Posts Tagged food

Has Our Food Obsession Gone Too Far?

I am what you might refer to as a foodie. I love cooking, I love eating out and I watch cookery shows and own a pile of cookery books. I have eaten at a couple of Michelin starred joints and, while they weren’t the highlight of my entire life, I certainly enjoyed every mouthful. So I should love that this stuff is all over my telly box and newspapers 24/7 right? Wrong.

This week brought a couple of illustrations that we have finally gone too far. Firstly Will Self penned this attack on Jamie Oliver in the New Statesman. Most people who’ve read it have taken it as a nasty and thinly veiled personal attack on a loveable TV chef. That’s because it’s a thinly veiled and nasty personal attack. Yet I wouldn’t go as far as the loveable bit. There are plenty of things about Oliver that stick in my craw too.

Firstly there’s this trumpeting about sourcing local and organic ingredients. I know it’s supposed to be good (but Jay Rayner of all people has written about the fact that local ingredients may not always be the best or even the most environmentally friendly) but do we have to bang on about it endlessly? My grandmother sourced all her ingredients locally and ate organic produce from my grandfather’s allotment but I don’t remember her lecturing her friends regarding it over lattes. Like it or not there is a very large section of the population who simply can’t afford to shop at butchers shops and farmers markets in either time or money. We’re reaching the point where we’re sneering at them.

And if you’re going to give your children slightly strange names and then just call them ‘guys’ anyway that’s fine in your own time but I’d rather not watch it on my television.

But take the other much more personal stuff out of Self’s article and look for a minute at the small bits of it that are restaurant review and philosophical comment and you can see he has a bit of a point. For he’s reviewing a pop up burger joint. Rarely could anything sum up the food conceit of the 2010s like a pop up burger joint. It’s the antithesis of everything I want when I eat out. Something not very good for you in a temporary venue that you could make at home. Serving things on boards and little zinc buckets (never mind that Jason Atherton and Tom Kerridge have been doing this for years as a little bit of a food joke). When I go out to eat I want a good local restaurant where I can have a nice meal and good conversation over food served on a plate. If I come back again I want to be recognised. To gradually work myself up to the status of regular and the good table and off-menu special access that come with it. Meanwhile gangs of bearded hipsters are roaming Hoxton looking for the latest high end temporary fried chicken joint. If you want fried chicken and stuff in a bucket just go to KFC ffs.

Then there is the philosophy angle. We have become so obsessed with food we have forgotten that it does a basic job of refuelling us and keeping us alive and healthy. Or at least that section of us that can afford cookery books have. I doubt it’s something you forget when you have £10 to your name and are clutching the energy bill that’s just risen by 10% in one hand and a hungry toddler in the other. But while they struggle to get by the rest of us seem to be intent on a competition to see who can make the most awful cookery programme.

There’s Nigella. Yes, she’s easy on the eye for some of us but the programme is hysterical. Oh look, Alan Yentob’s popping round for a surprise lunch. I’d better just whip up this spare Kobe Beef using equipment that isn’t even available to people on £50k a year. And just two letters off and just as bad here’s Nigel and his “leftovers” which always seem to include entire packs of mushrooms and prawns. Let’s see how you do with one banana, some dusty Digestives and the can of salmon your Nan gave you because it would come in handy.

Then there’s the aforementioned Kerridge. He makes the sort of food that turns me in to a slavering, dribbling wreck. I’d probably sell a gadget or two to eat at the Hand and Flowers just once. But as much as I love the man I can’t justify watching him do a six hour cook that will turn out as “proper lush” and that I can “chillaxo relaxo” during as highbrow television. I actually cringed typing that.

But I think we finally hit the nadir on this week’s Saturday Kitchen when Paul Assignac cooked tulips. Yes tulips. FFS again. This CANNOT be teaching us how to cook. “What would you like for pudding kids? Chocolate? Cake? Ice Cream? TULIPS?” And for that reason it’s not something I’d ever order in a restaurant. It’s a total waste of ten minutes and a recipe page. It’s the cookery equivalent of the unnecessary guitar solo or those paragraphs where Louis De Bernieres slips in to words you’ve never heard of. It’s wanking.

And yet I watch. I watch them all in case I can pick up a hint, a tip or a recipe that will make my kids lives better when all they really want is fish fingers or sausages chips and beans. Jamie Oliver’s not blameless in that either. He all but started the craze.


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My Morning In A Professional Kitchen

About this time last year the local NCT branch of which slightlysurburbanmum is  a member held their annual ‘Big Push’ sponsored toddle. At the end was a raffle with prizes and one of these prizes was a ‘Kitchen Experience’ morning offered by the local restaurants Sam’s of Seven Dials and Sam’s of Brighton. I bought “quite a lot” of tickets on the strength of this and won…….

…..a membership to a baby development club we were already members of. Oh well.

It clearly stuck in slightlysurburbanmum’s mind though because, when I opened my Christmas presents six months later there was a voucher for the very same Kitchen Experience. How exciting! Now all we had to do was find a free Saturday morning that didn’t clash with a) the football b) the NCT or c) a birthday party that wasn’t already booked. Also a day when my mum could come down and look after the kids (for while I was going in to the kitchen by myself the end part consists of lunch and a glass of champagne and it was probably only fair I chose slightlysurburbanmum to come with me). Thus is was I finally got to go yesterday (16 June).

A brief history of me and food. I am not a conventional ‘foodie’. I’ve always liked eating tasty things of course but when I first left home I had three ‘from scratch’ recipes in my repertoire.  Cheese sandwich, bacon sandwich and tuna pasta. I had had food revelations on family holidays in France (I can still taste my first bowl of moules marinieres like it was yesterday) but on first moving out all my money went on rent, beer, cigarettes, football and clubbing. Food became an optional extra.

However, having met the aforementioned slighlysuburbanmum a few things happened. One was we ate out together. A lot. Two was with joint incomes and me going out less we had money to spend on food and try new dishes. And then my job moved overseas. The Mrs had bought herself ‘Kitchen Confidential’ by Anthony Bourdain and once finished she lent it to me. I read the whole thing on a flight from Heathrow to Sydney and suddenly I was hooked on the world of the kitchen (or at least reading about it). When we moved to Taipei I regularly went out drinking with a Kiwi pastry chef who swore more than Gordon Ramsey and made deserts that were prettier than than Scarlett Johansson. I was starting to cook a bit more and we would eat out at least 4 times a week. Then I got the wife pregnant. Then the pregnancy knackered her back. No more eating out. If I wanted tasty food I would have to learn to cook it myself. So I slowly learned to make meals until we are now at the point where I make most of the evening meals, all of the weekend ones and I have a virtual season ticket to shows like Great British Menu and Masterchef.

All of which sets the scene for the fact that my rapid interest in food and it’s cooking and preparation lacked any form of basic training whatsoever. I am – still – Mister Self Taught And A Bit Clumsy.

I lay in bed fretting about this the night before. Here are the top five things I cook:

1) A Sunday Roast, everything from scratch (including gravy and where appropriate Yorkshire Pudding)

2) Citrus risotto with Spicy Prawns (my wife’s favourite)

3) Steak (to temperature) with mini roasts and tomato salsa

4) Mediterranean Chicken and Chorizo with Tagliatelle (shop bought).

5) Pork chops with mustard and shallot sauce and baby leaks.

In other words big, hearty man-food requiring the minimum of fiddly technique and presentation but with maximum flavour delivery (think of Gregg from Masterchef yelling ‘BIG, BOLD FLAVOURS’ before looking disapprovingly at how I’d served it).

Here’s what I never make:

1) Cakes

2) Fiddly things

3) Bread

Surely, I thought as I cogitated in bed, they would not give me the pastry section?

The next morning I was dropped at the door of the Seven Dials restaurant and introduced to Mark the Head Chef. Mark introduced me to Andrea the pastry chef (Italian male not English lady). Yep, I was doing pastry.

At this point I was glad I’d read the Bourdain. I could embarrass myself with my lack of technique but there were three things I had promised I would adhere to.

1) Turn up on time (already achieved)

2) Do as I’m told

3) Don’t fuck up service

These became my guiding principles. First I made bread. I learned quickly to stretch the dough and fold it back on itself but less quickly to flour my table, making a mess of it and Chef’s nice clean sink. Eventually I got the dough right but then had a nightmare shaping it like Andrea had shown me (I made 12 loaves and probably only got the last 2 correct – even then I saw Andrea having a sneaky adjust and he wasn’t wrong). Then I had the best coffee I have ever had at work and learned banana tarte tatin.  Again in both cutting the bananas properly (WHY are bananas not straight, the bendy little bastards) and shaping the pastry over them my later efforts were far more impressive than my early ones. Then I did the easy prep for a strawberry soup, sectioned some oranges REALLY badly (“sorry chef I appear to have butchered your oranges”) and started on breading some fish goujons before my wife appeared and gave the chefs their kitchen back minus the idiot.

One thing to note about a pro kitchen. Both the heat and smells are amazing. A particular smell was driving me INSANE with desire. It turned out to be chef’s summer piccalilli that he was serving with mackerel that evening. It was amazing. Why I didn’t sneak some there and then I do not know (actually I do – rule number 3, do not fuck up service). From early on LOTS of things are going on and Mark’s kitchen is clean and organised (and did I mention smells amazing) and it was an eye-opener to see how organised and calm the team were.

I moved to ‘the other side’ for a glass of champers and a three course meal I didn’t do justice to. Partly, I think, because I had been surpressing my appetite due to the smells and not wanting to eat everything in sight. Also, since I’d made the bread I ate 7 slices of it with tapenade before the amuse bouche arrived.

I’d like to thank Mark and his team and particularly Andrea for showing me many new techniques, none of which I quite did justice to. I AM going to attempt to make bread at home and certainly I will try the banana tarte tatin. I would recommend the Kitchen Experience to anyone – the four hours of prep flew by.

*(Note I have not been sponsored to write this post. I just had a good time).

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