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.