Are your Brussels sprouts a little lacklustre? Or perhaps you're forever searching for the perfect tipple to keep your guests happy? Whatever your festive dinner dilemma might be, London's best chefs are on hand to guide you towards a fine feast to remember this year. These are their top tips, must-have ingredients and recipe ideas: The Do's And Don'ts of Christmas with James Cochran of 12:51, Stem + Glory's Louise Palmer-Masterton and Romain Bourrillon from Cocotte.
What’s your idea of the perfect Christmas dinner? Staying in or going out?
James: Staying in! I don't let anyone else cook on Christmas Day. First of all because I just can't relax. Also, not to be big-headed... but I know I'd do it better than them. We start off with a nice lobster cocktail and then I do jerk ham, turkey, rib of beef with lots of sides for mains. Finally, we drink loads of booze, which is what Christmas is all about.
Louise: Now my children are older, I actually quite fancy going out for Christmas dinner, although it’s not something I’ve ever done. I’ll be honest, roast dinner isn’t my favourite thing to cook, or eat, as it’s not especially creative. So I suppose my idea of the perfect meal would be cooking a lot of non-traditional fare. We usually have a Japanese-inspired Christmas Eve meal, which I do very much enjoy. My entire family are roast dinner lovers though, so it’s going to stay traditional for a while longer at least...
Romain: I really love to do my cooking on Christmas Eve. Then I like to go out to a nice hotel or restaurant for brunch or lunch on Christmas Day itself.
If there’s one expensive item, ingredient, or utensil to splash the cash on this season, what would you recommend?
James: An ice cream machine. Or the other thing I would get is a water bath. It's going to be amazing for Christmas Day. Get a turkey crown and brine that with Christmas aromats like star anise, cinnamon, clementine, orange, clove, sage and rosemary. Use a 3% salt brine with those in, bring it to the boil and cool it. Submerge the turkey in it for at least 24 hours. Then you'll wash and dry the turkey off, vacuum pack it with butter slapped in and cook it at 55 degrees for about five hours. Once you take it out the bag, all you need to do is whack it in a hot pan, seal it, get a nice colour on the skin and then pop it in the oven for five minutes; meat done. It's the key to super moist turkey.
Louise: I prefer to use simple and local produce for cooking where possible, none of which is expensive. But, I was gifted an air fryer for my birthday this year and honestly, it’s amazing. It also uses a lot less power than a conventional oven! It cooks really well in shorter times and is amazing for things that need crisping, but also bakes beautifully.
Romain: If you’re going to get one expensive ingredient I’d say morel mushrooms; cooked down with some cream, white wine and all reduced nicely. Then other things I’d say would be foie gras and adding a hint of truffle to a dish.
How do you make your side dishes a little more sexy? We’re talking Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage - the lot…
James: For carrots, cook them in orange and star anise to glaze it and then make a savoury granola of sesame seeds, almonds, macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts. You can roll and coat the sticky carrots in that. Next, grab yourself a hispi cabbage, blanch it and then roast it in the oven with any fat you have - whether that's duck fat or some beef you rendered down. Serve it up with some pan-fried or shaved chestnuts and rosemary butter. For sprouts, you definitely need a gratin. Quarter them, fry them up with a bit of onion and bacon, then reduce it down with creme fraiche or cream. Put it in a casserole dish with blue cheese and top with breadcrumbs and crushed frazzles (yup, the crisps). Yeah, man that sounds cheeky.
Louise: I do my best to pimp up our festive feast, so making root vegetables into a gratin or cauliflower into a purée. Sprouts are great with chilli and orange zest. Plus I like a shiitake and walnut stuffing.
Romain: I think the flavour of some charred or burnt vegetables really adds to the whole flavour of a Christmas dinner. It compliments everything really well.
Can you share your top tip for veganising a Christmas dinner?
James: For something extra special for Christmas Day, I'd do a salt-baked celeriac. Put Douglas fir pine in the salt with some rosemary and juniper in there too. The obvious thing to have with that to be super indulgent is truffles. So tear the celeriac open for a rustic look and dress it with an aquafaba truffle mayonnaise, grated walnuts, clementines and loads of fresh truffle on top.
Louise: I think with Christmas dinner, it’s really all the extras that make it special - roast potatoes, gravy, stuffing - so the meat has never been missed in our house. I do like to do a vegan centrepiece, of course, and have trialled many many things over the years. Our dinner this year will be a version of those side dishes, with the salt-baked celeriac being the centrepiece. You can actually also stuff the celeriac through the centre for that extra wow factor. But my top tip? One word: gravy. You absolutely need a top vegan gravy to bring everything together. We do have the best red onion gravy in our house; it’s simple and loved by all.
Romain: I’d choose to do a confit cauliflower when there’s a vegan coming over. If you prepare it nicely with lots of herbs and spices then it’ll go perfectly with all the side dishes.
Tell us all about your biggest Christmas Day disaster in the kitchen...
James: I cooked for my brother and his wife about eight or nine years ago. At Christmas, I always go for stupid amounts of food. For brunch, I'll make scotch eggs, sausage rolls, chocolate brioche and then finish up with a huge cheeseboard. So I popped the cheeseboard down on the dining room table while we ate the rest. I go to get it later and my dad's dog has eaten it all...
Louise: The one and only time I tried to make a seitan roast. It was absolutely rock solid and totally inedible. I’ve steered well clear of it since!
Romain: I like to be nice and prepared when I cook, so I can’t say I’ve had many kitchen disasters at Christmas. But my friend recently bought a turkey that they couldn’t fit in their oven. It definitely didn't end up looking the way they wanted it to - that was very funny.
What’s your favourite festive drink? Do you have an easy go-to cocktail to whip up at home?
James: A Christmas negroni. You'll grab some bay leaves, star anise, cinnamon, clove and cut up oranges and clementines; throw it all in the gin. Leave it for at least a week to infuse. Then it's as simple as one part vermouth, one part campari and one part gin with loads of ice. Stir it about 20 times before you strain and pour it into the glass. It just takes the harshness off the flavour. I'm a massive negroni connoisseur and a bit of a geek when it comes to them.
Louise: Mocktails have featured heavily in our house over the years and my two children usually set up a bar and serve everyone. Their favourite is probably a mojito. My eldest has just turned 17 now, so it’s all moving along to actual cocktails soon. A decent gin will be a crowd-pleaser for all, especially at ours because it's a firm favourite with both mine and my husband's mums.
Romain: Anything Champagne or sparkling wine-based is perfect for Christmas. You have some really crisp sparkling wines here in the UK that are just right for the occasion. I'd recommend a Christmas negroni spritz, which is equal parts sweet vermouth, Campari and prosecco or another sparkling wine. You can serve it over rocks, garnished with an orange slice, or in a flute.
The one we've all been waiting for... what’s your top tip for a smooth festive feast with the in-laws?
James: You know what you're capable and comfortable doing, so don't go overboard. Get yourself a nice easy starter like crumpets with some brown and white crab meat, served up with a fresh raw salad of carrots, celeriac, parsnip and tarragon. Do all your prep and as much cooking as possible in advance too, like blanching the veg and having it sitting in cold water until you need to serve. You want to be able to focus on the main event: the meat and the carving.
Louise: We are extremely fortunate in that our families get along like a house on fire. We’ve been sharing the festive season for more than 20 years and get together regularly anyway, so no issues there. My top tips if your relationships are less cordial? Don’t drink too much. Then, always be kind to everyone.
Romain: I think just having everything nicely presented when people arrive is the key; a beautifully set table with nibbles, sparkling wine and cocktails ready. It really helps loosen people up. Then my brother does this really funny thing where he always brings everyone really silly hats to wear, like Santa hats and everything. Christmas is the time to have a laugh.