Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Burton Race On Drink Drive Rap

John Burton Race must be wondering when his problems will end. Months after going bankrupt and a costly divorce, the TV chef has been arrested and charged with drink driving.

To make matters worse, the fiery cook has also been charged with resisting arrest.

The 52-year-old onion-botherer was stopped by police in a routine check in Strete, near his New Angel restaurant in Dartmouth, Devon, in the early hours of Friday morning.

The cook, who appeared on TV show I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here, was breathalysed and then arrested, well eventually anyway (allegedly).

A spokeswoman for Devon and Cornwall Police told Chef Sandwich: "John Burton Race, 52, was arrested on October 30 at about 1am.

“He has been charged with driving or attempting to drive with excess alcohol and resisting or obstructing a constable in the execution of their duty."

He was released on unconditional bail and is due to appear before magistrates in Newton Abbot on November 17.

Burton Race was declared bankrupt in March this year.

He has appeared on a number of TV shows including French Leave and Return of the Chef which focused on him and his family setting up home in France and South Devon.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Long For That Risotto, Chef?

On the whole, we had a fairly good relationship with the 'Dereks' on front-of-house. The main problem was Keira the bar manager, an Irish woman in her forties, with braided hair, heavy make-up, and a club foot. She talked about healing stones and hugging trees, but she had a snearing, sarcastic look that could kill a goat at 50 yards.

She’d bitch about everyone in the kitchen. Whenever she cornered me, she’d bitch about how Jules wasn’t good enough for the job. She would lisp away, and study my reaction. She said she was friends with the local AA inspector, and had it on good authority that we were going to lose our only Rosette.

Keira always knew what was going on in the kitchen. But we had our own spy network among the waitresses. The trouble started when we heard she was leaving to take over as bar manager of the Rosie. Just as she was about to start, she was sacked for “briefing against people”, and tried to take everyone else down with her.

She threatened to get our premises licence taken away, saying we smoked dope in the bar, and she could smell it when she opened up. We were taken into the office and grilled, but it soon blew over. What galled me most was seeing Jules’ shocked, pious expression. Greeny got fed up with smoking out of the window, and left a couple of nights later and moved into a shared room above the Rosie. It was sad to see him go, and the atmosphere changed after that. It became far more serious.

Jules had set me time limits for jobs, and took a minute off each time I did them. Apparently it was a vital part of my training. He’d bully and harass, trampling on his “grunts”, and spouting the same tiresome cheffing catchphrases.

“How long for that risotto, chef?”

“30 seconds.”

“You’ve got 20.”

How many times had I heard those words? Not nearly as many times as I’d hear them again. Working in the cramped furnace meant it was difficult to avoid collisions, and there was a constant call of “backs” as you worked. With the heat and bad tempers, it was suffocating.

“Sorry, chef,” I’d say after each collision.

“You will be,” the stock response.

There is little originality among chefs. They have their own language that takes all of a week to learn, and most of it seems to be about anal sex. If you were hit hard, you were “raped”, “butt-fucked” or “slammed up the arse”. Forty covers all coming in at 8pm might be greeted with a gleeful, “I think we’re going to get butt-fucked tonight!”

The most common expression was “in the shit” – a preponderance seized on energetically by my fellow chefs. When you were flagging, and orders were going cold on the pass, the vicious bastards were only too happy to help - so they could bring it up in the pub later.

Kitchens are run on competition after all. Each chef is painfully aware of his place on the totem pole – and any chance of advancement is grabbed with both hands. It often happened to me, and they let me know all about it. “You were in the shit there tonight,” Jules would say in earshot of my budding helpers.

Sometimes it just can’t be helped, and customers will descend from nowhere. You’ll be making risotto from scratch five times during service, cooking asparagus soup from fresh using ladles from the dipping pot for stock, and throwing the red-hot, grease-grimed bullseye in to get the water boiling.

That’s when the adrenaline kicks in – that’s what professional cooking is all about, and that's what I became addicted to.

You don’t get the buzz every service, far from it. But when you’re banging out plates, and every dish is perfect, there’s no sweeter taste. Of course, the buzz doesn’t last long – it may give you a warm, proud feeling in the pub afterwards, it may even carry you to your bed, leaving you with dreams of gastronomic greatness, but kitchen karma will make sure your next day is hell. And you’re only remembered for your last meal. As even the world’s best chefs will tell you – you get good days and bad days in catering.

The only thing that makes it all worthwhile is the passion. Without that you’re nothing. And I was seriously beginning to doubt whether I had enough passion for the job. I used to become animated whenever the subject of cooking came up. But being surrounded by food and recipes all day had stifled that. I stopped asking questions, and wondering about techniques so much, and just got my head down and ploughed through the never-ending crates of veg.

The whole thing had become repetitive, and I was faced with the unpleasant reality that there was nothing romantic about cooking, as I had always hoped. The sad truth was any job becomes boring after a while. There was little creativity involved, and practically none as a commis. It was all about consistency. The art came when the dish was created. After that, you just kept repeating that same brief moment, banging out that same tired repertoire of dishes. Like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, you keep writing the same line over and over and over again.

I kept comparing myself to the other chefs, questioning whether I had the passion they had, and knowing they’d been doing the job a lot longer. I didn’t have their manic energy. A good chef throws himself at any task - mopping the floor, and attacking the flat-top with half a lemon so it shines like a silver Bentley.

But I avoided cleaning whenever I could, and would dream up jobs in the dry store whenever they were deep-cleaning the kitchen. It was someone's job every few weeks to cover themselves in bin liners and climb up through the extractor unit to clean it. The thought of being asked terrified me - I was scared of enclosed spaces - but then I was probably too fat to get through the ducting in any case. Maybe that psychic I'd gone to see when I had my mid-life crisis, and was unable to make my own decisions, was right; maybe I didn’t like getting my hands dirty.

When I first looked into cheffing, the chefs I talked to all said I was mad for even considering the notion. They seemed to be giving me a last chance. "But then, you have to be mad to be a good chef," they said.

Whichever way you looked at it, it was an insane choice of career. But at least I was alive. My emotions had become far more intense and colourful since I'd taken up the knives and bolted that dreary, pretentious media world. There was no way I could go back. Not now I’d breathed life again, and gorged myself on the secret puddings. It’d be like turning the colour off on the telly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bullying In Kitchens

"It's not so much the assaults and hurled pans, it's the bullying I can't stand," a tearful chef once told me. And it's true - it happens a lot in professional kitchens. It's the continuing circle of revenge. Cooks get bullied, then they get their own back on those below them.

One commis was called in on his day off by an irate sous chef, travelled across London on a succession of buses and tubes, and when he got into the kitchen was bollocked for not cling-filming something in his fridge properly. They made him recover it and sent him home. All that way for something that would have taken them a few seconds to put right. He left when they set fire to his pony-tail.

It was the same at the Gull. Ironically, Jules' sister, who ran a bistro nearby, had sent Jim the potwash to our kitchen because she was worried he would get bullied anywhere else. But after a couple of months, the protection wore off, and the other chefs got irritated by his slowness...

Jules had given me a set of keys to the kitchen. He told me he was sick of seeing my veg supplies piled up outside the door, and it was my job to open up. That meant getting up half an hour earlier. Jim was usually already there. He’d be standing at the top of the stairs, sucking on a cigarette, and in no hurry to get out of his biker gear. He only drove a moped but from the bright yellow and black leathers he wore you’d think it was a Hornet.

“Hello there!” he would say each morning. He could never remember my name, but was always pleased to see me.

Jim lived with his sister a few miles up the road, and was probably the worst plongeur in Cornwall. If you asked him to peel some spuds, you'd be lucky to get 40 by lunchtime. I never said anything - I always felt sorry for him - but sometimes Graham would pick up a potato and mock him, and challenge him to a race. Graham could peel a spud in under four seconds.

Jim's pace didn't quicken during the heat and stress of service either. He'd lumber past like a zombie with outstretched pans, chanting his favourite catchphrase, “Coming through! Mind your arses!”

"Coming OUT, mind your arses, more like," someone would shout.

Jim wore the same T-shirt every day - with 'It’s not a bald patch – it’s a solar sex panel' emblazoned across it. He couldn't read or write, and had no idea what it said. We even had to fill in his timesheets for him.

He joined on the same day I did, and after a few weeks had come out of his shell, and that’s when the bullying started. It seemed fairly mild to start with, nothing like I was getting anyway, but I felt sorry for him all the same, and guilty about not doing more to stop it. I still feel guilty about it now; sometimes I lie in bed and think about it, and wish I'd made a stand.

It was Jim's job to make the tea, but he never remembered, and this was a favourite for those dreadful fuckers Graham and Jules.

“Jim,” Jules would begin. “Jim! Jim!”

Eventually he’d look round, blinking through steamed-up glasses. “Hello there,” he’d say, drying a plate in slow motion.

“Do you play golf, Jim?”

“I have done, yeah.”

“You know when you start a game, Jim, what are those plastic things you use?”

He thought for a minute and dried half a plate. Then Graham would join in. “You know those plastic things you stick in the ground at the start of each hole.”

“Haven’t got a clue. Do you know Jules?”

Stewie would wander over and whisper something in his ear, and he'd shout “tee!” and then there'd be a chorus of “thanks very much Jim, I’ll have two sugars!”

Most times, Graham would start it off.

“What rhymes with toffee, Jim?”

“Don’t know…”

At some stage, a plastic yellow duck appeared in the kitchen. It squeaked when you squeezed it, which terrified Jim for some reason. When no-one was looking, he’d throw it in the bins at the top of the car park, but the duck always found its way back. Some days it hung from the hose by his sink, and he’d have to spend the day with its angry, cartoon face boring into his bottle-end glasses.

One morning, Jim was reaching for the huge tub of Nescafe above the sink when he shrieked. A yellow face was peering out of the coffee powder.

“That fucking duck,” he squealed. “He gets everywhere!”

It returned a few days later, frozen in a bucket of water that Jim was asked to retrieve from the freezer in the haunted dry store across the road. Its angry eyes looked up at him through the ice...

Graham switched the lights off and locked the door. He made terrible quacking noises, and threatened to throw him in the pond, and Jim wept like a child. His sister had to come and get him. I know the hairy-arsed pros among you will think this fairly mild compared to some of the stories you hear in kitchens, but I'll never forget the sound of that noise Jim made. It was the sound of a pig in a barn fire.

:: 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, October 02, 2009

Floyd: In Brief, It's Absolute Rubbish

Keith Floyd's boozy memoirs have been published today, two days after family and friends celebrated his colourful life at a funeral in Bristol, the city where he ran a mini-chain of restaurants and launched his TV cooking career.

His autobiography, Stirred But Not Shaken, deals with his battle with the bottle, his four failed marriages, and a whole host of anecdotes befitting a man who made cheffing the new rock and roll, and changed cooking programmes for ever.

But even though the flamboyant cad had an encyclopaedic knowledge of gastronomy, and once said cooking was the only thing he lived for, he has some stark advice for anyone thinking of following in his footsteps, and taking up the knives.

"Don't ever go into the restaurant business," he says. "It kills marriages, it kills relationships, and it kills life. It kills everything. And I, the man with four ex-wives, should know."

Sadly, Floyd never actually saw the book. He died of a heart attack four days before it was printed.

Writer James Steen, who also penned Marco Pierre White’s fantastic biog White Slave, spent a year with the legendary gastronaut ghosting the book, and recalls how difficult it was at times because of the wine-guzzling cook's aversion to "self-analysis".

"On TV we all saw him as this jolly character, jumping around, funny, witty, and we were all very envious of him,” he said.

"But actually away from the cameras, his personal life was quite tragic in many respects.

"It was a culmination of things; first of all there was the drink, but he was also an insomniac, and a worrier.

"So when he would go away filming, he would be worrying about the next day, and how everything would work out, and how he would get it right.

"And this bottle of whisky - the dreaded Johnnie Walker - really became a crutch for him - it became something he felt helped him through the night and into the next day.

"In the book he admits he was an alcoholic, and he talks about drinking and how it all started...and how it finally took its toll, and he's very open in that respect.

"But he was extremely proud that he had passed on knowledge to his viewers, and that people had derived happiness from watching his programmes."

Steen said the proudest moment of Floyd's life was when he was filming Floyd On France, considered by some to be the best cooking programme ever made.

He said the cook's favourite scene was when he was scolded by an "old dragon" French housewife for ruining a dish of piperade.

Unlike the celebrity chefs Floyd's success spawned, the eccentric entertainer insisted on keeping the criticism in.

He even revels in it (imagine Rhodes or Ramsay doing the same) and translates the drubbing for viewers: "Apparently, she doesn't want to taste it because the way I cooked it was so off-putting that she knows it is going to be awful...

"There's not enough salt, not enough brief, it's absolute rubbish."

Steen added: "What wasn't seen afterwards was at the end of that particular scene, David Pritchard (the show's producer) shouted 'that's a rap' and she thought they'd shouted 'that's a rat'.

"And she yelled ' there's not a rat in my kitchen!'"

But even though Floyd was a complete natural on camera, he was a simple cook at heart, and often wondered whether he would have been happier without the fame; a local celebrity bashing out bistro dishes for arty-types in Bristol, but nothing more.

He found the media world pretentious and filled with reprehensible heels ready to jump ship whenever a celebrity’s kudos was about to fade. If you’ve read his first autobiography Floyd In The Soup, it is filled with references to the gruel of motorway service station diets, empty hotel rooms, and endless TV and radio interviews. ‘THEY’ made me get up at 5am etc, is a regular refrain.

Floyd’s almost schizophrenic relationship with TV, as his two halves battled between Floydie, the hard-drinking Oliver Reed of the kitchen that everyone loved, and the simple soul who just wanted to go fishing with his mates, is one of the main themes that came out during Steen’s weeks of taped interviews.

He added: "One thing that comes across in the book is he actually found it all very difficult - he didn't really like telly people, and saw them as a different breed.

"There is a classic line where he says 'I loved David (Pritchard) but I hated him too'. He felt that way about a lot of people who came into his life."

Floyd was cremated in a coffin made from banana leaves on Wednesday. But the celebrity chefs his success spawned were noticeable by their absence.

Despite being quick to fill TV screens and newspapers with tributes to the bow-tied roue over the past two weeks, none of them made it to say a final thank you to the man who’d made them millions.

Floyd’s only two real cheffing friends were both busy. Jean Christophe Novelli was attending a hospice in Hertfordshire (so you can’t knock him for that), and Marco Pierre White had “work commitments”, according to his spokeswoman.

Rick Stein, the only other real sleb chef he could have called a friend, was in Australia, doing interviews, ironically enough, about the pressures of fame and mistresses. Even ‘comedian’ Jim Davidson flew in from Dubai for the funeral. And he’s a right c***.