Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cooking At A Soup Kitchen

A few months back I trifled with the idea of getting a voluntary cooking job at a homeless centre. I was missing the cheffing, and thought it might make a change to the fake, plastic, celebrity-obsessed world of journalism, or at least what passes for its name these days.

There was a soup kitchen at the top of my road, and I figured they probably needed some help judging by the growing number of drunks and tramps who crowded the pavement every lunch-time.

I knew it would hardly be cordon bleu cooking, and I wasn’t on some sort of Jammy Oliver Feed Me Better crusade trying to get crack-heads to eat salads and Mexican bean wraps rather than nibbled pieces of fried chicken from bins.

In fact, I’m still not sure why I did it. I’m not really the sort for charity work. Only a few days before, I’d got into an argument with a bunch of chuggers. I’d seen them at the last minute and they’d got all my escape routes covered.

I won’t go into the details because I’m embarrassed by the whole affair, but it ended with an Aussie sporting a ridiculous purple goatee shouting back at me: “Take a chill pill, mate, before you get yourself a bloody heart attack or something!”

Maybe that’s what caused it? Maybe I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life? Not being a chugger, obviously. They’re only doing it for the commission hence the hard-sell tactics.

But maybe I wanted to help others rather than just concentrate on my own feelings? Maybe I thought it would make me feel better, knowing there were people worse off? Or maybe it was just the call of the onions again?

After walking past the centre a few times, I went in. I asked about a cooking job, and was told to meet Sister Harpiner at the foot of the stairs. She took me up to her dusty office, and I told her I’d worked in restaurants and would love to help out in the kitchen.

“That’s great, Lennie,” she said. “But we don’t want anyone too good...because the cook’s...well, we don’t want her to get used to having someone good around and get frustrated when you’re not there.”

“I’m not Gordon Ramsay,” I blushed, suddenly aware that I’d already said too much.

“Compared to me you will be,” she smiled.

I was told to return at 11am the next day. I was late again, but it was soon obvious the whole place was run on chaos. In fact, it seemed the last thing they needed was another pair of hands.

I told them why I was there, and a small search party was sent out to find Sister Harpiner, bellowing at the foot of each flight of stairs. I was quickly going off the idea and kept eyeing the stairway down, but there was always a grey-haired helper behind me, ferreting around in bin liners, and blocking off my escape.

After giving up the search at what felt like the tenth floor, I was taken down to the kitchen and introduced to the pot wash, a small, cheerful woman in her 50s. She introduced me to some of the other workers, and then went back to her foam.

There seemed to be a great emphasis on staff tea and biscuits. Every time I held up a half-nibbled Rich Tea in protest, they told me I was allowed two. Five biscuits later, I met the cook I’d be working for. She was a gnarled, unfriendly woman with bow legs and heavy make-up.

That day the homeless, as she called them, were having frozen, diced vegetables and chicken nuggets. Looking at the Kwik Save bags piled up in the corner, there was nothing to suggest it was different from any other day.

The food was cooked two hours beforehand, and left to pant in silver trays. It reminded me of school meals. Where was Jammy Oliver when you needed him? But there was no point in his brand launching a homeless meals crusade because tramps don’t own televisions. And no-one cares what tramps eat, do they?

The cook scowled at me several times as I looked around. Maybe she’d been told I was some sort of hotshot chef? She mumbled a few words and said there’d be a lot of potatoes that needed peeling. Then she looked across the kitchen and smiled slightly.

“You can open those,” she said, pointing to ten large tins of evaporated milk. “You do it like this...”

She showed me a hitlerite tin opener that looked like it should be on the Antique’s Roadshow. It had a massive spike that you slammed down into the top of each tin. She did the first two and then left me to it. I saw her smirking as I mangled the first one, then the second. I was looking around red-faced and about to ruin a third, when a middle-class woman rescued me.

“I did that to start with,” she said.

She finished the rest of the tins and they obviously thought I’d done enough work for the day. I was sat down on a small plastic table opposite an old man called Amby, and given a biscuit. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and was reading the sports pages. He started discussing last night’s game, but I hadn’t seen it.

“You can’t sit back on 1-0. They’ve got all those millions on the pitch!” he kept saying.

The staff told me he could measure shirt collars on the clothes left outside the door just by glancing at them. He’d made his money as a tailor, and had decided to give something back by buying the building and turning it into a homeless centre, much to the annoyance of the neighbours.

An hour later they found Sister Harpiner. She took me upstairs and made me sign some forms. Occasionally helpers would bustle in, saying they’d lost something, or where were the keys, or what room were the scarves in? She told me about the place, and was sniffy about its sister centre up the road.

“There, they just have a bit of tea and toast,” she said. “Here - they have a hot meal.”

“Sets them up for the day,” I replied.

“And so it does, yes. And do you know how easy it is to become homeless, Lennie? Some lose their jobs and end up on the streets. Some go into hospital because they have mental problems, and come out after a few months and haven’t kept everything up to date, and have got behind with the rent, and before they know it, they’re turfed out.

“Or others split up with their wives and lose the house, and end up on the streets that way. We have a lot of drink and drug problems here, I don’t mind telling you. But we have one rule though - you must never lend them any money, we have the credit bureau for that.”

I went in the next day, and never went back. It was obvious the cook wasn’t going to let me do anything. And besides, I couldn’t even open tins. The only meal I cooked there was corned beef fritters (it’s below if you want it, but I really wouldn’t bother...)

A week later, I was walking past the centre, avoiding the drunks, and hoping no-one would see me. Sister Harpiner was just a few yards in front, getting into a hatchback. I hunched down, trying to shield my face with the cans I’d bought from the off licence.

“Oh, hello there,” she called out.

My pace quickened as I clattered the cans.

“Will you not be coming to join us?”

She called out again, and I finally got the key into the lock. It sends a cold, worthless shiver down your spine, trying to give a nun the slip.

Corned Beef Fritters

We served them with oven chips and value baked beans, but I suppose you could try something more healthy like a jacket potato and a green salad.

1 tin very poor-quality corned beef (you want the pink stuff)
1 caged egg
1 cup of value flour
Salt and pepper
2 tomatoes, sliced

Refrigerate the tin of corned beef for exactly one-and-a-half hours before opening. This helps carving and is essential to the neatness of the presentation. Slice the meat into 8mm-wide slices. Season lightly on both sides.

Make the batter by whisking the egg in the flour and adding enough milk to make a thick batter. Dip the meat slices in flour and coat them in the batter. Fry them in lard for a few minutes until they are on the brown side of golden. Serve immediately with the sliced tomato, and some ketchup.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Sustainable Fish Supper

In my last blog, I talked about sustainable fish and the Big Fish Fight and how many fish and chip shops were passing off cheaper species as cod and haddock. And today I read some rather disturbing news about how a teacher in Leicester almost died from an allergic reaction after eating catfish from his local chippy - thinking it was cod.

Luke Marwell was left looking like Gordon 'Cabbage Patch' Ramsay when his face swelled and he struggled for breath. (Perhaps that's a bit unfair, but it did give me a chance to mention Ramsay, who this week denied he'd had plastic surgery, and came out with a bizarre explanation, saying his puffy face had been caused by an allergic reaction to a, er, horse. Strange that, because he didn't seem to suffer when he presented the F-Word with Janet Street Porter.)

Anyway, Marwell was taken to hospital and after tests doctors found he had been served pangasius - a Vietnamese catfish often passed off for cod. Marwell has now recovered but it may be some time before he heads back into a chip shop. "Next time I'll ask what the fish is," he said.

The National Federation of Fish Friers said: "We don't like pangasius, but it's cheap."

However, there are many cheap, sustainable fish you can batter instead that don't run up the food miles. Pollock is the best of the lot, I think. When I served it the other day to a group of pensioners who kept moaning on about how they only ate cod and chips, I didn't get any grumbles at all.

Pollock obviously has a different texture to cod and the chunks aren't quite as meaty or scalloped, but if you sprinkle a little salt on to the fillets and leave them for a few minutes they're pretty tasty.

Anyway, I thought I'd take you through the recipe because it's amazing how many cooks I've come across who can't knock up a decent fish supper. And it's a great way of cooking guilt-free fish like coley, pollock, whiting, black bream or pouting. Click here for a list of fish you should eat.

Sustainable Fish And Chips

To make decent chips, you need decent potatoes. Floury ones are best, like King Edward, Maris Piper, Romano and Desiree. Peel them and cut into thick chips. Then blanch them in a deep-fat frier at 130C for about eight minutes. They should be soft and pale by this stage, like this...

Turn the frier up to 180C, and plunge the chips back in for a few minutes until they are crispy and golden-brown. Shake off the oil and keep warm.

Skin the fish by gripping the tail, and pushing up a sharp knife at an angle of about 30 degrees (a thin filleting knife is easier, but you can get away with a chef's knife). This gets quite easy after a few thousand (if you've ever had the misfortune of working in a chippy like me), but the trick is to do it firmly and quickly without tearing the skin.

Then dip the fillets on both sides in seasoned flour.

Make the batter by putting plain flour into a bowl and whisking in a good real ale until you have the consistency of hot custard. Don't use lager - it's not the same, and you'll get kicked out of the fish-frying guild (or Masons, but that's another story). Add some ground white pepper and whisk again.

Heat the frier to 180C. Coat the fish in the batter and shake off any excess.

Lay the fish gently in the oil. Don't chuck it in because you'll get splashed, and the batter will come off the fish.

The fish should bob to the surface after a few moments. If it hasn't it maybe stuck to the bottom, so check.

Cook for about three minutes until golden and crispy. Serve with the chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce. By the way, this week I got quite a bit of stick about my tartare sauce recipe because it was 'sans capers'. I got it from an old Spanish chef who hated capers for some reason (and more to the point was an horrendous scrooge). His recipe works well enough, but if you can't possibly imagine an existence without capparis spinosa, then as they say in Thailand: "Up to you!"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fish And Cheap Publicity For Celebrity Chefs

When Channel 4 launched its Big Fish Fight, I was going to write a blog about how Hugh, Gordon, Heston, and Jamie had as much chance of changing a nation’s eating habits as a chihuahua on a Korean lifeboat. And perhaps I should have done, because however successful their TV mission has been to persuade people not to turn their noses up at unfamiliar fish, how long will it last?

The main obstacle, I figure, is that even though the British are an island race (in fact, I was called an ‘island monkey’ the other day by a disgruntled German) they are on the whole squeamish, extremely fussy and amazingly unadventurous about fish. In fact, Britons tend to eat just three – cod, salmon and tuna (the trio account for a staggering 42% of all fish sales in the UK).

Also, the people watching pretty much fell into the minority who already ate sustainable fish like gurnard, sprats, mussels, dab and flounder, and therefore the message would be lost on the larger – less foodie – audience.

And besides, hadn’t we seen all this before?

Back in the early 80s, when Keith Floyd - the man who unwittingly spawned the celebrity chef phenomenon - did his brilliant Floyd On Fish shows, he tried to change the nation’s eating habits by deploring how vastly underrated species like red mullet and gurnard were and how they had to be flogged to France or put in crab pots because the Brits just wouldn’t eat them. His show got millions of viewers, but little changed.

There were similar messages over the years from other TV chefs, and then Charles Clover’s must-read book on overfishing, and the disastrous state of fish stocks, came out and was largely ignored. End of the Line was later made into a film and received strong backing on the web from Stephen Fry and the like, but still nothing.

But, this time, had I underestimated the appeal of vastly-overhyped TV chefs and the sheep-like, post-X Factor susceptibility of the public?

Did I begrudgingly have to take my hat off to Jammy Oliver and co for their incredible success? It would rub even more salt knowing they are only spouting the message because it is good for their media image (especially Ramsay who has been criticised in the past for putting blue fin tuna on the menu) and would probably plug whale meat if they thought there was a few quid in it.

But wasn't this fish campaign so much more powerful than previous ones? You had to admit everyone was talking about it - why Gordon had petrol poured all over his lovely hair by shark gangsters for God's sake!

The impact was hard to argue with, it seemed. First Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fishy sermon appeared in The Sun of all places, and therefore reached a far larger audience than just foodies.

And then I got into a black cab, and after a short conversation about what I did for a living, the driver turned to me and said something like (I'd had a bit to drink): “D’you know, I had one of them Mack Baps in my chippy the other day, you know the ones those chefs are banging on about, because they think they’re sustaining or something. Real surprise it was. Thought I was going to have to spit it in the bin. But it was fucking lovely!”

If black cab drivers were talking about the virtues of sustainable fish when they would normally be ranting about how all homosexuals should be shot, then the message had truly got out.

Indeed, Sainsbury’s reported a 167% leap in pollock sales last week, and at Tesco, sales of whiting, sardines, coley, crab and sprats were up between 25% and 45%.

Don Tyler, chairman of the London Fish Merchants' Association, said: “Retailers I have spoken to have had a very, very good week. There’s no doubt that the publicity has led the public to be more adventurous.”

He added: “We were very concerned about the publicity over fish getting thrown over board but the campaign has attracted favourable attention to the trade.”

Steve Herbert, of WJ Herbert & Sons in Wood Green, north London, said: “It’s been a good week. Lots of people have been coming up asking about the TV show. There’s been a hell of a lot more coley sold. That had been dropping off.”

So was everything rosy? Would the sea beds stop being ravaged? Would our grandchildren be able to enjoy fish too (well salmon, cod and tuna at least)? Would sharks get their fins back? No, not really. “We have seen a rise in sales after TV shows before and then it drops away,” Herbert cautioned.

So although the campaign's initial success has to be applauded, it really depends how much of a middle-class fad it proves to be. But whatever the outcome, the praise should go to the crew, not Hugh Long-Name and his media slut chums, who give far less of a damn about fish stocks than their own rising stock. Or as Hermano Primero, one half of the splendid Dos Hermanos food blog, brilliantly put it: "The only reason these wankers get involved is to push their brands...if they really want to help the world, they could start by breeding a bit less."

Another thing that rankles is trying to convince people that some sustainable fish are just as good as the old favourites. I saw a programme the other day where Oliver insisted that pouting “was just as good as cod”. This is nowhere near the truth. If you go down that route, people will try them and go back to the pukka fish, you great lisping twat Jamie!

There ARE some fantastic guilt-free fish like mackerel, crab, mussels, pollock, squid - and the best of the lot for my money, sardines (especially when they are scorched over a fire in Portugal and served with a simple salad, vinegar, sea salt, olive oil, and cold boiled potatoes).

But as for the others, like coley, pouting and whiting and so on, the supermarkets should just play on ignorance and rebrand them as “white fish”. It worked brilliantly when they cut the monstrous heads off angler fish and renamed them monkfish. Although, it didn’t work so well when they rebranded pollock as Colin, but then Colin is a pretty stupid name for a fish.

There is nothing fraudulent about it and people won’t know what it is anyway, as long as it's filleted. They’ve been getting away with it for years in fish and chip shops – a recent Dispatches investigation revealed how widespread it is for businesses to pass off cheap fish like tilapia as far more expensive haddock or cod. And it is even more widespread in the North, where fish and chip shops traditionally serve fish skinless, meaning the species is even less identifiable.

So if people can't tell when they specifically ask for cod, why should they be bothered what the "white fish" is when they are making a fish pie or something? Advertising it as pouting and pretending it's as good as cod isn't going to help anyone.

Call me cynical, but with the fickleness of the public and the long-term success of previous campaigns, the only winners will be the celebrity chefs themselves. And with all the expensive puff involved in Channel 4's taxpayer-funded series, didn't they get a huge amount of brand promotion for very little input? Just how many turkey baisters and fish cookbooks will they sell on the back of that? For them it really was fish and cheap publicity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Raw Food Smoothies And Live Frogs

Last week I told you about the green smoothies I’ve been making, which came about after I took a wrong turn at the end of the corridor and found myself in a vegan raw food class rather than a ‘how to make your own cider press’ workshop.

For 19 long days now I’ve been having a raw food smoothie every morning, and I do feel quite good. Although, as I said last time, it is really about being able to spend the rest of the day downing booze and smoking fags relatively guilt-free, knowing that I have had my blast of vitamins for the day, and therefore will live forever, and not be struck down by some foul disease.

Ok, hands up. I do admit the recipe I gave you last time was fairly disgusting, and it did come under fire from a fair few food writers, not least Trish Deseine (@TrishDeseine), who was horrified to learn I was putting raw kale in there, and demanded video evidence that I was actually drinking them, and Lotte Duncan (@lotteduncan), who said she would much rather just stick to her margaritas.

I found it a little unfair because although my ‘wonderful earth smoothie’ did leave a lot to be desired in the taste and texture stakes, it was certainly not the worst health-boosting smoothie I’ve ever come across.

That was in the Colca Canyon, in Peru, when I spotted a load of villagers queuing up at a stall. When I got closer I saw a man pulling objects out of a small aquarium, chopping them up, and putting them in a blender. The smoothie was a strange pinkish colour and wasn’t altogether too pleasing on the eye.

Creeping further still, I could see that it was live frogs he was blitzing. The villagers downed the liquid in turn, and some even looked like they were enjoying it. Apparently, they believed the frog smoothie helped ward off flu and chest infections.

Anyway, I’m going off the point slightly because my whole mission over the past week has been to try to find a way of making green smoothies more palatable, and with the description above I’ve probably completely put you off, and you are no longer reading.

So I started thinking about raw foods and what I could put in to make the smoothies taste better. Then I realised my favourite raw food in the world is oysters. In fact, it is probably true to say that oysters are my favourite food in the world. No vinegar, no Tabasco, no lemon. Just as nature intended. In fact, is there any better food this side of Mars?

I’d bought a couple of delicious Irish oysters the night before, and then as I opened the fridge, my heart sinking at the thought of that morning’s raw food smoothie, a golden light shone out and I realised what I needed to do. Shuck the bastards and chuck them in. And the result was out of this world! And what a wonderful colour to boot – as green as leprechaun’s piss, so it was.

Well, it was a massive improvement on last week’s smoothie anyway. Although that wasn’t too difficult. But I’m being unfair, because it really was quite drinkable and the zinc and sea water helped cut through the taste of the raw kale.

I know that any vegans reading might be offended, and I know the militant veggies who were in the ‘living in the raw’ class I went to by mistake will definitely be disgusted, but oysters ARE raw, and I really couldn’t care less what they think anyway (the vegans, not the oysters). Go on try it – it’s really not that bad. I know I said that last time, but go on, seriously, give it a go...

The Green As Leprechaun’s Piss Smoothie

Two oysters
Four young kale leaves
Two spinach leaves
Three asparagus spears
Handful of rocket leaves
Two small eating apples, cored
Squeeze of lemon juice
Few drops Worcester sauce
Salt and pepper
1/2 pint water

Shuck the oysters (if you haven’t got an oyster knife, I find a screwdriver works very well, but careful with your hands) and put the meat and liquor into a blender. Add the rest of the ingredients and blitz until smooth and wonderfully green. Drink at once (before you change your mind).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fish Restaurants And Mayonnaise

I am glad that Nathan Outlaw has been awarded a second star in the Michelin Great Britain and Ireland Guide 2011. The former Rick Stein acolyte has worked hard for his success in his small kitchen in Rock, Cornwall.

His passion for cooking is legendary among chefs in the West Country. When I was down there, his friends told how he loved food so much he would get up early on his one day off a week just to cook them a fancy lunch, and often take hours doing it.

The other reason I’m pleased is because he has been recognised for his handling of simple dishes like cod with tartare sauce and clams. So many Michelin restaurants feel they have to crowd the plate with complex ingredients and techniques that it is good to see the judges hailing a chef who has confidence in keeping dishes simple and tasty.

Derek Bulmer, who helped edit the guide, said: “He has a particular flair with fish. He doesn’t overcomplicate. He knows when a dish is done.”

The only shame is Outlaw’s small restaurant at St Enodoc Hotel is the only Michelin-starred fish restaurant in Britain – which is a pretty poor show for a land surrounded by water and some of the world’s best seafood.

With my love of seafood, and hope of one day owning a fish restaurant near the sea, Outlaw’s kitchen is a place I’d love to cook in. But maybe that will just be a dream. In the mean-time, I’m still getting my knife skills up to speed before my cheffing stint in California. I’ve spent a couple of days working at a restaurant in land-locked Buckinghamshire.

It’s a far cry from St Enodoc, and there are no beautiful harbour views, but the fish arrives fresh from Cornwall and the dishes are simple and delicious. It reminds me of some of the eateries you get in places like Lagos or Le Touquet for some reason.

Perhaps it is the mayonnaise? Every decent fish restaurant should serve an unctuous mayonnaise, even if it is just to dip prawns in or smear over a fruits de mers. The mayonnaise I’ve been making there takes me straight back to summers in France every time I try it.

I know there are loads of well-worn recipes for how to make it, but I thought I’d share it anyway. In fact, there seem to be as many recipes for mayonnaise as there are theories on where the name came from.

Some believe it was created when the Duke of Richelieu took Port Mahon on Minorca in 1756, and named mahonnaise. But for my money, that seems pretty lame. I can’t believe that the skilled chefs who worked in mediaeval courts hadn’t come up with a simple emulsion of egg yolk and oil before that.

Others think it comes from the French verb manier (to stir), or from the Old French word moyeu, meaning egg yolk. Some believe it was invented in the town of Bayonne, and originally known as bayonnaise sauce. I don’t know. Perhaps the chef who invented it had a cold at the time?

Anyway, here’s my method. It’s a belter...


5 eggs
Salt and white pepper
1 heaped tsp English mustard
1 tsp paprika
1.5 pints vegetable oil

Take the eggs out of the fridge about an hour before you make it. Break four egg yolks into a soup bowl containing the mustard and leave for ten minutes. Put one whole egg into a mixing bowl and beat with an electric hand whisk, on its lowest setting. Add the yolks, mustard, paprika and seasoning until you’ve got a bright yellow custard.

Then slowly trickle in the oil – it’s essential you do this slowly or it may split - until you’ve got a thick, light-yellow mayonnaise. The amount of oil varies, and depends on the size of the eggs etc, so you may need no more than a pint.

By adding certain ingredients like anchovy, watercress, caviar, garlic, capers etc. you can make sauces like remoulade, maltaise, Cambridge etc. Our place is very simple – we use tartare sauce for fish, and marie-rose for crab and prawn cocktails and smoked salmon cornucopias. The recipes are here:

Tartare sauce

There is a lot of debate in professional kitchens about what should go into tartare sauce, and I once fell out with a chef over it in spectacular fashion, but this recipe is a good one.

1 bowl of mayonnaise (using five eggs as above)
250g large gherkins, drained
1/2 large Spanish onion
salt and black pepper
2 tbsps chopped chives
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 hard-boiled egg yolks

Make the mayonnaise as above. Chop the gherkins and onion finely, and then add with the rest of the ingredients. Season to taste.

Marie-rose sauce

1 bowl of mayonnaise (as above)
3 tbsps tomato ketchup
½ tbsp Worcester sauce
1 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Dash of Tabasco
Sprinkle of paprika to serve

Add all the ingredients, mix well and chill. The dish can be improved by rubbing a spoon with a halved piece of garlic and then stirring the sauce with it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Restaurant Boss Sacked For 'Ghetto' Email

Restaurant Rule Number 358: Don't leave insulting messages about customers on the bottom of emails.

Anyone who saw Michel Roux’s Service may have despaired at the idea of taking a bunch of carefully chosen fuckwits and turning them into top waiters and restaurant managers (where will the reality TV food programme trend end – Ainsley Harriott’s quest to find Britain’s best potwash?)

Yet despite their stroppiness and inexperience none of them could possibly be as bad as Andy Nesenson, the general manager of a Mississippi restaurant who got fired for writing a racially offensive email that was mistakenly sent to a black customer.

LaTrenda Watson said she was shocked and appalled when she received the insulting message after booking a table for 15 at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Ridgeland to celebrate her mother’s 60th birthday.

Nesenson wrote in an internal email to marketing manager Wendy Stringer Partain: “Another ghetto Sat. Party. They really love us don't they. Especially on Sat. Call her and get her on the books if we have room, and I will take care of the rest."

For some reason, Partain sent a confirmation email to Watson, with the offensive email attached at the end. Watson complained to the company and Nesenson was immediately fired.

"The whole plan was to throw my mother a birthday party, and we wanted to have it at a nice restaurant in a nice setting. So we chose Ruth's Chris," said Watson.

"My heart just really dropped, and I was in total shock. And from that total shock, I began to get really angry and upset. I took it as them looking at my name and saying okay this is a black person - they must be ghetto.”

Watson cancelled the reservation and moved the party to another restaurant. She was later contacted by Ruth’s Chris to tell her Nesenson had been sacked.

Michael O’Donnel, group president of the 120-strong franchise chain, said in a statement: “We are saddened to hear and so very sorry that anyone associated with Ruth's Chris Steak House would think or make a statement so misaligned with our culture.

“On behalf of all our employees and franchises I am sorry that this ugly, inappropriate incident happened."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hilarious Employee Dismissal Form

Bosses at Domino’s Pizza are investigating whether an amusing employee dismissal form that has been trending on Twitter is genuine or not.

More than 23,000 internet-users have already seen the document (below) which claims that a pizza worker was sacked for turning up to work under the influence of drugs and insulting customers. He apparently told one customer who complained about his behaviour: “Go straddle a narwhale you chlorinated gene pool.”

The details are so quirky it is hard to believe the form isn’t a fake – but then who could come up with stuff like that without the help of mind-bending drugs, far more be able to remember them afterwards?

When I phoned the Domino’s press office, a spokeswoman said she was trying to find out whether the employee dismissal form was genuine.

She added: "We have looked into it, and it's definitely nothing to do with us here in the UK or Ireland. Firstly because it mentions lava cakes, which is something we don't sell over here.

"We do suspect that it's from our colleagues in Australia, but because of the mass floods over there we've been struggling to get hold of them by email or phone to confirm that's a definite."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vegans And Starting A Raw Food Diet

At this time of the year, a lot of people give up the sauce for a month after the port and gin festive excesses. Some go on diets, or give up meat for a month, and some even try to pack in the fags. I’ve done none of these things, mainly because I’m cursed with an addictive personality and have the determination and procrastinatory powers of a caned sloth.

But one thing I have been doing is drinking. Nothing unusual there I hear you say. But I’m talking about drinking - or should that be eating? - a thick, raw food smoothie every morning.

It was sparked by a raw food course I went on (it’s a long story, but basically I turned right rather than left at the end of the corridor, and instead of the ‘how to build a cider press workshop’ found myself on a vegan ‘living in the raw’ course - I should have known really from the pompous, sniffy looks and the lack of beards and scrumpy tans, well there were some impressive beards in there, but anyway one good thing did come of it, and that was the discovery of the green smoothie...)

Now I can’t pretend to like them, but it does mean I get pretty much all the vitamins I need for the day in one hit, and can spend the rest of the day smoking fags and drinking beer - relatively guilt-free.

The tutor explained the “current thinking” that eating five portions of fruit or veg a day was actually the bare minimum for good health, and the required amount should be nearer nine.


I have to admit to a mild panic attack at that point. I looked back on my diet over the previous few months: if you counted the white cabbage in my kebab, I’d be lucky to hit two a day. Something had to be done. And for lazy, single buggers like me who enjoy cooking for others but rarely cook for themselves, the raw food smoothie seemed to be the answer.

“A green smoothie is the perfect way to start the day,” preached the tutor. “Indeed if there was just one new thing you introduced into your diet a day, beside raw chocolate (she got a laugh at that point – I was the only bloke in there) then this should definitely be it. Yuck I hear you say! But believe it or not green smoothies can not only be delicious, but also addictive.”

Now, I wouldn’t go as far as that. Nowhere near in fact. But after you’ve downed a couple, and that really is the only way to eat - or is it drink? – them, they do have an odd, slightly moreish quality. In my case, it’s probably the satisfaction of knowing that I can order my kebab later without having to ask for extra salad.

The following is a recipe I’ve tinkered with that produces a lovely, earthy-coloured smoothie (see photo above). Try it – it’s not that bad. And it does make you feel a lot better. But don’t drink it before a long journey...

Lennie Nash’s Wonderful Earth Smoothie

1 banana
4 young kale leaves (or spinach)
1 eating apple, cored
1 small carrot, peeled
2 sticks celery, peeled
Good squeeze of fresh lemon to taste
2 tsps pumpkin seeds
2 tsps sunflower seeds
2 tsps linseed
Sprinkle ground cinnamon
½ tsp chorella
1 tbsp fresh or frozen berries (blackberries, strawberries or blueberries)
1 tsp organic honey
1 pint water

Soak the seeds overnight in a cup full of water and drain. Then put all the ingredients into a blender (a Vita-Mix 5000 is brilliant for this) and whiz until smooth. Add more water if it is too thick. Pour into two glasses and gulp (quickly).

Sunday, January 09, 2011

How To Make The Perfect Stock

I’ve been cheffing in restaurants for the past few days trying to get my knife skills back up to speed before I head off on my cooking trip to California.

Although I’ve agreed not to write anything about the place itself (other than it’s a vastly overpriced restaurant in the Chilterns) I thought I’d share some of the techniques I’ve been (relearning) with you.

Some of you will already know all of this already, especially as there are some far more skilled chefs than me who read this blog, but I thought I’d post my thoughts anyway. Besides, isn’t that what blogs are for – to point out the bleeding obvious? And it’s always good to get other people’s slant on a cooking technique.

One of my main duties has been making the beef, chicken, fish and vegetable stocks, and reducing them for the demi-glace sauces, so I thought I’d start with these...

In my opinion, making stocks (not just because I’ve been doing it) is one of the most important jobs in the kitchen (obviously depending on what type of cuisine you’re cooking – in my case English and French).

Once you’ve got some good quality beef, chicken, vegetable or fish stocks you can make all manner of sauces, meat glazes, and jellies very easily. Popping in a few tablespoons of demi-glace to the cooking juices after pan-frying a steak or chop will completely transform the dish, and take your cooking from the perfectly acceptable to the sublime.

Indeed, the success of many famous dishes depends very much on the quality and richness of the stock. But don’t use cubes – they give an unpleasant taste, despite what Marco Pierre White is paid to say. And never buy the pre-made stocks you find on supermarket shelves – they cost a fortune and are as bland as Adrian Chiles.

Oh, and while we are on the subject of naffness, don’t use the words ‘jus’ or ‘nage’ when describing your offerings - they just sound pretentious, and belong solely in the domain of wanky gastropubs.

Every chef has a different method for making stocks, and the complexity varies enormously. Some Michelin-starred restaurants spend days making them, continually skimming, freezing and separating the fat so only an intense, perfectly clear liquid remains (the turbot stock at the Fat Duck takes a week to make for instance, which is why I was so fearful of dropping it when running to and from the prep room). Whereas other restaurants pad out the stock with cubes, gravy mixes, and other poisonous compounds and thicken it with corn flour.

Here is the best method for making a basic veal stock as far as I’m concerned. It will make a couple of litres of well-flavoured stock, or if reduced further, a small tub of rich demi-glace.

4kg of veal bones
1kg stewing or braising beef or veal
3 large or 6 small onions
1 leek
1 large carrot
4 celery stalks
1 garlic head
2 bay leaves
10 black peppercorns
2 tbsps tomato puree
1 star anise
1 bunch of thyme
4 juniper berries
1 bottle red wine

Place the bones in a tray and roast them for about an hour until well-browned. Slice the onions in half and blacken the cut-side over a gas flame until brown – this will release a lovely caramel flavour. Chop the rest of the mirepoix (leek, carrot and celery) into a rough dice and fry gently in a little vegetable oil in a stockpot or large pan.

When the vegetables are soft add the bones. Pour some boiling water into the tray the bones were roasted in to release the sticky brown bits of intensely-flavoured meat and juices stuck to the bottom. Pour into the stockpot, with about four litres of water.

Bring to the boil and skim a couple of times to clear the stock. Cut the garlic head in half horizontally so that all the cloves are exposed. Add this with the rest of the ingredients to the pot and simmer slowly for a few hours, skimming when necessary.

You can add trimmings to the pot – and in kitchens this is a good way of using left-overs, but be very careful what you put in. Never put in vegetables that will make the liquid cloudy - like potatoes, greens or broccoli stalks. But tomato trimmings, mushroom stalks, herbs and the like are all good additions.

Some chefs I’ve worked for never used fish heads when making fish stock, claiming it made it cloudy, but I’ve never found this, and most chefs use the heads, but cut out the gills with scissors because they have a bitter taste. Also never add the liver when adding giblets to chicken or turkey stock as this has the same result.

Other stocks can be made in the same way, by substituting pork bones, chicken carcasses, lamb bones, pheasant and venison bones for game stock etc. depending on the type you’re making. If you want a white chicken stock use uncooked chicken, if you want a brown chicken stock, roast the bones before you put them in, throwing in some onion skins for extra colour.

Then strain the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve, and return to the pan and reduce by a third. Either store in the fridge or freezer as stock to be used in casseroles and soups etc or reduce it by half again to make a demi-glace or meat glaze. This will set to a firm jelly when cool.

For a good meat glaze, you need to get the liquid boiled down so that it becomes syrupy and will coat the back of a spoon. You can then add it to the cooking juices and flavour it with say rosemary if you’re making a sauce for lamb, thyme for chicken, sage for pork, medlar jelly for venison, whisky for grouse and so on. And the glaze freezes well so you can make batches at a time. It’s a good idea to freeze it in an ice-cube tray so you can just pop a couple out when you need them.

That's it. Easy. So come on! Tell me your method...

Friday, January 07, 2011

Going To California (In A Food Truck)

This week I had lunch with a fat man called Boris. A few years ago I’d done a bit of freelance writing for a food mag and Boris was the editor-at-large (a title that owed more to his size than salary). He was now a publisher.

For some reason, whether it was the wine and brandy or just a misguided belief in my cooking and writing abilities, he said he wanted to commission me to write a book about training to be a chef, and that I should buy an old banger and drive along the west coast of the US, working in fish restaurants in San Francisco and food trucks in LA et al and writing about my experiences along the way.

“California’s one of the food capitals of the world,” he said breathlessly, dripping shallot vinegar over another oyster and tilting his head back and swallowing with a rather disturbing look on his face.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and his piggy eyes scanned our fruit de mers for more morsels. There were just a few sorry-looking whelks and winkles nestled in the melting ice on his side of the table. His trotter reached over and grabbed the crab I was saving.

“Do you mind old bean?”

I shook my head and he snatched the greasy nutcrackers and got to work on a large brown claw. There were white spindles of crab and lobster meat in his beard.

“It’ll be brilliant. There are thousands out there who want to be chefs, but are too afraid to do it.”

“Or too sane,” I muttered

But Boris wasn’t listening. He was off somewhere in one of his happy, gluttononous dreams, fondly remembering times his 20-stone bulk danced nimbly around the stove. He stopped suddenly and his narrow eyes glittered.

“Arm-chair chefs! That’s it! It’s for the ARM-CHAIR CHEFS! It’ll be like those travel guides for people who are far too scared to actually hack their own way through the jungle, but are more than happy to read about someone else doing it!

“There are masses of foodies out there, obsessed with what goes on in a kitchen – how the professionals really do it – the tricks of the trade! They’d like nothing more than to snuggle up in front of the fire, with the cat on their lap and a big mug of tea steaming away next to them, reading about the honest gruel of kitchen labour…”

He ordered another brandy.

“You’ll have to keep a diary though - write everything down. The funny anecdotes and stuff…”

“Yeah, but what’s the angle?” I said hesitantly. I was already thinking about the heat and long hours, and how I’d be throwing myself back into the furnace again.

But I couldn’t deny it; the excitement was growing inside me. I especially loved the idea of working in a few of the food trucks that had sparked a culinary revolution in the US.

The names alone had a magic to them – Dim Sum Charlie’s, Cochon Volant Flying Pig BBQ, the Rolling Sushi Van. There would even be a bit of fresh air to be had. It would be like working for that film location catering firm, and I’d loved that.

Boris was still talking...

“It’s brilliant! Take a year off, scootle down the west coast in an old jalopy and learn the trade. I just wish I could do it myself, but what with the mortgage and the bloody kids…I can’t be on the breadline again, you know that. But you’re alright – you haven’t got any!”

“I’m a bit rusty...” I said.

“You’ll be alright – just bring the kitchen to life for all those arm-chair chefs out there. Just the basics on what you need to learn to become a professional cook. Improve your dinner parties no end!

“You know...knife skills, different vegetable cuts, knowing the difference between brunoise and julienne. Prepping meat, veg and fish, knowing how to portion and store food, stock control, that sort of thing.”

He took another swig of wine and topped himself up. I still wasn’t sure if the lunch was on him.

“Garnishes - making dishes look nice. Making pastry and dough, what to look for when buying food from the market. Has the fish got bright eyes and red gills? If not, why not!”

“Why not?”

“It’s all got to be there, you know! Fill it with cooking techniques, recipes, and pad out the rest with anecdotes. You know the stuff – you’re good at it. And you’ve got the passion for it!”

The last was his trump card, and we both knew it. He had the same romantic view of the kitchen I had. He’d worked as a chef for ten years in London and LA before he got too tired and took an easy job sitting behind a desk all day, writing about food, and making occasional forays to the pass.

He wrote restaurant reviews from the kitchen – that way, he always said, you could try everything going out, not just what you ordered, and got a fairer view of the menu. And, of course, he could stuff himself with more food that way.

I’d often wondered whether there was any real difference between a foodie and a glutton. People will tell you foodies care more about the provenance and quality of the food they eat, but gluttons will just eat anything.

I’m not so sure. I’ve eaten many a mucky, late-night kebab or Chicken Geoff with a top chef or manager whose seasonal, animal-barcoded, locally-sourced menu reads like a hymn sheet to River Cottage. But to be fair, it’s what you savour after a night cooking or serving quality restaurant food.

Boris broke open another claw and began reminiscing about his days working in kitchens in California and as a private chef for Hollywood stars.

“I burnt everything old bean. Everything!”

His eyes glittered with passion, too much wine, and the wetness of longing regret as he told me about the smoke and the heat, the shameful, napkin-concealed ortolan feasts, and the thousands of pounds of caviar, lobster and foie gras he’d shoved down his throat.

“But first we’ll have to get your knife skills up to speed again. Can’t have you rocketing off to California, cutting off fingers! Otherwise it’ll be a very short book indeed!”

And that was it. Boris said he’d make a few phone calls to a few kitchens and I was left with the bill. I sat there for an hour wondering about the possibilities while the waiters brushed breadcrumbs from the tables around me.

Occasionally, one of the chefs would stand in the doorway, puffing out blue smoke and getting a rare glimpse of sunshine. I wanted to be that chef, basking in those precious few moments.

I didn’t want to just write about it, and stand on the sidelines reviewing restaurants. I wanted to cook for a living. But at least this way I’d be able to do both.

And maybe I’d get inspired enough to start up my own food truck when I returned to the UK? Then I thought of the name. It was even better than the Shrimp Pimp Truck (motto: shrimpin’ ain’t easy, but it sho is fun!) And that was a name that wasn’t easily trumped.

The possibilities were endless, and for the first time in a long time I felt like I was truly on the right road.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

How Long For That Risotto, Grandad?

I’ve had a great response to my blog question: “How old is too old to be a chef?” It appears to be a matter close to the heart of many foodies in the Twittersphere, especially those who went into - or are thinking of entering - the trade as late as me.

The advice was fantastic and on the whole deeply encouraging, whether from hard-bitten professionals or enthusiastic amateurs, and I thought I’d summarise it as best I can and share it with you, because there are some of you clearly going through the same ‘shall I do what I love however freaking crazy it maybe’ hell as me. And if it has helped me, hopefully it will help you.

In a nutshell, the consensus seems to be you are never too old – within reason. Obviously you might want to think again if you hope to bang out dishes in your 90s while leaning on a rusty Zimmer Frame, but it really depends on what your aspirations are. Or as food and drink journalist Douglas Blyde (@DouglasBlyde) succinctly puts it: “It depends on the venue, its scale and ambitions.”

If you desire fame and TV exposure then you’ve probably left it too late, likewise a hat-trick of Michelin stars (or as they’re known these days, stock cube adverts), but if your dream is to run your own kitchen then there has probably never been a better time to do it – what with the huge plunge in pub and restaurant prices. And really, if you are going to slave away in a cramped furnace in a trade as hard as cheffing, then you might as well work for yourself. And there are far less bollockings and threats on your life that way too.

There was some great advice from the cooks on the Staff Canteen forum via a 42-year-old foodie who’d run a pizza stall but now wanted to properly train as a chef. Was he too old and what was the best way to do it?

One chef questioned whether he would “HONESTLY be able to take a bollocking from a 25-year-old, or possibly someone younger?” It’s true. It was one of the hardest things I found about cooking during my first attempt to make it as a professional chef. The ability to bite your tongue when a teenager with a bum-fluff moustache and bad breath is screaming at you because you’ve forgotten the parsnip chips or something is a hard one to master.

For that reason alone, it is better to seek out a mature chef as a mentor. They’ll be less likely to be Pierre White or Ramsay clones, and it’s definitely easier being ripped to shreds by someone closer to your age. It also stops you studying their acne while dwelling on how late you left it before taking up the knives.

Private chef Grant Hawthorne (@granthawthorne) told how he had worked with a 42-year-old woman who’d packed in her high-paying job to retrain as chef. Her family and husband were against it, but eventually after years of hard work and a much-needed divorce, she continues to live her dream and runs her own business.

Hawthorne said he had recently met a lot of “senior students” who were retraining to work in “this wholly satisfying profession”. Like most of the chefs I have met, he recommends – if you can afford it – getting a long-term (probably unpaid) stagier position under a master in a decent kitchen rather than going to college.

Indeed, most experienced chefs agree that you’ll learn far more in a few weeks in a professional kitchen than you would doing years of qualifications in catering colleges. I remember one chef I worked with at Rick Stein’s who said he learned more in one month at the Seafood Restaurant than he had in six months at the expensive Leith’s Cookery School in London – something that in hindsight would have saved his parents thousands.

And when it comes to the CV, professional certificates and NVQs will be far less important than enthusiasm and passion for the job, head chefs say. After all, if you’re going into it in your 30s, 40s, or 50s then you’ve probably already demonstrated that in spadefuls.

So how old is too old? The discussion was sparked after Anthony Bourdain said that anyone thinking of becoming a chef over the age of 32 is already too ancient. He is, no doubt, once again carping on about the drug-fuelled, high octane, balls-on-the-table, waitress-banging, cooking-is-the-new-rock-and-roll cheffing myth he has done so well out of propagating. But whether you are cooking at gunpoint for gangsters or even running a fudge shop in a sleeping village in Devon, it certainly doesn’t seem to hold true for many of you.

In fact, try telling that to Shar, a former desk jockey from New Zealand, who is now training as a commis chef at one of the country's top restaurants. He's 50 in two weeks' time.

Jason Rowe (@lovesgreatfood), who runs Dine On The Row restaurant in Beverley, Yorkshire, got into the trade when he was 38, and believes you are never too old if cooking is your passion.

Blogger the Pub Landlady (@NorthernSnippet) runs a rural pub in northern England with her partner. They are in their 40s and still do 18-hour days, but they have their own business, and “wouldn’t do it for anyone else at this age”. And she adds: “There has never been a better time for an enthusiastic chef/owner to snap up and exploit one of many bargainous pubs on the market.”

(She’ right. Running a leasehold pub, especially with a tied lease, is a mug’s game, but there’s still a lot of cash to be salted away in a freehouse serving good food. And the price of freeholds has plummeted. There is a great pub in a rather dowdy town in Buckinghamshire that I’ve been following that went on sale two years ago for £495,000 plus VAT. The brewery still can’t shift it for £280,000.)

But I digress...

Swansea-based chef Jonathan Crooks (@stovemonster) was equally encouraging about the profession. “Go for it Len, it’s the best job in the world in whatever sphere of food production you choose. You have to find out if you have it,” he tweeted.

And Dhruv Baker, who decided to become a chef at the age of 34 after winning Masterchef 2010, improved my mood by saying he was still setting up plans for his restaurant. And when I asked him if he was cheffing, he replied: “No not at the moment but hoping to be in a couple of weeks.”

Maybe I wasn’t that lazy after all?

But my favorite piece of advice came from Dave Ahern (@CorkGourmetGuy), who is retraining as a chef at the age of 35: “Chin up and remember the saying, you need an old dog for the hard road.”

The hard road it is then...

Monday, January 03, 2011

Too Old To Be A Chef?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cheffing recently, and whether my idea to get back into it is part of some sort of acute mental breakdown or, far worse, mid-life crisis.

I gave up my reporting job nearly two months ago now, and I’ve got a couple of restaurant trials lined up (more on that next time) but I still haven’t really got my hands dirty. And at my age, I shouldn’t be wasting any time at all. There is so much to learn...

But perhaps it is my age? Maybe I’m scared that I no longer have the energy to cope with what is undoubtedly a young man’s game? In a recent so-you-want-to-be-a-chef-style article, Anthony Bourdain wrote that anyone entering the trade in their early 30s was already too old.

I’m already eight years past that, but I suppose it really depends on what level of cooking you’re talking about. Eighteen hour days in Michelin restaurants are obviously out. But I’m not really interested in awards. And as an old chef friend from The Gull once said to me, “the catering business caters for everyone”.

By that he meant you could still indulge your passion for food by doing anything from running a simple sandwich shop or deli or pie and mash cafe to serving up trout candy floss for wacky celebrity-based cookery programmes (Heston please don’t disappear up your arse completely).

It doesn’t have to be the long hours and stress of a restaurant, there are lots of ways of doing it. Some even have better hours than “normal” jobs.

And just because you’re running a gourmet burger van (as I've been thinking of doing) and not a high-end restaurant doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it less, or be less creative, or take less pride in your food. As my stint at the Fat Duck proved, Michelin star restaurants can be very tedious, dull places to work in just banging out the same identical dishes night after night, all for the C-word that is consistency.

You can have far more fun in a bistro thinking of ways to use up scraps – and that to me is the truest and most worthwhile form of cooking: making ordinary ingredients taste great. Surely that’s why soup was invented? And soup, after all, is the best meal in the world.

I've been wondering about which path I should take, and whether the restaurant route is really for me. Then I started thinking about some of the passionate foodies I’d met on Twitter who’d also given it all up in their 30s or 40s to follow their cooking dream, and the different paths they’d taken.

There was Matt Follas (@matkiwi), the Masterchef winner who’d given up a lucrative IT job to open his own restaurant, The Wild Garlic in Beaminster, Dorset. He loves his job, and even though he has trained up chefs to cook for him, the long hours must take their toll.

There was @MsMarmitelover, who realised she was happiest cooking and opened a successful pop-up, the Underground Restaurant, in her London flat. Nice compromise because you don't have to be open every night.

There was Dave Ahern (@CorkGourmetGuy), an Irishman who decided to retrain as a chef after years of writing about food.

There was Tim Kinnaird (@DrTimKinnaird), who for some reason had ditched his job as a paediatrician to run a cake stall in Norwich.

And there were, of course, hundreds of food writers and produce makers determined to make a living out of their passion.

Indeed, friends have been asking me why I don’t just combine the cooking and journalism. But that seems like cheating somehow. I don’t want to just write about food, I want to cook it – and besides, how much is there to say about it? It’s only food after all. The art, surely, is in the doing?

But to plagiarise Beckett, I'll find a way...

You must go on.

I can't go on.

I'll go on.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

From Ramsay To Rourke

Gordon Ramsay may have a face like a chihuahua’s bollock, but this is a bit severe isn’t it? I know he’s been wrestling with problems over the past couple of years, culminating in a huge tax demand, a massive drop in popularity and a public falling out with his in-laws - but changing into Mickey Rourke is a tad extreme...

He’s already had his teeth whitened (about as close as the former carrot chopper gets to whites these days) and Botox injections to flatten out his crinkle-cut chin.

Now the 44-year-old foul-mouthed fop has shelled out £30,000 for a hair transplant, and by the look of today’s News of the World, a hell of a lot of other work to turn him into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

Apparently, the hair treatment clinic in Los Angeles he left sporting a surgical cap is pioneering a new Willy Wonka-style procedure which allows vain celebrities (are there any others?) to see themselves as they would be in a different life.

They say you end up with the face you deserve, and this is Ramsay if he had ducked out of catering college and taken up the popular Scottish vocations of alcoholism, chip munching and recounting tales of an imagined football career (oh no, the last bit is true...)

Or perhaps it is the Ramsay as he would have been had he spent the last 15 years actually working behind the stoves of his crumbling business empire along with his overworked, underpaid chefs, rather than brown-nosing Simon Cowell and jumping in front of every TV camera this side of Jupiter like the media whore he is today.

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