I am so fortunate. Moet & Chandon Champagne has chosen to fly me to France, to the home of Champagne in Epernay for the Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2004 International Launch. Wow. But, as I have learned being a chef, there is no such thing as a free lunch ...
Moet has given me the brief. Apparently, 12 Michelin-starred chefs from around the world have been selected to team up with 12 international sommeliers - each a former world champion in the world of wine. The teams will be the first in the world to taste the new released vintage Moet and must cook a dish to match with the Champagne. Small detail: there will actually be only 11 Michelin star chefs attending ... I will be the only one there without a star. No pressure.
We don't have Le Guide Michelin in New Zealand (Will we ever?, I wonder), but I, like many other Kiwi chefs, have always wondered how we would stack up against those famed restaurants that have passed the Guide's high and mighty standards. I guess this will be my best chance yet ...
After a long flight, I arrive in Paris on a cool, grey autumn morning and join the others on the trip to Epernay, three hours west.
The guest list is impressive: Heston Blumenthal from the Fat Duck; Clair Smyth (Gordon Ramsay's head chef); the theoretical physicist turned three-Michelin star chef, Mr Matsuo from Kashiwaya, near Osaka; Amaro Wojciech the first chef in Poland to gain a "star"; a two-star chef from Hamburg ... The list goes on and it's safe to say at this point, I'm growing more and more petrified by the minute.
"Hi I'm Ben Bayly from The Grove in New Zealand," I say as I size up the group and wonder which famous sommelier I will be paired with.
As these thoughts swirl around my head, it's a long bus trip through the beautiful French countryside to Epernay.
Moet & Chandon, the world's largest Champagne house, which also produces the prestige cuvee Dom Perignon, is steeped in history and beauty. The Champagne has been used celebrate everything from Napoleon's war victories to the coronation of kings and queens. It has a British royal warrant and in the past Moet had a close relationship with the Russian Tars and was a favourite of The Marquise de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XIV.
As we enter the Chateau de Saran I feel like I am in a French museum and as I pass by the painted portraits of people who changed the world's history, I begin to understand the gravity of the situation. I don't think mindlessly quaffing bubbles this Christmas or at my next birthday party will ever be the same for me again.
We are taken down into the cellar and caves, which are vast to say the least, 40 metres underground and 27km of tunnels carved into chalk earth with 100 million bottles inside. The cellar staff zoom about in little golf carts down the tunnels; working like miners they have the labour-intensive and never-ending task of turning each bottle a fraction each day during the aging process. Not a place to get lost in.
Then we pass by a side cave housing hundreds of vintage nebuchadnezzars ( at 15litres, the largest champagne bottle). Maybe getting lost here with a few friends might be fun after all.
At the tasting cave we get down to the reason why we are all here: the 2004 Grand Vintage. Grand Vintages are only produced in remarkable harvest years and the "04" is only the 70th Grand Vintage since 1743, so it's a big moment. The champagne is disgorged (its crown cap removed) in dramatic style, and we are the first outsiders to taste it.
We taste the champagne before the dosage (small amount of sugar syrup) is added, so it's drier and easier to pick out the flavour profiles in the wine. My mind starts to engage. I think about ingredients, sweet seafood like scallops and scampi, citrus, maybe pink grapefruit then mint and coriander. I can hear my heart beat in my ears ... It's time to cook with the big boys.
Back in daylight, the historic reception area has been turned into a makeshift kitchen, where everyone has their own section. My eyes are squinting at all the ingredients laid out on the benches. It is a magical array of wonderful, fresh food.
We taste the Champagne again, this time with the dosage added, and set to task to create two different different dishes for seven people, to match with the 04 Grand Vintage.
I am paired up with Piero Sattanio, he is Italian and was the best sommelier in the world in 1973. So it's the oldest sommelier teamed up with the young chef with no star. Right then.
Piero doesn't speak a lot of English, I know only Italian swear words, but we both speak about the same amount of French. So it is a mishmash of languages that starts to come together as one, a bit like our dishes. Turns out Piero is a culinary guru, he puts on an apron and we bounce a few ideas off each other at the ingredient table, then I pull out my secret weapon, a huge New Zealand white truffle and see his eyes light up.
Back in our section Piero cuts brunoise of shallots in a blur, and we are off. We crank into the prep. Deglaze, poach, sear ... chefs run back to the table for last minute bits to finish their dishes. They said it wasn't a competition, but it so is. We are all too determined and competitive for it not to be.
Piero and I make a simple dish first, with poached rhubarb, seared hand-dived scallops, grapefruit and brown butter almonds.
Then for the second dish we break out the truffle, served with roasted langoustine, mushroom puree a sauce made with shallots and the champagne, some parmesan and thyme ... The smell of the truffle draws in the other chefs, as fat slices float down from my truffle slicer to finish the dish.
Both dishes look wicked and I'm proud of what we've created.
The standard is phenomenal, our dishes are distinctly lighter and fresher than many of the others. It is a nervous time being sized up by your heroes, but the feedback is great and looking around the room, New Zealand has represented well, with a little help from Italy.
Overall, for me, the standout dish came from my new Polish buddy Amaro Wojciech, who created a "scallop mojito", fresh, delicious and really cool. This guy is inspirational and a lot of fun.
Once the cooking is over, we all relax. This is time to swim, talk, then dine and drink well into the night with some of my absolute heroes.
What's cool is how humble everyone is: there's no bravado, everyone is so down to earth and despite how many collective stars there are in the room, everyone has time to chat and share war stories, business tips and promises of visits next time they're in town.
The next morning starts with a swim to clear the head.
The pool is breathtaking, and sharing an early morning swim with Carol Bouquet, a former Bond girl and stunningly beautiful 50-something woman, is another experience I won't be forgetting soon.
It's not until the afternoon when I find myself back in Paris, that I finally take stock of the past 36 hours. I'm emotional. It's been a whirlwind trip and almost overwhelming.
When you're out of your comfort zone, switching back to reality can be tough, but though the last 36 hours genuinely felt like a dream, it's been an inspirational one.
It's true when you're the least experienced guy in the room you learn the most. I've just hung out with the best in the business, picked up some great ideas and been challenged to keep rising to their level.