Author Archives: gregwatts1960

Don’t believe all rave reviews

Last night I paid my second visit in a month to a fish and chip restaurant in south-east London that has received rave reviews even though on my previous visit I had been underwhelmed by both the fish (the batter wasn’t crispy and the haddock was so so) and the chips (pale instead of golden and not crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, as they should be).

I had broken one of my golden rules of not going to a place that sold fish and chips along with items on the menu such as burgers, fried chicken and Jamaican patties. Why do this?  If you set out to serve fish and chips, stick to fish and seafood, and cook them perfectly.

But, sadly, the majority of fish and chip shops or restaurants don’t do this. Fish and chips just feels like one of many items, not something special, which is what it should be. I’m not bothered what some people say about chicken tikka masala, this is our national dish.

The reason I decided to give the place in south-east London a second go was because of the friendly staff and friendly owner.  Yet I was still troubled by the number of customers who proclaimed that it served the best fish and chips in London. Perhaps I had caught it on a bad night, I concluded.

So last night I had high expectations when I placed my order. They soon started to disappear when my plate was put down in front of me. True, the haddock was large, but the chips looked just as pale as before. In fact, this time they were worse, because someone hadn’t bothered to cut out the green bits, which leave a bitter taste in the mouth. As for the haddock, it was no better than before and this time, the batter was soggy.

After I had paid and was leaving, the owner called to me. ‘I see, you haven’t eaten much,’ he said.

‘No…I like my chips crispy on the outside and soft inside…And I prefer crispy batter,’ I replied.

‘Well, you know, I only buy the best quality potatoes, but this is the wrong time of the year,’ he said.

‘Ah, I see,’ I said, thinking the poor quality of the chips was to do with the way they had been cooked, not the potatoes.

‘Next time when you come, they will be better,’ he said cheerfully.

‘Okay,’ I said, and went on my way.

I liked the owner and he seemed to genuinely want his customers to have a good experience. I could see he was proud of his restaurant, and I admire that.  But the truth is that while people might tell him online he’s serving great fish and chips, he’s not. Not by my book anyway.

This just goes to show that over 1,000 people on Trip Advisor can be wrong.

Monks take up brewing

 

For hundreds of years, monasteries in Europe have brewed beer. And now a monastery in Leicestershire has become the first one in England to do so since the Reformation.

When the Cistercian monks (known as Trappists) at Mount St Bernard Abbey, near Coleville, realized that dairy farming was no longer economically viable and closed their farm and sold their cows, they needed to come up with another way to support themselves. So they decided to brew beer.

After visiting the eleven Trappist monasteries brewing beer in Europe and the US, the monks at Mount St Bernard engaged a Dutch master brewer as an advisor.

He cautioned against just copying the style of existing Trappist beers, but to create a unique style. The first English Trappist ale, Tynt Meadow, combines the traditions of the continental Trappist brewers with the traditions of English brewing, which is centred on Burton on Trent just 15 miles away.

The monks have received help in brewing from The Pheasantry Brewery in Nottinghamshire, the Charnwood Brewery in nearby Loughborough, the Heritage Brewery at the National Brewery centre in Burton on Trent, the Framework Brewery in Leicester, and the Unicorn Brewery in Stockport.

However, it’s unlikely that the monks will be supping much of their ale themselves – their day begins at 3.15 am and they go to bed at 8 pm.

The Man Behind the Menu – coming soon!

The man who wrote Kitchen Confidential

 

“And in that unforgettably sweet moment, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” that followed – first sex, first joint, first day in high school, first published book – I attained glory.”

So wrote Anthony Bourdain in the first chapter of his best-selling 2000 memoir about what it’s really like to work in New York restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

The news yesterday that he had died aged just 61 shocked me. But what shocked me even more was that it he had committed suicide. It seems he had hung himself.

He was found in his hotel room in the village of Kaysersberg in the Alsace region of France by friend and celebrity chef Eric Ripert.  The two of them were there to film a TV series.

Bourdain, like Keith Floyd, Marco Pierre White, Rick Stein and others, played a huge part in making cooking attractive and food, to quote Bourdain again, “something other than a substance one stuffed into one’s face when hungry – like filling up at a gas station”.

I must have read Kitchen Confidential a dozen times. It’s not just a fantastic book about what goes on in professional kitchens. It’s also brilliantly written. Indeed, that first chapter, where he travels to France as a child with his parents, is a masterclass in writing the opening to a memoir. He says so much in so few words and provides such sensual and evocative images.

After the phenomenal success of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain quit working as a chef and embarked on a writing and TV career.  He published follow-up books to Kitchen Confidential and also novels and made a string of TV shows, which often saw him in some far flung corner of the world eating sheep’s testicles or ants’ eggs.

I have to confess that I never found his TV programmes as engaging as those of Keith Floyd or Rick Stein. I felt Bourdain lacked their warmth and humour. I don’t think he was  a natural in front of the camera. Nevertheless, the programmes were hugely popular.

But it’s Kitchen Confidential I shall always remember him for. I end with another quote.  “They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s, while outside, in the nearly unmanned kitchen, orders spewed out of the chattering printer and were ignored.”

Another of my favourite writers died recently, Tom Wolfe. He was 88 and died of natural causes. The manner of Bourdain’s death is deeply sad. Despite all his success and, as he once said, being paid loads of money to travel around the world and do anything he wanted, away from the TV cameras, he must have been deeply troubled and in lots of emotional pain. Throughout much of his life he had battled with various demons. This demons hadn’t gone away, it seems.

Anthony Bourdain, rest in peace.

The Man Behind the Menu

My first novel, The Man Behind the Menu, will be published in the next few weeks.

It’s  a satire on the world of celebrity chefs and the often crazy London restaurant scene.

Writing it has been both hard and fun. It’s been hard because, like any first time novelist, you have to grapple with developing characters, creating a plot, coming up with sharp dialogue, and fleshing out your themes. At times, trying to master all these things has felt overwhelming, and more than once I was tempted to give up.

Yet there have been moments when writing it has been great fun when I’ve allowed my imagination to run riot and lampoon some of the aspects of celebrity culture and the hospitality business.

 

 

 

Rick Stein in Barnes – only six chips!

I couldn’t believe my eyes when the waiter put the plate of cod and chips down in front of me. There were just six chips!  I counted again…one…three…six. And I wasn’t at any old restaurant or gastro pub; I was at Rick Stein in Barnes.

I had been planning to go to Rick Stein’s London restaurant ever since it opened last summer.  So when my daughter landed a new job, I figured this would be a great way to celebrate it. Like me, she loves fish and seafood, and the go to man for this is Rick Stein, one of my food heroes.

Trying to find quality fish and chips in London is a task that requires much investigation and dedication, as so many places get this essentially simple dish so wrong.  When I walked into Rick Stein’s Barnes restaurant, I felt I was in for a real treat.

Six chips. You can’t get stingier than that. Potatoes are…well, as cheap as chips to buy. I thought rationing had disappeared in the 1950s.

Only the day before, I had watched an episode of Rick’s Seafood Odyssey where he tucked into a huge plate of cod and chips in Whitby, pronouncing this classic British dish as one of the best anywhere in the world.

So why do customers at his Barnes restaurant get only six chips? And why was the portion of cod only half a fillet, not a whole one? It was only fractionally bigger than the cod my eight-year-old son had from the children’s menu.  What’s more the batter was not crispy and golden, like it should be. The chips were good, but not outstanding.

Six chips and half a cod fillet for nearly £17! My daughter, who had also ordered cod and chips, and is a Rick Stein fan, too, was equally aghast.

And it wasn’t just the portion sizes that were lacking at the restaurant.  My son’s calamari came with bean sprouts and courgettes.  The dish was bland and, what’s more, not suitable for a children’s menu. My son loves rings of calamari fried in a light batter, like he has when he goes to a branch of Ask.  My wife’s brill was okay, but nothing special.

The service could best be described as hit and miss.  Many of the waiters and waitresses seemed to wander around with tunnel vision, as if they had been instructed to avert their eyes from the customers.

My wife had to stand up and wave, like someone stranded on a desert island signalling to a passing ship, to ask for the children’s menu.  The waiter had forgotten it, just as he had forgotten to bring the vinegar.

Rick Stein faces the same problem as any restaurant: how to find the right calibre staff.  Many restaurants are so desperate to fill their rota that they will employ virtually anyone. In fact, when my daughter was looking for world, she had applied to do some casual shifts at Rick Stein, Barnes. She told me the pay was the National Minimum Wage, which means the same as McDonald’s. The words monkeys and peanuts comes to mind.

However, there were some positives at Rick Stein, Barnes.. The bread was delicious and the mushy peas very good. The Cornish lager was outstanding, and had a wonderful fruity-creamy flavour.

After we left the restaurant, with me shaking my head and chuntering, ‘Only six chips!’, we popped into The Red Lion in Barnes. I ordered the drinks, and while I waited, four different bar staff asked me if I had been served.  The guy who served me said my daughter’s Rose was on the house, as it was the last of the bottle and not a full measure.

When we sat down, I looked across at a family at the next table and, with envy, saw a generous bowl of golden chips.

If someone blindfolded you and took you to Rick Stein in Barnes, you would assume you were in a typical gastro pub restaurant, not in a place that carries the name of a man who should be the real business when it comes to fish and chips.

Rick Stein is still one of my food heroes. I can watch his TV programmes time and time again. He has a wonderful way of making you feel you are there with him as he travels around the world trying different dishes and talking to chefs And what I also love is the way he brings in a country’s history and culture, and often reads aloud a quote about a particular place from a famous author.

But Six chips…I still can’t believe it.

The allergy myth

 

This whole allergy thing with food seems to be getting out of hand. It seems that half the country is now allergic to some food or other.

The pizza and pasta chain Ask, for example, provides a chart of all its dishes, listing whether they might contain products that could affect people who claim to have allergies. There’s fourteen products listed!  Apart from the usual suspects, the chart also lists celery, mustard, and sesame.

When I was growing up, I don’t recall many people having allergies to certain foods. And restaurants or café menus never had an allergen code.

So this all seems to be a relatively recent thing. And I suspect it’s a trend just in some in affluent Western societies.

Yes, there are people with genuine allergies, but they are very few.

I can’t help but wonder if all these claims to be allergic to eggs or gluten is to do with all this nonsense about clean eating, free from, veganism and all that guff we hear about in some sections of the media.

Or perhaps it’s also to do with attention seeking. Or wanting to claim some kind of moral superiority or quasi religious status. Jews only eat kosher food and Muslims only eat hal al.  So your middle class hipster will only eat some version of free from.

My son’s school bans nuts. Now, there might well be a pupil who is allergic to nuts. But why should all the other pupils not be allowed to take a bar containing nuts in their packed lunch when they go on a school trip? That is…just…nuts.

Jay Rayner wrote an all-guns-blazing piece about food intolerances in The Guardian some years ago. He wrote:

So where has this trend come from? My suspicion is that today’s food excluders were yesterday’s picky eaters, the tiresome little brats who, as children, spat out everything put their way with a shout of ‘I don’t like it!’ Now they have grown up but their palates haven’t. In this ego-centred age, they have been given license to come up with a bunch of excuses, wrapped in the language of pseudo science, excused by pompous and spurious claims to the moral, religious or ethical high ground, when really all they are actually saying is: ‘I still don’t like it!’ Of course any lactose-intolerant, peanut-allergic, kosher-keeping, food-combining, coeliac vegetarians who want to debate this with are most welcome to do so (if they’ve got the energy). One thing is certain though: we’re not going to be doing it over dinner.

 I think he’s spot on. There’s confusion about being intolerant to a certain kind of find and simply not just liking it.

And that’s the problem nowadays if you invite a group of people to dinner. You can’t assume they will all eat everything.

 

 

No such thing as a fifteen-minute meal

 

It’s struck me recently that one of the hardest parts of cooking at home is not the prep or the actual cooking, but the washing up.

In my teens I worked as a pot washer and occasionally a kitchen porter in a three-star hotel in Derbyshire. Both jobs are seen as at the bottom of the ladder in the kitchen hierarchy.

Pot washing was monotonous, shoving trays of crockery through a steamer, stacking them to dry and then shelving them.

But being a kitchen porter was much more physically demanding, scrubbing heavy saucepans, cleaning working surfaces, cleaning the walk-in fridge, mopping the floor, taking heavy bags of rubbish out to the bins.

As a home cook, you are both pot washer and kitchen porter.

I try and wash up as I cook, but even so at the end of an evening the sink and work surface are littered with pans, dishes, knives, spatulas, spoons, peelers, and all manner of items. I look around me and say to myself, ‘How on earth did all this happen?’

This is what you don’t see when you watch Jamie’s Fifteen-Minute Meals. The fact is there’s no such thing as a fifteen-minute meal.

Good restaurants and bad restaurants

 

One of the things that sets a good restaurant apart from a bad one is how it handles a complaint from a customer. Good restaurants take complaints seriously; bad restaurants do nothing about the complaint.

I made a complaint this week when I went with my wife to Hisar Meze Bar, a Turkish restaurant in East Dulwich.  The evening started well with an excellent plate of lamb’s liver and decent if not outstanding borek (filo parcels with feta and parsley). However, a trip to the gents set alarm bells ringing. A clean and well maintained toilet is usually a sign of a good restaurant. This one was neither clean or well maintained.

We had both expected the sish lamb to be extremely tender. Lamb is, after all, a speciality in Turkish restaurants.  But when it arrived it turned out to be incredibly fatty. We called a waitress over and asked for a sharper knife. Actually, I was going to ask for a hacksaw. She returned with a new knife, but never thought to enquire why the knife on the table wasn’t sharp enough.

But it wasn’t just the sish lamb that left me regretting we had paid £28 for the two dishes. The salad appeared to have been dumped from a great height on the plate. It had been put together with little thought about presentation. I located a large white object in the salad. My wife suggested this might be a horseradish. The chips were dry and pale, probably because they had been sitting in the kitchen for ages, and the yogurt (£2.50) tasted of nothing.

I pushed my plate away, having only eaten a few morsels.

‘Is everything okay?’ asked a waiter.

‘The lamb was very fatty,’ I said.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll tell the chef,’ he replied casually.

Ten minutes later another waiter asked if everything was okay.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘The lamb was so fatty. I told your colleague that.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said with no real concern, and wandered off. He obviously had the same script.

Neither waiter returned, the chef never appeared, and we weren’t offered an alternative dish or a reduction on the bill.

We paid up, didn’t leave a tip, and decided we wouldn’t be returning to Hisar Meze Bar ever again.

Good restaurants understand that you can turn a complaint into something positive if you take a customer’s complaint seriously and do something about it. If you do this, the customer is likely to go away feeling disgruntled and ripped off. An apology with no action means nothing.

Bad restaurants just want to take your money and don’t understand that a restaurant is about creating an enjoyable experience for the customer, who has decided to spend his or her hard earned money in your establishment, not somewhere else. A really good experience means good food and good service (and not lip service).  Good restaurants know this.

Britain isn’t a foodie culture

 

You can get the impression that the quality of food in Britain we eat has changed beyond recognition in the last twenty years or so.  This is especially true if you live in London, with its dynamic restaurant scene and where farmers’ markets and posh butchers and delis have sprung up all over the place.

Yet if you travel beyond it’s a very different story.  A couple of years ago I was with my wife and son in a popular tourist town in Derbyshire, and the choice of places to eat came down to dingy looking fish and chips shops, pubs with confused looking menus, and a solitary pizza restaurant. We opted for the pizza restaurant – it was awful.

Michelin star chef Angela Hartnett, a protégée of Gordon Ramsey and the former head chef at the Connaught, has come to a similar conclusion about the foodie culture in the country.

When people say we are a “foodie nation, we have a food culture, I genuinely don’t think we do”, Hartnett told BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.

“I don’t think we’re like the Italians or the Spanish, where everyone from the person who lives in one flat to the person who lives in a villa will go and buy a chicken and everyone can afford that chicken. Our food culture is about money. People who have money can afford good food in this country.”

Hartnett went on to say it was wrong to patronise people on low incomes about organic food.

“When you haven’t got any money and you’re living on a low income, to patronise and sit there and say, ‘You’ve got to have an organic chicken’ is wrong. We’ve lost home economics in a lot of schools. People aren’t taught to shop. People don’t have the time to shop and the time to cook.”

I think she is bang on. There are too many chefs and food bloggers who live in a culinary bubble.  I recall Rick Stein once saying something to that effect.

The irony is that we have more cook books and TV cookery programmes than ever, yet for many people, despite Jamie Oliver’s best attempts, cooking still means sticking a supermarket ready means in the microwave.

Learning to make pizza

I’ve made pizza  a few times at home, but never been completely satisfied with the results. So -thanks to my wife – I went along to a pizza workshop at Bread Ahead in Pavillion Road in Chelsea.

It was a brilliant class. The instructor, Kevin, a Yorkshireman who learnt all about baking when he spent three years in the south of France, took us through all the steps in the pizza process. Once we had made the dough, he showed us how to stretch it by repeatedly slapping it hard on the table for about 8 minutes.

Something I hadn’t heard of before in pizza making was poolish, a mixture of water, sea salt, flour and yeast. It’s known in bakery terms as a starter, a term associated with sour dough, and is made the day before and then added to your dough mix. Also, Kevin used strong white bread flour, not 00 flour.

The pizza turned out to have  lovely chewy texture, which I assume was down to the poolish. We also made garlic dough balls and grissini (bread sticks), which were both equally good.

What I came away with more than anything was confidence. I’ve always found this is what cookery classes give you.  When you see  a professional make something in the kitchen, it demystifies the process and you think, “Yeah, you know, actually it’s not that difficult.”  And pizza isn’t. It only has four ingredients plus whatever toppings you decide to use.

So I’ll now be making pizza regularly at home. And I’ll enjoy slapping the dough.


Rick Stein discovers Mexican food

As presenters of TV food shows go, Rick Stein is a rarity.  His style is thoughtful, reflective, never over the top, and never all about him.  It’s the cuisine and the culture he wants us to focus on.

HIs latest TV series sees him journeying from California to Mexico. The last time he had been in Mexico was nearly 50 years ago.  I’ve see three episodes so far and they have been wonderful.

You always feel you are there with Stein as he make this way through a crowded food market or tastes a dish in a restaurant.  You can tell that some of the dishes he tastes leave him underwhelmed, but he’s too polite to say that to the chef or restaurant owner.  Instead he’ll say, “Yes, it’s very good”, or just nod.

There’s a humility and an almost child-like quality in Stein as he goes on his travels. He maybe a famous TV chef and personality, but he comes to discover and learn something new from the people he meets. He treats someone cooking hearty comfort food in a tiny kitchen in a back street somewhere or in their home with the same respect as a Michelin star chef at a fancy restaurant.

In episode three he journeyed to a trendy restaurant called in Taqueria Criollo in the coastal city of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where he met Tania Ganja and Memo Barrett and tried crispy tacos filled with mashed potatoes and crowned with shrimp aguachile and watermelon escabeche. “Seafood tacos for the social media generation,” he remarked in typical Stein fashion.