Sunday, 25 May 2008

"I Would Walk 256 Miles"

Bonsoir mes morelles magnificant!

As you may have noticed, I have been absent from the information super-highway for quite some time. Unfortunately a family member was taken seriously ill which catapulted me from my quiet, picturesque village in the heart of the English countryside to the west coast of Scotland and some of the best sunshine and light breezes I have seen this far.

Although, this was no time for sight seeing, just before my sister and I returned from the Jewel of Ayrshire, we managed to reminisce about childhood days, favourite schools and the best place to get your "poke o' chips wi' sauce an' a bottle of Irn-bru"! We may have even argued on which gastronomical purveyor should hold the coveted 'Best Chippie in Troon (and surrounding areas').

For me, it was the Tudor Tearooms which used to be owned by good friends of the family and my mentor, Chef McKenzie (H.C.I.M.A Scholar and Chef De Cuisine). He is one of the few Chefs' I have known over the years that has given the majority of his life to an Industry designed to crush you from the inside as well as burn, slice, stab and cut you from the outside. He came out the other end and is now able to stick 2 fingers up at the culinary establishment and bellow the words, "I beat ya, ya B*****ds".

Chef McKenzie has had many achievements over the years; he was the inventor of Emergency Catering, holds the Scottish record for PC Solitaire (most games played) and also holds the highly regarded award for most Scotch Broth served to the over 60's.

Chef McKenzie's wife, Mrs McKenzie, is one of the most experienced, organised and proficient Front of House owner/managers' I have ever had the privilege and honour of working for. You cannot find anyone anywhere who is more than capable of planning and executing a function from as little as 7 to a massive 700. Ruthless and uncompromising in approach to staff, I have never seen so many whippersnappers get their comeuppance, including yours truly!

Now both retired, which I must say is well deserved, I felt obliged to enlighten you on two of the greatest unsung heroes of this flailing Industry. They remember the highs of the 70's, 80's and 90's. The good wholesome dishes, classics like Coq au Vin and late night prep sessions.

So to you both, from a very grateful person, Thank You!

There is nothing like a trip down 'Memory Lane' to clear the cobwebs and brighten the soul. Yet I feel grumpiness creeping back into the conversation. Something is niggling me, gently nibbling and gnawing away at my light hearted, dare I say, happy mood. It has been bubbling underneath the surface for some time now. Slowly simmering away like a poached egg, gently dancing around in its pan of exuberant water.

There is now a new way to ensure that you can charge your customers more for their meals by using the term 'sustainable source' on your menu. There has been a huge push from within the Industry and the likes of Caroline Bennet of the sushi chain Moshi Moshi has mentioned that the use of farmed fish isn't the way forward and that menus should change more frequently to help educate consumers. Apparently the Hospitality Industry needs to take more responsibility regarding this subject and that no-one should be able to hide behind the excuse of 'this is what the consumer wants'.

So lets get this into perspective. Certain individuals are of the opinion that the majority of consumers would like locally sourced, organic, humanely killed, free range, sustainable sourced produce? I think this list is getting way to long. In fact, it is becoming ridiculous to the point of insane.

I can tell you what the consumer wants......value for money. Meaning a nice place to eat with a good atmosphere, freshly prepared and nicely presented food and a quality service all at a reasonable price. It would be nice to have all those criteria met, every single one, but it is an impossible task. We may all want those things; protection of species, helping local businesses and less cruelty to animals, but are we ready to be able to pay for it because it will not come cheap.

A friend of the family recently went for a light lunch in a pub owned by one of the large corporations that litter our cities and towns throughout Britain. Not only did she enjoy her meal but it only cost £6.95 for TWO main courses. Now, all together, lets half that figure......that's right, £3.47! For those readers in the United States that is $6.80. For those readers in Canada that is $6.86. For those of you in Australia it is $7.16. Finally for those using the Euro it is 4.40EUR. My first question is "why so cheap?" and my second is "where has the produce come from?". So, for interests sake, how does that actually fair with your own countries' restaurants, bistros and bars? Is it cheap, expensive or completely ludicrous? Can you really guarantee that is fresh and not boil in the bag or microwaved? Please leave a comment and let me know.

On that note, I must away and prepare myself for another day of very little staff, vast amounts of consumers and a lot of mis en place (for those of you who struggle with French, go to Babelfish online and that will translate it for you).

A few questions needing answered this week, but very important ones I feel. Let me know your views and, as always, I look forward to reading your comments and points of view. I have also added a wonderful blog to my 'Beyond The Hotplate' called Slurp and Burp which will inspire and educate you on the path to greatness in all things culinary.

Before I go, I would like to thank everyone who knows my Father for their positive thoughts, good wishes and get well cards. It was a real eye-opener, a shock and extremely heart-warming and a big thank you goes to you all for your support at this difficult time. I hope to see you all again soon.

Until the next time my delightful Dairylea Dunkers......

Le Chef Grincheux

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Has The Thrill Really Gone?

Beau jour mes Cornichons Culinaires!

It is that time of the month again where I begin to become even more disillusioned with this trade. Is it possible to be grumpier than just plain grumpy?

Despite the slight drop in temperature across the country and the odd drop of the wet stuff, we are still surprisingly busy at the restaurant. A new menu seems to have produced a revival in the amount of clientele crossing our little threshold. The canal boat companies are beginning to rent more boats out to stag and hen parties, groups of middle-management on team building exercises and the annual subscribers to 'Saga' magazine and the Sun has been flourishing its warming rays on the general populous packing them with more energy than your average solar panel.

My main gripe, I suppose, is where were all these people a few months ago when the restaurants and hotels outside of the bustling cities and towns actually needed the support and patronism? I personally like nothing more than going out during the wintry showers to a pleasant and cosy eatery, ordering a delectable Agnelez le ragoût, les boulettes d'herbe et la purée de pommes de terre and washing it down with a robust and flavoursome Faustino Gran Reserva '81 Vintage. We have become slaves to the abundance of bistros, ready meals and gastro-pubs. Only eating out when life has dictated it. Sunshine and sombreros define our eating habits. Where has the thrill gone? I remember different times though......

Eating out used to be a delight. I looked forward to my day off where I could indulge my senses and treat them to an evening of fine food and choice wines, finishing the night off with a palette cleansing snifter and a chunky Henri Wintermans Cigar. Do not get me wrong, times have changed for me. I now have a wonderful wife and beautiful daughter which fill me with joy everyday. We still eat out, although not as often and it will usually consist of child-friendly pubs, homemade picnics and the inevitable trips to the odd fast food chain for a burger and fries. So when did dining out become such a minefield? Is it me that has moved on from experimenting with obscure combinations of flavours? Am I the one who is being left behind in the race to define Culinary perfection? What is perfection?

To me, perfection is French Cuisine. Traditional, homely and classical in its creation and more often than not, rich and bold in flavour and texture. This style of food has led the Industry to where it is now but I feel it has been forgotten and pushed aside. Nowadays it is expanded upon or broken down to its key elements and resurrected with complex titles or 'play on words' descriptions. Items such as Horseradish Snow, Virtual Ham and Popcorn Cloud intrigue and challenge the consumer to experiment with texture and enhanced flavours which, to a certain extent, is driving the Industry forward into the 22nd century, pushing the boundaries of the culinary institutions that once appeared old and haggard. Yet, should we forget our roots and carry on with Mussel Spheres and Boneless Chicken Feet? Or is it maybe time to roll back the clock, turn back time and visit the traditional world of perfection? Careme pushed the boundaries, as did Escoffier and Montagne. Although, they created the basis that is fundamental cookery. I believe it is about time someone stood up to be counted. Tell these experimental Chefs' that Egg Yolk Spheres and Basil Foam are going that little bit to far. In short, prices are to high and the food is to fiddly and elaborate. Bring back the fundamentals.

With all this healthy eating lark comes a price......Enjoyment! When we want to enjoy ourselves, we indulge our senses. Be it mentally, physically or gastronomically, that is what makes us human. For example, every Thursday, I make 2-3 special dishes for the board above the bar and I try to make sure that somewhere on that board is a dish of reputation. A warm and comforting dish that, even if it doesn't sell, will fill me with joy and excitement to make it. That is my one sanity within my week of work. That is my enjoyment. Everyone has a favourite dish. It may be something from your childhood or a dish you ate at your wedding, even a particular sweet that has disappeared from the shelves of your most visited sweet shop. The point is, that is your comfort food. Its personal to you and I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with Nitroglycerin, car-paint sprayers or olive oil spirals.

Let's get back to the basics! Let's rekindle our love and passion for what is not good for us and spoil ourselves once in a while. They say that you eat with your eyes......Well, I think its time we started to eat with our hearts and memories!

"Go on, try something gastronomically naughty today!"

Le Chef Grincheux

Friday, 16 May 2008

Local Produce For Local People!

Bonjour mes Gastro Pamplemousses!

I must thank you for your patience. Due to the immense hours that I work, sleep is featuring very highly on my agenda at the moment and more importantly, so is the time with my family. As my Daughter's birthday has been such a monumental occasion, I have been venturing far and wide to animal farms, secluded seaside resorts, castle gardens and pits of multi-coloured balls to ensure her enjoyment and excitement have been at their peak!

Yet I cannot help seeing the newspapers, hearing the radio interviews or watching the television and so many incidents are sprouting from the four corners of the media that have passed me by. I have lapsed regarding the information required to maintain this style of blog. But......I'm Back! The only conundrum, is where to start?

Let us begin with the rollercoaster ride that is Chef Ramsay. I believe the man has lost his mind once and for all. In fact, I believe he resides in Cloud Cuckoo Land with all the culinary fairies and gastro goblins attending to his every whim! Ramsay has once again stepped on some very big toes. Chef Ramsay now feels it is time, just before the release of the new season of the F word, to enlighten the eager public with his general feelings on local, seasonal produce. Apparently, any Chef found using non-local and out of season produce should be fined for doing so. Surely Chef, you have that wrong? Flogging should be the punishment for such a depraved crime, dare I say dismemberment in extreme cases. I mean, how dare someone fancy a nibble on a strawberry during the winter season! A robust casserole of game and juniper should be frowned upon by all while the Sun hangs high above. The Chef disemboweled for such a travesty of justice!

Please do not misunderstand me. I would rather buy produce grown within the region I live and work in. There is nothing better for a Chef to stand proud and shouting loud that the majority of the produce on his/her menu is sourced locally, farmed locally and produced locally. Farmers Markets are increasing in number which is a fantastic thing. Consumers appear in droves just to snap up organic vegetables and free range eggs. Obscure cheeses are still a firm favourite, mouth-watering sorbets and ice creams, roasted suckling pig and real dairy butter will draw people from all over the countryside, chomping at the bit to buy this flavoursome and wholesome produce.

As always, there are three teeny weeny snags. Price, price and price! I have concluded, for example, that when you purchase a nice Cashel Blue cheese for your penultimate course on your menu, that it is not last years' wrapping paper it has come wrapped in but 24carat gold leaf! The succulent and juicy marmalade made buy the 'Auntie Maureen Marmalade Company' is in fact orange jelly crystals mixed with an inferior Asda marmalade, although the price seems to have tripled and I honestly cannot remember when Seville oranges grew natively within the British Isles!

It is all so damned expensive. Chef Ramsay, please understand that most restaurants and public houses cannot charge £150+ for a five course meal. We have to cater to the customers we have. They pay the bills and sometimes even the wages! To even use 50% of locally produced food on my menu would result in loss of trade and jobs.

So why is local produce so expensive? I have no idea! It costs less to ship in beef from abroad than it is to buy from 500 yards round the corner! It makes no sense. The Industry is set for a recession. There are no two ways about it. All produce has gone up a minimum of 7% and it is due to rise again. Transportation costs, animal feed and import tax are just a few of the issues we face at the moment. Add to that the increase in living expenses and the stagnant pool that is wages and you will see a very scary situation that appears to have no end.

So to put it all into a nutshell, buy local? YES! Take out a second mortgage on your home to pay for it? Ummmm......? Point made? I think so!

Let's move on , shall we, to the new Sainsburys advert featuring Jamie 'The Mockney' Oliver and his delightful wife. An exquisite and palatable pasta dish for a fiver. Okay, I will admit that it is possible to eat for a fiver at Sainsburys......but......thats another pasta dish! The first advert was for a pasta dish. Wait a minute, is Oliver trying to fatten us up so he can start another campaign on healthy eating? He is obviously missing the comfy sofa at No.10 Downing Street, but with that accent, what would he accept from the former, I mean current Prime Minister.

Now, I went to Aldi a couple of months ago as I had been volunteered to cook a one course dinner party for six. Something simple and classic, yet elegant in design and full of robust flavours. Coq-au-Vin! A classic in its own right and a beautiful dish to chew the fat over. The recipe I have is quite a few years old, about a hundred years old to be precise, and I went on my merry way to source my produce for the feast. To cut a long story very, very short, I found my ingredients, went to the till and packed my items to the best of my ability. The total cost of this peasants dish? £15.00. Now I do believe that if you were to break that down and divide it by the number of guests, it would appear that it cost £2.50 per person. So that would equate to £1.25 more, per person, than Sainsburys claims you can eat for. Okay, lets re-cap. Sainsburys/Oliver are promoting pasta with a stodgy sauce, cheese and vegetables. I am promoting a classic and traditional cuisine containing the main food groups and a good helping of self-indulgence into the bargain! Which would you prefer?

Finally we have a 'waiter-less' restaurant, German in design and absolutely pointless. Customers are given a chip and pin card which they swipe at both the bar and restaurant, choose their food which has been miraculously prepared in front of them and pay on their way out at the cashier point. The company, Vapiano, feel that Europe (especially Britain) will prove the hardest to break. Really Gentlemen, I wouldn't have guessed!

In Britain, we thrive on banter! The art of conversation with waiting and bar staff alike. Why not just resurrect HAL and be done with it. Soon we will all be using replicators while we watch re-runs of Star Trek and Deep Space Nine. Inserting Babel Fish into our ears to communicate with alien lifeforms before sticking a skewer up its arse and BBQ-ing it. When will this madness end?

On that very obscure note, I must bid you Adieu! My other pages will be updated as soon at it rains and I stop being inundated with customers. Until next time my croissants colorés......

Le Chef Grincheux

Monday, 5 May 2008

5 Loaves and 2 Fishes?......Kids Play!

L'horreur... L'horreur! Quand finira-t-il?

What a fine Bank Holiday it has been. Heart-warming rays of sunshine, ducklings swimming in uniform lines with their mother while the culinary masters visualise their next 'confit de canard avec les pruneaux et l'armagnac'. Somewhere, in the distance, a lone starling twitters for its mate and the day has begun with such vigour.

Unfortunately, like the Trojan Horse of Troy, it holds a dark secret. A sinister undertone within its virtual belly. The secret lurks deep within its bowels, waiting and watching for the Sun's shimmering glow. Poised with anticipation and excitement. Eagerly waiting for the start of that day when people can go mad with gusto and enjoy that 'Holy Grail' that is a Bank Holiday Monday.

If you have ever witnessed a horror film full of carnivorous zombies clawing and chewing their way through a humans' digestive system, then you can picture my restaurant on a day that should be put aside for D.I.Y and barbeque's. Most of the nocturnal Egor's can resist the urge to venture out during daylight, but the ones who thrive on the thrill of eating out bombard the eateries of the UK for light lunches, high teas and full a la carte experiences. They decimate a plethora of creative courses meant for the discerning diner and drag it into an abyss of chips, baked beans and eggs over-easy.

They came in droves. Gnawing and chomping their way through steaks, battered cod and burgers, some even without cutlery! It made the apocalypse look like a day trip to Bangor. Every table strewn with food debris and crushed napkins, it looked like the end of the world was nigh and the Pont de Barre was the epicentre of it all.

With the aftermath came the 4 hours of wind-down time I needed before even contemplating sleep. Three hundred people on the Monday alone with a total of 600 served on the three days prior to that. When you dish up that many meals with little or no complaints, then you know you have done your job and done it bloody well. You feel on top of your game and quite rightly so.

So as I languish on a beach in North Wales with the sun beating down from on high, the icy waters lapping at my toes and seagulls dive bombing overhead, this weeks' rant will have to be postponed. Yes, that is right, you read correctly. It has been put on hold, saved for future posts and held back!

My apologies to all my avid readers but as it is also my daughters birthday today, the insane mutterings of the Grumpy Chef will just have to wait until next time. I'm sure within a few days, my insanity will be back to its' normal 'through the roof' levels and the painful throbbing in my head will return with great enthusiasm. Also, the others (Sebastian, Molly and The Evil One) will soon be back from their hols so I think my compact and bijou brain will begin to get quite crowded again. (But it won't be for long if Sebastian makes me wear that damn pink tank-top again. I just don't do glitter! It plays havoc with my complexion and as for Molly, well, once she starts to yap on, no-one else can get a word in edge ways)

As a parting gift though, I would like to give you a couple of tips regarding 'on the edge' Chefs'. If you ever see one, do not approach! Quietly send in a young child asking for some ice cream and watch the culinary nutter melt into sighs of 'Aw, how cute. Of course you can'. Or, a little easier I feel, offer him a brace of pheasant and a few bunny rabbits. Always does the trick!

Till next time my beloved Belgian Waffles......Have a fantastic week!

Le Chef Grincheux