Sunday, 23 June 2013

National Waiters' Day

Happy National Waiters' Day, waiters! Only, if you’re a waiter, you won’t be reading this, will you? You’ll be knee-deep in cellar smells, getting your hands dirty halfway through the infamous Sunday deep-clean. Or maybe you’ll be working an AFD (that’s All Fucking Day for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working in hospitality), and by AFD, we don’t mean 9am ‘til 6pm, we probably mean 9am – midnight, or later still.

And it’s not just long hours and shitty pay (more on that in a mo) we have to deal with when working in hospitality. As a female, there’s the endless ‘EverydaySexism’: I’ve had my arse slapped, been given the card of a man old enough to be my grandfather, and that’s not to mention the endless array of derogatory comments I’ve experienced in the last eight years working in the industry. An ex-colleague of mine was close to the point of getting a restraining order put out on a customer after the harassment she received.

Women aren’t alone: there’s plenty of sexist shit that happens to blokes too. Men are frequently left to manage and lock-up establishments on their own “because they’re men”. Whichever gender you happen to identify as, staff shouldn’t be left on their own to cash-up and lock-up a high turnover site. An owner of a bar where I used to work experienced a bloke trying to smash through a window with a barrel in order to rob the place. Fortunately the owner was brave (read: crazy) enough to grab the nearest, largest knife in the place and yield it in this wannabe-criminal’s direction, leaving the chancer scarpering off into the night. After that, only the owner would take the responsibility of locking up on his own; it shouldn’t have to take an altercation like that to make changes, but at least he acted on it. Many don’t.

You wouldn’t believe some of the shit that goes down when you work in a restaurant or a bar. I’ve been reduced to tears by chefs, “unintentionally” physically assaulted and even been told not to speak to an owner of one establishment I worked in, unless spoken to. At that point, I thought I’d Quantum-Leaped back to the 1800s – when I realised I hadn’t, I got outta that place as fast as I could.

The National Waiters' Day press release says it ‘aims to change the perception of waiting or waitressing as an unskilled job working long hours to one of a job that can offer good skills, can lead to a rewarding careers with good progression routes and great rewards’. Now, I certainly have nothing against its aim – I consider it a worthy one – but whose perception is it planning on changing? In my opinion, it starts from the top.

How do you think we’re supposed to be given respect by customers, if we don’t feel respect? And how are we to feel respected if our employers don’t show us any? Rotas are often drawn up at the last minute, so we’ve no idea when we’re working from one week to the next; hours invariably change: one week it may be 15, the next 65, all depending, of course, on who the flavour of the week is with the GM at any given time. Bonuses in this industry don’t exist, other than in the form of being given enough hours to keep a roof over your head. Ask for a break, and - more often than not – you’ll be scowled at. Someone remind me -  when was it that employment laws stopped applying to the hospitality industry? From the reaction I’ve got any time I’ve stood up for my rights, and asked for the thirty minute break I’m more than entitled to in a 12 hour working day, you’d think said rights never even existed.

So far it reads like this: long hours, often with no guaranteed income (if it’s dead, that’s it – your shift’s cut short, and this could easily happen any time), a constant tirade of abuse from punters and bosses. All that to deal with, but at least we’re well compensated for it, right? Wrong.

Most businesses within hospitality will try and get away with paying national minimum wage – which for over 21s is £6.19 an hour. Try raising a family on that. And don’t get me started on the age discriminatory wage practice which means that many 18 year olds with comparable skills to 21 year olds in the industry will be paid over a quid less, and under FOUR POUNDS an hour if you’re under 18.

Yes, there are tips, but these aren’t guaranteed, and further, depend on the restaurant’s tipping policy. I may be wrong in suggesting that most restaurants have been shamed into ensuring tips go directly to the staff, although I always still check with my waiter or waitress when eating out, just in case. If it’s quiet – which is rarely the fault of the waiting staff – it’s simple: no tips. If you’re (un)lucky enough to work in the ‘exclusive’ bars and restaurants of the world, then yes, you might make up to and over £100 a night in tips, every night, but there’s only so many of them out there (thank God).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a reason why we put up with this shit. Sometimes, it’s fun. I’ve encountered some of the most interesting and intelligent people I’ve ever met working in hospitality. I’ve worked with musicians who’ve been on Jools Holland, clever clogs with degrees from Oxford, linguists who can speak their third language better than I can my first, high-profile models, budding documentary-makers, nutritionists and doctors in training, to name but a few.

Note that the aforementioned friends and acquaintances have been working in the industry as a ‘top-up’ to their chosen career path. And why? Because these creative and bright people know that if they want to reimbursed for their expansive skill set, they won’t get very far in hospitality. I’m not suggesting that all jobs in hospitality result in the treatment I’ve mentioned above: I’ve worked in some bars and restaurants where I’ve been paid more than minimum wage, earned a very fair amount of tips on top, been given breaks when needed and even been listened to by my bosses! Woah.  

All I want to say is: yes, a career in hospitality should be considered a profession, and yes, our customers should treat us with the respect we deserve – but we also need that respect from those who thought we were decent enough to give us a job in the first place. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

SoLita, Northern Quarter

My favourite thing about Solita is their bio on Twitter: "Manchester's 150th best restaurant according to Tripadvisor." Bad news fellas, you've moved down in the world: you're now 172nd. I'm sure the restaurant owners are quaking in their boots... In all seriousness though, many of my favourite food bloggers seem to bloody love SoLita; since it's been more than a year since Jamie and I visited, we decided to remind ourselves what all the fuss is about.

The first time we bobbed in for their seemingly bargainous lunch deal. For £5.95, there's a selection of hefty sounding sandwiches, one salad and a chilli. Though I was seriously tempted by the pulled pork toastie, given that I still hadn't overcome my own toastie machine bereavement, I went a bit healthier and chose the 'Charcoal grilled Caesar chicken salad'. Well, it would have been healthier if I hadn't developed serious food envy from their Twitter account repeatedly posting delectable looking images of their nduja spiced baked beans inside a portion of mac'n'cheese.

Heaven on a plate? Little bit.

I could eat a portion of this right now. Perhaps every day. It was good. I'm even going to say the mac'n'cheese might be better than Jamie's. Only might be, because I quite like being his girlfriend and I don't want him to give me the heave for saying such things. It was a little tepid, and I do quite like dishes such as this steaming hot but I'll forgive them this time.

The chicken Caesar was nice: croutons made from the same bread J's sandwich was served on, and appropriate amounts of dressing, but where were the anchovies?! I know Caesars don't always have them but that salty hit of my favourite fishy friends belong here in my opinion. Just four of them maybe? Please?

J was happily munching away on his SoLita whilst I debated combining the Caesar salad with aforementioned side order. (I didn't, phew!). He did comment that the bread was a little dry, but also that it had a good flavour and he wondered whether it had even seen a little herb garden at some point - though perhaps this scent was coming from elsewhere. For the uninitiated, a SoLita is the restaurant's own take on a Reuben: warm Salt Beef, Emmenthal cheese, Big Manc sauce and chow chow slaw. Jamie had a side of fries, which I can also verify were of the tip-top variety.

We enjoyed our good value lunch meal so much so that several weeks later, after the success of our second supper club, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner here with our earnings. I must start by saying that in their defence, we did rock up at 8:45 on a warm Sunday night, and were told they served until nine. 

We were served by the same waitress both times, whom I found to be generally friendly and efficient. Given that there were only two other tables in the restaurant, we were seated and served speedily. J had a bottle of  Brooklyn (pretty good value at £3.50), and I, a small glass of the house red, a Merlot (£4.75). 

As Hanger steak has recently become my favourite cut of beef, I wanted to see how an Inka grill could improve an already awesome meal. Jamie went for the KFB burger, involving: melted Monterey Jack cheese, jalapenos, BBQ sauce, and kentucky fried bacon.

When the waitress took our order, she didn't ask how I wanted my steak. I naively assumed this was because she - and the chefs - knew that there's no point in having a Hanger steak anything other than rare. It's a tough cut of meat, and if you cook it past this juicy bloody mess, it just ain't no good. Unfortunately, it seemed this wasn't the case.

Poor cow, it died in vain :(

My steak was a huge disappointment. The meat was overcooked, I'd say medium at best. It also hadn't been left to rest so my fries and salad were swimming in a pool of bloody juices. Maybe this was a good thing as the salad had just been dumped on the plate, undressed, so this at least stopped them from being as dry as a Ryvita (no offence, crackers).

As often seems to be the case in such circumstances, all the staff seemed to disappear at the moment you actually want to talk to them. There was no check back, and so no opportunity to correct this miserable meat. Granted, I could have said something at the end of the meal, but given that we were now the only table left in the restaurant, I really didn't want to cause a fuss when it was evident the staff wanted to get out of there, and so did I...

Jamie's burger was fine. He ate it all up. No complaints there. And I really should add that despite the sorry state of my plate of food, the actual flavour of the Hanger was still pretty good. I just had a sore jaw by the end of it.

So, I'm undecided. One decent trip and one disappointing. The latter was near closing time, and I probably ought to have said something; I just assumed that a restaurant famed for its Inka grill would either ask how a customer likes their steak cooking, or cook it right. As I said before, other bloggers such as Hungry Hoss and Food Geek seem to really enjoy SoLita and I trust their opinions on dining, so I say not to just listen to me, but make up your own mind.

NOTE: Since publishing this blog post, the owner of SoLita - Franco - has been in touch and asked when we dined so he could look into it. He seemed accepting of the - we hope - constructive criticism. What's that? A restaurant owner who listens to feedback? Well, he'd have no place on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

Turner Street, Manchester
M4 1DW
0161 839 2200

SoLita on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Byron hamburgers, Waterloo

This mouth won't wait for no photo.

Unfortunately, this isn't a post about the brand spanking new Byron hamburgers in Manchester city centre, but it is a post about Byron hamburgers on the Cut in Waterloo! A trip to London for bank holiday weekend saw a total of three burgers consumed, a feat I have not achieved since living above GBK for near on a year (OH, I miss those days).

Sitting on the sunny Southbank, drinking a bottle of Veuve my clever friend spotted in a local offy mispriced at £15.99, saw us very quickly in need of some grub. I remembered there's a supposedly decent gastropub nearby in the shape of the Anchor & Hope, but sadly found it closed. Lo and behold: Byron hamburgers sat directly opposite.

I've been to Byron before and happily found this visit as pleasant as the last. The interior is bright, the service speedy and friendly, and the food pretty damn good. I'd been to Meat Market the same weekend, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my double patties, I was secretly quite pleased to find a more refined affair. I can never resist a burger with cheese and bacon (as the bite mark in my photos evidences), and this one was as delicious as usual!

Burger, open. (2013) Please note: this image is due for submission in the Turner Prize 2014.

Possibly my favourite thing about Byron burgers is the MASSIVE gherkin that accompanies them beef things (saying burger over and over is getting repetitive). The piece of pickled cucumber you see before you is actually only 1/20th of the entire thing*. Immense. I think the burger was probably slightly more cooked than I would have eaten at home, but it was actually so tasty - slathered in mature Cheddar and bacon - that I didn't really notice. (Oh, and the booze again might have had something to do with it...)

Chips innit.
Skin on chips are usually a delight, and these were no exception. My friend and I shared a portion along with our burgers, and if your tummy has been filled with bubbles prior to eating, I'd say this is plenty. However if you're more of a Big Ma(n)c kinda guy or gal, then you might want a portion to yourself.

Not to forget this delightful bottle of house red, named on their list as "good" (the wines range from good to best, so the one we had was essentially their worst). At £14.95, it may be a little pricier than some expect for a burger joint, but it went down a treat. Having shared this bottle with just one friend, I'd perhaps recommend others don't: 375ml is quite a lot to consume with just a burger for company, and it resulted in me nearly missing my train back up north... The online menu suggests a great selection of bottled beers, which is music to my ears. Next time, I'll skip the overwhelming amount of red juice and opt for a Kernel instead.

The Byron I visited is located on the Cut, so it's a perfect spot for pre or post-theatre dining if you're visiting the Old (or Young!) Vic, and it's also handily located within walking distance of Waterloo - bypass the overpriced Upper Crust and get yourself a real meal if you've got time to kill round here.

I know Byron may not be as cool or trendy as some burger bars, and is probably a tad overpriced when you factor in fancy toppings like er, spicy BBQ sauce at £1.25, and chips at £3.25, but I like this place: I can visit Byron and enjoy a burger in a grown-up environment, without worrying about the sexist undertones of the menu. I also hear their milkshakes are winners (must work on increasing stomach capacity), if feeling adult ain't always your thing.

I'm yet to visit the new Byron site in Manchester, and sincerely hope I won't be disappointed. From reading Bacon on the Beech's write-up, it sounds like I'm safe. Phew!

*Note: this may be a slight exaggeration. I was suffering from cheap champagne induced sunstroke at the time.

41-45 The Cut
London SE1 8LF
020 7633 9882

Byrons on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Brunch Club Recipe no. 1 - Earl-Grey Smoked Salmon

Smoking - best done outside

Whenever I read a piece about smoking foods, someone's always quick to evoke the addictive nature of this 'foodie' pursuit. They'll say things like: "you'll want to smoke everything, even the dog food"; "I can't leave for work without my smoking gun"; "Tarquin's only three but smoked hummus is already his favourite food". So is it all it's cracked up to be? 


Joking aside, it's a good idea to speculate whether it's worth making certain foodstuffs at home, and this applies equally to home-smoked goods. Several items at our Brunch Club have reached such pricey highs in the supermarket that we rarely buy them, preferring to make our own. Take granola for instance: oats, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, mixed together and toasted for more than a Bhutanese family spends on a weekly shop. The cons of making things yourself are usually time- and equipment-related; the pros are you have a better understanding of what's gone into your food and can produce a product that suits you. With our earl grey smoked salmon you get the added benefit of saving a shed-load of money.

Let's take a similar product as a comparison: Heston from Waitrose Lapsang Souchong Tea Smoked Salmon which sells for £4.99 per 100g. I went to Out of The Blue (preferred fishmonger alert!), purchased a side of salmon at roughly £9, cured it and smoked it, ending up with enough salmon to feed 8 people and plenty leftover to fit snugly into several cream-cheese filled bagels. (This said with the caveat that I purchased a smoking gun to facilitate the whole process; but if you can see yourself eating a lot of smoked food, then it's a worthwhile investment and a very fun toy.) Regarding the smoking, I found several recipes which state simply "light the tea leaves" or recommend heating in a wok until smoking. From experience, the former is actually rather tricky to do and produces very little smoke, as anyone who's ever tried to light a cigarette without drawing on it will testify; the latter is prone to filling your house with smoke, never mind the sucking power (ooh,er) of your extractor fan. And burning earl grey is particularly acrid, believe me.

So some sort of dedicated smoking device (a tin or a gun are the cheapest options) will stop your house stinking like Waynetta Slob's ashtray. (The aforementioned problems might be to do with tea so if anyone's got a reliable tea-smoking method do let us know). I don't want to get into the logistics of smoking here as I'm going to assume if you've got a tin or smoking gun then you've read the instructions. If not I'd recommend a blowtorch to get those pesky tea leaves to burst into flames. What I will say is that there are a lot of variations when it comes to curing and smoking times; and my advice is not to obsess about it. The longer the salmon is in contact with the curing mix the drier it will become; with the smoke, the smokier it becomes. Simple. Curing with a 2:1 salt to sugar ratio for 16 hours and smoking for three half-hour periods with fresh smoke gave us a very palatable product. Tea smoke is more subtle than the traditional oak so the salmon can probably take a little more.

Earl Grey Smoked Salmon

1 Side of salmon (approx. 900g)

250g salt
125g granulated sugar
A few sprigs of dill, roughly chopped
Leaves from 1 earl grey teabag

For smoking:
Leaves from 2 earl grey teabags

1. Mix salt, sugar and dill together; and moisten the tea leaves with a little water.
2. Cut salmon in two if too large to fit in any container you own.
3. Spread a thin layer of curing mix on the bottom of a container.
4. Place the salmon skin-side down and cover with the moistened tea leaves then the remaining cure (spread less cure on the thinner tail-end areas to prevent over-salting).
5. Cover and place in fridge for 16 hours.
6. Rinse off cure and leave salmon uncovered in the fridge to dry for a couple of hours.
7. To smoke, place salmon on a cooling rack above a bowl of ice inside a large seal-able container (see picture).
8. Use your preferred method to light the tea leaves. Get a decent amount of smoke in the container then seal. Do this outside if possible!
9. Let smoke for half an hour then repeat.
10. Store covered in fridge and slice when ready to eat.

- If you're going to the effort of smoking your own salmon then you might as well buy a side as it's more time efficient and the salmon will keep well
- If you do, however, buy a smaller piece just mix up less cure

The finished product