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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


The Ultra Local Box Scheme


The rise (and some might say fall) of the vegetable box scheme has been one of the hallmarks of the change in the way we get produce through our front doors in recent years.

The problem for me with box schemes however was not so much the lucky dip contents of the box*, but the ‘we’re in your area on Friday and can leave it by your door’ delivery. My front door is shared by two other households, and is 4ft from the street, there’s no garage, neighbour or porch to leave my valuable vegetables in. And so this is where, for me and indeed many others who aren’t at home during the day, the box scheme falls foul of the cheek by jowl nature of most residences in the capital.

There are something like 600 box schemes running in the UK today, and one of the newest is established in 2009 by Robert Baker. His scheme however, is a little different from the big boys like Riverford or Able and Cole. As well as being a lot smaller, it serves at present only one area of North London.

Last summer Robert took premises in an old building a mere mirror, signal and manoeuvre from the thundering thoroughfare that is the Holloway Road. The road, and the A1 it leads to lies at the end of a route for produce into London from the North since the Roman’s laid the first stone of Ermine Street.

Robert found a lot of producers were making night time runs into town to deliver to the wholesale markets, or shops. And so got them to drop stuff on on the way in. Customers browse his website, order what they want by the Thursday, then the orders are delivered on Saturday and Sunday, when most people stand a chance of being in. Delivery costs a few quid, but if there’s another residence in your street also signed up, it’s free.

Incidentally Tim Heywood did an interesting interview with Guy Watson from Riverford recently, where he talked about how relatively efficient lorries are at moving large amounts of produce about. What’s less efficient is the vans out delivering the boxes. Because of the smaller foot print of Robert’s business, and the fact it is, in his own words, ‘no frills’, he’s averaging eight drops an hour. The boxes meanwhile are just simple wooden fruit boxes, and maybe it’s just me, but people are less likely to sling out wooden things than cardboard or polystyrene?

But crucially you can go and pick your box up at a time that suits you, and not the other way round. When I first met Robert in the summer of 09 he’d just taken delivery of a fridge from M&S, and had a handful of customers on his books. Last week the place was packed with people nipping in and picking up their boxes.

He’s begun to carry items for sale directly now too, meaning existing customers who collect can top up, increasing amounts if needs be. This retail element also acts as a way to get people in off the street so Robert can explain the process and get a leaflet in their hand. On my last visit had like jeruselem artichokes, fresh herbs, celeriac, goose eggs, as well as more mainstream items like carrots, apples and spuds.

And so to cost. Robert’s admits he’s operating on small margins, but he also has very little overheads, so produce from him works out rather competitively.

2 x Quail £4.49
Lincs Poacher cheese £3.70 250g
British Beef Topside (everyday selection) £9.49 per KG

4 x Quail £6.50
Lincs poacher cheese £3.37 225g
Organic Topside from Beatbush Farm £9.49 per KG

That’s right, organic beef from Essex for the same price as Ocado’s budget range – a range I’ve nothing against, but the above goes to show that farm-direct doesn’t hit you in the pocket. And then there’s things that you never see in a super markets, such as wild garlic from Martin Mackey Ripple Farm Organics, Canterbury, Kent and a mere £1.35 for 90g, Marfona Potatoes, a haunch of venison, or the charming ‘3 chicken eggs and 3 duck eggs’, yours for £1.50.

Farm-direct does a great job of getting small producers products together in one space and selling them at a very competitive price to people who want them, including it seems, live chicks for a customers garden, you can’t see Ocado doing that can you?

Food Britannia off cuts: The first food blogger

Note: The follow is probably going to be cut from my forthcoming book – Food Britannia – for space and style reasons. However, rather than have it lie on the printing room floor as it were, I thought I’d post it here.  I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on it

The First Food Blogger.

Food, like football, fashion and philately, has enthusiasts; people who are interested in eating for eating’s sake rather than as a means to end. You’re probably one yourself, that’s why you’re reading this book. In the past to express a joy of eating earned the label of gourmand, and had vague associations with gluttony, pleasure in food was a sin. Few foodies these days would describe themselves as a gourmand, and those that do need a reality check. No, like many other hobbies the internet has allowed amateurs – in the original sense of the word, amour – to devote considerable time, effort and disposable income to exploring the world of food and telling us the results.  An awareness of food bloggers is now part of any eatery’s online strategy. Technology has allowed comments, photos, and opinions on what’s in their mouth to be broadcast before they’ve even finished chewing. Restaurants may fear this, but all that’s happening is a faster version of what people have always done, telling people about a good or a bad meal or cooking experience.

Back in 1995, we didn’t have mobile phones, let alone access to the internet, and multi-media meant typing a letter while listening to CD at the same time. What online activity there was was mainly confined to a few academic institutions and telephony companies. But the blokes (and it mainly was blokes back then) who used those early connections started asking and telling other each other where to get a good bite to eat. For younger readers and the less tech savvy, these conversation postings were all conducted on something call Usenet, which allowed like-minded folk gathered around a particular subject, think of them as proto-Facebook groups.

One of the earliest was on which Tim Duncan posted news of Daruma-Ya, a new Japanese restaurant opening in 1995. And where did this iconoclastic digitally-heralded opening take place? Not the Soho media land but on the docks of Leith, Edinburgh. Sadly Daruma-Ya didn’t survive, maybe Edinburgh wasn’t ready for the small clean refinement of Japanese cooking in 1995.

Another pioneer was Graham Trigg, who in 1994 inspired by the late Richard Binns’ French Travel books, put up a website.  “I started writing notes as dining out was expensive and as time passes all that’s left is a hazy memory and a receipt” says Graham. Graham’s background was in IT, and he was using a system called CIX, or Collaborative Information Exchange even before Usenet.  A project for the airline industry meant Graham had to understand web technology and how to build these new things called websites. Research, work and a personal interest came together. “My first Web site was built in early 1996 and reviewed 17 London restaurants” says Graham.

He also explored a few places outside the capital, for example eating both lunch and dinner at Gidleigh Park in Devon cooked by a 27 year old Michael Caines. The hotel was established by Paul Henderson and was one of the first to have a decent website, not doubt due to Paul coming from San Francisco to set up the place in 1977.

There’s some lovely reviews from the early days of ‘Cool Britannia’ British restaurateuring on Graham’s site. Think back to the mid 90s when the River Café seemed fresh, edgy and modern – Italian without the gingham tablecloths and canon-sized pepper mills. Graham has a 1996 review of lunch at La Tante Claire, then ran by Pierre Koffman, under whom Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing all work at various points. It’s now the site of Gordon Ramsay Hospital Road. He also has notes on Pied a Terre,  another early adopter with a website in the late 1990s. And to those that think fine dining is expensive, Peid a terre’s degastion menu in 2001 was £65 for eight courses, and in 2009 it’s £85 for 10. Not bad. Finally there’s a lovely review of the Walnut Tree in Wales.

All this is remarkable because all this wasn’t that long ago, and though a lot of the venues Graham visited have gone – Coast, Bank etc – many are still there. Now nearly every restaurant has a website, if only with a phone number on it. I asked Graham how restaurant’s website have changed over the years he’s been viewing them.  “In the early days there was too much style over substance and no consideration for the connection speed of the customers i.e. dial-up. The big problem [is] content not being kept up to date, but to be fair this was, and still is, a global web disease.”

Food Britannia – nearly finished

I’m three quarters of the way through possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life… writing my book.

It’s the reason why there’s been no update on here since November. However, today was the cover shoot, which was nice, and it’s also available for pre-order on Amazon.

Here’s a snap of one potential set up…

Food Britannia Cover Shoot

Now back to work, only another three weeks to go.

Lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

My wife and I didn’t have a wedding list, we were just happy that people came and had a good time. However, lots of people chose to buy us something which was very kind. The upshot was that we got things we wouldn’t have even thought of asking for.

Lunch at le Manoir

Such as the  generous gift from Susannah and Guy who gave us a voucher for lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons when we tied the knot way back in March. And so last Friday we found ourselves walking up the garden path for lunch in Raymond Blanc’s fabulously appointed country hotel.  The weather was a touch inclement but the home fires were burning bright inside as we sat down in the lounge with the menus and a glass of champagne.

Lunch at le Manoir

After we’d selected our food and blown the top of the fizz a small slate arrived with six Hors d’œuvres: Tartar of salmon on a shard of crunchy bread, tiny arancini, fondant something or other, a little beef tart, goats’ cheese wrapped in jelly with a dash of mint (this is the one on the spoon), and two anchovy fillets so tiny the chef must have filleted them with a microscope came on crunch shard of bread with drip of pesto.

Each of these limbered up our taste buds like Beckham’s touchline warm up in the 65th minute of an England game. And now ready for action we moved through into the dining room. We were sat in the conservatory, which given that we were eating early and the weather outside miserable lacked a little atmosphere, however is soon warmed up as more diners and guests arrived. The sommelier recommend an American Pinot Noir which was light in the mouth and just the sort of thing I like.

Lunch at le Manoir

A amuse bouche of mackerel with chorizo and a slice of new potato came first, which was very enjoyable, though the cake fork that came with it wasn’t quite up to the task of cutting the fish, so I dove in with my butter knife. This had already been put to use like a bricklayers trowel slathering various breads with some lovely butter, chief amongst them bacon bread, studded throughout with lardons.

Lunch at le Manoir

Starters proper duly arrived, pumpkin risotto with chestnuts and crispy bacon for me, and smooth duck liver parfait with a ‘crumble’ top for Kate. The risotto was creamy and unctuous, some seeds – were they from the same pumpkin? – came too which gave firmer bite. Saltiness was provided by some crisp ham. Kate’s parfait came in a shallow dish topped with tiny cubes of fried bread, and a salad of minted apples slices and leaves.

Lunch at le Manoir

Lunch at le Manoir

Mains were cod with squid, chicory and butternut squash for Kate and chicken with mash, bacon and garden vegetables. The cod dish won this round, with the squid was beautifully presented and cooked.  My chicken dish suffered only from the fact that we’re all over familiar with chicken nowadays. It was however a master class in meat and two veg, with the breast juicy and the mash smooth.  The thigh had been given some 2 star treatment by being boned out, stuffed, rolled and roasted. And as you’d expect the gravy was lovely. It was Sunday lunch essentially, a very good one.

Lunch at le Manoir

But zoot alores what’s this? The optional cheese course was offered in the French way before pudding and I took full advantage. Seconds later our waitress backed into view a cheese trolly so large I’m surprised it didn’t go ‘beep-boop! Warning cheese trolly reversing’ as she did so, it was huge. On top was a broad selection, and I duly went for the stronger ones; eposse, a blue one, a goat’s, I didn’t catch all the names.

Lunch at le Manoir

They were all French bar one or two from the UK and an Italian gorgonzola and here I feel I must reproach Monsieur Blanc. Unlike say, wine, surely with cheese Britain can at least compete – even beat – the French nowadays non? There are some lovely examples of immortalised milk available in the UK, Please Raymond, you’re cheese trolly has the room, a section of the UK’s finest would be a worthy addition.

Lunch at le Manoir Lunch at le Manoir

Puds were caramelised pear feuillete and chocolate tart with coffee bean ice-cream. Now the French know a think or two about pears, England we do apples, but pears like it a touch warmer. These came in a wonderful ginger sauce, with a quenelle of pear sorbet and slice of dried pear. The chocolate dish was devine, balancing bitter with sweet, and a good kick from the ice cream.

Lunch at le Manoir

The main business of the day taken care of we decanted once more to the lounge like people coming out of surgery into the recovery room. Here came some lovely petit fours and two coffees to sharpen me up for the drive home in the rain.  A token attempt to ‘walk it off’ was made as we had a nose round the veg patch. Here was Richard Edwards ‘valley au championions’, though I couldn’t find a single fungus there. Maybe they’d all been picked?

Lunch at le Manoir

Blanc’s just celebrated his 25th Year at la Manoir, that’s a long time in this business, and needless to say it is a very smooth and refined operation. Yet despite the history it remains a rather accessible and easy going experience. This was a very fine lunch, and I hope to return again, next time in better weather hopefully.

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

Saffron Walden haul

Saffron Walden late summer haul

Autumn, the best time of year visually, still warm, but with a nip in the air, and the best time for food in my book too.

A daytrip to Saffron Walden yealded some interesting foodie items, Walnut and apricot bread, beetroot, onions, squashes, fresh carrots, a bloomin’ great marrow, cavalo nero, a lettuce, local beer, local honey, some sorrel and two books. The Graham Kerr Cookbook by the Galloping Gormet  (Where’s his bio-pic BBC? He’s not dead yet granted, but you could get Martin Sheen to play him, look at the back story, it’s got everything!) And Eating and Drinking, a food anthology of prose poems and other bits and bobs all arranged under various headings.

The beer was slightly too yeasty for me, with not quite enough fizz, tasted a little, well dead to be honest. Flavour was right, but it just fell short of the mark. The honey was from Gerald Smith Honey of Stanleys Farm in the town and is so good I’ve put it in with roasting veg as well as had it on toast and in porridge.

soup and stock

The cavalo nero went into some chicken broth as a soup, love those bitter irony leaves. The other squashes, beetroots, carrots and the mahoosive marrow were roasted with a whole head of garlic and the onions to create literarly gallons of soup. Soup’s a favourite in our house at lunchtime, it’s hot, quick and in a mug you can eat it with one hand while holding the nipper.

Cavalo Nero soup

Finally the sorrel has appeared in salads and various other things, and there’s still loads left in the fridge.

The cabbage and the beer came from Sceptred Isle, the root veggies from a little ‘local &/or organic’ gazebo round the back of the town hall and the bread from a stall in the Market square. So in all, £20 the lot, not a bad autumnal haul.

Yay for the arrival of Autumn.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
June 2018
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