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.