Spot the difference: the food pics supplied to The Observer by Le Cinq in Paris, as against mine.
In this week’s review of the Michelin three star Le Cinq in Paris I describe a 70€ dish of gratinated onions as being ‘mostly black, like nightmares’. Have a look at this picture of the onion dish, which ran with the review. It was supplied by the restaurant.
Weird, isn’t it. That’s not black, or at least not entirely. It’s golden, like amber, and rather beautiful. Now have a look at this picture which I shot during the dinner on an iPhone 7, using their available light.
That looks more like the thing I was describing, doesn’t it.
Here’s the thing. When I review a restaurant I book under a pseudonym. They do not know I’m coming until I’m there and sometimes still don’t clock me. I leave, I write my review, and then we send in a photographer to shoot pictures of all the things I ate. Why don’t I just shoot them on my phone at the time? For two reasons. Firstly it would draw attention to what I’m doing there and secondly, while an iPhone 7 camera is good, it’s not good enough for the needs of a quality newspaper and nor am I. We get a professional to do the job. Occasionally the food the photographer shoots looks slightly different to that which I’m writing about, but it’s never been a major difference. (Step inside these parentheses a moment. It’s worth adding that the Observer’s photographer has no idea whether the review they are illustrating is positive or negative and therefore they have no agenda. Many years ago I used to file my whole review to the picture desk, who would punt it on to the photographers. It transpired that the photographers were being hassled by the restaurant when they turned up to shoot as to what the review was like. The photographers didn’t like this and said they’d prefer not to know so they genuinely couldn’t answer. Now I just send a list of dishes.)
This week, though, really is completely different to that which I ate. Why is that? Because the great Le Cinq refused to let us shoot their food.
Apparently, it was too expensive for them to make these dishes just to be photographed. Instead they offered to send us their own PR shots. We felt we had no choice but to accept this offer. As the review has a number of critical things to say we did not wish to give them the opportunity to suggest that we had set out to show them literally and figuratively in a negative light. But hey, I have this website and it seemed a good place to point up the differences.
For sake of clarity I am in no way suggesting that le Cinq did this to deceive anyone, or to gainsay my review the contents of which they had no prior knowledge of until its publication. (I pity the person who has to translate it.) But I do think the difference between the way they portray their dishes and the one I ate is interesting.
And in case you think I just did a very bad job, here’s my companion’s pic of the same dish, also shot on an iPhone 7.
While we’re here, have a few more pictures.
Finally in case anyone is wondering, the Observer has not suddenly had a massive increase in its budgets. Which is to say, the paper did not pick up the entire 600€ bill.
I was due to be in Paris and had not eaten in one of the city’s full on Gastro-Palaces for almost ten years. I was curious. The suggestion of Le Cinq came from my friend in Paris who had eaten there a few years ago, under a different chef. She paid her own bill. I paid half of mine and the Observer picked up the rest (which is roughly at the top end of what he paper would cover on one of my usual reviews).
As you’re here why not have a look at my live shows page. I perform live – both stand up comedy and jazz – all over the country.
Why Michel Roux Jnr may not quite be the anti-Christ
The picture above is of a grotesquely exploitative institution; a living hell, where serfs labour daily and are fleeced of their wages. The presiding overlord, Michel Roux Jnr, should be dragged through the doors and burned at the stake in nearby Grosvenor Square before a braying mob. For good measure I should be tied up next to him.
That, in summary, is my Twitter feed these passed 12 hours or so after I decided to post something supportive about a man I have known for a while, have worked with and like very much, and who has been criticised over his working practices. The reception was not, shall we say, positive.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Twitter is not a place for nuance. It is about black and white. They’re a saint, he’s a sinner and so on. (If you’re interested in the subject of Internet rage try Jon Ronson’s brilliant book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)
The real world, the one outside Twitter and, dare I say it, newspaper headlines, doesn’t work like that. It’s full of murky, smudgy greys; its not just black and white. And personally I think we’re all smart enough to deal with a few of those. So I’m going to give it a go with this story.
Last month the Guardian reported that some of the kitchen staff at Le Gavroche had been paid less than minimum wage. I was head-in-hands when I read this. The month before I had published a column about this precise issue, pointing out that restaurant goers whinge about the cost of eating out while young cooks get paid criminally low salaries. What’s more I had used Roux as an example of a good employer; one who was actually reducing the working hours of his staff to help retain them and improve working conditions. And now…
Nobody should ever be paid less than the minimum wage. I’d go further and say nobody should be paid the minimum wage, but that’s a bigger battle. Roux put his hand up, admitted it had happened in a very small number of cases and that he was making sure that they would be seen right.
Was Roux in the wrong? Yes.
Was it a valid story for a newspaper to cover? Absolutely.
Was Le Gavroche the right target? I don’t think so.
Which is where the shades of grey kick in. What happened at Le Gavroche, if you take Roux’s word for it (which I do), was small scale and accidental. However in restaurants all over Britain it’s systemic. Head chefs give their cooks contracts for 40 hours then rota them for 68 hours knowing they’ll never be paid for it. My email inbox was full of terrible stories when I wrote that column. Note the massive glaring silence from the rest of the industry. They’re all terrified of being found out. No, that does not excuse what happened at Le Gavroche. At all. But if you make Roux the target you’ll be missing the real story, which is an industry full of much worse practices.
Which gets us to the second story: the news that the service charge on the bill at Le Gavroche does not go direct to the staff. The Twitter response is clear: if it’s a service charge it MUST go to the staff and if it doesn’t it’s theft. I have an awful lot of sympathy with that as I made clear when I wrote this piece calling for all service charges/ tips etc to be wrapped up into the bill, as it is in France, Japan and Australia and where the system functions brilliantly. Then staff can be paid a proper wage.
I’m going to put the next bit in caps because people seem to ignore it, almost wilfully: THIS WILL MEAN THE COST OF DISHES ON MENUS GOING UP SO STAFF ARE PAID THAT PROPER WAGE AND ARE NOT DEPENDENT ON OUR MOOD FOR HOW THEY ARE REWARDED. IT REQUIRES A HUGE CULTURAL CHANGE. Please read the whole tips piece linked to above.
What’s clear is that diners have no idea what the term ‘service charges’ means, and who that money goes to. Roux’s argument is that it’s all revenue from which he pays salaries ie that in the end it DOES go to the staff, that he wasn’t robbing anyone. Indeed he’s now going to change the system so the menus say ‘service included’.
The Twitter mob may not like this explanation. As I’ve said repeatedly the whole damn service charge thing is as clear as mud. Could it have been clearer to diners? Of course. But I also have to say this: while I do not know how much Le Gavroche pays its front of house staff, I do know that they have had many who have worked there literally for decades. In a booming restaurant market there are choices and they’ve chosen to stay there. Which is where those shades of grey kick in again. We know that there are restaurant operators who are much, much worse than Le Gavroche, who are systemically ripping off their employees.
But Le Gavroche, being an extremely expensive restaurant (though the lunch is still one of the best value for money in town), is a very easy target. Everyone can vent their fury in 140 characters at a joint that charges £200 a head and feel a smooth burst of rightful indignation. But that’s not the same as hitting the right target.
As I said in one of my tweets that aroused such indignation, I know Michel Roux Jnr to be a good employer. That doesn’t excuse the cock up over low wages or confusion over service charges. But I really do think there are better targets out there. And I decided to be supportive to a mate, because I know exactly what it’s like when the Twitter mob descends. If you disapprove of me for that, I’ll just have to live with it.
Full disclosure. I have been fed for free twice at Le Gavroche. Once in the early naughties by Michel’s father, Albert, when I was writing a history of the restaurant for the Observer, and once a few years ago at a private party. I have paid for every other meal there.
Give the gift of ME this Christmas. It’s what Jesus would have wanted.
As a biblical prophet I am often asked what to give loved ones for Christmas. Even though I am very much Old Testament and therefore pre-date the whole ‘away-in-a-manger-follow-yonder-star’ business.
I recognise that my position as the voice of an almighty that does note exist, except as vehicle for my jokes, comes with responsibilities. It means I must take this enquiry seriously. Therefore purely in the interests of shedding light in the darkness, and not out of some self-serving desire to get as big an audience as possible for my gigs, I thought I would recommend that you buy tickets to my shows for those you love. There are a bunch shortly after Christmas which will be just the ticket. As long as you buy one. And so, in date order:
On January 20, 2017 I’m bringing 10 Food Commandments to Tonbridge, Kent. Tickets here
On January 22, 2017 It’s songs of Food and agony with Jay Rayner Quartet. Tickets here (scroll down to the date.)
On Feb 2, 2017 It’s 10 Food Commandments at the watermark, Ivybridge not far from Plymouth. Tickets here
On March 9, 2017 I’m back at the Acapella studio, Cardiff for My Dining Hell. Tickets here
On March 30, 2017 It’s 10 Food Commandments, in Bristol. Tickets here
There are a v few seats left for each of the 10 food commandments shows on Dec 9/10 at Brasserie Zedel. Tickets here
Er… that’s it. Go forth my children and make it a very happy Christmas.
Why I have had to cancel my upcoming appearance at the Russian Hospitality Show.
I would like to apologise to anybody who was hoping to see my Ten (Food) Commandments show at Russian Hospitality Week in Moscow, over October 17/18. I have had to cancel my trip for reasons breath-takingly beyond my control.
Although I was due to be paid for my work, the company that had booked me believed it would be entirely fine if I slipped in to the country on a tourist visa. As someone who has both written pieces critical of the Putin government, and expressed concerns in public over the current state of democracy in Russia, I considered it less than wise of me to enter the country on anything other than exactly the right visa. Lying to Russian border officials has never exactly been high on my bucket list. By doing so I would also have risked causing major problems for my journalist colleagues on the Guardian and Observer working within Russia. I tried to get the organisers to deal with the issue, but they responded in an extremely half-hearted manner, and made scant effort to supply me with even the most basic information I needed to apply for the correct visa.
This is a long explanation for why I won’t be in Moscow, but I did not want anyone thinking it was a decision I took lightly. All I can say is that if you happen to be travelling from Russia to London at any point in the future do keep an eye on my Live Shows page where you’ll find details of my performances here in the UK.
Landlord that’s trying to rob state primary school of playing fields sees assets rise in value by 20 times rate of inflation.
At some point over the past couple of weeks The Dulwich Estate, the vast south London landowner with charitable status which gives 85% of its expendable money to three highly exclusive private schools, published its accounts to March 2016. The most revealing detail is the graph above, with its accompanying narrative. It shows that in the preceding calendar year the value of Dulwich Estates assets went from £262.5 million to £293.2 million, a rise of £30.7 million or, more importantly 11.7%. That’s almost 20 times the current inflation rate of 0.6%.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I live in the neighbourhood impacted upon by The Dulwich Estate. I have pointed out that its business practices as a landlord, with tax free status, have done huge damage to the local community. You can read my first piece about it here. I focussed on the fact that the chief beneficiaries of the estate are privileged fee paying schools; ones which proclaim a commitment to the local community in which they are located, but which seem incapable of doing anything to stop it being damaged by the charity which keeps hosing them down with cash.
More recently I described how The Dulwich Estate was working to take outdoor space from a state primary, the Judith Kerr School in Herne Hill. I made the point that their only justification for doing this was the commercial imperative of working their assets to the full. You can read that piece here. It inspired a letter to the head teachers of the beneficiary schools, launched by a former Alleyn’s pupil, which has since been signed by nearly 200 pupils and parents, both former and current. You can read that here.
TIME FOR THE RUBBER MALLET: just how bloody wealthy does Dulwich Estate need to become? If its assets are appreciating by nearly 12% a year – or £30 million – does it really need to cash in by robbing a state primary school of its playing grounds? Especially to fund exclusive independent schools? I keep asking the head teachers of those schools what they think about all this but they refuse to comment. Tomorrow is A’ level and AS’ level results day. All three head teachers will be present. Perhaps current pupils and parents would like to ask the question.
Those wishing to defend The Dulwich Estate will point out that the appreciation in the asset is mostly down to rising property prices, over which they have no control. There are two points to be made. Firstly, by ramping up rents they are directly influencing those property prices. And secondly, even if we accept they have nothing to do with it – which I don’t – the fact still remains that their assets are up by 11.7% across the year. No one could ever accuse them of not having worked in the commercial interests of the charity, regardless of whether they take away the play area from the Judith Kerr.
Anyone wishish to look at the accounts for themselves will find them here (PDF). The graph is on page 6 and a detailed breakdown is on page 13. If anyone with a bit more accounting knowledge than me notices anything else of interest please do get in touch.
Headteacher of Alleyn’s gets lesson from his own former pupils, as they rally to the cause of the Judith Kerr Primary
Last week I explained how the Judith Kerr school, a state primary in Herne Hill, South London, was threatened with losing its outdoor playing area in a deal which was designed to benefit three prestigious fee paying schools, Alleyn’s, Dulwich College and JAGS. You can read that piece here.
I wrote to the head teachers of all three schools asking for their response but none bothered to reply to me. Well perhaps they might want to reply to the letter below. It is addressed to Dr Gary Savage, head teacher of Alleyn’s, and is signed by around 100 former pupils (plus a few current pupils and a handful of parents).
The letter makes its case exceedingly well. Meanwhile… if any current or former pupils (and teachers; well why not) of any of the three schools want to add their names to this letter, feel free to use the comments section on my site.
Simply put the word ‘Signed’ and then your name. I’ll get them up as quickly as they come in.
Dear Dr Gary Savage,
I am writing to you as a result of an article I have read which explains how the outdoor space at Judith Kerr Primary School is being threatened by Dulwich Estate (you can read the article here). Open spaces are such an important part of life for growing children, with play contributing so much to effective learning.
At Alleyn’s we were afforded the privilege of having ample space at our disposal. I am distressed to read that our former school could financially benefit from the same charity that may deny other children this right. I am therefore writing to urge you to publicly support the Judith Kerr Primary School Green Space Campaign and to challenge Dulwich Estate’s plan to offer this space to Dulwich Almshouses.
Though I absolutely recognise the value of the Almshouses, I strongly believe that the Dulwich Estate’s considerable property portfolio could offer alternative solutions. Alleyn’s, Dulwich College and JAGS nominate 2 Dulwich Estate trustees each, so out of the 11 nominated trustees in total, the 3 schools nominate 6. If the schools worked collaboratively I am clear that they would have a significant influence over the Estate’s decisions.
Failing that, Alleyn’s should release a statement in opposition to the actions of the Estate. As former Alleyn’s students we feel strongly about the impact our school has on the wider community, and believe it is our duty to ensure that the privileges Alleyn’s students are fortunate to receive do not hinder others’ opportunities.
I look forward to your response,
Asha Verma (School Captain, Duttons, 2011)
Samuel Bailey (Ropers, 2011)
Peter Morton (Duttons, 2011)
Katie Laurence (House Captain, Cribbs, 2011)
Cecilia Clark (Tysons, 2011)
Liz Laurence (House Captain, Cribbs, 2010)
Andy Laurence (Parent)
Nina Anderson (Cribbs, 2010)
Daniel Watson (Browns, 2011)
Lizzy Kinch (Spurgeons, 2011)
Jonathan Mayes (House Captain, Duttons, 2011)
Luke Clayton Thompson (Tulleys, 2011)
Crispin Kenney (Tulleys, 2011)
Martha Day (Hockey Captain, Browns, 2012)
Sam Allen (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2011)
Phoebe Praill (House Captain, Spurgeons, 2011)
Calum Montell-Boyd (Senior Prefect, Bradings, 2011)
Ania Muras Struglinski (Ropers, 2011)
Tommy Emrich-Mills (Vice House Captain, Tulleys, 2011)
Daniel Forde (Senior Prefect, Football Captain, Cribbs, 2011)
Sophie Wyburd (Tulleys, 2012)
Anouska Cope (Senior Prefect, Vice Netball Captain, 2012)
Jamie Baptiste (Browns, 2011)
Zephyr Penoyre (Tysons, 2011)
Sophie Collis (Senior Prefect, 2011, currently a teacher at a state school who sees the need for green spaces)
James Aylward (House Captain, Tulleys, 2011)
Naomi Garratt (Vice House Captain, Tulleys, 2013)
Aaiza Ali (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2010)
Ben Stephens (Ropers, 2011)
Fola Evans Akingbola (Sports Scholar, Tulleys, 2012)
Thomas Morton (Duttons, Current Student)
Claire Hall (Cribbs, 2011)
Faith Locken (House Captain, Ropers, 2011)
Jonah Calkin (Cribbs, Current Student)
Angeli Jeyarajah (Spurgeons, 2009)
Maya Peilow (House Captain, Browns, 2010)
Jamie Miller (House Captain, Tysons, 2011)
Jono Anderson (Ropers, 2011)
Ella Shanks (Spurgeons, 2011)
Jenni Le Pard (Senior Prefect, Cribbs, 2011)
Yasmin Jeyarajah (Vice House Captain, Spurgeons, 2011)
Samuel Young (Cribbs, 2009)
Rosemary Harris (House Captain, Duttons, 2010)
Chris Harris (Parent)
Annie Harris (Parent)
Daniel Unwin (Spurgeons, 2010)
Gabriella Russell (Tulleys, 2010)
Claire Charnock (Tysons, 2010)
Charlotte Sandberg (House Captain, Tulleys, 2010)
James Lawton (Vice Swimming Captain, Lower School Prefect, Bradings, 2010)
Camilla Craker-Horton (Lower School Prefect, Browns, 2011)
Ben Browett (Sports Captain, Spurgeons, 2011)
Hattie Smart (Browns, 2013)
Shadi Brazell (Vice School Captain, Browns, 2011)
William Bissett (Cribbs, 2011)
Jude Mack (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2013)
Jacob Rowe (Vice House Captain, Cribbs, 2014)
Jaleh Brazell (Senior Prefect, Browns, 2016)
Khalil Thirlaway (Vice House Captain, Cadet CSgt, Browns, 2007)
Vera Vorobyeva (Current Student)
William Damazer (Head of Politics Society, Duttons, 2008)
Laura Kelly (House Captain, Spurgeons, 2016)
Anna Broughton (Senior Prefect, Cribbs, 2016)
Connie Castle (Lower School Prefect, Ropers, 2016)
Lucy Peters (Vice House Captain, Ropers, 2016)
Louis Knight-Webb (Bradings, 2016)
Alice McKimm (House Captain, Tulleys, 2016)
Penny Young (Lower School Prefect, Duttons, 2016)
Justin Mann (Tulleys, 2011)
Isabella Robertson (Vice House Captain, Duttons, 2016)
Theo McCausland (Vice House Captain, Bradings, 2012)
Joe Wilson (Vice House Captain, Tulleys, 2016)
Clara Collyns (2011)
Millie (Lower School Prefect, Tysons, 2016)
Ruby Welton (Vice House Captain, Ropers, 2016)
Sophia Dembitzer (Tulleys, 2011)
Alexander Marshall (Cribbs, 2016)
Kim Stallard (Senior Prefect, Browns, 2012)
Joshua Keeling (Senior Prefect, Hockey Captain, Bradings, 2016)
Anna Mymus (Tysons, 2016)
Holly Gimson (Senior Prefect, Spurgeons, 2016)
Audra Chukukere (Parent)
Andrew Mackenzie (Parent)
Lucie Davidson (Duttons, 2014)
Phil Morton (2014)
Josh Bailey (Ropers, 2014)
Lauren Meisner (Lower School Prefect, Tulleys, 2014)
Alabama Calkin (Lower School Prefect, Cribbs)
Haroun Hameed (Vice House Captain, Spurgeons, 2014)
Noah Forbes (Ropers, 2014)
Leo Dutton (House Captain, Duttons, 2014)
Claire Noble (CCF RQMS, Cribbs, 2014)
Emma Waldegrave (Lower School Prefect, Spurgeons, 2011)
Sam Hoiles (2014)
Lucy Morton (Parent)
Sylvie Markes (Vice House Captain, Duttons, 2014)
Brittany Johnston (Spurgeons, 2014)
Catherine Hindmarsh (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2014)
Rachel Everitt (Bradings, 2011)
Adam Heaton (Bradings, 2009)
Charlotte Ody (Senior Prefect, Tysons, 2011)
Why a state primary school may lose its playing fields to fund Dulwich College (and Alleyn’s and JAGS)
Back in February I wrote about the impact of Dulwich Estate, the huge South London landlord with charitable status, upon the neighbourhood in which I live. It is in the process of ripping the heart out of my local community in pursuit of commercial imperatives that enable it to pay millions of pounds to three well-known and well heeled private schools, Dulwich College, Alleyn’s, and JAGS. I pointed out the irony that all three schools claim a commitment to the local community on their websites. You can read that piece here.
In that piece I briefly mentioned the plight of the Judith Kerr School, a relatively new state primary, which looked like it would be the next to suffer greatly at the hands of Dulwich Estate. That situation has reached an acute stage and is worth looking at in detail.
The Judith Kerr, named after the brilliant writer of The Tiger Who Came To Tea and (many other titles) was established in 2013 on land and in buildings in Herne Hill owned by Dulwich Estate. The landlord has since ‘offered’ a massive slab of the school’s paying fields to another local charity, The Dulwich Almshouses, which wants to build new sheltered housing for the elderly. Dulwich Almshouses, which currently has buildings in Dulwich Village, say they have been looking for a new site since 1931, a mere 85 years.
I have put the word ‘offered’ in inverted commas because it’s quite difficult to work out where the Almshouses end and Dulwich Estate begins. Dulwich Almshouses, which receives over 40% of its funds from Dulwich Estate, operate from the same building as them. Their administration is dealt with essentially by officers of Dulwich Estate. Certainly it was Dulwich Estate who suggested that the land currently occupied by the Judith Kerr be the site of the new Almshouses, should Southwark Council give planning permission. The kids at Judith Kerr currently have only 50% of the recommended minimum outdoor space. If this plan goes ahead it will reduce the amount of open space to just 19% of that minimum.
And why are Dulwich Estate pursuing this plan? They have always been clear that everything they do is designed to realise the greatest commercial return from their assets. They say they are obliged to do so. In short they want to give the land to the other charity to build upon because the financial return is better than leaving it in the hands of the Judith Kerr. And where does that money go? As explained in the first piece, 85% of it goes to fund three private schools.
So just to thump the message home: the plan is to deprive a state primary school of its playing fields to fund three fee-paying schools. Delightful.
Obviously the schools argue that the Dulwich Estate money goes to fund bursaries and scholarships for those who can’t afford the fees. Chapter and verse is in the original piece but a) funding a charitable good is not an excuse for depriving others and b) at least two of the schools use the money for other things.
In June 2016, Joseph Spence, head teacher of Dulwich College, put his name to a letter to The Times, defending schools like his from charges of elitism. The letter claimed that ‘almost all independent schools work with their local communities in a wide variety of ways, sponsoring academies, creating free schools, sharing teachers and facilities, and running programmes in maths, science, languages, sport, music and drama that enrich lives and raise aspirations.’ All very noble, but somewhat at odds with benefiting from a charity that is depriving a state primary school of outside space.
I wrote to the head teachers of all three schools asking them whether they thought the plan was okay, and whether they had expressed their opinion directly to Dulwich Estate. None of them replied. The cruel assumption is that they simply don’t care about the welfare of state-educated children on their patch. Given the silence, the unwillingness to engage, let’s go with that. The alternative is cowardice: they can’t bring themselves to challenge Dulwich Estate because they want the dosh. Maybe you think I’m being unfair. Perhaps I am but nowhere near as unfair as Dulwich Estate trying to deprive the Judith Kerr of its outdoor space. If they do decide to contact me in response to this piece I’ll let you know what they say.
For their part Dulwich Estate claims that they are doing nothing illegal; that the rights to give the land to another body for development were enshrined in the 2013 contract when the Judith Kerr was established. This is true. The Department of Education and the bodies that founded the school did an awful job of negotiating the contract with Dulwich Estate.
This is not a defence. Just because you got away with shoving onerous clauses in a contract doesn’t mean it’s okay to do so. It doesn’t make everything fine. Arguably Dulwich Estate should have seen providing the nascent Judith Kerr with land and buildings as part of its corporate social responsibility. Dulwich Estate are not just landlords. They are custodians of a whole corner of London. They have a responsibility to think broadly about everybody on their land. They shouldn’t just wander off shouting: ‘we are within the law; we can do what we like’.
What of the Dulwich Almshouses? Surely that’s a deserving cause? Well yes, of course, but it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. Indeed, there is a site in the centre of Dulwich, close to shops and amenities. The S G Smith site behind the car showroom already has planning permission for a bunch of town houses. They could develop that site and leave the school playing fields alone.
But then Dulwich Estate wouldn’t make so much money, would it. And the three private schools would, in turn, get less. And that would never do.
Jay Rayner, SE24
Newbury: an apology.
Tomorrow night I bring my show about lousy restaurants, My Dining Hell, to the Corn Exchange in Newbury. I am very much looking forward to it. Tickets are available here and at the link below.
While ticket sales are now well into a healthy three figures, I understand some potential audience members may have been put off by what are regarded as disobliging comments I made about Newbury in an article published on the Guardian website in 2011. Newbury does not forget.
The piece was actually an appreciation of the Swiss cheese, Emmental, which I described as ‘The Newbury of cheeses: it’s solid, workmanlike, but very, very dull. Everybody knows it’s there but few think they have any reason to visit.’ This did result in a few newspaper headlines at the time, and a certain outrage online. Or as my agent put it recently, when they came to marketing the current show, ‘Why the hell couldn’t you just have been rude about Slough? They’re used to it’.
You can read that original article here. I want to say now, and for the record, that the article was not meant as an insult to the kind and interesting people of Newbury. I can also see now that using the word ‘dull’ to refer to Newbury – a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis, with a cultural life to challenge that of Renaissance Florence – was completely and utterly wrong.
I apologise unreservedly.
Apart from anything else I was clearly out of date, a terrible failing for any journalist. As Jeremy Holden-Bell, chairman of the Newbury Society, told the BBC at the time: ‘Historically possibly Newbury was dull, but it’s changed a lot in the past two years. We have our Parkway development opening next month which will bring a lot more shops to the area. We don’t think Newbury is dull at all.’
In my defence, further on in the article I went on to point out that my use of the word was just a first impression and wrong both for Emmental and, therefore, Newbury. While some misguided fools might regard them as lacking a certain glamour, both are industrious work houses, where real work gets done. In Newbury’s case it is a hub for the British tech industry. That, after all, is why Vodaphone has made its home there. In the case of Emmental, it is the ballast upon which that brilliant Swiss dish cheese fondue is built. Without Emmental, a fondue would be nothing.
And so, to say sorry to Newbury, I am today publishing here my recipe for fondue from my forthcoming book, the Ten (Food) Commandments, which will be published in June.
I’m not a total idiot. I don’t think a fondue recipe can really make amends for the great hurt I have caused the good people of Newbury over the years. But I do hope you will take it as a token of my respect and regard. Can I also encourage you to come to the show. As well as taking you on a journey through truly awful restaurant experiences, I will offer the audience a number of opportunities during which they can call me a self-regarding, up-him-himself, snobby, London-centric tosser to my face. Indeed, I would welcome it.
More than anything, I’m just so bloody sorry. Newbury, please forgive me.
RECIPE FOR CHEESE FONDUE
One clove of garlic
300ml good dry white wine
1tbsp kirsch (or other white firewater like Poire William. You could, at a push, use vodka. But DON’T use gin. That would be a terrible thing to do.)
Dijon mustard if wanted
One egg (for later).
Bread cut into pieces.
- Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the cut side around the inside of the fondue pot.
- Gently heat the wine in the fondue pot. Turn down to a low simmer.
- Slowly mix handfuls of the cheese into the wine, pausing to stir until each batch is melted. This could take 10 or 15 minutes.
- In a small glass mix the cornflour into the spirit so it forms a paste. Dollop all of it into the fondue mix, and continue to stir over a low heat. After five minutes it should have thickened. If by any chance it hasn’t, add another half a teaspoon of corn flour (in another half tablespoon of spirit).
- Get a lackey to light the fondue burner on a medium flame.
- Time to season: you can do this with just salt and pepper to taste, though a teaspoon of Dijon mustard (or more if you fancy) will punch it up. It’s your call.
- Transfer immediately to the burner, and eat by spearing lumps of bread on to the fork and dredging. We generally eat it standing up. It’s so much easier to see what’s going on over the rim.
Announcing: The Ten (Food) Commandments
I am delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of my new book The (Ten) Food Commandments, which will be published by Penguin Books in the UK June. It’s available for pre-order here. At the same time I am announcing my new live show, based on the book. The very first performance, under the auspices of Guardian Live, will be at the Royal Institute of British Architects on June 24. You can get tickets for that here. It will then go on tour through out the UK.
The Ten (Food) Commandments
The prophet Moses was many things: rebel leader, font of morality, poster boy for dodgy orienteering. On the tricky matter of your dinner he was less helpful, at least if the original Ten Commandments are anything to go by. Assuming they really were dictated by God and not something he cooked up when he was alone on the mountain top after having stomped off in a huff, the first four reveal the maker to be a touch self-absorbed. It’s all ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ and ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God’. Really! Some people!
That’s followed by boiler plate stuff prohibiting murder, theft and lying before you get to the only one which in any way pertains to ingredients: the instruction not to covet thy neighbour’s oxen. Always tricky; there are some damn attractive oxen out there. This is the great failing of those Ten. They really don’t offer those of us located in the 21st century much in the way of guidance when it comes to thinking about our relationship with our food. And Lord knows we need it.
The fact is we need a new set of hand-tooled, subject-specific food commandments, custom engineered for the modern food obsessed age. Which in turn means we need our very own culinary Moses; someone with the scholarship, dignity, insight and teeth to stand in judgement on everyone else.
I know just the man.
Oh come on. Who else could it be?
I have a beard flecked with grey. I have shaggy hair and, though I say it myself, I look super hot in flowing robes. (They rather flatter the more generous figure). And yes, I really do have all my own teeth. I wouldn’t mind having someone else’s teeth but I’ll settle for mine. They’ve seen me this far.
So come with me as I lay down the law; as I deal once and for all with the question of whether it really is ever okay to covet thy neighbour’s oxen (it is), the importance of eating with your hands (very important indeed) and whether you should cut off the fat (you shouldn’t).
I will give you guidance on worshipping leftovers and why you should not mistake food for pharmaceuticals which can cure you of all known diseases, especially cancer. (A quick heads up: there is not a single foodstuff the eating of which will protect you from cancer. Not even a little bit.) I will insist that thou shalt cook while also not running from the stinkiest of foods even if they smell of death. The best foods in life smell lightly of death.
I will insist that thou shall honour thy pig. Or anybody else’s pig for that matter. Because everything is improved by the application of a little pig.
Obviously, there’s a chance this will make you hungry. Don’t worry. The book comes with recipes, for things to eat with your hands, using the stinkiest of foods, that honour thy pig and much more besides.
So come with me as I lead you to the culinary promised land.
My Dining Shame… (or, the one where I confess to eating KFC)
People assume that, as a restaurant critic for the The Guardian, and working on MasterChef and The One Show I spend my entire life feasting on roast swan, being pelted with truffles and hosed down with champagne. And obviously there is a quite a lot of that.
But really I’m just a greedy man with an expense account. On March 3 I bring my show about lousy restaurant experiences, My Dining Hell, to theThe Alban Arena. I’ll take you through the things that drive me insane, both in service and menu language, and list six restaurants that annoyed me the most. In the second half, I’m joined by my jazz quartet for songs of food and agony, and I’ll tell you a few (filthy) stories of life growing up with a mother who was a sex advice columnist.
Ahead of that I thought it was only right that I share a few of my dirty food secrets with you, to prove that my life really isn’t all roast swan and Krug; that I’m just the same as everyone else, assuming everyone else is a greedy swine with no shame. So… three things I have eaten.
1. A sausage from one of those food trucks in London’s Trafalagar Square after midnight at the weekend before a night bus home. It smelt of festering onions and fat and desperation. But I was drunk. And hungry. AND NOTHING ELSE WAS OPEN. DON’T JUDGE ME.
2. KFC – well of course. Though not often. Each year my family goes to Center Parcs. There’s a KFC at the service station en route. I get my wife to buy it so I’m not spotted in the queue, and then hide in the corner. However my son has a photograph of me eating it on his phone. He’s threatening to release it on to social media. Coughing to my crime here is my way of neutralising my son’s filthy attempt at blackmail.
3. The Pizza Hut mini-cheeseburger pizza. It is what it sounds like: a pizza with 12 mini cheeseburgers set into the crust. But I do have an excuse. I was researching an article about ludicrously calorific items. This item, at 2,880 calories, easily won. And I didn’t finish it. I gave most of it away. I’m a good person.
For info on all my live shows, go here
Meanwhile what are your guilty food secrets?