Archive for February, 2009

Finding supporting content doesn’t get taffa than this!

Having just watched the Masterchef  final where Mssrs Wallace and Torode crowned (though with that trophy branded might be more appropriate) family man and Beaminster resident Mat Follas the winner, I headed over to the beeb site for more post TV buzz/come down.  The BBC homepage had nothing, ditto the /two page, the /food page is as quiet as the grave and /masterchef redirects to one of those SSI API cobbled together programme pages. Sadly I knew this would probably be the case. It’s a shame because this is the grand final of the series, a series which w/e 15th February was the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 7th most watched programme on BBC Two according to BARB, and last night got 4.7 million viewers, Not too shabby then.

Meanwhile over at the Guardian WoM page it was all kicking off with live blogging by Anna P and over three pages of comments, jokes and observations. There’s even Masterchef bingo cards. After the show The Mail had a story up, as did the METRO. The wikipedia page was updated at 9:16pm and even Thisisnorthdevon.co.uk updated it’s page about local boy Andy Oliver loosing for Gods sake! Yet the beeb had nothing to see. 

There’s two things to consider here. The Guardian has, of late, done a nice line in articles, blogging, and commenting on mainstream TV shows. It’s been quietly hoovering up small pockets of interested folk and no doubt keeping some of them along the way.  It’s been doing this for Channel 4 TV shows too. Emily Bell must be thrilled. Secondly, despite the BBC (and others) banging on about connecting with viewers interests and wanting to ‘own the watercooler chat’ moment, they’re not, because The Big G (and bloggers) are doing it very very well indeed.

It’s the same thing with University Challenge Final on Monday.  All the hullaballoo about Gail Trimble et al, the BBC could have had those eyeballs, comments and page impressions (and love her/loathe her debate).  ‘Course in my day the argument was ‘we don’t have the tools’, well that’s not true anymore, the Beeb’s actually got it’s blogging kit in place. I know budgets are finite but still. These things are pre-recorded just as a drama is, it must be possible to create some content around them? A ‘tonight’s TV page’ perhaps? I think someone’s missing a trick, and more importantly audience, and it’s not the Guardian. 

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Kirstie’s Lost Ring

Kirstie
Tragedy has befallen the House of Allsop. The poor luv’s lost her engagement ring.  She popped out to Hackney M&S during a shoot and had lost it by the time she returned to the set. But where to start looking? Well, Cash Xchange on Mare Street would be my first line of enquiry, followed by the other Pawn brokers in E8. 

This picture was taken in Hackney two days ago…

The reward’s a cool £1000 and perhaps even a lock of her hair. And Kirsty if you can’t find it I’m sure my friend Luke can make a replacement. 

 

 

Kirsties Lost Ring.

Is it time to reboot the restaurant critique?

 

Let’s see if you’re Saturday morning resembles this… You’re low on milk, so play thumb war to see who goes to the corner shop where the loser also gets the Guardian. Upon returning you play a sort of gin rummy with each of the sections, holding in your ‘hand’ the Travel, Guide and Magazine, and pretending to read all three. You’ve got to be quick with the later though as its in demand. You glance at Hugh’s recipes and skim read Norman’s restaurant review. You ignore the gardening section; see if you’ve actually been to the place in Let’s Move To… before casting the whole lot back onto the table and finishing your coffee. With newspapers and breakfast thus consumed, the day begins. 

But let’s stop and look at one of those things for a minute – the restaurant review. In my recent visits to Belle House and Bell’s Diner, as well as Iberico world tapas last year, I got to see first hand the effect and aftermath one of Norman’s reviews can have and it started me thinking about the whole ‘critic review’ genre.

Let me make it clear I have not eaten a normal meal in any of those establishments, simply interviewed and filmed the chef or owners. But I want to look at the content of the restaurant review as well as its structure. Finally I’m not deliberately singling Norman out in this, I use him merely as an example of the genre with my thoughts applying to all, however I do believe there are some issues which are Guardian, rather than Norman specific.

1. One man’s meat… To begin then, what is the purpose of a restaurant critic? Jay Rayner gives a good account of the profession in this recent article “Our job is not to sell restaurants, it is to sell newspapers. By which I mean, we are not employed because, necessarily, we know the most about food or restaurants – though we do know a lot – but because we can write about it in an entertaining manner which will keep people reading.”

This post by Jeremy Iggers goes into some depth about why the profession might be on the skids. Of particular note is point two “nowadays the public is much more knowledgeable about food, and much more skeptical about what they read in newspapers.” How very true, and so if we’re all clued up on cuisine, at least those of us that care enough to read a review anyway, what else is left but the opportunity for the writer to wax lyrical on everything else but the food?

2. One of everything please. Can any review ever claim to be extensive? Menus change, ingredients change, and unless the critic goes in with a large group of friends it’s not possible to cover every dish on the menu surely. What if the one they didn’t order was totally brilliant?  The critic’s answer to this is ‘well I’m just an ordinary person and this is the experience that they would have’ only I don’t think that holds water. A critic is going in heavily tooled up with knowledge and comparisons. A punter is going in for an entirely other reason, be that a date, anniversary or meeting.

3. A picture paints a thousand words… unless it’s a restaurant review. The accompanying image is always, always, a deserted shot of the establishment, with maybe a blurry waiter crossing the floor. It’s tell you bugger all about the food, and not much more about the venue. As some one who knows a thing or two about photography I can tell you this style of image is a bland unstimulating space filler, it is pictorial polenta without even the butter or parmesan cheese. Often the lens isn’t wide enough to get more than a table in, and let’s face it, most tables are the same; flat, wooden, with cutlery and empty wine glasses on top.  Yawn. Here’s some lovely examples of what I mean from a selection of papers.

 

 

Very occasionally there’s a shot of the chef, or the kitchen, or the exterior, but that’s only if the review has been kind (as in this round up). Compare this to someone like Chris from Cheese and biscuits who photographs what’s put in front of him. Sure they’re dark and a bit blurry because, mindful of his dining companions he probably doesn’t want the flash going off – very considerate. Even a dark poorly lit image like this communicates so much more than the burred waiter generic.

4. The prose. Restaurant magazine used to have a wonderful statto analysis of each of the big reviewers broken down into the following sections. ‘themselves’, ‘the food’ and ‘random waffle’. I think AA Gill always carried the least about the food and the most waffle. Then there’s the tone, the tenuous analogies, the bad jokes, the Ronnie Corbett-in-that-chair-style waffle that takes up three paragraphs. And when it’s not that it’s gushing praise, after all just how long can you keep saying nice things without it becoming dull, when it’s far easier to vent spleen.

5. The right of reply. The Guardian, unlike the Times and the Standard doesn’t enabled comments on the online versions of Norman’s reviews, this is utter madness, especially when nearly every post on Word of Mouth ends on a question practically begging readers to add a comment. What’s more the restaurant owners have little in the way of comeback publically, they are unable to take up specific points address in the piece by Norman. Often the local papers pick up on it and spin it as and ‘anti fancy London opinions’ piece. In the case of Belle House they received calls of support from the local community.

6. Here comes the technology!  I’ve already mentioned Chris, but there’s many other food bloggers like him (including me). When I spoke to David Waddington, one half of the partnership behind Flash at the Royal Academy. I came away with a sense that restaurant owners feel that bloggers are like foodie insurgents – they’re dangourous and they blend in with the civilians. In times past there were the ‘rules of engagement’. Front of house staff knew who to look out for, their names, photos and even mobile numbers were kept to hand and woe betide a waiter who didn’t clock them and tip off the kitchen sharpish.

Now we’re all at it there’s no fawning over critics, a situation Marina O’Loughlin witnessed when behind her cloak of secrecy. So does that then, make for a better review?  Add to this the aggregator services like Top Table and London Eating and it seems there’s plenty of other opinions and voices out there to listen to. What’s more although food blogger talk about restaurants, they also cover other subjects, painting a much richer picture.

7. It’s all about Location, location, location… as long as it’s in London. I’ve done some tabulating of my own and mapped all Mathew Norman’s reviews onto a Google map along with the score. As you can see out of 46 reviews from February 08 to February 09 he went outside the North/South circular a mere 14 times with the lion’s share of those in the Home Counties. This will come as no surprise to most regional chefs.


Those 14 reviews had an average score of 5.58. The 32 London places scored an average of 7.39.  All the critics in the Caterer article site Travel costs as a reason for staying in the home counties. Come on chaps, Virgin do London to Manchester for £9. National Express do London to York or Leeds for £12.50, all you have to do is book a few days in advance.  I know per head/square mile most eateries are in London, but come on, not all your readers live in Highbury (like me!)

Cheque please

I say all of the above as someone who produces words, images and video about food for a living, and my gripe is not with that. It’s just that I’m a bit bored with the traditional restaurant review, unlike the food scene it reports on it’s barely changed since Maschler first took up her pen over 30 odd years ago. The images are dull, the text riddled with waffle, invectives or gushing praise and the descriptions of the food don’t really entice me. I’m jaded with reading about what one person and their date ate for dinner and the bi-polar obsession with everything being either good or bad.

What about reviews of chip shops, tea shops, road side cafes, the cafes in our cultural institutions, football stadium food, what about exploring a different cuisine and culture each week, or eating only from the special’s board? I think there’s so much more to food discourse in the UK than the central London dining experience, this subject is narrow minded, elitist and heavily London centric and above I don’t think I’ve ever read a review that’s made me go ‘wow, I must go there’ (having thought on that some more I think Matthew Fort’s description of the Anchor and Hope came close). Restaurant provide a service, and it’s right and proper that people comment on the quality of that service, I just want it in a more interesting involving and less ego and bilious format, but then, that’s just me.

But for now I’ll end this post in a Guardian WoM stylee and ask you your thoughts on the role of the critic and can you/we/the media come up with something better?

Video off cuts: leftovers from the C4 pig project. Pt3.5

My travels with the channel 4 Pig have come to an end now. To recap, I got Tim Wilson of The Ginger Pig to cut up a side into the ten main cuts and then took those cuts to 10 chefs around the country. See part 1, 2 and um, 3.0 here.

Paul Askew, The London Carriage Works, Liverpool

Does this train stop at Merseyside? Asked Ian Prowse, lead singer of Amsterdam. Well the 10:07 from London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street is as near as damn it and so I set forth once more to the city on the mouth of the mighty Mersey.

I was back in town to meet up again is Paul Askew, Chef Patron of The London Carriage Works, the restaurant in the Hope Street Hotel. I’d met him before on the Big British Food map, and he spoke then about a loin of Duroc pork dish that he does.  So he seemed the perfect chap to handle the loin.

I got into town by 12:15, that West Coast Mainline upgrade meaning it really is possible to go to Liverpool for lunch. I left my stuff at reception and killed an hour around town. Liverpool’s really grown on me of late. It has more Georgian architecture that Bath apparently, which provided homes to the ‘Liverpool Gentleman (the opposite of the Manchester man). Stuart Marconie described scousers as the Basques of the north, and there’s always been an otherness about Merseyside.

An hour round Liverpool

Anyhow a walk round Hope Street took into a few interesting things. Firstly, I stumbled on Mackenzie’s tomb, which is the first line in the Amsterdam song quoted and linked to above . There’s more on the legend of Mackenzie here http://www.williammackenzie.co.uk, a legend of ghosts, gambling, body snatching, death and devilish pacts – wooooooooooooo!  Next, and slightly more food related, was this lunch board offering scouse for lunch. Nice to see the dish that gives scousers their name actually available in their city. (Read more on my search for scouse). I also took in a lovely old bookshop, and with that it was back to meet and film Paul.

 

Paul’s loin recipe is below, but it’s worth taking a look at one of the ingredients in greater detail. The natural jus as Paul calls it, is made a couple of times a week in a massive 500 litre sauce pan the size of a garden pond. Into this goes just about every bone, vegetable peeling and off cut from the last few days in the kitchen. To this they add herbs and spices and then simmer, very slowly for a very long time. Then they reduce and pass, reduce and pass until the whole thing is down to about 5 litres. What Paul has left is the most incredible sauce, it’s almost tar like in it’s appearance, and incredibly rich. Just a few trickles dressing the plate can add punch to any dish. If you want to try to make it at home… well don’t bother is the short answer – but if you want to I’m guess the recipe goes something like this. Go to a proper market or catering suppliers and buy the biggest pan they have. Next go to the butchers and get bones, off cuts and scraps of beef and chicken for next to nothing. Back home roast all the bones in a hot oven. Transfer to the pot, deglaze the tray and add a miropoix of vegetables. Add seasoning, perhaps some wine and then simmer for days…

Paul Askew’s Loin recipe & video demo (pop up)

Video off cuts: leftovers from the C4 pig project. Pt3

My travels with the channel 4 Pig have come to an end now. To recap, I got Tim Wilson of The Ginger Pig to cut up a side into the ten main cuts and then took those cuts to 10 chefs around the country.  I shot over an hour for each chef, which I edited down to 5mins for Channel 4. This left a fair bit on the cutting room floor so to speak, which it seems a shame to waste. So where possible they’ll be off cuts and scraps of video as well as some photos – It’s what the pig would have wanted.

 

Anthony Demetre, Arbutus. London

I’ve been a fan of Anthony’s restaurant for a long time, and so was mad keen to give him a bit of the pig. The cooking there is my style of food, simple, good strong flavours, not to much messing around. He’s also a good chef to talk about ‘the business’ too. I offered Anthony the shoulder to work with, and dropped it off a few days before hand.

SHOULDER - Anthony Demetre @ Arbutus
He’d originally wanted the head, but Hywel Jones had taken that part. Anthony also used the crackling as a garnish, but this didn’t make the final cut, so I present it here now, along with his thoughts on ragu’s and knives for your enjoyment.

 

 


Cracking crackling

 


Ragu guru Anthony gives us some knife knowledge 

There was so much meat on the shoulder that Anthony planned to make two dishes.  The first one was an Old Italian recipe, pork braised in white wine, sage, garlic and milk. The milk goes in an hour before the end, and as it cooks it sort of curdles and then goes golden – it’s a unique taste, and so time to make. I filmed Anthony prepping and putting it in the oven in the morning, ducked back in during a frantic lunch service to film him adding the milk, and then came back after lunch to film him plating up.

The second dish was a ragu, which wasn’t you gloopy read sauce, but much mroe delicate and featuring mint, anchovies and chilli, perhaps betraying Anthony’s Greek heritage, mint is used a lot in southern Med cooking.

Finally Anthony, like many of the chefs I visited, was rather impressed with Tim’s pork, saying it had a wonderful sweetness to it, which it does.

Anthony’s Milk braised pork shoulder recipe & video demo (pop up)

Anthony’s Pork shoulder Bolognaise recipe & video demo (pop up)

 

Video off cuts: leftovers from the C4 pig project. Pt2

My travels with the channel 4 Pig have come to an end now. To recap, I got Tim Wilson of The Ginger Pig to cut up a side into the ten main cuts and then took those cuts to 10 chefs around the country.  I shot over an hour for each chef, which I edited down to 5mins for Channel 4. This left a fair bit on the cutting room floor so to speak, which it seems a shame to waste. So where possible they’ll be off cuts and scraps of video as well as some photos – It’s what the pig would have wanted.

Next up, the West Country gets a visit when I stop in on Hywel Jones and Chris Wicks. Go west they say, I’ve always had a soft spot for the West Country having spent some of my early childhood in Wookey Hole.  

Chris Wicks, Bell’s Diner. Bristol

Chris Wicks was the first person to answer the phone when I began the ring-around to find chefs for this project. He said yes straight away, and when offered the choice of cuts, went straight for the belly – it’s where the flavour is. 

BELLY - Chris Wicks at Bell's Diner
Chris in his Kitchen

Chris was a man of few words, and an economy of movement, but then once in a while I’d get these little flashes of the person within. He said the word patience many times during the interview, and was calm and collected at all times. An example of this was during filming, when he was pushing the potatoes through a drum sieve and sales man for something came in and asked “are you the owner?” “Yes” replied Chris, “Is now a good time to talk?” said the sales man rather expectantly having clocked me filming Chris cooking. Now some one from the Ramsay mould would have replied ‘what do you think?!’ or ‘fuck off!’ but Chris just leveled him with a quiet simple “no”, and the guy sloped off. We had to re do the take mind.

In the video below Chris shows me a cartouche, a piece of baking parchment placed over any braised dish to help keep the meat submerged as well as allow the sauce to reduce. It also stops a skin forming on the surface. 

Recently Chris was on the receiving end of a mixed review from Matthew Norman from the Guardian, in which he said ‘be a more neighbourhood joint’ which strangely is the exact same thing he said to Belle House whom I also visited on this project. This is a real shame as Jay Rayner really enjoyed his time there in 2007 and Michelin describes it thus. So if I were Chris, I’d take his words with a slight pinch of salt. I asked Chris watch his plans were for 2009, “frugal is the watch word, keep things tight and add value for money, and finally look after people’.   On the subject of pork he says “The belly is simple to cook, has fantastic flavour and can be used in a variety of recipes. Put belly up against say fillet steak for flavour and belly wins everytime”. On cooking it he added wryly, I think pork over cooks very well! It’s very forgiving. Fattier cuts are more tastier and fat’s the key with pork”.

BELLY - Chris Wicks at Bell's Diner

Chris’ Braised belly pork recipe & video demo (pop up)

 

Hywel Jones, Lucknam Park Hotel, Wiltshire

Hywel Jones is a proud Welshman who left Wales to seek his fortune in London. He was at the famous (and now defunct) Coast restaurant during the 90s with Stephen Terry (where incidently Ben Tish from the Salt Yard was a commis at the same time). After having kids the green green grass of home called and he wanted to come back to Wales. He found the job of executive chef at Lucknam Park in Wiltshire allowed him to commute and he’s been there five years now.

HEAD- Hywel Jones @ Lucknam Park
Lucknam Park has a rich and interesting history

The hotel has had a great deal of love, attention and most importantly money poureded into it by it’s private owner. It’s a truly lovely location, with a long tree lined drive nearly a mile long leading to the house. Hywel and Sales Manager Rachel looked kindly looked after me during my time there.

When I first spoke to Hywel about the project, I was about to list the cuts still available to choose from but before I could he said “I’ll have the head”. To be honest I was glad as I thought the pig’s bonce was going to be the hardest to get rid of so gladly assigned it to him. It turns out that Anthony at Arbutus was keen on it too. Hywel wanted the head for two reasons; one, it’s a truly undervalued and cheap cut. A whole head can be had for £1.50. And two, I suspect it would allow him to demonstrate his cooking flare, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

HEAD- Hywel Jones @ Lucknam Park
The pig’s head

Now to all those who say “ewww I could never eat a pigs head” I say “you probably all ready have”. There’s meat on the head, and that meat makes it’s way into sausages, and as long as it’s good meat, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hywel had earlier this year taken delivery of two brand-new, state-of-the-art induction cookers. I’ve seen these before, namely in the kitchen’s of Flash, the temporary restaurant at the Royal Academy, but those were the plug in portable ones. This range was a brute, Hywel demonstrated them to me, which didn’t make the final channel 4 cut but is over interest and so I’ve included it below.

HEAD- Hywel Jones @ Lucknam Park
The finished dish

Finally I think Hywel’s recipe is obviously a show piece than mid week supper, but if any of you do attempt it, or even attempt to cook the pigs cheeks, please get in touch as I’d love to hear about it.

Hywel’s Compressed head of pork with Langoustines recipe & video demo

This Kangaroo is no more

CAPTION:  “I’m not dead… just buffering, honest – cough!

Lots in the media’s paper about this this morning. What a bloody mess, lots of public comments about how two massive high street banks can merge – fine – and that Ofcom thinks C4 and BBC Worldwide should merge – fine – but this isn’t allowed. Emily sums it up well I feel.

Here’s what I think. This report kicked off July last year, a lot has changed since then I reckon. We’ll see how this pans out but from here it looks like a blow to Brit media and to my friends who’ve worked on the project.

So all hopes are pinned on Project Marquee, or Project Canvas, the later “…requires BBC Trust approval but it’s hoped that the initiative will get under way by 2010″ (source) by which time the world will have turned again and they’ll be different hoops to jump through. You know when C4 built 4oD they got it out the door in about six months.  They say content drives technology, (the Coronation and TV take up) I reckon we won’t see a thing until… the Olympics?


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I've left it here for historical purposes. Please visit my new blog at www.foodjournalist.co.uk

DISCLAIMER

These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
February 2009
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