Archive for the 'media' Category

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

How did the cat take the news?

You’re a hack at a provincial Scottish paper, then a daughter of your parish goes global and you snag the interview of the century with local lass turned instant megastar Susan Boyle. And you ask the question ‘You have a cat called Pebbles, er, how did she take the news?’ hahaha. Well done Richard Mooney, no wonder local journalism is on the skids.

Anyhow, now there’s rumours of Elaine Page dueting with Susan, which means it simply has to be ‘I know him so well’.

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?

Eating Eurovision

Occupying my spare time for the next few weeks is my latest project, Eating Eurovision. The premise? Can 25 food bloggers eat the cuisine of the 25 Eurovision finalists in 25 hours all within the M25?

If you want to join up, get yourself along to our Ning group. Should be good fun, now I wonder which country I’ll get…?

More lacklustre front pages at the Independent

Crap Indi front page image

CAPTION: “Sell Pan-Am shares!”

Hell’s teeth when did you last see a financial computery screen as old as that? The press release of the movie Wall Street I’ll wager.  That image is so old it’s probably out of copyright and so cost nothing for the hard up Indi. You would have thought with the global financial apocalypse the wires would be awash with finance imagery.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, few things in life are as shit as the Independent’s front pages.

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?

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