Monday, 25 January 2010

“That was lovely: as good as Marks and Spencers”

A couple of women customers, a weekday lunch and probably the first compliment that made me want to strangle the customer. It wasn't as if it was genuinely felt: at first our waiter thought it was a joke and he laughed. The customer then explained that she was serious and our waiter rushed to pass the good news on to the kitchen. He was enjoying how we were going to feel about that compliment.

At what point did Marks & Sparks become a byword for good food in this country? We talk a lot about the improvements in the quality of restaurants, the increasingly knowledgeable consumer, all those magnificent cookbooks. And it's all so much rubbish. As a country we've forgotten how to cook and all those cookbooks and programmes are just so much pornography: a substitute for the real thing.

The factory pap of M&S is the closest so many get to real home cooked food. Microwave the mashed potato, reheat that pie, shove that pseudo-italian bread in the oven and hear our grannies spinning in their graves. You want a measure of real food? Count how many butchers, grocers and fishmongers you have down your street.

Monday, 18 January 2010

'Food is just not that important'

I've got it! I've worked out why those mock italian chains inspire my homicidal side. It was when someone said: “sometimes, you know, food is just not that important”. Those chains (and Jamie, I include you) provide the food for people that don't care about food. You don't need to cut or chew it: it just sucks. You don't need to address the issue that your food died for you as its either hidden or it didn't. You don't need to think about the taste as it's just old familiar favourites. It's mock authentic, mock food: aural muzak for the chattering classes.

That's what the italian chains do so well: a buzzy atmosphere, erzatz charming service, quick delivery of food that is designed to hit the right notes while not being noticed. Get a grip makhno: “it's just food”.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

'Italian' Chains – Why?

So I'm out late one night and I have an interesting Spanish place lined up, but somehow it doesn't quite suit the people I'm with and we end up on this listless drift for somewhere that suits. We end up in Carluccio's. I sit there stuck in my fantasy which involves flamethrowers, and try and work out why I hate it so much.

Is it really Italian? Well, it doesn't seem to relate to food I eat in Italy. That tasteful little sprinkle of rocket doesn't seem to fit with my images of tripe in a bun. But lack of authenticity isn't a major crime. Look at all those english 'caffs' run by Italian families. 'Lasagne and chips' anyone? I love those caffs.

I think that I'm jealous. This foul, soul destroying monster was the only place with a queue of customers. And it works particularly well for women: easy on the red meat (meat generally in fact) and heavy with the green stuff. Women were lapping it up and the only men there were looking miserable. I can often hear customers discussing my menu outside the front door, and the man will go, 'look, wild boar' and the woman will go 'mmmm...but no pasta'. It's the woman that decides where the couple eats.

I'm jealous of those profit margins as well. I struggle (and fail) to achieve my kitchen percentages, but I reckon for every quid you spend in Carluccio's only about 25p goes on ingredients. It's just so much easier without the lumps of bleeding meat. I'm also a bit jealous of the catering equipment they use as a design motif: they're better quality than what I have in my kitchen.

I think the real reason I hate it so much is the insincere slickness. Every italian chain is pretending to be in love with its peasant roots, while it quietly crunches the numbers and gives the customers what they want in a relatively consistent manner. What's wrong with that? There's no love – there's no-one pushing a dish because they love it, there's no-one saying 'try this' because it's all safe choices.

When the waiter said 'come again soon' it felt like mockery. The logic of the chain is blandness and closet vegetarianism. Burn them.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Restaurant as the spiritual homeland

Part Two

And then, as were all huddle together round the candles something goes wrong in our little restaurant community. There's a shrill little voice from the back and it says: 'but what about me?' All of a sudden we have a gluten intolerant vegan, someone that only eats organic vegetables, or someone who only eats humanely killed fish (they'll be lucky). And these plaintive little voices are always justified on serious health grounds.

But it's never really about the ingredients or health, its about attention. The good waiter promises something unique ('like my mother used to make') throws together some random ingredients and takes it back with a flourish. S/he is greeted with raptures, the problem is solved, the ignored child gets the fake love and everybody is happy – especially the waiter with the tip.

I'm only having a go at about eight million people in the UK, so I think I can push it a little. Vegetarianism, food fads, or allergies are sometimes the fall-outs from family battles. A child wants to exert some power – do it with food – make the parents jump through hoops.

Feeling ignored in your work – make the chef pick out all the yellow food from their carefully constructed dish – or even better construct your own.

Diabetic, lactose-intolerant, nut-allergic, we can cope: one quiet mention and we're sorted. But this is not what's going on. In the same way that late-arrivals use it to draw attention to themselves people use food to do the same. 'I'm Special'. Yes, you truly are.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Restaurant as the spiritual homeland

Part One

I have this theory and I wanna share. We need a public space. We need somewhere that allows us to connect with humanity in a general way. It could have been a church in the past, but that's dead now. It could have been the family, but that's as dead as the dining room these days. But always better than both was the open outdoors fire with food cooking over it.

You can see that image alive in the barbeques of suburbia or the hog roasts of the rural pubs. It's the smell of cooking meat, people faces lit by flames and this sense of communal and physical warmth that comes from the flames.

I reckon that restaurants are the modern equivalent of this communal fire. Just as farming/civilisation/government began with the desire for beer and bread, we have older blood coursing through us. We need to gather and share our food: its the origin of the word companions.

Be honest: no-one goes to restaurants because they're hungry and thirsty. They want to see and be seen. They want to push their boundaries a bit with the help of alcohol, they want to get laid. We want to belong. As pubs, religion, family has faded away in England, restaurants have grown and they continue to grow. Come recession, come terrorist outrage, it's table for two at eight – always bloody eight.

That Alan Yau made his mark with restaurants that pioneered the swedish school dinner look. All those people crammed together on the long benches. It makes him the money and gives everyone else the illusion of that cosy communality, touching our elbows and slurping our noodles. We must truly want to belong to something to go to places like these.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Hygiene Courses in Hell

So we go to this hygiene course for a bit of a health inspector prompted refresher. Welcome to the tick-box, brain-dead lunacy that is the world of modern kitchen hygiene. Fellow course members are interesting: there are no other professional chefs just people who feel obliged to get a hygiene certificate. My favourite is the couple of women PTA committee members who wanted to run a barbeque for fund-raising. Later on they admitted that they wouldn't even be doing the barbeque themselves.

Our lecturer regales us with stories of the horror of chef behaviour. All those disgusting things we do with food. Odd thing, even she admits it's the butchers that seem to kill people, and the factories that put foreign objects in their food. I know there are serious problems with rice and seafood, but I struggle to believe the horror stories of chefs deliberately mucking up their food. Chefs are in the business of trying to give pleasure with their food.

The myth goes that if you return your food to the chef s/he adds some form of bodily fluid before it comes back out. Our trainer refused to eat out anymore because of the “risk.” In a restaurant most food is returned because the customer thinks it's 'undercooked'. A bit of pinkness in the meat or opaqueness in the fish and back it comes. It's not uncommon for the disgruntled chef to sling it on the solid top or in the deepfryer, but that's about the limit for abuse of food. And besides, that type of customer tends to love their deepfried steak.

A customer asked the chefs once on the best cooking time for a scallop. Is it three or five minutes? We depressed her by saying we felt the best cooking time was 0 – serve the scallop raw and you have the best flavour. You need a really fresh scallop but it will taste so good. A touch of lemon or lime juice and a pinch of seasoning and there you are. Sixty three degrees may be dangerous for food, but it's a perfectly pink piece of lamb.

Sod the regulations. Get good fresh ingredients and get the real taste.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Restaurant guides

I hate guide books. You slave in the kitchen and then someone pops in on your off-night and for the next year you have to live with thousands of people reading and accepting their opinion. You get marked out of ten. It's just like being back at school only you rarely get to see the markers.

Except it's worse than school. Those schoolmarks rarely defined you, but here we are as good as our last restaurant guide score. And it's as if we accept this. It's a sad thing to admit, but I only felt like a proper chef when I got my first decent write-up in a guide. It was like: “ooh, I can cook – here it is in black and white”.

It's not been bad this year. A reasonable Good Food Guide score: bless 'em – they always give us a professional assessment and we haven't a clue who they are. Hardens gave us a kicking for a couple of years but this year we got the highest mark in town (they list two other places). Not totally sure it's deserved. No sense with them of detailed research: when they were praising a competitors 'good local fish' and GFG was pointing out some came from Canada.

Michelin – OK, they have the chefs by the balls. Coming out in a few weeks time and we're bricking it. We're a long way from a star but my ambition (hopefully for 2010) is a bib gourmande. (their version of good cheap food). We're listed but I'm interested in what they will say about us this year. We had a visit last year: sense of a very professional and knowledgeable man.

The AA guide: a sense they're marking you on the flashiness of the toilets and the ironing of the tablecloths – we fail at both of those. I hear (other chef gossip) that they have good inspectors, but round here they give credit to places with poor food. Time Out – odd one this. In London I used to respect their guides, but here in the sticks, my feeling is that we get their non-food writers using expenses to pay for their dirty weekends. We get mixed reviews from them, but consistently the information is wrong.

If I was a better chef would I care less? I doubt it really. We're on the edges of the guides: among the top four hundred restaurants in the country (there are around 50,000). Top two hundred, now that would be different: the guides would be doubling our turnover. People would be making that special journey to see us.

Extra business would be nice but that's not necessarily a good thing. I watched a nearby restaurant making the transition to michelin-starred and what was interesting was how they were scared about the new type of customers: the restaurant as shrine to the temple of modern gastronomy, all serious sucking silence and people taking the menus home. You want a restaurant where people get pissed and have a great time (well we both did). I've sat in truly great restaurants and being too intimidated to laugh. Fuck that.