Friday, January 29, 2010

Can Celebrity Chefs Learn From El Bulli?

Interesting news that El Bulli is to shut for two years so that Ferran Adria (pictured right) can dream up some fresh recipes and trail-blazing ideas.

He said he has got as far as he can with the “current format” – after all if you’re consistently voted the best restaurant in the world, the only way is down – and wants to get some creative juice back. "It's like telling John Galliano to go work in a factory," a tired-looking Adria said of the last few years.

When you’ve got food writers hanging round you like groupies, it’s easy to sit back on your laurels and stay with a tried-and-tested formula, and train up protégés to do the hard work for you while you swan around stuffing your face with Jaffa Cakes, and I think many chefs would applaud the 47-year-old for not taking the easy option.

In fact, many would applaud him for escaping the hellish prison of running a three-star Michelin restaurant and the whirlwind stress of constantly having to do better to satisfy clients.

I think celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal, owner of the second best restaurant in the world, could take a (no doubt edible, exploding, nitro-green) leaf out of his recipe book – well another one at least anyway.

When I worked at the Fat Duck nearly four years ago, some of the chefs felt they were on a treadmill just banging out the same immaculate but identical dishes year after year – a common complaint in Michelin-starred eateries. There was little creative buzz or inspiration, just long hours standing on your feet in a cramped furnace.

They longed for a la carte orders, but most customers stuck to the famous tasting menu (only a pompous fool with the ‘gentlemen’s disease’ calls it a degustation menu) and they longed for a revamp of that.

The Fat Duck is sometimes described as being a restaurant you dine at once in your life – mainly because of the expense and tick-it-off mentality of trainspotting gourmets rather than the quality of the cooking – so it doesn’t really matter if the menu remains the same for decades. But isn’t it good to take a chance and bring in fresh ideas – especially from the brigade doing the cooking for you?

Although I never managed to get in there, I have it on good authority that Blumenthal has a laboratory above the prep room run by elves who experiment with wondrous dishes such as poached cockatrice eggs that allow you to fly round the garden, and dormouse wine gums that send diners back to early Roman Britain. But it seems to be more of a prop for his TV shows.

I dug out an old tasting menu in the 'stagier handbook' they gave me during my stage at the Fat Duck. Comparing it to the present degustation menu (oh, the gentlemen’s disease!) it seems very little has changed in those years.

The nitro-green tea and lime mousse, pommery grain mustard and gazpacho, and snail porridge dishes were still there. As was the egg and bacon ice cream.

And there were small tweaks to some of the other dishes. The quail jelly was now served with crayfish cream rather than langoustine cream. The salmon poached with liquorice was served with golden trout roe (there was no mention of the dreaded grapefruit – had they finally taken pity on those poor, deformed stagiers locked away in the dungeon?) The poached breast of Anjou pigeon pancetta was now a 300-year-old dish called powdered Anjou pigeon. And the parsnip cereal was still there.

The new additions were roast foie gras, mock turtle soup (a sort of crazy, deranged tribute to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party), something called taffety tart (circa 1660), and whisky wine gums. In fact, not much had changed but the price – a 50% increase in just less than four years.

Explaining his reasons for throwing in the apron, Adria said he was finding the gruelling, 15-hour days at El Bulli “difficult” and it was impossible coming up with new stuff while spending your whole life toiling over hot ovens. And I think Blumenthal should follow his example. Give up working noon and night, and reward himself with a well-deserved break to recharge his batteries. Those TV programmes can be hard work.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

World Cup: Irish Will Never Baguette

A friend spotted this court case in an Irish daily and said it read like a Father Ted script. It amused me so I thought I’d pass it on...

A drunken unemployed plasterer was arrested for urinating on the French loaves section of a supermarket in protest at French striker Thierry Henry’s controversial handball incident that saw Ireland knocked out of the World Cup qualifier.

Frances "Smokie" Larkin (apparently he earned the nickname after setting fire to a tennis club shed in his teens), pleaded guilty to the incident at Maher's ValueStore, in Killareagh, and was given a suspended sentence, fined and bound over to keep the peace.

The 46-year-old was spotted urinating on the Cuisine de France section, shouting “this will teach ye, ye cheating French bastards," before he was taken away by local gardai.

Gardai Anthony Flanagan told the court: "When I reached the shop, I was informed that Mr Larkin was causing a disturbance in the bread section.

“When I got there, he was urinating on the French bread section and stamping on a loaf. I later ascertained that the loaves were brioches, a sort of French bread.

"When he saw me, he tried to run away but I apprehended him and grabbed him by the arm. He said 'that's for Thierry Henry, guard. If you have any pride in your country, you'll let me go.

"Then he said 'that'll teach them, the cheating French bastards."

Angela Roche, defending, said her client had a problem with drink and had become quite agitated with the result of the World Cup match and had worn an "I shot Thierry Henry" T-shirt that was made up in a local T-shirt shop.”

Larkin apologised to the store and said he "had no axe to grind with them," but that they had been caught up in "friendly fire."

Explaining his actions, he said he wanted to make a grand gesture to show that the Irish were not going to take the controversial handball decision lying down.

"The French loaf is the symbol of France and so by doing what I did, I was standing up for Irish pride," he said.

In his summary, Judge Fergus O'Halloran said that what Mr Larkin had done was despicable and was also a threat to public hygiene.

"You did this without any thought to the consequences for the unfortunate shoppers who had to buy that bread.

"We cannot have louts like yourself with half-baked ideas about national pride carrying out acts like this," he told him.

Surely he meant parbaked.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Burger To Go: McRapping For Sacking

Following my last post about treatment of staff at some high volume restaurants, pity the plight of a burger flipper in Holland.

She was sacked by McDonald’s for the unspeakable crime of, wait for it, giving a colleague a piece of cheese.

The woman handed a fellow staff member a cheeseburger instead of a hamburger and was duly dismissed by bosses at the restaurant in the northern Dutch town of Lemmer.

Now a court has come to her defence, rapping the fast food giant for its decision.

"The dismissal was too severe a measure," the district court in Leeuwarden said in a written judgment on the case.

"It is just a slice of cheese."

A written warning would have been a more appropriate punishment, it added.

McDonald’s was ordered to pay the woman her enormous wages for the remaining five months of her contract - a total of 4,265 euro (£3,720) – as well as the court costs.

The firm maintained she broke the rules, which prohibit any free gifts to family, friends or colleagues.

The ruling comes days after McDonald's reported a 23% jump in net quarterly profits to $1.22bn (£756.79m) – enough to buy about 50 billion slices of cheese.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spitroast Chicken And Other Stories

I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend in low-end restaurants lately. It hit me when I had the pleasure of visiting a Harvester at the weekend.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking – what did you expect Lennie? A man of your undoubted gastronomic exuberance? A truffle-sniffing bon viveur of your gourmet proportions? You wouldn’t feel satisfied in a Harvester, Lennie! They’re for people from the Midlands who just like eating – they really don’t care what it is they’re cramming into their faces, as long as there are chips, peas and half a grilled tomato with it. And the unlimited salad cart, with its rustic cartwheels and bacon bits and freshly defrosted rolls...

Anyway, I won’t bore you with the reason I was forced to go there. My frail dining companion (a 95-year-old woman with an extensive knowledge of war-time rationing) and I were barely able to get in the door because of the chaos that had built up around the bar. Was this a queue for the restaurant, or had a coach trip of sex offenders stopped off on their way back from a prison away day? I will never know, because we were soon whisked off to our table and handed a menu the size of a wheelie bin.

I say we were whisked off to our table. In fact, the manager was far too busy for such trivialities. He simply took us half way and pointed. I peered across the rolling acres of carpet and screaming children, and could dimly make out our seats on the far horizon, and the distant prospect of more tattoos beyond. We walked the last mile, navigating the minefield of toddlers’ toys and customers on salad runs, and sat down to enjoy our meal.

We scarcely had time to peruse the menu and its all-day ‘early bird’ specialities, when a waitress asked if we were ready to order. She barely waited for the answer before rushing off somewhere to spray a table with anti-bacterial liquid. She was back a nanosecond later.

Still shaky with a dreadful hangover, I ordered a pint of diet coke. She handed me a small glass with knuckles of ice and told me to get it myself. Apparently it was a free refill. Anything to save on wages and other pesky variable costs...

And that’s my point - there must have been no more than four waiting staff for a zillion diners. The place was packed and they didn’t have time to fill up the sauce bottles on the salad bar, or get out of the way of customers. Once they were stacked up with plates, they moved as fast as they could through the narrow aisles, regardless of who was in the way.

There was also no time for diplomatic niceties or customer chit-chat. It was all business, and we were just ham-faced beagles on the conveyor belt of modern commerce (or at least that’s what my elderly companion reminded me of). When I asked for English mustard for my steak, the waitress pointed at the yellow squeezy bottle of American-style vomit next to me.

“No, English mustard,” I told her.

“It is!” she tried to convince me.

But like I said she didn’t have time for conversation. She grabbed a yellow jar from the next table, which wasn’t proper English mustard either, and then ran off to snatch more plates.

I won’t mention the cooking, or why anyone with any sense of taste or even the merest inkling of culinary knowledge would chuck what seemed like half a bottle of triple sec into a peppercorn sauce, or how it’s possible to procure rump steak with sinews running though it as thick as deep-sea cables, or why if you’re going to put bangers and mash on a revamped menu you might as well serve decent sausages.

I won’t mention any of this, because if you're paying just £4.99 for a main meal and unlimited salad you can hardly complain about the cooking can you? Besides, it’s the service I’m talking about. Now, I’m not saying I could do any better, far from it, and four waitresses serving a zillion diners is a feat in itself. It’s the owners and their streamlined budgets and key performance indicators I can’t stomach.

I know they’re all up against it, and the restaurant business is tough, harder than ever even, and five million pubs are going bust every day. But four waiting staff, and apparently just two some weekday lunchtimes? Even if they’re now going down the abominable route of getting customers to fill their own soft drinks, it’s nowhere near enough. And it’s a trend you’re starting to see everywhere in these high volume eateries, and big business in general. As long as the food gets to the table and the bill is paid, the rest doesn’t seem to matter.

Forget the punters. The bowling alley, shopping mall, going large, American lite consumers. They’re just going somewhere to fill themselves up for the price it would cost to cook it themselves. If they knew how to.

No, it’s the waitresses I feel sorry for. When you’re working on minimum wage rates or lower, you rely on tips just to get by. And with this dreadful cost-cutting conveyor belt at places like Harvester, they’re probably lucky to get any tips at all.

I know restaurant groups have to survive and pay their fat cat shareholders and private equity owners a decent return, but I really hope this sort of human cattle catering system doesn’t catch on further. Unlimited refills and cattle prods are a horrid glimpse of the future, especially across acres of toy-strewn carpet.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Steaks Are High

Diego took me into the main kitchen and got me to deep-fry batches of potatoes before finishing them off in the oven. The trailer was about 30ft long and as good as any restaurant kitchen I'd been in. In fact it was bigger and better set out than the Fat Duck’s kitchen, but then we were catering for 400 not 40.

The crew were due to eat again at 8pm and Diego made up a barbecue in a huge oil drum near the wash-up area. At 7.50pm the coals were glowing nicely and I’d lined up the steaks and salt and pepper ready for battle. But then a woman with a walkie-talkie wandered over with the bad news.

“They’re not going to break until 9pm,” she sniffed.

The kitchen crew scowled and put everything back in the ovens. They said sometimes the meal was put back four hours and it was a nightmare keeping food warm in the middle of a field. The coals were dying down, and I put some more charcoal on. Five minutes later the runner returned and said they would break at 8pm after all.

The place turned into chaos, and I frantically tried to fan the flames to start the steaks.

“Cook them all blue to start with and then finish them off,” Diego yelled from the kitchen.

Then pandemonium hit and they all wanted their steaks at once. I could only do about 25 at a time and the coals had died down, and it was taking a good minute just to get one side brown. The grill wasn’t even hot enough for singe-marks.

The choice was turkey, fish or steak for the main, but of course they all wanted steak. I filled a tray with the first batch – they were rare at best – but there was no time to wait and they were whisked away before I could stop them. I’d just finished turning over another layer, when Mark came back yelling for more.

“Just give us what you’ve got!” he kept shouting. But they were still raw, and I made excuses about the heat of the coals. Peter the director rushed over, demanding steaks, and I made more excuses. He ran into the kitchen yelling at Diego.

“You’ve got to keep an eye on them,” I could hear him shouting.

Peter ran off somewhere and Diego leapt out of the trailer and bollocked me for not putting more coals on. I fanned the flames frantically with one of the trays, hoping to build up heat. The steaks had barely seen the grill for a minute by the time they were snatched away. As soon as each side was sealed I chucked them in the tray. There was an inch of blood in the bottom.

Eventually the panic subsided and they stopped yelling for steaks and I could cook the last tray properly. Diego stuck his head out of the trailer.

“I’m sorry you were in at the deep end,” he said.

I shrugged and blamed the coals again.

“It’s not that,” he said, “it’s those fuckers, fucking around with the times.” There was real hatred in his voice. Twenty years of it.

We started clearing down again, and for the next two hours I helped with the washing up, trying to dry piles of plates and trays with paper towels. We worked under halogen lights and soon I could only see shadows. I was told it was going to be a long night because the shoot was moving to Pinewood the next day and we’d have to pack everything up and move before they got there.

At midnight I was told to cook about three tonnes of bacon and sausages. They went in baguettes, wrapped in foil. Then at about 1am we laid trays of curry and rice, pasties and pies, and crisps on the floor of the coach and drove a mile to the end of the runway.

Even from a few hundred yards the flood-lit scene was dazzling. There was a Boeing 747 in the middle surrounded by flashing blue lights from emergency service vehicles. Sam, one of the catering assistants, explained the scene: James Bond was fighting a baddy in an out-of-control truck careering towards the 747, and some sort of important parade was taking place.

He had seconds to control the truck before it crashed into the jet and caused a massive explosion. She said it was supposed to be Miami airport.

“Have you got your passport?” I asked her.

“We don’t need one – we’re VIP!” she laughed.

She told me Richard Branson had flown in one of his Virgin planes to get it into a shot, but it had been heavily overcast and apparently you couldn’t make out the Virgin logo.

We took a tray each and handed out food, napkins and plastic knives and forks to the crew. The director sat in a covered area surrounded by state of the art film equipment.

Suddenly a woman next to me bellowed “ROLLING!” and hundreds of extras ran about screaming as the truck careered towards the plane. They filmed the same scene five times and then all the food was gone and we went round with packets of French Fries.

Kath approached the director, a foppish-looking, grey-haired man wearing the obligatory baseball cap.

“Would you like some French Fries?” she asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped pompously.

One of the extras had fallen over in the mayhem and was treated for cuts and grazes in one of the ambulances. About 30 minutes later, we climbed into the back of a pick-up truck to be ferried back to the kitchen. Kath said it was illegal to ride in the back of pick-ups on shoots, so we should keep our heads down.

The whole place seemed regulated by officious health and safety rules. I suppose it was for the insurance companies. On the door to the marquee was a 'scene schedule', which described the stunts, recommended safety equipment, and overall risk factor for each shoot. For the Miami airport scene, it said the only person who could be hurt was the baddy, Carlos, whose job it was to fight James Bond in the truck.

We got back to the kitchens to find the rest of the team had gone without telling anyone. I left at 2.30am, at the end of a gruelling 12-hour day.

It was harder than kitchen work somehow. There was far more running around and lifting, but at least you were out in the open air with the sun on your face. Peter told me that the new Masterchef Goes Large programme was sending three contestants to work there for a day. It seemed strange that people would do that sort of back-breaking work for nothing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Casino Royale With Cheese

I got a job working for a film location catering firm knocking out grub for the new Bond movie. I arrived at the airfield at 2.30pm in the blistering heat and was directed to the far side of the site by security. No-one asked to see any ID. I pulled up at another cordon that said ‘film crew only’, and was waved through.

I spotted the catering trucks straight away, next to the smart, white trailers where the stars rested between takes. A number of chauffeur-driven limos were idling outside. The whole area was filled with security men and riggers in fluorescent jackets.

I was met by a wiry, olive-skinned man in his fifties called Diego. I was expecting chefs in whites and tall hats, but the dress-code was informal to say the least. Just jeans, T-shirts and striped aprons. I had my chef whites tucked under one arm. Diego saw them and tutted: “You won’t need those – it’s too hot for whites.”

He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and introduced me to the rest of the crew. There was a man in his twenties called Mark and a swarthy Italian in a bandana making salads in the blue trailer. In the main kitchen, an ogre in a camouflage T-shirt was frying dozens of eggs. Behind him stood a tall man with a knife slash across his nose.

“I won’t bother introducing you to them,” said Diego. “They are Czech and speak no English. If I introduce will be like a needle in a haystack.”

The ogre and his friend nodded at me as I walked in. Diego told me to set up my board on a plastic box outside, and to cut boxes of cauliflowers into florets. I’d been working for a couple of minutes when Diego came back out and said: “Leave that for the moment, you can help with the serving in the tent.”

I hadn’t done any professional cooking for a couple of months, and was worried they’d seen my rusty knife skills and had me down as a waiter. I left the florets baking in the sun with the other prepped veg and followed Diego into a huge marquee.

There were food counters in one corner and I was told to work with a cheerless woman wearing sunglasses. Kath was serving up plates of fried breakfast. She looked stressed and at the point of tears, but it was difficult to tell behind the sunglasses. A long queue of crew had built up.

For the next hour I worked non-stop. The orders flew in as I threw fried eggs, bacon, burgers, sausages, chips, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and beans on to paper plates and take-out boxes. As each tray was emptied, new supplies of eggs, chips or bacon would arrive from the kitchen.

A lot of the crew asked for burnt bangers for some reason. “Not that I’m saying you burn your sausages,” I heard a few of them say. I looked down at the pink bangers, digging out the brownest ones from the bottom of the pile. Eventually the queue died down. There were 300 crew to feed normally, but that day was much busier because there were 110 extras on set.

After the rush, we sat down and had our meal. The cooks told me about life on the road. A couple of them had been doing it for six years. Diego had been doing it for 20.

“Once you’ve done this, you’ll never want to go back to a real kitchen,” one of them said.

The talk was all about sex and locations they’d worked at. Casino Royale had started filming in January and they’d spent the last few months in Prague, Venice, and the Bahamas. Sometimes they’d get special requests from the stars – the actresses tended to want plain-boiled vegetables with no seasoning. But most of the time they just ate the same food as the crew.

The new Bond, Daniel Craig, often sat down with the riggers and stunt men. “He’s really down to earth,” gushed Kath, “he even came on the chartered plane with us. He didn’t want special treatment.”

Diego got me to help him carry two huge sirloins from the refrigerated truck, and cut them into 100 steaks. I trimmed the fat and laid them on trays in the fridge ready for the evening meal. The washing up was done under a gazebo behind the trucks. Two Poles washed the trays, plates and cutlery in 90-litre plastic tubs. One of them rinsed everything down first with a hosepipe before it was scrubbed in hot water and left to drain on picnic tables.

They both worked with their tops off. They stopped for regular cigarette breaks and chatted in Czech constantly. Every time I brought more washing up, one would smile and say “Oh, wonderful!”

I finished off the cauliflowers and cut a sack of onions into julienne. It was fantastic working in the open air, and the sulphurous effects of the onions were blown away by the summer breeze.

Mark walked past and said: “You can take your top off if you like.”

I hesitated for a moment, and sensing my unease, he pointed at one of the pot-bellied plongeurs and said: “You can’t look any worse than he does.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cooking Up Revenge On Invasive Crayfish

I spent the next few weeks looking for another cooking job. Greeny and Stewie were the only ones I'd stayed in touch with. They phoned one day and said they'd borrowed an "old Hoseasons warhorse", and I could meet them at the estuary for a spot of fishing.

I was leaning out of the boat when it happened. My hook snagged on something on the bottom and I tried to yank it free, angling the rod to one side. There was no give, and for five minutes I tested the strength of the line.

I got off the boat and walked a few yards down the riverbank, pulling the rod low over the river. Eventually something. A slight movement. I kept pulling - something heavy was dragging along the bottom, tangled in the reeds. I pulled again, pulling in some line, and the line stretched and looked like it was about to snap. Then something yellow broke the surface. I pulled again and a large plastic cage appeared and slipped back into the water.

“Quick!” I shouted to the others. “Have a look at this.”

Greeny and Stewie looked over nonchalantly from their rods, and made wanker signs. None of us had caught anything.

“Look at this!”

Greeny eventually wandered over. He grabbed the line, and pulled out a barrel-shaped trap. There must have been 30 fat crayfish in there, in a wriggling mass. There was a sticker on the side saying Environment Agency.

“Get a pot,” Greenie shouted over to Stewie.

He poured the crayfish into the saucepan, pushing the lid down to stop them escaping. One or two hit the side of the pan and landed in the reeds and made a dash for freedom. Somehow they knew where the river was.

I went to grab them but they lashed at me with their claws, sitting back on their tails. Like gladiators, they held their pincers aloft. But I was never one for a fair fight, so I grabbed them from behind and put them in the pot. Greeny poured out the last of the crayfish, and a gnawed fish head fell on to the river bank.

“Put the bait back in, or they'll know we've been here,” hissed Stewie. He was looking up and down the river anxiously. They were the red-clawed signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), a large, aggressive American species that has wiped out 95% of the native white-clawed species (Austropotamobius pallipes) since it was introduced to the UK in the late 70s, so you could argue we were doing our bit for ecology, but he knew there was no way he'd get a job in marine biology if he got caught poaching from the Environment Agency.

I followed the line from the pot. Ten yards later another trap emerged from the mud. There must have been another 50 crayfish in there. We could hardly get the saucepan lid on and let the smaller ones crawl back into the water.

We started the boat engine, untied the mooring ropes, and headed back up stream. I boiled a kettle of water on the spluttering galley stove and examined our catch. The pan had a glass lid and their beady eyes peered up suspiciously. Ten minutes later the kettle started to whistle. It was a sound the crayfish hadn't heard before, but somehow they seemed to know something was wrong, then we realised we didn’t have any salt.

Greeny said we’d ask for some at the next lock, but Stewie was worried it would draw too much attention. A demand for salt could mean only one thing – a bucket full of poached crayfish. The gas in the cabin was so weak, I could only boil a few at a time. After two batches the water had turned into a thick yellow soup.

I drew the curtains as we went through the lock. Greeny jumped out to deal with the ropes and keep the lock-keeper chatting. The sweet, forbidden smell of boiled crayfish wafted out. I carried on my scurrilous work as they chatted away about red boards, and currents, and how high the weir was, and how to catch eels with a ball of wool. We had gone through another lock, with the same elicit bouquet pouring out from the galley, by the time I was on my last batch.

We moored up and got to work. The crayfish were a beautiful red. We cracked them open with our hands and picked out the black intestinal sac that ran down their backs. I sucked out the meat from one head, in the same way I do when I'm peeling prawns. It was a bad mistake. Yellow and green river gunge shot in my mouth, as bitter as wormwood, and it took a pint of water and a few swigs from the gin bottle to banish the taste.

Soon there was a funeral pyre a foot high of shells and claws. I’d been thinking of a recipe for the past hour – I’d solve the salt problem by frying them up with bacon rashers. Being freshwater, and especially if the head meat was anything to go by, they’d need as much salt as possible.

I fried chopped bacon in two scoops of salted butter, and threw in a few ripped sage leaves I’d stolen from a lock-keeper’s garden. Then a squeeze from the lemon we’d been saving for our vodka-tonics. The juice fizzed in the pan. I threw in the tails - and a buttery-bisque aroma filled the boat.

I poured the crayfish and the butter sauce on to three plates. Thick slices of bread for the mopping. We sat there in silence mopping juice and making occasional gluttonous noises, with the rain beating hard against the boat. Our plates were soon spotless with the bread-wiping, and we sat there with our bellies strangely full, reflecting on what we’d just done. And what a delicious supper we’d had. And how much peeling goes in to making just one Prêt a Manger sandwich...

I know boats and fresh air make you hungry, but I can honestly say it was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Crumble In The Jungle

One day I heard those golden words I’d been waiting so long to hear. Four tables ordered at the same time, and I’d got those out, and was dealing with a fifth, when I scuttled over to the fryer to rescue some wontons.

Graham was frantically plating up two sea bass, and flashing two steaks under the grill. He spotted the four goat’s cheese parcels in my hand, and a look of alarm spread over his sunken brow. He attempted a smile. Then he whispered those precious words...

“Can you slow those up a bit, or I’ll really be in the shit...”

I felt like saying ‘what’ like I normally did, and asking him to repeat it. I stared at him, remembering all the insults and strops I’d suffered. I went back to my board and pretended to be busy for a few minutes, then I chucked the parcels in. Graham nodded at me en route. It was the same feeling I’d had when I’d been called ‘chef’ at Rick Stein’s, and I cherished every moment of it.

Jules had found himself a new girlfriend. He started taking weekends off, and came in full of tales of his sexual exploits.

“Posh girls are so dirty,” he kept boasting.

One weekend his girlfriend decided to delay her return to Brighton, and he took the Monday night off as well. And that's when it happened. A table of three had come in and ordered starters as mains - pork belly, wild mushroom risotto, and a scallop salad. I knocked out the dishes and called in the Dereks.

Cathy held up my pork dish and examined it under the lights, and then made a comment about the scallops. She was really beginning to irritate me.

“Don’t we usually serve the scallops in a circle round the salad, not a square?”

“That’s for the scallops with vierge sauce,” I snapped, “the salad is served in a square!”

She looked in no hurry to move.

“Are you sure?”

Of all the waiting staff, Cathy caused the most friction in the kitchen. There was something in her nature that just stuck in your gut. It wasn’t just the greediness and the way she stole food from plates, it was the sarcasm and coldness.

“Just fucking take them will you!” I shouted.

Her reaction was immediate and explosive. She clearly saw me as nothing more than a jumped-up commis.

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do you fucking prick!”

Her doughy face turned a horrible bright purple. Stewie, who was doing pastry that night, joined in.

“Look don’t just stand there with the plates in your hand, put them back under the lights if you’re not going to take them!”

“I’m not going to take that from him!” Cathy wailed.


Cindy ran in, and the plates disappeared. Cathy was ham-faced and sullen for the rest of service, no doubt planning her attack. Then another fight broke out.

Cindy asked Stewie why there wasn’t any chocolate sauce on one of the plates, and he yelled at her, and told her to “get the fucking plates out”. I was clearing down with Marcus when one of the desserts came back. Cathy looked absolutely delighted as she relayed the news.

“They said the apples in the crumble were too sour...”

They had hardly touched the dish. Marcus tried it. His face crumpled. Even the ice cream couldn’t save it.

“Helsta hasn’t cooked the apples down enough!” moaned Stewie.

It hardly seemed worth mentioning that she'd forgotten the sugar as well. We sent out a free dessert, and were standing out the back, sharing a smoke, when the news came.

“The table that sent the apple crumble back were AA inspectors,” said Cindy coldly.

“Bollocks! There were three of them!” said Stewie.

“Well the woman said they don’t usually go out together...”

A cloud of depression descended. Cindy and Cathy were enjoying every second of it.

“She asked whether the head chef was there and we said it was his night off. So she said she would speak to him another day.”

I drove Stewie home that night and we went through all the dishes they’d had. Most of them had been cooked by me.

“Did you put parmesan in the risotto,” he asked.

“I even put mushroom powder in to pep it up a bit.”

“What about the pork belly...”

But we both knew the damage had been done. To not like a dish was one thing, to send it back was another. Stewie decided he’d better phone Jules – even if it was his night off. There was a short conversation.

With all the drama, I'd completely forgotten to write out a prep sheet for the next day, and hadn’t checked through my fridge. To make matters worse, I had the next two days off, and Jules was covering my station.

When I returned, no-one would look me in the eye. I thought it best not to ask about the AA inspection. Jules came in and flew into a rage. I’d never seen him like that before. Normally, when he was in a bad mood, he just went quiet. He started pulling stuff out of my fridge and throwing it against the wall.

“You really left me in the shit – and I mean that! You really stitched me up,” he yelled. “Look at those fucking wontons! I couldn’t use any of them. And there’s no dates on anything!”

He ran over, still fuming, and said as if reading my mind: “And that apple crumble – that was all of our fault!”

I walked out that night and never went back - I hadn’t served a dessert in all the time I’d been there. A few days later, I got a call from Greeny. It turned out those two evil waitresses had made the whole thing up.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Fugitive Foodie Undone By Pork Stew

If you ever wanted to illustrate the benefits of learning how to knock out the odd easy dish, then look no further than the unlikely tale of Chang Wen-tzung.

The food-loving fugitive managed to evade cops for 15 years until his craving for stewed pork rice got the better of him, says the Central News Agency.

The 56-year-old fled a drugs conviction in Taiwan for illegally consuming codeine (claiming it had come from, you know, when he’d accidentally downed some cough medicine), but the years he spent on the run in China, apparently made his hankering for lu rou fan all the more severe.

Rather than learn how to boil down some pork belly chunks, soy sauce, garlic, shitake mushrooms and a handful of hard-boiled eggs - a dish that even Ainsley Harriott could probably have a stab at - he eventually decided he could take no more, and flew back to the island for a slap-up feast, but was arrested at Taichung airport.

When Chang told police that his craving had brought him back to the island, an officer went to a night market to buy him a bowl of stewed pork rice. The price? Three years and 50 days in prison. But then I suppose other people's cooking always tastes better...or is that just me?

This stewed pork recipe’s for all the gastronomes still on the run...and comes courtesy of the excellent blog Gaga In The Kitchen.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Worrall-Thompson Grilled On Illegal Cook

A failed asylum seeker has been arrested at TV chef Antony Worrall-Thompson’s restaurant near Kew Bridge in London.

The 33-year-old Algerian was working in the kitchens at the Kew Grill and is thought to have presented a copy of a fake French passport to get the job.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) said AWT’s restaurant may be fined if it is proved managers failed to carry out the proper checks.

The cook has been given immigration bail while the UKBA works to get travel documents to remove him from the country.

He was one of two illegal immigrants arrested in the area. The other – a 30-year-old Pakistani – was working at a local kebab shop.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Jamie Oliver Tops Sainsbury's Poll Shock

Jamie Oliver has won three gongs in a survey by, um, Sainsbury’s Magazine. It’s even more impressive considering there were only ten categories.

Now, of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Oliver advertises the supermarket chain on TV.

It was in recognition of all the culinary prowess the fat-tongued cook has shown over the past decade - cooking bangers for taxi drivers, introducing shoppers to alien ingredients like a “nice bit of dill”, ground-breaking forays into the world of pasta bakes and beans on toast, and single-handedly changing a nation’s eating habits by putting the makers of turkey twizzlers out of business.

In the scientific poll, voted on by 800 Sainsbury’s shoppers, Oliver won Food Campaign of the Decade' for Jamie’s School Dinners, and came runner-up in TV Food Show of the Decade for Jamie at Home, and Recipe Writer of the Decade (if it wasn’t for that pesky Delia...)

How he lost out to Heston Blumenthal in the category Chef of the Decade is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he didn’t kill off enough diners? Perhaps he just lacks the headline-grabbing genius of a man who recently horrified a table of celebrity guests by serving up a dormouse lollipop as a festive treat? Perhaps it’s just because he isn’t a chef?

Have you seen Oliver in the Sainsbury’s adverts? When’s he going to give it up? He’s clearly run out of ideas...

“Err, next time you, err, make yourself some breakfast in the morning, try sprinkling a nice bit of, err, paprika on your cornflakes...taste the difference!...even turns the milk pink!...can I go now?”

Anyway, if you’re interested at all, here are Sainsbury’s Magazine’s results in full...

Food campaign of the decade: Jamie’s School Dinners. Runners up: the Government’s 5-a-day campaign, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken out! campaign for a free-range future.

TV food show of the decade: MasterChef. Runners up: Jamie at Home, Come Dine with Me.

Recipe writer of the decade: Delia Smith. Runner’s up: Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater.

Chef of the decade: Heston Blumenthal. Runners up: Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc.

Cookbook of the decade: Delia’s how to Cheat at Cooking. Runners up: The RiverCottage Year by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cafe Cookbook Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

Brand of the decade: Green & Black’s. Runners up: Dorset Cereals, Innocent.

Ingredient of the decade: Blueberries. Runners up: cherry tomatoes, chorizo.

Food product of the decade: Innocent. Runners up: Tilda steamed basmati rice pouches, Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae sauce.

Sainsbury’s product of the decade: Sainsbury’s tomato ketchup. Runners up: Sainsbury’s vanilla dairy ice cream, Sainsbury’s blackcurrant high juice.

Dish of the decade: braised lamb shanks. Runners up: Thai green curry, posh fishcakes.

And lastly, a disturbing prediction of a future decade - not sponsored by Sainsbury's...

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Chilli Wars

The dish that gave me the most trouble on the starters menu was the slow-roasted, spiced pork belly with apple wontons. It wasn’t the pork belly - it was the fecking wontons.

You put a spoonful of spicy apple puree in the middle of a wonton skin, and twist the sides to form a tortellini shape. After a few dozen, you get the hang of them. But the trouble is storing them. They go slimy in the fridge, and when you pick them out stretch like yellow chewing gum.

I tried putting holes in the clingfilm to give them air, but it made no difference. I took the clingfilm off altogether, still no good. In the end I partially cracked it by laying them in semolina flour. But even then they would never keep for more than a few hours.

I hated making the wontons, but the worst job by far was the balsamic reduction. Luckily it only had to be done every few weeks. I’d boil down balsamic vinegar until it was thick and syrupy, and filled the kitchen with noxious fumes that got into our lungs and made our eyes sting. It took about two litres of vinegar just to fill a squeezy bottle.

When everything was cooked, and I was as pretentious chefs say ‘en place’, I’d set up my station (spoon pot, pans, board, knives et al) and go to work on the garnishes – chopping chives and parsley, picking chervil sprigs, browning pine nuts, making tomato concasse, and blanching green beans for the tuna nicoise salad.

I kept about ten portions of everything in reserve, and more of the goat’s cheese parcels because they were easily the most popular starter, and also the most profitable. They scarcely cost 50p to make and sold for a fiver.

You cut a slice from a goat’s cheese log and egg wash a spring roll wrapper. You lay a circle of spinach leaves in the centre of the wrapper, put the cheese on top, fold the left side of the wrapper into the middle and then the right side over, and finally the top and bottom inwards, to make a square parcel. Egg-wash them well to make them stick, and pull them tight, or they explode in the fryer.

They were served on salad leaves with sweet chilli relish. Graham had given me the recipe for the relish. It had been bequeathed to him like some precious heirloom from his old head chef, who claimed it couldn’t be beaten.

It was simple to make – you just fried chopped whole tomatoes and sliced red chillis in sugar, vinegar and spices to make a jam. It tasted okay, but the twigs of coiled tomato skin looked terrible. I pointed this out to Jules one day and he told me to use skinned tomatoes.

When I reminded him that it was Graham’s precious recipe, he just said: “Well, I don’t think Graham’s thought it through.”

I started tinkering with the recipe, and then Graham spotted it on a particularly busy, sweaty night.

“Why the hell has the chilli relish been changed? That recipe was perfect. I got it off Hugh! It was tried and tested!”

A row started and Jules tried to defuse it.

“Why the fuck did you tell him to change it..."

“I only told him to skin the tomatoes!” he whined.

“Why the fuck did you tell him to skin the tomatoes?” shouted Graham.

“Well...because you...don’t want skin in it...”

“It’s RUSTIC, for fuck’s sake!”

Jules realised the only way out was to soothe his cousin’s monstrous ego. He dunked a fat finger into my relish tub, licked it, and then grimaced like a baboon pissing glass.

“I didn’t tell him to make it like that! Yours was much better Graham...”

We all looked at the neatly-squared tomato concasse in my relish.

The bile rose inside me.

“I fucking love this job,” I said bitterly, and sulked like a five-year-old for the rest of service.

I don’t know why it got to me so much. It wasn’t just pride. I suppose it was because I’d taken so many bollockings for mistakes I’d made, I wasn’t going to take them when I wasn’t at fault. My patience wouldn’t stretch that far – not from bullying twats half my age.

There was no longer such a yawning gulf in our cooking skills, and I was beginning to notice flaws in their knowledge. Maybe Keira had been right – maybe Jules wasn’t that good after all.

Jules and Graham tried to start up conversations, but I ignored them. Then Liz walked in with some dirty plates.

“They loved the goat’s cheese parcels!”

She scraped the empty plates and handed them to Jim.

“Oh, and they asked if they could have the recipe for the chilli sauce.”

“You better ask Graham for that,” I said.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

More Dolphin Anyone?

If you want proof of how much time some celebrity chefs spend at their restaurants, then look no further than everyone’s favourite squashed Bee Gee Antony Worrall-Thompson.

I cycled past his upmarket restaurant near Kew Bridge during a fitness binge before Christmas, and stopped off for a fag and a peruse of his menu.

Now I’m all for experimenting in the kitchen, and trying different ingredients...but DOLPHIN Antony? It’s not exactly PC. You’ll have Greenpeace special forces after you with a speargun. Either that or your staff – the sort every celebrity chef claims they have painstakingly trained up so well to cover in their absence – have absolutely no idea what dauphinois is.

I’m not one of those tedious grammarians who come out in a nasty rash when they see a spelling mistake, or get a hard-on when they spy a split infinitive, or who scrawl pipe-tappingly lengthy letters to the Telegraph about education today, and English as a second language, but three spelling mistakes in three dishes!

Even restaurants in back-street Beijing do better than that with their tourist menus. Baby cappers! And you’ve got two spellings of Béarnaise, by Jeremy!

Now I know AWT has a pretty good knowledge of classic dishes, and he knows there’s only one p in baby capers, and I hope no dolphin in dauphinois potatoes, but you’d think he’d at least keep an eye on what’s going out on his specials menus, especially considering his recent restaurant failures.

And as for the idiots who waffle on whenever I turn to the thorny issue of celebrity chef absenteeism about how you wouldn’t expect Enzo Ferrari to make your F40 himself, or Giorgio Armani to rip little distressed looks in your jeans, so why do you expect Gordon Ramsay to personally slave over your omelette if you eat at one of his restaurants?

Well, at least they’d spell Ferrari correctly on the badge.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Diver-Caught Scallops? Yeah, Right...

My first job of the day on the starters section was washing and picking three hundredweight of lettuce - about enough to fill 23 Volvo estates. There were four types of leaves – rosso, oak leaf, frissee, and radicchio. I’d pick each leaf off, carefully rip it into strips, and throw away the spine.

The lettuce had to be washed three times until the water was clear, then dried in a salad spinner. It was a dreadful job in winter – the water was so cold that after an hour your hands would go completely numb and you’d lose all sensation in your fingers, and if you ever got caught skimping on the washing, there’d be trouble.

Once my tubs were filled with endless prepped leaves, I’d move on to the terrines, soups, and whatever else needed doing. Every few days, Greeny would pop down with a wild salmon for my gravlax. I don’t know if he was still getting them from the poacher we’d met in the pub. There were rumours he’d bought himself a snorkel and a speargun and was doing it himself.

The fillets were cured with salt, sugar, lemon and lime zest, and wrapped tightly in clingfilm, and kept in the fridge for three days. The curing mixture was washed off and they were covered in finely chopped dill, and kept in the fridge for another day for the herb to penetrate the flesh. The skin would be leathery by then. I’d slice the flesh and serve it with blinis, made from buckwheat flour, fresh yeast, beer, eggs, salt and sugar. I’d make fresh blinis for every service and keep them warm in a tea towel under the lights.

The scallops that came in varied in quality. Sometimes they were small and grey, and looked like they’d been on the boat for a couple of days. Other times they were beautifully sweet and pearl white. After two bad batches in a row, we started buying them in the shell and shucking them ourselves. Sometimes they were so fresh they sprang back as you prodded them.

Stewie, who as you might remember had studied a marine biology degree and had intellectual pretensions above "just being a chef", knew all about scallops and how the boats that caught them wrecked the seabed. He grimaced as he showed us the shells, and the chips round the edges caused by dredging. He said that was how you could always tell whether they had been diver-caught or not. We were still describing ours as 'diver-caught', so one day I put a copy of the menu in front of Stewie just to watch his reaction.

He immediately became incensed and yelled at the restaurant manager to change it. “If these are diver-caught,” he screamed, holding up the battered shells like a court exhibit at the Old Bailey, “then I’m a monkey’s fucking uncle!”

We served the scallops with a vierge sauce, which is very easy to make, and in my humble opinion is the best way to serve them. You dry roast coriander seeds in a pan and crush them with the end of a rolling pin, releasing a wonderful aroma. You add olive oil, white wine vinegar, finely diced red onion, tomato concasse, and chopped garlic, parsley and chives.

The vibrant pink and green sauce looks great with the scorched, golden-brown scallops. The trick with cooking them is coating them in rust-red scallop dust (dry scallop roes under the lights and blitz them in a grinder). The powder caramelises as they cook and gives an intense flavour. The other trick is not to overcook them, or as Keith Floyd liked to point out, "they become like rubber bullets".

To get away from the madness on the other side of the kitchen, and the need to fight for space on the stove, I used an induction cooker on my station. The beauty was it'd get a pan spitting like a trapped cat in seconds, and gave out no residual heat so you could put lettuce nearby without it wilting. I’d fry the scallops in a sizzling hot pan for 30 seconds on each side, so they were caramelised on the outside and marshmallow soft in the middle.

After a couple of weeks, I tinkered with the vierge sauce recipe and added a few crushed fennel seeds. Underbelly of aniseed, and thoughts of France, I mused in a rare moment of pleasure. I was so proud of the addition that in a moment of madness, I told Jules.

“Who told you to change it?” he snapped.

I bit my lip. He was just like all those other robots that come out of Michelin star restaurants - a complete cunt.

My new book on training to be a chef, including stints at Rick Stein's and the Fat Duck, is available on Amazon CLICK HERE

"Reading this book is a serious test for any food writer. Not only has Alex Watts done what all of us say we would like to do, tested his mettle in a professional kitchen, he also writes about his experiences so well that you spend as much time being jealous of his writing skills as you do of his experiences. It's an annoyingly enjoyable read." - Simon Majumdar

Twitter Reviews:

"A rattling good read." - @chrispople

"It's a fab read. The Fat Duck chapters are class." - @Mcmoop

"If you claim to be a foodie you MUST buy this book." - @CorkGourmetGuy

"Bought your book and am hugely enjoying. Funny, engaging, interesting, lively." - @oliverthring

"A great read about the reality of working at The Fat Duck & other less famed restaurants." - @alanbertram

"Very funny, very close to the bone." - @AmeliaHanslow

"A great read and must have book for anyone in the industry." - @philwhite101

"Thoroughly enjoyed it." - @rosechadderton

"Excellent!" - @MissCay

"Just finished your book, and loved it! Thanks for ending on a happy note; it needed it after all the reality ;-)" - @voorschot

"Fab account of psycho chefs, plus work experience with Heston and Stein." - @Laurajanekemp

"Excellent read & loved the ‘scary duck’ tale! I look forward to the follow up book (no pressure ;D). Great memories of first being addressed as chef." - @granthawthorne

"Sensational account of a chef’s life, couldn't put it down. Get it from Amazon now!" - @Fishermansarms

"I'm loving your book. Very enjoyable. Some great one-liners. "His legs wobbled like a crab on stilts" had me chuckling." - @griptonfactor

"Highly recommended. A great book about changing careers for his love of cooking." @Whatsinmymouth

"Downloaded the book last Sunday and finished it the same day! Great read." - @MTomkinsonChef

"Very funny." - @SkyRuth

"Any of you who have flirted with chefdom, go and immediately download this book from Amazon - Down and Out in Padstow and London. Great read." - @el_duder

"Truly brilliant." - @kcassowary

"Just rattled through Down And Out in Padstow and London by Alex Watts in no time at all, what a great book." - @leejamesburns

"It's brilliant, a fine piece of work. If you've ever wanted to peer into a professional kitchen I can't recommend it highly enough." - @acidadam

"Fantastic read - the English Kitchen Confidential!" - @cabbagemechanic

"A great eBook to buy about serving your time (literally!) as a trainee chef." - @OkBayBach

"Great read." - @rankamateur

"Don't start reading it if you have things to do:)" - @NorthernSnippet

"Great book...couldn't put it down, read it non-stop on a train and finished it in one day." - @chunkymunki

"Jolly good read, feel free to do one more." - @esbens

There are also 12 reviews on its Amazon page.

Haven't got a Kindle? You can download a free Kindle reader app to read it on your computer. CLICK HERE.