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 the-art-facility...it 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?
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