Archive for the 'Channel 4' Category

Pot Heston

In tonight’s episode of Heston’s Feasts things go back to the 70s. However that doesn’t mean a three day week, eating by candle lights, and the rubbish piled up in the street outside. Instead he’s concentrating on things such as Angel Delight, Smash, and Pot Noodle. Curry Flavour Pot Noodle was known as ‘Cuzzah Pot Noog’ in our house when I was a teenager, and formed part of a Friday night ritual. Of course eating pot noodle always left me looking like an Ood from Doctor Who, noodles all down my chin. Needless to say I’ve not had one for years, like acne and awkwardness with girls, Pot Noodles in my mind are a phase you go through. Unlike the rest of the series so far I’ve not seen a preview of this episode so it’ll be interesting to see what he does. (you can catch previous episodes on 4oD)

And next week, we’re in the 1980s, which to me means either nouvelle cuisine or the sexual chemistry of Anthony Head and a cup of Nescafe… But until then below are some PR shots of Heston’s 1970s Pot Heston.

Pot Heston

Heston making Pot Heston

Iron Chef UK

Culinary Super Heroes ready to take on all comers

Iron chef, the hit Japanese → US culinary cage fight is finally coming to Channel 4 on April 26th. This is a foodie ‘Battle Royale’ with pride -as well as £1000 – at stake. The format, for those of you that don’t know is thus. The four resident Iron Chefs – Tom Aikens, Martin Blunos, Judy Joo and Sanjay Dwivedi – take on challengers from kitchens all over the UK to create dishes that will impress ‘The Chairman’ and a table of judges. Ringmaster to the whole event is Olly Smith who does a commentary aided by Nick Nairn. This is food as sport.

Each hour-long bout has a main ingredient that must feature in the dishes, and whereas the four challengers create two starters and two mains, the Iron Chef has to create all four. From the preview episode I saw there’s tension and drama mixed with some Banzi style interjections from the chairman and Olly which offer some comic relief. It’s fun to watch, and will hopefully do well in that early evening slot.

To find out a bit more I had at chat with Iron Chef Sanjay Dwivedi about the show and his cooking. It’s obvious from the start that he really loved the challenge of Iron Chef. “What was amazing, and I think better than the American version, was the set. When I first saw it I was shocked. …. it looks sexy”.More than that though he hopes people will not only enjoy the contest, but also attempt the dishes at home. “It’s a fun cooking programme, where people can learn a lot as well”. I ask him what was the hardest challenge. “One of the secret ingredients I got was eggs, it was a tough one that one, I steamed a poached egg, and served it with truffles” And it seems the more mundane ingredients needed that something extra from the Iron Chefs. In one episode, Tom Aikens gets minced beef as his secret ingredient and his heart sinks, he does however rise to the challenge.

We move on to talk about Sanjay’s cooking. “I came from a strict French background, and my palatte was very European” He tells me that he didn’t really have a lot of indian friends, and that his partner is French. It’s a happy union of two food lovers “Food is such a big thing for us, it’s a big part of out spending money. Before we had the kids, what ever money I earned I spent on food.”

Sanjay Dwivedi at Zaika

Sanjay started in a consultancy role at Zaika when it opened in 1999, in 2005 he became head chef/patron. “I’d never cooked Indian food as a professional basis until I came here. So for example, I was the first the Indian restaurant to introduce a tasting menu, and I’ll do it with wine.  But because I came from that classical background I said why fucking not.  Now it’s the done thing, but think about it 12 years ago, it was a big risk”  Today he has a nine course gourmet menu, and a seven course tasting menu, and now it accounts for nearly 50% of orders.

On the unique history of Indian food in the UK Sanjay says this. “Why did Indian food become popular? Simply because it was cheap, it was edible, you could abuse the waiters, and it was the only place that would serve you [booze] after 11 o’clock apart from Chinatown! Now why was it cheap? Because they used the cheapest cuts of meat – battery chicken – with some red colouring and lots of spices so you’re not tasting anything, you’re just eating.”

He acknowledges however and businessmen behind the endevour. “The thing is they’re the clever ones, who at the end of the day saw a niche in the market, all these owners, uneducated, who perhaps couldn’t speak much English, but with their hard work, drive a Mercedes everyday and buy another house.”

It’s an sterotypical flock wallpapered image we’re all familiar with, and a world away from a restaurant like Sanjay’s “you need to taste what you pay for, you pay for your scallops, your chicken, your lamb, You don’t pay for your fucking spices, because believe me, for £17.50 you’ll have a bag of spice that’ll last you a year!”

Naan at Zaika

We move into the kitchen where the staff are getting ready for the evening’s service, It’s a fantastically mixed bunch of Nepalese, Chinese, and Indian. On a low hob there’s a massive cauldron of chicken stock reducing. The usual bird carcasses and veg are joined by cardamon pods and other spices.  I pause to admire the tandoori ovens while one of the staff makes me a naan flavoured with goats cheese. I’m forever impressed at the skill of the tandoori oven, getting bread to stick on the sides without falling off or getting stuck takes real skill. Sanjay and I have just enough time for a whistle stop tour of his stores and fridges before the printer spurts out the first cheque of the evening and the staff step it up a notch. I jokingly ask for my naan to takeaway, and the staff kindly wrap it for me, brilliant.

If you’re a fan of ‘contest’ style cookery shows with a table spoon of Japanese oddity, then Iron Chef UK will hit you square between the eyes.

Iron Chef starts on the 26th April 2010 on Channel 4. If you missed it you can catch it on 4oD

Goodbye Dad

Yesterday was my father’s funeral. My Dad was a cook and chef nearly all his working life. He entered the Navy, after a troubled upbringing, at the age of 16 starting as an assistant cook. Travelling the world on HMS Tiger, Victorious, Lincoln, Excellent and others he rose through cook to become leading cook, until marriage and thoughts of me came along.

His record reads ‘Webb is a capable and excellent leading cook, though he does have some problem with authority.” In civvy street he managed and cooked in the Model Inn in Cardiff (now a dog rough pub), the Kings Arms in Swindon, the George and Dragon in Andover as the Barley Mow near Channel 4 and the Anchor by Tate Modern, then just an old power station.

After half a pint of rum a day in the navy and a life behind the bar and dealing with the heat and stresses of the kitchen it’d be an understatement to say he had a fondness for a drink. Alcoholism is a seldom-addressed occupational hazard in the hospitality industry. Indeed Keith Floyd’s recent documentary and passing struck a major chord with me, I felt so sorry for his daughter. But unlike Floyd my dad was never a drunk, never nasty or spiteful, never unkempt or dishevelled. Booze fuelled the patter, and the patter meant the customer paid handsomely and went home happy.

After my parents divorced in 1985 my Dad drifted down to the West Country. Here as an agency chef he did any number of jobs, from hotels to staff kitchens in large factories. There was even a spell at a fish and chip shop where in the summer of1991 me and my mate Christian, between O levels and A levels spent eight weeks frying fish, drinking heavily and trying to loose our virginity. I remember dropping 5kg blocks of dripping into boiling fat with a hangover and trying not to get scalded. One Dad deciding that the curry sauce supplied was shit and that he was going to make his own ‘special’ sauce. I went up to the deli and bought a fist full of dried bird’s eye chillies, and other curry powders. We made a sauce so powerful we jokingly sold it with a health warning. Blokes loved it.

And now I find myself back in the West Country for his funeral. I’d arranged to have lunch with my sister and brother-in-law before hand, so they’d be no rumbling stomachs during the eulogy. They’d set of at 5am from Buxton and I at 9 from London with only a slice of toast inside me,  so by noon we were all a little peckish. My sister wanted to visit River Cottage canteen, being a big fan of Hugh. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant, last time I was there the canteen was more a café vibe, and the weather being so foul, wet and cold we fancied a proper lunch.

Thankfully they’ve moved the café element to the front of the shop and beefed up the restaurant feel in the back (though still incredibly casual). Maybe they always did this and my mind’s playing tricks… anyway. Tim Maddams was at the pass so I had a chat about when I visited River Cottage as part of the Food Map and other small talk before asking ‘What’s good today then?’ ‘Well I’ve got two rabbits in, I was going to put them on as a special, they’re not even on the menu board yet”. He fetched them from the oven for us to have a look at. They beauties were slowly braising in a wine stock with heaps of thyme, onion and garlic and just two or three dried chillies for a tiny nip of heat. The bunnies themselves were practically snared by some lovely streaky bacon and some salty, meaty chunks of salami in there too. One sniff and I said “sold, we’ll have ’em.”.

river cottage canteen mussels

My sister doesn’t eat much meat. She went veggie in the early 90s as a protest to intensive animal farming and cruelty. Lately she’s been coming round to wild food, believing if it’s had a good free life and is shot quickly (as well as having the opportunity to escape) then she’ll give it a go.  Being a family not afraid to get stuck and all of us hungry from early starts we also ordered a main of mussels between the three of us as a starter. Though they were plump and incredibly juicy, and the sauce good, they were but the warm up act to the headlining brace of bunnies.

River cottage canteen rabbits

These came in with great fanfare and looks of astonishment from the fellow diners, especially the two timid souls at the table next to us who’d order burgers. Now I’m sure River Cottage Canteen burgers are good an all, but talk about a culinary equivalent of  lights-off-missionary-position. Our rabbits came whole on a RC branded chopping board, with the pan juices in a little jug. With that came a big bowl of decent fluffy mash, and a side of buttered greens, some lovely chard if I’m not mistaken.

“Here you go, and one of you gets to be mum’ said the waitress as she put it down. Our Mum not being here I duly dived in. The rabbit was tender enough to pop apart with our regular knives and forks, and we set about it.

the end of River Cottage Canteen Rabbits

What followed was a fitting and wonderful meal and a worthy of a send off for my Dad. We washed it all down with a couple of bottle of stinger ale and by the time we’d finished the table looked like someone had napalmed the set of Watership down. We left cheered by the joy of living and family and sharing and headed for Yeovil Crem.

Bye Dad.


Those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you) will know my penchant for taking home the bones of meals and making stock. I did it at Hawksmoor, and again at St John, so obviously the skeletons of these I took back to the pass and Tim very kindly wrapped them in tin foil. The stock went on when I got back to London.


Michael Anthony Webb 1946 - 2009

The BBFM makes the AOP shortlist

Channel 4 at the AOP awards

Wooo! I’m very pleased to say that the Big British Food Map has made the shortlist of the Association of Online Publishers 2009 Awards. It’s in the commercial partnership category.  As you may be aware Ford sponsored the project, lending me at brand new Ford Focus econetic which I only dented once (this tree came out of nowhere type thing).

I’m up against:

Accenture ‘Need to Know’ – News International
AutoTrader Vehicle Check – Trader Media Group
Big British Food Map – Channel 4 (woooo!)
Guardian and Nissan Qashqai – Guardian News & Media
Guardian and Renault – Guardian News & Media
Guardian and Robert Mondavi – Guardian News & Media
Jack Daniels & – IPC Media
Mirror Cashback in partnership with V A C Media – Trinity Mirror
New Scientist ‘Visions of the Future’ in association with Microsoft – RBI

Hmm, strong showing from the Guardian there, that might be tough to beat. Incidentally Sunday just gone was the day I started the Big British Food Map, in fact this time last year I was getting clamped.

Anyway, Fingers crossed for AOP glory and good luck to the other Channel 4 projects and products in the other categories.

The judgement of Melton Mowbray

Last Tuesday the saw me bound for Melton Mowbray and the first ever British Pie Awards. The region makes a good claim to be the epicenter of pie making in the UK, being home to the now PGI protected Melton Mowbray Pork pie. Indeed so keen are the fathers of the town to promote its food heritage that the town bills itself as the rural capital of food, a strap line I think it actually deserves.

The competition was held in the parish church of St Mary’s, the spring sunshine streamed in through the stained glass windows and caught the bunting brilliantly; you couldn’t have asked for a more vivid portrait of the heart of England. Before things kicked off the Rector of the church, Peter Hooper, blessed the pies. And then with a loud clap from the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Assoc. Chairman Matthew O’Callaghan the judges were off. Doing the tasting were Sheila Dillon, Phil Vickery, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Xanthe Clay, Sophie Conran, Louis Massarella, Simon Majumdar and a host of retired and serving butchers and bakers who brought some local colour and experience to the proceedings.

The 38 judges armed with knives, folks and spoons were all set to work there way through the 511 entries from all corners of the UK, with over 300 of them being judged hot. The logistics of getting the right pie and it’s accompanying paperwork to the right judge all in a consistent flow down in no small part to the skill of the organizers and the students from the local catering college who were press ganged in to help.

From my interviewing of the judges the problem of soggy bottoms were hampering most results. I saw rather too much raw or undercooked pastry for my liking and entries for next year would be wise to ensure a firm base of any pie they submit. There were also a lot of pie that had boil over (not always a bad thing in my opinion – see video above), and I even saw one or two pies that were submitted with burnt bottoms and in one case a burnt top.

The day wore on and by 5pm we had a winners list. Matthew called the assembled judges and competitors to order and we all took a pew in the church and listened to Rachel Green read a short ‘ode to the pie’. Then Sheila Dillon took to the pulpit to announce the winner.

You can see the winners list here, and it makes interesting reading. You’ll notice that pies available in the supermarkets did rather well, including the champion of champions produced for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range by Walker’s Charnwood Bakery. A closer look reveals it isn’t so much wins for Sainsbury’s or Tesco but Samworth Brothers who own Walker’s Charnwood, Ginster’s and Dickinson and Morris. So for pork pies at least it seems that the supermarkets (which are only resellers remember) are indeed sourcing well-made tasty products for their premium lines. Scotland too did well, taking gold in a number of catagories, including best football pie by MacDougall and Hastie for the tiny club of  Clachnacuddin FC in Inverness; a true case of giant slaying worthy of an FA Cup 4th round.

Afterwards we all decanted to the pub, where I had a chat with the winning master pie maker Ian who’s worked at Walker’s Charnwood for over 20 years. In a town like Melton Mowbray there’s a fair amount of rivalry around pies and I voiced the opinion that the very worst the region can do now would be to descend into infighting and local spats about who’s in best. Just as there’s no one definitive champagne, there is no one definitive pork pie. Yes Ian’s won this year, and all credit to him as he made a really good pie by all accounts, but each of the producers both large and small have their subtle differences. It’s all down to taste and preference and they can all work together to take the pride and heritage out to a wider audience.

Britain has few food successes that make it into permanently the national consciousness, let alone beyond our borders. The modern pie – like the sausage – is a product for the masses and as such is produced to a set unit price. It has been debased and reduced to a poor imitation of it’s former pre-industrial glory. But when made well, a pie is a thing of beauty and is one of the few foods popular through out the British Isles. I really do hope these awards grow and that the event becomes something like the Great British Bear festival, a celebration of the joy of pies.

Media training for chefs, some top tips

Andrew Pern at The Star at Harome

An example of how to do it well, Andrew Pern at the Star in Harome

Tony Naylor’s column in this month’s Restaurant magazine debates the pros and cons of chefs letting TV cameras into their kitchens. [abridged as I can’t find it online: Great British Menu is worth doing] Now, as someone who has spent many an hour filming in hot, confined kitchens on behalf of Channel 4 I’ve a few points of my own to add, see below. Furthermore the magazine’s lead article charts the rise of a new batch of young talented chefs, and any chef starting out now would be wise to think about some media training alongside ‘sous-vide for beginners’.

It’s highly likely that your first experience of having a journalist with a camera in your kitchen will be someone like me, from a predominantly online background. Video on the web is cheaper and quicker, and though it may hit a smaller audience, it hits the right one. After all they’ve actively chosen to watch the clip unlike the 30 souls in an old people’s home watching Jenny Bond who you’ll never convert into customers. All the major ISPs and portals as well as broadcasters are commissioning more and more video; short clips under five minutes tightly focused on a particular dish work very well with an accompanying recipe. It’s a nice easy way to loose your cherry and see if it’s for you rather than committing yourself to something you may not like.

I use a Canon HV-30 with a Panasonic wide-angle lens and external hand held mic, so I can get good and close to the action and fill the frame which is what I want. The advantage of this over a full TV production crew is that I’m faster and take up less space in your underground lair. Telly, as anyone who’s ever worked in it will tell you, can take ages to film. Video on the web isn’t broadcast quality, but therein lies its charm.

So here are my tips for chefs both young and old when I come calling with my camera.

Tidy up before hand. It sounds obvious but you’d be amazed how disorganised even the best-run kitchens can look on camera. For God’s sake get rid of the clutter. I’ve found the best time to film is in the dead hours from 3 – 5pm, when the brigade has cleaned down after lunch service but not yet started dinner. Give everyone, especially the kitchen porter, a ciggy break as the mics can pick up the tinny sound of jet washed cutlery from 20 yards away. If possible kill the extractors and any particularly rattle-prone fridges and freezers while shooting, remembering of course to turn them on again after takes; the Human ear screens these low ambient sounds out, the microphone does not.

Be yourself. You’d be amazed how many chefs, these lions of the range, become lambs when the camera turns over, much to the enjoyment of the rest of the brigade who enjoy seeing the boss squirm a little infront of the lens. Don’t try and act all Ramsay, just be yourself and speak in clear complete sentences. Most professionals from surgeons to chefs to street sweepers aren’t very good at telling people what they’re doing whilst they’re doing it. There’s nothing worse that someone saying ‘and now’ – long pause as the ingredient is added – ‘we add’ – much stirring – ‘the rice’. That’ll be really hard to edit down to what might is simple stage in the recipe. Do steps in complete motions and tell the camera what you’re doing as you’re doing it clearly and coherently.

Tongs and boards. Most chefs I’ve met cook with their hands, but most people at home don’t and pushing and prodding food with your paws looks odd and even unhygienic on camera. Use tongs to move items around the pan and a clean spoon for tasting each time, (but never speak with your mouthful!). Make sure you use the right coloured board for the right ingredient. You should be doing this anyway, but when your mind’s on a dozen other things both you and I might not pick it up and it only takes one call from ‘disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ to derail things. Also make sure it’s your best one and not covered in knife marks and scratches. In fact use my visit as an excuse to tap up the owner for some new gear, nothing looks as bad on camera as a close up shot of a beautiful ingredient on a manky old chopping board.

Let there be light. Nine times out of ten kitchens are in the basement and often poorly lit by a single strip light. This’ll present a problem for the camera so consider removing the plastic housing for the duration of the shoot. Getting film lights, and indeed tripods and things into kitchens is difficult in my experience so if lighting is really bad consider demonstration the bulk of the recipe actions in a brighter part of the kitchen or even out in the restaurant. I’ve been in kitchens where the lights under the hood have blown, use this as an excuse to replace them. Beware of pass lamps though, they’re incredibly yellow and make everything look weird, dial them down a bit if possible.

It’s never done that before. It’s inevitable that your signature dish you’ve cooked a million times goes tits up in the presence of a camera. I’ve had sauce bottle tops come off spilling all over the dish, undercooked mullet en papillote and leaky pastry work. It happens, so make sure you’ve got an understudy waiting in the wings. Also if your dish has a slow cooked element like a pie filling or long braise, use the Blue Peter method and prepare one earlier, neither of us wants to sit around for eight hours while something casseroles.

Finally… Remember also that the whole thing wants to edit down to around five minutes, by the time I’ve said who I am and where I am, and you’ve said hello and told us what you’re going to make and ran through the raw ingredients, we’re two minutes in. It’s quick, clear, confident actions that I’m after, and talking on camera is something that everyone thinks is easy but is actually very hard.

I love filming real working chefs. It’s a chance to take viewers through the doors and behind the pass of real restaurants. When done right it can ensure that customers gain a better understanding of how a dish they might have been eating for years is made. When it goes wrong you and your establishment (and me) can look a bit crap. Take advice from me about what to say and what to do, but don’t be afraid to suggest things, this is your kitchen and you know it inside out. Once it’s published follow it up, put a link to the video on your own website (what do you mean you’ve not got one?!) and tell your friends to watch it. And finally, try to enjoy it and have fun. If you don’t, it’ll come across on camera, and the camera never lies.

4oD (Catchup) on a mac – epilogue.

Launched waaaaaay back in Novemeber 2006, 4oD (well the catchup service at least) is now finally available for Macs. All mac users now see the ‘sorry’ ad pre-roll above and let’s hope the apology is excepted ;-). Some stats from Pipes show that 6.7% of viewers were Mac users in the past weeks, and my posts on 4oD (here and here) are some of the most read on this blog.

The online video world has changed much since 4oD came to life on that dark autumnal night. The quick replacement of the desktop client option with the streamed-in-a-browser version of both the iPlayer and 4oD Catch-up has been interesting, i doubt anyone saw that being popular.  From my own point of view I’ve never watched a downloaded programme using the iPlayer mac client, I downloaded a handful, but kept forgetting to watch them and they all expired.

So what about the future? Well, it seems we’ve not got a new and interesting distribution model, now all we need is to change the programme format. In this on-demand streaming age, why stick to 6x30mins?

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
February 2020
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