Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why Michael Pollan Is Wrong About Sending Back Steaks In Restaurants

I like American journalist and current media darling Michael Pollan, and the simple approach to food he advocates. In this era of wall-to-wall cooking shows, where former supermodels can do a couple of years at catering school and emerge as celebrity chefs teaching the nation to bake while older, far more experienced cooks are left on the shelf, it’s a breath of fresh air.

A well-researched, beautifully-written breath of fresh air that may motivate even the laziest, crisp-munching foodie to turn off the telly and actually cook a meal themselves, rather than wondering who’s going to be knocked out next, or tweeting about how James Martin looks like an owl in a Noel Gallagher wig, and can’t read the autocue (alright, I was guilty of that one).

I love Pollan’s advice about how we should all eat out less and cook for ourselves. I like his proselytising about how we should be less greedy, and eat more plants. I like his simple guidelines for eating - “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car”. I like the tales of his cookery experiments in his new book Cooked - a book being feted on both sides of the Atlantic as some sort of born again Bible in this age of unnecessarily-fussy recipes and long-run-out-of-ideas food programmes about building giant mince pies for bemused Greggs-goers in the centre of Birmingham.

But there is one thing he is very wrong about - and that is his views on ordering well done steaks in restaurants. On first sight, Pollan seems to be on to something. He urges us to ensure the quality of the meat - provided you like your steak well done or medium-well, and not a bloody hunk of seared flesh like most people - by ordering it rare, and then, and this is the cunning bit, sending it back to be cooked more.

That way, he says, you can guarantee the quality, and perhaps in these horsian days, the provenance of the meat. The logic being that devious chefs will try to pass off the nastiest pieces by serving it to the idiots who ask for their steaks well done, or ‘ruined’ in chefs’ cant.

There is truth in this. I’ve worked in restaurants where gnarly, green-tinged, everyone-has-a-sniff, about-to-go-in-staff-food steaks are reserved for customers who favour cremated meat. And it’s not just because it’s easier to get away with - it’s disgust. You see, chefs hate overcooking meat. “Fucking plebs!” they’ll be ranting as three orders for well done come in on table one. There is no chance to showcase their semi-mythical cooking talents if the meat is grey, and dry as Gandhi’s sandal.

But there is something chefs hate much more than having to ruin a lovely piece of meat, and that’s the humiliation, dented pride, and battered ego of having food sent back to the kitchen. It causes uproar. The restaurant is afraid to relay the message to the head chef, and the lowly commis in the brigade will make sideways glances and snigger. “Big bollocks has fucked up!” they’ll be thinking.

As revenge, I’ve seen chefs take a beautiful piece of returned steak and throw it in the deep-fat fryer until it’s well done, such is the disdain for people who hand back their beloved food. And I’ve heard of, and seen, far worse incidents.

On one occasion, I was working in a gastropub in Cornwall when an eye fillet came back. The chef ranted and slammed plates on the pass, and ran around the kitchen for a few minutes finding fault with everything, and quickly trying to pass off his perceived negligence by bullying the lower ranks while the steak sat there on the pass, oozing blood and greyish gobs of juice.

He then picked up the steak, pulled down his trousers, and wiped his arse with it. I apologise if you’re eating at this point, but I’m using it as an example of what can happen when you hand food back to a kitchen. And it’s not just steaks, of course. Troublesome customers may be munching through their just-returned salad oblivious to the saliva, or worse, in the chef’s special sauce, or the bogey hidden in the leaves, or the urine in the mussels etc etc.

I learned a lot in the time I spent cooking in restaurants, not least that I had a huge amount to learn, and that being able to throw a decent dinner party, or prepare a deep, deep pudding for Egg and Toad in a TV studio, is absolutely no use in preparing you for the rigours of a professional kitchen. All bright-eyed amateurs discover the same - that they are about as useful to the tattooed bunch of leather-fingered limpet berries around them as a snooze button on a smoke alarm.

But one thing I did learn is never hand food back. It’s just not worth it. The thought of what might be in there, what your soup might have been doctored with, will more than take away any enjoyment of the meal. Whenever a waiter asks how my meal is, I always mumble some platitude even if it’s fucking awful. And if it’s great, I let them know that too. But I never send food back to a kitchen. Never!

Pollan is right about the ability to see the quality of a steak if it’s rare, and how overcooking covers up a multitude of sins. But the trust he puts in the deranged characters you often find in kitchens is a touch naive. I hope his steaks, or those of his readers, never come back matted with sweat and other horrors that weren’t there on first arrival, but returning food to guarantee its quality is ludicrous advice.

:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Recipe Errors And Other Local Newspaper Howlers

My first newspaper job was writing a recipe column for a weekly paper. I used to make up the 100-word introductory flannel, talking about stews that dated back to Chaucer, the aphrodisiacal qualities of nettle soup, and dishes named after made-up minstrels.

For Newbury Pork Chops, I’d written: “This traditional country recipe dates back to a time when only the fattest and most succulent pork would be used. Newbury pigs were taken through the woods to sniff out truffles, and some chefs would add one or two to enrich the flavour...”

I had no idea whether there were even any truffles in Newbury. About the only thing I knew about the place was it had a racecourse. But it all went horribly wrong when I went travelling to South America. I’d written up the recipes beforehand, and each week my mother sent one in.

But I got held up in Colombia and ran out of recipes. My mother covered for me for a while, dutifully copying out recipes from cookbooks, until she did one for chocolate cake and the editor got calls from readers saying their cakes had come out “as flat as kipper’s piss”. 

It turned out she had forgotten to put the eggs in.

But as mistakes go, it was a minor one compared with this one in a local newspaper in the US - which goes to show even the most tried-and-tested recipes should never be set in stone...

But then at least the howler wasn’t on the front page...

Cambodian Food: Eating Duck Embryos And Cow Guts

I met a woman in the sea who works as a marketing manager for Hyundai and eats for a living. By that I mean she takes rich Asian clients around the culinary hotspots of Phnom Penh to give them a good feed and persuade them to buy land-gouging equipment.

“I know all the best places - it’s my job,” Alin said, before quickly spotting a shadow in the water and asking me if there were sharks in Cambodia.

She offered to show me a tiny, family-run joint that serves the best Khmer chicken curry in the capital, and another cheap place that only sells duck soup, and the best street food stall for fertilised duck eggs, and a restaurant that specialises in offal with prahok sauce, and a number of other places I’ve forgotten about because by now I was looking for sharks too.

I met her a week later after catching a bus from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. She picked me up on her moped outside the Central Market and we headed off to a smart area of BKK1 to eat cow guts. It was at a type of restaurant known in Khmer as pu ko tuk prahok (cow stomach with prahok sauce).

It was Saturday night and the place was rammed. There were people sat around on mopeds watching every chopstick, and waiting for tables to clear, and still more people kept arriving. We sat down on a wooden bench next to a cook barbecuing steak, and joined the queue. Not that there was a queue, or line, if you speak Ameringlish  - people dived in if you weren’t quick enough.

Ten minutes later we were perched on two seats opposite an old Cambodian man who was merrily stuffing himself with intestines and cans of ABC - a hideously-strong local stout. He smiled as we sat down and Alin ordered away.

The first dish came in the time it took the waiter to walk 20 steps from the wooden boards where the cooks were chopping with blinding speed. It was grilled sirloin steak, served medium-rare and cut into thick slices. It came with bowls of grey prahok sauce (tuk prahok), lemon grass, red chillies, ground peanuts, lime quarters, and a plate of vegetables that she called a “Cambodian salad” - slices of green tomatoes, green bananas, culantro, and raw aubergines.

Then the star dish arrived - cubes of liver, sliced intestines, and strips of tripe, all simmered in beef stock. It was wonderful. We sat there dipping the offal into the cheesy, fermented fish sauce, and then the owner came over to chat to the only white face in there.

He was a rich Cambodian who lived in New Zealand, and his parents had set up the restaurant 20 years ago when the area was a dark ghetto and not the gentrified, boutique-filled strip it is today. He looked on proudly as more Cambodians arrived, waiting for tables to clear.

The next stop was a bustling street food stall outside Orussey Market, near the Olympic Stadium, that Alin said sold the best fertilised duck eggs (balut) in Phnom Penh. They were 18-days-old - the best age, she said. Not too ancient to develop too bony a crunch, and not too young to be beakless.

The eggs had been steamed over a charcoal burner, and were piping hot. We held them with paper napkins as we cracked open the shells and looked at the strange life form inside. I’d tried them before, but hadn’t looked too closely. I’d just shut my eyes, whacked the thing in my mouth, and swallowed as quickly as I could, trying to banish the thought of dark feathers tickling my tonsils, and beak crunching between my teeth. Then I downed a tequila.

This time I was determined to conquer my squeamishness. I sipped the brown liquor from the shell as instructed. It had a curious taste similar to duck stock and was delicious once you allowed yourself to forget about the alien beneath.

Then I spooned out a chunk of embryo head, crowned with feathers, and dipped it in garlic and chilli pickle (again as instructed) - followed by a couple of sprigs of a bitter-tasting herb that Alin called chi bong tia korne (fertilised duck egg herb) - and then another morsel of yellowy-brown foetus.

The unborn chick had a flavour that I found difficult to describe. It tasted a little like scrambled egg and had a soufflé-like texture. Then I crunched on the beak and tried to hide the thought of what I was eating from the rest of my mind.

As soon as I’d finished, Alin pointed to the second egg, and I got to work on that one too. It was far from unpleasant - reflected in the way young couples on surrounding tables were enthusiastically studying each flavour and nodding appreciately.

But it made me realise just how different people’s tastes vary from East to West. There was no way they’d take off as a street food snack in London, however good they tasted. I’d seen the same look on Khmer people’s faces when I’d given them mayonnaise.

:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Reviews Of Down And Out In South East Asia

Well, my new book Down And Out In South East Asia has been out for a week or so now, and I’ve been very pleased - not to say hugely relieved - with the reviews so far.  Even from people I didn’t pay to write them (I’m joking of course - my ‘marketing budget’ wouldn’t keep Jay Rayner in L’Oreal shampoo for a week).

It’s the sequel to my bestselling food book Down And Out In Padstow And London, and tells the story of how failed chef and hack Lennie Nash sets off to eat his way through SE Asia, with a half-baked plan to buy a restaurant.

Along the way, he encounters a host of weird characters from frazzled bar owners to Walter Mitty CIA agents to seedy sexpats to ice zombies four years over on their visa. The book is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

There is an edited extract on Khmer 440 if you fancy a read - where Nash launches a doner kebab business in Cambodia with mixed results...

But anyway, here are the reviews I’ve had so far...

Chris How: “I loved this book, and it made me slightly ashamed of my own rather pedestrian gustatory experiences in Asia. This is no hippie-dippie 'how I found myself in Asia' travelogue: Alex shows us the darker, grittier side of life in another world, generously spiced with well-researched helpings of real Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking.

“I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Asian food or travel.”

Christian Williams: “Down and Out In South East Asia is a great read from start to finish. It takes you from the grim reality of 'The Hill' with its truly bizarre characters to the food markets of Vietnam and Cambodia, where some of the best eating is to be found.

“Finishing the book made me look into a holiday in South East Asia and I might just do it, but I will be giving 'The Hill' a wide berth.”

Claire: “In Down and Out, would-be chef Lennie navigates a precarious path in his quest to set up his own restaurant in a place in the sun.

“Whilst this travelogue follows the usual backpacker circuit of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia (the standard destinations for those 'doing Asia'), Down and Out stands out in that it takes you well off of the culinary beaten track and the staple dishes that feature in your Lonely Planet guide food section.

“Your taste buds tingle from the exotic flavours and street foods that Lennie seeks out with sweaty determination, tempting even the most seasoned traveller to want return to take a braver step in their digestive exploration of this part of the world.

“But as always, the longer you stay, the more you see, and Lennie has his mettle tested in this seemingly exotic idyll by its less attractive underbelly made up of a strange collection of misfits who have long since lost their grasp of reality and in some cases, their moral compass, if they ever had one.”

Chippy: “Thankfully it wasn't quite as bleak as 'London and Padstow' (which isn't to say I didn't love that one too). I'm looking forward to Lennie's next adventure.”

Friday, May 17, 2013

Restaurants And The Dangers Of Using Google Translate

I just heard a rather charming tale about a group of British pensioners who have just returned from a week’s holiday in northern Italy.

One night they went to eat at a small, family-run restaurant in the hills outside Florence. The owner could speak no English, but proudly translated his menu to them using Google Translate.

But it seems he got a trifle carried away after they’d left, and sent them this message to thank them for their custom...

:: My new, bestselling food book Down And Out In South East Asia is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Down And Out In South East Asia

Well it’s finally done. The book I mean. If you enjoyed my bestselling food book Down And Out In Padstow And London, about cooking in restaurants in the UK and the larger-than-life characters that inhabit them, then hopefully you’ll like the sequel Down And Out In South East Asia.

It sees the return of failed chef and hack Lennie Nash - this time setting off to eat his way through SE Asia, with a half-baked plan to buy a restaurant. 

Along the way, Lennie encounters a host of weird characters from frazzled bar owners to Walter Mitty CIA agents to seedy sexpats to ice zombies four years over on their visa.

The book is an adventure story, spiked with a heavy dose of backpacker noir, through the eateries, street food stalls, and hazy bars of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Anyway, I’d be delighted if you read it. It’s only out as a Kindle book to start with, and costs £1.99 - about the price of half a lager in the UK now, I’m told. Go on, you’ll have a lovely warm glow inside knowing you’ve kept me in noodles for another day...CLICK HERE