Sunday, 23 July 2017

The National News Service

Man: I really need some news, it’s an emergency

National News Service Adviser (NNSA): Certainly sir, just take a seat

Man: It’s really urgent

NNSA: I understand, we’ve got an excellent reputation for giving people the news urgently. Just take a seat and someone will be with you

Man: Oh, OK. Thanks.

An hour passes

Man: When will I be able to get the news?

NNSA: Oh, very soon, don’t worry

Another hour passes

Man: Can you tell me what the delay is?

NNSA: A lot of people want the news at the moment, and it’s a weekend so we’re short staffed.

Man: I see. I don’t want to be an inconvenience it’s just that I didn’t know I’d need the news in advance and from what I understand, everyone wants the news all the time, regardless of what day of the week it is.

NNSA: That’s true.

A day passes

Man: Is there anywhere else I can get the news.

NNSA: Of course, there’s a place just over the street.

Man: Oh, that’s great. I’ll go there.

NNSA: They’re very nice and you won’t have to wait at all for the news.

Man: I’m going right now.

NNSA: Just one thing, to get the news across the street will cost you an entire year’s salary.

Man: What! I can’t afford that. Who can afford that?!

NNSA: Virtually on one, that’s why there’s no wait.

Another day passes

Man: So when can I get the news from you? Can you check?

NNSA: Well, I can but they don’t like it when I do.

Man: That’s ridiculous. You can’t find out when you can provide the service you’re paid to from a colleague who is also paid to provide that same service?

NNSA: The problem is that it’s not just me asking. There are a hundred rooms like this, with a hundred people like you asking a hundred people like me to call and ask when they can have what they want. We don’t just give people the news here you see.

Man: Really?

NNSA: No, we also publish every magazine on the planet along with every fiction and non-fiction book ever written. We also have a vast list of new writers we’ve signed up, plus lots of magazine and newspaper projects. We’re trying to give everyone what they want all the time for nothing, so if I call someone up and ask when I can give someone something they want, you can understand how annoyed they get.

Man: Why don’t you just not do all of that. Nobody needs it and if they want it they can just pay for it can’t they?

NNSA: Oh no sir, the man who created NNS said it had to be this way and so we can’t change it now. 

Man: Where on earth do you get all the money to do all that anyway?

NNSA: When I said 'for free' what I actually meant is that you’ve been paying for it all your working life, just like everyone else has. But even that’s not enough money to do everything we want to, hence the current situation.

Man: So in trying to give everyone what they want, when they want it, all the time you, end up giving hardly anyone what they want, ever?

NNSA: Everyone gets what they want eventually sir, although some people wait so long for it they end up dying before we can get them it and then they become the news.  

Man: Well, as I’ve been here a while, and it’s really urgent that I get the news, can you at least move me up the list?

NNSA: Well, er, no actually. You see we’ve only got one printing press, in use that is. We’ve actually got hundreds of the things but no one to operate them. You might think you need the news urgently, but there are lots of other people that we think need it more urgently than you do, so they get first priority, so you might have to wait much longer than you initially thought to get the news.

Man: If this isn’t a free service and I’m paying for it, I wan’t to make a complaint.

NNSA: That would be a very good idea. You can do that after you get the news. We encourage everyone to tells us about any difficulty they’ve had getting the news so we can pass it on to our bosses. Then they’re forced to improve things.

Man: Has that ever worked in the past?

NNSA: Not so far, no. But it’s always worth trying isn’t it?

More hours pass, slowly

Man: I’ve been here days now, I’m very tired, I’m just going to take a nap.  

NNSA: Please do, but we will have to wake you up just as you’ve dropped off to check your date of birth and give you a tiny bit of news you won’t care about.

Man: I think I’ll just go home then and come back tomorrow.

NNSA: You can’t. The problem is, that the sort of news you want means you have to stay here until you get it. And you can’t eat anything until you do either.

Man: So I’ll be tired, hungry and desperate for the news until you decide I deserve to have it, even though I’ve paid to have the news all my life but I’ve only ever wanted it once or twice before.

NNSA: I can’t fault your logic sir.

Man: You’re so nice and polite and kind, I can’t be angry at you, but I’m seething inside.

NNSA: That’s good of you but you really shouldn’t bottle things up inside you know, it can be very bad for you. Luckily we have an excellent health service in this country, they’d soon sort you out.


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Brighton's Best Cookbook: Michael Bremner 64 Degrees

Due to space limitations, we weren't able to publish every recipe we collected from Brighton's top 20 chefs (as voted for in the Brighton's Best Restaurants awards 2017) who contributed to Brighton's Best Cookbook  so rather than let them go to waste, I'll be posting them here over the next few weeks. I'm starting with what has become a firm Brighton favourite and the only way to finish a meal at the number one restaurant on the Brighton's Best Restaurant list, 64 Degrees. You may have seen chef Michael Bremner on BBC's recent Great British Menu series where he served the main course at a banquet at Wimbledon to mark 90 years of the BBC broadcasting the competition. 

Rum Bear Jelly by Michael Bremner 

This has been a staple on the 64 Degrees menu since day one. It came about on a quiet evening when the chefs were playing around with rum and Tangfastics. Vitamin C powder is available from Infinity Foods in Brighton or health food shops nationwide. We make the sherbet using a 50:50 ratio of vitamin C to sugar, but if you prefer a less mouth-puckering result, reduce the amount of vitamin C.

(Makes 15 jellies) 

For the jellies
215g bag Haribo Tangfastics
200ml white rum
100ml apple juice

For the sherbet
4 tbsp powdered vitamin C
4 tbsp caster sugar

Put the Haribo, rum and apple juice in a pan and a melt over a very low heat. The Haribo will melt at 70°C but alcohol evaporates at 78.3°C, so use a kitchen thermometer to ensure the mixture remains somewhere between the two. Pour the mixture into 30ml teddy bear jelly moulds (or any shape of your choice) and leave to set in the freezer for 1-1½ hrs.

Make the sherbet by mixing together the vitamin C and caster sugar. To serve, unmould the jelly and sprinkle over the sherbet.  

Brighton's Best Cookbook: Recipes from the Top 20 Restaurants edited by Andy Lynes (£25) is available to buy in Brighton from all the featured restaurants (full list here), City Books Waterstones Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales and the i360 gift shop, with other retailers being added soon. You can order the book online from Chef Publishing and Waterstones.    

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Heaven's Plate: Chefs as the new cult leaders

Fine dining will eat itself, unless someone can stop the culinary circle-jerk that has seen high-end restaurants around the globe become unwitting carbon copies of each other. Enter chef Jordan Kahn and Vespertine, a brand new LA eaterie that rips it up, starts again and ushers in the age of the cult leader chef and the disruptaurant.  

On the 26 March 1997, following an anonymous tip off, officers from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department entered a rented mansion in the affluent community of Rancho Sante Fe, California. There, they found the bodies of  21 women and 18 men, members of the new age messianic UFO cult Heaven’s Gate, dressed in androgynous black shirts, sweat pants, box fresh black-and-white Nike shoes and closely cropped hair. Cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who claimed to be a higher evolutionary being from a ‘kingdom level above human’ had convinced his followers to eat a final, fatal meal laced with phenobarbital, telling then that their souls would ascend to a spaceship trailing the Hale Bopp comet where they would enter ‘Next Level’ bodies, allowing them to travel to Heaven, a physical planet according to Applewhite's unhinged mythos. 'If you want to go there…it requires…that you leave behind everything human’, said Applewhite in his final video message.  

On 7 June 2017, the headline ‘Get Ready To Leave This World With Chef Jordan Kahn's New Restaurant Vespertine’ appeared on, referencing an interview that the Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz-trained chef had given to GQ magazine about the forthcoming opening of his second LA outlet, 'a gastronomical experiment seeking to disrupt the course of the modern restaurant' according to the restaurant's website. In the piece, Kahn, who named his other restaurant Destroyer after a comet, claims that the building housing the restaurant 'is a machine artefact from an extra-terrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshipers' and that the food ‘doesn’t come from local-it comes from a place that doesn’t exist’. Waiting staff, reported GQ, will be ‘dressed in custom, androgynous uniforms’ and will serve ‘spaceship food’ (a shot of one of the restaurant’s dishes is captioned ‘What looks like wisps of plastic compose a dish made from white asparagus, macadamia nuts, and squid’) to a specially recorded soundtrack. 'The sound and the space [are] the transportive mechanism,' says Kahn in the piece, who is having wine glass labels etched off because 'those are all markers that remind people that they’re still on Earth.'

Despite having extra-terrestrials, comets, the disassociation from earthy matters and androgyny in common, it would be wrong to draw parallels between a dangerously unhinged cult leader and any ambitious young chef. Given that the Heaven’s Gate cult’s last meal was drug-laden apple sauce and ‘pudding’ washed down with vodka, it’s obvious that Kahn is a much better cook than Applewhite ever was. And let's be clear, one look at former FBI Behavioral Analyst Jo Navarro's list of 'dangerous traits of cult leaders' that includes 'demands blind unquestioned obedience', 'is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude' and 'is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others' and you know that chefs and cult leaders are two entirely separate species. 

It’s also highly likely that Kahn doesn’t believe a word of what GQ calls the ‘constructed mythology’ of Vespertine, whereas Applewhite was deadly serious. But the similarities, however accidental, are striking. Both have employed an elaborate utopian sci-fi narrative with a number of overlapping elements to persuade a group of people to take a particular course of action; Applewhite to, ostensibly at least, advance the evolution of mankind and Kahn to get fashion conscious foodies to part with $250 per head for a 20-course tasting menu.

Kahn is not alone in employing cult leader-style tactics. Dan Barber of Blue Hills in Stone Barns strikes a Redeemer-like figure as he evangelises from the TED stage or travelling the globe to preach his wastED gospel of sustainability and ‘creating something delicious out of the ignored or un-coveted and inspiring new applications in our food system’ which in practice turns out to be the world’s most paradoxical pop-up with rich and famous chefs jetting in from around the globe to serve dishes made with leftover latte milk, stale bread and broken rice at £15 a pop to over-indulged foodies on the roof of Selfridges, one of London’s most exclusive department stores. But ever mind the details, all you need to do is believe. 

Chefs have become increasingly nomadic, a trait often found in religious cults, a lifestyle that separates followers from their families and social structures and increases reliance on the cult and its leader. In the 1970’s, Jim Jones led his Christian radical-left People’s Temple cult from its origins in Indiana to San Francisco and finally to Guyana in South America  where Jones persuaded over 900 of his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced, grape-flavoured Kool Aid (like Heaven’s Gate, another cult where food and beverage played a crucial role - did someone mention the Eucharist?).

In 2015, Rene Redzepi relocated 70 staff from his Copenhagen restaurant Noma to Japan for five weeks; the following year Noma was transplanted to Sydney for 10 weeks and then in 2017 for seven weeks in Tulum, Mexico. There are no doubt sound business reasons for a peripatetic restaurant (it was reported that Heston Blumenthal made $10million from a six month Fat Duck residency in Australia), but as well as hoovering up income from around the world that might not otherwise be accessible, there is an undeniable evangelical aspect to such a project, and one that sets up Redzepi as a leader that is followed to the ends of the earth. 

Kahn, Barber, Redzepi et al don’t just want customers. Like Applewhite, they need followers. Fine dining is in crisis, and has been for some time (Patrick Kuh’s book The Last Days of Haute Cuisine was published way back in 2001).  Although every high-end chef is desperately trying to appear unique, the cutting edge is beginning to look dully similar. At international culinary congresses and award ceremonies like Madrid Fusion and World’s 50 Best, chefs meet, talk and demonstrate dishes to each other and post pictures of their latest creations on Instagram, ensuring that the globalisation of gastronomy is complete. One carefully tweezered plate of this and that looks, and tastes, very much like the next.

In reality, it’s time for chefs to abandon the draining elaboration that masquerades as creativity, that circles in on itself to ever diminishing returns, and go back to serving food that has a name, like steak Diane, tournedos Rossini and spaghetti carbonara, actual dishes that people understand and remember because they not just a collection of ingredients on a plate, but an actual thing, something more than the sum of their parts.  But too much is at stake, from the years of tribulation invested by young chefs like Kahn on their way to the top, to the vast sums of tourist revenue up for grabs from having the ‘world’s best restaurant’ in your city or country. And so the game continues.

But what Kahn has done brilliantly is ripped up the rules. At a stroke, Vespertine, with its audacious, unearthly nonsense (‘a place of cognitive dissonance that defies categorization, exploring a dimension of cuisine that is neither rooted in tradition nor culture-it is from a time that is yet to be, and a place that does not exist. It is a spirit between worlds. A place of shadows and whispers. Future’, according to that stupendously over-the-top website that'd keep Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner fueled for months,) has pulled the rug out from under the local, seasonal foraging pack and left them looking decidedly work-a-day and last century.

That's not to say Vespertine is going to be all surface and no substance. Johnathan Gold, LA's most respected restaurant critic, called Kahn's food at the now closed Red Medicine 'stunning'. But what Kahn understands is that stunning food alone won't cut it; people want a superb meal far less than they need a great anecdote. Try telling someone about the exquisite, vivid flavours and matchless ingredients you experienced during the best dining experience of your life and watch their eyes glaze over.  But a meal in a spaceship served by hermaphrodites and cooked by a chef who looks like an alt-rock God? Now that’s what I call a Facebook/Instagram/insert-social-network-of-choice-here post.

At the highest level, restaurants have moved on exponentially from their origins as a place where you can sit and eat a meal, pay for it and be restored (the word restaurant means literally to ‘restore to a former state’). But such a simple, pure transaction is now beyond us; we expect and demand much more from eating food outside the home. It must entertain, excite, create memories and add to our bank of experiences that we can then relay on social media to give our lives meaning. We don't want to be restored, but changed. We want 'disruptaurants'.

Just as the followers of Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite looked to their cult leaders to disrupt their ordinary lives with tall tales and the promise of adventure and new experiences, we now look to chefs to elevate us into the extraordinary so we can tweet and Instagram back to the earthbound masses about our expedition into the far reaches of the gastronomic galaxy. But exclusivity is all and Vespertine, today's news, will soon be tomorrow's fish and chip paper. As global interconnectivity gobbles up and spits out novelty as quickly as it can be created, what is left for the high end operator hoping to attract that most jaded of Johns, the fine dining enthusiast? 

Jones and Applewhite proved that there's nothing more exclusive than death. As Christopher Hitchens once observed, ‘Monothetic, messianic religion, with a large part of itself quite clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end. Those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus leaving all of the rest of you behind. If you don’t believe that there is to be an apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats then you are not really a believer. We are the pure and chosen few and all the rest are damned, there’s room enough in hell for you'.

We won’t be satisfied until we find the disruptaurant that will change us forever. We will be finally happy when a cult leader/chef opens Heaven's Plate where we'll obediently drink the cyanide-flavoured Kool Aid and spoon up the our phenobarbital pudding and with our dying breath, type one last post on social media before we escape into eternity; 'Heaven's Plate is to die for'.  

Time to pay: the revolution in restaurant reservations

With the arrival in the UK of the American-developed Tock restaurant reservation system, buying a ticket in advance to eat in a restaurant could become as normal as paying up front for a flight. Will diners benefit from the change or is the restaurant industry putting it's own operational considerations above customer service? Andy Lynes investigates

Eating out in the UK, and London in particular is a very different experience from even five years ago. On the plus side, there is more quality, value and choice than ever before and at all price points. Dining has become more democratised and affordable with numerous casual restaurants that offer great quality food and service.

But there's also been a shift towards making things more convenient for the restaurateur rather than the customer. You're more likely to find yourself waiting in a queue for a table, and when you do sit down, your choice might be limited to a few dishes. Those dishes might be delivered to your table as and when the kitchen has prepared them rather than the order you might like to eat them in
You could find yourself in a very expensive fine dining restaurant with no choice at all but to eat an extended tasting menu of whatever the chef has deigned to cook that day.  And now you might have to pay for it all in advance.

The Clove Club in Hackney, currently rated number 55 in the extended World's 50 Best list is the first British restaurant to adopt the Tock booking system developed by Chicago based restaurateur Nick Kokonas. If you want to eat chef Isaac McHale's acclaimed £65 and £95 tasting menus for dinner that might include raw Orkney scallop, hazelnut, clementine and Perigord truffle you'll have to buy a ticket in advance.

'Increasingly we buy products and services and experiences through e-commerce and restaurants are no different,' says Daniel Willis, co-owner of The Clove Club. 'The real benefit for us, and the guest, is we stop a minority of people from cancelling last minute or not turning up with the numbers that they booked for which in turn allows us to keep costs down and re-invest resources into trying to improve the food and service'.

Kokonas began developing the Tock system since 2010 in order to try and mitigate the loss of over a quarter of a million dollars per year in cancellations and tables with partial no-shows. With $3million worth of tickets sold in 24 hours for Alinea's sister Chicago restaurant Next and a drop out rate down from 10-15 percent to just 2 per cent across the group (which also includes high end cocktail bar The Aviary), it appears the system is working.

'We've had just shy of 200,000 people create an account for Next/Aviary/Alinea, and many more on the pilot program restaurants which include The French Laundry and only a handful of people, just 1 or 2 per month, who email or call requesting to reserve a table over the phone. The analogy I use is like a travel agent, they used to be the gatekeeper for airline bookings. Now it just is much more pleasant, fast, and simple to book online.'

The Clove Club, who still take reservations for lunch and their bar menu over the phone and welcome walk-ins, also say their customers are happy with the change. 'We've had very few complaints and a tiny proportion of our mailing list came back saying they weren't happy. Most people have found the new system really simple and efficient'.

But not everyone is convinced that payment in advance is the way for the restaurant industry to go. 'Maybe it's me being French and old fashioned but I can't understand why some people are doing it,' says Claude Bosi of two-Michelin starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. 'I don't think it's customer orientated.  I went to Brooklyn Fare in New York and had to pay in advance. I was a bit angry, I wanted to hate it. I thought to myself, "what the hell is that restaurant about?". I absolutely loved it, one of the best meals I had in the states, but paying in advance puts you on the defensive and the meal has to be good. Our job is to be consistent everyday but sometimes shit happens. We're not robots, we're only human. People book because they've heard about you but they don't necessarily know about the food and maybe the style isn't going to please everybody. If they don't enjoy it they may think "I've paid in advance for this I can't even argue for a discount".  

Fred Siriex, general manager of Galvin at Windows in Park Lane agrees. 'A restaurant has to be run for customers The historical and accepted practice is you book and then you pay and personally I don't see that changing in the near future. I wouldn't like to be an early adopter of this and alienate people as a result'.

Duck and Waffle head chef Dan Doherty believes a ticketing system wouldn't suit his restaurant's 24 hour operation. 'The type of restaurants that have committed so far are once in a lifetime places. It's like going to a great exhibition or a play, you buy tickets for that, why not commit to the art that these chefs produce which takes time and money and a huge team? So I respect their decision to use it, but it just wouldn't fit for us'.

While many chefs and restaurateurs accept a proportion of no shows as inevitable, they don't see payment in advance as the only way of trying to deal with the issue. At Hibiscus, Bosi says that the simple expediency of taking credit card details and levying a £50 per head cancellation fee has reduced no shows to a handful per year while Siriex sees the solution in staff training and communicating with the customer.   

'You have to have standards and discipline to enforce those standards, and you have to do it with heart and hospitality. We have a double confirmation policy which works very well. If we can't contact a customer the first time we leave a message then follow up the next day. We also stagger our bookings so that if someone walks in at 8pm we find a way to accommodate them always. You will always have no shows, but the thing is the extent of them,' says Siriex.

At Duck and Waffle, Doherty tackles the issue from a different angle. 'We analyse our no-shows for each day of the week, then take into consideration seasons and festivities, then overbook by that amount. There is naturally a risk with that method, but if you need to hold someone at the bar for 20 minutes you buy them a drink and they are generally ok with that. It's all about good management'.

But according to Kokonas, restaurateurs could be missing a trick if they focus solely on the pre-payment aspect of the system. Tock allows for ordinary reservations too with booking at a zero price or small deposit (which Kokonas claims virtually eliminates no-shows and therefore the need to overbook tables) and the system can also encourage customers to book less popular time slots by offering them at a discounted price, similar to airline pricing models.

'Just like a sporting event or theatre, the less desirable seats at Alinea, say Wednesday at 9:30pm are less expensive than a prime seat on Saturday at 8pm. We have a range from $210 to $295 for our prix fixe menu. However, our cheque average remains the same in the middle but our revenue is much better since we book those 'shoulder' times and less desirable days far more frequently due to the lower price. Absolute revenue goes up and that's a win-win for restaurants and consumers,' says Kokonas.

'Tock is just another tool by which to reserve a table, it can be used in a number of different ways,' says Willis. 'In Chicago they use it at three different restaurants for bar reservations, a la carte menus and tasting menus, so it’s not limited in that sense. Tasting Menus inherently limit choice but we love eating that way and people have always responded to it well at The Clove Club. If you go to a restaurant and want to try the food it’s a great thing to place your trust in the Chef and the team behind it and see what happens'.

Although Tock is unquestionably an evolutionarily step for restaurants, diners in the UK have become increasingly used to paying in advance for their dinner. The supper club and pop up scene is now more established than ever and organisers working on very tight budgets usually require payment up front, often via online systems like Brighton-based Dining vouchers, purchased direct from restaurants or via online reservation services like the nearly two decade-old are another well established way to pay before you eat.

'Tock is in place at every kind of restaurant in the US and it’s only a matter of time before more people in the UK start using it,' says Willis. 'I think we’ll see it adopted in restaurants who serve tasting menus first as it’s more obvious and logical but then it’s only a matter of time before others follow suit'. 

This article was originally published in Seasoned by Chefs magazine in 2015

Monday, 31 October 2016

Cookbook review: Salt is Essential by Shaun Hill

published by Kyle Books, £25

We are living in gastronomic end times. Culinary Armageddon is upon us. A chef with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns on his horns emerged from the sea and turned the air into carrot. Then, a chef emerged from the earth having two horns, a head like a lamb, his body as a sheep, a tail like a wolf and feet like a goat, speaking with the voice of a dragon, directed his peers to make an image in homage to the Beast of the Sea on the plates before them, wrought from the very memories of their childhood.

And behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had some oysters and some pearls, though never would he taste them, and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And there went out another horse that was red: and he that sat upon him carried moss and lichen, and there was given unto him a great sword. And lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a citrus based confection that tumbled from his grip. Whoops. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was The Death of Gustatory Ambition, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to cook over open fire the beasts of the earth. And the sun turned black, the moon to blood. The sky receded like a rolled blind and the stars fell to the earth.

But there was a voice of hope.  And I turned to see the voice that spoke to me, his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire. And I saw in the right hand of him a book, 'Salt is Essential'.

It's been 12 long years since Shaun Hill's last book, the baldly titled How to Cook Better. In that time we've seen the weird excesses of molecular gastronomy (in Salt is Essential, Hill reveals he gave the keynote speech at a biennial workshop in Sicily organised by Nicolas Kurti, the Oxford physics professor who coined the term. Heston Blumenthal took Hill's spot the next time around and the rest is history) replaced by locavore fundamentalism which in turn has been usurped by a caveman-like obsession with fire and smoke. In the highest echelons of gastronomy, diners feast upon live insects and plankton.
Malfatti, cooked by Andy Lynes from recipe in Salt is Essential
While all this has been going on, Hill has remained aloof, continuing to cook, first at The Merchant House (click the link for my review from 2002) and then at The Walnut Tree Inn, the sort of food that the practical application of his craft for a mind-boggling 50 years has proved to him to be correct. And now he's distilled some of what he has learnt into the all-too-short 190 pages of Salt is Essential.

Thanks to Kit Chapman's excellent book Great British Chefs published in 1989, I discovered Hill (who was then cooking at Gidleigh Park) early on in my own personal gastronomic journey and have subsequently read virtually everything he's published. Over the years, his understated dry wit and pragmatic approach to his subject have wormed their way into my brain and profoundly influenced how I think, and write about food.

For those not familiar with Hill's take on the world of cooking (I would never accuse him of anything so crass as having a 'philosophy' about food), Salt is Essential provides the perfect primer. This is food writing with an iron back bone and as much attitude as Mark E Smith on an amphetamine jag.  Chapter titles such as 'Creative thinking is a bad idea if you know nothing', 'A well done fillet makes no more sense than an undercooked stew' and 'Soya beans are best left for cattle feed' are clear signals that we're not in Kansas anymore Toto.

In a series of essays and elucidating recipe introductions, Hill combines opinion with practical advice, historical fact with personal anecdote and common sense with hard-earned insight to provide a hugely entertaining and edifying read. So you learn that 'larger eggs have thinner shells and absorb air more quickly. This means that although fresh, they are more likely to lose shape when cooked and the yolks are fragile'; Worcestershire sauce is a cousin of both Thai fish sauce and the ancient Roman sauce garum, all three being made with fermented fish; and that Elizabeth David's ancient precursor was a chap called Archestratus from the fourth century BC who knew all about the best cuts of tuna and 'advised against allowing Italians near your sea bass a they had a tendency to cover the fish with cheese and pickle' (a scholar of Latin, Greek and ancient history, Hill has been an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter and has written several books on ancient food with Professor John Wilkins, including Archestratus: Fragments from the Life of Luxury about the man himself).

As one of the prime movers of the late 80's modern British cooking movement that took inspiration from across the globe, it's no surprise that Hill's recipes cover everything from risotto bianco to  twice baked Lancashire cheese souffl├ęs. Hill is widely travelled with a particular fondness for the Indian subcontinent and his tandoori marinade, made with lots of cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom and cloves is worth the cover price alone.

He also has a particularly good nose for dishes from northern, central and eastern Europe (one of his first jobs was at the Gay Hussar, the famous Hungarian restaurant beloved of politicos in London; his wife Anja is Finnish and has written several books on the food of Finland) such as karjalan piirakka, a rye pastry snack from Eastern Finland, and turos placsinta, sweet cream cheese pancakes from Hungary.

Although a few of the recipes demand a commitment in terms of time, money or concentration (you'll need 3 kilos of veal bones, a kilo of diced beef shin and 12 hours of your life that you'll never get back to make a classic demi glace sauce and just the odd five hours to make Hill's extremely delicious version of baked beans), the vast majority are straightforward yet still likely to expand your culinary repertoire in ways other books might well fail to do. I may not rush to make the Maksalaatikko Finnish pig's liver pudding with lingonberries, but lamb's sweetbread pies; malfatti (ricotta and spinach dumplings) or puntarelle salad with anchovy and garlic dressing? Just try and stop me.

While Salt is Essential is aimed primarily at the home cook, I would implore every young professional cook, dazzled by the glittering parade of over-hyped superstar chefs and their weighty art-wank tomes, to read it. For therein lies your, and the dining public's salvation. Amen.  

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The critical point: Tom Sellers vs Fay Maschler

When I read Fay Maschler's 1 (out of 5) star review of restaurant Ours in the Evening Standard last week, I asked myself a few questions. When you say them out loud, actually how different are the words 'ours' and 'arse'? Is it likely that a restaurant that features a 30 foot catwalk as it's entrance ever going to be anything else other than a magnet for reality TV stars, minor league footballers and low-rent royals? And how the fuck can anyone justify charging 12 quid for one scallop?

I might have been a one man Question Time, but one thing I knew for absolute certain was that Ours's consulting chef Tom Sellers of Michelin-starred Restaurant Story wasn't going to be happy when he'd finished reading the review. And I knew for sure that the one thing I didn't need to see was a smugly passive aggressive 1000 word 'review of the review' by Sellers. Call me a psychic mentalist mind reader with mad telepathic skillz, but when you see phrases like 'weirdly slithery', 'tasteless' and 'mouth-puckering saltiness' used about food, you know the person responsible for cooking it won't be jumping up and down with glee.

Nevertheless, within hours of Maschler's 'Tricky sequel for Sellers' review came Sellers's essay 'Faymous'. Unless Sellers was given a preview of the review, it seems unfair to parse his writing style given that the piece must have been bashed out in a matter of minutes. Whatever the issues with the prose, Sellers's raw emotions come through loud and clear as he picks over Maschler's review like food returned uneaten to a restaurant kitchen.

He regrets that a salmon dish, which he claims was tasted by the critic and which the chef is obviously proud of, is not mentioned. He quibbles over just exactly how a table was assigned to Maschler (she:' I have been recognised. Suddenly there is a table ready'; he: 'the table reserved for your pseudonym was always your table and the delay was due to the staff re-laying it'). He complains that his CV is referred to in the review, even though he has a version of ratatouille by Thomas Keller (one of Sellers's famous mentors, along with Rene Redzepi and, unmentioned by Maschler, Tom Aikens) on his menu, and at a whopping £17 a portion.

On closer examination, there is little of substance in the piece, underlined by the fact that his main bone of contention is that the critic has failed to correctly identify some of the ingredients in an eschabeche of red mullet. Maschler guesses beetroot and red cabbage, Sellers says onion, fennel and purple carrot. Although I did wonder why Maschler didn't check with the kitchen on the ingredients either on the day or by phone later on, Sellers might be better off considering why the flavour of his food can't be detected by a critic of more than 40 years standing and if he needs to do anything to make them more distinct, than pondering whether she had 'eaten out too many times that week, or that day even, and become confused'.

By concentrating on the apparent error, Sellers allows himself to brush aside the actual criticism, that the ingredients, whatever they may have been, were 'dissing what should be a delicate flavour' as Maschler put it, and unbalancing the dish. And by letting a bad review get under his skin, Sellers has also missed two crucial wider points. He might have received plenty of support on Twitter for the piece (just check out his feed at @tomsstory, he's re-tweeted most of it) but 'Faymous' ultimately has brought a great deal more attention to a bad review than it might otherwise have received and his defensive tone has only served to lend weight to Maschler's carps.

The greatest irony however is that Ours is the kind of restaurant that is mostly immune to reviews. The sort of people likely to head to South Kensington for an £8 kale salad or a £10 side order of asparagus have probably never heard of Fay Maschler. Or Tom Sellers. Better that the chef kept a dignified silence or at least appear to take the review on board rather then dismissing it out of hand. 

Although Maschler's visits were both in the first week of trading, the restaurant was charging full price and it would be unlikely that Sellers would have refuted a positive review on the basis that they had only be opened a few days. 'Give us time we are working extremely hard to reach the level we desire' pleaded Sellers in response to a tweet from a paying punter who agreed with Maschler's assessment. But the only way new restaurants can buy time from reviewers and customers alike is with free family and friends nights and reduced price soft opening weeks. That's when mistakes can be legitimately made and compensated for, otherwise chefs and restaurateurs have to accept they are fair game as soon as they start charging full whack.

What is most disturbing about Sellers's riposte is the implication that critics are something the restaurant industry has to endure, like rat infestations or immigration raids, that the award of just one star was somehow invalid because Sellers chose not to accept it. If he's unwilling to accept the judgement, based on two visits, of one of the country's most experienced diners, it makes you wonder how seriously he takes customer complaints. Sellers should be delighted to have been given what is in effect free consultancy (Maschler has been know to charge for the service through the now defunct Private View company she set up in 2008), the pay off being that it was conducted in the full glare of publicity of course.

Does Sellers take no notice of reviews when he's deciding where to dine? Does he never talk critically about meals he's eaten in other chef's restaurants? The truth is that everyone who eats out on a regular basis and cares about food is a critic, whether they are paid for it or not, whether they have a column in a newspaper or just tweet.

Restaurant critics (and critics of any stripe, be it opera, theatre or cinema etc) are not parasites, living off the work of others, taking and not giving anything back. They are part of an essential dialectical relationship that improves the restaurant scene for everyone. You only have to look at London compared to the rest of the UK to see how important that relationship is. There are of course many other factors at play, but I firmly believe that strong critical voices have at the very least speeded up the evolution of the London scene, and that their absence elsewhere in the country is sorely felt.

Although Sellers accuses Maschler of being 'confused', infers that she's weak on detail and lacks passion and quotes cartoon restaurant critic Anton Ego saying that 'the work of critic is easy' (sic), he also claims that his respect for Maschler 'goes beyond description' and hopes to one day enjoy dinner with her. If he isn't being hugely disingenuous and is simply suffering from a little cognitive dissonance (he is, after all, 'just the guy that cooks the food' as it says on his website) , then a Sellers/Maschler summit might not be a bad thing. 

Because there is a real risk that the growing lack of patience displayed by chefs in general with criticism received through sites like Tripadvisor is spilling over to reviews in general and that is a dangerously blinkered attitude to adopt. It's something recently recognised by James Lewis creative director at Gauthier Group who told a Caterer magazine summit that negative reviews provided 'incredible data' that operators should 'relish'

Perhaps a meeting between Sellers and Maschler might begin to mend this apparently broken relationship. Maybe they can work out their differences over a dish of red mullet served with beetroot and red cabbage. And onions, fennel and purple carrot.  

Tuesday, 15 December 2015