Why ‘No Shows’ are a no-no

ctjmzfnweaaz4sr2

No shows mean no money at the Samuel Fox

The other day James Duckett, chef-patron of the Samuel Fox Inn at Bradwell tweeted a picture of two empty tables at his North Derbyshire pub with the caption: “Two tables booked for Saturday night. #Noshow, no answering of phones, and we turned down other diners because of them! #Exasperating.”

It was, if anything, understatement. No shows mean loss of profit and can turn a busy evening into one which barely makes money. The Fox cannot rely on that much passing trade come 8pm on a dark Saturday night in the middle of the countryside. It’s estimated that no shows cost British restaurants up to £16 billion a year, although that does seem rather high.

That tweet struck a chord with me because in more than 25 years writing about food and restaurants for the Sheffield Star I often wrote stories castigating this bad practice. It seemed to come and go in waves. Often two couples would decide to go out but couldn’t agree on the restaurant. Both would book different places and make their minds up on the day.

Others were simply ignorant, very possibly not realising the financial damage they cause. Stung by a series of no shows, brothers Wayne and Jamie Bosworth, who then ran Rafters restaurant, waited until after closing time before ringing the number of one customer who failed to materialise. . “We said should we send the staff home yet?” remembers Jamie. “They were very apologetic.”

A couple of years ago, when reviewing, I rang the former Barretts Bistro at Hutcliffe Wood to book and was asked for my debit card details: number, name and security code. As well as that, they deducted a tenner per person from my card and would set that against the bill. I was most put out because I was planning a BYO dinner with garlic mushrooms and cheese soufflé, not a swanky suite at a five star hotel.

They had introduced the policy because in the space of a short time the tiny bistro had lost two tables of six and one of eight while other tables of four and six turned up as twos, said boss James Barrett.

Restaurants have to be careful. This sort of thing can put people off. So far, no one round here has followed the policy of Michelin three star Hong Kong restaurant Sushi Shikon by fining customers for cancelling, depending on how short a time they give (up to £350 per person). And more if fewer people turn up than booked!

Nor have British restaurants followed Copenhagen’s Noma where staff posted YouTube videos mocking absent customers. And one Australian restaurant took to naming and shaming people who failed to show.

Most restaurants are not high powered enough to demand customers book through an online agency or ask for as many details as Barretts Bistro demanded. Things should be taken on trust. Taking a mobile number is no guarantee, as James found. You simply programme the restaurant’s number into your phone and when the name flashes up, don’t answer. Perhaps he ought to ring on another line!

It is also, sadly, one way in which rivals can sabotage a business.

Taking a number can work both ways. Once, setting out to review a Sunday lunch, I was ten minutes into my journey when my mobile rang. It was the pub. The kitchen wiring had blown up. They wanted to tell me the best they could offer was sandwiches!

My worst cuppa, ever

ascension_(c)_erwin_vermeulen_(1)[1]

ascension_(c)_erwin_vermeulen_(1)[1]

This could have been the beach where I passed out  in a drunken stupor

THE SIGN read ‘Last Cup of Tea for 4,000 Miles’ and I was gagging for a cuppa. My last had been at RAF Brize Norton and the next, if we got there, would be in Port Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands. When it comes to the British military, refreshments aren’t quite British Airways standards, even though I had been flying in a VC10.

The next leg of the flight would be in a rattling, uncomfortable Hercules transport and the best you could hope for was a carton of orange juice and a packet of sandwiches.

It was March, 1983, coming up to the first anniversary of the Argentine invasion and I was on my way to the islands, representing the Sheffield Star, as a sort of ‘consolation prize.’ I’d missed the big event but not by much. My name had been put down for the one slot to represent the regional press and I’d come third. I was told to keep my bags packed and not go anywhere that Easter as the fleet sailed south.

I moved up one when the nominated reporter was flown home early from Ascension Island and Derek Hudson of the Yorkshire Post took his place. It was Derek who in the Upland Goose, the islands’ sole hotel, memorably saved the skin of the Daily Telegraph’s Max Hastings who had made himself unpopular with some fellow journalists.

Someone waved a bayonet around and Derek grabbed him with the words “This isn’t the time or place to kill Max Hastings.”

So that was why I was on Ascension and in a queue, about the only one not in uniform, for the NAAFI tent serving the tea. I was really looking forwards to it until I took a sip and spit it out onto the ground. Nearby squaddies looked on horrified.

I was to learn later that there was not enough fresh water on Ascension so it had been chlorinated like that in a swimming pool. There was no fresh milk either so it was powdered. And as soldiers invariably like their tea sweet it had been pre-sugared. It might have been a nice cup of tea by army standards but not mine.

After the NAAFI we were given a choice, a climb up Green Mountain, the highest point, or a trip to the free bar. I was still thirsty so opted out of the nature ramble.

I palled up with a squaddie and we drank and drank and drank. At some point we must have passed out for I found myself lying on the beach, waking up to hear a cultivated voice saying: “You chaps will get the most awful sunburn if you stay there.”

I opened my eyes to see a blazing sun up in the sky and an army chaplain looking down, concerned. My drinking partner, by now very red in the face, stirred. He did, indeed, get severe sunburn. I didn’t. I put it down to having a naturally oily skin and not drinking the tea.

A star has fallen

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage


So the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway is one of the unlucky 13 in Britain which has lost the Michelin star, held since 1998 and the only one in Sheffield. It made front page news in the Sheffield Telegraph. But how much does it really matter?

True, it must be a bitter disappointment to chef-patron Tessa Bramley and her long-term chef Nathan Smith, who has been there for every starry year. They are most probably the victim of changing fashions rather than falling standards because reviews of the food have been mostly good or excellent although service is reportedly wobbly.

Chefs at the top of their profession crave stars but they probably mean more in terms of kudos with their fellow chefs than to the average diner. Relatively few people read the Michelin Guide, certainly not in comparison to the Good Food Guide and Hardens, compiled from public reports rather than food inspectors.

It may be difficult to the public to appreciate how much stars mean to chefs and how they feel when they lose them. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 when he thought, wrongly, he had lost one of his three stars at the Cote d’Or in Saulieu. I have eaten there, sat next to his widow Dominique, and enjoyed the signature dish of frogs legs, garlic and parsley. Gordon Ramsay is said to have wept when he lost two stars at his New York restaurant, The London.

On the other hand, Skye Gyngell handed back her star at her café in a garden centre, Petersham Nurseries, because diners drawn there by the publicity expected glitzier surroundings. And in Sheffield Marcus Lane, who then owned Rafters, felt his Bib Gourmand (just below a star) put undue pressure on the kitchen and asked not to be considered the following year.

There is no doubt that winning a star brings customers. But that can mean more staff and more costs in keeping up the standards – and pricier food to match. Conversely, losing can cost. Forbes magazine quotes studies showing that dropping a star can halve sales. More than one restaurant has won a star and gone bust. There’s another factor. Michelin stars tend to turn restaurants into pricy, over-formal, reverential temples of food where people speak in hushed voices when eating should be a lively, gregarious, convivial and sensuous experience.

It is some years since I have eaten at the Old Vic, and then we had the night to ourselves, for my editor at the Sheffield Star felt few readers would be tempted by £40 a head lunches and £75 dinners. But it has been consistently good since I first went there (just six meals into my reviewing career!) shortly after it entered the Good Food Guide 27 years ago.

I have even cooked there. Once, for a story, I was a commis chef for the night (the lowest of the low) cooking samphire and vegetables to go with an amuse of cods cheeks. Tessa, on the pass, sent one of my plates back three times before judging it good enough. She was a kind but strict taskmistress. I was terrified there might be a food critic in that night!

Like any good restaurant, stories about the Old Vic abound. In the early days Tessa’s son Andrew, nicknamed ‘Lurch,’ would open the restaurant door (you rang the bell) and look you up and down as if to judge your worth. There is the story, probably apocryphal, of the loud pub landlord out dining who asked for a bitter to which the reply was: “Would that be bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?”

My favourite is of the late Michael Winner, reviewing for the Sunday Times, who on visiting the gents noticed a bowl of strawberries. He reached to pick one then wondered about the personal hygiene of previous visitors and desisted. Winner wickedly made much of this in his report, taking the wee-wee so to speak, but gave a favourable review.

For the Old Vic, losing that star may be the end of an era but it is not the end of the world.

The Old Vicarage

The Old Vicarage

Brown sauce – a short history

Some of my brown sauce

Some of my brown sauce

What could be more British than brown sauce on a bacon sandwich? So isn’t it a scandal that famous brands such as HP and Daddies are now owned by a bunch of Yanks, J J Heinz, and made in Holland? There is only one solution – make it yourself.

That’s what used to happen. Large households made their own sauces. Later, during the commercialisation of the High Street, sauces were brewed in each town by local manufacturers. HP began life in Nottinghamshire in the 1870s. Hammonds was made near Bradford and still gives its name to the Hammond Sauce Works Band although the factory has been pulled down. I think the sauce may still be available in Morrisons. OK started life in London in the late 1800s.

Gradually leading regional brands became national ones although sometimes they switched countries. Yorkshire Relish was established in Leeds as early as the 1830s and continues life in Donegal, Ireland, as YR Sauce in glass and plastic squeezy bottles.

Occasionally stories surface in the regional Press about ‘secret recipes’ being found in old factories although there isn’t much of a secret to the recipe, a combination of fruit, onion and spices cooked to a puree then thinned (but not too much) with vinegar and sweetened with sugar.

That doyenne of food writers Dorothy Hartley in her seminal work Food in England (1954) traces its origins to the shelters or cafes used by London cabmen in the mid-19th Century, each of which had its own version to pour on chops after a morning ‘pea souper.’

She gives a basic recipe as a pint of chopped shallots, clove of garlic, teaspoon each of salt and black pepper, tablespoon of sugar and mushroom ketchup boiled with water to a pulp. The café proprietor might add spices to his own preference. The mixture was then sieved, boiled again with a pint of vinegar and bottled.

This is very much the recipe I use today although the fruit is missing. I started making my own brown sauce because I found my wife’s HP sauce too thin, too sharp, too vinegary (and too American) and thought I could do better.

Luckily for me it was a fashion a few years ago for posh chefs to make their own brown sauce and I so particularly enjoyed the sauce at Cary Brown’s short-lived London Club restaurant on Surrey Street, Sheffield, that I acquired the recipe. I have no idea where Cary got it but I use it almost unchanged.

This is what you do. You need the following for 3-4 bottles of brown sauce.

450g cooking apples, peeled , cored and roughly chopped

110g dried prunes, diced

1 small onion, diced

400ml of malt vinegar

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons sea salt

240g of granulated sugar

Method:

  1. Put the apples, prunes and onions in a pan, jus cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer until soft.
  2. Blitz in processor (sieve for a smoother sauce), return to cleaned pan, add the rest of the ingredients, bring to boil again, and gently until you get the required consistency. This should take about one or two hours. One way to test is to stir with a wooden spoon and if you can see the metal at the bottom of the pan for a brief moment it is ready.
  3. Taste, adjusting vinegar, or more likely sugar, to the required sweetness and sharpness.
  4. Allow to cool briefly than funnel into cleaned and sterilised sauce jars (wash in soapy water, rinse and put in a hot oven for 20 mins. Boil the lids). It keeps for ages without refrigeration. Now who would have thought there would be so much history in a bottle of brown sauce?

About this blog

Yet another food blog? This one is based in Sheffield and is backed up by over a quarter of a century of writing about food and reviewing restaurants for the Sheffield Star.

Martin Dawes at work - eating in a restaurant

Martin Dawes at work – eating in a restaurant

The city and its surrounding area may not be gourmet nirvana but there is an awful lot that is good to eat here.

On The Star I used to have an expense account so it was not ultimately money from my own pocket which paid for some 1,400 dinners (and lunches and breakfasts) down the years. As I gave up reviewing in October 2015 it will be my own money now so reviews may not be as plentiful!

However I do enjoy eating out, cooking, foraging, pickling, preserving and discovering the history of food then writing about it so I shan’t run out of ideas.

And if you’d like to employ me and the missus on a ‘mystery diner’ basis I would be happy to help.

You can contact me at martin.dawes@live.co.uk or martindawes46@gmail.com or by phone on 07713 900 883.