Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gordon Ramsay A Cut Above The Rest?

And I thought my knife skills were rusty...

If Gordon Ramsay needed any more proof that he should get back into the kitchen, while he can still remember how to chop an onion, and forget swooning around TV green rooms pretending to be the world’s best chef, then his appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show yesterday may be a wake-up call.

Ironically enough, Ramsay is teaching the presenter how to slice stir-fy vegetables using the proper clawed-hand method so she doesn’t cut her fingers, when he slices off a finger nail.

He looks embarrassed for a moment, but quickly quips: "But it's convenient, it's a red pepper and you won't see the blood."

"I can’t believe I’ve done that, honestly...I haven't cut myself in 10 years," he adds as DeGeneres bandages his wound.

That might well have something to do with the fact he hasn’t done any proper fecking cooking for 10 years. Get back in the kitchen Gordon while you’ve still got fingers! Watch the clip above...the ‘ouch’ moment is two minutes in.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Old Cheffing Wounds Never Heal

My favourite anecdote about Gordon Ramsay (no, not the one about him being cautioned for gross indecency in a Tube station toilet) was when he was working at Michel Roux Snr’s The Waterside Inn in Bray.

Ramsay was on soufflé duty. And Roux told him to keep the oven door shut, and never to take a peak. But nerves got the better of him, and with a quick scan of the kitchen, he looked in. His soufflés were happily rising and golden. Then an hour later he was strolling past the pass thinking he’d got away with it, when he was kicked by a furious Roux.

“It was so well-timed and accurate, the toe of his shoe actually went up my arse,” remembers Ramsay, still wincing at the memory.

Now the venerated three-Michelin-starred French chef has given him another arse-kicking 20 years on, saying Ramsay’s “not better than anyone else” and people were “mad” to rate him.

“When you've got 5,000 or 10,000 people paying to see him do a demo, I'm thinking the world is mad,” he said. “I find [his behaviour] appalling; totally unacceptable. He never behaved like that when he was with us. He was about 22 or 24 and a docile young man.

“I think it's the media world that made him like that, to use the F-word every minute. Now he is enjoying it, it's bad news.”

And to twist the knife further, the 69-year-old heaped praise on Ramsay’s bitter rival Marco Pierre White.

He added: “Marco was one of ours as well...he is a very good cook, one of the best I've seen. He's got palate, flair — another scale to Ramsay.”

Friends of Ramsay, 43, immediately dismissed the comments as “sour grapes”.

But there are clearly a lot of tart gripes out there. It may have been going on for some time - his fall from grace perhaps finally confirmed by the ‘lesbian pig’ bust-up Down Under (or was it a badly-managed PR stunt as rumoured in the more cynical corners of the Australian media?) – but there appears to be no shortage of people ready to give Ramsay a good drubbing, however long the queue.

The latest is Shaun Hill, who recently won a Michelin star at The Walnut Tree, a Welsh restaurant that was once a favourite among food writers, but went through a distinctly shabby phase, and eventually went bust in 2007 after being featured on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

In a recent interview, he slammed Ramsay for thinking he “could come in for five minutes” and turn the place around, and attacked his new TV series - which features Ramsay getting away from it all by stomping around India with only a film crew for company - as mainly consisting of footage of “him taking his top off”.

Hill moaned about the way the then owner Francesco Mattoli was made to look on the show. He claims Mattoli came across as a “crook and an idiot”, and had no idea the programme was going to be called Kitchen Nightmares. For some reason, Mattoli was expecting some kind of “Alan Titchmarsh, Ground Force-style ” show. (You can’t really see Ramsay presenting a gardening programme can you? Hopping up and down with his hand round his chin shouting at the flowers, and calling the radishes “lazy fuckers”.)

He might be doing his best to laugh it off. But attacks like these from well-respected chefs couldn’t come at a worse time for Ramsay, whose fortunes are sinking faster than an over-egged soufflé, culminating in him losing a Michelin star at Claridges. Insiders say the bosses are furious, and have demanded Ramsay spend as much “face time” in the kitchen as possible to regain the Precious.

But Ramsay’s clearly not going to go mental. He’s done his time – 20 years at the stove and all that. "With Gordon's other restaurant commitments and TV work,” his spokesman sniffed, “it's impossible for him to be there every night."

Every night?

In fact, perhaps it’s time for Ramsay to forget about the 2011 Michelin guide to Great Britain and Ireland and Cape Town and Melbourne and West Hollywood et al and just concentrate on cashing in on his name while he still has one. Rather than arrogantly pointing out how busy he is all the time, and how many restaurants he’s got, and how Posh likes her sprouts, every time someone asks tiresome questions about why he’s not behind the stove of an expensive restaurant with his name above the door, he should take a leaf out of Pierre White’s book.

There’s a lot to ridicule the stock cube-botherer for, not least his ludicrous fondness for speaking like Yoda. Wearing a tea towel round his head like some strange, demented Rambo. But at least he’s upfront about it.

In an interview with a local paper for the launch of his new restaurant, The Swan in Aughton, Lancashire, he said: “I’ll never cook there, I don’t cook anymore – I’ve retired.

“I’ll be going up around six times a year for a couple of days at a time.”

Defending his decision not to be more hands-on, he waved one hand and added: “Forget let us not, I’m not charging £150 to £200 per head just because my name’s above the door.

“My ambition is to take good eating to the nation at affordable prices. I wouldn’t go up north and start charging £150 per head and not be there – that’s the flaw in that model.

“When you’re paying that amount of money, you would expect the man to be behind the stove.”

He possibly be referring to who could, hmm?

But to be fair to Ramsay, this whole celebrity chef phenomenon has become a complete farce. They’re all on the jus train. Using mind-bending Jedi logic, Pierre White argues that by not charging three Michelin star prices, he’s not cashing in on his stars and legendary cooking skills, and it’s just a humble £30 a head gastro pub, sorry ‘restaurant that serves pints’, selling British classics like shepherd’s pie and fish and chips.

And yet the very first line on The Swan’s classy-looking website says: “As the first British Chef to be awarded 3 Michelin Stars and the youngest Chef in the world to receive them, Marco Pierre White is a name synonymous with quality and a great dining experience.”

I know what you’re thinking. There’s nothing worse than false modesty.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

El Bulli's Not Quite Dead...

I've never quite understood the fuss on Twitter about El Bulli closing - from foodies with no chance of ever eating there.

When chef genius Ferran Adria announced he was closing the world's top restaurant for two years, there was near Princess Di hysteria.

The streets were strewn with pine-nut marshmallow tributes and a massive sea grape statue was hurriedly built in Hyde Park.

Then it got worse, much worse, with a report in the New York Times on Friday that El Bulli was actually closing its doors for good - in December 2011.

Epicureans the world over lamented even more. Some threw themselves from restaurants with panoramic views.

The paper claimed Adria, 47, had decided to close El Bulli permanently because, despite having 3,000 punters on its waiting list for a table, it was losing too much money.

It said Adrià and his partner, Juli Soler, had been losing half a million euro a year on the restaurant - and enough was enough.

News of the permanent closure was quickly followed up by the international media, with no apparent checks, and the scribes penned headlines like "El Bulli To Serve Its Last Brioche".

But now it appears the New York Times' story was all fecking rubbish - and a furious Adria has been hastily ringing round the Spanish papers, putting the story straight.

He said: "Nothing has changed from what I announced in January at Madrid Fusion, so El Bulli will close its doors in 2012 and 2013 and will open them in 2014."

Blimey. Breaking news!

What a storm in a (spherical lemon) tea cup.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Can A Menu Be Racist?

A canteen chef in America has found herself at the centre of a race row after serving up a soul food menu in celebration of Black History Month.

Leslie Calhoun’s specialties for staff at the NBC studios included fried chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas.

The menu was spotted by musician Questlove, who posted a picture to his 1.2 million followers on Twitter, with the words "Hmm, HR?" It went shooting round the Twittersphere, and quickly sparked a food fight between people with clearly far too much time on their hands.

The issue – which seemed to be centered on whether it was racial stereotyping, and therefore racist, to suggest black people eat fried chicken all the time – was greeted with an equal measure of incredulity and consternation.

In one corner, there were the boggle-eyed, foaming-at-the mouth types, jabbing their fingers at how it was all political correctness gone mad. They questioned whether it would be equally racist to put potatoes on the menu for Paddy’s Day, or pizza and lasagne for an Italian night.

One comment began: “I went to Nam to defend this country and look at what has happened. Obama, Tiger Woods, and (Al) Sharpton should all send that chef a personal letter of apology.”

In the other corner, were equally outraged folk, slamming culinary racial stereotyping, especially in such a predominantly white canteen. Seeing middle class media types tucking into their finger-licking chicken and cornbread was tantamount to “blacking up”, one person argued.

Comedian Wanda Sykes entered the fray on the Jay Leno Show, saying, "Hey big chin, what is happening at NBC? Is the whole damn network on medical marijuana?”

Questlove clearly regretted the row he’d started. An hour after he circulated the menu, he tweeted: "i think i need a twitter break. i done started something. and now i must put out fire."

But despite his way with words, the row continued and the sign was taken down, and the only thing people could really agree on was how it would have been much worse if the chef had been white.

NBC’s black chef then defended herself to the New York Post, saying she couldn’t understand why people might find her menu racist, and it was only food “that I eat myself".

She added: "Questlove, who I serve every day and who enjoys my food, requested the neck bone [cooked in] the black-eyed peas and fried chicken, then got off the line, saying, 'This is racist.'

"The next thing you know, people were taking pictures of the sign and asking all the other black people in the cafeteria if this was racist. They said that it wasn't."

It might all seem a bit trivial compared to the problems, of say Haiti. But it’s strange how emotive food is to national identity and culture – we are what we eat. And how often it is used in race-based slurs. Sausage-eaters, les rosbifs, limeys, cheese-eating surrender monkeys, spaghetti slurpers etc.

I got a glimpse of it once, when I was staying with friends in California. I was introduced to a German at a dinner party, who joked about how “everything in Britain is boiled”.

“Boiled!” I cried, recoiling in pain, the word much louder than planned.

I don’t why. I’m not particularly nationalistic or proud, but anger rose up inside me from somewhere, and I let rip about how British cooking had undergone a complete transformation in recent years, and there were some brilliant restaurants in Blightie, and besides all they ate in Germany was sausages and potato salad, and why anyone would consider the elegantly-named schweinshaxe a delicacy was beyond me.

Equally, and perhaps understandably, incensed by my disproportionate dissing of the legendary German cuisine, he put his hands to his ears and made a strange bellowing noise, and said all our cows were mad. I was about to turn to the thorny issue of Nazi Europe, when the other dinner guests jumped in.

And it was all over a fairly innocuous comment about the British preference for stews. The German had even winked as he said it. But somehow it had seemed racist, or at least intended to offend, and at the very least irritating.

Dinner Party Rule Number 8: Never discuss politics, religion, or food.

A disappointed Ms Calhoun told how she’d been begging NBC bosses for years to let her make special dishes to celebrate Black History Month, and only got her wish last year. The plan was to have one special meal every Thursday during February.

Apparently, next week, she’s got poodle hot pot for Korean night.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Spam, Spam, Chips And Spam

They say an Army marches on its stomach, so spare a thought for Corporal Liam Francis in Afghanistan.

The Army chef was forced to feed comrades on Spam-based recipes for six weeks when a helicopter bringing their food supplies was shot down by the Taliban.

Racking his brain for recipe ideas, and with no more fresh food able to get through to Forward Operating Bases, in Sangin District, the 26-year-old cook was only able to offer a menu that looked like it had come straight out of a Monty Python sketch.

The Royal Logistics Corp chef said: "We were on compo (compound rations) for six weeks and we only had one menu – Spam.

“I was surprised what we could do: sweet and sour Spam, Spam fritters, Spam carbonara, Spam stroganoff, Spam stir fry..."

A month-and-a-half later, with mutiny no doubt afoot and even the merest mention of the infamous budget tinned pork punishable by death, fresh supplies finally started to get through. And the troops’ celebratory meal? More pork, of course.

"The first day off Spam, I prepared battered sausages, chips and curry sauce,” he said. “The Sergeant Major said it was the best meal he had ever had – he'd never seen morale so high."

Cpl Francis is now back in Camp Bastion, the UK's main base in Helmand province, where Army and civilian chefs currently get through 7,500 burgers a week, 10 tonnes of chicken breast a month, 20,000 baguettes a week, and absolutely no Spam.

PS. Here’s a recipe for spam carbonara if you’re interested.


Half a normal-sized pack of spaghetti
2 eggs, beaten
Tin of Spam, cut into cubes
Grated parmesan cheese
One onion, finely chopped
2 tbsps olive oil
Ground pepper

Cook the spaghetti and then drain. While it is cooking, fry the Spam and onion in the olive oil until lightly browned. Add the spaghetti, eggs and cheese and toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and then throw in the bin because it’s absolutely disgusting.