Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chef Dies After Working 100-Hour Weeks

I’ve blogged a lot about how hard cheffing is and how much respect I’ve got for the poor souls who beaver away doing 18-hour days in Michelin restaurants, often without complaint.

During my stint as a chef, I met a lot of them. Some were so tired at the end of their shift, that not wanting to waste valuable sleeping time getting a night bus home in the six hours they had before the next gruelling shift, they would sometimes bed down on the dry store floor - and then get up with frozen joints and a cricked neck to do it all again.

But if you want an example of the dangers of working these sort of hours, then look no further than the tragic case of Nathan Laity (above), a young man from Cornwall who moved up to London to pursue his dream of making it as a top chef.

Nathan, 23, became so exhausted after working 100 hours a week as sous chef at the Tate Modern, he died after contracting tonsillitis, his distraught family said.

He came down with a sore throat but continued to work 14 hours a day - 98 hours a week - for 27 straight days without any time off, it has emerged.

He died in his sleep, and doctors say his immune system had simply shut down.

His mother Tracey, who discovered he was dead on Mother's Day, told her local paper, The Cornishman: “His body just switched off. He just went to sleep and never woke up.

“He was a lovely boy and just one trip to the doctors would have saved him. But he was ambitious.

“Nathan loved his job. He just kept going and he was working very hard. He was very stubborn about it.

“He was very talented. The head chef at the Tate said Nathan would have gone to the top.”

During his short career, Nathan worked at top restaurants in Portugal and cooked for celebrities including DJ Chris Evans and footballer Alan Shearer, joining the Tate Modern in 2008.

Nathan was buried today. The poor bugger.

:: My book on life as a chef, Down And Out In Padstow And London, is available here on Amazon...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Whale Meat Found In Sushi Sting

The owners of a trendy sushi restaurant in California are facing prosecution for allegedly serving banned whale meat, it has emerged.

The Hump restaurant was reportedly caught in an undercover sting by the team behind Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, which features covert scenes of the barbaric annual dolphin hunt in Japan (see clip of trailer above).

One of the activists had been tipped off by friends in the music industry that whale meat was being served at the $300 a head restaurant in Santa Monica. So they went along there with hidden cameras during the Academy Awards ceremony last week, and say they were given thick, pink slices of whale on the omakase menu, where chefs choose a selection of dishes for customers to try.

In the footage, the waitress can reportedly be heard calling the meat “whale”. It was also referred to at times by its Japanese name, kujira. The pair put the £40 dish in a bag and sent it off for DNA analysis to the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.

Scientists confirmed it was Sei whale, which are endangered but hunted in the North Pacific under a controversial Japanese programme that allows the killing of up to 1,000 whales a year under the guise of scientific research.

Police then carried out their own undercover operation and broke up the alleged smuggling operation. According to court papers, staff said the meat came from the boot of a Mercedes parked outside the restaurant.

“We’re moving forward rapidly,” Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the United States attorney for the Central District of California, told the New York Times.

He declined to say what charges could be brought against the restaurant, but said they could come as early as this week. Violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act can lead to a year in prison and a fine of $20,000.

Many top sushi restaurants serve unusual fish imported from Japan, and whale meat is often found in Tokyo markets. But Professor Baker said he had never heard of it being served in an American restaurant.

“I’ve been doing this for years,” he told the paper. “I was pretty shocked.”

Staff at the Hump – apparently named after the aviation slang name for the Himalayas rather than the type of whale it (allegedly) sells - refused to discuss the matter.

“We’re going to look into the allegations and try to determine what is true,” the restaurant’s lawyer, Gary Lincenberg, would only say. “Until we have done that, I don’t have any other comment.”

On the Hump’s website, bosses describe the omakase menu as a “culinary adventure…created for you unlike any that you have previously experienced!”

It adds: “If you are truly adventurous (and have NO allergic or religious restrictions), we request that you leave yourself in our hands.”

Given there are only an estimated 54,000 Sei whales left in the world, it's a pity it didn’t mention ethical and ecological reasons as well.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Egg On Face For Saturday Kitchen

You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (or legs as in Raymond Blanc’s case last week). But what is it about this dish that brings out such competitive, ungainly behaviour in normally reserved, modest, gentlemanly individuals as TV cooks?

In what is easily the best story of the day, cooking-for-idiots TV show Saturday Kitchen Live has been rapped by Ofcom for broadcasting the F-word, months after escaping action for a similar blunder during another Omelette Challenge.

Last December, Tom Kime muttered "fucking hell" under his breath when his three egg omelette started to stick to the frying pan. Not enough oil, chef? Pan not hot enough? Forgot to use non-stick eggs? (But to be fair to him, his old boss Rick Stein couldn’t make an omelette when he appeared on the show either.)

The remark went undetected by the show's cyclophobic, mole-clubbing presenter James Martin, but then if a space ship filled with doughnut-eating Martians had landed on the set, he’d probably have missed that as well, so no on-air apology was made.

It was not until after the show, when a guest was asked about Kime’s swearing, that the BBC became aware of the matter.

The BBC banned Kime from the show and apologised to the one busybody viewer who had bothered to complain.

It follows a similar incident in May last year, when guest chefs Vivek Singh and Eric Chavot were involved in the omelette "cook-off".

Singh finished first and teased his adversary with the brilliantly witty put-down: "It's my turn to sit here la la."

Chavot retorted with the Global-sharp, Wilde-esque jab: "You can la-la me, what the fucking la-la" before clamping his hand over his mouth like a girl (watch below...)

But the show was let off by the broadcasting watchdog as it issued two on-air apologies and immediately withdrew it from BBC iPlayer.

In the latest case, Ofcom said that, due to the lack of apology (wake up James you great Yorkshire’s time to open the Hull Truck Theatre's food festival), it would uphold the complaint.