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.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

'Everything OK?'

God I hate that. Interrupting your meal in an attempt to drum up positive feedback. In our place I don't want the waiters bugging the customers during the meal. But, and it's a big but, I need to know what the customer feels. That little throwaway comment at the end of the course is like gold dust in the kitchen.

Firstly plate waste. If the customer has not licked the plate, then the waiter is allowed to ask. Some customers 'weren't hungry'. It could be a lie, but if not, why the hell did they go out for a meal. Worst throwaway customer word is 'interesting'. I was out for a meal and it was overpriced plain food, with a chef so desperate to suck up the compliments that I think the kitchen porter was doing all the cooking. I called his food 'interesting' and I wanted it to sting.

Next swearword is 'nice'. 'Nice' is empty and meaningless. It's english politeness that cuts like a knife in the kitchen. Waiters that bring that word back know they have to leave the kitchen quickly. At least 'lovely' is a step up.

'As good as my mum/gran' (from men) is one to treasure. Doesn't sound much, but that gets a grin in the kitchen. That's a serious compliment. It's difficult for a restaurant to capture that sense of a meal that you get at home with real friends and family. If we've succeeded then we're proud. Equal with that is 'what's the recipe?' Yeah, the true compliment is wanting to steal it.

Sometimes the customer can recognise where a recipe has come from – come on, you think all these recipes are made entirely from fresh by the chef? Only God creates from nothing. Anyway, I like it when the customer sees the roots of the recipe. There's a sense of an knowledgeable customer out there.

But my personal favourite, up their at the top of the hierarchy is 'that was the dog's bollocks'. That one makes the evening and as far as I'm concerned the customer can have the food for free.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Health Inspections

Had my first ever health inspection yesterday. Now that was an experience. It appears that we are in a special risk category. Why? Because we're a restaurant that prepares all its own food. ......? We get inspected more regularly and are considered dangerous to customers. If you ever wonder why so many pubs and restaurants just reheat Brake Brothers food, then this is one of the reasons. What got me was how unusual she thought our place was.

The most concerned our inspector got was when she heard that we make our own mayonnaise. We now have to warn the customers that we've adopted this dangerous practice. Apart from holding in the fridge (we do) we have to throw it away at the end of service. Pates and terrines should be held in the fridge for no more than three days. These are methods of preserving food that pre-date the refrigerator.

Then there is the question of our wild food that gave her cause for concern too. She was worried that we wouldn't know the source of the game. We pointed out that we think we know the field it comes from and its relatives, but that didn't help. Basically she wants a name on the box.

Our kitchen is old. A lot of our equipment is old. We need to gradually replace, well, everything really. We don't have the money for it all, so it's a gradual process. I'm not proud of my kitchen, but it is moving in the right direction.

But that's not really what the inspectors mark you on: they want paperwork systems. They want monitoring and records of things like temperature of fridges and temperature the food turns up at. If we can show process and procedure they're relatively happy. Our hygiene bible tells me that to ensure I don't poison the customers, I should 'follow the food manufacturer's instructions'. Even in our tacky little kitchen we're probably going to get an OK star rating (probably three stars). We can do their paperwork systems, we just can't do the not preparing from fresh.

When you see five stars 'on the door' it means that place is a factory. They're processing food not cooking. There are inspectors in white hats wandering around with little probe thermometers and clipboards. There's some paper trail that takes up all their time and energy. Me, I'm not going to eat anywhere that's got more than three stars.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Customers are morons

Yeah, I've said it.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Dead Spouse Society

Got this interesting internet customer review yesterday. 'Food was excellent, but we won't be coming back because the waiting staff were not wearing while shirts'. OK, I paraphrase but that was the gist. Our waiting staff wear their own clothes – they have to be black but that is the only stipulation.

Maybe it's a country thing: AA Gill writes about all the country customers complaining about paying £10 for a portion of chicken when 'they could get a whole one at the local supermarket for £3'. The eating-out bug just ain't the same outside the cities: people seem to want more of a sense of special occasion and I think this goes with white-shirted deferential serving staff.

My personal theory is that it goes with boring marriages. Any couple that plonk themselves wearily down and then proceed to regale each other in silence is going to be trouble. They will experience the service as a series of delays, they will see the serving staff as unduly casual/familiar. They will look at laughing groups around them and despise people from London/hen nights/gays/the socially inferior (delete as appropriate).

We've all been here. I remember a couple of nights in Gothenberg. Full of the most beautiful, friendly people. By the end of my couple of nights there I'd turned into some sort of sulky axe murderer. I was on the wrong side of it and it was just too much. On the plus side at least I wasn't demanding food service staff wear white shirts.

Friday, 16 October 2009


What a stupid word. Where did this word come from. I know it's french but how did it get to us? Via the americans I suspect. What is it? I know it's sweet and I know it's frozen but that's not really enough. I have this suspicion that it's ice cream pretending to be a mousse – something light and calorie conscious, that gives us a guilt-free hit at the end of the meal.

Half a dozen yolks and 150g of caster sugar whipped over boiling water until what is known as the 'ribbon' stage (thick and whitish). Fold in the same volume of some fruit puree, the same again of slackly whipped double cream and perhaps some italian meringue if you've got some sitting in the fridge. Bung it in the freezer for a few hours and there you have it: an ice cream that doesn't need churning. Beauty is that the waiters can serve it out without making it look like McChemical waste. I suspect this ease of service ('what's a quenelle?') is one of the reasons it's in fashion.

Moulds are a bit of a problem to me at the moment. I've been using rings lined with clingfilm. But I can't get the clingfilm perfectly flat so the sides are all creased. I'm going to try clear pastic clipped to give me cylinders. Topping can be the fruit sliced or more of the puree.

Thing is, back when the world was black and white (and I learned to cook) this wasn't called a 'parfait'. This was a 'pate a bombe'. It was used as the central filling for those bomb shaped ice cream moulds. Not that we have them any more, but I used to love those little copper moulds with the copper screw tops/detonators. You used to unscrew those so that you could unmould the ice cream.

The moulds were frozen, lined with a custard based churned ice cream and then filled with the 'pate a bombe' mixture. Put the effort in (several layers) and you'd got something that could be a different flavour each bite. I guess factory production of ice cream has taken the novelty out of these productions. Pity really.

Anyway, passing back to the parfait, what flavour in the puree? I'm partial to a bit of mango myself, but passion fruit sells better. Perhaps it's got the edge as slightly more exotic these days. Customers have asked for a hit of alcohol with these (god, that lemon sorbet and vodka sells), but it's the unimaginative option. Tamarind and whiskey, star anise, rum and guava! Wash my mouth out, but this the direction the customers are pushing. I sense a chocolate parfait with a black olive sauce coming on.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

“Is the fish fresh?”'s complicated. I commute on my bike and I pass this place where the boats drop off their fish. I pick up what I need and have it back within an hour and a half. If the boat has just landed and the fish was caught it's possible for it to be under two hours old. Sometimes the fish is still moving when I'm bring it back. A fish can be twitching (dead but still moving) while I'm filletting. So yes, it's fresh.

There's a but here: I had these skate wings the other day. Under two hours old before they were cooked. So fresh and such an underestimated fish (i.e. not trendy and expensive). Two portions go out and they come straight back again with the customers noting that they taste like rubber – they're impossible to chew. They're too fresh to eat.

When a fish is really fresh and we grill it, it'll bend all over the place. The muscles aren't relaxed and it will end up looking awful. We had this couple in last month and the woman was complaining about her Dover as “too firm”. She told me that she knew about fish and she knew fresh fish should be really soft. What do you say? “Sorry you really have no idea about fish.” I can't see that working. The Dover she had was under two hours old and it was firm, too firm for her.

I want my fish to be so fresh. I vacuum pack it when I get it so that it doesn't lose that freshness. However I've got to leave the skate for two days and the dover for one just to get rid of that rigor mortis. I've also got to face the fact that some customers are unused to fresh fish and a fair proportion are going to struggle with it. Supermarket frozen fish has a lot to answer for.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Revolution and food

It has to be faced, but the Left is essentially middle class. All that thirst for justice and high principles just seems so connected to pissing the parents off. I know it was for me. But in the seventies something odd happened. Instead of championing the proletariat/working class/ordinary people, they dumped them. I think it may be connected to the rise of the credit card, sky sports and televised talent competitions, but it could also be that the Left realised that the 'working classes' didn't want to be championed.

So what did the Left turn to? Animals. Veganism, vegetarianism, environmentalism, deep ecology. Call it what you will, it comes down to cuddly animals and the fact that the animals can't tell their 'rescuers' to 'fuck off'. It's the moral certainties of the left combined with the animal sentimentality of the english: an unstoppable combination. For the last forty years there's been a war going on and few people have noticed.

'Meat is murder,' dead hunger strikers, the battle with hunters, transporting of animals, veal, foie gras, fire-bombing of restaurants and butchers. The inability to eat anything that looks like it may once have been alive: fish with the heads on or (god forbid) have bones, meat with blood, animal fats, freshness as a quality for fish, hanging as a quality for meat. Anything sold with plastic around it (including pot noodles) is the triumph of vegetarianism.

I don't accept Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall's argument that we have a contract with these species that keeps them going provided that they give us meat. But I don't think we can eat meat by pretending that it wasn't once alive. My area's wildlife is being decimated by minks released into the wild by animal liberationists. It's true that I've watched minks and thought them to be cute small otters. But me, the mink and even the 'cuddly' polar bears know that meat (and fish, and game) tastes good.

How can you define yourself by what you don't eat? All moral indignation and squeamishness about blood. Where's your adventure and sense of possibilities. Dip the bread into the roast tray and just enjoy.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Bless the water bath

I'm learning as I cook – I admit it. Maybe it's wrong to experiment on customers, but I can't afford a 'development kitchen'. The customers have to eat my experiments. I'd heard about vacuum packing and slow cooking the parcels at low temperatures but it didn't seem to connect to my cooking. Me, ideally I'd cook on an open fire. It feels a bit wrong to use a couple of grands equipment to make scrambled eggs.

But then I noticed that in every decent place I went there was an intensity about the flavour, a compactness about the main ingredient and a softness of texture that was both puzzling and intriguing. I made the leap and spent my couple of grand and I was right: It's a different world out there in the water bath.

Take confit of duck (I have a feeling that a section of my customers don't because they're not sure what it is). A salted (overnight) flavoured (herbs, especially thyme) leg of domestic duck cooked in duck fat and then fried in the rendered duck fat. In the bad old days that fat cooking had to be done till it was falling off the bone, but then (difficult to believe) it would fall off the bone. I bag the leg with less duck fat than I would use to simmer it in, and then leave it in the water bath (82 degrees). OK, originally I was going to cook it for 8 hours, but I forgot it and it ended up at 16......but, the tenderness, the flavour, the sticking together in one piece.

My meats like venison I can prep, portion and bag, then all I need to do is pop it in the bath when they order (OK, I'm stuffed if they don't order a starter) and then brown it on the griddle pan to serve. Clean storage, easy cooking and a power of flavour and succulence. I would say it's even impossible to overcook but if you work hard you can – the meat is still pink but it get's a bit cotton-wooly. Seems like some places are browning before bagging, but me, I'm still experimenting.

Health inspectors hate it and we get an extra 'high-risk' category for using it. If you're not serving the meat directly then you have to cool it in ice before storing. But for me, meats and fish are coming along nicely, and I haven't even got to playing with vegetables or fruit yet. I reckon the whole vacuum packing/water bath thing is going to hit the domestic market. Consumers could buy the pre-vacced food and reheat really quality produce. Somebody's going to notice that it stuffs that whole microwaving frozen M&S meals that makes up too much of domestic 'cooking' these days.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Buying an existing restaurant


This was a hard-learned lesson, so all you prospective restauranteurs take heed. It's rare for someone to take over an existing restaurant and keep the name and style. And now I know why.

The place we bought had been going for decades: good, well-priced, unpretentious food. What's not to like? We'd been to the place as customers so when we found it on sale when looking for a place of our own, it felt like destiny. Months of haggling later, a little gap of a few days to get our stuff in, and we were up and running.

Only we weren't. People hate change. The customers came, but new people running 'their place' felt like theft to them. They walked through the door with little pursed mouths looking to be disappointed, and often they were. We had the same menu, ingredients and dishes but it didn't help. Somehow we were stealing from them.

OK, we were slow. It took us time to learn the job and the place. Both kitchen and service struggled at peak times. Everything's cooked to order, the kitchen old and cramped, and the equipment nightmareish. A cooker with no thermostat that squirted flames from the controls. My partner had never worked in a restaurant, and I hadn't cooked professionally for twenty-five years.

We had this customer who knocked on the door – he'd been here a couple of nights before. Service is included but he'd added £1.20 to the bill for two (£53). We'd thought nothing of it at the time. Turns out that he didn't realise that service was included (he thought our notice on the menu and bill was too small) and that £1.20 was his tip. He now wanted it back: he felt angry and ripped-off. All right, it didn't help when I laughed at him, but I honestly thought he was joking.

It's taken two years for that type of customer to disappear. “You're new here aren't you?” doesn't get asked any more. There's a delicious irony in all this. With the pursed lips customers the previous owners were talked about with much love and adoration. Yet (apart from a small group of regulars) the previous owners were scathing about their customers and desperate to see the back of them. There's a moral there somewhere.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The beauty of Lard

So this woman, all cheekbones, and tall intensity, walks into a tearoom and asks for vegetarian cakes. I'm sipping my tea, and me and the woman server exchange glances: what does she mean? I have this image of a bacon, icing sugar and puff pastry combination I had once in the south of France – sometimes when the nights are dark I can still taste it.

Turns out our gaunt customer means cakes made without lard. This is the future, but I've got to declare a vested interest. First thing I ever cooked was lardy cake. Eight years old and my mum lets me loose in the kitchen. I didn't know it at the time, but it's complicated to make: a bread dough layered with lard, unsalted butter, the dried fruit and the sugar. Then there's the glaze at the top.

I struggled and kneaded, worked at and baked, and my family loved it. It's a traditional cake of the area, maybe a way traditional bakers turned normal bread dough into something sweet. There are even little county variables which play around with the quantities a bit. It's also a thing of beauty: succulent moistness, dripping with flavour and unctiousness. It's the lard that gives it that edge, without it, it just becomes something plain.

OK, you'd have to have a manual job to really appreciate those calories. It's so unfashionable it hurts and those dried up monstrosities that the supermarkets serve up kill the dream. It has to be fresh, it has to be warm, but when it's just right there's nothing quite like it. All Hail to the Lardy Cake.

Friday, 4 September 2009

For my sins

I wanted a restaurant and, for my sins, they gave me one. OK, truth is, I bought myself one: me and my partner, thirty covers/potentially happy customers, me in the kitchen and her front of house. A beautiful little place, dripping with English historical character and bad plumbing. Set in this quietest of Midlands market towns: monied pensioners, youth blowing their youth and income on alcohol. Cobblestones and a quiet at night that only comes with a deep and unjustified fear of crime. Me, I'm from London, and I miss the sirens.

I've always needed to cook. I think that partly it's greed. I just felt that if you were a kid that wanted more food you should learn how to cook it yourself – so I did. But it's not just that, it's something to do with giving pleasure with your cooking. There's just something about people enjoying your food. Sometimes (and I know how sad this is) I nip out to the front of the restaurant and peep in at customers enjoying themselves: all candles, laughing, and empty plates.

Odd downsides include the inability to enjoy my own food. I've tasted it all the way through, worked hard on it, its good in the mouth, but it still feels wrong to eat it yourself. Also, when the customer says 'I didn't like that' its not a question how all taste is subjective – it feels too personal. You can see it on TV sometimes when the chef gets that negative feedback – it hits. You can read any restaurant-review website to realise that nothing is going to please all of your customers all of the time, but still.......

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