Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Bloody Rhodes Around Britain

If you ever wanted a better example of just how ridiculous the whole celebrity chef phenomenon has become, then look no further than Gary Rhodes.

The cook – whose empire spreads from London to Dublin to Dubai, and probably a bunch of other places I’ve forgotten - has just parted company with one of two hotels bearing his name in the frumpy seaside resort of Christchurch in Dorset.

It’s all quite civil, I’m told. But they always say that don’t they? Anyway, I suppose you’re thinking what’s wrong with that, Len? One less restaurant with his name on the menu gives him a bit more time to spend behind the stoves of all the others?

Well, no, not really. It’s the comments from the owner that reveal how ludicrous this whole sleb chef-branded restaurants thing now is.

Remember the time when chefs were just chefs, and wait for it, actually cooked for a living? Left school with an O-Level in metalwork, and did the jobs they were good at rather than fannying around TV green rooms, gameshow panels and celebrity parties?

Nicholas Roach, owner of the Kings Hotel (whose restaurant no longer bears Rhodes’ name) and the Christchurch Harbour Hotel (which still does), clearly doesn't.

He appears mightily impressed – surprised even - that the TV chef has actually honoured them with his presence for a change. Driven all the way to sleepy Christchurch no less!

Explaining the split, he told the Daily Echo: “Gary’s involvement in the Kings Hotel was always intended to be a one-year only operation. It was a way of introducing him to the town before Rhodes South opened up, and it has been very successful.

“There has been no dispute and Gary has actually been in Christchurch for the past few days working in the kitchen at Rhodes South – which demonstrates his commitment to the business and the area.”

What! Sorry, I’ve got to read that again – he’s ACTUALLY been in Christchurch WORKING in the kitchen!

It’s like saying a star player has demonstrated his commitment to a team by kicking a few balls around, or a comedian turned up to tell a few jokes.

And just in case you were thinking that (as Gordon Ramsay has vowed to do in a bid to patch up his crumbling empire) Rhodes was thinking of trimming back his branded ambitions over worries that he might be spreading himself too thin, then think again.

Roach added: “We are actually focusing on opening up some more Rhodes South restaurants in the South although we are unable to say at this time where they will be.”

And a spokesman for Christchurch Council had further distressing news. “I understand Gary has taken a decision to have just one restaurant per town from now on," he said.

Spare us! If it carries on like this, it really will be Rhodes Around Britain.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The First Rule About Kitchen Scraps Is...

We were doing an early Christmas lunch for the local CID when things came to a head with Graham. I was finding it hard taking orders from a stroppy 19-year-old, and he would go berserk if I didn’t follow his exact instructions.

He was the most childish, and the most talented chef in the kitchen. And when I had started at the Gull all those weeks ago, Jules had warned me: “When he gets wound up, just ignore him, don’t say to him ‘calm down’ or anything, it just makes him worse...”

It seemed a pretty strange thing to say. But I'd given Graham a wide berth, ignored his tantrums, and he'd swiftly made me his bitch.

What irritated me most was his mumbling. And with my poor hearing and the extraction unit going all day and night, I found it impossible to hear his orders. Sometimes I pretended not to hear, but most of the time I just watched his lips move from across the room.

He would quickly raise his voice and get angry. He’d moan about how he hated cheffing, and wanted to do something else, anything else, with his life, but he still had a huge amount of pride in the food that went out. He had more pride than anyone else – even the star-chasing Jules.

It started when Cathy, the most obnoxious of the waitresses, wandered in half-way through service. She'd been touched up by a couple of the drunken rozzers, and her face was as sour as ever...

“Who sent out the terrine?”

She knew full well who was on starters, but she liked to stir things up.

“I did,” said Graham, slowly turning round to eyeball her. “Why, what’s wrong?"

“Well one of the customers would have preferred it if you’d taken the cling-film off.”

There were a few seconds of silence.

“Fucking hell!” he shouted, suddenly exploding, and kicking a fridge door. “Can we have that with a bit more sarcasm next time! It’s not as though this job’s not hard enough…”

He went into his usual tantrum about how he loathed cheffing. Then he exploded again five minutes later.

“The starters have gone on table four,” he mumbled at me from across the room.



The change was more irrational than usual, and a hot flash of anger rose up inside me. This jumped-up, scary-looking gobshite was young enough to be my son. I rarely lost my temper, but I had a limit. I faced him from across the counter.

“Listen, we both don’t want to lose our temper!”

He walked over and stopped suddenly, his werewolf face next to mine. Just a chopping board and a knife separated us. His eyes took on a relaxed, dangerous look and he started nodding. He looked like he was trying to change into a wolf.

“I’m not losing my temper!” he screamed.

“That’s enough!” shouted Stewie from somewhere near us.

We both went back to work. But Graham made comments for the rest of service about the “repressive atmosphere” in the room.

Afterwards, Stewie took me aside as we cleaned down, and gave me a chat about how commis chefs weren't supposed to answer back. He told me to bite my lip next time, and just say 'yes, chef'. But he knew full well how hard I was finding it dealing with Graham.

“I’ve had to face him down a couple of times," he confided. "But if he ever went toe-to-toe with me, it’d only happen once...” he added menacingly.

It happened that night in the walk-in chiller.

I went across the road to stock up on purees when the chiller door closed behind me. The lights went out, a fan started whirring, and I was blasted with icy air. The panic hit straight away, and I heard muffled laughter outside.

I don’t know how long I was in there, long enough to get frostbite in my fingers and toes. I picked up a metal oil barrel and battered the door, but the noise was drowned out by the fan. Eventually light shone in and the door opened. Graham had taken a few steps back and was watching me carefully.

“That’s for answering back!”

"You what?"

His face changed again, and he leapt forward and grabbed my whites and pushed me back into the chiller.

I wasn't going back in there. I was terrified enough already...

I don’t know where it came from – it wasn’t a conscious decision as such – but my forehead slammed into his cruel mouth. He looked shocked. His lip was split and his mouth filled with blood. He swung at me, but I ducked. I wanted to strike back but my hands were frozen and I could barely form a fist.

His next punch hit, and then the next, but the adrenaline was pumping and I couldn’t feel a thing. Then he grabbed me, kneeing upwards to my groin, and tried to wrestle me to the floor. He was far stronger and soon the muscles in my arms were flagging as he spat and snarled.

He ripped a chunk of hair from the back of my head, and I spun round and elbowed him in the face. Then the rest of them burst in and separated us. It took three of them to hold Graham down until he stopped snarling.

Jules returned the next day and told me to take a couple of weeks off until things had calmed down. He told me it would be unpaid leave, but said that was my fault for "letting things get out of hand with Graham".

It would be the first time I’d been home for nearly three months, and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Chefs And Restaurant Inspectors

We were half-way through lunch service when Liz, the restaurant manager, came waddling into the kitchen like an asthmatic hippo. The only time I'd seen her move quickly, was to grab someone's chips. Something was very definitely up.

“The AA inspector’s in there!” she gasped.

“How do you know?” Jules snapped. His face had turned a pale, porridgey colour.

“I recognise him from last time...he comes in sometimes with his wife and kids...but he’s on his own this time!”

“Fuck! What’s he having?”

Liz stole a chip from a plate. “No idea.”

“Well go and find out!”

She disappeared and returned with the rest of the Dereks a few minutes later.

“The boudin blanc and the lamb,” they chimed. They were all enjoying the drama immensely.

Jules looked round the kitchen in panic, and shouted at us to clean up. "I want to see bubbles everywhere!" he screamed.

Inspectors sometimes ask for a tour of the kitchen, and he was taking no chances. He ranted and raved for a bit then yelled at me to make sure the veg was perfect.

All I had to do for the first course was pan-fry some spinach in clarified butter and season it. Jules fried the boudin blanc sausage and let it cook through at the bottom of the grill. He rested it under the lights on the pass then cut it into five slices on the diagonal.

He put the slices in a circle around a small mound of spinach. He tried the spinach as he did it, and looked slightly surprised. “That’s fine,” he said. He grabbed my pan and pushed me out of the way. He wasn’t taking any chances.

He formed the warmed, red onion marmalade into a quenelle using two spoons, balanced it on the spinach, then spooned grain-mustard veloute sauce around the plate with tear-shaped twirls. It was finished off with a sprig of chervil, like most of our dishes.

The dish went out and we got to work on the lamb. I can’t remember if there were other orders at the time, but for 30 minutes there seemed to be only one customer in the restaurant. So much for everything Jules had said about "customers being more important than awards". A few minutes later, Liz returned with an empty plate and said he’d enjoyed it.

I picked out three identical broccoli florets, and cut three carrot batons to exact length. I even thought about using a ruler to measure them. I put a fresh pan of cassoulet beans on the flat-top, and heated them through. I was worried about the beans. They didn’t have the same zip as the first batch, and I’d secretly pepped them up with ketchup and Worcester sauce. I just hoped the inspector wouldn’t notice.

Jules roasted the lamb and let it rest under the lights. I was about to plate up, when he pushed me out of the way again and snarled: “I’ll do this!”

He nestled a mound of beans in the middle of the bowl and put a triangle of carrot batons around them. Where each baton joined, he placed a broccoli floret, and then put the lamb in the middle and poured jus over it.

After the meal, the inspector flashed an ID card, and summoned Jules into the dining room. He was gone about 15 minutes. None of us knew if that was a good or bad sign.

Eventually, Jules came back in with his head down. None of us looked up. Then he walked over to my station and glowered. He looked ready to bite, and I scanned my station for knives and hot pans. Then he lunged forward and hugged me.

“That wasn’t at all stressful,” he whispered.


“No, I was shitting myself!”

It was the first time he'd let his guard down, and for a minute he looked like a pudgy schoolboy. His eyes were red and watery.

“That was my first inspection," he said. "Well the first one as a head chef!”

We had kept our only AA Rosette. The inspector said the standard was one Rosie, bordering on two. He had asked about the boudin blanc, and Jules had to admit it was bought in. He said all the veg was perfectly cooked, but the lamb “could have been a little pinker”. I did a whooping motion in my head. The veg was perfect, Jules' lamb wasn’t.

Jules was surprised, because if anything, we served meat on the raw side, and sometimes got the lamb sent back by squeamish customers. He said my cassoulet “was nice and spicy, but the beans themselves lacked something." What the hell were you supposed to do? Grow them yourself? At least he hadn’t noticed the ketchup.

The inspector loved the chocolate marquise dessert and declared it two Rosette standard. Helsta poked her nose in the air, as brazen as a dog at a fair. Jules kissed her and gave her the evening off.

I spent the rest of the day on a high. Although my role had only been minor, I was still part of the team that had successfully defended that precious Rosie. And my veg was perfect. More than that, we were verging on two. Who said awards didn't matter?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Michelin Restaurant Closed By Virus

A Michelin-starred restaurant has temporarily shut its doors after 80 diners became ill. Several members of staff at The Star Inn, in Harome, North Yorkshire, have also been struck down with the vomiting bug norovirus.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said despite the presence of the virus, "a common cause of illness has not been confirmed".

Jacquie Pern, who runs the venue with her chef husband Andrew, said they had decided to close the kitchens and dining area for the time being as an investigation is carried out.

She told Chef Sandwich: “This is a precautionary measure and indications are consistent with a viral incident.

“We are taking the matter very seriously and are co-operating with the Health Authorities. We are positive that all issues will be resolved soon and we will be able to return to our usual service standards.”

The restaurant - which has a sign telling of its closure on the door - has clearly learned from the PR blunders made by the Fat Duck in the way it dealt with its outbreak earlier this year.

Asked whether the incident was similar to the virus infection which struck down hundreds of diners at the three-star restaurant, a spokeswoman for The Star Inn said: “No, no, it’s not – we are moving a lot faster!”

A spokesman for Ryedale District Council said: “The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has confirmed that it is working with Ryedale District Council to investigate an outbreak of vomiting and diarrhoea connected to a restaurant in the Ryedale area.

“More than 80 people are known to have developed symptoms after eating at the restaurant between October 18 and October 28.

“A number of restaurant staff are also known to be affected by symptoms.”

Norovirus causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and is also known as the winter vomiting virus.

It can easily be transferred from person to person either through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, or through consuming contaminated food or water.

The Star Inn has won a number of awards since it was taken over and refurbished by the Perns in 1996, including a Michelin star and most recently The Good Pub Guide County Dining Pub of the Year for 2010.

Andrew Pern’s first cook book, Black Pudding And Foie Gras, won the Gourmand World Cookbook Silver Award for Best Chef Book In The World last year.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pilchards On Ghost

The suffocating claustrophobia of the kitchen was getting to me. Whenever I could snatch an hour or two away in the idle period between lunch and evening service, I'd head up to Porbeagle Isle. I don't know what I was looking for. Perhaps I was just hoping my life would change somehow.

I'd walk along the darkening sands, the wintry wind whipping my ears, and mounds of seaweed piled up at high tide. There were neon ropes, plastic bottles, feathers, spades, and a pair of swimming trunks. Some of the seaweed was shaped like clubs. If you looked closer there were dead crabs, mussels and limpets among the debris.

I followed the sands to the mouth of the estuary, where Atlantic salmon and sea trout swam to spawn. There were narrow caves with plastic lighters wedged into crevices. And there were steps that led up to the mansions overlooking Porbeagle Isle. They had metal gates and no-nonsense signs. One said: “Private – don’t be caught by tide. Guard dogs beyond!” I’d rather take my chances with the dogs, I thought.

I walked up to the ruined hever hut on top of the island. It was just a shell with graffiti scratched into the brickwork. I thought about the fisherman who had sat there watching the sea all those years ago, raising the alarm when the waves turned silver. Then the boats would go out and surround the pilchards. Millions of fish were salted and packed into barrels. Then the fish stopped coming, the tourist information sign said.

Half-way down was the Silver Sea Inn, a crooked building with stable-like doors. The sign said it dated from 1396 and was “haunted by the ghost of an Elizabethan smuggler called Tom Trevisick, who was shot dead by customs men”.

I ordered a pint. I was the only one in there. The landlord was practising a Christmas carol, and tried it out on me. He’d changed the words - it was all about a man dressing up in women’s clothing. I sat by the fire, wishing he’d go away.

He stopped singing suddenly and pointed.

“Stare at the bricks to the right of the fire. Can you see it? Can you see Old Tom’s face?”

I stared, and the landlord danced around behind me. Slowly I made out two dark patches for eyes and then a mouth. Then he pointed again.

“Look at the brickwork on the left! You’re supposed to be able to see the face of the customs man chasing him!”

The grey stone formed into incomprehensible shapes, but this time no face. I tried again and shook my head.

“No, I’ve never seen it either,” he laughed. “I think you’ve got to be pissed to see that!"

He came back with two more pints.

"But Old Tom, he’s here alright," he went on. "Sometimes I find myself talking to him when I’m on my own. I always know when he’s there. He plays all sorts of tricks on me – I think he was quite a prankster in his day.

“When I first took over the pub, I was cleaning up and saw something out of the corner of my eye. I looked round and there was a lime in mid-air. It hadn’t just fallen off the counter and on to the was about a foot above the counter. If the lime had just rolled off the bar, it would have gone down wouldn’t it! It wouldn’t have gone up!”

“Come on...” I said. He was beginning to unnerve me, and I still had to walk back on my own through the dark.

“I tell you I saw it with my own eyes! I said ‘Tom, what are you doing to me?’”

“What did he say?”

The landlord looked thoughtful for a second and slightly offended.

“Well he might have said something, in his own way. And then he started paying me more visits. I’m not afraid of him though, it’s nice having someone around. But Old Tom’s a real nuisance sometimes. I hear him downstairs in the toilets, and I say ‘Tom, what the hell are you doing down there?’

“You know sometimes I go down there when I open up and the walls are all covered with wads of wet toilet paper! That’s why I never bother to clean the bogs at the end of the night – you don’t know what it’s going to be like in the morning.”

I ordered another pint and drank deeply. I was desperate for the toilet.

“But it’s useful when there’s a stock take. If there’s anything missing, I say ‘well, old Tom had that one!’”

I finished the pint and planned to get out of there immediately, when the latch on the inside of the door started jiggling frantically. I looked up, and then back at the landlord.

His eyes widened like a cartoon mouse. The jiggling got more severe and a weight was pushing against the door. I could hear murmuring voices. It might have been olde English.

“Never fails to amaze me,” said the landlord, leaping up from his chair. He lifted the latch then hid behind the door. There was another push, the latch rattled, and this time the door flew open, and a startled, well-dressed couple fell into the pub.

“Arrrrrrr!” yelled the landlord, emerging from behind the door with his fingers held up like claws.

They darted back and then recovered their composure. The landlord was a complete lunatic, and I never went there again.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Masterchef In Hot Water Over Eels

Masterchef: The Professionals has found itself in hot water for putting eel on the menu.

Conservationists saw red because the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is critically endangered, and the BBC programme’s so-called ‘Delia effect’ could have promoted demand for eel among viewers.

In the recent show, presided over by Egg Wallace and Skeletor, sorry Michel Roux Jnr, four hopefuls were told to prepare two dishes using smoked eel in 50 minutes (about as long as the last eel in the wild has left by the sound of it...)

And this is where the trouble started. The European eel is in freefall decline, with numbers of elvers plummeting by an estimated 99% since the 1980s, warn experts.

Despite eel, smoked or otherwise, being on the menus of many top UK restaurants, the fish is on the "red list" of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, meaning it is only a small step away from extinction.

"Serving up European eel on a popular television show like Masterchef is irresponsible – and likely to lead to even more demand for a species that is just as endangered as tigers or pandas,” said a spokesman for Greenpeace's Oceans Campaign.

"Eels are intrinsically linked with London, as a traditional dish, yet it is our overfishing of this species which has pushed it towards the brink of extinction.”

The sight of Egg and Skeletor stuffing their faces with the forbidden fish provoked a storm of protest. It made no difference that the eels in question were farmed – by priests no less, says Chris Daphne, the environment officer of the National Anguilla Club.

“Eels are not bred in captivity; aquaculture relies on the collection of seed eels (elvers) which are then grown on,” he says. “This means that the species is unsustainable as ALL eel sold in restaurants, shops and bait suppliers have been taken from the wild initially.”

Experts say it is time for eels to come off all menus, pointing out that the UK exports 250 tonnes of eel every year, and it takes 3,500 individual eels to make a kilo of meat.

Indeed, so serious is the problem, the EU has asked all 27 member states to restrict eel fishing to give stocks a chance of recovery. The Dutch government has even announced a ban on commercial eel fishing.

And last year, Gordon Ramsay, was slammed for cooking eels from the River Severn - even though they had been caught under licence.

But clearly all of this had escaped the BBC's researchers.

A BBC spokesman whined: "We absolutely recognise the very important issue of sourcing sustainable ingredients and, in all our Masterchef programmes, we take a lot of time and make every effort to use locally sourced ingredients.

"The eel in question was used in a classic recipe test, and came from a farm in Northern Ireland run by priests who assured us it had come from a sustainable source. For future series, contestants will be required to consider the endangered fish list when submitting menus."

Those pesky priests, hey, and isn’t it a bit rich putting the onus on the contestants’ environmental awareness when they’d been told to cook the smoked eel in the first place?