Archive for the 'chefs' Category

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.

EPILOGUE

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.

dad_flowers

Michael Anthony Webb 1946 - 2009

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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.


This blog is no longer being updated

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
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