Monday, December 5, 2011

How to lose customers in 10 easy steps.

1. Open and new bar/restaurant.
2. Don't have a soft opening
3. Don't get organized for your very busy opening weekend. Run your open kitchen like a shithole. Wear jeans with your chef jacket.
4. Serve a customer a poorly cooked product.
5. When customer sends item back, position yourself so customer can hear what you say.
6. Pick up food with fingers and gnaw on it.
7. Pass food in your hands to waitress and insist she gnaws on it.
8. Pass food in your hand to another chef and insist he gnaws on it.
9. Repeat above with other staff.
10. Insist loudly that the product is fine. There's nothing wrong with it. The customer is an idiot. What's his problem.

To prove I am not an idiot I will explain what was wrong with the food, although this is not at all the point.

The offending dish was a portion of chicken wings with harrissa.
The wings arrived white, flabby, palid and with wingtip and quills still attached. Not an attractive look (even if you like chinese white-cooked chicken as I do). They were clearly not cooked long enough. This was proved by the fact they were impossible to separate with your hands. I mean impossible. I tried and tried to pull them apart, but the joints rebounded like a catapult. The knife and fork managed to get some flesh from the bones but the tendons were rubbery and unpleasant. It was a simple error of timing. The waitress was lovely and immediately offered for them to be cooked longer. I knew they would need another 30 minutes so declined. She immediately refunded the money. She was great. For what happened next refer to points 5 to 10 above.

Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves to be cut a lot of slack when recently opened and very busy. Accepting a mistake graciously is hugely impressive and always wins the day. But nobody wins from adopting the arrogance, attitude and aggression that this chef did. Not me as a customer and certainly not him as a businessman. What a shame.

By the way, the harissa was bland and too tomatoey, but the other dish I ordered, a kind of warm rillette of pheasant on toast, was superb.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

San Sebastian shows off

My recent visit to Bilbao and San Sebastian proved the widely held belief that this area is the best for counter-top tapas.
My favorite was a classic 'mar y montaña' (sea and mountain) combo of baked salt cod with a rossiñol mushroom ragout on top. Fantastic.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Three takes on breakfast

1. I'm a light breakfaster and seldom have more than a combination of the following:
Tea or coffee
Something sweet and pastry-like
Cereal with ricemilk.
So because of the glut in cherries at the moment for 1.95€ kg I made this lovely cherry coca for myself.

2. A few days later I was in my local coffee shop and had a craving for the wonderfully simple yet unique coca de vidre (glass cake).
Coca is the local Catalan version of pizza (they say it was the oirginal and pizza was a copy...we'll never know). It comes in sweet and savoury (see my other blog). For coca de vidre the dough is rolled out and then left to dry before covering with sugar and pinenuts. Once baked it is drizzled with anise liquor which glazes the sugar in the residual; heat. The result is brittle, crunchy, sweet and fragrant.

3. And now for the big one. My boss picked me up for a meeting at 10am and asked if I liked Callos (tripe). I lied and said I quite liked it.....not imagining what was about to happen. We went to a local no-frills barrio bar - all harsh strip lighting, melamine tables, bleeping fruit machines and blue and white tiles. A clattery, echoey place of function over style which was full of people (mostly men) scoffing tripe for elevenses and quaffing wine cut with gaseosa (weak lemonade). It was 10:30am ! I tried the tripe and battled valiantly to swallow three slithery, wobbly squares, but (excuse the pun) I couldn't stomach it. So my boss ate my portion too. People here breakfast very lightly at home, usually coffee and a biscuit, but then everybody hits the local bars for elevenses (almuerzo). It's ingrained in their DNA and performs as much a social function as it does a nutritional one. It's very common to see people drinking modest quantities of alcohol too, and yet drunkenness at night is something I've never seen here.Talk about cultural differences!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

XXL Montadito

A montadito in Spanish Tapas vernacular is usually a humble slice of bread topped with a variety of ingredients. These can be quite colourful and quite good, especially the warm toppings like asparagus rolled with cheese and ham, grilled chistora sausage, foie gras and pear. But I have kind of seen them all in my two years here (although I haven;t been to San Sebastian yet which apparently is montadito heaven).
But the XXL montadito at 15€ a serving is another story.
Olive oil coca bread topped with fresh grilled artichokes, onion fondue, melted local cheese and a perfectly grilled, sliced king scallop. It's become something of a star of the local tapas scene and I think it's worth the money too.

Monday, May 30, 2011

THE RISOTTO ENIGMA. A cheffy rant!

What is it with British chefs and Risotto? A recent (2010) visit back to my adopted city of Bristol showed that even some of the city’s top chefs just don't get it!


The first error the chef made was to keep his vegetable risotto vegetarian. In 15 years of professional cooking all my many attempts at producing a risotto made with vegetarian stock have failed. The problem with vegetarian stock is that it lacks depth and texture. Even essentially vegetable-based risotti such as the classic Venetian Risi Bisi (fresh, young, sweet peas and a chiffonade of lettuce) require the umami flavor and sticky collagen texture of a good chicken stock.
Umami is the Japanese word for the fifth taste. Back in the 50's a Japanese scientist produced research which indicated that, as well as sweet, salt, sour and bitter, our nervous systems detect a fifth taste which is best described as meaty/savory. This is naturally present in meats, fish, soy products, cheese, seaweed and mushrooms. It is this savoriness coupled with the stickiness of the collagen that is so essential in a risotto that contain as few ingredients as Risi Bisi, and was so absent from the risotto I ate here. As a result the whole thing was too sweet and too ‘shallow’ in taste.

The second error was that the rice was 'too cooked' (sic). By this I don't mean overcooked. Simply that it wasn't cooked to produce a true risotto result. The rice was swollen, soft and slightly fraying at the edges, with no residual bite, and no discernible central core. This usually arises from cooking the risotto too much at the pre cooking stage in order to save time. In a restaurant situation it is possible to take 10 minutes off the cooking time for a risotto, but you must not over-do this process; Proceed in the usual manner, sweating your ingredients in butter and oil and stirring in an equal volume of boiling stock to rice. Cook on high until fully absorbed (aprox 7 mins) then spread out on a tray to cool rapidly and evenly. The rice should still be mostly raw, hard and inedible but this is as far as you can go at this stage. When you finish the dish make sure to use boiling stock again and proceed as usual. It requires undivided attention.

The final error was the addition of the disc of baked goat cheese added to the dish as a garnish. This was probably a valiant attempt to introduce that extra umami boost usually supplied by the noble Parmesan. However it was misconceived and backfired. The heavy, cloying texture and overpowering flavor of the goat killed the dish, and only served to highlight the weakness in the rice base. It was like wading through treacle.


This is probably the worst attempt at a risotto I have ever witnessed…..and I say ‘witnessed’ because I had the misfortune to be shown this recipe by the out-going head chef of an establishment I had been brought in to rescue. His disastrous procedure was as follows:

How not to cook risotto:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Pour in 500g of risotto rice. Boil rapidly until cooked. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain and chill.
Saute garlic and finely chopped onions in olive oil.
Add peeled tiger prawns, cooked mussel meat and squid rings.
Sauté 2 minutes.
Add tomato concasse (peeled diced tomato flesh) and some cooked rice.
Add cream (*!?*), season and cook until hot. Add chopped parsley and serve.

The result was hideous as you can imagine….more akin to kedgeree or a savory rice pudding than risotto. The errors are many and varied….no stock is used to build flavor….the ingredients are cooked separately and merely combined in the final process etc. But the biggest misunderstanding in the procedure is the assumption that cream produces the creaminess so synonymous with a good risotto. This is NEVER the case!
Although risotto originates from North Italy where dairy products are prevalent, cream is never used to create the famous creaminess. This comes from starch, collagen and butter. The collagen has been explained already so lets address the starch and butter.
Classic risotto begins with some melted butter and olive oil as the base for sweating the garlic, onions and other ingredients. But the creaminess is mainly a product of the incessant stirring of the dish as it cooks. As you stir, layers of starch are rubbed off each grain of rice and dissolve in the stock. The more you stir, the more starch is rubbed off, and the creamier your resulting dish will be. The finishing touch is what the Italians call ‘mantecare’ whereby fresh butter is stirred in to the dish at the last minute. It must be fresh, whole butter so it maintains its emulsified structure and creates an even richer finish without becoming oily. This is the secret of true risotto texture.

You see Risotto is unique. No other rice dish is cooked with the same technique or the same variety of rice. Therefore the result is unique, and the problem with unique products is that anything short of the mark is by definition highly conspicuous. The second problem befalling the ‘wannabe’ risotto chef is the universal paradox of 'cucina povera' or poor mans food. Dishes that fall into this category result from an alchemy that transmutes very few simple ingredients into something that is much more than the sum of its parts. But you have very little leeway for compromise. If you leave out an ingredient, or a step in the method, you have nowhere to hide, you will be destroying the magic. The paradox is that simple food is not necessarily simple to produce well.
Sadly I seldom order risotto in restaurants because I know very few chefs understand the above principles, and I’d rather have beans on toast than bad risotto. But I still live in hope that with the huge advances in Uk gastronomy in the last 15 years, our ambitious and hard-working chefs will one day understand this Italian classic.