Tag Archives: chefs

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.

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.


Meeting the Arzaks in San Sebastian

On my recent trip to San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country, I met a legend of Spanish gastronomy, Juan Mari Arzak, regarded as one of the world’s top chefs. I called unannounced to present him with a copy of my new book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.

He’s seventy-four and he’s still cooking in the kitchen at his restaurant, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 1989, a time when Spanish cuisine was still struggling to make a name for itself. He has been at the forefront of what has been called the new Spanish cuisine, taking traditional ingredients and dishes and adapting them.

His daughter Elena, an equally talented chef, works in the kitchen with him, overseeing a team of 30, which includes 10 interns from various parts of the world.


I wanted to know if Juan Mari was still as passionate about cooking as when he began his career.

“Yes! When I can’t sleep I sometimes think up new recipes,” he said.


He has a laboratory at the restaurant, which has over 1,000 plastic containers, each with a different ingredient. It’s here that Juan Mari, Elena, and their team

Come up with ideas such as sardine and strawberry, squid with banana, and chistorra with beer and mango.

They might sound odd combinations, but having tried all of them I can say that they were absolutely delicious.


Elena has received many offers to do TV shows, but she isn’t interested in them.

“I don’t want to be on TV,” she said. “I don’t like it. I prefer to be cooking in the kitchen.”

She also receives many invitations to attend conferences. In the next few weeks she is off to New York, Istanbul, and Milan.


What struck me about the Arzak restaurant is that it is a family business with a deep sense of tradition and views the team as part of the family. In one of the wine rooms is part of a tree and a bottle of wine dating back to 1897 when his grandparents opened the restaurant. Several of the kitchen staff have worked there over 30 years.  Two remarkable chefs and  a remarkable restaurant.

Interview with Alberto Crisco


Clink restaurant

Spanish chef Alberto Crisco tells me he believes learning to cook can prevent prisoners reoffending. That’s why he set up The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton and in three other prisons. 

 What has been your proudest moment at The Clink and why?

My proudest moment was the day we opened in 2009. It was the culmination of four years planning and overcoming many hurdles. The look on the prisoners’ faces when they arrived for work was inspiring. They were so proud to be training in The Clink.

The Clink is such a brilliant idea. Why do you think it has not been taken up by more prisons?

The Clink currently operates in four prisons with two more in the pipeline as well as a gardening project and Clink Events which caters for clients in and around the M25. Clink Events also offers ex-offenders and homeless young people from the Centrepoint charity the opportunity to work and train with The Clink.

Typically, how many prisoners would be working in a kitchen at any one time?

We train 30 prisoners at any one time in the restaurants. This is split between the kitchen (professional cookery diploma) and the restaurant (food service diploma).

Who provides the training and how?

The Clink is a registered training centre with City & Guilds and we employ professional staff who are accredited assessors to deliver the training.

What are some of the challenges of running a kitchen in prison?

All tools, including knives, must be accountable at all times and must be locked away when not in use. If a tool goes missing then a full search is carried out by security until it is found. Prisoners that you have trained to a high standard being transferred without warning can be very frustrating. At the end of the day you are working in a prison first and a kitchen second.

What led you to The Clink?

I wanted to combine high quality training in a real work environment, break down barriers that existed with the employment of ex-offenders and also change the public perception of rehabilitating prisoners. To open a training restaurant that employers and the public could dine in made perfect sense to me.

How does a kitchen at The Clink compare to those at some of the restaurants you’ve cooked in?

A kitchen in The Clink is no different to any other I have worked in. Hard graft, teamwork and dedication are all essential.

How Spanish cuisine features on the menu at The Clink?

Our menus are typically modern British but with influences from around the world. All our menus feature seasonal and local produce. We don’t have any Spanish dishes on the current menu but ajo blanco (a chilled soup made with almonds) has featured previously and we make our own membrillo (quince jelly) that we sell by the jar and serve with the cheese board.  We always have a homemade pasta dish on the menu as a result of my Italian heritage. The prisoners are all classically trained so making fresh pasta, bread and stocks is second nature.

What food do you recall from your childhood?

My fondest memories of my mother’s home cooking has to be homemade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and served with tomato, basil and lots of Parmesan. Beef olives are also braised slowly in the pasta sauce as this gives the sauce a very rich flavour. Serve the hot beef olives with green salad and crusty fresh bread.

When did you first think of becoming a chef?

When I was still at school I used to work weekends for my uncle as he was head chef for Trusthouse Forte at Heathrow Airport. I went to catering college when I left school and have never looked back.

Have you any idea how many of your students at The Clink have gone on to work in catering and hospitality after prison?

We have placed approximately 200 into jobs that we have arranged and aim to release 1,000 graduates into employment each year by the end of 2020, providing we hit our target of having 10 prisoner training schemes in operation – we’re currently at six.

To book a table at The Clink Restaurant please visit theclinkcharity.org.





10 best books about chefs and restaurants

Anthony Bourdain

If you are looking for a good book to provide an insight into the world of restaurants and cooking, then here are my top ten suggestions.

1.Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Hold tight for this journey into the dark underbelly of restaurant kitchens.

2. Alex Watts, Down and Out in Padstow and London

What happens when a journalist gets bored with churning out stories about celebs and decided he wants to be  a chef?

3. Bill Burford, Heat

How about taking a year out and learning to cook like a professional?

4. Marco Pierre White, The Devil in the Kitchen

What drives a chef to want three Michelin stars?

5. Rick Stein, Under a Mackerel Sky

How does someone who ran a nightclub and drifted around Australia become one of the country’s most popular TV chefs?

6. Keith Floyd, Stirred but not Shaken

It all began in a Bristol bistro. The ups and many downs of a legend. Cheers, Floyd.

7. Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

A chef goes off around the world seeking new food experiences

8. Michael Ruhlman, The Making of a Chef

A behind the scenes look at the Culinary Institute of America.

9. Joe Bastianich, Restaurant Man

Want to know how to run a good restaurant?

10. Pru Leith, Relish

The woman behind Leith’s School of Food and Wine

A chef in search of perfection

The film Burnt has received a panning by most of the critics, but I loved it. It’s the story of a chef who, having conquered the inner demons that destroyed his glittering career in Paris, comes to London, gets a job in a top restaurant, and is determined to win three Michelin stars.

The film opens with the central character Adam Jones, played by the excellent Bradley Cooper, shucking oysters in a restaurant kitchen in New Orleans and recording the number he in a notebook. When he reaches a million he walks out of the restaurant, his self-imposed penance for his drug and alcohol abuse completed.

When he arrives in London, Tony, his former maitre d’, played by Daniel Brühl, reluctantly takes him on as the head chef of his white table restaurant.

He assembles a hot team of chefs and sets out on his Michelin goal. If you’ve ever read Marco Pierre White’s Devil in the Kitchen or Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, you’ll know what to expect in the kitchen. It’s all here: ego, shouting, plates being flung at kitchen walls, staff being publicly humiliated. “Speak to the turbot, not me!” he tells Helene, a talented chef, played by Sienna Miller, after she makes an error cooking her fish.

The film showed how some chefs can become obsessed with achieving three Michelin stars and be filled with jealousy and almost hatred for rival chefs who have already pulled this off. Cooking becomes not so much about making the customers happy but more about pleasing the restaurant critics and Michelin inspectors.

When Adam refuses to give Helene half a day off for her daughter’s birthday, she brings her to the restaurant and Tony looks after her. Tony comes into the kitchen and tells Adam to bake her a cake. Adam thinks he must be joking. He’s chasing Michelin stars. He can’t be bothered with making cakes for children. “You’re a chef, aren’t you? So bake her a cake,” orders Tony. Adam goes into the restaurant and presents the little girl with the cake, asking her what she thinks of it.  After taking a slice, she says, “I’ve tasted better.” She’s doesn’t care about Michelin stars, just a nice cake. Adam has been brought down to earth by a child.

With Gordon Ramsey, Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali all having a hand in the film we can be sure that what we see in the kitchen of a top restaurant is accurate.

Burnt might not get an Oscar nomination, but it was a gripping and fascinating portrayal of the life of a chef and the search for perfection. And I came away from the cinema wondering why it is that we haven’t had more films about chefs. If you want drama, then you’ll often find plenty of it in a professional kitchen.