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.