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.