Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Waiter Sues Wolfgang Puck For Being Called 'Old'

Anyone who has worked in a restaurant will know just how much abuse flies around in the kitchen, especially between cooks and waiters. Much of this is good-natured joshing, and helps wind down the long hours. But some is downright degrading.

I’ve seen the worst kind of racism and sexism in restaurants, and nobody reports it and nobody does anything to stop it. In fact, when I came up with the title for this blog, I had initial misgivings because “Chef Sandwich” is also the name given in some kitchens to an unsavory act involving an orange, a budgerigar, and a bin bag...in fact, let’s not go there.

Tales from the old-timers suggest kitchens have been cleaned up to some extent, and it was worse 20 or so years ago, but it still goes on as I’ve blogged about in the past.

But compared with brandings, hurled pots, and sexual assaults, jabs about someone’s age must barely scrape into the list? As someone who retrained as a chef in my middle years, I know all about age-related insults. I’d get it all the time.

“What’s black and lives in the oven Grandad?” was a particular favourite of mine.

And once when I sat down to rest my aching feet, an irate sous chef shouted over: “Oy Papa! Work surfaces are for rissoles, not arseholes!”

But the old age put-downs didn’t even touch the sides. It was far harder being ordered about by spotty teenagers while being paid a pittance for appallingly long hours only broken by sleep. The added nickname “Grandad” to the end of every sentence just made me smile.

And that’s why I find it baffling, and a tad amusing, to read that a 52-year-old waiter who got the chop from Wolfgang Puck’s plush steakhouse in LA has launched a lawsuit, claiming he was “subjected to various negative age-related comments” – according to TMZ.com.

David Kallman - who says he was the oldest waiter at CUT - claims his beastly colleagues would call him hideous names like "old man" and "pops" and crack jokes implying he would die soon. Grim things like: "It's not like you'll be around too long."

Seems pretty tame stuff to me, even by the standards of America’s ludicrously litigious culture, where people sue restaurants for falling off toilet seats, slipping on dry floors, or getting head-aches because their ice cream’s too cold (alright, I made the last one up.)

But Kallman is clearly confident. According to his lawsuit filed in LA County Superior Court, he is suing Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc, among others, for unspecified damages exceeding $25,000 (£16,000).

Sixteen bags of sand! If only I had a pound for every time I was called Grandad.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cambodia: A Meat-Eater’s Paradise

One thing you miss in SE Asia is meat. It’s not that they don’t do it well, or the meat is of an inferior quality – the barbecued chicken on Thailand’s Koh Chang island, and the turmeric-lined pig roasts in Chiang Mai were some of the best I’ve tasted.

It’s just that you don’t get much of it, which is hardly surprising in countries where meat is a luxury and is used more as a flavouring than a main ingredient.

But that’s certainly not the case in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The BBQ beef joints near the old market are a veritable meat-eater’s paradise.

And there is only one name on the salivating lips of the tourists and locals who flock there – koo dut, a whole calf spit-roasted over charcoal and served in slices with raw vegetables and spicy garnishes.

For me, there is no finer smell than the waft of scorched beef and the greasy smokiness of yellow fat as it drips into hot embers. And what a way to spend an hour – drinking ice-cold Anchor beer and chatting to a cook spit-roasting an 80kg fatted beast in the blazing sun.

The animal had been stuffed with paddy field herbs and lemon grass, and occasionally you’d get the crackle of dried reeds sticking out of its behind.

The cook carved hunks of pink meat, and then finished it off over the hot coals until the fat was crispy. Then he’d chop it up on his board and nestle the slices on a bed of julienne raw onions before they were snatched away by waiters.

Lesser known cuts of the animal were grilling away too, including the neck, intestines, and a part affectionately described on the menu as “beef’s dick”.

I ordered koo dut in two of the restaurants, to see how they served it in each rather than just sheer gluttony, and I’m still drooling at the deliciousness of that meat.

The first, at The Mid Night Restaurant, came with a tray of raw green beans, shredded banana flowers, white cabbage, and slices of green banana, carrots, cucumber, and green tomatoes.

The veg was dotted with ice cubes to keep it fresh, and each added something to the dish – the crunchiness of the green beans, the bitterness of the unripe banana, and the earthiness of the carrots.

The beef was incredibly tender and scrumptious, and came with two sauces. The first was a dark, spicy lemon dip reminiscent of a peri peri sauce. The second was flavoured with palm sugar, spring onions, chilli and crushed peanuts, and was as sweet as melted toffee.

I scanned the menu, and the whole place was a temple to meat: BBQ goat, frog, duck, chicken, pork, eel, octopus, and it had specialties for all of them.

At the second place, Dara Angkor Chey Restaurant, the calf roasting outside had been basted in soy sauce and lime for flavour and colour, and the meat was even more delicious and tender.

The steer had only been over the coals for a couple of hours and was almost raw inside, so I got the cook to serve me rare meat from the rump. It came on the same bed of raw onions, and with the same selection of veg.

But instead of the sauces there was a small bowl of Srey Ambel rock salt mixed with crushed Kampot pepper, and a tray of condiments – sliced fresh lemon grass, crushed peanuts, sliced red chillies and lime quarters.

It was a wonderful meal but although the region’s famed Kampot pepper was a worthy addition, it lacked the wetness of the sauces at Mid Night’s.

Next time, I’ll order the BBQ frog, partly in the name of research. I just hope I’ll find room for a few slices of that splendid beef.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chef-Training Restaurant Helps Thousands Of Street Kids In Cambodia

You only have to walk through the streets of Phnom Penh for a few minutes to see the terrible lives led by the hordes of malnourished children who live rough in the Cambodian capital. It is heart-breaking, especially when you see the shiny new Chelsea tractors and limos driven by Phnom Penh’s elite.

Some of the street kids are barely more than toddlers, owning nothing more than a grubby T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. They scratch riels from tourists by begging, shining shoes, and hawking travel guides, bags of prawn crackers and fruit.

Some work as prostitutes, and an estimated 80% are addicted to glue, heroin or yaba. Nearly all of them are boys. Girls don’t last long on the street – they are usually found and sold to brothels.

But talk to the kids, and one name comes up – Friends, a huge complex where many eat and shower. The NGO was set up to train the youngsters in a trade like cooking, welding, or hairdressing so they can find a job and get off the streets.

Part of the organisation is Friends The Restaurant, which was launched in 2000 by Austrian chef Gustav Auer, to train them to become cooks and waiters. Over the years it has helped thousands of street kids get jobs in the capital’s restaurants and hotels.

After graduating, they usually walk straight into a $100 a month job – which is not a bad wage in this third world country. Sewing in a dark factory ten hours a day, for instance, pays just $40 a month. Some work for a few years, gaining valuable experience in kitchens, and then return to the centre as teachers.

They are taught about hygiene and safety procedures – the first of three levels in their “hospitality vocational training” – and are then sent to Friends’ sister restaurant Romdeng, where they are taught to cook traditional Cambodian dishes like amok (fish curry). They then move to Friends, where they learn international cuisine.

They spend half their time in the kitchen, and the other half front-of-house, so they get to learn all aspects of the restaurant business. Serving tourists helps them brush up on their English, which is a sought after skill in Cambodia’s catering and hospitality industry.

I went to Friends The Restaurant to see how it worked, and the whole experience blew me away. It wasn’t just the standard of cooking, the service was impeccable – and put many so-called top restaurants to shame.

The place was filled with tourists and travellers, and the dishes on the tables around me looked incredible. There was roasted pumpkin and goat’s cheese salad, couscous-crusted pork fillet, tropical cheese cake with coconut Breton, mushroom and leek spring rolls, young watermelon soup with prawns and paddy field herbs, and Khmer spiced fish wrapped in banana leaves.

I went for their most famous dish, Khmer chicken curry, which was scrumptious. It had a lovely rich taste of fall-apart chicken, with a backdrop of coconut, potato, green peppers, and curry powder. And it was real thigh and breast, rather than the processed strips of meat, chemicals and water you get when you order chicken curries and stir-fries in 99% of restaurants in Thailand, and many Asian take-aways and eateries back in the UK.

The difference between the traditional Cambodian curry and far runnier and spicier Thai curries was astonishing. It was better than the ubiquitous green and red curries, and even a match for the mighty, lip-smacking chicken Penang.

The meat had been cooked for a long time, as it should be in a decent curry, and was more reminiscent of Indian food in its heavy use of onions and potato. It was almost like a vindaloo without the chilli or tomato. And its mildness and rich chicken stock flavour reminded me of French and Spanish stews, with its simmered-to-a-squelch green peppers.

They made it by pounding lemon grass, galangal, fresh turmeric, lime zest, star anise powder, garlic, and a half a dozen shallots into a paste, and then soaked some dried chillies in water. They boiled down coconut milk until it had almost reduced to nothing, and then added the paste and fried it until it was fragrant.

Then they added fish sauce and shrimp paste, and the chilli paste. They fried it again and then added the chicken, potato chunks, and more coconut milk. They topped it up with chicken stock as the sauce reduced, and then added palm sugar, green beans, green peppers, onion chunks, salt and Vietnamese curry powder, and boiled it for at least another 15 minutes.

People ordered it with steamed rice or French bread. They sell baguettes on every corner in Cambodia – a legacy from its years as a French colony – and they are expertly baked and crisp.

I’ll definitely be having that wonderful curry again. And if you go to Phnom Penh, I urge you to do the same. Not just for the cooking and amazing service, but to support what is an incredibly good cause.

It was wonderful talking to those chefs and seeing the joy in their faces rather than the dead-eyed looks of the street kids that bed down in dark alleys. The organisation had clearly done an amazing job in transforming their lives. And there wasn’t a celebrity chef, dream academy, or film camera in sight.

Friends The Restaurant, 215, Street 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Incredible Feast Of Spring Rolls And Noodles

I have just spent my first day in Cambodia, and I’ve still got the smell of fish guts in my nostrils as I write this. Phnom Penh - a city of poverty and extreme wealth fast rising from the ashes of war and revolution - certainly is a visual and olfactory experience.

I spent the afternoon touring the Russian Market and a far less touristy food market near the Mekong River. I always find bazaars are the best place to start when looking at a country’s cuisine, and for some reason Cambodian food has always intrigued me.

For years people have been saying it would be the next new thing. There are one or two Cambodian restaurants that have started to get noticed in London, but Khmer cuisine has always been overshadowed by its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. It's often been dismissed as Thai food without the chilli. And that’s a terrible disservice, because what I’ve seen and tasted so far is very encouraging.

Good food, of course, is nothing without the surroundings. And as far as capital cities go, Phnom Penh – which was described as the Paris of the East until it became a ghost town after the civil war in the 70s – has once again sprouted into a beautiful city. Certainly far more than the hideous, overbuilt metropolis that is Bangkok.

It’s also got a good feel to it. Thais like to tell you how dangerous the place is and how Cambodians will steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes, but you can be unlucky in any city, and I’ve met a lot of people in Thailand who I wouldn’t trust with a bag of chips.

My trip started through the dusty streets in the back of a tuk tuk to the Russian Market. And this was another pleasant surprise - the tuk tuk drivers actually take you where you want to go. You don’t end up outside a massage parlour, Asian tailors, or gem store so they can get free gasoline and kickbacks.

The market (Psar Tuol Tom Pong – and pong it certainly does) is a warren of chaos like many crowded bazaars in South East Asia. But it’s different somehow. For a start it’s covered, and instead of being housed in a single building, the stalls have spread outwards in a mass of corrugated iron and cement.

The low ceiling and throbbing heat mean when you get to the food section you are hit in the face by a putrefying mix of durian fruit and preserved fish with the full thwack of a 7ft-long Mekong catfish's tail.

If you can imagine what fish and pork smell like when they’ve been sitting in a sauna for six hours then you’re half-way there. But, strangely, it’s not a completely unpleasant aroma, and if anything can mask the sewer-like odour of durian fruit, then it’s the stench of fermenting fish a few feet away.

It really was a massive assault on the senses. All seven of them, because after an hour I was sure I’d developed three different senses of smell – death (durian and dying fish), fresh (fruit, flowers, herbs and vegetables) and heat (cooking oil and sweat).

The market got its name because Soviets liked to shop there during the Cold War. And given the legacy of Russian people’s inscrutable taste, it is filled with fake designer goods, trinkets, souvenirs and bling. But of course I was only interested in the food, and soon I was chatting to the owner of a fantastic stall, which only sold one dish - spring rolls and noodles.

I have to say it was one hell of a meal, and I did my usual thing and badgered her about the ingredients and cooking method. She made the spring rolls by rolling up shrimps, minced pork, lettuce, spring onions, crushed soya beans, basil, grated carrot, and noodles in wafer thing wrappers and deep-fried them for 20 minutes (you can see the before and after shot in the picture below...)

This made them far crispier and chewier than the sort you usually get, and for me they were all the better for it. They were absolutely delicious and almost sausage brown in colour. They were cut up like bangers, and put on top of a dish containing three types of noodles – spaghetti size, vermicelli size and big, flat shoe laces that melted in your mouth.

The dish was finished with a huge sprinkling of ground peanuts and came with a jar of chopped red chillies in lemon juice. And what a spanker of a meal it was. It was absolutely delicious, and I was soon dripping not only from the oppressive 35C heat but the delicious chilli paste.

The peanuts, lime and chillies had echoes of a Thai green papaya salad, and the chewiness of the spring rolls were the perfect accompaniment. But the best thing of all was the lack of liquid. I got bored in Thailand with endless gallons of soup and liquor with everything. There are, of course, exceptions in a cuisine as diverse as Thai, but they do love to drench their food, and the dryness of this dish gave it real character. And the freshness of the boiled noodles rather than the fried ones you’d get in a pad Thai, gave it a lovely fresh taste.

Next the driver took me to a market near the river, where the locals were buying freshwater fish, prawns, cockles, meat and vegetables for their evening meals. Everywhere stallholders were scraping away at fish scales with small machetes, and pulling out guts.

I wandered around looking at the flapping catfish that they barbecue whole in bamboo shoots. I watched as a man crushed sugar cane in a hitlerite contraption that had a pipe leading off so his wife could fill bottles with the creamy juice.

The fruit and vegetables always look incredible in Asian markets, but somehow those ones, grown in the fine silt river soil, had an even greener quality to them.

I didn’t like the look of the slabs of pork sweating in the sun - obviously every part of the animal was there including the grunt - but the preserved fish looked delicious. And what an incredible range. Little brown dried fish, smoked fish, and bowls of fish fermenting into prahoc, the backbone of Khmer cuisine.

It all looks very promising, a bit of a culinary Phnomenon if you will, and I’ve only just scratched the surface...

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bog Standard: Why Some Restaurants Just Aren't Flushed With Success...

I am continually bowled over by how much restaurant toilets vary in Thailand. You get everything from plush lavatories with fresh hand-towels, hand cream, incense, and a lollipop man to, well, let’s not go there.

The importance of good toilets is something that’s often overlooked by eateries, both in Thailand and back in Blightie and beyond. In Bangkok, for instance, I know many Thai and farang customers who choose a place as much for the cleanliness of the powder rooms as for the food.

Most restaurants that have been built in the last ten years or so in the Land of Piles, sorry Smiles, usually have decent toilets. But it’s a shame that many of the older, and in many cases far better restaurants, don’t have lavs that match their wonderful cooking.

There is a fantastic place near Nana Plaza, Bangkok, that is sometimes so packed you have to stand on the pavement and wait for a table to leave before you can tuck into their incredible roast duck and curries. I’ve seen Thais standing around for 40 minutes before getting a seat, the food is that good.

But when I went there, I couldn’t believe the toileting arrangements. When I asked the direction to the gents, the owner looked at me in slight surprise as though it was the first time she’d ever been asked.

Then she escorted me down a side street, and waited at the top of it while I relieved myself behind the bins. I felt quite awkward standing there with the old chap unzipped as people strolled by.

But the stench was far worse, stirring unpleasant memories of Glastonbury. So bad in fact that I couldn’t finish the rest of my delicious meal. The smell of nam pla no longer had the same appeal, for some reason.

Thailand also goes in for novelty toilets in a big way, like the picture (above) I took in a restaurant in Chiang Mai. But there is definitely a limit. The one (below) from an eatery in Chonburi Province is wrong on so many levels, it’s not true.

Its Canadian head chef apparently brought the tissue holder over from Vancouver. If I saw that I’d never dine there again. As I say, the importance of toilets to a restaurant's takings often falls between the, er, cracks.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Ramsay Losing Head-To-Head With Oliver

Gordon Ramsay may like to boast about his footballing past, but he is certainly being outplayed by Jamie Oliver in their first head-to-head restaurant clash.

Last year, the TV cooks both signed up to launch restaurants at a £500m shopping mall in London. But whereas Oliver’s popular Barbecoa venue is trousering an estimated £140,000 a week, Ramsay’s place opposite is a huge empty building with a concrete floor.

The massive delay is raising questions about the state of Ramsay’s business finances. He had planned to open his all-day open kitchen with a "raw bar" selling soused fish, home-made pastrami and charcuterie early this year. This was pushed back to the spring, and now he may not open until September.

When a journalist from the Evening Standard went to visit the £3m site at One New Change shopping centre, next to St Paul’s Cathedral, he found little sign of activity.

“There were no workers at the venue, which runs the length of one side of the centre, or signs of any fittings except a handful of cheap tables and chairs, dozens of neon strip lights piled in a corner, and a wheelie bin,” he said.

The restaurant – to be named Bread Street Kitchen when it eventually opens – is supposed to have a lift, stairs, a lavish dining room, and an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven and a wood-burning grill; work that experts say would take six months even if it started tomorrow.

Land Securities, the developer of the mall, is reportedly piling pressure on Ramsay to get the work started. The firm is believed to have given the 44-year-old a £1m subsidy to entice him there, in the form of help with re-fit costs and a period of free rent.

A spokeswoman for Ramsay said: "It's all happening but the design has changed quite a bit. There are meetings with Land Securities this week."

Oliver, meanwhile, is coining it in with his 200-seater meat grill (above). Barbecoa has had some bad press from critics, but it has not stopped the tills ringing.

Ramsay and Oliver, 35, are well known for their mutual dislike of each other, so no doubt Oliver will be crowing about the result of their first head-to-head. Ramsay likes to say Oliver is "just a cook" while proclaiming himself to be "a chef". Unless, that is, you believe a chef is someone who works in a kitchen, rather than a brand making TV programmes and hawking cookware.

Ramsay knew he was throwing down the gauntlet when he signed the papers. In an interview with Hot Dinners last October, his right-hand man Stuart Gilles said: “Jamie’s next door and there are other good restaurants around, we thought a lot of people are doing meat, so we’ll do a raw bar.”

Gilles, who is due to run the new eatery, added: “We thought about the speed and that it’s (the food’s) got to be fast because it’s the City.”

Obviously the plan didn’t extend to the building work.

The set-back is the latest in a long line of troubles for Ramsay. The News of the World this week said he was facing a sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal claim from accountant Sara Stewart, a former director of one of his firms. Ramsay disputes the claims.

Stewart, 49, will apparently include allegations in her case that she was axed as she was about to blow the whistle on the chef's crisis-hit company.

And there has been a very public bust-up with his father-in-law Chris Hutcheson, who he sacked as chief executive of Gordon Ramsay Holdings about the same time Stewart got the chop.

Stewart and Hutcheson hit the headlines last November when they were snapped walking hand-in-hand, although there was no suggestion they were anything other than friends.

No doubt there will now be questions about whether Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen has got enough dough.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Increasing Irrelevance Of Michelin Stars

There has long been a perception that Michelin stars are becoming increasingly irrelevant in these belt-tightening times. So it will do nothing for the tyre guide’s credibility and fading reputation to learn that it has awarded a star to a Normandy seafood restaurant that closed two months ago due to a lack of customers.

When parting with their hard-earned cash, people should feel confident following Michelin’s expert assessment – surely that’s the whole point of its so-called bible.

Alright, we all know food and service awards are highly subjective at the best of times, and should be taken with a big bucket of salt, but not knowing a restaurant has shut shows a basic lack of research. Surely a last minute ring round is essential if you’re reviewing a place months before the guide comes out – as the inspectors obviously did.

You can only imagine the red faces at Michelin after it emerged its 2011 France guide, published on Monday, had finally given a star to Les Hêtres in Ingouville-sur-Mer (below), not knowing it served its last meal in December.

Chef Max Bichot, 52, said: "If I had been given the star earlier, it might have made all the difference...my cooking was just as good before."

He heard about the posthumous gong from a former employee, and was told the inspectors were delighted with his "baby mackerel in white wine and citrus juice" and "red snapper fillet on a bed of ratatouille and rosemary."

In a sign of the decline of top-end dining, and the growth of good quality “middle market” restaurants, it was the first time Michelin’s Bib Gourmand restaurants (which offer three-course menus that cost €35 (£30) or less in Paris, and €29 (£24) or less elsewhere) outnumbered the starred venues. Bib eateries are those that are considered to offer “good food at reasonable prices”.

Also, it was the first time since 1992 that no new restaurant was promoted to three stars. And in an attempt to distance itself from claims that it is elitist, Michelin has hooked up with 1,000 restaurants across France for the launch of its ‘Printemps du guide Michelin’ – which gives food-lovers discounts at participating establishments for three months.

Not surprisingly, more and more chefs are moving away from the stresses of Michelin-starred cooking, and its deplorable 18-hour days, to a more normal life cooking in wallet-friendly restaurants.

You might think Bichot would be depressed knowing he can’t reopen Les Hêtres (which has been sold and is being converted into a private house) to cash in on his success – but not a sausage.

"I had the good fortune to fall in love with a woman who has a seafood restaurant at Yport,” he said. “I am going to help her out in her kitchen – with no pressure."