Thursday, December 29, 2011

Khmer Food: In Praise Of Salt And Pepper

My love affair with salt and pepper began when I was a toddler. The dripping on toast my grandfather used to make with meat jelly and fat from the Sunday roast would have been nothing without the liberal amounts of salt and pepper he sprinkled on top.

And then there were the salt and pepper sandwiches my father got me into - thickly-buttered, white spongy slices from a sandwich loaf fresh from the bakers, filled with nothing more than a generous sprinkling of salt and freshly-ground black pepper. To me, it was a meal fit for a king as we sat in front of a roaring fire and drank cups of strong, brown tea during cold, wintry evenings.

Just as good were the boiled eggs and soldiers we’d have in the mornings, with a small mound of salt and pepper on the plate. We’d plunge the soldiers into the runny, golden goodness, and then into the two condiments - a simple, but delightful, dip that would leap me forward to eating Khmer food more than three decades later.

Over here, that magical combination is even better because of the abundance of Kampot pepper - the finest pepper in the world, and the country’s first product to get Geographical Indicator status. And if they are generous enough to give you the far superior and costly red pepper, as they do in one or two of the seafront restaurants in Kep’s famous crab market, then it’s out of this world.

But in Cambodia, they add something to the salt and pepper dip that makes it even more splendid - lime juice. It might not have been what I’d wanted with my soldiers in the morning all those years back. But I remember the flavour was always there in the dripping whenever we roasted a chicken because of the lemon quarters stuffed inside, which do incredible things to the succulence and flavour of the meat.

In restaurants here, they usually serve a mix of two thirds freshly-ground black pepper to one third salt, then carefully squeeze in two or three lime quarters and mix it in front of you. It might seem a laughably simple procedure that would scarcely trouble even the most cack-handed cook. But they take it as seriously as a chef de rang would the preparation of crepe suzette, pressed duck, or table-carved rib of beef, squeezing in the ‘correct’ amount of lime juice until there is the right moistness to the sauce.

The dip - called ‘tik marij’ in Khmer - works perfectly with a plate of selected cuts from a whole barbecued calf (ko dut), and even better with freshly-boiled seafood, particularly blue swimmer crabs, which although contain little brown head meat, and virtually no morsels in the claws, more than make up for it with the generously fleshy chine.

It always reminds me of seaside towns in Blighty, where a visit isn’t complete without a tub of whelks, liberally sprinkled with salt, white pepper, and malt vinegar, and eaten during a few bracing turns on the seafront. Over here, the lime juice takes the place of the vinegar. It’s fresher tasting, less acerbic, and far more complimentary to seafood. But I still miss those whelks...

It really is wonderful dipping crab meat into the tik marij and washing it down with ice cold beer. And what a way to spend an afternoon sitting in the crab market, gazing out to sea, and watching those women in their brightly-coloured hats checking their pots just 20 yards or so from the restaurant steps.

The crack of claws and chine, and that sweet meat magnified a hundred times by the pepper grown in the plantations behind the national park, sea salt from the neighbouring salt beds, and limes from the orchards. It’s an oasis where the land meets the sea and offers the very best the pair have in a tryst of gastronomic delight. In Singapore or Thailand, the crab might be smothered in chilli, in Vietnam it could take on an overriding taste of caramel, and in China it would most likely be in an MSG-laden sauce, thickened with cornflour.

But there is something delightfully, and deceptively, simple about Cambodian food - which is why it’s a shame it’s so overlooked. It’s the understanding of balance, simplicity, and the knowledge that fresh, local ingredients have a natural symmetry. And that’s why I love it. Simplicity in food is often dismissed as a lack of sophistication or technique, often engendering a lack of confidence in a country’s cuisine. But it couldn’t be further from the truth, and you’ve only got to look at the food in Italy to see it done to perfection.

Beef Lok Lak

The dish in Cambodia you’ll usually first encounter tik marij is beef lok lak (probably the country’s second most famous meal after its vastly over-rated fish amok). Many recipes call for the beef to be marinated in the sauce ingredients for an hour or two, but in my experience it’s unnecessary given the strength of the flavours, and the fact the salt does little for the tenderness of Khmer steak. Here’s how a friend of mine in a restaurant in Sihanoukville makes hers - simplicity in the extreme, and definitely worth making at home.

She starts by dicing a piece of steak (sirloin, rib-eye or rump work well) into smallish cubes, and then chops up two cloves of garlic. She heats a tiny amount of oil in a pan, and then fries the garlic until it begins to colour, and then throws in the meat to singe slightly.

She adds a sprinkling of sugar and salt to help the caramelisation process, and then cooks the meat for another minute or so. She then pours in a little water, and when it is bubbling, adds a glug of tomato ketchup and a couple of heaped teaspoons of oyster sauce.

She continues stirring, producing a velvety red and brown sauce. She cooks the meat until it is still quite bloody in the middle (about medium-rare) and then takes it off the heat to rest for a couple of minutes.

Meanwhile, she garnishes each plate with lettuce and three thick slices of tomato and onion, and then fries an egg. She mixes salt and pepper in a dish and squeezes in lime juice, and then serves.

My new book on training to be a chef, including stints at Rick Stein's and the Fat Duck, is available to buy on Amazon for Kindle, iPad, iPhone etc. CLICK HERE to buy for just £2.05, about the price of half a lager.

"It's a bargain and an easy read, I didn't want to put it down." @Mcmoop

"Should be required reading for anyone who has ever dreamed of leaving the monotony of the 9 to 5 rat race to open their own restaurant." Breil Bistro

"A great read and should be a set text if you're considering a change of career, or God forbid, applying to Masterchef." richard

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Down And Out In Padstow And London

I wanted to thank you for all the great feedback I had to my post Pitching Confidential: How Not To Get A Food Book Published on my failure to get my book about training to be a chef published. There was some brilliant advice and ideas, and I went through them in turn to check them out, and I thought I’d give you an update...

The first major decision I made was to write the book (and future posts on this blog) under my real name Alex Watts, rather than Lennie Nash. When I wrote the book - and much of this blog - I was working as a journalist for Sky News. There were contractual regulations, and rules about what you could write on blogs and other social media, which is why I invented the pseudonym Lennie Nash.

Now I’m freelance, I’m free of those obligations. So I thought it would be less confusing (and require far less explanation in the long run) to write under my real name, which I’d wanted to do in the first place. I’ve kept Lennie as the main character in the book, mainly because it’s a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve grown attached to him and it seems fitting somehow.

Going back to your recommendations, I checked out - which describes itself as a revolutionary new publishing method where readers choose the books they want to see published. Authors post their work on the site, and readers pledge monetary support in exchange for getting their name printed in the book (not a particularly novel idea - Dickens and Thackeray published a lot of their work by subscription in the 19th century) and when there’s enough funding it gets published.

Sounds brilliant. A sort of democracy in publishing. But the catch is 99% of the authors showcased are well-known writers or TV personalities, which rather defeats the purpose of finding new, quirky books that wouldn’t otherwise get the green light from a publishing industry which seems to have lurched towards all things celebrity.

Unbound say they don’t have enough staff yet to roll it out to ‘new’ writers, but plan to at some point. So unless you’re ex-Python Terry Jones (the first author to be published on Unbound), and already have books, operas, TV shows and the odd film to your name, you haven’t really got a shout.

Unbound said they would only consider authors who already had an agent (oh, why did I part ways with my agent?) or had books published, and could supply their ISBN numbers as proof. But they did recommend trying - a website where writers show off their work and get feedback and gifted ‘inkpots’ (don’t ask) from fellow strugglers, sorry scribes.

I put the first chapter of my book up there, and was amazed how easy the publishing system was to use. I got a few comments, and the feedback was good, but it was hard to get noticed unless you bought up scores of ‘inkpots’ (don’t ask) to plug your work and give people a fighting chance of finding it on the site.

Meanwhile, I still looked at traditional, albeit painfully slow, publishing methods. I took your advice to send it off to Anthony Bourdain’s new line of books with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, and home to Bukowski, no less, so I wasn’t confident. Bourdain is to publish four or five food books a year written by chefs and other industry insiders, but I haven’t got high hopes, and HarperCollins didn’t get back to me on how to get the manuscript to Bourdain in the first place, and nor did his agent. One for the no hope file, I think.

I also approached another agent to see if they’d take on my book, and got another extremely bleak assessment of the current (and with book sales the way they are, probably future) state of the UK publishing industry, and its continuing obsession with celebrity.

“It sounds as if your previous agent tried his/her best for you with all the right publishers. The marketplace is exceptionally tough at the moment and publishers are really only taking on what they are convinced will be sure-fire hits,” they said. Which was politer than bugger off, at least.

Most of your advice was about getting my book published as an eBook. People said you needed to demonstrate you had a successful, self-published first book, and had generated some sort of following, before a publisher would give you any kind of advance on a second.

It seemed the way forward for now, and Lulu was highly recommended. Then I came to my second major crucial decision - the title. My former agent and her publishing pals hadn’t liked my original, rather depressing title of “Diary Of A Failed Chef” and wanted to go with “Yes, Chef!” arguing that was a common utterance in the book, and a theme the reader would quickly be familiar with.

But I hated it, even more than My Booky Wook. It was hardly the most original title, and sounded like something you’d call a banal TV sitcom set in a quaint manor house kitchen in middle England. I pushed for “Down And Out In Padstow and London” instead, hoping it might give an indication of the attempted humour within, and some indication of what it was about. The agent had offered me a peace pipe, saying she’d send that off to publishers as an alternative title.

But publishing under my own steam meant I could ditch Yes Chef! and go with Down And Out In Padstow And London. I signed up with Lulu, hearing tales about how some writers had managed to publish their eBook in just one day. But I wasn’t so confident, which was just as well really because the process did involve an unbelievable amount of tedious formatting.

However, it wasn’t as much as I’d feared. And after three days of hair-pulling and medicinal whisky-supping, I finally managed to publish an eBook - and will get round to the hard copy version later. Lulu warned that it would take some time before it was accepted on to Amazon etc (and pointed out that over 50% of Lulu’s eBooks are rejected by the online retail giant because of chapter formatting issues).

But mine seemed to work okay after a number of attempts, and I’ll just have to see whether it gets on to Amazon and other retail outlets. But here it is anyway if you fancy reading it - and for just £1.99 ($3). Go on, you’ll get an amazingly warm feeling knowing you’ve kept me in noodles for another day...



Here's the book blurb:

Down And Out In Padstow And London is a humorous account of what really happens behind the scenes of both Michelin-starred restaurants and lesser establishments - and the extraordinary, larger-than-life characters who inhabit them. The book begins with Lennie Nash's decision to give up his job as a journalist, aged 40, and a fateful meeting with Rick Stein, when the cheffing door is opened.

There follow stints in the kitchens at Padstow, a failed audition for Masterchef, work as a commis chef under a crazed ex-football hooligan, 16-hour shifts as a kitchen slave in a gastropub, and the rigours of the Fat Duck. Unable to keep up with the younger chefs around him, he gives up the dream and returns to office life, only to find the itch starting again...

The book is aimed at the umpteen armchair chefs and foodies who would love to learn the trade first-hand from the professionals, braving the stress, 16-hour days, and low pay of kitchen life, but are far too sensible to do so.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shame Of Cambodia's Memorial To Slain War Reporters

Anyone who knows anything about the Cambodian Government will know they never do anything quickly. But it’s appalling how slow they’ve been honouring the more than three dozen journalists who were killed or went missing during the bloodshed and turmoil of the 1970-75 war.

I wrote a story back in August telling how the Government was to replace the original polystyrene memorial (pic above) that was unveiled in a park outside Phnom Penh's Hotel Le Royal in April 2010 to honour the 37 brave souls who died over the five years it took Pol Pot's murderous forces to capture the capital.

People had pulled chunks off it, exposing patches of white polystyrene, and the flimsy structure was leaning heavily and looked like it would fall down any minute. Some said it was a crying shame erecting such a cheap monument in the first place - especially for a country so filled with stone statues, and the huge numbers of gifted masons out here working for a few dollars a day.

The Government promised a more permanent memorial would take its place - funded by foreign money of course (anyone who’s seen the luxury limos and four-wheel drives ministerial lackeys drive around, and the incredibly sumptuous buildings they work in, will understand the Government needs to watch every penny.)

But the flimsy monument was removed from outside Le Royal - the unofficial headquarters of the foreign media who reported on Cambodia's takeover by the Khmer Rouge - a couple of months ago.

Back in August, Cambodia’s information minister Khieu Kanharith told me a new one with all the names of the dead and missing engraved on it was on its way, adding: “We will finalise the project at the end of this month.”

Perry Deane Young, of the Overseas Press Club of America, said at the time: “The war in Cambodia was one of the most dangerous assignments journalists faced in the twentieth century.

“It was a courageous band of dedicated men and women who risked their lives to tell the story. It is only fitting that those who made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of the truth should have a permanent memorial lest we forget.”

But nearly four months later, there is just an empty patch of grass where the last one stood (pic below). And it doesn’t look like being filled anytime soon - not if the Cambodian Government’s priorities are anything to go by.

No doubt they are now too busy planning a monument to mark the death of Kim Jong-il, an old-fashioned tyrant who bathed himself in riches while his people starved to death. Perhaps it’s a cause more in keeping with current ideologies?

:: Of the 37 slain journalists and photographers, ten were from Japan, eight from France, seven from the US, four from Cambodia, two from Switzerland, and one each from West Germany, Austria, Netherlands, India, Laos, and Australia.

The most famous was Sean Flynn, son of the film star Errol, who set off from Phnom Penh with fellow US snapper Dana Stone in search of a story. They were never seen again.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wake Up To A Full Cambodian - Chicken Porridge Soup

I can never be quite sure why I like this soup so much – but of all the great broths in Cambodia, and there are plenty, chicken porridge soup (bo bor sach moan) is my favourite.

Maybe it’s the heavy use of nutty, browned, but not burnt garlic (a common garnish in Khmer soups), or the herby fragrance of the chopped culantro sprinkled on top? Or the occasional limp crunch of bean sprouts poached in the heat of the broth? Or the pleasing discovery of a little piece of chicken or bone to suck on?

Or is it the soothing lightness of the chicken stock, hinting of lime leaf and lemon grass? Or the julienne strips of fresh ginger that are, like the bean sprouts, stirred in at the end moments before service so they take on an increasingly cooked texture as you finish the soup?

Because this is not a soup to be rushed. It takes time to finish. And as a breakfast, which is when it is traditionally eaten in Cambodia, it’s deliciously filling - and there’s no bacon and eggs in sight.

The great “all day English breakfast” as every cafe and restaurant seems to describe our beloved fry-up out here may leave you feeling stuffed for an hour or two with all that lovely fat and grease and ketchup. But in my experience, it often leaves you craving a second brekkie – especially if sausage sarnies are involved.

But this chicken rice soup keeps you going all day. And that was just as well for a friend of mine recently who was forced to experiment with living on $2 a day for food, which he managed to achieve by eating two bowls of bo bor sach moan every day at the central market in Phnom Penh - after he’d persuaded them to charge him the Khmer price, that is.

But it’s not just the flavours. It’s the love with which it’s made. I honestly thought I’d met the happiest two women in the world in Sihanoukville a few weeks ago. The twins ran a tiny street food stall that served only one dish – you guessed it, chicken porridge soup – and had two small tables that customers would cram round.

They gazed on happily, constantly joking and smiling, as they watched customers queue for a space, and then dive into the condiment trays of ground black pepper, sugar, fish sauce, lime segments, fiery red chillies, and fermented bean paste.

There were no wounded egos or chef tantrums – Khmer food is always served with plenty of condiments to balance the desired sweet, sour, spicy and salty tastes of each diner - because there is little arrogance in the kitchens out here, and no “right” way to flavour a dish. And it comes as a refreshing change if you’ve ever had the misfortune to work with the sort of brazen, dogma-driven robots Michelin-starred restaurants spew out.

But it’s not just the love and the bean sprouts and the zip from the Kampot pepper, and the hit of lemon grass and ginger, and the soothing crunch of gizzards (easily the best part of a hen for my money), and the soapy richness of the cubes of blood pudding, and the wilful perfume of dusky, browned garlic. It’s the gloop. It’s the way the jasmine rice splits and thickens the stock, creating a greyish, cloudy sheen to the liquor.

Like many great dishes, it takes you back to a memory of childhood. For me, it was the chicken and rice dish they served at school. I think they called it “chicken a la king” but it’s so long ago it’s hard to remember. It was chicken cooked in a creamy, yellow sauce that probably came courtesy of a tin of Campbell’s condensed soup - the base of many a casserole in those days. It always came with boiled rice and one or two triangles of fried bread. Fried to the same chestnut brown as the garlic at the street stall, I remember.

There was something splendid about the way you stirred the chicken and rice together to form a moreish mix, the softening fried bread dancing playfully on your tongue. And it’s that sort of texture you get from Cambodia’s famous soup, especially if you buy a baguette to dip into it as I sometimes do.

I’ve seen a dozen different ways of cooking it. But the way they make it at that down town food stall is my favourite. The cooks start the day by putting five or six whole chickens in a huge soup cauldron. They fill it with water, throw in some chopped shallots and garlic, lime leaves and a few bruised lemon grass stalks, and then rake up the charcoal and bring the pot to the boil.

Then they add enough turmeric to turn the liquid a golden yellow. It’s the only place in Cambodia I’ve seen that uses turmeric in porridge soup. The spice is heavily revered by the Khmers for its medicinal properties – particularly in the north, where pregnant women have it rubbed into their bodies to keep their skin tight after they give birth – but generally you only find it in kroeung, a curry paste that forms the base of many Cambodian dishes.

They let the stock simmer away for a couple of hours, topping up with water if necessary, and then season it with salt, fish sauce, sugar, and plenty of pepper. They fish out the chickens and put them in a bucket to cool, ready to be prepped.

Every part of the bird is laid out on a tray, including the yolks taken from the hens' ovaries, which glint like amber pearls and are absolutely wonderful. Diners choose which part of the bird they want, and the breast is shredded and carefully rationed, and laid on top.

In a smaller pot, they cook the rice until it begins to break up, and then put a scoop in each bowl of soup with a handful of blanched bean sprouts and some shredded ginger - to a rough proportion of one third rice to two thirds chicken stock, so the rice doesn’t completely smother the broth. When cooked a la carte, or at home, the rice is boiled in the chicken liquor, but when you’re dealing with vats of the stuff and keeping it hot all day, you have to keep them separate otherwise the rice dissolves and loses its porridge consistency.

Lastly, they make the garlic garnish by finely chopping dozens of cloves, and heating vegetable oil in a frying pan. When the oil begins to spit, they toss in the garlic and stir continuously for 30 seconds or so until it is brown but not burnt. Then they drain off the oil, and sprinkle the garlic on top with chopped culantro (use coriander if you can’t get this) and spring onion greens.

You should really try it, it’s a blinder. And if it’s excellent out here in the stifling heat of Phnom Penh’s markets, it must be even better on a dark, chill morning in wind-swept Britain...

MORE: Pho bo - Vietnam's traditional breakfast

BELOW: Cambodia's other famous breakfast - fried pork with pickles, rice, and, of course, soup...

My new book on training to be a chef, including stints at Rick Stein's and the Fat Duck, is available to buy on Amazon for Kindle, iPad, iPhone etc. CLICK HERE to buy for just £2.05, about the price of half a lager.

"It's a bargain and an easy read, I didn't want to put it down." @Mcmoop

"Should be required reading for anyone who has ever dreamed of leaving the monotony of the 9 to 5 rat race to open their own restaurant." Breil Bistro

"A great read and should be a set text if you're considering a change of career, or God forbid, applying to Masterchef." richard

Thursday, December 15, 2011

So Why Are Brits So Obsessed With Scampi?

Google’s annual Zeitgeist of the popular search terms of the year throws up some interesting quirks about the British, or 'Mid-Atlantic Island Monkeys' as we're becoming increasingly referred to in Germany and France following the EU veto row.

The most intriguing was the 'what is' top 10, which revealed that the UK’s love affair with food doesn’t look like going away anytime soon.

Bizarrely, "what is scampi" was the second most popular search term in the UK – with Google revealing that interest in the shellfish had soared by 80% over the past year.

But experts are at a total loss to explain why the tail of a Nephrops norvegicus, also known as a langoustine, Dublin Bay prawn, or Norwegian lobster (just in case you haven’t Googled it), sparked such a cocktail of interest.

There were no new crisp flavours or other major news stories involving the British pub menu staple which might have caused such a sudden flurry in puzzlement. And the creator of Fingerbobs hadn’t died (not for 10 years anyway), causing a tsunami of Twitter tributes from people who'd never known him.

The only tale that got much attention was a scare story in the Daily Mail (does it do any other types of stories) that scampi and chips could soon be off the menu for millions of horrified pub-goers because of a major decline in fish catches.

The 50% slump was blamed on those dastardly pencil pushers in Euroland, of course, as well as rising fuel costs, bad weather, and an increased demand for whole langoustines from France, Spain, and Italy (who tend not to eat them in the basket, smeared with tartare sauce).

David Jarrad, director of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, said he had no idea why there had been such a big fascination in scampi. "I'm quite surprised. It has been a traditional pub grub for many decades and it remains the UK's most popular and valuable shellfish by a long way," he added.

Further illustrating the British obsession with what is stuffed into our mouths, the top 10 also featured “what are truffles” in third place, and “what are cookies” in sixth.

Although presumably the latter was referring to cookies of the coding rather than cooking kind.

Top 10 “What Is” Searches

1. What is AV
2. What is scampi
3. What are truffles
4. What are piles
5. What is 4D
6. What are cookies
7. What is copyright
8. What is Zumba
9. What is iCloud
10 What is probate

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pitching Confidential: How Not To Get A Food Book Published

(Pic: Sign on the wall of a Buddhist temple in Siem Reap)

No-one likes hearing about other people’s successes, so you may enjoy reading the following. After what looked like a very promising start, my book about training to be a chef and doing stages at the Fat Duck and other places, with a few other scribblings not from this blog, has hit a brick wall. The sort of wall marathon runners are supposed to hit at 22 miles or so, but in my case probably far less than that.

At the beginning of this year I got some interest in the book and found an agent, and holed myself up in cheap hotel rooms in SE Asia as I set about finishing off the manuscript, rewriting sections and padding out other areas, and generally redrafting each chapter over and over again until I could no longer bear the sight of it.

Day after day I spent in hotel rooms in Bangkok listening to the noise of the street outside and wondering what people who didn’t spend 16 hours a day bathing in the bluish warmth of the computer screen did with their lives. The fact they had lives in the first place said everything.

But I knew if I stopped it was over, so I just carried on month after month like a crazed hermit until I thought I couldn’t get the book any better. But saying that, by that point, I’d lost all judgement. I had no idea whether the book was any better than when I’d first started. Was it even any better than the blog posts, or the initial scribbles in my beer-stained Moleskins? How could I possibly know? Then the readers appeared. Real readers, not friends with kind words. Chums of my ‘lit ag’, and a few ex BBC Radio 4 types.

The feedback was surprisingly good. There were a few suggestions, and one or two legal concerns about overpaid grocers or perpetually absent celebrity chefs, and I made tweaks to the copy. Then it was printed out, weighing in at about 1lb 2oz, or 70,000 words. It certainly wasn’t War and Peace, but it was as good as I could get it, and it’d been through a few eyes, and then my agent sent it off to a couple of publishers. And then after a month or so of not hearing anything, about eight more.

The first of the “regretful turn-downs” as my agent began to describe them came from Penguin’s quirky, fun books department, Particular Books. They said they had trouble with the narrative arc. I have to confess I had to Google it. I read all about the plot to chapter graphs and ratios, and wondered where Nicholas Nickleby or American Psycho fitted into that.

I think it might have had something to do with the ending. It was too abrupt. I’d known that all along. Or was it the bit when it started going into detail about the food? Would the reader just skip those bits and press on with the story if there was one at all, which I was beginning to doubt. What actually happens in the book anyway? And what about the pressure for a happy ending?

If I’d had my way, the character would have ended up swigging from a vodka bottle in an Asian hotel room - like at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, but madder. Who said misery lit was over? The whole book was about the plight of the modern day slave.

I asked the agent to ask Penguin/Particular Books if they could elaborate, but she said it was against “publishing protocol”, and she didn’t know them well enough to ask as a personal favour. So I just waited for the next reply, which was from Profile Books, and turned out to be very promising, and even went to the committee stage.

I don’t write the following as any kind of boast. Just as a journal of the feedback I received in trying to get the book published. It might help you if you’re in a similar position, or are planning to write a book. And if nothing else, it gives an insight into the current state of the UK publishing industry, its obsession with celebrity, and why more and more writers these days are turning to eBooks, spoken ink, and other self-publishing methods rather than more archaic avenues.

The first reader at Profile was very enthusiastic, describing it as “funny, thought-provoking, well-written, a very easy read and compulsive page turner. An easy turn-around too, I imagine, if you get a lawyer across it.”

But he added: “It'll sell; just not convinced it's a snug fit with Profile. A little light-weight perhaps...”

But even though the head of publishing was also enthusiastic, he said the rest “just didn’t get it”. Perhaps there was nothing to get? I knew I shouldn’t have changed the ending. He said they could only do things if they all agreed, and so regretfully declined.

Here’s what he said: “I love this book. I sympathise greatly with Lennie: not one of the most successful people in England but certainly one of the most appealing. He’s frank about his shortcomings, there’s something appealingly forlorn about him and he’s very funny indeed.

“He’s also clearly a rather good cook and fits in well with tricky people. There were bits in the book that were genuinely laugh out loud (lol) and other bits that were more poignant...

“...So I presented the book very enthusiastically to my colleagues and asked them to take it seriously. And here’s why I’m gutted: they didn’t get it. My colleagues refused to share my sense of humour, my confidence in the author or to see its potential...

“...I’m greatly saddened by this. It’s a real pity and I thought it was brilliant. I’m sorry it won’t be us and I know that another publisher will take it on enthusiastically and make a great success of it.”

The next – from Transworld - was even more depressing. They said they “couldn’t just publish it because it’s good”. They said these days you need to be a celebrity, or have your own newspaper column or something, which rather begged the question of why you’d need to approach a publisher in the first place. It also made you wonder where the next Catcher In The Rye would come from. But who needs JD Salinger when you’ve got My Booky Wook?

Here’s what they wrote: “It’s really funny and rather horrifying all at the same time – what an eye-opener. But it would be a hard one for us to do in this day and age when it is soooo difficult to publish a book successfully just because it is ‘good’.

“Unless there is something else going for it (i.e. his own TV series, or radio, or regular column in a paper – anything to give him a public platform) then it is truly hard to get any take-up from what retailers remain out there...”

It was described by my agent as “another very near miss”. She pointed out that every reader had liked it, and we just needed someone to take a punt on it.

Time went by and I didn’t hear anything, and my monthly prods to the agent were answered with a just sit tight or hold your nerve message, and occasional reminders that everyone was on holiday (publishers seem to have about nine a year), or it was the Hay Festival and then four months later the Frankfurt Book Fair. I realised the book publishing world moved at a far more sedate pace than either the journalism or cheffing world I was used to.

More weeks passed, and we still hadn’t heard anything from the remaining publishers, and after a lot of umming and arring and anticipated regret, I wrote to my agent saying I’d try to find another avenue for the book and thanked her for her efforts and wished her all the best for the future.

She’d urged me not to fiddle with the book, but I knew they were right about the ending – if that’s indeed what they meant about the narrative arc, and I knew in my gut it was – and I decided I’d have another tinker with it. A last one for the road, so to speak. A final, cider-fuelled fondle in the bus stop before our separate buses come.

She wrote back with the list of rejections and yet to replies. She’d been kind enough not to tell me that four others (Quercus, Constable/Robinson, Little Brown, Pan/Macmillan) had also given the thumbs down. But there were four more undecideds, or at least yet-to-decides, or noes-but-couldn’t-be-bothered-to-reply. But as they’ve had the book for over half a year now, I’m not overly hopeful.

So here I am back in the hotel room, hitting the 16-hour days until I can’t get it any better again, and looking at new fangled routes like eBooks and so on.

I know none of it’s important. I only have to look away from my screen, and if it’s day time see the streets of Phnom Penh, and the terrible plight of the limbless beggars and street children and prostitutes feeding their yabba addiction until they’re left a walking skeleton in a dress collecting plastic bottles for a few hundred riel to know that my book means absolutely nothing, and that me and it are completely unimportant in this huge, vast world, and what right do I have feeding my ego when there are people out here barely feeding their stomachs?

But I’d like to get it out there all the same. I’ve put too much work into it to do a Gordon Comstock and chuck it in the river. Even if I have to print it myself at one of these presses they’ve got out here churning out fake Lonely Planets for a couple of dollars.

I could give them away to the homeless street hawkers to sell. Even if they flog them for half a dollar, it’s still money in their pockets. I’m joking, or at least I think I am. But seriously, if you’ve got any ideas, I’d love to hear from you. Time to get on with the book...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ow-zat! Shane Warne Burns Bowling Hand In Deep-Fat Fryer Cooking Accident

Shane Warne has promised his partner Elizabeth Hurley to give up trying to be a "masterchef" after badly burning his bowling hand in a deep-fat fryer.

The pudgy cricket legend – known for his love of fast food - hurt his hand so badly cooking a pre-training snack in his kitchen there is speculation he may miss the upcoming Cricket Australia's Big Bash League.

He posted a picture of his precious right hand on Twitter (pic below), showing a number of nasty yellow blisters – the sort of cooking war wound that even the most tiresome, macho, ‘SAS kitchen’ chef would be proud of.

It’s not known how he got the injury, but there were reports he’d burned his hand while deep-frying fish fingers for a heavily-mayonnaised sandwich.

Warne – whose life often seems like it’s been scripted by the writers of a cheesy Australian soap opera – twatted: “Not ideal preparation for practice match today – burning the bowling hand. Get better quickly please, any suggestions – HELP.”

Fans flooded him with burn remedies, including lavender, witch hazel, and manuka honey (which I’ve always found works best for burns and cuts, and did wonders to the huge, yellow gobstopper on my thumb when I was thrown a red-hot, metal duck plate.)

Later, Warne, 42, wrote: “Ps no more trying to be a masterchef! Stop and by (sic) a bacon roll on the way to the ground next time – silly Shane!”

He quickly became a figure of fun on Twitter as news of the injury spread. Some speculated he’d been fishing chips out of the fryer before they were ready, some said he might have done it on his hair straighteners or sun bed, and another wag wondered whether he’d actually done it “setting fire to his own farts”.

Still, it could have been a lot worse. Reminds me of the tale a stage chef told me as we were cutting mountains of pistachios in half in the Fat Duck slave compound, sorry prep kitchen.

He said the incident happened when he was working part-time in a burger bar, getting himself through catering college. I doubt whether it was true, but he seemed sincere enough...

“This dude came in for a job,” Eric began. “He was about 17, and had never worked in a kitchen before, and they put him on the fryer. He was wearing this watch – I couldn’t see what it was, but it looked more like one of those expensive German makes or something...

“And I said to him, ‘Buddy, you wanna lose that watch, buddy you DON’T wanna wear that in the kitchen!’ And he says something like, ‘it was given to me by my grandfather’. And then half-way through service, guess what, the watch slips off into the hot fat...and without thinking he puts his arm in to get it out...It was like a reflex man!

“You could see the flesh disappearing on his arm like cooked ham. He said something like ‘hey guys’ and went down like a tonne of fucking mash! Man, that was gruesome! Worst thing I ever saw...”

Friday, December 09, 2011

Keith Floyd's Bitter Regrets Over Channel 4's Car Crash Documentary

Keith Floyd bitterly regretted taking part in Channel 4’s appalling Keith Meets Keith documentary shortly before his death, his former manager has revealed.

The celebrity chef was desperately ill with bowel cancer when one-trick actor Keith Allen and his film crew doorstepped him at his farmhouse in the south of France and produced a highly unflattering film about his life.

Floyd was impoverished amid an acrimonious divorce with his fourth wife, and felt he couldn’t turn down the undisclosed sum they paid him for taking part.

His long-time manager Stan Green said the TV cook was fully aware he should never have done it.

“I told Keith not to do the programme because I knew he was in no fit state to be on television at the time. He was very ill,” he told Chef Sandwich.

“But they went to him directly, offered him the money and he accepted. He rang me up one day and said, ‘You’re not going to be very happy with me, I’ve been making a television show.’”

Floyd – the man who’d made cooking acceptable and inspired me to train as a chef - died of a heart attack at his friend Celia Martin’s home in Bridport, Dorset, in September 2009 as he sat down to view it.

It was dreadful to watch. From the moment the great cook was shown sleeping on a hotel sofa like some befuddled Chelsea Pensioner, his energy and spirit finally succumbing to a lifetime of fags and booze, it was clear it was going to be uncomfortable viewing. It was like watching the last hours of a dying God.

I remember trying to switch over several times, but it was Keith Floyd...

He might pull through and show his old magic, even a glimmer of it would do. But by the end I felt overwhelmingly sad, and desperately so the next day when I was told he’d died.

I wanted him to remain in my thoughts as the skewed bow tie-wearing roué lambasting Clive the cameraman, glass in hand, pan-frying sweetbreads and truffles, and heartily recommending that half the bottle should go into the daube, and the other half into the cook.

I wanted to remember him in his prime, drunk on the riverbank, hurling stones at a hapless fisherman who’d failed to catch any trout for the show. I wanted to remember him in Padstow, pretending to forget Rick Stein’s name as the fresh-faced cook squirmed on camera.

I wanted to be reminded of him serving a breaded beermat to a customer who’d complained about his Wiener schnitzel, and the live cookery demonstration when he’d left the giblet bag inside a roast duck.

I didn’t want to remember him as the frail, doddering, aged-beyond-his-years man in that dreadful documentary. It was car crash TV and chequebook "journalism" at its worst, and I still don’t know why Channel 4 aired it.

A spokesman for the broadcaster declined to comment or confirm how much the TV chef had been paid for taking part. "We would not comment on any contractual arrangement between us and Keith Floyd," he added.

My new book on training to be a chef, including stints at Rick Stein's and the Fat Duck, is available to buy on Amazon for Kindle, iPad, iPhone etc. CLICK HERE to buy for just £2.05, about the price of half a lager.

"It's a bargain and an easy read, I didn't want to put it down." @Mcmoop

"Should be required reading for anyone who has ever dreamed of leaving the monotony of the 9 to 5 rat race to open their own restaurant." Breil Bistro

"A great read and should be a set text if you're considering a change of career, or God forbid, applying to Masterchef." richard

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Being Wined And Steined In Padstow

Guest post by Dom Bailey

Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Whatever that means. I wouldn't know how to cook one either. But it's that birthday time of year again, and with the kids safely in the hands of in-laws, I was whisked away to Cornwall (well, I had to drive five hours before I was told exactly where we were staying.)

I think Lennie may have mentioned Padstein once or twice and has a few tales to tell about a stage in Stein’s Seafood Restaurant kitchen. But this birthday treat meant I had the chance to sample Rick Stein’s kingdom from the other side of the pass.

The expense came courtesy of a now deceased maiden aunt who enjoyed the good things in life and was a regular at Thornbury Castle. A fitting way to spend the money she'd left my wife (my wife thought) and what's a birthday present if you can't share it?

The £435 winter getaway package included two nights at St Edmunds House - sea view, four poster bed, attic bathroom, free standing bath and Molten Brown shampoo (we are easily impressed) and some good eating to boot.

The deal was a three-course meal at St Petroc's Bistro, breakfast (twice) at the flagship Seafood Restaurant, with a three course meal there in between. Buy your own drinks. Now when something is "all included" or "anything you like" I am suspicious. We looked at the menus - and again - and wondered if it really was anything from the menu.

Could we have a starter and then share the chateaubriand for two at £45? I saw the lunchtime meal deal of three courses for £19, that must be it. "You’re a mini-break booker, sir? This way please wa ha ha haar..."

But no. Just as the Seafood Restaurant does what it says on the tin (33 seafood dishes, only three non-fish options, and only one is a main - it's fish, ok?) the three course option was anything you like. Kids in a sweet shop. But do you go for the most expensive dish just because you can?

"I'm having steak," said my wife. "It's £25." Apparently you do. I realised it had all been worked out and the restaurant knew what the maximum damage would be, but sometimes you can't help feeling a little greedy, over extravagant maybe.

A little taster to start - bruschetta of mackerel escabeche. Fresh, lightly pickled fish with crunchy onion and carrot on a piece of fried bread. A taste of fast receding memories of a Cornish summer.

Starters: my good wife had scallops. Chivey topping and on a bed of seaweed (for decoration only, she discovered.) I went for the wood pigeon salad (pic below). The tender pigeon, on watercress, was nicely peppered - which did remind me of Kampot pepper and the fact that Rick Stein has "done" Cambodia on his travels.

On to the steaks. For a little variety (yes we lean over to taste each other’s food - unless it's scallops, then I get a sharp fork on the knuckles) my wife had sirloin and I had bavette. I'm not really a steak man. Beef, like chicken, is usually the last option from the meat counter, farm shop or menu, unless you're talking koo dut (pic below). There are so many more meats, especially wild ones, to choose from. Textures and tastes from venison and boar for example I believe outrank beef.

But here was a cut I hadn't tried, and beef – 28 day dry-aged Aberdeen Angus - was the only meat from the grill. Bavette, the waitress informed me, is "like the skirt you have in stews". You could only have it medium rare or rare. I like those kinds of instructions on a menu. I admit I was tempted to ask for it well done - just to see what happened. But I behaved.

The bavette bordelaise was served with pommes coq d'or (thin slices of potato cooked in chicken stock with garlic), baby gem lettuce, shallots and a rich, well-seasoned cabernet sauvignon vinegar sauce. The meat wasn't melt in your mouth tender but was full of flavour, and went down a little better with crispy chips sneaked from my wife's 14oz sirloin and chive butter dish than the soft pommes.

Desserts. Spanish cheese cake. No contest. There is no base and it is slightly thicker and drier than you might expect, but a great cross somewhere between cake, creaminess and cheese with a baked brown edge of goodness. And that’s before you taste it with the poached pear slices lightly spiced with vanilla. My wife had a sundae - chocolate and vanilla ice-cream with clotted cream that would have seen her well into Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday if we didn't have a booking at the Seafood Restaurant...

We'd done the turf, now the surf was up. On a Monday as well. Sorry Anthony Bourdain. There is almost too much to choose from on the menu. Still three courses to choose, but what to go for? Something expensive, unusual, familiar?

Dover sole, sea bass, fish pie, monkfish vindaloo, crab, the list went on. Bouillabaisse, turbot, brill, fish and chips...or duck. My wife did break from tradition and forgo the scallops, and had crab with Russian salad followed by a rich lobster thermidor (pic above). I just fancied lobster, straight up, no fuss. So steamed lobster it was for me (pic below). "Small or medium lobster sir?" Let me think for a second, yes definitely medium please.

For my starter, I was tempted by the fruits de mer - razor clams, oyster, crab, lobster - a little rock pool on ice. In fact I was tempted by a lot. But oysters are my favourite. So are spicy sausages. And here they were in the same dish.

A bite of creamy fresh oyster, a chunk of sausage - a bit of chilli but not too much paprika - and a slurp of cold white wine. It was a beautiful starter. The lobster was as simple as you can get but what could be better? Steamed, rich meat from the body, lighter, sweet meat from the claws and flecks of red roe. It came with mayonnaise, which I prefer a bit lemonier and left most of it, but the lobster was enough on its own.

For the desserts, the filling lobster certainly ruled out cheeses. But before I had got to the bottom of the list, my wife suggested: "Why don't you have the tarte, then I can have the crème brûlée?" Too stuffed to argue, I had the drum roll pear tarte tatin with scrumpy ice cream. Gooey, syrupy...and my turn to wrap knuckles. The crème brûlée was delicious, apparently. I can only confirm the pistachio biscotti was good.

The restaurant was fairly busy for a Monday. It's a large room with a massive bar whacked in the middle covered in bathroomy tiles - maybe a job lot left over from all the Stein luxury accommodation dotted around town? I thought I'd overdone the pre-meal drinks as the ceiling above the bar seemed to glow neon pink, then green. But no, it was intentional apparently, if a little odd.

Mind you, we were sitting below a painting of a pig in a nurse’s outfit. Looking around the room, it was like some mad curator had thrown up a gallery's leftovers. A huge painting that seemed to show the inside of an Arabian tent with tagines and cushions had a copy of Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes peeping out. Another subtle reminder, in case you needed one, of whose gaff it is.

The waiting staff were all friendly and not too overbearing. They must get sick of the "where's Rick?" question, but I'm sure I heard it asked twice. So two nights and four meals later, we had been truly wined and Steined. I don't think our steak and lobster choices would have hit the profits too hard, and I think Aunt Grace would have approved.

:: Dom Bailey is a writer and singer-songwriter. His songs are here at