146 posts categorized "Opinion"

25 September 2011

Keep food writing focused

It seems that every cookbook is the same as the last.

There are the obligatory breakfast recipes that will include a version of çılbır, then a few pages on snacks, perhaps some suggestions for lunch that will include mackerel and then dinner, no doubt split between the quick, post-work-I'm-too-knackered-to-cook suggestion, to the dinner party option, via the thick chunky soup for an autumnal night. 

I recently wrote about Tea with Bea, Bea Vo's attempt to shed some light on how she makes such delicious cakes.  In the book's introduction she says she was initially sceptical about writing a book because she felt so much of it had been written before.  She then realised that cookbooks should be about "a particular chef's point of view".  This struck a chord with me.  So many cookbooks seem utterly pointless.

Then recently, over the last few months, I've read some books and magazines that I've enjoyed and hope has been restored.  None of them included spicy egg and yoghurt recipes, or thick chunky soups.  In fairness, not all of them were cookbooks.  They all had one thing in common, single mindedness. It felt to me as though the author was trying to leave the reader with one point, and every page hammered that home.

Setting the Table: Lessons and inspirations from one of the world's leading entrepreneurs is not a cookbook at all.  Written by Danny Meyer, owner of a slew of well regarded New York restaurants, ranging from the venerable Gramercy Tavern, through 11 Madison Avenue to Shake Shack.  Meyer's point is very simple, restaurants are about hospitality and that's the complicated bit.

Obviously these are the views of just one man, but I would guess others who run restaurant groups might well agree.  Thinking of UK restaurant groups such as Caprice Holdings, Gordon Ramsay Holdings or even the mini Arbutus Restaurant Group, service is of a very particular standard.

If I was a more diligent sort, I'd read a load of restaurant reviews and analyse the frequency and tone that hospitality is mentioned.  But I'm not, so I'll go with instinct instead.  I reckon that if there's bad service it always gets written about - perhaps two paragraphs worth in an average review - and if there's exceptional service, it might get a line and a half.  Most times though, it will barely get a mention in a review because it is solid and is not deemed to merit comment.  

If anyone can be bothered to prove how correct I am (or incorrect, unlikely) then it would seem that reviewers take service for granted because that is what we expect.  

Meyer seems to be saying that if we do take it for granted when rating a restaurant we're missing a trick.  If the hospitality isn't good, then nothing else will be either, however proficient the kitchen.

When reading Setting the Table, I did hanker for a bit more food writing and a bit more of the grit of running a restaurant, but it made a change from some of the self-serving twaddle some UK proprietors foist upon us.  Meyer's success seems to be built on firmer foundations than some of his UK counterparts, which adds legitimacy to what he has to say.  It's all about service kids.

Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work also falls into the single minded category.  Written by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot (who I interviewed a few years ago) it is a reflection of their years behind the stove cooking together and forever posing simple questions of their ingredients and recipes, along the lines of why? and how?  All this questioning has resulted in a book that builds on their very successful blog.  

The book gives home cooks, even the fairly timid, tools to make their food more interesting and be able to explain why it is better.  They give you building blocks and ideas to ensure you start questioning the norms you associate with food.  

For example, I made their preserved lemons using a freezing and thawing technique.  This required no more hi-tech equipment than a freezer and freezer bag.  But it got me wondering about cell structures of other fruit and veg and how they might react to a similar preserving technique.  What about preserved apples, or would they go too mushy?  How about using the method to flavour and preserve potatoes, could it break down the cell structure sufficiently so you can eat them raw? Perhaps these are culinary disasters waiting to happen.  Perhaps they're little more than intellectual wankery.  Either way it has got me thinking and that is what I want from a book.

Mark Bittman is the author of numerous books about food and a columnist on the New York Times.  He has embraced the digital publishing era with gusto and in particular has started publishing on Amazon's Kindle Single format.  These are basically long articles/short books available on the Kindle or via the Kindle app.  It's an interesting way to publish cookbooks, because not all books are weighty tomes and some suit a smaller format.  I think that Bittman's Kitchen: What I Grill and Why (Kindle Single) is one such example.

In the introduction, Bittman describes the book as 'idiosyncratic' because it is effectively just a compendium of what he loves to cook.  It is therefore an indulgence for him.

Bittman is at pains to say that his book isn't a 'how to'.  But it is, just by stealth and gentle wiping of the reader's brow.  He assures you that your equipment is probably fine.  He gives a few tips on how to ensure what you're serving is properly cooked.  He gives the obligatory list of what you should have in the cupboard.  He then goes on to give some really rather lovely looking recipes, that you know, given his experience, are going to be well written, will work and will taste good.  Being a journalist, he also gives the requisite pre-recipe blurb on why that particular recipe made the cut into the book.

So for the miserly cost of £0.72 you're getting a well researched and written recipe book about just one facet of cooking. You will have decent meal and learn quite a bit about grilling. The same cannot be said for many books currently flooding the market.

13 May 2011

Gefiltefest 2011 programme is rather tasty

I know I said was excited before, but having just received the (draft) final programme (pdf) for Gefiltefest 2011 from Michael Leventhal, the organiser, now I'm really excited.

For far too long I have harped on about the parlous state of kosher food in the UK, feeling like I was screaming into a void.  It turns out there are others out there who actually care and Michael has corralled them for the day.

There are almost too many interesting things to contain in one measly post, but I'll have a go:

Adam Taub's talking on 'Have you eaten? 4 meals that transformed the Jewish People'.  You may not have heard of Adam but he's a great speaker, brilliantly engaging.

Rose Prince - yes as in that Rose Prince, and that one and that one, yes her - is doing a cookery demonstration on Jewish flatbreads.  I'm guessing there's more to this session than just pitta.

There are sessions on bee-keeping, the politics of food, the Torah's approach to farming and a demonstration of Tunisian cooking.

More esoterically there's an event on Japanese Jewish cooking.  Eh?  And a session called 'Reel Food and Sex: Food on Film'.  Ahem.

Back to the straight and narrow, there's the all important tasting session comparing staples like bagels, cheesecake and challah.

And finally, I may even be doing the odd session.  Oh ok then, I'll stop being bashful.  I am doing three sessions, one on the current state of kosher restaurants entitled a little bit provocatively 'Kosher restaurants are rubbish', I'm compering the tasting mentioned above and hosting a film screening of three shorts.

UPDATED: You can download the final programme here (pdf).

I will update this post, especially once the programme is finalised. 

Gefiltefest will be taking place at the LJCC on Sunday 22 May 2011.  Tickets and further info are available here.

 

 

12 April 2011

MEPs shy away from honest labelling of meat & obscure the issues.

When it comes to food regulation the EU has a bad reputation.  These may not be entirely accurate recollections but I'm sure I've seen mutterings about the bend of bananas, the tinge of tomatoes or the provenance of pasties.

It can seem so silly and petty.  Most often it seems fundamentally wrong-headed.  And so it has come to pass yet again, this time some Members of the European Parliament have decided to focus on slaughter by the halal and shechitah methods.

The regulation on food information for the consumer is supposed to be about allowing consumers to make healthier choices when they buy food.  Struan Stevenson, a Scottish Tory MEP and some colleagues have decided to stretch the meaning of healthy as far as possible and are trying to re-direct the regulation to incorporate some spurious animal welfare ideas. In particular, he has singled out the slaughtering methods of the Jewish and Muslim religions for special labelling treatment.  You can read his amendment here (Word doc, pg 138, amendment 354) but for those who don't want to scroll I'll quote:

"This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Halal method"

And

"This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Shechita method"

In other words they want a sticker across your pack of mince saying

"Don't buy this meat.  It was SLAUGHTERED by RELIGIOUS nutjobs"

To be clear, Mr Stevenson is not asking for other meat to be labelled according to its slaughtering method.  So for example if you happened to buy meat that was killed at this abattoir Mr Stevenson does not think it necessary that your food is labelled

"Don't buy this meat.  We have it on camera that they are psychopaths that kill the animals and we all know that psychos torture animals before they turn their attention to humans.  Steer well clear!!!!"

He's just focusing on those darned Jews and Muslims.

I shouldn't just pick on Mr Stevenson, despite what a tempting target he makes.  Dan Jørgensen, Christel Schaldemose and Sirpa Pietikäinen want your meat to say

"Meat from slaughter without stunning"

But my favourite is from the brilliantly named Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy who wants to target

"Meat and meat products derived from animals that have not been stunned prior to slaughter, i.e. have been ritually slaughtered"

Hmm, that reminds me of that scene in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom where the guy's heart gets ripped out whilst he's alive

Before we get too carried away with all this blood lust, let's just remind ourselves that this legislation is supposed to be about ensuring that consumers make healthier choices. 

Mr Stevenson has made no attempt to argue that his amendments benefit the health of the consumer, for the obvious reason that he never could.  Whatever one's moral issue with shechita or halal, you'd be hard pushed to argue that meat killed by this method is less healthy than meat killed by secular methods.

So why do Mr Stevenson and his colleagues think it's so important that consumers know and what could the consequences of such knowledge possibly be.  With Indiana Jones in mind, it's hard not to think that possibly, just possibly, people might be put off a teency bit by the big bad label.

The average consumer will be innocently trying to buy a leg of lamb when they see a label telling them the following facts:

Fact: Their meat was slaughtered. 

"No way, my meat was slaughtered?!  I don't want meat that has undergone anything like slaughter.  No siree.  Never in my life have I eaten meat that was slaughtered. I'm not starting now."

Fact: It was slaughtered for religious reasons.

"Those bastards, look what they've done.  What was it Marx said about all religious nuts smoking opium.  He was right, otherwise no-one would slaughter meat."

Which leaves our consumer wandering off in a haze looking for some meat that clearly hasn't been slaughtered and clearly hasn't been slaughtered to sate some fanatics' blood lust.

Oh pish you say, Silverbrow you're exaggerating.  Am I?  If I am, then why aren't Mr Stevenson et al calling for labelling of all meat.  Why not propose

"Meat from slaughter but the stunning didn't quite work so to all intents and purposes this animal wasn't actually stunned"

Or

"Chicken that was too short to get fully electrocuted in the water bath.  But don't worry, we had already sliced off its beak to stop it fighting with its bathing companions"

Or

"Meat from a pig that wasn't fully knocked out when we gassed it"

Or

"Meat from an animal that required multiple bolts to the head because the gun was a bit defective or perhaps the bloke using it was just a bit shakier today than he was yesterday."

If the MEPs really cared about informing consumers then they'd go the whole way with labelling.  They wouldn't stop at halal or shechitah.  They shouldn't stop there because as they know full well, there is nothing wrong with them.  They cause no more pain to the animal being slaughtered and in many cases, especially when compared to the vast majority of slaughtering in the UK, much greater care is taken of these animals.

So MEPs, why can't you rise to the challenge?  The kosher and halal communities already label their food.  They're past masters at it.  Why don't you either accept that your amendments have nothing to do with this legislation.  Or, if you insist on the worst kind of policy creep, then go the whole hog and allow the consumer to be truly informed.  Admittedly it won't impact their ability to make healthy choices but it might open their eyes to the cruelty of so much secular slaughter.  The consumer can think twice about buying the bacon from the gassed pig or steak from the floundering, wounded cow.

11 October 2010

Passion at last: Gefiltefest

Most of the time I cannot help but feel despondent about kosher food.  External threats, in particular to shechita are a regular occurence, but appear to be gaining a particular head of steam at the moment with some illogical legislation that is passing through the European Parliament. 

The really depressing thing though is the attitude of the community itself.  There is a saying, ask two Jews a question and you'll get three opinions.  Yet, it seems to me that when it comes to food, this argumentative community goes mute and loses its critical faculties.

Consumers don't seem to care what they're eating.  Producers, regulators and suppliers are seemingly happy with the status quo given the lack of dynamism.  As a result, when we face a threat like we are currently doing from the European Parliament, there are very few knowledagable advocates for kashrut. 

Lots of people can tell you the laws of kashrut and the religious reasons for keeping them.  Very few can defend it in a wider context, can argue against the incorrect view that shechita is cruel or that stunning animals is humane.  Very few are willing to fight to be heard that some of the inherent rules of kashrut do mean that animals are better cared for than in many secular abattoirs.  Equally, there are very few people who walk into a kosher supermarket and balk at the unseemly quantity of over-processed foods that weigh down the aisles.

And then Gefiltefest happens and my hope starts to be restored.  On a soggy Sunday almost 300 people gathered to discuss Jewish food.

Yes, calling something Gefiltefest is meshugah, but come on it is a brilliant name and I for one am ever so slightly peeved I didn't think of it first.  I suppose I could always start a rival, Schmaltzfest. 

Anyway, whilst the name may have got my attention initially, what warmed my heart was seeing so many people in one place, passionate about Jewish food.  True, there were a lot of eccentrics, but I've come to realise that all too often campaigners are denigrated for what makes them so interesting.

It wasn't just an opportunity to fress, although there was plenty of that.  It was also an opportunity to learn, discuss and think about what next.  And as you might gather from the adage above, there were a lot of opinions, but in my view, now is exactly the time we need some vigorous debate.

The talks I went to were diverse and pretty fascinating:  Maureen Kendler on the history of Jewish cookbooks; Kevin Sefton on the attempt for making the Jewish community self-sufficient in Rosh Hashanah honey or Leon Pein on organic kosher food.  I didn't agree with everything I heard, some of it was pretty wacky, but everyone cared deeply.

I was delighted to hear from organiser Michael Leventhal that Gefiltefest 2011 is already booked for May 22nd.  My wishlist for that event would be for it to have kosher food, but delicious, interesting and exciting food provided by someone passionate with what they're serving.  This is not a plea for the same old viennas and latkes (however tasty they may be).  I'd like to discover small kosher producers and suppliers, again people with a passion.  I'd love to hear a debate between a kosher caterer, a butcher, a kosher shop owner and someone from the London Beth Din to discuss regulation and food pricing.  Organising the programme is not my thing, I'll leave that to Michael.  I'll just offer up another opinion.

01 September 2010

Restaurants & social media

Since starting the blog way back when, I've been fascinated by the way restaurants promote themselves.

The immediacy of Twitter has brought this into sharp relief.  Press releases, restaurant reviews and character assasinations are reduced to 140 letters and spaces.  Restaurants, PRs, bloggers and critics are all mixing it up in one big stockpot. In this environment where everyone has a voice, some restaurants thrive on being at the heart of the action.  Others hang in there despite sustained flak.  Others still, it should be remembered, thrive despite having no truck with this new technology.

From my experience those restaurants that have achieved sustainable success have done so because they run good businesses: good food that lives up to or exceeds expectations, they're in a decent location and have a sensible handle on costs versus revenue.  Good PR is also essential because the restaurant needs profile and the public needs to know why they should eat there and social media is an important element of that - it's a brilliant multiplier.

I get the feeling though, that some restaurants and their PRs feel that they have to get involved in social media as an end in itself. Rather than because it helps the company gets bums on seats and that afterall is the purpose of PR.

If I owned a restaurant and a PR agency was trying to convince me that a really important element of my communications programme was to engage with bloggers and social media and they are the only agency that really gets it, I'd ask them the following questions:

  • Why do you think bloggers are so important?
  • Can you send me your social media distribution list and explain your rationale for each individual on it?
  • I know I can't control who eats in my restaurant, but what is the value to my reputation and my bottom line of having a twitter stream and who should write it?
  • Can you justify why my restaurant needs bloggers?
  • Bloggers are always looking for the new thing, so won't they come anyway, whatever I do?
  • Who is going to get the most out of your proposed blogger outreach programme?
  • Why do so many restaurants thrive without entering the social media maelstrom?
  • Can you show me your personal twitter stream?
  • Can you explain to me what you understand by the phrase don't mix business with pleasure?
  • I thought social media was all about the conversation.  Why do I need a PR firm? Can't I do it myself?

It's not all one sided.  If I was in the food PR business, I'd ask some of my clients:

  • Who on earth are you trying to appeal to?
  • Do you not think that there's a reason that nobody has opened up that 'concept' before?
  • Are you sure you want to get bloggers here?  More coverage doesn't necessarily mean better coverage and the outcome isn't always pretty.

09 August 2010

Who needs Modernist Cuisine?

It was announced over the weekend that the website for Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking has been launched.

Modernist Cuisine is a book due out next year.  The list price is $625 (although at the time of writing is available on Amazon for pre-order for $421.87) and is co-authored by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.  Myhrvold is the big name (and money) behind the book.  For those that don't know him, he came to prominence as chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft.

For all that money you get a five volume, 26 chapter behemoth running to over 2200 pages.  At the list price that works out at $0.28 per page, or $0.19 per page at the current discount.  That doesn't sound so bad, but then compare that to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.  Widely regarded as a seminal work and essential for any kitchen, it runs to 896 pages and is listed at $40.  Or, $0.04 per page. McGee's is not illustrated and has been around for years.  But if Modernist Cuisine is going to justify the extra expense, the book will need to attain some lofty heights.

It is no great surprise to see that they're making a virtue out of the printing, at that price it needs to be a work of art.  The table of contents indicates an inexhaustible approach to the vast topic at hand, it also looks quite pretty (see below). The website however looks rather bog standard and simple.  Whilst I'm all in favour of the paired down aesthetic (look around this post), I expected a richer experience than what is currently available.

Beyond the cosmetics I do wonder about the substance and whether the book really is additive.  It feels like much of it has been written before and by similar individuals.  I've already got This, Blumenthal, who writes an introductory chapter and McGee who has given a blurb.  I'm pretty sure I'll be buying McGee's latest and Aki and Alex's Ideas in Food to learn more about what I'm cooking.  But that will set me back £36.59 at list price. I'm sorry to harp on about price, but I do fear that at $625 that is what is going to set this book apart.  And with a December publication date it is surely going to be on all those Christmas lists for "What to buy the foodie who has everything".

The website doesn't help me understand why I need this book.  Perhaps this is just a failing of the current marketing effort.  The book isn't due to be published for some time and they're still in the beta phase, trying to drum up interest, perhaps the odd blog post. (They saw you coming. Ed.)

Or is my understanding not the point?  Is it a rich man's folly?  More about the author, Myhrvold indulging his passion, than the reader?  Not having read it, I've not a clue and it would be wrong to pass judgement on the printed edition.

I don't think the website does the book any favours.  If this is to be a serious addition to our understanding of food and the way its prepared, Myhrvold will need to demonstrate that it is more than a beautifully printed book with some stunning photos.  There needs to be innovation and academy on the printed page.

I genuinely look forward to seeing one in the flesh, it's the type of thing I'm sure Foyles will stock, and then I'll revisit the subject of whether or not this is an expensive indulgence.

Modernist Cuisine Table of Contents

UPDATE: See the comment from Ryan below for further content (pdf) from the book. Ryan took the photographs for the book.

 

29 July 2010

Christina Patterson on Jews and Muslims

This post has nothing to do with food.  If you're looking for the normal treats, can I suggest you read my hilarious anecdote about a recent dinner.

This post is about what I perceive to be something that looks a lot like racism.  Specifically Christina Patterson's article in the Independent, The Limits of Multi-Culturalism.  I found on first reading, her article utterly abhorent.  I had similar feelings on second, third and fourth readings.  Which is why I admire Miriam Shaviv's take-down of her article.

But on reading the comments this morning, I started to wonder if in fact Christina has done more for Muslim - Jewish relations in a few hundred words, than a multitude of worthies have over many years.  This is an article that has both communities up in arms. 

Patterson's depiction of her way as the only right way is deeply disturbing.  She positions religious Jews and Muslims as 'other' and swiftly elides 'other' into 'bad'.  She puts to good use many tropes of the worst kind of racists: broad generalisations (all Jews drive the wrong way around supermarket car park it seems), appropriating their language (see the frequent use of the nastiest of yiddish words, goy) and defence of the poor ignorant child in the clutches of the evil parents (Jewish and Muslim children adhering to concepts of modesty). 

I'm not going to comment on her accusations of female circumsicion in the Muslim community because I know nothing about the topic. I do know that no such thing exists in Judaism.  Yet Christina tries to obfuscate the issue:

There is, I'm sure, nothing in the Koran to indicate that hacking off a girl's labia is an all-round great idea, just as there's nothing in the Torah to say that Volvos should always be driven with a mobile phone in hand, and goyim should be treated with contempt.

But is this a bluff? Is she really trying to ensure that in our joint horror, relations will flourish.  All too often the British press divides Jews and Muslims.  Both groups regularly feel their views are misrepresented in the media.  It seems to me we should be able to find common cause in agreeing all the traits of racism are alive and well on the pages of The Independent.