Thursday, January 24, 2013

Unseen Documents ‘Reveal Michelin’s Cover-Up Over Chef's Suicide’

The Michelin Guide is in hot water after being accused of hiding its role in the suicide of one of France’s greatest chefs, Bernard Loiseau.

Loiseau was terrified of losing his third Michelin star when he shot himself in the mouth at his home near La Côte d’Or, his gastronomic temple in Burgundy, France, in February 2003. A week before, Michelin's rival the GaultMillau had reduced his rating from 19 to 17 out of 20.

His friend, three-star chef Jacques Lameloise, recounted how Loiseau - whose cuisine eschewed cream, butter, flour and fat, but remained quintessentially French; his signature dish being frogs' legs and garlic purée on a bed of parsley sauce - had told him how much his Michelin rating meant: "He said, 'If I lose a star, I'll kill myself.'"

Loiseau’s death shocked the culinary world and led to the critics themselves facing criticism. They were accused of exercising too much power, toying with the restaurants they assess, and ultimately pushing Loiseau over the edge.

Amid the backlash, the tyre guide kept its head down and left Le Figaro’s restaurant critic Francoise Simon to be a “scapegoat” for his death. He had published an article shortly before Loiseau’s suicide citing Michelin sources as warning his third star was "legitimately under threat".

Michelin denied ever threatening to withdraw a star, which Loiseau’s restaurant ended up keeping. But previously unseen documents suggest Michelin had told him it had serious reservations about his restaurant four months before he shot himself.

Yesterday, L’Express magazine published a confidential note written by the guide’s then British head, Derek Brown, that appears to contradict Michelin’s version of events.

Minutes from his November 2002 meeting with Loiseau and his wife Dominique at his head office recount how Brown left them with little doubt that a star was under threat, and even mentions how shocked the 52-year-old chef was by the news.

“I spoke of our concerns: irregularity, lack of soul, of recent character in the cuisine and readers’ mail that is VERY mixed in terms of quality,” Brown wrote. “Visibly ‘shocked’, [Loiseau] took me seriously. We’ll see.”

Two days later, Mrs Loiseau sent a deeply apologetic letter, promising to get their cuisine “back on track”. Her husband - who she says was a manic depressive “capable of great moments of euphoria and periods of deep anxiety” - apparently never recovered.

Simon said yesterday he felt vindicated because he had merely reported on Michelin’s warning. “Michelin did indeed envisage docking Bernard Loiseau a star. They wanted to pass me off as a killer, while Michelin exempted themselves of any responsibility,” he said. “I was thrown to the dogs, treated as a murderer and still am by some. They needed a scapegoat.”

Brown insisted this week: “There was no threat made to Bernard Loiseau of losing a star at any time. Michelin doesn’t threaten anybody. He asked to see me. People who want to come and talk about their restaurant are very welcome. The idea of telling him about the concerns we had about some of his cooking was in order to give him an opportunity to consider whether he wanted to do something about it, which he did, as it turned out.”

Michael Ellis, the current director of Michelin, told L’Express: “These types of meetings are part of daily life at Michelin. I’m not surprised such a meeting took place. We don’t summon chefs. We only receive ones who wish to see us.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Restaurant Serves Up £70 Tasting Menu Made With Dirt

Even before my grandmother’s eyesight went, she wasn’t the cleanest of cooks. Her teacups were always grimy and stained the colour of David Dickinson’s face. The plates she served sandwiches and crisps on were often greasy from some previous opened tin of ham. And the vegetables she pulled from the garden were given a cursory swish under the tap, and were gritty and tasted of soil. “You eat a peck of dirt before you die,” she would always say, dismissing any concerns about hygiene.

I may not have fully appreciated her boil-in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce, and cold platters of crisps and Spam always with an opened tin of sweetcorn on the side, but how ahead of her time she was when it came to garnishing her boiled-to-blithereens vegetables with soil.

Like comedy, they say timing is everything in cooking, and I can only think of the money she could have made if she’d only moved to Japan and opened a fancy French restaurant selling dishes caked in dirt for £70 a pop, like Tokyo’s Ne Quittez Pas.

Of course, this isn’t just any common or garden soil. It’s special black compost from Kanuma and is apparently safe to eat just like fugu. According to Japanese news website Rocketnews24, Ne Quittez Pas’ chef Toshio Tanabe once won a TV cooking competition with his dirt sauce, and from there his soil-infused tasting menu took roots.

The first course is a shot glass of potato starch and dirt soup, dusted with salt around the rim, and topped with a slice of black truffle. “It was divine! There wasn’t a dirty flavour at all. Instead, this simple soup went down smoothly with just a hint of potato flavour,” gushed the reviewer.

Then comes a salad of grilled eggplant, tomato, and turnips with a dressing made from dirt and ground popcorn, followed by “minerals of the sea and minerals of the land” - an aspic jelly made with clams and a top layer of sediment, with dirt risotto, fried sea bass and burdock root.

“With these dishes too, there wasn’t a dirt flavour. I had to wonder what had happened to the characteristic yeasty smell of soil,” said the reviewer, which does beg the question why add the stuff in the first place? But then in a nonsensical, PR-savvy age, where freshly-foraged ants in Kilner jars are all the rage, what the hell do I know?

For pudding, there is dirt ice cream and a dirt gratin, washed down with dirt mint tea which “looked like muddy water (sorry, but it’s true), but the minty taste was bracing.”

“As to why the meal didn’t taste at all of dirt, that is likely due to the dirt itself, which is supplied by a company called Protoleaf. Using coffee grinds and palm fibre, which were previously just thrown away, the company has created a novel and eco-friendly compost,” added the reviewer.

I’m not convinced it will catch on. But if it does, it will bring a certain authenticity to the many “dirty” burgers and other gourmet fast foods doing the rounds in London.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Marco Pierre White Walks Out Of Radio Interview After Being 'Bullied And Insulted'

So what do we know about the cooking genius and dummy-spitting toy hurler Marco Pierre White? He’s a monster to live with and has a terrible temper, according to at least one of his three ex-wives. He was a notorious bully to his kitchen staff when he actually bothered to cook in his own restaurants, and once made Gordon Ramsay cry (I suppose you can’t blame him for the latter).

He peddles stock cubes for Knorr and regularly appears in adverts proclaiming that adding a meaty crumble to a meal will lift it out of a slough of saporific drudgery - words that would have choked the younger version of White when he won his three Michelin stars, working 18-hour days behind the stove, fuelled by strong espressos, red Marlboros, and regular delves into his ingredient drawer.

And it seems that like all bullying celebrity chefs with monstrous egos - Ramsay, James Martin, Gary Rhodes, and the seemingly mild-mannered, rosy-cheeked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall etc - he is also very good at dishing it out, but painfully sensitive when it comes to tasting his own medicine.

As happened when White walked out of a radio interview in Australia yesterday after being questioned - in his words “bullied” - about his three ex-wives and his cooking skills. The final straw came during the Triple M Adelaide breakfast show when one of the presenters dubbed the TV chef a “rude prick”.

Dale ‘Louie’ Lewis and co-hosts Warren ‘Warrie’ Tredrea, Jon 'Blakey' Blake, and Ali ‘Ali’ Carle were banned by the Austereo-owned radio station, still cowering from the royal prank call scandal, from playing the interview this morning, but were allowed to discuss the controversial exchange, pre-recorded yesterday.

Lewis, a former Sydney Swans AFL player, incurred the celebrity chef’s wrath after raising the question of White's three failed marriages, asking whether his “first wives” had been “dismissed, for want of a better word, cos they can't cook, or didn't like your cooking?” Lewis then quipped: “Cos if you're the rude prick you come across on TV...I wouldn't be there long either.”

White tried to play down the marriage dig, but took offence at the language. He ended the interview, telling Lewis there was “no need for rudeness” before accepting the presenter's apology. “Rudeness is not having fun when it is at the expense of another person. You're a very rude man. And I hope your mother's not listening to this show today because she would not be proud of her son,” he said.

White told reporters later he was deeply offended by the remarks.

“To be honest, I was a bit off balance when it was said to me and I thought why should people get away with this? Why should they be allowed to bully people? It's why I said what I said. What's very sad is this is a radio show where children could be listening and to use that sort of language in front of children is wholly inappropriate.”

If it was for comic purposes, White said “it was scurrilous behaviour.” He added: “This is my third time in Australia in eight months and this is the first time anyone has shown me rudeness or disrespect. I just excused myself and left.”

He added: “To expose listeners and especially children to that kind of language leaves a lot to be desired. I'm not saying I've been a good boy all my life but you get to a stage in your life where you've just got to be corrected. It's called growing up.”

I’m sure the many chefs who suffered in White’s “SAS-style” kitchens, under a constant tyranny of personal abuse and savage aggression, will be amused to hear him complain of being “bullied” and the victim of bad language. Especially the poor chef who was once forced to stand in the corridor all night with his trousers down, telling every waitress that walked past that he had asmall penis. Talk about a case of pot kettle White.


DALE LEWIS: Hey mate, married three times, was (sic) the first wives dismissed, for want of a better word, cos they can't cook, or didn't like your cooking? Is that an issue with them?

(Female host giggles)

MARCO: I just think of myself as being a lucky man that I found three women who wanted to marry me.

(More laughing by hosts)

LEWIS: Yeah, cos if you're the rude prick you come across on TV, I wouldn't be there long either. That's just me surmising what I've seen on TV

ALI CARLE: Marco, I wouldn't stand for that

MARCO: All you're doing is giving me insight into you as a person.

LEWIS: (laughing) Now he's analysing me

CARLE: (laughing) He's reading you

LEWIS: He can cook and he's a psychoanalyst

CARLE: Like a book, Marco. Now, you said

MARCO: There's no need for rudeness

LEWIS: No, no, no it was just

MARCO: I think you should say good morning to me, and good bye, because one, I take offense to being called that. I haven't shown you disrespect, I haven't been rude to you. I don't like being called that word. I'm very sorry.

LEWIS: Well, I apologise Marco. I was just trying to have some fun.

MARCO: Your apology is accepted. Rudeness is not having fun when it is at the expense of another person. You're a very rude man. And I hope your mother's not listening to this show today because she would not be proud of her son. Have a nice day, bye bye.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Poems Written In Kitchens: Tintagel Castle

This is the first of a number of poems I wrote while working in restaurant kitchens in Cornwall, and hallucinating from sleep deprivation. They were scribbled down in a plastic-coated notebook filled with recipes and cooking notes. 

Head chefs always told me to never write down recipes unless I’d cooked them myself and knew they worked. I suppose the same should be said for poems, here it is anyway...

Tintagel Castle

See the jackdaws by the castle,
Like ancient chess knights in black,
Peering across the stones they have guarded,
Since the time of Camelot way back.

And if you are searching for King Arthur,
And think Excalibur’s just well hid,
Then have a look in the village gift shop,
Because there’s a plastic one for each kid.

And if it’s Avalon you’re really after,
And your quest is to find the Grail,
Then read all about it in the village gift shop,
But only the jackdaws know the tale.

Because they were here when the walls were scarlet,
With the blood of a thousand knights,
And gouged and gorged as the dead lay dying,
Scattered over the rocks after every fight.

So if you are searching for King Arthur,
And climb through ruins to Merlin’s Cave,
Then look a bit further from the ley lines,
And behold those birds as bold as day.

Because they no longer feast on the flesh of fighters,
Their carrion call is no death knell,
It’s the crumbs of the pasties they’re after,
Which is why they will never tell.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Horse Meat Found In Tesco Burgers - Every Little Pony Helps

It says 8 per cent more beef on the Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers box, and promises no artificial preservatives, flavours or colours. But what Tesco doesn’t tell you is the pink slimy patties inside are made up of 29 per cent horse meat.

The supermarket chain says it wants to “apologise sincerely” to customers following the discovery of its Shergar burgers from DNA tests by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). Tesco lists the, err, mane ingredients on the box as 63 per cent Beef, 10 per cent Onion, which I suppose in fairness might actually be the horse’s name, followed by wheat flour, water, and beef fat.

The meat came from Dalepak Hambleton processing plant in Yorkshire, and two plants in Ireland, Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods. The burgers were sold by Tesco and Iceland in the UK and Ireland. And Lidl, Dunnes Stores, and Aldi supermarkets in Ireland.

Investigators said 27 burger products were analysed - and 10 contained horse DNA and 23 revealed pig DNA. Another 31 beef ready meals, including cottage pie and lasagne, were  tested, and two thirds contained pig DNA.

Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive of the FSAI, said there was no health risk but also no reasonable explanation for horse meat to be found.

"Whilst there is a plausible explanation for the presence of pig DNA in these products due to the fact that meat from different animals is processed in the same meat plants, there is no clear explanation at this time for the presence of horse DNA in products emanating from meat plants that do not use horse meat in their production process," he said.

"In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horse meat and therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger. Likewise, for some religious groups or people who abstain from eating pig meat, the presence of traces of pig DNA is unacceptable."

The FSAI also found traces of horse DNA in batches of raw ingredients, including some imported from the Netherlands and Spain.

Horse meat was found in Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers 29.1 per cent; Tesco Beef Quarter Pounders 0.1 per cent; Oakhurst Beef Burgers in Aldi 0.3 per cent; Moordale Quarter Pounders in Lidl 0.1 per cent; Flamehouse Chargrilled Quarter Pounders in Dunnes Stores 0.1 per cent; two varieties of Iceland Quarter Pounders 0.1 per cent.

Retailers said they have now removed the burgers from their shelves and are investigating.

A Tesco spokesman said: "We are working with the authorities in Ireland and the UK, and with the supplier concerned, to urgently understand how this has happened and how to ensure it does not happen again. We will not take any stock from this site until the conclusion and satisfactory resolution of an investigation."

He added: “We understand that many of our customers will be concerned by this news, and we apologise sincerely for any distress. Our customer service team is standing by to answer any questions customers may have.”

It seems Tesco will resort to anything in its unbridled pursuit of profits, and there must be some very long faces in the press office today, all hoping it won't go on furlong, and sales remain stable etc etc.

From Twitter:

@moanup: Just had a Tesco burger, it's given me the trots."
@HylandIan: Think I might give these Tesco 'smoked paddock fishcakes' a miss.
@karlpweb: "Horsemeat in the burgers? That's a bit rum. A bit red rum to be precise. For shame."
@TheRealJackDee: "Nothing about Tesco surprises me. A burger is like Noah's Ark in a bap."
@feintzebra: "What's the difference between a Tesco burger and a McDonald's burger? A Tesco burger will filly you up."

:: MORE: What's really in your doner kebab?

French Restaurant In Hot Water Over Sex And Drugs Parties

A French restaurant in Catford, south London, faces closure after allegations of customers having sex on the premises, brawling, drug use, and people defecating outside the building.

Le Bourgeois, situated under a block of flats called appropriately enough Eros House, is also said to run a weekly late night adult party called Thick Lick, advertising "male and female performers, exotic dancers, private rooms" and a "birthday special".

"On several occasions I saw finger and hands prints places on the bonnet of my car in a compromising position," one local resident told police. 

Other neighbours gave anonymous statements complaining about finding used condoms in the basement, a gun being fired, shouting and screaming, and drug dealing at the venue. 

The Met Police have called for Le Bourgeois’ licence to be revoked, and Lewisham Council’s licensing committee will decide the matter on Thursday.

Lewisham East MP Heidi Alexander told reporters she was first contacted about the problems nine months ago.

"People talked about having to clean up faeces from outside the restaurant. They told me there are strippers inside and there are people having sex at the back of the restaurant," she said.

"Given the length of time that these problems have been going on, I do think some serious action needs to be taken."

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Quality French Food In A Rough Part Of Town

We’d been urged not to review Chez Gaston by one or two regulars who loved the place the way it was, and didn’t want it frequented by trolls. But trolls don’t eat real food, we said. They live under bridges in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, feasting on passing, bloated corpses.

But as it turned out, we nearly didn’t find the place anyway. Because, like all great restaurants, it was tucked away in a hard-to-find spot. In this case, a rough neighbourhood with ludicrously random building numbers on Street 15, just off Kandal market, where you wouldn’t even park your moped, let alone expect to find French cooking of such an exceptionally high standard.

It was Saturday night and the small bistro was nearly empty, but still had bags of atmosphere. A French party was sat at the bar sipping drinks, all laughing before they’d finished a sentence, the soft hum of blues, or was it jazz, in the background.

There was no menu, or English translations – just blackboards on the brothel-red walls, giving the names of bistro classics like oeufs mimosa (devilled eggs), joue de boeuf au vin rouge (braised ox cheeks), and andouillette de Troyes (gloriously stinky sausages made from pork intestines) that a French mayor once famously said politics should be like – smell a little like shit, but not too much.

I loved the place already. It was the very antithesis of pretence and unmitigated poncery. A true bistro, not a brasserie, with simple, hearty meals and a short menu. There were seven wines of the month, and we ordered the 2007 Bordeaux for $17, which was nicely chilled and eminently drinkable. We swigged away as a basket of excellent French bread arrived, quickly followed by our starters of foie gras ($14.50) and escargots de Bourgogne ($7).

The snails were magnificent and cooked in parsley and garlic butter, which when you turned the shells over drooled into a savoury, verdant pool, with bread for the mopping. They were piping hot on a clay dish that looked like a Stone Age egg poacher, and came with an arsenal of curious tools that reminded me of that scene in Marathon Man. “Is it safe?” I don’t know, but it was bloody delicious.

The foie gras was heavenly and a hymn to the pudding-like texture, rich flavour, and oily feel of this decadent, feather-ruffling dish. It came with strips of tomato skin garnish, and two spots of stewed plum and fig puree, the perfect accompaniment to the buttery foie.

The service was excellent, and our Khmer waitress was as knowledgeable and passionate about the food, as she was insistent with her recommendations. And I felt so sorry for her when the comedy moment came, and she knocked over my wine glass, leaving the tablecloth looking like a butcher’s apron. She kept apologising over and over, and the more we made light of it, the more she seemed to despise herself.

My main of onglet a l‘echalotte ($9.50) had come highly recommended by our server – who said it was far superior to the girlie filet de boeuf ($9.50). It’s a ropey-textured cut (skirt steak in English, hanger stake in Ameriglish) from the cow’s kidney area and packed full of offal-like flavour. It was beautifully rare, which it has to be or it gets far too chewy, and was topped with a mountain of sliced shallots fried in the pan juices.

It came with cauliflower, green beans and carrot that were just the right side of crisp, and a tower of gratin dauphinoise that was beautifully creamy if a little under seasoned. The peppercorn sauce was very good, not overly spiced, and with all the richness of a good béarnaise-style base. Whoever was slaving away at the stove – presumably the owner who’d answered the phone and given us directions in French as we padded up and down Street 15 – clearly knew what they were doing.

My friend’s main of magret de canard ($9.50) was wonderful too. He’d asked for medium, and the duck breast came in pale pink slices, with the same vegetable garnish, and was full of gamey flavour. He chose red wine sauce that could have been reduced a tad more to remove the acidity, but was still good.

For afters, our waitress recommended the raw milk camembert ($3.50) – which was beautifully punchy and just starting to grow legs. And the reblochon ($3.50) had a nutty flavour, with a faint, earthy, musky taste of truffles. They were such generous portions, it would cost you more buying them from the swag bag carriers at Lucky Supermarket. Not that you’d get that quality there.

There was nothing pompous about the place at all. The owner, who looked happy and well-oiled, came through after service and shook everyone’s hand with a cheery “bon soir”. He was clutching a mysterious potion, and two saucers with what looked like a marshmallow in each. He poured a few drops in and they sprouted into white sausages. What fiendish trickery and bolts of bedevilment? We both stared.

“It same as thiz,” he said, pointing at the napkin on my lap. We wiped our faces and were engulfed in menthol. He was soon pouring us home-made strawberry vodka that was so thick it could have been happily up-ended without fear of spillage. We then moved on to Calvados, which was the perfect end to a wonderful meal.

We left with a Ready Brek glow, feeling very happy and full. The owner shook our hands again on the way out. “Did you cook the meal?” I asked. “Me! No way! She did,” he said, pointing at a pretty Khmer woman sitting on a moped. We thanked her several times until it became embarrassing. ”I wonder if she’s married,” my friend asked, as we loaded our guns and headed back out into the hood.

Chez Gaston, #76, Street 15, Phnom Penh (Tel: 077 910 945). Meal for two, including drinks and service: $70

Friday, January 04, 2013

Celebrity Chefs’ Farts: The 2013 Food Trend Everyone Missed

After being bombarded with endless listicles predicting food trends for 2013, I wonder if there’s one that’s been left off? Or let off. And by that, I mean celebrity chefs’ farts. Perhaps sealed in vac-pack bags and poached gently in a sous vide water bath at exactly 37.2C for 37 minutes and then carefully unsealed at the table to be sniffed eagerly while licking a shit-caked brick served by a cook who talks about himself in the third person?

Eau de Heston? Ramsay No.5? And what about an iPod playing the actual sound of the famous chef’s trump that created such a umami-bubbling bouquet as thrill-seeking, trendsetter diners tuck into the food his slaves have cooked in his own name?

I’m joking, of course, but it does give me the opportunity to point out once again how many bullying, megalomaniac, deviant psychos you’ll find in professional kitchens. I wrote about this in my book Down And Out In Padstow And London about the insane characters you find behind the stove and the abuse they regularly inflict on their staff.

But I was still surprised to read about the actions of an apparently fairly well-known American chef who started out on a culinary mission five years ago to fart on every one of his 37 employees - including his accountant - and to chronicle his attacks in some sort of bilious journal, the same way a stalker might keep disturbingly detailed, breathless notes of interactions with victims.

The mystery carrot chopper claims to have had one or two shows on something called the Food Network, which narrows him down to about 100,000 and counting, because everyone’s a celebrity chef now aren’t they. You only have to do a quick news search on Google to find idiots you’ve never heard of donating mince pies they’ve incredibly made themselves - in their own time, and out of the very goodness of their heart - for some charitable cause and a few lines in the local paper.

The chef, who claims to have a restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District, apparently even has a colour code for the offending farts he forced his employees to inhale, and has recorded his parps in a “rant and rave” section on Craigslist.

In the first strike, inflicted on a lowly kitchen worker on January 21 2008, he says: “It was hot as hell in the kitchen that night, sometimes I like to turn off the air conditioning to give my staff a bit of a stir, it makes their blood flow, their tempers flash, but for some reason, their discomfort turns out better quality food.

“So with all the air off, there is no air flow in our downstairs kitchen, and its small and cramped and really, really fucking hot, even in January. We have our plates in the warmer under our pass, so i was helping my hot apps guy plate a new fungi misti when it happened.

“He had the pan in his right hand, and we both reached to bend over to get the hot plate, i got there first, so he inhaled the entire hot air load that i let roar out of my pants. It was bold, loud, and completely unapologetic...”

He was so delighted, he decided to fart on the rest of his kitchen crew in alphabetical order of their surnames. One by one. And two days ago, his quest was complete.

“I think it took them out of whatever musical they thought they were living in, and made them alive, made them smell, made them want to throw up for a valid reason,” he muses.

“I think all farts should have a color assigned to them, because you know when that one fart comes out and lingers in the air and wont leave, I mean its obvious that is a green fart. Everyone should know this by now, its even documented in cartoons.

“A red fart is a spicy one, probably incurred by some type of spicy ethnic food with a great amount of chilis and onions. A yellow fart, well these are worse on the farter, than they are on the fartee. These are sick farts, the ones that are on the verge of being sharts. Just imagine the fart that comes after downing like gallon of vodka, eating like 5 gyros on st. marks, then bagging a hooker named natasha, who acts like she is from russia etc etc.”

The chef - who describes himself as “definitely known in and around NYC” and brags that he has had “several specials on foodnetwork (sic)” - promises to detail the story of each fart over the next 37 days. Well, he would have done if his odious postings hadn’t already been removed by Craigslist. If his tales are true, let’s hope there were lawyers reading...