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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Yankees – no longer Doodle Dandy

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Yankees closed just before Christmas

IT only slowly dawned on me that Yankees, the burger place on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, had closed down just before Christmas, after 37 years. That’s pretty good going in a business where the average life expectancy is three years. But many will be sad to see it go.

A sign on the door said they were closed for refurbishment but that’s the one thing you don’t do on the run up to Christmas! Now there’s a sign saying the place is for let. 

I’d eaten there professionally and off duty over the years but hadn’t been in for quite some time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Tempted in by a new pulled pork and smoked ribs menu I found a table only to be told it wasn’t on that night – despite the banners on the railings outside promising otherwise. So, as I had a review to do, I upped and left.

Despite its age Yankees wasn’t the first American style burger restaurant in Sheffield. That honour went to Uncle Sam’s, further up the road towards town, opened by Ron Barton on July 4, 1971. It was quite a sensation at the time but it wasn’t until the other end of the decade that brothers Peter and Michael Freeman opened Yankees on the corner with Thompson Road in May, 1979.

Uncle Sam’s, still alive and kicking,  was the one with the overhead railway, Yankee’s the place with that cheeky poster of that girl tennis player with the bare bum. Both could tell tales of families where the parents had first eaten there as students and brought their own kids back.

I have no idea why Yankees closed but there is a lot of competition about these days. Chances are if a new place opens it’s either burgers or pizza, which is pretty depressing if you like your food and want a choice.

But Yankees helped to blaze a trail. Surprising as it might seem now, back then burgers, unless you had that uniquely British pattie at a Wimpy Bar, were rare. What Uncle Sam’s and Yankees were offering were bigger, tastier and (so it seemed) more American. It was no accident both were on Ecclesall Road, the city’s most upmarket street.

Then – don ‘t laugh – we called Ecclesall Road the ‘Bond Street of the North’ because there were so many boutiques. Now they have become takeaways and restaurants so, again, the two places were ahead of the curve.

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That poster – it was Uncle Sam’s with the overhead railway

Last rites for the Tom Dip?

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Bacon sandwich with Tom Dip

SOMETIMES things we eat are so inconsequential or taken for granted that when tastes change they slip unnoticed into the culinary waste bin of life. Then it is ages before anyone realises. I suspect that is likely to happen to Sheffield ‘s tomato dip – hardly a dish, certainly not a recipe, more a sort of breakfast afterthought.

 For a Tom Dip you take a bacon sandwich, baptise the underside of the top slice in a pot of bubbling tinned tomatoes on the stove and assemble your sandwich. That is it. Sometimes you can dispense with the sandwich. A slice of toast can be a tomato dip.

 It was once in every workmen’s cafe. It was so ubiquitous there was even a cafe called the Tomato Dip, with a bright red tomato on the fascia board, on Charles Street, below Arundel Gate. It is now called Wellies and Tom Dip is not on the menu.

 There are Sheffield people today who have never heard of it, just as they have never heard of polony, that sausage for which the city was once nationally famous. I asked around and got blank looks. But it is not yet last rites for the Tom Dip.

 You can find it at the Hard Hat Café on Duke Street, on the hot sandwich menu at £1.05, sandwiched between the fried egg and the chip buttie. No bacon is involved but this is how the dish was originally designed: for those who couldn’t afford bacon.

 You can also order it at Sarni’s, that cosy little café tucked away off the High Street in Aldine Court, guilty of severe apostrophe abuse but lovely all-day breakfasts, although Tom Dip is not advertised on the menu. Ask for it and the privilege costs an extra 20p so a tin of tomatoes must be the cafe’s heftiest earner!

 According to the chatty cook quite a few regulars order it. “If they’re dieting they just have it with toast,” she said, serving up a breadcake, the top half smeared in tomato, with a couple of slices of bacon. Some customers just like the juice, others the tomato lumps.

 I thought it might be a generational thing but Sarni’s also has a 14-year-old regular for the Tom Dip who has been eating it since she was four.

 So what does the dip have over a splodge of red sauce, particularly Heinz? Nowt. Unless it’s a Tom Dip a la Brian Turner, with olive oil, onions and garlic, it doesn’t cut the mustard, so to speak, with this eater (although Tom Dip lovers on the Sheffield Forum website point out the long simmering concentrates the tomato). But that really doesn’t matter.

 We are what we choose to eat. And every time you order Tom Dip you are making a quiet statement – I’m northern, I’m from Sheffield, this is what we do – and keeping a tradition alive. And please don’t tell anyone I’m originally from Norfolk!

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Sarni’s is tucked away in Aldine Court

 

Road to Rio (with a lot of coconut)

Mini picanha churrasco at Las Iguanas

Mini picanha churrasco for starters

So hello from Rio! It’s Carioca time. There’s a glass of caipirinha in my hand, Bahian coconut chicken on my plate and bossa nova on the sound system. Party on.

I wish.

Actually, apart from the location the rest is correct. I can’t quite run to the Copacabana so my road to Rio is a window table at Brazilian-themed restaurant Las Iguanas on a bright if breezy day at Sheffield’s West One. A girl sashays by outside in a coat not a bikini.

You won’t have missed the fact that there is an awful lot of sport, as well as coffee, in Brazil right now, what with the Olympics. You might have missed the fact that this is the Las Iguanas chain’s 25th anniversary. So that you don’t they’ve got a special menu on until the end of August.

Put on your loudest shirt, skimpiest skirt and don’t forget the flip-flops and have two courses and a drink for £17 (or three for £20) and be a carioca, a Brazilian party animal.

Now you could never accuse me and the missus of being party animals but we take the opportunity to pop in at lunchtime. We’re met by manager Hugo and it’s a bit quiet. “You should be at Meadowhall (the chain’s other outlet in Sheffield) so you can feel the vibe,” he says.

For a minute I think Hugo is going to ring the Meadowhall branch and check on the current vibe. We say we’ll imagine the vibe, if that’s all right by him, and yes some drinks would help. He brings a caipirinha for her and a Brazilian lager for me and we discover he’s Portuguese, from Porto, which we visited earlier this year. So we feel we’re halfway to Brazil in spirit.

Hugo says his name is pronounced without the ‘h’ and sometimes people think he’s saying “you go.” Luckily for him one customer didn’t. She married him.

Las Iguanos is a big place with over 130 covers and an impressive bar and the food’s not bad either. I kick off with a mini picanhana churrasco, which means pieces of very juicy rump steak on a skewer, with a spicy green molho a campanha salsa. She has dadinhos, cubes of fried cheese enlivened with a pot of chilli jami. Life is brighter with a dollop of chilli jam. And a caipirinha.

You could have the chance of tasting the same food in Rio itself because diners get the chance to enter a contest for a free trip to Brazil for two. Just to get you in the mood the tables have a handy Rio street map and some useful phrases, such as “como vai?” which means How are you? Very well, since you ask.

Coconut chicken at Las Iguanas

The coconut chicken is as vibrant as a Thai curry

There are six mains and we don’t go wrong with our choices. The coconut chicken with its chilli kick reminds me of a Thai curry with a gingery coconut sauce. I like the rice with spring onions and the shredded greens.

My wife’s got more coconut on her plate, making up a milder sauce to cover the peeled prawns and cubes of white fish. It comes with spring onion rice, sweet plantain, pico de gallo (a frisky salsa) and a little pot of coconut farofa. No I didn’t know what it was, either. Think crispy grains of coconut you sprinkle over your food like seasoning but with a crunch.

I hadn’t realised the Brazilians were nuts about coconuts. There are a bunch of them on display as decoration and I’ve got tembleque, a set coconut pudding for dessert. As a special treat for cariocas Las Iguanos also offers Brigadeiro, not normally on the menu. This is a runny, intensely chocolatey affair tasting, as my wife put it, “a bit like the bowl you used to lick out when your mum was making chocolate cake.”

I should point out the food and drinks were on Las Iguanas, the vibe was on Hugo. He’ll be taking charge of the Meadowhall restaurant from Monday.

Las Iguanas is at West One, Fitzwilliam Street, Sheffield S1 4JP. Tel: 0114 252 1010. Web: http://www.iguanas.co.uk

Hugo at the  Las Iguanos bar

Hugo at Las Iguanas’ bar

20,000 hits and counting!

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Doing what I like best – eating

The reader from America inquired, you might think a little unkindly, “Are you, perchance, a member of the esteemed Dull Men’s Club of Great Britain?” It was hardly the kind of reaction I’d hoped for to my interest in all matters related to local food and drink.

Some might call it being an anorak tracking down the last artisan maker of the once popular polony sausage, for which Sheffield was very nearly as famous as steel. Or to make my own fruity brown sauce rather than go to Waitrose and take a bottle of HP from the shelf.

Food geekery? I call it enthusiasm. The story of food is an important branch of social history and I am only walking in the footsteps, if parochially, of the late, great Dorothy Hartley, who roamed the country to record Britain’s foodie past. Is that dull? Not at all.

My favourite books on food don’t simply have recipes but come with good stories, a little bit of potted history and a seasoning of advice and that is what I have tried to do with this blog, which has just reached a memorable milestone – over 20,000 hits.

So 16 months ago after I gave up restaurant reviewing for a living and started this blog I thought I’d take stock of how things have gone so far. It has been a surprise. For a site that concentrates mainly on this less than glamorous gastronomic ‘beat’ of Sheffield, South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, it has had a lot of attention overseas. Much, I suspect, has come from ex-pats and exiles as well as Anglophones – there are visits from USA, Canada and Australia – but also France, Germany, South Korea* and hello to my solitary visitor from Somalia.

It got off to a good start with ‘plugs’ from the excellent Lesley Draper, restaurant reviewer and food writer for the Sheffield Telegraph, and Rony Robinson on his BBC Radio Sheffield programme

I keep a close eye on the site and can tell what posts are popular and where. So I was curious when, a month or so back, I got a spike of interest in a post about the Sheffield fishcake written at least six months before. They were all coming from the town of Gloucester, just outside Boston, Massachusetts.

A town website was bemoaning the disappearance of a canned (tinned) fishcake and a visitor posted a link to this site’s post on the Sheffield fishcake. After a gratifying 200-plus views I thought I’d try my luck by posting a link on the site, GoodMorningGloucester https://goodmorninggloucester.wordpress.com/ to my post and recipe for mushy peas. After all, what goes better with a fishcake? Sadly, Massachusetts is not ready for mushy peas. It got no hits. I did get a polite acknowledgement and the ‘dull men’ jibe. I hope it was tongue-in-cheek.

Despite my own fascination for turkey scratchings, elderberry sauce, Portuguese egg tarts, potting meat, making bacon or a Thai video chef called Poo, it is the posts which are restaurant reviews which get the most visits. But some things have surprised me. I would never have guessed my hymn to toast and dripping or the joy (and despair) at finding a cuppa abroad would create as much interest as they have.
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Some readers prefer the more esoteric posts. “I like the origins and manufacture of food if not more than the reviews,” said Robcmar. “It’s the geeky stories I love the most,” agreed Niki.

So I shall carry on being geeky about food. I know there are others out there who feel as I do. As my reader from Gloucester, Massachusetts, added: “The Dull Men’s Club of Great Britain has set a high standard that we can only hope to live up to.”

*South Koreans are hooked on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares TV series which featured Sheffield’s Runaway Girl restaurant, transformed into Silversmiths. With Korean sub-titles, it can be seen on YouTube. Head chef Richie Russell has become a cult figure over there and people have been following his progress. When I reviewed a meal at Remo’s, where Richie is now working, someone put a link on YouTube to Richie posts on this blog. They have received around 1,000 views so I’m not sure who is the bigger hit, me or Richie!

A passion for paella

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Omar gets all steamed up over his paella

A dark back yard in the drizzling rain off a busy Sheffield street is not the most exotic location for cooking paella. But then the city has had few chefs as exotic as Omar Allibhoy, even if he’s only here on a temporary basis.

On March 16 the photogenic young Spaniard, dark-eyed, dark-haired and bearded, opens the fifth branch of his Tapas Revolution mini-chain in Meadowhall, so we can stuff ourselves silly with pulpa a la Gallega and pimientos de Padron without troubling easyJet.

You’d think Omar, from Madrid, would have it in for Sheffield. Five years ago he and his pal rode their scooters from Liverpool on the west coast to the east, cooking tapas for anyone they met on the way. They stopped at a Sheffield Travelodge overnight and had one of the bikes nicked. But at least he got to Grimsby before Sacha Baron Cohen!

To promote the new enterprise, still being built as I write, Omar had taken over Matthew Holdsworth’s tiny Bhaji Shop bistro on Chesterfield Road for the night to host a pop-up restaurant for local foodies and bloggers. There are tapas but the highlight of the night is the paella.

Omar needs a metre-wide paella pan and the Bhaji’s kitchen was much too small so he camped out under an awning in the back yard. The weather is less than Spanish. I nip out to take a look and he emerges from a cloud of steam as the dish cooks fragrantly. He might be worth a mint by now but, while he’s brought a team of chefs to help him, he’s still in charge of the paella. It’s his particular passion.

When it arrives it is an intensely, savoury, smoky, complex dish heady with the smell and taste of saffron and paprika, with chicken (but no rabbit), artichokes, three types of beans and rice which is still firm yet yielding to the tooth. It’s quite the best I have ever had.

Omar got a leg up in life working for the world’s most famous chef, Farran Adria, and the world’s sweariest, Gordon Ramsay, who dubbed him the restaurant version of Antonio Banderas. That was worth a few PR and newspaper headlines (and it’s on the cover of his recipe book) but he does display an engaging enthusiasm.

While all his outlets are in mega shopping outlets I observe it is unusual for Sheffield to get a trendy chain restaurant so soon. Usually all the big names go to Shrewsbury before Sheffield. The city can’t even sustain a Loch Fyne, which has just closed. He winces slightly at the word ‘chain,’ as if someone has just knocked over a dish of his albondigas, and stresses everything except the bread will be made on site: no microwaves, no heat-and-eat, no freezers. “It doesn’t feel like a chain to us; it’s a very personal project.” OK, whatever the Spanish is for autonomous link in a chain, it’s that!

Of course, any food which you get for free will taste wonderful but, that aside, it was very, very good indeed. We weren’t fed any old patatas bravas – in fact we didn’t get that at all – and for me the starriest dishes were the chorizo a la sidra (lovely sweet and spicy Asturian sausages roasted in cider), pulpo a la Gallega (soft steamed octopus with sliced potato in paprika) and some intensely cumin-flavoured meatballs.

And, of course, there was excellent Iberico ham, Manchego cheese, marinated anchovies and much more, washed down with Sangria, Spanish beer and wine.

Omar is on a mission to introduce the city to what he calls real tapas. He mutters that Britain  has seen ‘the dark side of Spanish food.’ But we’re not such principiantes (beginners) in the tapas department. Back in the Nineties that excellent chef Michael Morgan introduced them at his Mediterranean restaurant in Hunter’s Bar.

One more thing. At the same time as Omar opens Tapas Revolution there will be a churroseria, a kiosk selling that famous Spanish snack, next door. Can’t wait.

More details at http://www.tapasrevolution.com The book, Tapas Revolution, is published by Ebury Press at £20.

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Steamed octopus and potatoes

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The answer was a Limon

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The Beauchief Hotel

It really is the end of an era. The auction recently of the contents of Sheffield’s Beauchief Hotel, the once fashionable city watering hole which had as many comebacks as Frank Sinatra, left no one in doubt that its days were finally over.

Already a planning application has gone into the city council from owners Sheafbank Investments to turn the building into apartments and build more homes on the car park. An ageing building and changing times have put paid to a once thriving business.

In the Eighties and Nineties the Beauchief on Abbeydale Road South was one of the places to eat, drink and be seen: either in the restaurant or the bar. This was a time when there really wasn’t as much choice in Sheffield as there is now. But part of the glamour came from the French family Limon who spent 17 years at the helm: general manager Michel and his wife Edwige.

These were what I like to call the Tournedos Rossini years. The classic dish was on the menu. The head chef was Adrian Machin, who inspired a number of lads who became head chefs in their own right. And in summer the Limons added a Gallic touch by installing a Petanque terrain in the grounds.

The family arrived in 1979 and left in 1997 when Michel was asked to become general manager of owners Whitbread’s London conference and banqueting centre, a prestigious job.

The Beauchief was originally the Abbeydale Station Hotel, serving the LMS station of the same name which opened in 1870, closing in 1961.

Whitbread never got anyone as charismatic as Michel in the following years. I recall visiting the place several times to report on a new boss promising great times ahead. The hotel’s fortunes waned and the place was sold on.

In 2010 Christian Kent, who had worked in the kitchens as a 16-year-old commis before going on Claridges, the Savoy and returning to Sheffield to open the Blue Room, took over, promising some London glitz. It was not to be. It folded.

Nothing daunted, Sheffield-based Brewkitchen, a joint enterprise by local restaurateur Richard Smith and Jim Harrison of Thornbridge Brewery, moved in on All Fools Day 2012. Charlie Curran was the first head chef (now running his own place, Peppercorn, down the road), followed by Jack Baker. The place was rebranded under his name but the axe fell last year.

With hindsight, the bid to restore the hotel’s fortunes may have always been a losing battle. Fashions and passions chop and change in the hospitality industry and so it was with the Beauchief. It was of its time and place and shone for a decade or two through a particular set of circumstances. And one of the answers was a Limon.