Monday, June 27, 2011

Does AA Gill Eat Meat From A Gibbet?

The row about AA Gill giving London’s trendy Hawksmoor steak restaurant a mauling with a fleischklopfer has raised a couple of interesting questions, namely where does the overpaid napkin-tucker get his beef from, and just how much justification was there in his review?

I promise this is my last word on the matter, but there was one fundamental aspect to his article that I thought was a bit odd – even if you do take into account his over-developed use of hyperbole and glibness.

Part of Gill’s “absolute slating” as the restaurant itself put it, was that the meat was undercooked, the béarnaise sauce was cold, and everything was swimming in fat. As I wrote in my last blog, this caused a furore on Twitter from food bloggers and fans, who said they couldn’t understand why he’d come to that conclusion when their meals had been so good.

I don’t have a problem with that bit at all. Firstly, food is highly subjective. Secondly, it shows a lack of understanding of how a critic like Gill works. And thirdly, it reveals a lack of understanding about how a professional kitchen works. Kitchens are chaotic places at the best of times, and although consistency is the mantra banged into every chef, not even the top restaurants get it right all the time - even those that have as many chefs as customers (and Hawksmoor isn’t one of those).

I can’t believe the restaurant hadn’t spotted Gill marching in with his steel-capped boots on, and stepped up its game. But even then, it’s quite possible that key staff were off, or nerves took hold, or standards had slipped on that occasion.

The béarnaise could easily be cold (a massively subjective judgement), the steak could easily be undercooked (a massively subjective judgement), and as for the “tacky pools of beefy lard”, his bone-in prime rib for two could have been from a particularly fatty beast, and the dripping chips might have been put on the plate by a junior garnish chef, who’d forgotten to bang the fryer tray, or hadn’t used towelling to soak up the grease.

All of that is possible, so I don’t really see what all the “shock” was about from Hawksmoor’s supporters. But saying that, it is of course far more likely that Gill just exaggerated the imperfections 300-fold because he knew rival critics had given the restaurant a massive thumbs-up – with The Observer’s Jay Rayner saying it was "the best steak I have ever eaten in this country" to New York Magazine generously putting it “on a par with the legendary beef palaces of New York". And he knew that the Hawksmoor was the darling of Twitter and food bloggers, so he’d get a bit of publicity from poking a stick into the baboon cage.

But what I couldn’t understand was how most of his criticism was directed at the meat supplier. He said the beef was tough (eating it “felt like something you should do in a gym”) and he had sympathy for the chefs because they were at the mercy of the butcher (The Ginger Pig) and there’s “not much you can do to rescue a badly bred and underhung sirloin”.

Chewy, underhung beef from The Ginger Pig? It didn’t sit right. Whenever I’ve bought meat from there it’s been exquisite – and it should be at that price. The beef was always juicy, tender and ridiculously full of flavour. It was always a deep purple in colour that you only get from hanging meat for long lengths of time that supermarkets are far too greedy and cost-conscious to worry about. The pork cheeks were so gamey they tasted like wild boar, and the chickens always tasted like chickens should.

It was real meat. Provided by people who knew what the hell they were talking about, and loved their jobs. It’s always the case the closer you get to the source – provided you find the right source.

When I cooked in Cornwall, I was surrounded by farmers who hung pheasants until their necks broke – an event that sometimes took up to two weeks – and the flesh had the punch of Roquefort. It wasn’t for everyone, but if you wanted the taste of wild game that epitomised Britain’s season of far-from-mellow fruitfulness, then there was no better.

As I say, it didn’t sit right. Other chefs I spoke to said they had never had a single complaint with their meat from The Ginger Pig, and raved about the quality and matureness of the beef. It seemed a strange – perhaps clumsy - thing for Gill to pick them up on.

The Ginger Pig crew were obviously not pleased to return from the weekend into a shit storm. But just as Hawksmoor did, they handled it in a dignified, professional manner, and just said they hadn’t read the article, but they’d be happy to show Gill round the farm (and hopefully feed him to the pigs).

When I contacted them to ask how long they hang their beef for, they said: “All our beef is always hung for 30 days at the farm and then delivered to London where our shops hang it for a further 10-plus days.”

Forty-plus days! No-one hangs meat longer than that. Not even the Australian beef farmers who Gill has been busy arse-kissing of late. It begged the question where does a strange, alien-like creature like Gill get his meat from, and is it from a gibbet?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hawksmoor's Slating & Jailing Food Critics

For the second weekend in a row now AA Gill has managed to stir up a hornet’s nest among food bloggers by doing what he’s paid to do – putting the boot in, upsetting people, and getting as many column inches as he can in the process. Last weekend, he came under a storm of derision when he slammed the lack of critical commentary in food blogs, suggesting they were giving suppliers and restaurants an easy ride to maximise their PR freebies.

Today, he sparked more spleen-venting by having a swipe at what Hardens called that “Twitter sacred cow” Hawksmoor, the fashionable steak restaurant in Covent Garden. After panning the starters, he turned his attention to what he called the main event - the steak. He said their bone-in prime rib for two was undercooked, had the “texture of fat-slag thigh”, and eating it “felt like something you should do in a gym”.

Despite commenting that the béarnaise sauce was cold, and “everything seemed to be covered, or exuding tacky pools of beefy lard”, he said he had sympathy for the chefs because they are at the mercy of the butcher (The Ginger Pig) and there’s “not much you can do to rescue a badly bred and underhung sirloin”.

The bloggers and fans were incensed. How dare he? Not Hawksmoor. The owners were clearly upset, but very dignified about it, saying they hoped his “absolute slating” was outweighed by the thousands of people who love their chain.

“About 200 messages of support on Twitter today. Thanks so much. Tomorrow we sit down and try to get better, same as every Monday,” they twatted.

But some fans clearly took the attack even more to heart, reminding people what a talentless, horrible little man Gill is. Some pointed out that it was best just to ignore him, and then ignored their own advice by tweeting endlessly about him for the next few hours.

Such was the outrage and shock, it left me wondering whether they’d like to see him extradited to Taiwan, where the authorities take a very dim view of troublesome food critics like Mr Gill.

On Friday, a 28-year-old woman became the second food blogger in a week to be hauled before the courts for having the nerve to write something bad about a restaurant. The blogger, referred to only in the court papers by her surname Hsia, became embroiled in a lawsuit after she accused a yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant in Gongguan, Taipei, of using a rusty grill to cook beef.

She posted a photo of the grill on her blog, and was then sued for defamation by the eatery which claimed the “rust” was actually barbecue sauce that hadn’t been cleaned off properly. Well that’s alright then. Perfectly understandable. Twenty lashes and it’ll all be sorted.

But she then raked up the embers further by blogging about how she was being sued by the business, which she compared to a “fat, arrogant cockroach”. She claimed that some Taiwanese firms, like the restaurant, were using the courts to silence negative comments, and by doing so “managed to continue to hassle the human world because everyone turns a blind eye to them, allowing the cockroaches to grow fat and become arrogant.”

Not surprisingly, this threw even more beefy fat on the fire, and the restaurant launched a second legal action against her - this time for the more serious charge of “public humiliation”.

Banciao District prosecutors ruled that her original review – which included photographic evidence of the grill and some positive comments about the food – was not defamatory. But they said her cockroach comments were definitely below the belt, and crossed the well-greased line from fair comment to libel. They decided her little-read blog had damaged the restaurant’s reputation, and charged her with public humiliation.

On Tuesday, another food blogger was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay £4,400 after she wrote a negative review of a beef noodle restaurant in Taichung, saying the food was “too salty”, the owner was a "bully" who did not enforce parking rules, and there were cockroaches in the restaurant.

The owner sued her for defamation, saying the review sparked many calls to the restaurant to verify the blogger's claims. The Taiwan High Court ruled that her post should not have referred to all the dishes as "too salty," since she only had one dish, and the conditions were not as unsanitary as she claimed when they later went to inspect (presumably after the place had been given a good deep-clean). The blogger was originally sentenced to 30 days in prison, but this was downgraded to a two-year suspended sentence after she agreed to compensate the restaurant.

It remains to be seen how the “rusty grill” woman will be treated. But the threat of a crowded prison cell in a country not known for its human rights – if you haven’t got £4,400 to avoid it - is a hell of a price to pay when you’re not getting paid to write the stuff in the first place.

Judging by the reaction on Twitter, I reckon there must be many who think Gill deserves a similar fate, but whatever you say about the “vile twat”, thank God there are still countries in the world where he can say it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Vietnam: The Land Of Sandwiches

I used to know a lot about horse racing, but never quite enough to make any money at it. I studied the form, and threw bricks into the dewy turf to test the going each morning, and unwrapped blankets around steaming Lancashire hotpots in the back of my beaten-up old Land Rover in the hope of luring tips from passing insiders. At one point, I even found myself driving to King’s Cross some evenings to buy the next day’s racing papers.

It was quite sad really.

Like I say, I never really got anywhere with racing. But the one thing I did learn is that what you eat at the races says a lot about the food of the country you’re in. I’m not talking about private dining tables and Royal enclosures; I’m talking about the soul food, the comfort food, the snacks of choice - the stuff eaten in the cheaper silver-ring and grandstand enclosures, where 90% of punters go.

You say Kentucky Derby to race-goers and they’ll have the taste of American mustard and fried onions in their mouths, Melbourne Cup and it’ll be the meaty gravy of that ‘proper Aussie pie’ they keep droning on about in ever-ascending sentences, Fairyhouse and it will no doubt be the fatty, breadcrumby taste of disturbingly pink sausages, and Royal Ascot, and it’ll be the tang of smoked salmon, moistening away nicely at the back of the throat with the heavily-buttered brown bread.

But given the overwhelming evidence at Saigon Race Track – one of the very few places in the country that the Vietnamese can legally gamble - the snack of choice here is the sandwich. Alright, there were a couple of stands selling noodles – you can’t go anywhere in this place without falling over a fucking noodle stand – but it’s definitely the sandwich.

Or the banh mi, or bread roll, as it’s known here. A stumpy baguette filled with anything from tinned mackerel in tomato sauce to Laughing Cow cheese to eggs to a few cold cuts and a smear of dubious pate (don’t ask), and always with salad, herbs, sauces, pickles, and a generous scattering of chopped red chillies, that is easily now the most popular form of Vietnamese fast food, overthrowing the traditional pho noodle soup.

I apologise in advance, if I appear obsessive about sandwiches. I wrote an unpublished book on the weighty subject in my hopeful, naive 20s, and have always been fascinated by their history, and the cheerful, parcel-like comfort they offer.

Sandwiches were obviously made well before a hungry John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, ordered an idle butler to stick some meat between two slices, and to hurry up about it, because he didn’t want to waste valuable gambling time leaving the card table. Barbarians were no doubt chucking slabs of rhino between unleavened, fire-baked bread thousands of years before that.

I mean it’s hard to accept that man had invented the printing press before the complexities of the filled bap. But if you do go with it, and say it was Lord Sandwich who invented what we now regard as the sandwich in its modern form, then it makes an interesting journey from his stamping ground in Kent to Saigon Race Track 6,357 miles away in Ho Chi Minh City.

The British statesman made them fashionable, there were rosbif ripples in France, and then finally an uncomfortable acceptance of this entirely new food form that no-one had ever seen or heard of before (obviously with the word ‘le’ wedged before ‘sandwich’ in a typically Franco attempt to save pride, rather than a shoulder-shrugging, philosophical favor that it was just another nail in the coffin of the French language).

Parisians started filling baguettes with pates, and jambon and butter, perhaps with a few cornichons on the side for sharpness and colour, then came brie and squished tomatoes with lots of pepper and sea salt, and then as happened in Britain’s former colonies, France started exporting sandwiches through its empire like rats from ships.

The French took their flour over to Saigon and showed their Vietnamese servants how to make baguettes, and then finally – almost 120 years after the death of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich - the banh mi was borne. And it’s amazing to think that no-one would have ever invented it, if it hadn’t been for a British aristocrat, whose epitaph should have read "seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little", according to his many critics.

Yes, they embraced the sandwich in Vietnam. And some might say Lord Sandwich has got a lot to answer for, because it shows in the diet. The Vietnamese tend to be much more rotund than their Cambodian and Thai neighbours. Men happily flop their guts out, and lounge around, scratching their balls, counting down the hours till their wives get home from work and they’ve got more money for sandwiches.

And every restaurant menu has its own comprehensive sandwich section, sat awkwardly in a no-man’s land between Western dishes and Vietnamese dishes, like some sort of oil-rich archipelago in the South China Sea, or Eastern Sea if you live in Vietnam, being fought over by two mutually-respecting, but diametrically-opposed culinary rivals.

I even saw a ‘Chef Sandwich’ for sale in one place, and I can only wonder at the uniqueness of the person’s mind that came up with those fillings, let alone the name. Ham, grilled chicken, camembert, black olives, mayonnaise, lettuce, onion, and tomato. Even at $5 - two day’s pay for many people out here - I had to order one, and was soon mopping milky liquid from the melted camembert with a handy baguette.

When I asked, they said it was created by an English chef who’d left the country a few years ago. I don’t know if he was from Kent. But it would be nicely fitting to say he was...and that he’d set up a banh mi stall in Margate or something.

But they don’t deal with outlandish pomp like that at Saigon Race Track, they serve sandwiches the traditional way - a smear of pate, like home-made chicken liver pate but without the fuss, rolled pork belly slices, white sausage, and other things they produce from somewhere in the cart. And then comes the salad - onion, lettuce, tomato and long strips of leathery cucumber, chopped red chillies, mayonnaise and ketchup, and who knows what else crammed in, pushed together, and wrapped in computer print-out paper fastened with elastic bands as though it’s been handed over by a hopper in The Wire.

Or maybe a breakfast banh mi? Two eggs beaten in a bowl, with a little water - the key to any decent omelette. Not that they’re making an omelette as such, as there’s no gooeyness. Instead, they pour a little vegetable oil into a wok and fry the eggs until they have the texture and colour of a shammy leather.

It could be a very ordinary dish, but they add a scattering of sliced onions to the oil before they put the eggs in, and this gives it that sort of big-race, hotdog smell, except without the testacles and colouring, and you’re back at that race course, anywhere in the world, screaming along with the crowd as the horses hit the 1,100 metres pole and the hotdog or the burger or the taco or the kebab or the naan or the SANDWICH is falling out of your hands, and the mustard is already down your shirt, and it’s neck and neck, and your horse finally comes in and the whole afternoon’s saved, and you know you’ve got the money to buy another 10 hotdogs. Or 189 banh mi if you’re in Vietnam.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

AA Gill Pans ‘Food Blaggers’

I posted a link to a great article today, which sparked a bit of banter on Twitter, so I thought I’d write something about it. The piece was about the food writing scene in Australia, and the attitude of PR people towards food bloggers compared with traditional (ie. paid) food writers, and included an interesting quote from the always closely-guarded AA Gill.

Although firstly declaring a non-interest by saying he never reads food blogs (he doesn’t have the time), he then went on to put the knife in, by saying food bloggers (or food blaggers as one writer on Twitter called them) are sponsoring their hobby by getting freebies from PRs.

He panned the lack of critical commentary in their writing, and suggested they were giving suppliers and restaurants an easy ride to maximise their goodies.

This roused a flurry of sleepy Sunday morning activity from food bloggers, who accused him of living in the dark ages, and pointed out that he’d obviously NEVER do such a thing himself (nice sunglasses Adrian).

Food blogger @rocketandsquash summed up the mood, by saying: “It’s true for some, but it’s also a lazy generalisation, undermined by his point that he doesn’t read any (food blogs).”

The interesting thing was most agreed with Gill to some extent. They knew all about the food blogs out there, giving them a bad name. The ones drooling over wonderful suppliers, fabulous pop-ups, and smashing restaurants in the hope of furthering their gluttony/writing ambitions.

Hell, they might even get paid without the calories one day...

And it seems the PR firms and their terrible, shameless minions just can’t get enough of it. In fact, it’s frightening how much marketing cash there is still out there in these belt-tightening times. This blog has been offered goodies and press trips in the past, but nothing compared to some.

Simon Majumdar, who writes one half of the excellent Dos Hermanos blog, said despite posting less recently due to work commitments, DH still gets around three dozen invitations a week – which they always decline.

But we’ve all read, or at least passed a cursory glance over, the sort of food blogs that are far less discretionary. It would be unfair to name names, but you know the sort – they get a free pack of organic vegetables delivered to the door, then a crate of meat from some famous, hideously-overpriced butcher in London, or seafood from a wonderful little fisherman in the West Country, invite a few friends around for a meal Jamie-style, and then endlessly Twitter and blog about the suppliers.

Some on Twitter pointed out that many blogs do at least suggest it is more advertorial than editorial by inserting phrases like “courtesy of...” at the bottom. This may address the issue in a very small way (like throwing a pebble across the Channel on D-Day) by at least acknowledging the plug, but when did you ever read a food blog – or any kind of ‘proper’ food writing for that matter - that slammed a supplier’s meat as gristly, nebulous chunks of putrid offal then put ‘courtesy of’ with a link back to O’Craig’s Organic Ostriches at the bottom?

Part of the reason, must be nerve and experience. One of the first things you learn in journalism is you make few friends, but plenty of contacts. It’s not until you’ve got home to find your furniture's been rearranged, that you realise you’re doing your job properly if people get upset. Although this is no comfort when you’ve put the phone down to the first death threat of the day, and every creak on the stairway is a balaclava-clad thug with an electric drill. Being worried about an angry call from an irate oyster farmer 300 miles away in Devon is pathetic.

When I worked on my first daily newspaper, we got £40 for writing a restaurant review. Nothing for ourselves, mind. The £40 just paid for you and someone else to buy a meal, and write about it for free. I was in Brighton – a nest of PR vipers with hundreds of media-hungry restaurants on their books – so it would have been easy to reverse it so that I kept the £40, and had the delicious, unctuous meal for free.

But we didn’t. And the main reason was that it was just about the only chance we had to really write what we thought, no doubt in a tedious, self-congratulatory way. Of course, there was one major advertiser – a local, highly successful Italian restaurant – that was completely off limits, but we had great fun scrawling our scathing, highly-invective, but genuinely-held views. And it just wouldn’t have happened if we’d pocketed the £40 ourselves.

PS. If you’re reading this and work for a PR firm, please don’t be put off by the above. Just leave the goodies in the usual spot, and I’ll send you a link to the plug. Corfu’s awfully nice at this time of the year...

Best, Lennie xxxx

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Do You Cook A 7lb Monster Mushroom?

A giant mushroom big enough to feed 40 people has been found growing in an old brick kiln in southern Vietnam.

Truong Anh Dao found the humongous fungus, standing 50cm tall and weighing more than 3.5kg (7.7lb), near her home in Thuan An town, in Binh Duong Province.

“At first, I thought it was a conical hat poking out from the bush,” she said. "I thought a woman had left it there. Then as I went closer, I realised it was a huge mushroom.”

Scientists believe the fungus – called nam da lon (pig skin mushroom) in Vietnam - is a Macrocybe crassa.

Fungi expert Dr Gregory Mueller said: “It’s a good edible species in SE Asia, but it does not get this big in the reports of it that I have read. This is a great find - mushrooms of this size are only rarely seen.”

Truong said it took her several minutes to wrench the mushroom from its soil. She carried it home and neighbours flocked round to see it. She has planted the whopper in a pot while she decides what to do with it.

Grant Hawthorne, from the Master Chefs of Great Britain association, said: “You could comfortably serve up a healthy breakfast for 40 or more guests with a monster mushroom that size.

“A giant mushroom ‘gratin’ would make for an interesting visual spectacle - especially if used as a centre piece for a sharing banquet.”

'FUNGI FACTS' by @granthawthorne:

Most expensive: The white truffle from Alba (Lennie: pic above is a 750g whopper that sold for an obscene £130,000). It is one of life's luxuries and best eaten in the gorgeous surroundings of Italy's Piedmont wine-growing region.

Most popular: Must be the 'breakfast mushroom'. A simple button, field or chestnut mushroom grilled with butter and seasoning, to accompany that great fry-up we all crave on Sunday mornings.

Poshest: Probably the one used in the making of the famous Beef Wellington. Getting the duxelle right is the tricky part, although you can seldom identify the cultivar, as the mushroom has been finely chopped and rendered down. Sitting on a beef fillet and wrapped in puff pastry, it is wonderful (when done properly).

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Go Easy On The Ham Ramsay!

If Gordon Ramsay ever needed proof that he should get back into the kitchen and do what he’s good at, then he should take a long, hard look at his appalling acting in Love’s Kitchen, a film due out later this month with ‘straight-to-DVD’ written all over it.

It has already been dubbed by some movie critics as “possibly the worst film of the year”, and it’s barely June. It’s a formulaic mess of a tale about an up-and-coming London chef (played by Dougray Scott) who loses his wife in a car crash, and then moves to the countryside to turn a small pub into a gourmet restaurant as he tries to patch his life back together.

He falls in love with a beautiful restaurant critic (Claire Forlani), and is thwarted by a series of moustache-twirling bad guys, who try to drive him out of the village. Then it all ends happily ever after, if you haven’t walked out of the cinema by then.

But if the plot and toe-curling screenplay (“We all value the peace and quiet around here – I hope you’re not going to spoil it” ... “She’s mine, keep your hands off - or things could get really nasty” ... “Who do you think came to the council this morning on your behalf, and saved your bacon?”) isn’t enough to put you off, then Ramsay’s shockingly bad acting will be.

He’s so wooden, you’re half expecting the man from the Ronseal adverts to pop up. In fact, the only thing worse in the film is its original title, No Ordinary Trifle (yes, really!)

And what makes it so dire, is putting the celebrity chef in a film with such experienced journeymen. The exchanges are extremely painful, and I suggest if you are going to waste two hours of your life, then watch it on a plane because at least there’ll be a sick bag to hand.

And that’s what I mean about Ramsay’s out-of-control ego, and complete self-delusion. He has become so absorbed by fame, it makes me wonder if there’s anything he wouldn’t do for cash – however much of a pantomime horse he looks.

Ramsay hasn’t cooked in any of his restaurants for years (not since that lovely money from the TV people started rolling in) – I get the feeling that he somehow sees cooking as beneath him now – but he can still remember how to peel a carrot. And if push came to shove, I’m sure he could still run the pass at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, if the whole crew were taken ill and he was forced to work behind the stove at gunpoint.

Put Scott or Forlani in the kitchen, and they’d be as useful as a snooze button on a smoke alarm. So what makes Ramsay think he can put on the greasepaint and deliver a credible performance, anymore than Scott could serve up 40 beautifully-grilled lobsters in a professional kitchen?

Ramsay’s done loads on TV – shouting a lot like some strangely camp cartoon villain - but this is acting darling. Whoever cast him is clearly a sadist, but they’ve tried to make it easy for him, and as painless as possible for the long-suffering crew, by getting him to play himself in a sort of inspirational, Looking For Eric-style role as he urges Scott's Rob Haley to put his life back together. However the idea falls as flat as an eggless soufflé, because Eric Cantona can act, whereas Ramsay makes Vinnie Jones look like Laurence Olivier.

The whole thing is awful, and with the trailer they’ve unleashed ahead of its scheduled straight-to-DVD release in the US on June 7, and general release in the UK on June 24, it looks like the whole darn film's been crammed into a long, tedious - but unintentionally hilarious - three minutes.

It’s made me wonder whether Ramsay has actually got any friends left, or whether he’s surrounded himself with sycophants like some paranoiac, tin pot dictator. You regularly see him pictured with David Beckham, watching a game like two old buddies. But why has no-one said to him: “Look Gordon, I don’t know how to say this, but have you thought of laying off for a while...I mean you’re a cook not a fucking actor!”

At the end of the trailer, Ramsay (dressed in whites for some reason) looks straight into the camera, and says: “What the hell are you lot looking at? Get back to bloody work!”

It’s advice he should clearly think of taking himself.

But the funniest thing of all is they’ve spelt his name wrong in the closing credits. Says it all really...

MORE VIDEO: Rusty Ramsay cuts finger on TV