Don’t believe the hype.
For the past 5 years I have worked in a vast array of kitchens, from huge operations like the one at Royal Ascot to the ones seen in pubs and bars, but never once have I gone to work in a kitchen where I almost bolted instantly akin to a skittish mare, however today I saw something that I never though I would: a properly presented, 250 head bistro, in the centre of affluent York that was living very close to bone in terms of hygiene and creative passion; and never mind flair. Maybe this was just a bad day, but this was a Friday.
There was a sense of urgency in the place which had created a huge mess: not enough time and/or people to create the correct environment to produce food to the highest standard; the first 2 chefs I met looked tired and unhappy, the 3rd took it for granted that I knew where everything was in this huge and very disorganised kitchen. In my day I saw just 2 green boards for all food prep done on-the-fly(where is your mise-en-place?), some very discoloured and raggedly towels, things fetched in a rush from the fridges (fridges and freezers outside on the roof), only 1 food production sink currently filled with mussels, containers of cold water holding all the tools of the trade(in/out in/out more cross contamination), no temperature probes used on any food sent out to the customer, no blue roll to dry hands on and the the junior chef was also the kitchen porter however he was wearing the same clothes for both roles.
First impressions last
My first job was to send out a full English breakfast. The breakfast presented to the punter is the first item I thought woefully done. Firstly the food was out all morning and even at 2pm the food was still on the counter: I saw raw sausages, black pudding, bacon, raw fresh tomatoes and par cooked mushrooms all on the ‘breakfast tray’ – the senior chef I was working alongside confessed that on a busy day every item would be cooked and left in a Bain-Marie for as long as needed.
The 2 sausages were deep fried and then microwaved, or vis-versa, in hast to make sure it was coloured and cooked through, the black pudding was deep fried (The fryer had earlier been used for bhaghi style tapas items and was later used for fish cakes and croutons, etc.!) Both, along with the most threadbare rasher of raw cured back bacon I’ve ever seen, were then placed on the self same hot plate, under the grill, holding raw-ish tomatoes and semi cooked mushrooms. One order came through for poached eggs – I thought cool I’ll make a lovely fresh runny egg, but I was instructed to refresh one of the so many poached eggs(already broiled and left to one side in broiled water since 10:30am??) to serve. Another order asked for scrambled eggs and again I thought I whisk off some lovely fluffy eggs, but this time it was quickly microwaved, very under cooked, with cream, butter and salt(I saw no pepper once)) and left under the pass. The bread, which was more like a ‘brioche’, was ‘toasted’ but not really ‘toasted’; finely/slightly grilled(any colour from the toasting had to be cut off). Added to this was a minuscule, very undercooked, tomato: quickly charred on a filthy griddle and grilled on the same hot plate. Since when was English bread like a brioche? When you want the bread to have a longer shelf life I shouldn’t wonder (fill it with sugar and butter – move over ‘yeast flour water salt’ you’re not enough)?
A Special of the Day
One of the items on the special menu – a burger – part of the 7 for 7 all day option . (I assume previously slow cooked), but then reheated in a Sous-Vide bath manner. I was led to believe by Jean-Claude Etile(my former AA rosette head chef in London) that the whole process of water bathing food was where all food was cooked in a vacuum packed container and allowed a long time to come to readiness: hours sometimes. In this establishment I saw food added raw to the the bath direct for a few minutes! Luckily there were 2 baths to chose from(60 and 70 degrees) for meat and fish, but all items were placed directly in to the baths without a container. Imagine the state of the water after a couple of uses! What temperature do food borne bacteria thrive at? Below 75 degree, I’d like to point out, is the significant danger zone. Luckily the burgers were in a polythene bag, but neither the bacon steak or the salmon were. The bacon and salmon were put under the grill to colour (again this is anti the Sous-Vide method where all the juices of the food are kept intact in the meat, fish, etc.) and served close to raw. The senior chef probed the salmon with his index finger to ascertain its temperature, but I thought it still looked raw inside, but I guess by the time it’d sat on the pass, in the dumb waiter and was presented to the customer it’d be roasting?
When is a pie not a pie? When it’s a lie.
When I ask you to describe a British pie what image instantly comes to your mind: especially the kind served in a fine ‘al a carte’ bistro? Would it be a luscious shortcrust pastry filled with fine local British slow cooked beef, ham, chicken: chunky and proud or even a warm-water crust game or pork pie?
Would you imagine this: a shepherd’s pie: minced meat and mashed potato: a meal fit for a child or an OAP without gnashers; the NHS HERE WE COME. Left over minced lamb, stale mashed potato and whack it in yer oven: that ain’t a frigging pie! That is a cheap pie and where is the flair in that? Here is your straw sir.
Probed it, yeah!
A finger is a useful object. The nails are just great for picking up grit, germs and gunk. Oh I see a yolk, is it warm? Let’s try that with my finger. Oh look there: a salmon fillet, is it warm? Let’s probe it with my finger.
If you feel it necessary to Sous-Vide your food there shouldn’t there be a timer alongside the Bain-Maries, or at least a probe; not a nailed finger.
In the end
Don’t forget to mention the putting together of the dish. 3 Santorini miniature tomatoes should be enough: pop them in the microwave for 10 seconds to heat through. The polenta meal, cheesy and very runny, the Italians would roll, 1 minute in your microwave, stir and leave under the pass. Couscous in the microwave with a smidging of garlic butter(because couscous is crap, textureless and flavourless – when will you learn that it’s bulgar wheat you should present) for another minute, stir and leave it under the pass. A roast vegetable gratin , a couple of roasted fennel, sliced and roasted courgetted – a few of them, some soft and putty butternut squash – a slight of them, some cheese and whack it under a grill for a long long time. Not a lot of creativity in that and its certainly not a gratin! Your confit de canard is tiny so 3 legs between 2 people and whack that under the grill post microwave – oh the joy of microwave sex. A croûton of sliced bread – not cubed and briskly fried in a pan with a mite of olive oil, but deep fried with your fish-cake residues(this is fried bread – Oui Monsieur?). Potatoes beyond creamy yellow, now gone grey, refresh in the dirtiest basket and water bath I’ve ever seen – there was red/orange lime-scale on the baskets – the water was evaporated and now milky murky. If only I could’ve taken photo shots of all the processes involved in the putting together of the dish: you would be amazed.
From a customers POV the bistro would look pleasing and the food would appear appeasing, but from a chef’s POV this ain’t good food folks. It’s a lie. I walked out after 2 hours with more hatred of that establishment than any I’d ever had before. I passed the floor manager on the way out and said ‘please invest in more chopping boards’, but she smiled daggers. You may be under pressure and you may be in a tough spot currently, but asking me to work with you without any slight induction or providing someone to work alongside who was looking at what he was doing from my POV(an outsider with no idea what you were hoping to gain from the low level of passion you are showing). Food is a joy to make if you don’t need to rush to present a pretense of what you hope the customer wont notice isn’t what they are paying for – n’est-ce pas? Take time to evaluate your stance Melton’s Too and perhaps a shake up is what you need – I hope you see my POV. Now I can relax the catharsis is done. I aimed to be honest, not to please.