Monday, December 21, 2009

Royal Terrines

The confit chicken terrine was the most ‘cheffy’ recipe on my starters menu, and therefore the most time consuming. Because of the time they took, once I was half-way through one terrine, I’d begin making another.

The first task was to rub 30 chicken legs with salt, pepper and crushed coriander seeds and leave them overnight to draw out the moisture. The next day, you wash and dry the legs, and cook them slowly for a few hours in duck fat until the meat falls away from the bone. Some chefs say the heat should be so low, you see a bubble every 30 seconds.

You then carefully pick through the meat to remove the skin, bone and gristle. After that, you lay out overlapping slices of Parma ham (or leek skins, blanched and scraped to remove slime, if the budget is tight) on a sheet of clingfilm. You lower the sheet into the terrine mould so it covers the bottom and one side.

Then you cover the other side with more overlapping pieces of ham or leek. Next you fill the mould half-way with confit chicken meat, forcing it down to remove the air as you go along, before putting in a ‘middle layer’ for decorative purposes - shredded ham hock, or wild mushrooms fried in butter or something.

You top up the mould with more chicken, wrap the clingfilm tight, and leave it under a heavy weight overnight. I used a 10-gallon vegetable oil can, which pressed it so hard the terrine never fell apart during service. Sometimes I made a confit duck terrine interspersed with blanched green beans for colour.

It soon became my favourite dish, mainly because they were the quickest to serve - and I knew that was the way to burn Graham on sauce. The better my terrines, the more people would order them, and the more I could make him sweat.

He'd fret if a table of six came in say, with two or more terrines on it. He knew all I had to do was cut a slice of terrine, smear the presentation side with olive oil to make it shine, and nestle it on top of a small ball of dressed leaves. Sometimes I put a quenelle of prune d’Agen chutney on top, depending on the terrine, other times a sprinkling of Maldon salt crystals. No dish was complete without the squeezy bottle, and around the leaves went a square of balsamic reduction, and an inner one of green herb oil.

After a couple of weeks, I took over the starters section, and returned from a day off to find my fridge in chaos. The worst of it was the game terrine someone had made with chunks of pheasant breast and venison. It was as dry as Gandhi's sandal, and hadn’t been pressed properly because it kept falling apart when you cut it. Half-way in, I discovered a bay leaf they hadn’t bothered to take out, and that was the final straw.

“Christ who made this? It’s like trying to arrange a fucking jigsaw puzzle,” I said, pushing the pieces of meat back together on the plate.

Jules came over and prodded the terrine.

“Are you blaming the sous chef?”

I saw Stewie move into the corner of my vision.

“I’m not blaming anyone. All I’m saying is maybe the meat should have been cut up, chef."

“You don’t need to cut the meat up.”

“Well, why does it keep falling apart then chef?”

My point had been made. A couple of days later I unveiled a perfectly-pressed chicken terrine. The Parma ham looked like it had been wrapped at Harrods. Stewie was watching.

“Well try a bit, then!”

I carved him a generous slice. The mustard grain, chicken meat, and chopped herbs glistened in the winter sun. Stewie picked up the slice and threw it on my board like a spoilt child.

“Keeps falling apart chef! Wasn’t pressed properly!”

He tried again, but my terrine withstood his spiteful assaults. With ten gallons of weight overnight, my terrines were rocket-proof.

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Oh Broth Where Art Thou?

As soon as I stopped working, the tiredness set in and the chest infection that had been brewing turned into full-blown gammon flu (it started off as swine flu, but then I got cured).

I lay in bed wheezing, flicking through the latest cookery books. All the celebrity chefs had Christmas books out - 101 recipes for Brussels sprouts, and all that useful advice about how turkey leg meat takes longer than breast meat. Masterchef’s John Torode even had one just on beef or something. It was already half price.

Then I got a text message from Jules, saying the "air had been cleared with Graham" whatever that meant, and I could return to work. I didn't really want to go back to the heat, stress and long hours, but I missed it somehow, and besides I couldn't think of anything else to do with my life.

When I walked through the kitchen door, half expecting a punch from Graham, I glanced over to my station and spotted Marcus making mash - using my special sieve. He had a smarmy look about him too.

“I’m on veg now,” he said.

It had all been decided in my absence. I was to move onto starters under the guidance of Stewie, and then after a couple of weeks take over the section myself. Graham was being moved to sauce, cooking the meat and fish for mains.

I looked over to where Marcus was trimming broccoli into florets, and asked whether he’d remembered the parsnip chips. I knew that section inside out.

Graham turned up the next morning, and we were shoved together and made to shake hands. Something had changed - he appeared less arrogant than usual. He barely spoke for the rest of the day. Running the grill was new territory for him, and he was nervous about messing things up.

One night, I gave Stewie a lift home, and we chatted about how I was finding it on starters. He looked at me and smiled.

“You know, now Graham's learning something new...and in the same boat as you...”

He let the sentence float. I frowned, trying to read him for clues.

“If you get fast at it, I mean, well, after all the things he’s said and done to you…

I still didn't know what he was burbling on about.

"For fuck's sake," he said finally. "You can really BURN HIM! Churn out the starters! Force him to ask you to slow down – that’s when you’ll really know you’ve got him. He said the same thing to me when I started on sauce; he said ‘I’m gonna BURN you!’ But there was no way he was going to get me on sauce! But, now’s your chance...”

From that day, I made it my mission to get as fast as I could. Everything would still look good – I’d only take the short-cuts I could get away with – but the dishes would fly out as fast as those waitresses could carry them.

To make my job harder, the starters changed after the first week. Out went the boudin blanc (no doubt a throwback to the AA visit), the goat's cheese wontons, the scallops with pea veloute and white truffle oil, the confit duck terrine, and sun-dried tomato risotto.

In came tuna nicoise, scallops with vierge sauce, home-made gravlax with buckwheat blinis, smoked salmon salad, goat’s cheese parcels with sweet chilli relish, game terrine, confit duck spring rolls, and a butternut squash soup with curry oil and vegetable samosa garnish.

The restaurant was half-empty - most of our trade had gone up the road to the Rosie - so to drum up business we started offering a two-course specials menu for £12. The owner, worried about the £5 credit crunch lunch down at the Eel, wanted to cut the price to £9.95 and include dishes like sausage and mash. But Jules convinced him we’d lose our precious Rosette if we went down that route.

I had some control over the menus. There were three starters and three mains on the specials, and they had to be cheap to make. And pretty soon they were all I was making - gravlax, confit chicken terrine, smoked salmon salad, confit duck risotto, goat’s cheese parcels, and always a soup.

The soup varied between game consommé (made from the pheasant carcasses) with tagliatelle of yellow and orange carrot; mushroom soup with a morel-infused cappuccino foam; and cauliflower and smoked garlic soup with herb oil. The most popular was a tomato soup I made out of red onions and tinned tomatoes. It was described on the menu as roasted tomato soup, even though it hadn't been near an oven.

I would make enough of each soup to fill two four-litre containers. I’d start by simmering a white mirepoix of onions, celery, garlic and leeks (white parts only) over a low heat for 30 minutes. Then I’d add three or four bay leaves, and water. Once it was simmering, the relevant vegetable went in - broccoli, cauliflower, or butternut squash - then I’d remove from the heat as soon as the vegetables were cooked.

Once cooled, I fished out the bay leaves, whizzed the soup in a blender, and poured the puree through a fine sieve. I always asked to use Marcus’s secret sieve for that, knowing how much he feared to lose it.

I was told to season the soup at the end. I’d add a pinch or two of salt and black pepper, and then repeat until just right. Adding salt in gradual stages has a peculiar effect on a soup – it suddenly turns from an amalgam of lost tastes, to a clear flavour in just a few granules of salt. (If you're interested, there is a section on it in Herve This's book Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour. He did an experiment with salt by giving people seasoned and unseasoned soups. Without the salt, they found it difficult identifying the dominant soup flavour.)

I'd then make the garnishes. For the mushroom soup, you infused three or four dried morels in hot milk, whisked it up, and spooned white foam over the soup to get a cappuccino effect. Then you sprinkled it with mushroom dust, made by drying wild mushroom stalks under the lights. For the broccoli soup garnish, you made a smooth paste of Roquefort cheese and lemon juice, and spread it over a crouton. For the cauliflower, you deep-fried a basil leaf and laid it on top in a circle of herb oil.

But the prettiest by far was the game consommé. You put a small ball of spinach in the middle of a wide, shallow soup bowl, stuck a ball of yellow and orange carrot tagliattelle on top, and carefully poured the soup round it.

The butternut squash soup went on the a la carte menu and was more complicated. It came with a miniature vegetable samosa and curry oil. You put a dab of filling - curried onion and mashed potato - on one end of a strip of spring roll wrapper, and folded it into a triangle.

You made the curry oil by toasting, then grinding coriander seeds, cumin seeds, a piece of cinnamon stick, mace, turmeric, cayenne pepper and curry powder. It came out a vibrant yellow colour.

Like the herb, lemon, port, and balsamic reductions I used for other garnishes, it was kept in a squeezy bottle. A gastro-pub isn’t anything without doodles on plates. That was the difference between us and the £5 lunches at the Eel -a few pence of oil thrown on by some cack-handed Banksy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Bloody Rhodes Around Britain

If you ever wanted a better example of just how ridiculous the whole celebrity chef phenomenon has become, then look no further than Gary Rhodes.

The cook – whose empire spreads from London to Dublin to Dubai, and probably a bunch of other places I’ve forgotten - has just parted company with one of two hotels bearing his name in the frumpy seaside resort of Christchurch in Dorset.

It’s all quite civil, I’m told. But they always say that don’t they? Anyway, I suppose you’re thinking what’s wrong with that, Len? One less restaurant with his name on the menu gives him a bit more time to spend behind the stoves of all the others?

Well, no, not really. It’s the comments from the owner that reveal how ludicrous this whole sleb chef-branded restaurants thing now is.

Remember the time when chefs were just chefs, and wait for it, actually cooked for a living? Left school with an O-Level in metalwork, and did the jobs they were good at rather than fannying around TV green rooms, gameshow panels and celebrity parties?

Nicholas Roach, owner of the Kings Hotel (whose restaurant no longer bears Rhodes’ name) and the Christchurch Harbour Hotel (which still does), clearly doesn't.

He appears mightily impressed – surprised even - that the TV chef has actually honoured them with his presence for a change. Driven all the way to sleepy Christchurch no less!

Explaining the split, he told the Daily Echo: “Gary’s involvement in the Kings Hotel was always intended to be a one-year only operation. It was a way of introducing him to the town before Rhodes South opened up, and it has been very successful.

“There has been no dispute and Gary has actually been in Christchurch for the past few days working in the kitchen at Rhodes South – which demonstrates his commitment to the business and the area.”

What! Sorry, I’ve got to read that again – he’s ACTUALLY been in Christchurch WORKING in the kitchen!

It’s like saying a star player has demonstrated his commitment to a team by kicking a few balls around, or a comedian turned up to tell a few jokes.

And just in case you were thinking that (as Gordon Ramsay has vowed to do in a bid to patch up his crumbling empire) Rhodes was thinking of trimming back his branded ambitions over worries that he might be spreading himself too thin, then think again.

Roach added: “We are actually focusing on opening up some more Rhodes South restaurants in the South although we are unable to say at this time where they will be.”

And a spokesman for Christchurch Council had further distressing news. “I understand Gary has taken a decision to have just one restaurant per town from now on," he said.

Spare us! If it carries on like this, it really will be Rhodes Around Britain.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The First Rule About Kitchen Scraps Is...

We were doing an early Christmas lunch for the local CID when things came to a head with Graham. I was finding it hard taking orders from a stroppy 19-year-old, and he would go berserk if I didn’t follow his exact instructions.

He was the most childish, and the most talented chef in the kitchen. And when I had started at the Gull all those weeks ago, Jules had warned me: “When he gets wound up, just ignore him, don’t say to him ‘calm down’ or anything, it just makes him worse...”

It seemed a pretty strange thing to say. But I'd given Graham a wide berth, ignored his tantrums, and he'd swiftly made me his bitch.

What irritated me most was his mumbling. And with my poor hearing and the extraction unit going all day and night, I found it impossible to hear his orders. Sometimes I pretended not to hear, but most of the time I just watched his lips move from across the room.

He would quickly raise his voice and get angry. He’d moan about how he hated cheffing, and wanted to do something else, anything else, with his life, but he still had a huge amount of pride in the food that went out. He had more pride than anyone else – even the star-chasing Jules.

It started when Cathy, the most obnoxious of the waitresses, wandered in half-way through service. She'd been touched up by a couple of the drunken rozzers, and her face was as sour as ever...

“Who sent out the terrine?”

She knew full well who was on starters, but she liked to stir things up.

“I did,” said Graham, slowly turning round to eyeball her. “Why, what’s wrong?"

“Well one of the customers would have preferred it if you’d taken the cling-film off.”

There were a few seconds of silence.

“Fucking hell!” he shouted, suddenly exploding, and kicking a fridge door. “Can we have that with a bit more sarcasm next time! It’s not as though this job’s not hard enough…”

He went into his usual tantrum about how he loathed cheffing. Then he exploded again five minutes later.

“The starters have gone on table four,” he mumbled at me from across the room.



The change was more irrational than usual, and a hot flash of anger rose up inside me. This jumped-up, scary-looking gobshite was young enough to be my son. I rarely lost my temper, but I had a limit. I faced him from across the counter.

“Listen, we both don’t want to lose our temper!”

He walked over and stopped suddenly, his werewolf face next to mine. Just a chopping board and a knife separated us. His eyes took on a relaxed, dangerous look and he started nodding. He looked like he was trying to change into a wolf.

“I’m not losing my temper!” he screamed.

“That’s enough!” shouted Stewie from somewhere near us.

We both went back to work. But Graham made comments for the rest of service about the “repressive atmosphere” in the room.

Afterwards, Stewie took me aside as we cleaned down, and gave me a chat about how commis chefs weren't supposed to answer back. He told me to bite my lip next time, and just say 'yes, chef'. But he knew full well how hard I was finding it dealing with Graham.

“I’ve had to face him down a couple of times," he confided. "But if he ever went toe-to-toe with me, it’d only happen once...” he added menacingly.

It happened that night in the walk-in chiller.

I went across the road to stock up on purees when the chiller door closed behind me. The lights went out, a fan started whirring, and I was blasted with icy air. The panic hit straight away, and I heard muffled laughter outside.

I don’t know how long I was in there, long enough to get frostbite in my fingers and toes. I picked up a metal oil barrel and battered the door, but the noise was drowned out by the fan. Eventually light shone in and the door opened. Graham had taken a few steps back and was watching me carefully.

“That’s for answering back!”

"You what?"

His face changed again, and he leapt forward and grabbed my whites and pushed me back into the chiller.

I wasn't going back in there. I was terrified enough already...

I don’t know where it came from – it wasn’t a conscious decision as such – but my forehead slammed into his cruel mouth. He looked shocked. His lip was split and his mouth filled with blood. He swung at me, but I ducked. I wanted to strike back but my hands were frozen and I could barely form a fist.

His next punch hit, and then the next, but the adrenaline was pumping and I couldn’t feel a thing. Then he grabbed me, kneeing upwards to my groin, and tried to wrestle me to the floor. He was far stronger and soon the muscles in my arms were flagging as he spat and snarled.

He ripped a chunk of hair from the back of my head, and I spun round and elbowed him in the face. Then the rest of them burst in and separated us. It took three of them to hold Graham down until he stopped snarling.

Jules returned the next day and told me to take a couple of weeks off until things had calmed down. He told me it would be unpaid leave, but said that was my fault for "letting things get out of hand with Graham".

It would be the first time I’d been home for nearly three months, and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Chefs And Restaurant Inspectors

We were half-way through lunch service when Liz, the restaurant manager, came waddling into the kitchen like an asthmatic hippo. The only time I'd seen her move quickly, was to grab someone's chips. Something was very definitely up.

“The AA inspector’s in there!” she gasped.

“How do you know?” Jules snapped. His face had turned a pale, porridgey colour.

“I recognise him from last time...he comes in sometimes with his wife and kids...but he’s on his own this time!”

“Fuck! What’s he having?”

Liz stole a chip from a plate. “No idea.”

“Well go and find out!”

She disappeared and returned with the rest of the Dereks a few minutes later.

“The boudin blanc and the lamb,” they chimed. They were all enjoying the drama immensely.

Jules looked round the kitchen in panic, and shouted at us to clean up. "I want to see bubbles everywhere!" he screamed.

Inspectors sometimes ask for a tour of the kitchen, and he was taking no chances. He ranted and raved for a bit then yelled at me to make sure the veg was perfect.

All I had to do for the first course was pan-fry some spinach in clarified butter and season it. Jules fried the boudin blanc sausage and let it cook through at the bottom of the grill. He rested it under the lights on the pass then cut it into five slices on the diagonal.

He put the slices in a circle around a small mound of spinach. He tried the spinach as he did it, and looked slightly surprised. “That’s fine,” he said. He grabbed my pan and pushed me out of the way. He wasn’t taking any chances.

He formed the warmed, red onion marmalade into a quenelle using two spoons, balanced it on the spinach, then spooned grain-mustard veloute sauce around the plate with tear-shaped twirls. It was finished off with a sprig of chervil, like most of our dishes.

The dish went out and we got to work on the lamb. I can’t remember if there were other orders at the time, but for 30 minutes there seemed to be only one customer in the restaurant. So much for everything Jules had said about "customers being more important than awards". A few minutes later, Liz returned with an empty plate and said he’d enjoyed it.

I picked out three identical broccoli florets, and cut three carrot batons to exact length. I even thought about using a ruler to measure them. I put a fresh pan of cassoulet beans on the flat-top, and heated them through. I was worried about the beans. They didn’t have the same zip as the first batch, and I’d secretly pepped them up with ketchup and Worcester sauce. I just hoped the inspector wouldn’t notice.

Jules roasted the lamb and let it rest under the lights. I was about to plate up, when he pushed me out of the way again and snarled: “I’ll do this!”

He nestled a mound of beans in the middle of the bowl and put a triangle of carrot batons around them. Where each baton joined, he placed a broccoli floret, and then put the lamb in the middle and poured jus over it.

After the meal, the inspector flashed an ID card, and summoned Jules into the dining room. He was gone about 15 minutes. None of us knew if that was a good or bad sign.

Eventually, Jules came back in with his head down. None of us looked up. Then he walked over to my station and glowered. He looked ready to bite, and I scanned my station for knives and hot pans. Then he lunged forward and hugged me.

“That wasn’t at all stressful,” he whispered.


“No, I was shitting myself!”

It was the first time he'd let his guard down, and for a minute he looked like a pudgy schoolboy. His eyes were red and watery.

“That was my first inspection," he said. "Well the first one as a head chef!”

We had kept our only AA Rosette. The inspector said the standard was one Rosie, bordering on two. He had asked about the boudin blanc, and Jules had to admit it was bought in. He said all the veg was perfectly cooked, but the lamb “could have been a little pinker”. I did a whooping motion in my head. The veg was perfect, Jules' lamb wasn’t.

Jules was surprised, because if anything, we served meat on the raw side, and sometimes got the lamb sent back by squeamish customers. He said my cassoulet “was nice and spicy, but the beans themselves lacked something." What the hell were you supposed to do? Grow them yourself? At least he hadn’t noticed the ketchup.

The inspector loved the chocolate marquise dessert and declared it two Rosette standard. Helsta poked her nose in the air, as brazen as a dog at a fair. Jules kissed her and gave her the evening off.

I spent the rest of the day on a high. Although my role had only been minor, I was still part of the team that had successfully defended that precious Rosie. And my veg was perfect. More than that, we were verging on two. Who said awards didn't matter?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Michelin Restaurant Closed By Virus

A Michelin-starred restaurant has temporarily shut its doors after 80 diners became ill. Several members of staff at The Star Inn, in Harome, North Yorkshire, have also been struck down with the vomiting bug norovirus.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said despite the presence of the virus, "a common cause of illness has not been confirmed".

Jacquie Pern, who runs the venue with her chef husband Andrew, said they had decided to close the kitchens and dining area for the time being as an investigation is carried out.

She told Chef Sandwich: “This is a precautionary measure and indications are consistent with a viral incident.

“We are taking the matter very seriously and are co-operating with the Health Authorities. We are positive that all issues will be resolved soon and we will be able to return to our usual service standards.”

The restaurant - which has a sign telling of its closure on the door - has clearly learned from the PR blunders made by the Fat Duck in the way it dealt with its outbreak earlier this year.

Asked whether the incident was similar to the virus infection which struck down hundreds of diners at the three-star restaurant, a spokeswoman for The Star Inn said: “No, no, it’s not – we are moving a lot faster!”

A spokesman for Ryedale District Council said: “The Health Protection Agency (HPA) has confirmed that it is working with Ryedale District Council to investigate an outbreak of vomiting and diarrhoea connected to a restaurant in the Ryedale area.

“More than 80 people are known to have developed symptoms after eating at the restaurant between October 18 and October 28.

“A number of restaurant staff are also known to be affected by symptoms.”

Norovirus causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and is also known as the winter vomiting virus.

It can easily be transferred from person to person either through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, or through consuming contaminated food or water.

The Star Inn has won a number of awards since it was taken over and refurbished by the Perns in 1996, including a Michelin star and most recently The Good Pub Guide County Dining Pub of the Year for 2010.

Andrew Pern’s first cook book, Black Pudding And Foie Gras, won the Gourmand World Cookbook Silver Award for Best Chef Book In The World last year.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pilchards On Ghost

The suffocating claustrophobia of the kitchen was getting to me. Whenever I could snatch an hour or two away in the idle period between lunch and evening service, I'd head up to Porbeagle Isle. I don't know what I was looking for. Perhaps I was just hoping my life would change somehow.

I'd walk along the darkening sands, the wintry wind whipping my ears, and mounds of seaweed piled up at high tide. There were neon ropes, plastic bottles, feathers, spades, and a pair of swimming trunks. Some of the seaweed was shaped like clubs. If you looked closer there were dead crabs, mussels and limpets among the debris.

I followed the sands to the mouth of the estuary, where Atlantic salmon and sea trout swam to spawn. There were narrow caves with plastic lighters wedged into crevices. And there were steps that led up to the mansions overlooking Porbeagle Isle. They had metal gates and no-nonsense signs. One said: “Private – don’t be caught by tide. Guard dogs beyond!” I’d rather take my chances with the dogs, I thought.

I walked up to the ruined hever hut on top of the island. It was just a shell with graffiti scratched into the brickwork. I thought about the fisherman who had sat there watching the sea all those years ago, raising the alarm when the waves turned silver. Then the boats would go out and surround the pilchards. Millions of fish were salted and packed into barrels. Then the fish stopped coming, the tourist information sign said.

Half-way down was the Silver Sea Inn, a crooked building with stable-like doors. The sign said it dated from 1396 and was “haunted by the ghost of an Elizabethan smuggler called Tom Trevisick, who was shot dead by customs men”.

I ordered a pint. I was the only one in there. The landlord was practising a Christmas carol, and tried it out on me. He’d changed the words - it was all about a man dressing up in women’s clothing. I sat by the fire, wishing he’d go away.

He stopped singing suddenly and pointed.

“Stare at the bricks to the right of the fire. Can you see it? Can you see Old Tom’s face?”

I stared, and the landlord danced around behind me. Slowly I made out two dark patches for eyes and then a mouth. Then he pointed again.

“Look at the brickwork on the left! You’re supposed to be able to see the face of the customs man chasing him!”

The grey stone formed into incomprehensible shapes, but this time no face. I tried again and shook my head.

“No, I’ve never seen it either,” he laughed. “I think you’ve got to be pissed to see that!"

He came back with two more pints.

"But Old Tom, he’s here alright," he went on. "Sometimes I find myself talking to him when I’m on my own. I always know when he’s there. He plays all sorts of tricks on me – I think he was quite a prankster in his day.

“When I first took over the pub, I was cleaning up and saw something out of the corner of my eye. I looked round and there was a lime in mid-air. It hadn’t just fallen off the counter and on to the was about a foot above the counter. If the lime had just rolled off the bar, it would have gone down wouldn’t it! It wouldn’t have gone up!”

“Come on...” I said. He was beginning to unnerve me, and I still had to walk back on my own through the dark.

“I tell you I saw it with my own eyes! I said ‘Tom, what are you doing to me?’”

“What did he say?”

The landlord looked thoughtful for a second and slightly offended.

“Well he might have said something, in his own way. And then he started paying me more visits. I’m not afraid of him though, it’s nice having someone around. But Old Tom’s a real nuisance sometimes. I hear him downstairs in the toilets, and I say ‘Tom, what the hell are you doing down there?’

“You know sometimes I go down there when I open up and the walls are all covered with wads of wet toilet paper! That’s why I never bother to clean the bogs at the end of the night – you don’t know what it’s going to be like in the morning.”

I ordered another pint and drank deeply. I was desperate for the toilet.

“But it’s useful when there’s a stock take. If there’s anything missing, I say ‘well, old Tom had that one!’”

I finished the pint and planned to get out of there immediately, when the latch on the inside of the door started jiggling frantically. I looked up, and then back at the landlord.

His eyes widened like a cartoon mouse. The jiggling got more severe and a weight was pushing against the door. I could hear murmuring voices. It might have been olde English.

“Never fails to amaze me,” said the landlord, leaping up from his chair. He lifted the latch then hid behind the door. There was another push, the latch rattled, and this time the door flew open, and a startled, well-dressed couple fell into the pub.

“Arrrrrrr!” yelled the landlord, emerging from behind the door with his fingers held up like claws.

They darted back and then recovered their composure. The landlord was a complete lunatic, and I never went there again.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Masterchef In Hot Water Over Eels

Masterchef: The Professionals has found itself in hot water for putting eel on the menu.

Conservationists saw red because the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is critically endangered, and the BBC programme’s so-called ‘Delia effect’ could have promoted demand for eel among viewers.

In the recent show, presided over by Egg Wallace and Skeletor, sorry Michel Roux Jnr, four hopefuls were told to prepare two dishes using smoked eel in 50 minutes (about as long as the last eel in the wild has left by the sound of it...)

And this is where the trouble started. The European eel is in freefall decline, with numbers of elvers plummeting by an estimated 99% since the 1980s, warn experts.

Despite eel, smoked or otherwise, being on the menus of many top UK restaurants, the fish is on the "red list" of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, meaning it is only a small step away from extinction.

"Serving up European eel on a popular television show like Masterchef is irresponsible – and likely to lead to even more demand for a species that is just as endangered as tigers or pandas,” said a spokesman for Greenpeace's Oceans Campaign.

"Eels are intrinsically linked with London, as a traditional dish, yet it is our overfishing of this species which has pushed it towards the brink of extinction.”

The sight of Egg and Skeletor stuffing their faces with the forbidden fish provoked a storm of protest. It made no difference that the eels in question were farmed – by priests no less, says Chris Daphne, the environment officer of the National Anguilla Club.

“Eels are not bred in captivity; aquaculture relies on the collection of seed eels (elvers) which are then grown on,” he says. “This means that the species is unsustainable as ALL eel sold in restaurants, shops and bait suppliers have been taken from the wild initially.”

Experts say it is time for eels to come off all menus, pointing out that the UK exports 250 tonnes of eel every year, and it takes 3,500 individual eels to make a kilo of meat.

Indeed, so serious is the problem, the EU has asked all 27 member states to restrict eel fishing to give stocks a chance of recovery. The Dutch government has even announced a ban on commercial eel fishing.

And last year, Gordon Ramsay, was slammed for cooking eels from the River Severn - even though they had been caught under licence.

But clearly all of this had escaped the BBC's researchers.

A BBC spokesman whined: "We absolutely recognise the very important issue of sourcing sustainable ingredients and, in all our Masterchef programmes, we take a lot of time and make every effort to use locally sourced ingredients.

"The eel in question was used in a classic recipe test, and came from a farm in Northern Ireland run by priests who assured us it had come from a sustainable source. For future series, contestants will be required to consider the endangered fish list when submitting menus."

Those pesky priests, hey, and isn’t it a bit rich putting the onus on the contestants’ environmental awareness when they’d been told to cook the smoked eel in the first place?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Burton Race On Drink Drive Rap

John Burton Race must be wondering when his problems will end. Months after going bankrupt and a costly divorce, the TV chef has been arrested and charged with drink driving.

To make matters worse, the fiery cook has also been charged with resisting arrest.

The 52-year-old onion-botherer was stopped by police in a routine check in Strete, near his New Angel restaurant in Dartmouth, Devon, in the early hours of Friday morning.

The cook, who appeared on TV show I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here, was breathalysed and then arrested, well eventually anyway (allegedly).

A spokeswoman for Devon and Cornwall Police told Chef Sandwich: "John Burton Race, 52, was arrested on October 30 at about 1am.

“He has been charged with driving or attempting to drive with excess alcohol and resisting or obstructing a constable in the execution of their duty."

He was released on unconditional bail and is due to appear before magistrates in Newton Abbot on November 17.

Burton Race was declared bankrupt in March this year.

He has appeared on a number of TV shows including French Leave and Return of the Chef which focused on him and his family setting up home in France and South Devon.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Long For That Risotto, Chef?

On the whole, we had a fairly good relationship with the 'Dereks' on front-of-house. The main problem was Keira the bar manager, an Irish woman in her forties, with braided hair, heavy make-up, and a club foot. She talked about healing stones and hugging trees, but she had a snearing, sarcastic look that could kill a goat at 50 yards.

She’d bitch about everyone in the kitchen. Whenever she cornered me, she’d bitch about how Jules wasn’t good enough for the job. She would lisp away, and study my reaction. She said she was friends with the local AA inspector, and had it on good authority that we were going to lose our only Rosette.

Keira always knew what was going on in the kitchen. But we had our own spy network among the waitresses. The trouble started when we heard she was leaving to take over as bar manager of the Rosie. Just as she was about to start, she was sacked for “briefing against people”, and tried to take everyone else down with her.

She threatened to get our premises licence taken away, saying we smoked dope in the bar, and she could smell it when she opened up. We were taken into the office and grilled, but it soon blew over. What galled me most was seeing Jules’ shocked, pious expression. Greeny got fed up with smoking out of the window, and left a couple of nights later and moved into a shared room above the Rosie. It was sad to see him go, and the atmosphere changed after that. It became far more serious.

Jules had set me time limits for jobs, and took a minute off each time I did them. Apparently it was a vital part of my training. He’d bully and harass, trampling on his “grunts”, and spouting the same tiresome cheffing catchphrases.

“How long for that risotto, chef?”

“30 seconds.”

“You’ve got 20.”

How many times had I heard those words? Not nearly as many times as I’d hear them again. Working in the cramped furnace meant it was difficult to avoid collisions, and there was a constant call of “backs” as you worked. With the heat and bad tempers, it was suffocating.

“Sorry, chef,” I’d say after each collision.

“You will be,” the stock response.

There is little originality among chefs. They have their own language that takes all of a week to learn, and most of it seems to be about anal sex. If you were hit hard, you were “raped”, “butt-fucked” or “slammed up the arse”. Forty covers all coming in at 8pm might be greeted with a gleeful, “I think we’re going to get butt-fucked tonight!”

The most common expression was “in the shit” – a preponderance seized on energetically by my fellow chefs. When you were flagging, and orders were going cold on the pass, the vicious bastards were only too happy to help - so they could bring it up in the pub later.

Kitchens are run on competition after all. Each chef is painfully aware of his place on the totem pole – and any chance of advancement is grabbed with both hands. It often happened to me, and they let me know all about it. “You were in the shit there tonight,” Jules would say in earshot of my budding helpers.

Sometimes it just can’t be helped, and customers will descend from nowhere. You’ll be making risotto from scratch five times during service, cooking asparagus soup from fresh using ladles from the dipping pot for stock, and throwing the red-hot, grease-grimed bullseye in to get the water boiling.

That’s when the adrenaline kicks in – that’s what professional cooking is all about, and that's what I became addicted to.

You don’t get the buzz every service, far from it. But when you’re banging out plates, and every dish is perfect, there’s no sweeter taste. Of course, the buzz doesn’t last long – it may give you a warm, proud feeling in the pub afterwards, it may even carry you to your bed, leaving you with dreams of gastronomic greatness, but kitchen karma will make sure your next day is hell. And you’re only remembered for your last meal. As even the world’s best chefs will tell you – you get good days and bad days in catering.

The only thing that makes it all worthwhile is the passion. Without that you’re nothing. And I was seriously beginning to doubt whether I had enough passion for the job. I used to become animated whenever the subject of cooking came up. But being surrounded by food and recipes all day had stifled that. I stopped asking questions, and wondering about techniques so much, and just got my head down and ploughed through the never-ending crates of veg.

The whole thing had become repetitive, and I was faced with the unpleasant reality that there was nothing romantic about cooking, as I had always hoped. The sad truth was any job becomes boring after a while. There was little creativity involved, and practically none as a commis. It was all about consistency. The art came when the dish was created. After that, you just kept repeating that same brief moment, banging out that same tired repertoire of dishes. Like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, you keep writing the same line over and over and over again.

I kept comparing myself to the other chefs, questioning whether I had the passion they had, and knowing they’d been doing the job a lot longer. I didn’t have their manic energy. A good chef throws himself at any task - mopping the floor, and attacking the flat-top with half a lemon so it shines like a silver Bentley.

But I avoided cleaning whenever I could, and would dream up jobs in the dry store whenever they were deep-cleaning the kitchen. It was someone's job every few weeks to cover themselves in bin liners and climb up through the extractor unit to clean it. The thought of being asked terrified me - I was scared of enclosed spaces - but then I was probably too fat to get through the ducting in any case. Maybe that psychic I'd gone to see when I had my mid-life crisis, and was unable to make my own decisions, was right; maybe I didn’t like getting my hands dirty.

When I first looked into cheffing, the chefs I talked to all said I was mad for even considering the notion. They seemed to be giving me a last chance. "But then, you have to be mad to be a good chef," they said.

Whichever way you looked at it, it was an insane choice of career. But at least I was alive. My emotions had become far more intense and colourful since I'd taken up the knives and bolted that dreary, pretentious media world. There was no way I could go back. Not now I’d breathed life again, and gorged myself on the secret puddings. It’d be like turning the colour off on the telly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bullying In Kitchens

"It's not so much the assaults and hurled pans, it's the bullying I can't stand," a tearful chef once told me. And it's true - it happens a lot in professional kitchens. It's the continuing circle of revenge. Cooks get bullied, then they get their own back on those below them.

One commis was called in on his day off by an irate sous chef, travelled across London on a succession of buses and tubes, and when he got into the kitchen was bollocked for not cling-filming something in his fridge properly. They made him recover it and sent him home. All that way for something that would have taken them a few seconds to put right. He left when they set fire to his pony-tail.

It was the same at the Gull. Ironically, Jules' sister, who ran a bistro nearby, had sent Jim the potwash to our kitchen because she was worried he would get bullied anywhere else. But after a couple of months, the protection wore off, and the other chefs got irritated by his slowness...

Jules had given me a set of keys to the kitchen. He told me he was sick of seeing my veg supplies piled up outside the door, and it was my job to open up. That meant getting up half an hour earlier. Jim was usually already there. He’d be standing at the top of the stairs, sucking on a cigarette, and in no hurry to get out of his biker gear. He only drove a moped but from the bright yellow and black leathers he wore you’d think it was a Hornet.

“Hello there!” he would say each morning. He could never remember my name, but was always pleased to see me.

Jim lived with his sister a few miles up the road, and was probably the worst plongeur in Cornwall. If you asked him to peel some spuds, you'd be lucky to get 40 by lunchtime. I never said anything - I always felt sorry for him - but sometimes Graham would pick up a potato and mock him, and challenge him to a race. Graham could peel a spud in under four seconds.

Jim's pace didn't quicken during the heat and stress of service either. He'd lumber past like a zombie with outstretched pans, chanting his favourite catchphrase, “Coming through! Mind your arses!”

"Coming OUT, mind your arses, more like," someone would shout.

Jim wore the same T-shirt every day - with 'It’s not a bald patch – it’s a solar sex panel' emblazoned across it. He couldn't read or write, and had no idea what it said. We even had to fill in his timesheets for him.

He joined on the same day I did, and after a few weeks had come out of his shell, and that’s when the bullying started. It seemed fairly mild to start with, nothing like I was getting anyway, but I felt sorry for him all the same, and guilty about not doing more to stop it. I still feel guilty about it now; sometimes I lie in bed and think about it, and wish I'd made a stand.

It was Jim's job to make the tea, but he never remembered, and this was a favourite for those dreadful fuckers Graham and Jules.

“Jim,” Jules would begin. “Jim! Jim!”

Eventually he’d look round, blinking through steamed-up glasses. “Hello there,” he’d say, drying a plate in slow motion.

“Do you play golf, Jim?”

“I have done, yeah.”

“You know when you start a game, Jim, what are those plastic things you use?”

He thought for a minute and dried half a plate. Then Graham would join in. “You know those plastic things you stick in the ground at the start of each hole.”

“Haven’t got a clue. Do you know Jules?”

Stewie would wander over and whisper something in his ear, and he'd shout “tee!” and then there'd be a chorus of “thanks very much Jim, I’ll have two sugars!”

Most times, Graham would start it off.

“What rhymes with toffee, Jim?”

“Don’t know…”

At some stage, a plastic yellow duck appeared in the kitchen. It squeaked when you squeezed it, which terrified Jim for some reason. When no-one was looking, he’d throw it in the bins at the top of the car park, but the duck always found its way back. Some days it hung from the hose by his sink, and he’d have to spend the day with its angry, cartoon face boring into his bottle-end glasses.

One morning, Jim was reaching for the huge tub of Nescafe above the sink when he shrieked. A yellow face was peering out of the coffee powder.

“That fucking duck,” he squealed. “He gets everywhere!”

It returned a few days later, frozen in a bucket of water that Jim was asked to retrieve from the freezer in the haunted dry store across the road. Its angry eyes looked up at him through the ice...

Graham switched the lights off and locked the door. He made terrible quacking noises, and threatened to throw him in the pond, and Jim wept like a child. His sister had to come and get him. I know the hairy-arsed pros among you will think this fairly mild compared to some of the stories you hear in kitchens, but I'll never forget the sound of that noise Jim made. It was the sound of a pig in a barn fire.

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...

Friday, October 02, 2009

Floyd: In Brief, It's Absolute Rubbish

Keith Floyd's boozy memoirs have been published today, two days after family and friends celebrated his colourful life at a funeral in Bristol, the city where he ran a mini-chain of restaurants and launched his TV cooking career.

His autobiography, Stirred But Not Shaken, deals with his battle with the bottle, his four failed marriages, and a whole host of anecdotes befitting a man who made cheffing the new rock and roll, and changed cooking programmes for ever.

But even though the flamboyant cad had an encyclopaedic knowledge of gastronomy, and once said cooking was the only thing he lived for, he has some stark advice for anyone thinking of following in his footsteps, and taking up the knives.

"Don't ever go into the restaurant business," he says. "It kills marriages, it kills relationships, and it kills life. It kills everything. And I, the man with four ex-wives, should know."

Sadly, Floyd never actually saw the book. He died of a heart attack four days before it was printed.

Writer James Steen, who also penned Marco Pierre White’s fantastic biog White Slave, spent a year with the legendary gastronaut ghosting the book, and recalls how difficult it was at times because of the wine-guzzling cook's aversion to "self-analysis".

"On TV we all saw him as this jolly character, jumping around, funny, witty, and we were all very envious of him,” he said.

"But actually away from the cameras, his personal life was quite tragic in many respects.

"It was a culmination of things; first of all there was the drink, but he was also an insomniac, and a worrier.

"So when he would go away filming, he would be worrying about the next day, and how everything would work out, and how he would get it right.

"And this bottle of whisky - the dreaded Johnnie Walker - really became a crutch for him - it became something he felt helped him through the night and into the next day.

"In the book he admits he was an alcoholic, and he talks about drinking and how it all started...and how it finally took its toll, and he's very open in that respect.

"But he was extremely proud that he had passed on knowledge to his viewers, and that people had derived happiness from watching his programmes."

Steen said the proudest moment of Floyd's life was when he was filming Floyd On France, considered by some to be the best cooking programme ever made.

He said the cook's favourite scene was when he was scolded by an "old dragon" French housewife for ruining a dish of piperade.

Unlike the celebrity chefs Floyd's success spawned, the eccentric entertainer insisted on keeping the criticism in.

He even revels in it (imagine Rhodes or Ramsay doing the same) and translates the drubbing for viewers: "Apparently, she doesn't want to taste it because the way I cooked it was so off-putting that she knows it is going to be awful...

"There's not enough salt, not enough brief, it's absolute rubbish."

Steen added: "What wasn't seen afterwards was at the end of that particular scene, David Pritchard (the show's producer) shouted 'that's a rap' and she thought they'd shouted 'that's a rat'.

"And she yelled ' there's not a rat in my kitchen!'"

But even though Floyd was a complete natural on camera, he was a simple cook at heart, and often wondered whether he would have been happier without the fame; a local celebrity bashing out bistro dishes for arty-types in Bristol, but nothing more.

He found the media world pretentious and filled with reprehensible heels ready to jump ship whenever a celebrity’s kudos was about to fade. If you’ve read his first autobiography Floyd In The Soup, it is filled with references to the gruel of motorway service station diets, empty hotel rooms, and endless TV and radio interviews. ‘THEY’ made me get up at 5am etc, is a regular refrain.

Floyd’s almost schizophrenic relationship with TV, as his two halves battled between Floydie, the hard-drinking Oliver Reed of the kitchen that everyone loved, and the simple soul who just wanted to go fishing with his mates, is one of the main themes that came out during Steen’s weeks of taped interviews.

He added: "One thing that comes across in the book is he actually found it all very difficult - he didn't really like telly people, and saw them as a different breed.

"There is a classic line where he says 'I loved David (Pritchard) but I hated him too'. He felt that way about a lot of people who came into his life."

Floyd was cremated in a coffin made from banana leaves on Wednesday. But the celebrity chefs his success spawned were noticeable by their absence.

Despite being quick to fill TV screens and newspapers with tributes to the bow-tied roue over the past two weeks, none of them made it to say a final thank you to the man who’d made them millions.

Floyd’s only two real cheffing friends were both busy. Jean Christophe Novelli was attending a hospice in Hertfordshire (so you can’t knock him for that), and Marco Pierre White had “work commitments”, according to his spokeswoman.

Rick Stein, the only other real sleb chef he could have called a friend, was in Australia, doing interviews, ironically enough, about the pressures of fame and mistresses. Even ‘comedian’ Jim Davidson flew in from Dubai for the funeral. And he’s a right c***.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

James Martin's Mole Saga

TV cook James Martin has already boasted about how he likes watching the look of “sheer terror” on cyclists’ faces as he forces them into hedgerows.

Now he has his cross-hairs set on a harmless bunch of moles plaguing his local football field – and they’re not even wearing lycra.

He is stumping up cash to help pay for a professional mole killer to cull the black, velvety-furred creatures near his mansion in Stoke Charity, Hampshire.

Wonston parish council asked him to help out, and the carrot-chopper whipped out his chequebook quicker than you can say guaca-mole, mole marinieres, mole-saka, or jam moley-poly for that matter.

But no, Martin is no cook on the wild side and has no plans to flambé them. He just wants the field de-moled so it’s as flat as one of his soufflés.

“Whatever I can do to help out with the playing field and make it safe for the kids to play is great. I have no idea how many moles he will catch,” he leers.

“But they won’t be stuck on sticks or sautéed!”

Wonston parish councillor Gaye Finn-Kelcey was clearly relieved, adding: “I’m very glad to hear that James won’t be skewering them because moles don’t taste nice.

“Even our cat which used to bring moles into the house didn’t eat them.”

Meanwhile, Martin has been bragging about Saturday Kitchen, claiming it has just got its highest ever viewing figures with “a 33% share of the viewing audience and 2.5 million viewers tuning in to watch the show.”

“It has also been commissioned for a further two years, so thanks for all your support with the show and here’s to a 100 more (sic)!” he says.

Oh Christ, I hope not.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Floyd To Be Cremated In Banana Leaves

On my last blog, I wrote about the confusion over Keith Floyd's funeral arrangements. Now it turns out he is to be cremated in a banana leaf coffin in Bristol, the city where he ran a string of restaurants and launched his cooking career.

A public memorial service will take place at Ashton Court Mansion at 11.30am this Wednesday before a private service for family at Canford Crematorium.

The humanist funeral is being organised by Floyd's partner Celia Martin, who the wine-quaffing raconteur had been living with as he battled bowel cancer.

Ms Martin has chosen a handmade woven coffin made from banana leaves for the eccentric entertainer - because of its environmentally friendly nature, and partly as a humorous nod to his love of cooking with leaves.

She said: "It will be a sad day. I'm still trying to organise the funeral and it's taking up all my time. But that's probably quite a useful thing isn't it - to take one's mind off things.

"But goodness knows how one will feel after the funeral - I think there will be a sudden drop when everything goes quiet."

She added: "There have been some wonderful tributes to him. The answer phone has been clogged with messages from his old friends."

She said she had received support from Floyd's old friends Marco Pierre White and Jean Christophe Novelli in arranging the funeral.

"Marco was an enormously good friend of Keith's and he and Jean Christophe have been tremendously kind and good after Keith's death too. They have been very supportive," she added.

"The funeral's not going to be sombre, it's going to be musical.

"Keith was hugely fond of music; it played an important part in his life.

"And that's why there will be quite a few bits of music and some very nice tributes paid by some very good friends."

The music is being arranged by music producer and songwriter Bill Padley with the help of Floyd's son Patrick.

Ms Martin's local funeral directors, AG Down, are arranging the humanist service.

A spokesman for the firm said any donations should go to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Big Issue magazine.

Floyd passed away while watching TV at Ms Martin's home in Bridport, Dorset, two weeks ago. He was 65.

He had returned to Britain three weeks before to start chemotherapy for bowel cancer, and died just before the publication of his latest autobiography Stirred But Not Shaken.

The pair had celebrated Ms Martin's 65th birthday with a lunch of oysters, potted shrimps and partridge at celebrity chef Mark Hix's fish restaurant in nearby Lyme Regis.

It was to turn out to be the famous cook's last gourmet meal.

Floyd’s autobiography will be launched at Marco Pierre White's Knightsbridge restaurant Frankies on October 6, and will be a tribute of Floyd's life.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Confusion Over Keith Floyd's Funeral

Keith Floyd’s life was a chaotic affair, so perhaps it’s fitting that confusion surrounds his funeral too.

The TV cook parted with his long-term manager Stan Green some 15 month ago, and largely due to ill health, had no-one representing him when he passed away in Bridport, Dorset, last week.

Green says he has had a number of calls from Floyd’s old friends asking about the funeral, but no-one seems to know who is organising the arrangements - or even where or when the service is going to be.

“It’s all up in the air,” Green told Chef Sandwich. “No-one’s got a clue what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s going to be in Dorset or France for that matter.

“Keith was estranged from his children until recently, so I don’t know who’s going to be looking after the funeral. Like a lot of things in Keith’s life, there’s a lot of confusion.”

He said he had had no word from Floyd’s long-term friend Celia Martin, who Floyd had been staying with for the past few weeks, and had no idea whether she would be organising matters.

When we contacted AG Down, her local funeral directors in Bridport, they confirmed they were dealing with some of the arrangements, but that nothing had been decided yet.

“Nothing’s confirmed,” a spokeswoman said. “We don’t know when it’s going to be, but it probably won’t be this week.”

Floyd’s old friend Marco Pierre White said he had also not heard anything about the funeral.

Floyd had returned to Britain three weeks ago to start chemotherapy for bowel cancer, and died just before the publication of his latest autobiography Stirred But Not Shaken.

A book launch had been planned at Pierre White's Knightsbridge restaurant Frankies on October 6, and was due to go ahead as a celebration of Floyd's life.

But when we contacted White’s manager at the restaurant, he had few details. So it doesn’t even look like that’s been confirmed.

Well, I hope they do him proud, and send off the old wine-quaffing gastronaut in the spirit he deserves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

James Martin Forced To Eat Humble Pie

By 'eck. That bloooody James Martin has slammed a hornets’ nest into a hedge and they’re all now after his sticky Parkin cake.

All I can say is it couldn’t happen to a nicer fellow.

The anger at the plump pudding chef’s boasts about causing a group of cyclists "sheer terror" as he test drove a Tesla sports car has been fast and furious.

And to make it worse for Martin’s PR people – not to say Tesla’s who are trying to distance themselves from the row – it looks like boiling on for a while.

Normally what happens is the crass, brain-dead celebrity is told to issue a grovelling apology (he has) and the matter quickly blows over.

Trouble is it doesn’t work if the star is an arrogant, overpaid twat, as happened with Gordon Ramsay during his bust-up Down Under.

Martin is even less popular. He isn’t even liked by his team at BBC One's Saturday Kitchen. Insiders tell me he is always asking for big pay rises, and sulks when he doesn’t get them. He keeps storming into offices, whining about how he is the star of the show, and it wouldn’t get any viewers without him.

How many deranged, menopausal women can there be in Yorkshire? I’m sure most of the viewers are people with such bad hangovers that they’ve forgotten they’ve even switched on the TV.

Occasionally, they risk a squint at the screen and spot a cheesy-faced owl with a Ralph Lauren curtain draped over his paunch giving yet another recipe for Yorkshire pudding, or a handy tip on how to cook kippers in a jug of boiling water.

Martin clearly knows even less about presenting than he does about cooking (what sort of credentials do you get for having been “trained” in one of Antony Worrall Thompson’s kitchens...) And he should be grateful if licence fee-payers pay him more than a fiver a show.

In fact, I hope the Beeb is soon pressurised into having to come clean on how much its “stars” are paid, because when people see how much gobshites like Martin pocket each week, they might start voting with the remote control. Or even better key one of his sports cars, as many cyclists are threatening to do.

Indeed, I think the BBC better start scratching around for another northern cook to appeal to its Yorkshire demographic because the 37-year-old won’t easily get away with this one.

Campaign group the Cyclists' Touring Club has been inundated with complaints from angry members. An anti-James Martin site on Facebook, and a thread called ‘#jamesmartinisacock’ on Twitter are attracting thousands of comments from angry people.

And to make matters worse, Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins weighed in to give him a kick-in on his Twitter site. “Meal suggestion for this Saturday Kitchen for James Martin, Spotted DICK!” he writes, and: “Hey James Martin, How about COCK au vin this Saturday.”

Someone even attacked his Wikipedia entry, beginning his biography with “Martin grew up on a coal barge, where he was assistant bell-end.”

The TV cook became a figure of hate when he took the ill-judged decision to write a reactionary, Jeremy Clarkson-esque piece for the Mail on Sunday. It’s quite easy really, pick a subject you know will appeal to the Top Gear crowd...speed cameras, traffic humps, lorry drivers, pensioners in the fast lane etc and then write a piece called something like “Why I Bloody Hate Caravans”.

In Martin’s case, he or probably someone who wrote it for him, begins: "God I hate those cyclists. Every herbal tea-drinking, Harriet Harman-voting one of them. That's one of the reasons I live in the countryside, where birds tweet, horses roam, pigs grunt and Lycra-clad buttocks are miles away.”

Then he spots the group dressed in "fluorescent Spider-Man outfits, shades, bum bags and stupid cleated shoes".

"Twenty minutes into my test drive I pulled round a leafy bend, enjoying the bird song - and spotted those damned Spider-Man cyclists.

"Knowing they wouldn't hear me coming, I stepped on the gas, waited until the split-second before I overtook them, then gave them an almighty blast on the horn at the exact same time I passed them at speed."

He added: "The look of sheer terror as they tottered into the hedge was the best thing I've ever seen in my rear-view mirror."

Martin now says in a statement on his website: “It was never my intention to offend the many cyclists who share our roads across the country. What was intended to be a humorous piece was clearly misjudged. Further more I do not condone any form of reckless driving.

“Once again, I am sincerely sorry for any upset caused in relation to this article.”

Trouble is people aren’t stupid, it wasn’t a flippant remark or a drunken misquote. He’d presumably written the remarks in crayon and subs had checked the copy. Even the Mail themselves have now removed the offending paragraphs about seeing cyclists buried in the hedge.

And even if the BBC press office publicly torches Martin’s sports cars, dresses him in lycra and makes him cycle to the studios each day with “I’m green and clean” tattooed on his forehead, he won’t get out of this one.

And if he does, he’ll have more jam than he sticks in his fucking cakes.

:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Keith Floyd's Last Gourmet Meal

Keith Floyd once said if he were to die tomorrow, he’d choose oysters for his last meal. And as it turned out, he did.

The legendary TV cook’s last gourmet feast represented everything he loved about food – seasonal, local and above all simple.

Heart problems, a series of operations for bowel cancer, and a general falling out of love with food in recent months had left him pushing morsels around his plate in restaurants.

But as he tucked into his last lunch - a £120 three-course meal at celebrity chef Mark Hix’s restaurant in Lyme Regis, Dorset – he said he hadn’t felt better for months.

It was the Floyd of old – not the frail-looking shadow seen in last night’s documentary Keith Meets Keith. He was chatting with the diners, and savouring every mouthful of food.

He had taken his partner Celia Martin to Hix Oyster and Fish House to celebrate her 65th birthday.

They began with a champagne cocktail on the sun terrace overlooking the harbour. Then followed a glass of white Burgundy before they moved indoors to the best table in the house for a plate of oysters and potted Morecambe Bay shrimps.

For the main, they shared a bottle of Cotes de Rhone red. Floyd had ordered grouse, but the kitchen sent him partridge and bread sauce by mistake. But nothing was going to spoil his good mood that day, and he tucked in just the same.

“The sun was shining on the terrace, it was a glorious day. He was lovely – he spoke to a few of the other customers in the restaurant – he was charming,” Jonathan Jeffrey, general manager of the restaurant, told Chef Sandwich.

“He had a drink outside then he moved in to have his lunch, he got here about 1.30pm and left about 3.30pm or 4pm. He was out with Celia – it was her birthday, and they were having a laugh together."

Floyd finished the meal with apple pie and perry jelly, and several cigarettes and a coffee on the terrace.

He asked to see Hix, but when told he wasn't there, he left him an invitation to the launch of his autobiography at Marco Pierre White's Knightsbridge restaurant Frankies on October 6, which will now go ahead as a celebration of Floyd's life.

Floyd and Celia went home for a siesta to her nearby house in Bridport, where the cook had been living for the past three weeks to start chemotherapy for bowel cancer.

He was looking forward to watching his interview with Keith Allen at 10pm that night, but died in his sleep before the programme started.

Celia said: "It was my 65th birthday yesterday and we started off by going to see the specialist to do with his cancer. He had some very good news and he was very optimistic of his chances of beating it.

"We then went to have a pub lunch in Lyme Regis. He said 'I have not felt this well for ages'. He had a very good last day."

The couple watched University Challenge while waiting for Keith Meets Keith to begin. Celia said: "He had already seen the TV programme because they had sent us the DVD. He liked it very much, he thought it was so brilliantly made and so truthful. He said it was an award-winning programme.

"He laid down on the sofa and I thought he went to sleep. Then suddenly his breathing became erratic.”

Celia dialled 999 and put him in the recovery position on the floor. Paramedics spent nearly an hour trying to revive Floyd.

She added: "It was so bizarre, we were sitting down to watch the documentary at 10pm but by that time he had died. It is all a bit of a shock.

"He was feeling so much stronger since he had been in Bridport. We were going out every day, either shopping or to the pub or play boules on the beach. He was not drinking a lot, he had really given up drinking, but he was smoking too much.

"I'm still in shock, I feel like he is still here and I cannot get to grips with it. There is still his cigarette ash around the place and his clothes are still in the washing basket. I'm expecting him to get out of bed any minute.”

Mr Jeffery added: “I feel very privileged because I had a chat with him on the terrace before he left. His programmes were what got me into cooking.

“He made cooking acceptable, he was the one who led the way, he was absolutely amazing. I think it’s really sad, it’s terrible.”

RIP Keith Floyd: No More Heroes

They say you should never meet your heroes. I learned that very early on in journalism. But even though I had the chance to meet my all-time hero Keith Floyd on a couple of occasions, I shrank away each time.

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

I wanted to remember him in his prime, drunk on the riverbank, hurling stones at a hapless fisherman who’d failed to catch any trout for the show. Cooking and playing for a Welsh rugby team, then skidding on his studs and scattering food across the floor.

That scene in Padstow, when he pretended to forget the name of a young Rick Stein as the fresh-faced cook, and his eventual usurper, squirmed on camera.

I wanted to remember him making mashed potato with a young Marco Pierre White. Serving a fried beer-mat to a man who’d complained about his schnitzel. Putting all his money on the roulette wheel and drinking into the small hours after a particularly bad night’s service.

I wanted to remember his refreshing, self-deprecating humour when it came to his own cooking talents. The live cookery demonstration when he left the giblet bag inside a roast duck.

But perhaps most of all I miss his infectious love of food, and his humbleness and readiness to accept where he came from - unlike many of the new breed of celebrity chefs spawned from his success.

Quite simply, he was a man who never forgot he was just a cook.

On one early Floyd On Fish show, he opened his box of knives and told viewers: “So you see the importance of my little black box is that it’s actually got the tools of my trade in, and if the worst comes to the worst, and the BBC goes bust, then I can still get a job as a cook anyday.”

I don’t want to remember him as the frail, doddering, aged-beyond-his-years man in last night’s Channel 4 documentary Keith Meets Keith.

From the moment the great cook was shown sleeping on a hotel sofa like some befuddled Chelsea pensioner, his energy and spirit finally succumbing to a lifetime of fags and booze, it was clear it was going to be uncomfortable viewing.

I tried to switch over several times, but this was Keith Floyd...

He might pull through and show his old magic, even a glimmer of it would do, but by the end I felt overwhelmingly sad.

The whole show – not helped in the slightest by the faux sensitivity of Keith Allen and crew – wreaked of mortality. It was like watching the last hours of a dying God.

It was obvious Floyd didn’t have long, and as it turned out, just a few weeks. Minutes before the documentary was aired, the legendary raconteur died from a heart attack while watching TV at his partner Celia Martin’s home in Dorset. He was 65.

Paramedics battled for 45 minutes to save him but he could not be resuscitated, his ghost-writer James Steen said.

Floyd had returned to Britain three weeks ago to start chemotherapy for bowel cancer, and died just before the publication of his latest autobiography Stirred But Not Shaken.

A book launch had been planned at Marco Pierre White's Knightsbridge restaurant Frankies on October 6, and will now go ahead as a celebration of Floyd's life.

A short statement on Floyd's website says: “On Monday, September 14 2009, Keith passed away. He will be greatly missed by many.”

The only faintly watchable bit of last night’s documentary was when Floyd called most of the celebrity chefs who fill our screens “c****”.

Fittingly, the likes of Jamie Oliver and co were quick to pay tribute to the man who had paved the way for their careers.

Oliver said: “Keith was not just one of the best, he was the best television chef. An incredible man who lived life to the full and an inspiration to me and to so many others.”

Antony Worrall Thompson added: “I think all of us modern TV chefs owe a living to him. He kind of spawned us all.

“He turned cookery shows into entertainment. He lived life to the full and didn't care what people thought about him.”

Born to a working class family in Somerset in 1943, Floyd was educated at Wellington School before first becoming a journalist for a local paper in Bristol.

But that didn’t last long, and he decided to join the Forces after watching Zulu and rose to Second Lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment.

While in the Army, he played a major role in the kitchen and so-called 'Floyd nights' became the stuff of legend.

After leaving the forces, he flitted between jobs as a barman, dishwasher and cook before opening three restaurants in Bristol.

It was in one of those that he had his TV break, when he met BBC producer David Pritchard, and Floyd on Fish was born.

At its peak, the show was broadcast in 40 countries.

But it was this fame that led to his undoing and the failure of four marriages.

Although clearly a natural in front of the camera, he often reflected that if he hadn’t gone into TV, he’d have been a lot happier, and would probably have still been running a bistro in Bristol.

“There is Keith, who is just a cook and doesn't want to be famous,” he once said.

“He wants to lead a simple life, go out to dinner with his mates, go fishing. Then there is this other person, Floyd or Floydie.

“He is universally popular. People are so obsessed with Floydie that Keith can never lead a quiet life. It is unjust. I don't want to be Floyd. If I've influenced people, then I have. But I've got no idea who Floyd is. Not a clue.”

His fans knew who he was though, and loved him all the more for it.

I can’t tell you how said I am at his passing.

I’ll leave the last line to Floyd’s favourite band The Stranglers...

No more heroes anymore.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Keith Floyd: Stirred But Not Shaken

I wrote on this blog in July about the tragic news that Keith Floyd – one of my all-time heroes, and the man who inspired me to retrain as a chef - has cancer. The response rather surprised me. I had little idea of the level of feeling involved, and from all corners of the world.

The legendary TV cook had touched so many lives, it seemed, inspired so many people to get their hands dirty in the kitchen, and Delia aside, vanquished those dreary, sterile, studio-set cooking shows to hell in a chicken basket.

Of course, Floyd’s stardom led to the rise of twats like James Martin and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, not to mention Jamie Oliver and Gary Rhodes. But it was worth it, wasn’t it? Just for one show of the bow-tied roue on Floyd on Fish?

Well, the old soak doesn’t think so.

He has described how he would like to “napalm the lot of them”, and his battle against cancer has, if anything, intensified that bile.

But it’s not the Valentine Warners and Hairy Bikers who have really got him down.

It’s the genuinely-talented cooks who swapped kitchen life, and all its treasured pressures and camaraderie, for the plastic, pretentious world of television.

Floyd – clearly pained by the monster he has created - seems far more hurt by the celebrities who actually deserve the title ‘chef’, namely Marco Pierre White and his former protégé Gordon Ramsay.

Okay, Ramsay has wealth and fame far beyond what he would have got if he’d stayed in the kitchen, but what has it got him? His reputation is pretty much now in tatters.

Floyd, 65, savages Ramsay with the highest honour kitchen sledging can muster - the very Château d’Yquem of put-downs - and calls him a “c***”.

He claims that the likes of Ramsay and White have been "seduced" by TV glamour, insisting "television is crap", and that the "w*****s" on programmes do not understand the "language" of food.

“Some of them are terrific guys and some of them are absolute arseholes,” he adds. “Marco Pierre White is an extraordinarily good cook, but Gordon Ramsay, who used to be the pastry chef for Marco, has gone on a celebrity zig-zag, which is why I call them c****.”

He makes the comments, appropriately enough, in a Channel 4 documentary to be shown tomorrow (Monday) night called Keith Meets Keith.

The other Keith is that oh-so-hell-raising actor Keith Allen, in comparison to who the scourge of the celebrity chef is but a flea-bite on the arm of a tattooed giant.

Why they got the Sheriff of Nottingham and not Johnny Vegas to present the show, I have no idea. The roly-poly comic seems to genuinely love Floyd, and often sits for hours watching re-runs with a can in his hand. “It’s like drinking with an old friend,” he once said.

But Allen it is, and after getting nowhere with Floyd’s former agent Stan Green, he eventually tracks down a frail-looking, walking stick-aided Floyd at his farmhouse in rural France.

Fags and booze are to the fore, and Floyd dismisses the modern generation of TV gastronauts as “a bunch of arseholes”.

“The ill-conceived idea that all these w*****s who turn up on TV are chefs is a failure to understand the language. People who cook are cooks, a chef is a head of a restaurant kitchen,” he says.

Although Floyd only mentions Ramsay, pictures are flashed up of the Hairy Bikers, Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein (who his ex-producer David Pritchard formed into a poetry-spilling ‘mini-me’ when Floyd suffered his own zig-zag.)

Floyd tells of his money problems and says his rambling farmhouse in Avignon is being re-possessed by his fourth ex-wife Tess, 42.

Allen, father of pop star Lily Allen, and general all-round gobshite, asks Floyd: “Do you get foxes here?”

Floyd replies: “No, but I’m going to.”

The pair are filmed drunkenly singing, very badly, at a hotel piano, but Floyd is no arse and soon sees Allen for what he is.

The next day over lunch, Floyd tells Allen to “shut up” before being helped away “to go on a sofa”.

Allen, who at another point is called “a prick” by Floyd, said of the wine-glugging cook: “He’s mentally as sharp as ever and just as opinionated.”

Since the filming, Floyd has had chemotherapy and five operations. He has also published Stirred But Not Shaken: The Autobiography by Keith Floyd, which is out next month, and deals with how four marriages went down the pan and the money ran out.

At one point in the book, in true Floydian spirit, he deals with the health problems that have blighted him in recent years...

“The banquet was in honour of some long-deceased French chef — although as far as I could see it was nothing more than an excuse for the mother of all piss-ups,” he writes.

“Soup was served, oysters were gulped and a whole lamb was carved by an ancient maître d’ who looked like a cross between Dr Jekyll and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweetmeats and trifles came and went.

“Bon Appetit! Keith Floyd enjoying a meal with a bottle of wine in a typical pose. Bare-knuckle boxing took place, port and whisky flowed as the night turned into dawn and I finally floated along the teak-paneled corridor to my bedroom.

“Later, I don’t know how long afterwards, I reached out a hand to press the bell for a steward.

“My mattress was hard, I needed a glass of water and what with the tubes in my nose, I couldn’t breathe properly. No steward arrived. Just a man in a white jacket with a stethoscope and a briefcase, from which he took a syringe and injected my arm.

“Strange, I thought.

“Morning came — along with a group of people who stood round my bed, talking about me while they pressed their cool fingers over my stomach. ‘How did you enjoy the dinner?’ I asked them, by way of conversation. Silence.

“‘Wasn’t it a great night?’ I said. ‘I mean, there was the port and the boxing, there was the whole baron of lamb, and then there was dawn. How do you manage to have such a place in what appears to me to be a hospital?’

“It was a hospital. ‘Mr Floyd, you have been hallucinating,’ said one of the group. ‘The medication we had to give you in order to keep you alive together with the effects of — how can we say it? — an overindulgence of alcohol. . .’

“It was unreal. The whole banquet thing had been a complete figment of my imagination. ‘You were suffering a nasty case of delirium tremens,’ continued the man, whom I had by now realised was a doctor. ‘DTs, Mr Floyd. We have played our part.

“Now it is for you to play yours. Drink again as you have before and you will die.’ That was a year ago, in the spring of 2008 and I’m thankful to say that somehow or other, I’m still here.”

I do hope he gets better. But even if he doesn’t – what a life!