There by the skin of my teeth

I ONLY got to judge Radio Sheffield’s chef cum celebrity cook off this Bank Holiday weekend at the city’s food festival by the skin of my teeth – literally. I was having the two front teggies replaced by implants but not until after the contest. Then disaster! The temporary falsies snapped and the standby teeth shot out every time I sneezed.

A food critic is no good without his gnashers but luckily my dental surgeon got them fitted in time.

It was fun. The radio station’s presenters Paulette Edwards and Steve Bailey were paired with two of Sheffield’s finest, Lee Mangles, late of Silversmiths, now at the Lawn View Clubhouse, and Luke Durkan from Craft & Dough, respectively.

Both chefs had 20 minutes to cook up a dish with celebrity help, or hindrance in the case of Luke, from a box of mystery ingredients. I was a little surprised they didn’t have the same ingredients. 

Lee had a baby rack of lamb which he finished off as three chops, served with spinach and an ace onion jam, made there and then. Nice but he wasn’t given any rosemary and the pressure of time (or helper Paulette) lost marks because the broad beans hadn’t been skinned. They weren’t young or tender enough to eat unskinned.

Luke’s fillet of Moss Valley pork won the day on taste and a clever little orange, garlic and chilli sauce, even though Steve lost half the orange zest while prepping.

It genuinely was close and while I was there by the skin of my teeth poor Lee lost through the skin of his beans!

Paulette, Lee, Steve and Luke cook like fury at Radio Sheffield’s cooknoff

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Don’t duff up my prawn cocktail!

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This is what a prawn cocktail should look like

 
I’M not sure which chef first took prawn cocktail out of a cocktail glass and onto a plate but he deserves to have his liver gently sautéed as punishment. You eat first with your eyes and no matter how you dress it up, once you give the glass the old heave-ho you’re left with a pink splodge.

 I still remember the giant prawn cocktails served up some years ago at the Yorkshire Bridge Inn at Ladybower. They were famous for it. Later it was reborn as the hipsterish crayfish with avocado.

 Restaurant kitchens are constantly reinventing. I’m all for that. It’s when a chef offers a ‘deconstructed dish’ of a classic that I reach for my coat. Some dishes you just don’t mess with and this is one.

 Now a slight smirk might be starting to form on your face as you read this. After all, isn’t prawn cocktail supposed to be retro, a hark back to the Sixties and Fanny Cradock, Berni Inns, Abigail’s Party and cheese on a stick? And wasn’t there a cookery book called The Prawn Cocktail Years to celebrate it in an ironical way? There was, by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham.

 It may be a girlie starter but I have quite a soft spot for the prawn cocktail and I’m in good company. So has Herman Blumenthal. But, for me, it’s going too far to add avocado, as he does, which should stick to being guacamole. For me it’s just prawns, crispy lettuce, Marie Rose sauce and a cherry tomato plus a good dusting of paprika.

 So who is guilty of duffing up the prawn cocktail? Once a chef does something new, the rest follow like lemmings. Gary Rhodes? He was a great deconstructionist. But it could be someone even more famous. A chef I respect gave me a clue when I ordered prawn cocktail, got a splodge on a plate and sent a pained word back to the kitchen asking why they’d run out of glasses.

 The waiter came back with the message: “Chef says if it’s good enough for Gordon Ramsay it’s good enough for him.” Well expletive deleted Mr Ramsay, you’re not the one eating my prawn cocktail.

 There’s a bit of a mystery about where it originated. Probably America, where they call prawns shrimps, but I don’t buy the story that a Californian Gold Rush miner dunked his oysters in a drained whisky glass with Tabasco and ketchup and called it an oyster cocktail. From oysters to prawns (or shrimps) was but a short step. Too pat, too neat.

 There may be something in the suggestion that restaurants during Prohibition years used up their redundant wine and cocktail glasses as dishes for prawn cocktail.

 Over here, Berni Inns (the forerunners of Beefeater) did not invent the dish but certainly popularised it. Fanny Cradock was not the inventor, either, although she memorably described a poor one as a ‘sordid little offering . . . a tired prawn drooping disconsolately over the edge of the glass like a debutante at the end of her first ball.’

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Not what I’d call a prawn cocktail

 Americans had bathed their prawns in a mix of horseradish, tomato ketchup and chilli sauce. We were more restrained but the posh sounding Marie Rose sauce was nothing more that tomato sauce and mayonnaise, albeit with a squeeze of lemon (fellow blogger and Masterchef contender Craig Harris used lime when he ran and cheffed at The Peaks at Castleton} and a shake of Tabasco.

 These days it is getting harder and harder to find a prawn cocktail in a wine glass. At the otherwise classy and fishy Wensleydale Heifer it arrived looking like it had been turfed out of its container by a lobster in a strop. It was no better at the fishily famous Magpie café in Whitby: a mess on a plate.

I once had one artistically laid out on a slate. It was like Eric Morecambe’s Grieg’s Piano Concerto: all the right ingredients but not in the right order. So these days I ask first: Is it in a glass? If not, I’ll pass.

 

 

Still not a proper job?

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Alistair Myers – wants to put a glitz on service (picture from Staff Canteen)

My post on National Waiters Day struck a chord with one leading member of the restaurant trade who would love to get more recognition for those who serve in front of the kitchen door. Here’s how he made it and what he wants to do next.

WHEN Alistair Myers was hauled before his head of year at Tapton School and asked why he wasn’t staying on for Sixth Form and university he told her he wanted to work in hotels and restaurants. “That’s not a proper job,” she countered but he dug his heels in and left at 16.

Today the co-owner (with chef Tom Lawson) and Maitre D of award-winning Rafters restaurant, on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, has twice seen that teacher as a dinner guest but she has failed to recognise him. Surely, I say, the temptation must be to gently remind her how wrong she was. He shakes his head. His job is all about “creating memories for people and having a red carpet experience.” That might put the damper on the evening.

The trouble is, Tapton and other schools are still saying the same thing 17 years on. With National Waiters Day approaching (May 16) he’d love to enthuse other young Alistairs with a passion for the hospitality industry and talk to their fifth formers. Instead, he is either ignored or told ‘We’d love you and Tom to talk to our Sixth Form.” But that’s too late. He’s got to grab ‘em younger.

If you wonder why British hotels, restaurants and cafes are staffed with young Europeans it’s because in this country the hospitality industry, unless you’re a star chef, is still not seen as a proper job, as it is on the Continent. People mistake service for servility.

The industry is too often seen as somewhere to go if you’re not good enough for anything else or something you just fall into. Few are as driven as Alistair – luckily he had supportive parents who backed him to the hilt – who quickly glided upwards in his career. Mind you, that teacher wasn’t the only one who knocked him back. When he inquired about the catering course at Castle College he was told the waiting side of the course only involved one day a week. “We’ll make you a chef,” they told him. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” he says.

But where had this unlikely passion for the hospitality business come from? At Tapton he had to do his work experience and was given a list. He noticed Trust House Forte’s then crumbling Hallam Tower Hotel was on it, not far from home. He was lazy. “I thought I could ride down on my BMX and be back home in time for tea.”

He found he loved it, particularly when one evening the restaurant was a waiter short and Alistair volunteered, even though it was against the terms of work experience. It was cash in hand and the industry had got him for life. He got a buzz out of making people happy. “If we have an unhappy customer here that can ruin my night.”

If Castle couldn’t or wouldn’t help – he stresses things are so much different now at the renamed Sheffield College – he found his own career path through a multi-skilled apprenticeship at the former Beauchief Hotel, then the Rutland and Aston Hall Hotels before striking gold at Rowley’s. There Michelin-starred Max Fischer of Baslow Hall, its big brother restaurant, recognised Alistair’s talent and he was made restaurant manager at 23. And it was there he met chef Tom, with whom he struck up a friendship and what was to prove a working partnership.

Between them they ran the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley before taking over Rafters, one of the area’s top restaurants, from Marcus Lane in 2013. “I knew I was going to buy my own place, I just thought it would be a pub,” he grins.

It’s from here that he is anxious to find the next generation of service staff. It could be a battle. “People will say my compliments to the chef but seldom to the waiters. And when they come they all want to be sommeliers – the new rock stars of the restaurant business – but don’t know from which side to lay a plate or how to crumb a table.” They are at the right place if they want to know about wine: last year Alistair became the city’s first certified sommelier.

Alistair, who is 31, leaves nothing to chance. The system is still in its infancy but customers likes and dislikes are recorded and new bookings are researched. That’s how they spotted the Michelin inspector. The last time we went to Rafters Alistair recalled my wife’s love of hake. So had he logged that? “I don’t know how but I just know some things. I only wish I could remember some of the things my wife Toni tells me!” They have a son, Oscar.

The staff are encouraged to get involved in the running of the restaurant. Rafters has a ‘creative hub’ where they can brainstorm ideas. Half an hour before service the waiters and waitresses are briefed on who is coming and how to treat them. On a recent Friday he noticed he’d got a ‘Valentines Night’ ahead, almost all tables of two. Tom looked baffled as Alistair asked staff to just be a little louder to create more of a buzz that evening then retreated to his kitchen and let him get on with it.

Did it work? “The tips jar was full,” he says.

http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk
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Pigging out with Smithy

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Pork belly at Thyme Cafe

I RECALL a few years ago that chef Richard Smith got a bit of a kicking from some London critic who had been to review his then flagship (now deceased) restaurant, Thyme, in Crosspool. There were the usual clichés – yawn – about being Northern, the Full Monty, Sheffield steel and, the killer punch, Sheffield Portions.

 The point being that the food being served up was not London portions, dainty little bits of food which left you hungry, but plates which left you feeling stuffed. Well, you don’t have to eat it all, advice my wife and I should have taken after a bit of a blowout at Thyme once when we had eaten so much we had to find a friendly wall to hold us up when we left.

 Smithy was a bit perplexed by the criticism. Sheffield folk liked Value For Money and that meant big potions, he said. I told him not to bother and he didn’t.

 I’m thinking all this after failing to finish my Saturday lunch pork belly with mash (£15) at Thyme Café, the sprog of Thyme, in Broomhill. Mr Smith shares the running and ownership of this restaurant with the self-effacing Adrian Cooling, who always left it to his partner to handle the publicity.

 Perhaps it’s my age but I don’t eat as much these days. Or it really is a big portion. Whenever I see pork belly on the menu I am drawn to it like a moth to the flame and must have reviewed dozens of them. While Thyme Café never seems to get into the guides, this pork belly is up there with the best of them: a satisfyingly brittle and generous shard of crackling, exceptionally tender and flavoursome meat, silky cum crunchy grain mustard mash, sweet roast carrots, a slice of black pudding, good cider gravy and, the only jarring note, severely undercooked green beans. I’d hoped by now this fad for super-crunchy veg was over.

 In the end I was defeated but not substantially. It was then I’d noticed that a girl at the next table had taken delivery of a cheeseburger with trimmings the size of the Isle of Wight while her friends were eating chicken Caesar salads, although they were almost of Mam Tor proportions. She got halfway through it then, wisely you might think, swapped it for a friend’s salad.

 My wife was having chicken (£16), a whole chicken breast rubbed with the Arab spice mix za’atar, stuffed with an olivey mix, served with couscous, fried breadcrumbed cubes of feta (note to try this at home), red pepper, roast courgette, butternut squash, almonds and mint. You might think this enough but the kitchen thought it was ‘a bit dry’ said the restaurant manager, announcing it would also be swerved with dollops of hummus and tzatziki. I tasted the chicken and it was good.

 I was surprised she finished it and then had room for a pudding. I didn’t. But they gave me a spoon. It was a quietly superb almond tart (£6) with an excellent pastry case, warm, slightly sticky almond filling and topped with apricot compote, or as the menu would have it, tea-infused apricots. It was a paragon of puddings which would not have been out of place at the old Thyme. I’m just sorry I was too stuffed to think of taking a picture of it.

 I complimented the kitchen on the tart and got a friendly wave from the larder chef responsible. The bill for food was £37. When I was reviewing I had a special rating for VFM. This would have got five.

 

You guys want meanies? No problem

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Cartoon courtesy of Comic Kingdom


It is National Waiters Day on 16 May but I assume that covers both sexes. In honour of the day here are a few memorable experiences provided by those who wait on.

THE waitress scuttled crablike to our table, arms outstretched as she put down my plate of lamb shank as gingerly as possible. Then she shot back with relief. “Whatever is the matter?” I asked. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said. This was a girl in completely the wrong job.

If she treated the food with disgust, what was the customer to think? Unlike the veggie waitress I got chatting to in a lovely fish and chip café in Hunstanton, Norfolk. “All I can eat here are peas and the occasional chip,” she said brightly.

I do seem to have trouble with lamb shank, a favourite of bistros in the Nineties, cooked long and slow and low until the meat is falling off the bone. At least, that’s the theory. In another Sheffield restaurant when I cut into mine it was decidedly raw. Naturally I complained, pointing out to the waitress the blood in the centre.

“No it’s not, it’s a trick of the light,” she claimed. The meal did not proceed sastisfactorily. Shortly afterwards the place was sold to a very good chef I was friendly with. “Those ovens, they couldn’t get up to cooking temperature,” he confided. Which explained my undercooked shank.

I have had waiting staff do a runner on me. Once was in France when my wife was served up langoustines, one of which was so rotten and off you could see it black with pus. I summoned the waitress, a slip of a girl, but did not quite have the right French words. “Cette langoustine est tres, tres, tres mort!” She fled to the kitchen where Monsieur le chef was called out. He shrugged. We bridled. But there were complimentary glasses of Grand Marnier to follow.

In a smart enoteca in the middle of Rome the whole waiting staff suddenly decamped to the kitchen in an instant, understandable because a gunman wearing a large red bandana over his face and toting a big black pistol suddenly came through the door. He wanted our wallets but he was not having mine. I played the English and stupid cards.

Waiting staff are supposed to be part of the hospitality industry but you would never know it at one hotel in the middle of Bakewell, now under different ownership. We walked in to dine past reception, down a corridor and into the restaurant passing at least half a dozen staff all of whom passed us silently avoiding eye contact. What a welcome by part of the hospitality industry!

So did the single waitress working overtime in the crowded dining room, avoiding our gaze until I coughed pointedly. She found us a table and gave us our menus, without a word. What a pity we ordered dishes she had neglected to mention were off the menu.

Waitresses – and it does seem to be mostly women and girls who wait at table – have done this a lot to me during my reviewing career. I took it as part of my job to review the front of house staff as much as the kitchen because they are the face of the restaurant. And good service can make up for defects in the kitchen.

Part of a waiter’s or waitress’s job is to know the menu and, ideally, to have eaten it so they are knowledgeable. I always asked some damn fool or idle question to see if they were up to the mark and had been listening when the chef explained it to them.

One chef I knew was so keen on his chicken three ways (roasted, poached and moussed) that he had rung me up to tell me in the hope of a paragraph in the paper. I obliged, then went to taste it. How did the chef do his chicken? I asked the girl. She paused then blagged, “He’ll do it any way you want.” Well, full marks for chutzpah.

I have had food slopped all over my jacket by inattentive waiting staff and my wife nearly had her foot speared by a knife dropped by an elderly waiter.

Of course, I have only given you the bad bits because they are the most entertaining. I have had excellent service over the years and it is always a pleasure to see it well done, so that you almost don’t notice it, rather than overdone.

You know the sort of thing – being asked what you want to drink before your bum hits the seat, asked to decide on the wine before you’ve chosen the food and zooming up to the table to inquire if all is well with the meal after you’ve just had the first mouthful.

I always hate, and this is a generational thing, my wife and I being referred to as ‘You Guys.’ One of us isn’t.  It is an awful Americanism. And being told ‘No Problem’ about almost anything.

Sometimes there is a language problem with so many Europeans in British restaurants and hotels these days. But the biggest one we ever had was with an American waitress working over here. She asked if we wanted any Meanies. We looked blank. She had several attempts before it clicked. She meant mayonnaise!

We’ll end with an accolade, to the long-gone Italian ristorante I reviewed in the Eighties when my tie (who wears one now?) dropped into the tomato sauce. It was whisked away, cleaned, dried and presented to me clean, fresh, pressed and dry at the end of the meal, free of charge. I still have no idea how they did it.