Eric Chavot swears on Saturday Kitchen – I get traffic!

The Capital Hotel’s Eric Chavot played a blinder on last weekend’s Saturday Kitchen. He was amusing, watchable and enigmatic, and the dish he created looked fab. Shame he let slip the f-word towards the end of the show and thus gave the Daily Mail free rein to vilify him …

My terribly clever WordPress dashboard registered a healthy dollop of traffic around Eric’s name after the programme, which spurred me to explore the chefs and cookery writers delivering the best footfall for me on this blog. So, pop pickers, here is my top ten of Lewis blog foodies. Dah Dah, da-da Dah, der der der, der der der, Dah Dah, da-da Dah … etc.

But what does this tell me about the relative pulling power of food stars, and the nature of chefdom, apart from the fact that I should clearly cook a dish from Marcella’s classical Italian repertoire every night if I want to grow my audience?

First, isn’t it interesting that two of the darlings of the food scene, Fergus and Alain, are way off the pace? Both are great chefs, and Alain occupies a place in the stratosphere of chef legends; but clearly their entrails and extravagance haven’t struck a chord with my visitors. Could it be that few domestic fridges harbour foie gras or trotters?

Second, how revealing that the top three should be booktastic, all, Madhur and Marcella having forged long and glittering literary careers from producing standard texts, Jun having only weeks ago brought out a popular new tome, Simple to Sensattional?

The message is that producing books of recipes that are attainable, tasty and rooted in a specific regional cuisine ensures a loyal following. In years to come, Jun (a really nice fellow) might have built up such a canon or work. Meanwhile, I would expect his name to be searched on less and less in the coming weeks, as more of his peers bring out new books. Ah, but “Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate”.

[The post was brought to you by Emily Dickinson and WordPress]

The enduring appeal of eating like a student

heinzZafferano, Alain Ducasse,  ras el hanout … Scanning some of my recent posts, I’m struck by just what  a faux gourmand I sound. My diet hasn’t always revolved around Michelin stars, champagne and black truffle – and still doesn’t. Back in the day, I liked nothing better than to mix and match a couple of tins and whack their combined contents on a mountain of rice.

Last night, I rolled back the years with a hefty bowl of tuna and baked-bean chilli on rice. As you would imagine, it doesn’t take the cheffing skills of an Escoffier to create this little beauty. You take one large tin of beans, one medium-sized tin of tuna (in spring oil) and stir in a massive shake of chilli powder (imagine you are talc-ing a fat man fresh out of the bath). Cook, then serve on a bed of boiled rice. Fantastic – you can have that one on me, Gordon.

How Michelin stardom killed Bernard Loiseau (II)

bernard-loiseauRecently I described how the first half of  The Perfectionist introduces three Michelin-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau within the context of the great French chefs of the past fifty years.

In the second half, the author cements the image of a chef whose gastronomic confidence and lack of personal self-confidence seem to flourish in tandem. We learn of his invention of a system of binding sauces with vegetable purées; and one of his defining creations, frogs’ legs with garlic purée and parsley juice, is described in enlightening detail. But at the same time we witness him working ever harder to hone his offering, becoming overly embroiled in building works at his restaurant and incurring mounting debts.

Much is made of the friendly service Loiseau drew from his team. Bernard exhorted his front of house staff to “just be yourselves”, and the resulting delivery and presentation of dishes was refreshingly straightforward: “There would be no convoluted terms on the menu, no “secret” ingredients, no precious, poetical language that made clients wish they had a dictionary at the table. Each dish would be presented simply and clearly as what it was, and when we delivered it to the client we would simply announce it without going into further detail. If you spend a minute going into lyrical descriptions of the dish and its recipe, it’s just getting cold while you talk, and the client has already forgotten what you’ve said by the time you’re finished. Eating here is for pleasure, not for education.” Loiseau was similarly single-minded when it came to the sourcing of ingredients: “I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves and really taste of what they are … sixty per cent of my work is finding the best providers of my ingredients”.

Great food, ambience and service conspired, in 1991, to win Loiseau his coveted third star – a source of huge pride to a chef who, in his own words, arrived at his restaurant “with nothing but my cock and my knives”. But now his problems really started. An economic downturn, Bernard’s ongoing insecurities and high stress levels led to a bout of depression while in Japan. He was diagnosed as a manic depressive and prescribed Prozac. By now, more experimental chefs were attempting fusions of world cuisines and the likes of Ferran Adria were emerging to threaten the cosy world of classical cuisine. Loiseau rejected their faddish work, but his increasing paranoia and lack of confidence made him increasingly withdrawn, stressed, even phobic about hygiene.

The fallout from September 11 exacerbated his worries by robbing him of the healthy US customer base he previously enjoyed. And then rumours emerged that Michelin were considering downgrading him from three to two stars. Despite all the problems beyond his control that beset him, Chelminski suggests that Loiseau was arguably the architect of his own downfall. True, there was a meeting in 2002 between Loiseau and the then head of Michelin, Derek Brown, at which Brown passed on readers’ criticisms of Loiseau’s sauces. But Chelminski asserts that the subsequent predictions that circulated in the French press that Loiseau might be about to lose a star gathered pace only after Bernard himself called lots of his contacts to tell them of Brown’s comments. As it turned out, Bernard maintained his three stars in early 2003; but his GaultMillau rating dropped by two points to 17 out of 20 – a crushing blow. By now he was a man haunted by the ambitions he had set himself, and in February 2003 he killed himself with a gunshot to the head, burnt out and unable to bear his worries any longer. 

The book’s message in a nutshell? Be careful what you wish for.

Asparagus, parma ham and (hard) boiled egg; pears and Poire William

asparagus-and-parma-hamLast night, boutique contract caterers Lexington Catering celebrated being named a Sunday Times top small company to work for 2009 and a Best Company of 2009 by throwing a party on the 33rd floor of Broadgate Tower. After a coupel of hours of champagne, canapes and stunning views of Legoland-London below, guests were sent on their way with a generous handful of Isle of Wight farmer, Ben Brown’s asparagus.

asparagus-cookingTonight, we decided to throw together an asparagus, parma ham, soft boiled egg and parmesan salad, with a hunk of soda farl. Cliched as it may sound, I realised I didn’t know how to boil an egg, at least not a perfectly gooey, soft boiled egg that would ooze over the asparagus like sunshine at dawn. Queue St Delia. Her How to Cook Book One explained that simmering an egg for one minute, then taking it off the heat, covering the pan and leaving for 6 minutes, would guarantee a “soft, fairly liquid yolk and a white that is just set but still quite wobbly”.

Uh-huh.  I followed the saint, but the yolks ended up pretty much hard boiled. Boo. Next time, I think four or five minutes of resting time will suffice. Still, the dish was a tasty treat, and the asparagus discernibly better than the twiggy stalks from the supermarket that we normally endure.

pearsWhile I tried in vain to make a hard-boiled egg look runny for the camera, Susie grabbed our copy of Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Puddings and whipped up sliced pears steeped in Poire William, chilled and sprinkled with toasted almonds – part of our crusade to use up our fruit and veg before it goes off. Delicious.

[This blog was brought to you by Crimewatch with the volume turned down and the faint noise of the water board reparing a pipe outside.]

Alexanders: a clarification

I posted last week about a strange vegetable, known as Alexanders, I had just tasted at the Goring Hotel. The Goring’s chef, Derek Quelch, was kind enough to provide a little detail on them:

Alexanders is actually part of the celery family. It tends to grow in coastal areas from early spring and it is said in some early cookbooks (Mrs Beeton ‘s household management 1907) that it was used instead of celery. It has a very bitter taste that can be counteracted with a little bit of sugar when cooked in butter.

I’ve now come across a comprehensive definition in a learned tome called Traditional Foods of Britain: a Inventory, which runs from Aberdeen Angus cattle to yule spice cake (surely the British Isles must have produced at least one foodstuff beginning with “Z”?) and looks like a prime candidate for a bedside read, if ever I saw one.

It corroborates Derek’s comment, describing Alexanders as a large umbelliferous plant, growing to about 1.5 metres, which looks like celery, has a soft texture when cooked and tastes a little like celery and parsley. Also known as black lovage andhorse parsley, it was brought here by the Romans, and was still being eaten in Italy in Renaissance times.

So now you know.

[This blog was brought to you by the setting sun and a hot cup of coffee.]

Madhur Jaffrey’s Kashmiri Lamb Stew – complete

kashmiri-lamb-stewSusie wants the leftovers for her lunch tomorrow. That’s her way of saying “that was bloody lovely” – which it was, if I do say so myself. The yoghurt cooked away to nothing but a sort of cheese-y paste on the meat, which itself melted on the tongue. Thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for the radish raita recipe in this weekend’s Guardian.

[This blog was brought to you by Steve Marriott playing Watcha Gonna Do About It and a glass of Crianza.]

Arctic Rolls, Wispa bars and Mellow Birds

arctic-rollInteresting article in last weekend’s Sunday Times about the return to our supermarkets of food brands not available for decades, such as as the Arctic Roll and the Wispa bar – all “part of a growing trend among food producers to tap into a wave of nostalgia, seemingly being propelled by a new-found love of comfort food as a way of coping with the recession”, the article suggests. 

I don’t know about you, but I get mighty tired of those tedious conversations we’ve all endured at pubs and dinner parties, when squiffy thirty- and fourty-somethings wax lyical about dodgy food products of yesteryear. “Oooh, Tarquin, I can’t ber-lieve you preferred Drifters to curly wurlies, blah, blah, blah …”

Nigel Slater has taken pointless chocolate-coated nostalgia to new heights, with his latest book, Eating for England. Toast, I liked – a sort of Fever Pitch for the kitchen. But I’d give Eating for England a wide berth, if I were you.  

Since you ask (oh, you didn’t ask?), I miss Nutty bars tremendously. And, with that, I think Stupid and Hungry has travelled quite far enough down memory lane.