Saturday, 25 January 2014

Nick Griffin: A Far-right Foodie

An overlooked culinary genius?

As a food blogger, I feel it's my job to like food. And I do. But I'm not sure I'd claim that food is an effective cure for the side effects of bad government. Yet that is precisely what bankrupt BNP leader Nick Griffin does in a video cunningly entitled Recipe for beating the Tory blues for the far-right party’s TV channel. I suppose if you’ve got no chance of actually influencing policy, you might as well showcase your abject culinary skills on YouTube.

In what some homecooks might see as a clear affront to Jamie Oliver’s 15/30 Minute Meals output, Griffin takes up over half an hour of my time (surely no one else watched it in full?) to advise his viewers on how to cook what is a relatively simple meal: a beef stew. Judging by the looks of despair on his guests’ faces and their disingenuous feedback - one bloke merely laughs awkwardly rather than give any opinion at all - I don’t think he should quit his day j...oh wait, no I do.

So what’s in this dish, apart from diluted anti-Tory sentiment? It’s “traditional British fare” says Griffin, with such notable additions as onions (originated in central Asia), carrots (arose in the Mediterranean) and potatoes (they came from South America). Interestingly, etymologically, onion comes from the Latin for “oneness” or “unity”, unio, so could be crowned ‘least xenophobic of vegetables’. Of course, these ingredients were all grown in Britannia, that 'green & pleasant Land', but I guess the point I’m making is: what the hell does 'British' even mean, Nick?

With the vegetables I’m nitpicking, but Griffin’s decision to include Tabasco sauce seems like a undeniable slight on ‘Britishness’. Hot red pepper sauce in a beef stew. It’s like Nicolas Anelka 'quenelle-ing' Woody Allen. Perhaps Griffin got the idea from the local Mexican: “We’ve got a Mexican restaurant in a town not far from here. The place isn’t swamped with Mexicans,” he says. Not swamped, you say? Maybe because the Mexican population in Britian is miniscule.

All in all, the video shows that there’s really no need to undermine Nick Griffin; he does a good enough job of it on his own. He talks about scrimping and saving, making a stew with dog bones (that is to say, bones destined to be eaten by dogs) from the butchers if needs must, to a backdrop of what most would consider a plush kitchen, Aga and all. He advocates taking photos of recipes in bookshops rather than buying cookbooks. (I wonder whether only indigenous Brits are allowed to do this in Griffin’s mind? Maybe Muslim offenders would magnanimously be offered voluntary resettlement). He even goes so far as to deny the very existence of pork stock cubes. Knorr will be most displeased.

Just imagine if other politicians got in on the act. We could have Ian Duncan Smith telling us how it really is possible to cook affordable, nutritous meals on state benefits of £53 a week, but fail to show us how. George Osborne would teach us all the meaning of austerity: how to make a burger with shattered dreams while he jaunts off to Byron post-filming. David Cameron would charm us with recipes for the 'real' Eton Mess and street food Kolkata-style, while declaring GM-food to be the right way. Nick Clegg would make a cameo but not cook anything, like a guest judge on The Taste. And, as a sign of the coalition's manifest cruelty, Ed Miliband would be forced to eat the leftovers of all the aborted meals until he vomited.

Sound good? No? Exactly. Let's leave the cooking to the cooks and the politics to, um, Chomsky.

Friday, 1 November 2013

My Picks for The Skinny's Northwest Food and Drink Survey (with GIFs)

As some of you may know, The Skinny Northwest is running their first ever food and drink survey this year. 

We're hoping that it will become something of an annual tradition, not quite as big as Christmas but bigger than National Bath Safety Month. What can I say, we're nothing if not dreamers.  

As the mag's food and drink editor I thought it best to lead by example/drum up votes in as un-cringeworthy fashion as possible. So, here are a few of my picks. With GIFs. Because everything is better with GIFs.

You can find the survey form here: and it'd be great if you could vote too, rather than just stare blankly at the screen. I know Russel Brand says it's not cool to vote but in opposite land it totally is. So, yeah.

Best Pub

The Gaslamp, because the beer selection, the staff, and the setting make me do this inside:

Best Local Brewery

Blackjack, because I like supporting the little guys:

Best Cafe

Caffeine & Co. because their coffee is as smooth as this pervert:

Best Newcomer

Some Place, because when I first walked in I wanted to do this to the owners:

Best Food/Drink Shop

Beer Moth, because their beer selection makes me go insane:

Best Place...When Hungover

Go Falafel, an unusual choice, I know, but they feed when I feel like this: 

Best When... In a Rush

Panchjo's, because, well, they'll feed you tasty things when time is of the essence:

Best Place...For a First Date

Berry & Rye, because it's the bar equivalent of doing this:

Well, that was fun wasn't it? And it's always good to end with a bit of Cage.

I hope that's given you some inspiration. Now, go vote! Or we're sending this woman to get you:

Only kidding!


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Blog North Awards

As some of you may know, our blog - this one, right here! - was shortlisted for the Best Food and Drink blog category at the Blog North awards, part of Manchester Literature Festival. Whilst we didn't come away with an acceptance speech to rival Gwyneth's, there was one whose did - and I mean that in a nice way (for all you Paltrow haters out there). Winner of Best Personal Blog, Wife After Death recounts in a heartbreaking yet simultaneously hilarious manner life after her husband's death. Being a 'food blogger' (I wish there was some synonym I could use for that; its connotations now grate on me like a sandpaper bed sheet), it's easy to become engrained in the world of um, food blogging and ignore some of the wonderful and heartfelt writing that is expedited via the means of our beloved Internet.

Reading the other shortlisted blogs, I hope you'll forgive me for saying - and what poor marketing this is - but that our blog felt somewhat mundane. Hey guys look! We ate a meal. We made a meal. We drank some booze. How can that compare to the art of Thom Writes About Love Songs - a blog that will have you howling like a banshee - or the eye-opening Life Without Papers, Len Grant's second winning blog (his previous 'Her First Year' similarly revealing without any sense of intrusion), or Life Beyond Anorexia, a young woman's attempt to communicate her experiences to her family (the one I was most disappointed to see not win an award).

I'm not much of an expert on things, and I suppose blogging helps us to learn. Writing this blog has taught me a lot about food and drink, introduced me to some people I think are really, well, great to be honest - and made both of us pursue careers in writing. I worked as a copywriter for a while, which Jamie is also now doing - and we both have been fortunate to land writing positions with other external sites. (I realised that writing blog posts all day every day made me hate writing and I couldn't cope with that, so maybe I won't be pursuing a full-time career as a writer for the foreseeable future!).

In short, I guess what I'm trying to say is blogging is fucking great. I might not be as proud of our blog as some deservedly are of theirs, but in time I hope it will improve, that we as writers improve and that we'll become more creative in writing about food and drink. Yes, we may not be helping others to empathise with the plight of immigrants, or provide people with comedy gold, but hey - if writing this blog means others know where's good to get a shawarma, or where does the best cocktail in the North West, then at least we've done some sort of service, right? Hedonistic? Maybe. But hobbies are allowed to be, aren't they?

Congratulations to all those who own awards at the Blog North awards, every one is inspiring and I recommend everyone take a gander. For full details of the winners, take a look at the Blog North site.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

On the Virtues of Fried Chicken

To get things underway we have an excerpt from Fried Chicken by the American rapper Nas:

Don’t know what part of you I love best
Your legs or your breast
Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gonna be a nigga death
Created by southern black women to serve massa’ guest

Well put, Nasir. In less than 140 characters he ruminates on which part of the beloved bird is the tastiest, the implications of fried chicken consumption for the health of Black Americans, and makes a barely disguised reference to slavery. Take that, Twitter generation!

The song is part pop at America’s dietary habits and part farcical metaphor for a lustful relationship with a woman (“You in your hot tub I’m looking at you salivatin’/Dry you off I got your paper towel waitin’”). I implore you to give it a listen, if only to hear Busta Rhyme’s hilarious closing lines on the dangers of ham hocks: “Who cares if the swine is mixed with rat, cat and dog combined/Yes, I’m a eat the shit to death.”

As is plain to see, fricken is important enough to write a song about. And Nas’ ode is probably the best example of a food-inspired song (if you discount Funkadelic’s Fish, Chips and Sweat). But what’s so great about fried chicken? I’m a self-confessed addict, but I often find, as with many things in life, the expected high turns out to be guilt-ridden disappointment, like a greasy one-night-stand. Guilt-ridden because my moral sensibilities tell me it’s not okay to keep stuffing myself with poultry that’s lived a life only marginally better than a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Disappointment because my ‘freshly’ fried chicken has inevitably been sitting on a warming rack for hours and thus taken on the consistency of the fused tentacles of a very dry mop.

So, what advice can a Manchester fricken junkie give? Well, I’m inclined to agree with Will Self when he says, in a clever inversion of the old rat story, “you’re never more than a few feet away from some disjointed portion of poultry carcass.” That is to say, there are plenty of options in this here city. What follows are some tips/recommendations that may or may not (especially if you don’t eat chicken) come in handy:
  •       Avoid anywhere near Piccadilly or Portland St. And the Dixy Chicken at Shudehill. The one on Deansgate is acceptable. Beware of a greater than usual vibe of “I don’t give a fuck” on employees’ faces. That is, if you are in any fit state to be so aware.
  •             In theory, I’d question the kitchen practices of all chicken shops but I can’t bear to look at their Food Hygiene Ratings and suggest blocking it from your mind, preferably with alcohol.
  •           The best chicken wings are in my opinion to be found at Chunky Chicken and Chicken Cottage in Rusholme and Finger Lickin’ Chicken in Withington. They’re a (un)healthy size with the right amount of spice and a slightly less crisp coating (which I prefer for wings). If you like ‘em spicy, Finger’s the default. If you like shards of batter, then stick to KFC.
  •           I now only rarely order my old fave, the 2-piece combo, as I find that wherever I go the quality of chicken borders on the foul (bum-dum-tsh!). Unless we’re talking Southern Eleven’s chicken dinner, although I think they take the colour of the batter a little too far. More brown than golden. Stick to wings and burgers where poor quality is less evident.
  •           When you enter a joint, ascertain the quantities of chicken pieces, wings, and burgers on the warming racks. If they’re low on a certain thing you might be able to get some freshly made if you order enough. Failing that, just ask for it to be made fresh as we’ve established the price of eating stale fricken.

A word on KFC . If you like your service efficient and your options plentiful then it’s definitely worth seeking one out. As much as I try to avoid the global fast-food chains, I can’t fault their turnover of customers, their marketed-to-death specials, and the internal temperature of the food served. Sometimes when I enter any one of the number of ‘fake KFCs’ I often wonder (a) whether the my bowels are going to hate me for this in the morning (sorry!) and (b) why the most incompetent member of staff is serving and the other four are collectively managing to make one mini-fillet burger and a portion of chips. I think there should be a joke along the lines of: “How many Dixy Chicken employees does it take to make a bargain bucket? Five, plus the manager, and the delivery guy, and some guy they roped in off the street. And it still took two hours.” Yeah, I’ll grant you, it’s not very funny. And another thing:  why do KFC still refuse to salt their chips? Surely one salt shaker is cheaper than hundreds of individual sachets. Is it a way of limiting customers’ salt intake? If so, I don’t think it’s working.

Right, I’ll stop myself before I get too much into rant territory. Thanks for taking a foray into the crazy, mixed-up world of a fried chicken addict. It’s great to finally open up about my vice. But writing about it, far from helping in some cathartic way, has just made me want to get hold of a bargain bucket. Dammit!

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. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Jay Rayner: A Guardian Masterclass

"Do I feel threatened by bloggers? Only if they're better than me."

No one has to read a single word I write. If there were a journalistic mantra it should be this. And Jay Rayner lives by it. After all, he's in the business of "selling newspapers" and if people stop reading he's out of a job.  

So what do you need to know about Mr Rayner, tonight's speaker at The Guardian Masterclass - Choosing your words: the craft of good writing? Well, he doesn't like it when writers ask questions at the start of sentences: a journalist "should answer the questions not ask them". And he probably wouldn't like the clusmy nature in which it was phrased. Oops. Better start again.

Jay Rayner is a tall, imposing man and strides across the stage at Salford University like a man who yearned in his youth to tread the boards. He's got a voice made for oratory, delivered with such confidence that he might make an actor yet. Perhaps all those TV appearances have taught him something. And with the anecdotal references to Roger Alton, former editor at The Observer, and some ironic posturing he's pretty funny too. Not just a pretty face as the ladies at mumsnet would have you believe.  

Look past the Gallic profile, luscious locks and garish shirts and there stands a man who has worked hard to earn his right to address the audience on 'the craft of good writing'. Eager to step out from his mother's shadow (journalist Claire Rayner, best known as an agony aunt to the nation) and ambitious to make it as a writer on his own terms, he became editor of his university paper, went on to work for The Observer and was named Young Journalist of the Year in 1992. Not bad credentials eh? And that doesn't take into account the subsequent 20 years of journalism.  

By his own admission, Rayner didn't set out to become a food critic. As his version of events goes, the position of restaurant critic at The Observer came up and he expressed a desire to do it. Right place, right time, I guess. Perhaps it is for this reason that I've seen many a commentator question Mr Rayner's credibility as a restaurant reviewer. What does he know about food? Those people are missing the point: Jay Rayner is not really a food critic and his reviews aren't really about food. Yes, he gets to dine at some of the nation's best restaurants; but what he gets paid to do is write. And write well, he does. He's said it before but it bears repeating: "People don't read my reviews to find out whether the lamb was overcooked or the fish was raw." 

You could, if you're a food blogger, hate Jay Rayner on principle. But you shouldn't. Some will take his comments about blogging as offensive; but in fact they are a challenge. A challenge to write a better story.  The moral of the evening was:  given that the world and his wife have an opinion and a means to voice it, your opinion needs to be well-crafted otherwise it won't get heard. At least not in the world of journalism. "Pick 100 people off the street and I can guarantee you'll only find 1 or 2 genuinely good writers," Rayner claims.  That's all assuming you want to be a writer or have your opinion taken seriously. If you've got no pretensions to be a food critic and it's all a bit of fun, then I guess Jay should lay off.

However, there is no reason why a blog can't become something more than just a blog. And no reason to dismiss all blogging as a lesser form of 'proper journalism'. The blog has a place in the hierarchy. To think Manchester Confidential started out as a blog, Mark Garner confessed in a candid interview for the purposes of the masterclass. For some, myself included, a blog is a way to hone the art of writing, in the hope one day of creating praise-worthy prose. Jay Rayner has had a lot of practice since he started out, over two decades ago. And there's something we could all learn from him. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

In Defence of Ernst Van Zyl

Last week several food bloggers took to the comment pages of Manchester Confidential to defend the cooking of Ernst Van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, in response to Mark Garner's disparaging review of the 'Chef's Menu'. It is a testament to Ernst's ambition and disposition, more so maybe than the quality of his cooking, that he received so many supportive comments.

Herein lies the crux of my argument. Gordo writes: 'Constructive criticism is good'. This is true - I've eaten at Etrop and I was not unanimously complimentary about the food. There is certainly room for improvement and I believe Ernst knows this better than anyone. However, I don't believe the review fits into the canon of constructive criticism. How can you write: 'the disaster that came before'; 'smelled of fart'; 'it actually disturbed us'; and term it 'constructive'.

I can't refute that the meal did go 'spectacularly wrong' or that a broccoli jelly 'smelled of fart' (which it very well might have). I know many who've had excellent experiences at Etrop but I'm more than willing to accept that the current menu has some major flaws. What I'm not willing to accept is the heavy-handed manner in which the criticism was delivered. I’m admittedly a neophyte in the food-writing game but one review and one meal should not be the basis for damaging a chef's reputation so. If Gordo has 'high hopes' for Ernst cooking then you'd have to read between the lines with an electron microscope to find them. 

What bothers me more about the review is that Ernst is one of the few chefs trying to do something innovative in Manchester, a city that has seemingly devolved into buffets, burger joints, and brasseries. I'm not remotely suggesting this precludes him from criticism but anything positive about the meal was brushed over: in the mallard dish (7/10) 'the ingredients worked well'; the desserts were 'fine' despite the lemon tart scoring 8/10. The whole preamble about The Fat Duck was there to illustrate how far, in Gordo's opinion, Ernst has fallen from that particular tree. The whole piece was so far balanced towards the low points that it will discourage so many from ever trying Ernst's cooking.

So, my question to Mark Garner is this: How is Ernst ever going to ‘get it’ if one of the most influential food critics in Manchester recommends that everyone 'stick to the steak and chips'? That would render all Ernst's efforts useless. Surely, more 'constructive' advice would be to recommend trying the 'Chef's Menu' - for how indeed is Ernst going to improve on and adjust his cooking style if the customers don't exist to give him feedback?

I understand that Mark Garner and Manchester Confidential do not want to endorse a meal, especially one with a high price-tag, that might end up disappointing a large section of their readers. However, sometimes I wonder if the motives are less than altruistic.‘Gordo will return in the next three months. He sincerely hopes Ernst takes the criticism in the right way.’ Read: ‘Gordo sincerely hopes Ernst starts cooking exactly the kind of food Gordo wants to eat or Gordo will write another scathing review'. 

The most irksome comment was not in the review itself but from a user called Big Ears who, to paraphrase, wrote that we don’t want or need Ernst's type of cooking in Manchester. It is the most galling thing when someone proclaims to speak for Mancunians in this matter - there are those, myself included, who certainly do want this kind of thing! 

Without encouragement the fine-dining scene in Manchester will never grow and we'll always have to go further afield to find a meal that will challenge our expectations or a chef who will inspire us with his creativity. 

Thus I implore you to visit Etrop Grange and try Ernst's more adventurous dishes; and I hope Mark Garner will take this piece not as a personal attack but in the spirit of 'constructive' criticism. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

Hervé This - Building a Meal : From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism

For many there could be nothing more tedious than reading a philosophical and scientific investigation into the preparation of six ‘bistro favourites’; for foodies of a particular bent (read me!) there could be nothing more edifying.

Let’s start with the title. Read the words ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ and your brain will probably conjure up a beatific mug shot of Heston Blumenthal and images of Masterchef contestants unsuccessfully trying to create caviar out of things that don’t normally lend themselves to roe-like presentation. In short, it’s become the buzzword(s) for weird and wonderful ways of dealing with ingredients. Read ‘Culinary Constructivism’ and most of you will already be heading for the door, asking yourselves ‘Am I back at uni? The only –ism I cared about then was plagiarism’. I’m not going to even attempt to broach the topic of constructivism, that’s a lesson for another day. Suffice it to say, Hervé This analyzes why we have chosen to construct dishes in certain ways: the pairings, the cooking methods, the chemical reactions and our various responses to it all.

A small amount of background: Hervé This is a renowned chemist and head of the world’s first lab devoted to molecular gastronomy. He is the spiritual father of Blumenthal, Adria, Achatz and many other chefs who have pushed the boundaries of culinary science and practice. By his own admission he is crazy: “Some who wants to change the way people are cooking, you have to be crazy”. Watch him on film and it’s not hard to imagine a future where he resides in a padded cell muttering incontinently “an egg white coagulates at egg yolk coagulates at 620C...onsen tamago...mayonnaise”; and every once in a while tries to discover the specific heat of a nurse’s arm or at what temperature human-brain proteins denature.

Anyway, to return to the text: when you read the list of dishes covered (hard-boiled egg, simple consommé, lamb and green beans..) you might remind yourself that Monsieur This is French and thus the bistros he eats in are different to the ones you or I would frequent. In fact, listening to him, he’s probably not eaten in a bistro since the 70s, hence the anachronistic menu! Never have I seen a hard-boiled egg with mayonnaise on a bistro menu; however, the dishes have been selected as they permit the examination of some important cooking methods: egg-cooking, stock-making, braising, grilling, deep-fat frying, custard-making, and so on.

The results of Hervé’s investigations are fascinating. Here are a few highlights to whet your appetite:
  1. For cooked green beans to retain their green colour, it is not a matter of ‘fixing the chlorophyll’. It is dependent on several factors: the beans must be fresh enough that the chlorophyll has not been degraded; they must be cooked quickly; and the water they are cooked in must not be acidic, lest the magnesium in the chlorophyll molecules be eliminated.
  2. Bringing out the flavour of meat depends in part on how much fat the meat contains. British chemist David Mottram discovered that Maillard reactions (the reactions which cause that lovely brown crust on a steak) produce different odorant compounds depending on the presence or absence of fat.
  3. After you take your chips out of the fryer, you only have a minute to wipe off the excess oil before the pressure inside the chips drops and it absorbs the oil on its surface. This applies to all fried food!
  4. If you want soft cookies, pre-cook the flour (in an oven or under the grill) and the gluten proteins are deprived of their ability to harden the cookies.

These examples will give you some idea of whether this book is for you (and whether you want to spend £10.99 on it!). I would like to clarify that the text does contain more than just intellectualized cooking tips. What Hervé has to say about diet is particularly interesting, especially for his lampooning of conventional wisdom: for instance, the Mediterranean diet (as if it existed) is constantly being extolled yet around a third of children in Greece are obese. One caveat, the book can have the whiff of ‘manifesto’ about it at times, which can become tiresome. For what it’s worth I think if you’ve given yourself the goal of changing the public’s attitude towards cooking then you’re probably going to come across as self-righteous and a little doctrinaire.

So, if you’re a hopeless skeptic, as I am, then you will be spurred on by Hervé’s endless probing: ‘Making a stock? It’s so simple that it hardly seems worth explaining. One puts meat in water and heats it. Ah but what sort of meat? From what part of the cow, if it is a beef bouillon? Fresh meat or meat that has been aged? And how much meat for how much water? What kind of water? Salted? Heated in what sort of pot?’ It goes on. Make no mistake, this book is not for the faint-hearted foodie: the chemistry can be complicated and his philosophical meanderings might try the patience of a commis chef whose been given the unenviable task of plucking a million partridges; but I would encourage those interested in the science of cooking to persevere. And if challenging culinary orthodoxy is your thing then grab a copy of Harold McGee’s ‘On Food and Cooking’ and you've got the two testaments of modernist cooking.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Q&A with Ernst van Zyl, Etrop Grange

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I found out that Manchester Confidential had begun a new column, interviewing head chefs around Manchester. Jamie came up with the idea at the PR evening at Linen, after we met Jarmoir and saw what a lovely chap he is (there's an interview with Jaromir to follow). We thought it would be interesting to find out more about what inspires the talented chefs of Manchester, not just those with celebrity status. Still, there's room for more than one lot of interviews in the same city!

Ernst van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, has been much talked about in foodie circles of late. After reading about his food on Mrs Petticoat and The Lady Sybil's blogs, I knew I must visit! I casually dropped a few thousand hints to Jamie, and last Monday he met with Ernst to discuss a menu for my birthday (at the end of the month), and took the opportunity to quiz him on his background and inspirations... It's quite long, but listening to it, I found it hard to edit - everything seemed interesting, I hope you think so too!

Jamie: For those of our readers who don't know much about you, tell me a little about yourself, and your background...

Ernst: I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the U.K at the age of 21. I'd already been cheffing for 3 years - I completed a year of catering college, then worked at a place very similar to Etrop, but with a golf course, 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. I started just round the corner at the Hilton, Manchester Aiport, and transferred to London for a couple of years, working at the Hilton Kensington, a 600 bedroom hotel!

When you work for Hilton, everyone talks about the Park Lane hotel... so I worked there for three months over the Christmas period. We would do 1200 covers for silver service - no problems - to see that happen is amazing. Eventually, I had enough of London: it's a cold place and time flies when you're there, because you work so much. I think it's a nice place now, but mostly because I know I can leave when I visit!

After a short spell in Belfast, I came back to Manchester and became the second in command at the Radisson across the road. There, we had 2 AA Rosettes. It was a different experience, we did lots of different functions, and I managed to gain a lot of exposure - for example, if the head chef was off, I was in charge - a hotel with 360 rooms and 20 chefs. It was educational... we would have kosher functions; watching a rabbi turn the oven on isn't something I've seen in my other jobs!

I felt ready to be a head chef, and began working for Prima hotels - a small chain, and I began in Wilmslow. It was a fantastic property and weddings were a massive part of what we did. The MD (managing director) approached me after two and a half years there, asking if I would take on a different role, a sort of executive chef role. I did, and it gave me the opportunity to see a different perspective as a head chef. As a chef, working in a kitchen, you see that as the whole world - but you need to understand how the whole outlet fits in with what you do, because it has a massive effect on your work.

Jamie: Is that why you're into social media?

Ernst: Yes, very much so. It's nice to talk to customers and see how they see things, to teach me as a chef, and us as an establishment. I enjoyed my time as an executive chef, but after a year, I missed wearing my whites... I tried teaching for a while, but I don't think I'm ready for it yet, not quite the right age. At the beginning it was brilliant - to see how excited the kids on apprenticeships were - but then the kids cared less and less, and they didn't turn up... The frustration made me want to look for something else - and the hours! I worked Monday - Friday 8am - 5pm - I've never done that before, not even when I was in a suit for a year.

So, I began handing out my CV at the hotels round here. The GM (general manager) here called me in, and I began in my spare time whilst teaching. He kept asking me if I was still happy teaching, and I ended up beginning full-time in August last year... still here and cooking like crazy, and some amazing opportunities - the GM asked if I would be interested in spending time - doing a stage (a culinary internship) - at the Fat Duck so, I went!

Jamie: How was that? It must have been quite different working somewhere like that...

Ernst: That style of cooking... so much of it is impossible to recreate... but the modernist approach is what I appreciate, the thought behind it. I came back to Etrop and decided to write to Noma. Eventually, I ended up with an e-mail saying there was an opportunity there.

Jamie: And do they use modernist techniques there too?

Ernst: Yes, but in a subtle way... we have this image in our mind of Heston, with his canister in hand, but at Noma they don't shout about it - they just do it and use it. I spent five weeks there - the most educational five weeks I've had in 15 years of cooking.

Jamie: What did you learn? How to treat your ingredients?

Ernst: Exactly... For example, I look at their carrots - grown on a biodynamic farm, no pesticides, natural sweetness - it's phenomenal. I'm looking at food in such a different way now. So much is served raw there, and seafood that's just a couple of hours old... 100 kilos of scallops every Tuesday - they're still moving when you take them out of the shell! Their emphasis is on freshness and quality, the seasonality, the complete respect there - if it's not Danish or Scandinavian, they're not interested. Foraging is core to them - and educating people through foraging. Sometimes things don't get cooked, just placed on a plate.

Jamie: When you came back, did it totally change your outlook?

Ernst: My food is more modernist than ever. Noma has really influenced me - in mentality, and in thought process. I saw some amazing techniques at the Fat Duck, but the strongest influence is definitely Noma... the most mentally and physically challenging five weeks, but amazing.

Jamie: Do you go foraging here?

Ernst: We try... It's something I've become interested in but it can be difficult to explore, and to find someone to come and show us is quite a challenge. We've done a bit, elderflower, nettles, Jack by the Hedge. We've begun growing herbs that I can't get from my suppliers as well - yarrow, lemon balm, lemon verbena.

Jamie: Jack by the hedge... what's that?

Ernst: It tastes like garlic, but as you chew and digest it becomes like mustard. It's stunning - bright green - you blanch it, make a puree... perfect with fish and lamb.

Jamie: I can't imagine getting that anywhere else in Manchester, you're certainly doing something different...

Ernst: Yeah, it's a way for me to challenge myself. I love doing these bespoke menus for people - it's like a blank canvas - to get a list of things people like, pulling on my knowledge from the Fat Duck, Noma, and more recently Le Manoir... It gives me an opportunity to show my guys things they wouldn't usually see, and break service up a bit. My guys feels excited about the bespoke menus - using familiar techniques but with different ingredients. We absolutely love doing that stuff! It gives Etrop a different perspective, and for people to come along and try something unusual...

Jamie: It must be difficult for you to eat! What kind of things do you like cooking and eating?

Ernst: Me? I'm a very unfussy kind of guy. I've eaten at so many places, I like to be unfussy. At this time of year, root veg and game... In South Africa, it was BBQ seven days a week, a lot of seafood and meat, all phenomenal. Ostrich was quite normal for me as a child... crocodile, springbok. I guess I've always been exposed to unusual things. I wouldn't try serving an 8oz steak to a South African, you'd probably end up in hospital if you did that! I just love to eat good food... I don't have a signature dish, I think every dish can be your signature. We do a bespoke tasting menu, there's five signature dishes right there. It's great to be parodied like Heston with bacon & egg ice cream, but there's so much more to the Fat Duck than that...

Jamie: You mentioned before your time at Le Manoir, what was that like for you?

Ernst: different! Classic, but using modern techniques - the same as I found at the Fat Duck and Noma - but no challenging taste combinations, just ones that have stood the test of time. You get a wild mushroom risotto... but it's with seven different kinds of wild mushroom, and a phenomenal mushroom stock, and the best Parmesan money can buy. It's a phenomenal risotto. Their food isn't my style, but two weeks there showed me so much.

Jamie: And what about the garden?

Ernst: It's absolutely amazing, I would go back tomorrow just for that, it's so beautiful. The mentality of the place is about care. One day, Raymond did this speech about leading the way in training and in the hospitality they provide... it was inspirational to hear that.

Jamie: We recently blogged about a TV programme about the madness of Michelin... What do you think of Michelin?

Ernie: I saw the programme... It would be difficult to get one here, but it is a dream of mine. I'm not in a rush... well a big part of me isn't, but there is a small part that is! A star would be a cherry on my cake career. I'd love a thank you one day, given the blood, sweat and tears I've given... but I've eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, and you give yourself to that world. The guys at Noma do 100+ hours a week - and they live for that restaurant: it takes everything you are, your mind, body and soul. I'm still young, so maybe one day.

Jamie: You only went to Noma recently, so you're starting again in a way?

Ernst: True... When I arrived at Noma, it felt like my first day in a kitchen again!

Jamie: Where's next on your stage wish-list?

Ernst: Alinea, Chicago... though there were guys at Noma who had been there who said it was worse, more grueling than Noma! I don't know how it can be worse? I'm apprehensive about that. The French Laundy as well... and more recently, Frantzen Lindeberg in Sweden. They look awesome! Actually, I e-mailed them last night... 11 Madison Park in New York. But if I had a real choice, it would be Frantzen Lindeberg. There isn't even a menu - they cook daily whatever they lay their hands on! 2 Michelin stars, amazing.

Jamie: What books do you use for inspiration?

Ernst: Modernist Cuisine... everything you could ever want to know is in those six books! But I never put down Noma. It takes me back there, gets me going again, inspires me to look at a vegetable in a different way. I always reach for Noma first, followed very closely by Modernist. Marque, 11 Madison Park and the Fat Duck, they're all amazing too. They're on the same table - I end up with the same books around me whenever I write a new menu.

Jamie: I can see how excited you are talking about cooking?

Ernst: Yes, I love it! I would go mad in an office... not being able to play with liquid nitrogen or a water bath?? It would make me mental. That's why I think cheffing is so cool, because no day is ever the same. My suppliers are fantastic - my fruit and veg supplier goes to Paris once a month to get inspiration for themselves - that helps me to get inspired, because they are. The guys - the chefs - they work so hard too. I love just making my sourdough bread, our starter is 8 months old now. It's like a child, you have to feed it, look after it, love it...

Jamie: Yeah, like a pet without the noise!

Ernst: Exactly - it just sits in a corner nice and quietly. It's great, to go with our homemade butter... We're not just satisfied with rolls, we make our bread and our butter... To have the permission to bubble whipped cream is nice... they used to say "don't overwhip that cream!", but here, that's what we want!

Listening to Ernst and Jamie talk (like two kids in a sweet shop!) has made me excited beyond imagination about my birthday menu... I can't yet recommend the food, but I can tell you I have heard few chefs this passionate about what they are putting on a plate, so watch this space to see what I'm presented with on November 30th!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

October Foodie Pen Pals

I know, I know, it's November and I'm behind in blogging my parcel from last month, but these last few weeks have been super busy and I've generally been rubbish at life. We moved house, I quit a job, I've had three separate bouts of cold/flu & I am now looking for a job. Anyway, enough of my drivelling excuses, here's what I received from the lovely Sue at Sue In Training, all the way from Germany - my first international parcel!

My German GCSE came in handy
I was quite confused at first, especially with regards to the 'back-oblaten'. I really should be more patient, as there were instructions which helped explain everything. Sue had asked me about teas, and sent me a lovely little selection box of various herbal teas, which have complimented my home tea selection perfectly! The chocolate coated almonds are already half gone... very delicious! Inside there was also a madras curry spice grinder in the most beautiful packaging, quite a world away from the spice containers found in the supermarkets on the Curry Mile (where I have been spending a lot of time since our house move).

Now, for everything else... all of the other bits can be put together to make Lebkuchen! These are a perfect Christmas treat, and I shall definitely be making them in a few weeks time to get into the Christmas spirit. Even better, Sue said they usually last for a couple of weeks (if hidden from Jamie, I imagine) in an air-tight tin. I think I might even make some of these to give as Christmas presents, as I have decided to try and go home-made this year! I shall certainly blog about them so watch this space...

I sent my parcel to a lady called Rachael, who has two sons aged 3 and 6. She told me that they were as excited about the concept as her so I made sure there were some things she could share with them in it. Rachael didn't mention if she has a blog or twitter so I thought I'd show you what I sent her here:

Rachael had mentioned that she didn't drink caffeinated drinks so I sent her my favourite herbal teas. She also told me she had a sweet tooth so I sent some of my favourite Green & Blacks, & some healthy-ish chocolate coated rice crackers. I had the boys in mind for the yo yos, but I absolutely love these - and send them in nearly every box! Rachael had also asked me for some recipes so I included anchovy fillets to go with a broccoli, chilli & anchovy pasta dish which is so easy to make. I also wanted to send her some capers but my local supermarkets cater for students - meaning they have no interesting ingredients!! But I did still send a recipe for slow cooked mutton with leeks & capers which we will post here soon too...

Sign up for next month here.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection

It's that time of year again. Michelin mayhem: sleepless nights for chefs, winners leaked early, joy and pain in equal amounts. The power of the guide to grant chefs' dreams is undeniable; but only if you strive to 'dance to the Michelin drum' as Marco Pierre-White poetically claims. Is anyone else skeptical about the reliability of the guide, anxious about its impact on businesses, and most importantly, is it relevant?

These are some of the questions posed by William Sitwell in the 2010 BBC documentary 'Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection'. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about or incredulous as to the worthiness of a guide that started out as no more than a petrol station finder, then this piece of programming is a good place to start. Despite being two years old, its relevance seems ever present regarding the weight of Michelin, particularly at this time of the year. If nothing else, its worth a watch for Pierre-White's intense glare and rhythmic speech.

The pernicious influence of the guide is best demonstrated by the fate of French chef Bernard Loiseau. A notorious perfectionist, Bernard committed suicide after his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, was rumoured to be demoted from three to two Michelin stars. A tragic example no doubt of the pressure faced by award-winning chefs, but the documentary glossed over the fact that Bernard was also heavily in debt and suffered from bouts of depression.

Is it the fault of the guide or do the chefs themselves attach too much importance to the coveted stars? Marco Pierre-White, who famously handed back his stars, believes it is the latter, saying that chefs must accept that they are being judged by people who have less knowledge and skill than they do. Raymond Blanc, who publicly criticized the Michelin guide, wants chefs to aim for perfection rather than aim to please the whims of the Michelin inspectors.

The pursuit of Michelin stars undoubtedly drives chefs to be more creative, more exacting and hopefully leads to better food; but shouldn't chefs who want acclaim have these standards anyway?
And is the guide biased towards certain chefs? The programme claims that with the guide's heritage based firmly in the finesse of French cuisine, it naturally favours classically trained French chefs, citing the example of Alain Ducasse whose restaurant at the Dorchester was slated by well-respected food critics such as Jay Rayner, A. A. Gill, and Sitwell himself, yet was still promoted to three stars in 2010.

The big boss of Michelin explains that such decisions are not made lightly and when it is the case of awarding or removing a star the restaurant in question is visited numerous times throughout the year by different inspectors. One would therefore imagine a degree of objectivity and that bias is weeded out, but who truly knows when it comes to such a secretive organisation?

The best approach is surely one of ironic detachment. By all means, play the Michelin game but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out the way you want. There are great chefs producing amazing food who aren't deemed worthy of a star but should be very proud of their talent and achievements.

What do you think - do you turn to Michelin for places to dine on special occasions or do you shun this potentially outdated authority and rely on other, more modern authorities? 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Goks and Woks

A seasoned wok
I am loathe to admit that Gok Cooks Chinese has reignited my passion for cooking Chinese food at home. Loathe, because there is something that irritates me about Gok Wan's fashion/body-image programme, and I had jealousy made derogatory comments about his sudden transition to TV chef stardom. However, I was forced to eat a leaf of humble bok choi when I watched the show and realised his restaurant-owning chef-father had taught him to cook and that Gok is actually pretty authoritative on the subject. (I must also admit that the infuriatingly nice Ching-He Huang's 'Chinese Food Made Easy' inspired me to try Chinese home-cooking for the first time.)

So, full of enthusiasm and armed with £20, I set off for Chinese-supermarket-Mecca, Wing Yip, intent on equipping myself with a wok and a cleaver. I’d had a tip-off that their woks were not to be sniffed at and that their Chinese cleavers were good value. However, without a wok expert whispering advice in my ear, I couldn’t really pick out any discernible difference, except size, between the cheaper woks. My theory was that when properly seasoned (more on that later) a cheap one would be as fit for purpose as the Ken Hom endorsed non-stick variety. I opted for a wok around the £7 mark, incredible value considering the versatility and efficiency.

Next up, the cleaver. My only requirement was that it be sturdy, with enough weight to glide through some of the bulkier vegetables and to mince meat coarsely. So I felt the weight of a few in my hand, and - after more deliberation than I had expected - chose a heavy, wooden-handled cleaver at £7. Feeling pretty happy with my purchases and left with a surplus of £6, I bought some store cupboard staples - 100% sesame oil and some Shaoxing rice wine.

Chinese cleaver
At home it was time to begin the seasoning. To the uninitiated, this doesn’t involve sprinkling the wok with liberal quantities of Maldon and sitting back waiting for something magical to happen. Seasoning is the process by which a wok is given a non-stick shiny coating or patina. It involves coating the surface of the wok with a thin layer of oil then heating it to the point that the oil smokes. This temperature is maintained until the oil ‘cracks’ and forms, by some rather complicated chemical reactions, compounds that turn the surface non-stick. The same process is used on cast-iron frying pans.

Modernist Cuisine's guide to seasoning a wok

The instructions that came with my wok informed me that it was necessary to remove the rust-proof coating before seasoning. I'm not sure if this is the case for all woks of this type, but grab a wire brush and some cream cleaner or detergent and scrub. Don't fret if the wok looks like its gone 10 rounds with a pack of mountain lions, it's going to be black and dirty-looking once seasoned. 

Incidentally, if your wok is looking worse for wear here's a good video I found on how to give an old wok a facelift on the Chow website.