinary stakes as racing ups fine-dining ante

CNN  — 

It’s not just the horses who are thoroughbreds at the top race meetings these days. The chefs, too, come with top-class pedigrees as racing’s culinary arms race hots up.

Now, venues from Royal Ascot to ParisLongchamp, and events from the Melbourne Cup to the Pegasus World Cup, are fighting a fine-dining revolution as they strive to enhance racing’s appeal for those willing to pay the price.

The celebrated French chef Albert Roux was the arguably the forerunner to this chef sideshow, although perhaps more to do with his passion for watching the racing than for cooking up a storm at the course.

In one of his early cooking jobs, Roux acted as the private chef to Major Peter Cazalet, who trained racehorses for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, and while working there he would ride out in the mornings.

It was Cazalet who encouraged Roux and his brother Michel to start a restaurant, Le Gavroche, which opened in London’s Mayfair in 1967 and was the first British establishment to warrant three Michelin stars.

Roux’s eponymous Chez Roux hospitality experience is now a fixture at some of the UK’s biggest race meetings, with three generations of the family set to showcase their culinary talents at the Cheltenham Festival, the Guineas meetings at Newmarket, and the famed Epsom Derby in 2020.

Albert, his son Michel Roux Jr., the owner of Le Gavroche, and Michel’s daughter Emily will offer menus reflecting “seasonality and provenance of each region’s larder.”

Menus include treats such as duck tourte with roasted parsnips, cranberry and orange compote, and red wine and port jus, or maple-cured loin of Highland venison with ragout, pecan-crusted butternut squash, pommes dauphine and sage.

“Chez Roux offers the very best cuisine with stunning dishes to savor whilst watching world class horse racing,” said a statement from the Jockey Club, which owns the courses.

Cheltenham Racecourse, Evesham Road, Cheltenham, England, GL50 4SH: +44 1242513014

Newmarket Racecourses, Foremans Office Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket , England, CB8 0TG; +44 1638675500

Epsom Racecourse, Epsom Downs, Epsom, England, KT18 5LQ: +44 1372 726311

Royal Ascot benchmark

‘Stellar line up’

While Roux set the benchmark for world-class chefs at race meetings, Royal Ascot seems to have upped the ante and decries the old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth.

For 2020, a range of top chefs with nine Michelin stars between them will offer a feast of fine-dining options at the event, one of the highlights of Britain’s sporting and social calendar.

Top billing will once again be given to Raymond Blanc, whose Le Manor aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire boasts two Michelin stars. The Frenchman will be in residence for a fifth year in the sixth-floor Panoramic Restaurant in the Royal Enclosure. A sample menu includes a starter of native Cornish lobster with Jersey royal potato salad followed by Royal Estate lamb rump, braised shoulder navarin with spring vegetables and potato purée.

Rising star Ollie Dabbous, a former protege of Blanc and the founder of the Michelin-starred HIDE in Mayfair, London, made his debut at Royal Ascot’s The Balmoral restaurant in 2019 and will return to launch Holyroodhouse in the Royal Enclosure.

Simon Rogan, an owner of four stars across his dining empire, will be back for a third year with a pop-up restaurant in the Royal Enclosure Gardens. He will also curate the menu for the Green Yard restaurant, also in the Royal Enclosure.

“Royal Ascot is one of the highlights of the British summer. Aside from the racing, the food offering there is gaining an amazing reputation in its own right. It’s a stellar line up this year so I’m very flattered to be asked and excited to be a part of it,” said Dabbous ahead of this year’s event.

Ollie Dabbous will be in residence at the new Holyrood house restaurant in the Royal Enclosure.

A new name to Royal Ascot’s culinary stakes is Samoan-born, New Zealand native Monica Galetti, chef proprietor of Mere in London, who will take up residence of The Balmoral in the Royal Enclosure.

Brett Graham, the winner of two Michelin stars as head chef at The Ledbury, also in London, will also make his Royal Ascot debut in the airy ON 5 restaurant on the fifth floor of the grandstand in the Queen Anne Enclosure.

“Ascot is a leading light in sporting venue gastronomy and we have an incredible platform to showcase some of the world’s top chefs,” said Ascot’s Jonathan Parker, director of food and beverage.

“I believe Royal Ascot to be the single biggest collection of stars – both on and off the track – of any British sporting event.”

Ascot Racecourse, High St, Ascot, England, SL5 7JX; +44 03443463000

‘Special emotion’

When ParisLongchamp, home of the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race, revealed its 2018 reopening after a $140 million facelift, its new culinary offerings were key to the plans.

For this year’s famous race weekend in early October, celebrated chef Thierry Marx signed off the menu for its showpiece top-floor restaurant Le Panorama, with views out over the historic race course, the leafy Bois de Boulogne, the Eiffel Tower and the towers of Paris’ business district, La Defense.

“For me, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp is an emblematic race in the world of equestrianism,” the Frenchman told Aly Vance for CNN’s Winning Post TV Show.

“When you’re a child, when you’re from Paris, you hear people talking about that grand prix and now to sign off the race day menu is a very special emotion for me because in the world of horses, like in the world of gastronomy, you need to both work hard and be a team player.”

ParisLongchamp, 2 Routes des Tribunes, Paris, 75016, France; + 33 1 49 10 20 65

ParisLongchamp Panorama restaurant 1

Marx, the brains behind Sur Mesure at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, added: “The Panorama is an exceptional place, you’re untouched by time, you see the races happen, you see the crowds and you feel like you’re above all of it as if on a cloud above Longchamp, above Paris.

“It’s like a moment suspended in time and that’s the sort of thing that makes events especially this one, memorable.

“I really like the world of fine dining, and carefully chosen clothes, and the world of horses. It’s a world of quality. I only believe in one economy: the economy of quality and racing is definitely part of that.”

55,000 black ants

Organizers of the Pegasus World Cup – the world’s richest race when it launched in 2017 – at Gulfstream Park in Florida are keen to put their event on the map and help in attracting new audiences to horse racing.

As well as concerts from legendary rapper Snoop Dogg and top DJ Mark Ronson, this year’s culinary offerings included food and drink from Swan and Bar Bevy, the Miami restaurant collaboration between hospitality mogul David Grutman, singer Pharrell Williams and celebrity chef Jean Imbert.

It is all about taking racing into a “new age and drive new people into racing,” Tim Rivto, chief operating operator of Pegasus organizer The Stronach Group, told CNN.

The famous Melbourne Cup Carnival at Flemington in Australia is another race meeting where the hospitality is as eye-catching as the horses.

The swanky Birdcage VIP enclave is the place to be seen, with brands bidding to outdo each other in the pursuit of the ultimate “experience.”

In 2018, New Zealand chef Ben Shewry wowed his guests in the Lexus pavilion with a dessert topped with crushed black ants – he used 55,000 in all.

Shewry is the brainchild behind Attica, which came in at No. 20 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in 2018, and the antsy accompaniment was his twist on Australia’s much-loved lamington, the traditional sponge cake with chocolate coatings and coconut sprinkles.

The black ant dessert at the Lexus Design Pavilion. It's made by New Zealand chef, Ben Shewry -- who's the brainchild behind Attica.

In this year’s Lexus pavilion, renowned Australian chef Neil Perry of Sydney’s Rockpool served bento boxes, while a 90-seater three-level restaurant was directed by Australian chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barret of the Oakridge restaurant in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

“[Patrons] can expect to see Australian native flavors coupled with the vibrancy of re-purposed spring produce that will give life to food that would otherwise be wasted.”

ParisLongchamp’s head of marketing Damien Lecarreaux says its about creating a “destination.”

“People come for the racing but also for the experience,” said Lecarreaux, who has visited Royal Ascot several times to learn more.

“We’re aiming to target new people - the X and Y and Z generation. For a long time, horse races have been deserted by these kind of people. We want them to see they can enjoy the show we provide.”

Lecarreaux’s strategy is to eschew the big-name chef in residence, while focusing on the “high quality for every experience.”

“We have to think about who’s coming,” he says. “It’s not just the French but people from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and China, and we have to provide food considering everybody.

“It is the experience now and that has to be total but that’s not just the food and the races. No.1 is developing the destination. Before in France it was one year at a time, now it’s a five-year plan. If people like the destination they will stay a long time, come back with friends. The food is a part of that.”