Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm A Celebrity Chef...Get Me Out Of Here!

And so the celebrity chef cull continues...

The latest to bite the dust is John Burton Race. Remember him? You know, the guy who made a tit of himself on ITV reality show I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here, stuffing himself on kangaroo testicles and other nasties, and falling out with ex-supermodel Janice Dickinson.

You know, you’ve seen him, the guy who had that programme set in France when his kids kept turning their noses up at his cooking. It was back in the early noughties, some time, right at the reality TV peak when you could pitch an idea about living in a septic tank with a load of conger eels and some commissioning editor from the Beeb or Channel Four would bite your hand off.

No? Jesus...

The guy who’s just signed a deal with some Kent pubs. You’ve seen him, he still runs a Michelin star restaurant in Devon. The New Angel. Gordon Ramsay tried to buy it off him for a knock-down price, wanted something that he wouldn’t have to do much to, apparently, just parachute his staff in and get cooking the next day. Long way to drive to drop off the boil-in-the-bag meals, mind...

Well, anyway, the poor sod (Burton Race not Ramsay – hold that thought) has only gone and gone bankrupt. Was it the recent divorce? Was it greedy pensioners quibbling over prices at his Dartmouth restaurant?

Was it the fact he’s not on TV much anymore? Probably. After all, there’s not much lucre to be had running restaurants, not compared to a nice fly-on-the-wall in France or a string of book deals. Why do you think sleb chefs are never in the kitchen anymore?

Burton Race, 52, reportedly made the application just two months after his ex-wife Kim was herself made bankrupt after an application to the High Court from a creditor who was owed £15,000.

It means his assets are effectively frozen, and creditors will have to apply to an insolvency practitioner to be paid.

After walking out on his wife and their six kids, and moving in with mistress Suzi Ward a couple of years ago, he was forced to sell the New Angel after it famously closed with debts of £1m when he was filming I'm a Celebrity in Australia.

But he is now back working there as head chef, after it was bought out by his friend, internet millionaire Clive Jacobs.

Burton Race was unavailable for comment, but the Western Morning News spoke to his ex-wife Kim, who said neither she nor the children had any contact with her former husband.

She said she felt "saddened" for any independent businesses which may be affected by Burton Race's bankruptcy. Ouch!

"I'm glad to be rebuilding a life for myself and my children, and away from the whole sorry mess," she said, insisting reports of a massive divorce settlement were "absolutely ludicrous".

"I lost my home, and suggestions that I got more than £3m are just ridiculous – hence I now live in rented accommodation," she was quoted as saying.

The chef, who now lives with Ms Ward at her home in Strete, near Dartmouth, was declared bankrupt on March 27.

It means he cannot get credit, and his creditors will have to apply for a share of his wages until the bankruptcy is automatically discharged on March 27 next year.

Poor sod. Gone for a Burton.

If someone took a share of my last paltry chef pay packet, I’d been drinking cider on a bench with Anthony Worrall Thompson. Now there’s a thought...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Stool Pigeons And The Fat Duck

We finished the day doing the worst job on the prep list – cutting pistachio kernels in half. There were thousands of them, and even before we were a quarter-way through, my fingers were numb with exhaustion. Every time I looked at the bag it seemed to get bigger. It was soul-destroying work, and luckily one that only had to be done once a week or so.

The halved-kernels were caramelised as a garnish for the pigeon dish of poached breast pancetta, and pastilla of confit leg meat with cocoa and quatre-epices. There was a photo of the dish on the prep room wall, and it showed the hellish green kernels next to the pastilla – so much effort for such a small part of the meal.

“Why the hell do we have to cut them in half?” I snapped, trying to stifle the urge to run to my car and drive off in a hail of gravel and forgotten tortures.

“Probably for the colour. Huh?” said Paul.

He’d perked up a bit. He was off to the Hinds Head the next day, and let us know all about it.

A new stagier called Eric had joined that day, and looked incredulously at the ever-growing bag of pistachios in front of him. I could tell he was finding it as hard keeping it together as I was. Occasionally, he would let off near-silent moans and sighs.

Eric worked mainly as a private chef, cooking for Russian billionaires on yachts in Antibes. He was full of stories of wealth and vicarious glamour. He talked endlessly about how rich his clients were, and it just made me feel more pitiful about my own existence.

I should be the one lounging on those yachts, drinking cocktails and munching lobster. And here I was, working for nothing; cutting mountains of pistachios in half.

I know it was all supposed to be for something, so I could put ‘Fat Duck-trained chef’ on my CV (no-one would ever find out it had been mostly grunt work), but no restaurant of mine was ever going to use halved pistachios. Not unless someone else was doing the chopping.

I tried veering Eric away from yachts and Zadora timepieces, and on to less irritating subjects. But he’d be back on it whenever he could. Later that afternoon, he told us a story about the worst thing he’d ever seen in a kitchen. He was working in a burger bar at the time, getting himself through college.

“This dude came in for a job,” Eric began. “He was about 17, and had never worked in a kitchen before, and they put him on the fryer. He was wearing this elaborate watch – I couldn’t see what it was, maybe a MontBlanc or Rolex, but it looked more like one of those expensive German makes or something...

“And I said to him, ‘Buddy, you wanna lose that watch, buddy you DON’T wanna wear that in the kitchen!’

“And he says something like, ‘it was given to me by my grandfather’ or something, and carries on wearing it. And then half-way through service, the watch slips off into the hot fat...and without thinking he puts his arm in to get it out...

“It was like a reflex action, man. You could see the flesh disappearing on his arm like cooked meat. He said something like ‘hey guys’ and went down like a tonne of fucking mash! Man, that was gruesome! Worst thing I ever saw...”

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tuna-Friendly Dolphin And Other Stories

I arrived at the Fat Duck prep room the next morning, checked the rota, and found they’d put me down for service on the amuse bouche section. I was surprised. After my last performance, I didn’t think I’d get a second chance.

I went across the road, flexing my hands and worrying about whether the oysters would open my wounds again, and found a young US stagier called Eddy in my place.

They told me it was Eddy’s last day, and were trying him out for commis. They told me to come back after lunch service.

I returned to the prep room chores, cutting bags of onions on the slicer. After a few minutes, the larder was smoky with sulphur fumes. A workman arrived to fix the ice cream machine.

“Jesus,” he said, his eyes streaming. “You need bloody goggles to work in here!”

I headed over the road in the afternoon, and got one of those rare moments of kitchen joy - Eddy had opened the oysters I needed for evening service.

My hands were saved, and I was able to concentrate on the other jobs like juicing red cabbage for the gazpacho, and picking chervil leaves for the ice-filtered lamb jelly. Only the top piece of the leaf was used. They were like tiny green footprints dotted over the lamb tongue, cucumber, and tomato confit garnish.

At one point, Danny squeezed past me to borrow a spatula from pastry. After a minute of whining, he stormed back into the main kitchen like a child refused sweets. I could hear him moaning to the head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts. He sounded like he was about to cry.

“Ash, can you tell the pastry section to lend me a spatula! They don’t want to give it to me.”

Ashley came through and mediated calmly.

“Guys, let’s act like adults here,” he said. “Come on - let’s help each other out.”

He nodded a few times as the pastry posse went through a memorised arraignment of unreturned items, and occasions when they’d been refused equipment. Then they mimicked Danny’s whining voice for the rest of service.

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...

Friday, May 08, 2009

Waiter! There's A Snake In My Broccoli!

This has to be the cheffing story of the week – and it still makes me recoil in horror when I think about it. It’s not just my mortal phobia of snakes that’s to’s how the hell a chef could make such a howling schoolboy error when throwing broccoli on a plate!

Alright, I know the cooks are generally rushed off their feet at TGI Friday’s. And I know it’s not exactly Michelin star cooking, or indeed the standard expected by the SSSSSan Pellegrino world restaurant awards.

But come on! How can you confuse a broccoli floret with a severed serpent’s head?

The story started when Jack Pendleton spotted something grey, and well, distinctly reptile-shaped, mixed in with his veg while dining with his girlfriend at a TGI Friday's restaurant in Clifton Park, New York.

"I start to turn it over. I see this gray-green patch,” he said using that dramatic present tense so loved by football commentators.

“I could see these black, rotted eye sockets on the top. I stopped eating and I told my girlfriend, 'I think this is a head'."

The reptile’s head – about the size of a thumb - also had bits of spine and tendons still attached as if the horror wasn’t enough already.

A waiter was called over to remove the plate – but not before the 28-year-old art director had snapped a photo with his mobile phone.

"The manager came over white as a sheet," Pendleton told the Times Union. "He explained in five years he'd never run into anything like this."

The chain has since issued a statement, saying it took the incident "very seriously."

"We immediately pulled the broccoli from this restaurant and began an extensive investigation,” added spokeswoman Amy Freshwater.

“As a precautionary measure, we pulled broccoli from all restaurants that received product from this supplier. We have since isolated the specific lot date of the broccoli in question and have now reintroduced the product in all restaurants not included in the product hold.

"In addition, we are sending the object to an independent laboratory for testing. We... regret that this situation occurred in one of our restaurants."

The couple, of course, were not charged for their meals.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the story is not that the American refuses to sue over his gruesome’s that he plumped for a side-order of vegetables instead of fries with his chicken sandwich.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Restaurants And 'Tips As Wages'

Wage slaves in the catering industry had some rare good news today with the Government’s announcement that employers are to be banned from using tips to top up staff pay.

Some unscrupulous restaurant, cafe and pub owners have been using tips and service charges to meet the minimum wage – currently a whopping £5.73 an hour for workers aged 22 and over.

But now that is to change from October – meaning the tips diners leave will go to those who actually served and cooked their meal, rather than lining employers’ pockets.

Gordon Brown confirmed the move at Prime Minister’s Question Time, saying the public consultation had proved positive and the new legislation would help protect low-waged waiting and catering staff.

Unions, which have long campaigned for change, welcomed the move.

Derek Simpson, Unite trade union's general secretary, said the Government was “doing the right thing” by closing a loophole “which has allowed greedy employers to use tips to pay staff the minimum wage”.

But the British Hospitality Association has warned that it may result in the loss of 45,000 industry jobs as hard-pressed employers struggle with the extra financial burden.

And because of tax and National Insurance implications, it argued, staff could in fact be worse off – and the only real winner would be...yes you guessed it, the tax man.

That said though, the BHA did not “oppose the introduction” – it simply questioned its timing, what with the recession and all.

But many see the move as just window-dressing from a Government keen to show it’s doing something to help the working poor (after all, when New Labour introduced the National Minimum Wage in 1999, it specifically allowed tips to top up pay packets).

The legislation also covers people on low salaries – rather than just those paid by the hour - but how much effect it will have in restaurants is open to debate.

In my last full-time cheffing job, I was paid £12,000 a year for a 14-plus hour day, meaning my hourly rate was £3.50 an hour. Tips were divvied up and came to about £100 a month, pushing my wage to about £3.90 an hour – still way below minimum wage.

My income as a commis chef was about average, and my hours in no way excessive. Some staff in Michelin restaurants pocket less money for 18-hour days – putting their wage at about £2.50 an hour.

They can of course report their employer to the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but I don’t know any who have.

And who can blame them? They’re too busy catching night-buses home or sleeping on the dry store floor in those precious hours between shifts. After all, a slave, as Marco Cato liked to say, should be sleeping when he’s not working.

Interestingly, a survey this week by showed that even though the recession had dented chefs’ salaries on the other side of the pond, most were still well above the average US household income of $50,740 (about £34,000).

Maybe it’s about time we in the UK paid our chefs more? It may even be why it’s one of the few professions that still has a skills shortage...

:: Got an opinion on this? Please spare a moment and leave a comment below...