THE MIRROR ROOM
"If you ever have the choice between two options in your career, choose the most difficult one; at least you won't have any regrets," French chef Bernard Leprince once counseled Amandine Chaignot. She's carried the spirit of that advice with her through roles in several of Paris' top kitchens, including Alain Ducasse's Plaza Athénée, Eric Frechon's Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Epicure, and Yannick Alléno's Le Meurice.
Chaignot was raised outside the French capital by a research biochemist mother and software engineer father, and she was supposed to settle into a dependable science career of her own. But partway through pharmacy school, boredom pushed her to make the move to the burn-marked, knife-nicked life of a chef.
En route to becoming executive chef of the elegant, seasonally driven spot Mirror Room in London's Rosewood Hotel, Chaignot occasionally encountered "situations where you need a really good sense of humor." When she was promoted in a previous job, one staff member quit, refusing to work for a woman. From time to time, someone would assume she was the assistant or wife of whoever was in charge—and where was he, by the way? But she hardly gives such people a second thought. "I feel sorry for them," she says.
When she joined Mirror Room in 2014, "It was kind of a basic lounge," she recalls. "Regular burger, comfort food. What I've tried to input was a bit more refined." Her modern French-British menu is woodland-inspired yet luxurious; that burger, for example, has been replaced by one with Ayrshire beef, shaved truffles, pancetta, Comté and white truffle jam.
The wintry appetizer Chaignot offers here combines earthy butternut squash, peppery arugula, the chewy sweetness of dried dates, a drizzle of pesto, a tart pop of pomegranate seeds and a bright hit of lemon.
Mirror Room wine director Michael Raebel's 400-selection Best of Award of Excellence-winning list is strong in Burgundy, Italy and Champagne. But for this pairing, he headed to the Northern Rhône's Viognier-growing region of Condrieu. "The fresh lemon juice in the dish asks for vibrancy and freshness in the wine," he explains. Yves Cuilleron's Condrieu La Petite Côte 2015 "provides this extra note of purity and vibrance, in addition to the classic apricots and perfumed notes" typical of the grape.
Lately, Chaignot is managing the specter of Brexit. Not only will it require more paperwork to maintain her kitchen staff—15 of her 17 employees are from outside the U.K.—but, she says, the imported products in her pantry now cost 30 percent more, due to the drop in the British pound. "The impact is massive," she says.
But while the path has grown thornier, Chaignot remains optimistic. She contends that London's identity as "one of the best, most open-minded culinary scenes" runs deeper than policy and will ultimately prove resilient.
Complex projects lie ahead, but we keep cooking. And as fate would have it, this one's easy.
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 cup olive oil, plus more for cooking squash
1 medium clove garlic, peeled and minced
6 cups baby arugula
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided, plus more to taste
1 small butternut squash, peeled and halved lengthwise, seeds removed
1/2 cup pitted dates, cut into wedges
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1 lemon, zest reserved, cut into wedges
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Heat a small saucepan over medium-low. Lightly toast the pine nuts until golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Set aside.
2. Wipe out the saucepan, and heat over medium-low. Add the olive oil and cook until just heated through, about 4 minutes.
3. In a blender, combine the pine nuts, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 5 cups arugula. Pour in the hot oil and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste.
4. Cut the squash into 1/2-inch, half moon-shaped slices. In a bowl, toss squash to coat with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 25 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
5. Place several squash slices and date wedges on each of 4 salad plates. Top with a quarter of the remaining 1 cup arugula, drizzle with pesto and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds, lemon juice and zest. Serves 4 as an appetizer.