Sunday, April 19, 2009

Coq Au Van: In Defence Of Gordon Ramsay

I was about to begin my post, telling you how many of the dishes at the Fat Duck were cooked using the ‘boil-in-the-bag’ sous vide method. I was about to tell you how the vac-packed salmon fillet was dipped in a liquorice gel, which set at around 89C, so it stayed solid when gently poached in the water bath.

I was about to tell you how Heston Blumenthal claims the method helps preserve the natural flavours and colours, and manipulates the chemical make-up of the proteins, starches and fats to create new textures and flavours.

I was about to tell you how the process was championed by masterchefs like Ferran Adriá (who tricks people with his ‘caviar’ – it might look just like osetra, but it is made of squid ink and calcium chloride) and Thomas Keller (who compresses watermelon and poached lobster in a vac-pack machine with exquisite results).

I was about to give you my penny’s worth on how the trendy sous vide method (French for ‘under vacuum’) has had the biggest single effect on professional cooking since Escoffier himself. And I was about to ponder how long it would be before every gadget-crazed foodie has a vac-pack machine gathering dust with the pasta machines and bread makers at the back of the cupboard...

But then I got distracted by The Sun and the Daily Mail, and their hatchet job on Gordon Ramsay. The charge? Using ‘boil-in-the-bag’ food in his three gastropubs and Foxtrot Oscar, his bistro in Chelsea.

With typical ‘rip off Britain’ histrionics, the papers worked themselves into a self-righteous frenzy over how the celebrity chef’s hoodwinked customers are served pre-prepared meals produced by a central supplier, and delivered by Transit van.

The meals – dishes like pork belly, coq au vin (coq au van, geddit!) and braised pig’s cheeks – are then heated up in a pan of boiling water, and passed off as ‘freshly made’. But it doesn’t stop there.The food is sold for up to six times its cost price (Exhibit A, your Honour, a fishcake made in Mr Ramsay’s central prep room - a place near “railway arches and a council estate in Clapham” no less - costs £1.92 to make, and sells for up to £11.25 on the menu).

The reports then hammer home Ramsay’s devilish two-facedness by quoting him from past interviews saying stuff like “my food hell is any ready meal” and examples of him slagging off British roadside restaurants for heating up pre-prepared meals rather than making it fresh there on the premises.

The Mail gives its outrage a stamp of culinary authenticity by getting rent-a-quote food critic Richard Harden to slam Ramsay for his shameless hypocrisy by pointing out how the chef has always stressed the importance of freshly-cooked ingredients. Then others line up – Jamie Oliver, Shaun Hill, Lindsey Bareham – to put the boot in.

A spokesman for Ramsay defends his sous vide cooking, saying: “The central kitchen is a state-of just happens to be off-site.” He points out that the food is still “freshly prepared”.

And this, in my humble opinion, is what it is all about.

Given the way The Sun and the Mail presented the story, the reader would be forgiven for assuming Ramsay was buying lasagne ready meals from Tesco, removing them from their plastic trays, and then passing them off as his own. And judging by the readers’ comments many of them did.

But all of this shows a complete lack of understanding of professional cooking, and the need to get meals out quickly to waiting customers. What is freshly prepared anyway? Every kitchen I have ever been in makes much of its food in advance - from the meat jus in top French restaurants, to red sauce in Italian restaurants, to vac-packed lobster portions at The Dorchester, to containers of curry sauce filling up the fridges in Indian restaurants.

There are a few restaurants that make risotto from scratch each time, but these are the exception – even the best restaurants partially cook the rice in advance, then finish it off when the order comes in.

The simple truth is anything that takes a long time to cook is done in advance. When you order slow-roasted pork belly, lamb shank, or braised pig’s cheek, do you really expect a chef to start chopping the mirepoix, frying it off, cooking off the wine and gently stewing the meat for the next three hours?

And why stop there? The bacon in the coq au vin, for instance. Should that not have been cured in the kitchen while you sit there waiting for your meal? And the pig – surely that should have been freshly killed on the premises?

Restaurants like the Fat Duck, Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant, and Ramsay’s gastropubs use prep rooms because their kitchens are too small. The fact the food was made off the premises is irrelevant – it’s the quality and freshness of the ingredients that count.

Ramsay’s spokesman points out that the ‘ready meals’ are made in a “Gordon Ramsay kitchen run by Gordon Ramsay chefs cooking Gordon Ramsay food”. Food miles and environmental concerns aside, does it really matter that it was cooked on the other side of London?

As I have written about in recent blogs, much of the Fat Duck food is made in a prep room 100 yards or so from the restaurant. Should we not also be attacking Blumenthal over this abominable revelation? Does the fact the food is carried over the road by chefs rather than delivered in refrigerated vans make any difference? Interestingly, Harden is quoted as saying: “There is normally nothing wrong with prep kitchens except I am not sure there has ever been a prep kitchen that gets top class standards." Doesn’t he consider the three-starred Fat Duck top class then? Are those hundreds of chefs and critics who voted it the second best restaurant in the world wrong?

Of course, none of this outrage is about the horrors of ‘boil-in-the-bag’ cooking at all. It’s about the growing witch-hunt against Ramsay, and the ‘build them up then knock them down’ schadenfreude so enjoyed by the British press.

For years the famously litigious cook has managed to side-step press attacks through clever means, which for legal reasons I can’t go into, but now his number appears to be up. He has spread himself too thin, been far too ubiquitous on our screens, and now newspaper editors have decided enough is enough.

Of course, Ramsay’s plight was not helped by one of his assistant managers telling the undercover reporter who broke the story that the food is “definitely” freshly made on the premises. Thus giving legs to the 'expose'.

But the moral justification for the slur – which is so important for amoral tabloids – came after he was exposed in the News of the World for allegedly cheating on his wife, and was then subsequently accused of exaggerating his football career.

With the same relish they greeted the collapse of celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson’s overstretched restaurant business, the papers have lovingly imparted every detail of Ramsay’s unravelling empire, from the forced sales of restaurants abroad, to flogging his beloved Ferrari for a £50,000 loss.

But it begs the question are we just watching the spud-faced bully finally getting his comeuppance, or is this part of a broader mood that finally spells the end of the celebrity chef culture?

:: Got an opinion on this...please spare a moment and leave a comment below, go on - it'd be nice to hear from you...


Geraldine Duncan said...

Another great blog! Damn right Lennie - what do professional food writers like R Harden know anyway. Most of them couldn't cook a McMuffin.

Kavey said...

Exactly my responses (which were shouted, loudly and for quite some time, in full rant mode, at absolutely no-one, since I learned of the story at home).

Melinda said...

Personally, you'd think that it would be a good thing that the food is prepared in a clean and controlled environment. But, this matters little to the papers.(hey, aren't you a hack?)
The knives are out for anyone these days.
I can only hope that we won't be seeing photographs of Gordon's cellulite as he plays on the beach in Brighton, splashed all over 'Heat' magazine or similar! His modeling career will be over for sure. ha!

Seymour Chef said...

Well said Lennie. It was interesing that they even made a point of the fact that Gordon sells them for more that he buys them for. I think the business princple is called...profit!!
And the Sun tried to hide the fact that the prep room was owned by Gordon until about halfway through the double page article. Why do the papers love to knock down successful people?

Lennie Nash said...


Great minds hey! Thanks for your comments. Do you mean no-one listened to your rant?


Lennie Nash said...

Hi there Melinda,

How the devil are you? Quite agree, I imagine Heat are dispatching freelance paps to Brighton beach as we speak, although I reckon Ramsay is more of a St Lucia man.

Yes, I am a hack and have suffered the sleepless nights of many in my trade, but I only lasted one day at The Sun and two at the Mail if that says anything about my conscience...


Lennie Nash said...

Exactly Seymour!

The media are now attacking Ramsay after his flagship restaurant fell out of Restaurant Magazine's top 50.

I don't think he helped himself with his comments about it though. In fact I'm about to write a blog post about this now..


theundergroundrestaurant said...

The people from Tonight ITV came to my home restaurant on Saturday.
They are also going to 'expose' Gordon Ramsey on May 1st, smuggling out his food in Tupperware to show to the public..."would you pay 70 quid for this?"
Of course the general public will say no.
I do think Ramsey et als restaurants are too expensive, part of the bankers on expenses type culture that has been rife the last few years and is now collapsing. But seeing the amount of work and non-existant profit margins that I have with the Underground Restaurant gives me new respect for commercial 'overground' restaurants.
I'd love to eat at Ramseys, will probably never be able to afford to, and that is a bit of a shame though isn't it?
Food and eating out should be democratic...

Jayfleur said...

I bloody hate the Daily Mail; it's far more dangerous than the Sun because it actually thinks it's intellectual. The British public can be so mindless at times - it's about time people grew half a brain and got an opinion of their own rather than being spoonfed by the press.

Can you tell I was also on my own when I read the articles?!

Jane Wightman said...

As with most newspapers these days, why let the actual facts get in the way of a ripping exposé?
Not surprising to see that the "tall poppy" syndrome is alive and well in the UK too...

Bjørn-Tore Almås said...

Hey there Lennie! Great post,
and I totally agree with every single thing.

Would love to see the media print that clarification ... hah! doubt it :)

Good luck, and keep writing that good article/posts of yours.

Lennie Nash said...

Hi MsMarmitelover,

Interesting news from your Underground Restaurant. Sounds pretty desperate the ITV 'expose'.

Made me smile yesterday at work to find a film crew in my work canteen filming a producer putting 'Ramsay boil-in-the-bag scandal' newspaper cuttings in a pan of boiling water.

"Great shot," the cameraman said. "I'll never be able to eat there again!"

It all looked very overdone.

As for the restaurant trade, yes, long hours and little money. Can be done though, seen many people make a fortune even in these tough times. But they were just out for profit, and couldn't really care about the food.

In my experience (and there are no doubt many exceptions), the better the restaurant the less the profit. Must be why Ramsay spends so much time on TV.


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Jayfleur,

Great name! Hear what you're saying. Spoonfed indeed.

All the best


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Jane,

Damn right. Which chefs are the Oz press attacking at the moment? Love your blog by the way.


Lennie Nash said...

Hi Bjorn,

Thanks for your kind feedback. No balance at all in those newspaper articles, but as the old saying goes - why let the facts get in the way of a 'good story'.

Best wishes


Kate said...

Another example of scapegoating, perhaps? ... as described by Girard's theory of the mechanism ... "Aware of a lack within ourselves, we look to others to teach us what to value and who to be" (ie. 'imitation'). Then we become rivals: when "two hands reach for the same object simultaneously, conflict cannot fail to result." Then we lose sight of the object that initiated our rivalry. Order is only restored when a number of people join together as a community to punish an otherwise innocent scapegoat through acts of sanctioned violence. Think Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana ... the Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca.

Anyway .. who was it said that you wait for ages for a bus and then two come along at the same time? They could have been talking about blog posts ;-) .

Jane Wightman said...

Thanks Lennie - I thoroughly enjoy your blog!!
Perhaps the Aus media rely too heavily on our local gastronomes... they aren't targeting anyone specifically at present, but they get on the band-waggon viz Gordon, Nigella et al
Until they become bigger than Ben Hur, they are more supportive of Aus talent - or maybe it's just the editors who have (slightly) more sense than the journos who may want to slate our local chefs

Some Chilean Woman said...

Confession -I am addicted to Kitchen Nightmares, thank god for BBC America! Having said that, I love this post.

rokinronda said...

25 years as a server, with the last 15 in an exceptional ocean front dining room has enlightened my fascination of Hells Kitchen. I am now 5 years out and wishing I could pass my expertise of front of the house fine dining etiquette around. I now live in central Florida and am hoping someone influential will take heed of my concerns of both sides of the house working together for guaranteed restaurant success!!!! Or I may just finish my book. The Restaurant Diaries, by The Waitress My nickname was started at a restaurant 30 years ago and I still ROK!

Glenn said...

And the same food writers will be going nuts over sous vide cooking in 2010.

In Australia all we need is a Masterchef episode dedicated to it and the vac pack machine will be the biggest thing to hit wedding registries since the La Crueset pot thingy.

Manoj Singal said...
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