London's a brilliant place to be around Christmas, but what's it like for the people who make the magic happen? Andy Hill tries his hand at making signature dishes and Christmas cocktails at The Ivy.
The kitchen at The Ivy is, as you might expect, a tense environment in which to prepare food. Particularly if, like me, you suck at it. 'On a scale of one to ten, I'd rate you: pisspoor,' says head pastry chef Liza Mustafa, my mentor for the morning, as I ruin The Ivy's legendary Christmas pudding soufflé.
Mustafa muscles me away from the worktop to crack on with it herself: 'We knock out more than 500 of these a day at Christmas, so we can't hang about.' Later, when she stomps off to shout at someone else, I take the initiative and pipe some newly mixed flour, butter, chocolate, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon into soufflé rings. 'What the hell are you doing?!' she thunders over my petrified shoulder, then floors me with a smile: 'Nah, I'm just fucking with you. They're fine.'
My soufflés – with a cream, chocolate and Drambuie filling - are deposited in the oven and I meekly slip away. South African expat Chelsea Arvanitis, sous-chef in the private dining suite upstairs, is less stressful company. 'We did our first Christmas service yesterday. It went brilliantly.' Plating more than 100 complex dishes for a picky crowd in just over an hour is no mean feat. 'Especially nowadays,' adds Arvanitis. 'I've seen 20 different "allergies" in one sitting. One diner claimed to be "88.5 percent vegan".'
In December, The Ivy will shift nearly 4,000 mince pies alongside countless plates of its signature beef Wellington. There's more to this season than scran, though. As I head back downstairs, bar manager Darren Ball tells me about The Ivy's extra-special festive tipple.
'We wanted to make a Christmas drink that isn't generic,' he says. 'So we're retelling Dickens's "A Christmas Carol", in three generations of spirits – past, present and future.'
A glug of 1970 Chivas Regal sloshed in a glass with a measure from a 2015 bottle represents the ghosts of Christmas past and present. 'The final element – "spirit of Christmas future" – was more challenging,' says Ball. 'In the end I flew up to Scotland and sourced some Strathisla which, if left alone, would one day become part of Chivas.'
Stir in a dollop of Scottish heather honey and a generous splash of angostura bitters, chuck on a twist of orange peel, and the Christmas Carol Old Fashioned is born. Having necked it (at a frankly louche 10.40am) and scoffed my yummy soufflé, Iím properly in the festive spirit now. Sod the holly - this Christmas it's all about The Ivy.
The Ivy, 9 West St, WC2H 9NE.
Take a look behind the scenes at Santa's grotto at Westfield Stratford City.