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.......

Chefs Blogs