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3 posts from March 2010

10 March 2010

Michelin stars: The madness of perfection

Original 1898 poster featuring Bibendum.Image via Wikipedia

I have a lot of sympathy for journalists or media companies who try to make the topic of food, especially expensive food, accessible.  They're on a hiding to nothing.

Take a look at the comments to pretty much any post by Jay Rayner on the Guardian's Word of Mouth blog and you'll see how many whackjobs there are out there.  These are people who could quite easily access any of the other delights of the internet that pander to their bizarre self-righteousness.  Instead, they go to a website dedicated to food, and they froth and dribble in horror when a restaurant critic discusses the finer points of his job.

One of the many pleasures I get from writing this blog is that my readers who contact me, either in the comments or by email, largely care about food, are knowledgeable and have a point of view.  In other words they're not loons.  They've come here either through Google, or I'd guess most likely from reading other sites where I've commented or that link to me.  In other words, it's a relatively select group.

Which brings me back to mass media and food.  In the same way those Guardian commenters have issues simply walking away from that which riles them, I imagine the problem is only magnified for TV programmes.  People seem incapable of simply turning over or off.  Instead, they watch a programme and go bonkers.

So I was impressed at BBC 2's bravery in airing a programme about the 2010 Michelin UK guide.  This is a topic ripe for the banshees to scream that we're in a recession, it's vulgar that those rich pigs are eating food and worrying about asterisks on a page in a red book when people all over the world are starving.  The arguments are hackneyed, dull navel gazing. 

But as a state-funded broadcaster, the Beeb needs to take account of these issues so William Sitwell's programme needs to tread a fine line between arching his eyebrow at the futility and frippery of it all and actually scrutinising Michelin in a fair way.

Overall, I found it a pretty interesting.  There were moments that it got a bit silly, for example where he talks about PR girls and their love of champagne, or his naif attitude when in the kitchen of Marcus Wareing.  For the editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated it didn't quite wash.  He's a man who clearly should know his way around a restaurant kitchen.  Equally, his view that this is only food and won't change the world is true, but it's true for many many things in life, such as the Oscars, the Man Booker prize and even blogs.  It doesn't mean they don't make life that much more enjoyable and therefore have value.

His interview of Dominique Loiseau, widow of Bernard Loiseau was touching.  Sitwell did a good job of balancing sensitivity to what was a tragic turn of events and questioning whether it was just the pressure of possibly losing a Michelin star that resulted in Loiseau taking his life.  It's a complex topic and one that resulted in a very good book.  For something that covered about 3 minutes of the programme, Sitwell was as comprehensive as could be expected.

I'm not sure whether the programme ever reaches a conclusion as to the value of Michelin.  It is clear from the range of chefs interviewed that they view it as important both commercially and also as validation of their skill.  Many go way beyond such rationalising.  Michelin becomes the monster in their headIt is also clear that some chefs lose sight that Michelin is a commercial organisation, it is there to sell books.  So if it does the odd PR stunt, such as say leak the results early two years in a row, then so be it.

The relationship between restaurants and Michelin is I think analogous to that of companies and rating agencies.  Companies need the ratings agencies to analyse their balance sheets so that they can raise debt.  Companies often rail against the agencies, especially that they have to pay for the analysis, but in the end they live with it and encourage the system. 

So chefs at the top of their game rail against the tyranny of Michelin.  Marco Pierre White makes a lot of noise about handing back his stars.  If he really doesn't care, why make such a song and dance? Marcus Wareing takes a dig at Alain Ducasse's 3 star at the Dorchester, but in the end, he makes clear that he's desperate for the same accolade.  Even Mark Sargent's claim that he no longer wants to cook that food is a undermined somewhat when he suggests that maybe his food deserves one star. 

The most recent example of Michelin mania is Ten in Eight, a restaurant company setup with the express aim of winning ten Michelin stars over the next eight years.  I find this a bizarre target for a restaurant group, but it's a group with some pedigree, amongst its stable is La Becasse and L'Ortolan.  In other words, they might achieve their aim and if they do the owners, the chefs, will be happy people, they'll have the recognition they crave.

In the programme, Christopher Corbin's statement that Michelin are great at rating food but not so great at choosing restaurants you'd want to eat in, sounds good but is too dismissive of some great, enjoyable restaurants. Then again, the Wolseley is always packed and on my recent visits the best that can be said about the food is that it is mediocre.

The programme is a pretty interesting insight into what is perceived as a closed world.  If you really can't stand all that posh food, don't bother watching it.  If you're a food nerd, you'll enjoy it.  You may not learn a whole lot, but it's a pretty good way to spend an hour.  If you're neither of the above and just the type of person who enjoys having their mind engaged on interesting although not world changing issues, I'd also commend the programme to you. 

However much we try to theorise, it seems that Michelin is important because it's important.  There isn't much logic to it, it's just the way the world turns.

Michelin stars: The madness of perfection, BBC 2, Thursday 11 March, 9pm

07 March 2010

Kenwood vs KitchenAid, a year on

After the conundrum of last year I thought I'd update you as to how my relationship with my Kenwood is going. 

Actually, that's not entirely true.  It's just that I used it for the first time yesterday.  Up until now I'd been patting myself on the back at my great purchase as it gathered a year's worth of dust in the cellar.

Then, with my competitive juices flowing as I had to submit my entry for my company's cake competition (it was a butterfly cake with hideous icing) I cranked out the Kenwood.  And it's bloody marvellous.

I know the KitchenSexAids look good, but my Chef Premier did me proud. I whisked, creamed and beat to my heart's delight.  I was even able to knock-out a celebratory smoothie to round off the day. 

I was very nearly led by the KitchenAid zealots, but don't be.  It's a bit of expensive, pretty, metal.  If you can find a Kenwood on a good deal, go for it, it will do the same job at a fraction of the price.

03 March 2010

Deliver us from Deliverance

Deliverance is a London based takeaway company.  They have their own kitchens out of which they make a scarily wide variety of food. Blithely ignoring the centuries of refinement that has culminated in some of the world's leading cuisines, they churn out Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian and Sushi. 

In order to really cover all the bases they also offer World Classics which inter alia includes England (WTF?), Mexico, the Caribbean and France.

I find it difficult to express how many shades of awful my experiences of Deliverance have been.  Helpfully though, their website assists me, particularly their rather proud strap-line:

Deliverance is a team of people who work like mad to make sure that the most delicious possible food is delivered to your door.

Let's give that a good fisking.  Is Deliverance really a team of people?  I wonder.  A team implies a group working together, it implies humanity, intellect and initiative. 

They work like mad do they?  Having eaten their food I'd suggest that they cook like madmen.  Perhaps cooking bitter, nasty, foul tasting pad thai does require frenzied, uncontrolled activity.  But serving it to a paying customer? That speaks to me more of straight-jackets and temazepam than furious industry. 

Delicious food.  Ah, now there's the rub.  See reference to the aforementioned pad thai.  I have not reached my inconsiderable size by throwing away food I don't like.  I can power on.  Until faced with food from Deliverance.  I genuinely believe it is a travesty, but it ended up in the bin. 

And delivered to your door?  Really, ask my colleagues.  It took almost two hours for their food to arrive.  I stress their food.  Someonelse's food turned up first, confusion reigned, it was removed and eventually what they ordered turned up.

But why do I care?  Shurely I don't rely on takeaway?  Surely I'm dining out regularly at the finest of three stars, or the latest new opening, or that place down the dark alley that serves up fresh civet droppings?  Much of that is true.  But I also quite often spend late nights in the office and I need my food.

And for some bizarre reason, virtually nowhere delivers food in the centre of London.  Go into the 'burbs and you'll come across some great takeaways.  But in the centre of town, located within spitting distance of J Sheekey's, Hix Soho, Polpo and other delectables, you can't get food delivered.

I could resort to going out of the office and getting another pizza from Rossopomodoro.  I could wander up Old Compton Street to Maoz for a falafel.  But I don't want to wander.  I want to get home sharpish by doing my work, having a bite to eat and scooting.

Which brings us back to the ghastly Deliverance.  They get away with it by having no competition.  At one time Room Service was providing takeaway from a selection of decent restaurants.  I notice that one of their restaurants at the moment is Planet Hollywood. 'nuff said. So Deliverance has got no real competition and has become exceptionally lazy as a result.

It's enough to make me rethink Deliverance's strap line above.  Perhaps rather than a string of bollocks, it is in fact a call to arms.  Maybe there is a genuine business model in there somewhere, you know, people who give a shit about food delivering it to people who care what they eat. 

We could tear around making sure that what is served is, ooh, edible and then drop it round to the people who actually ordered it.  All those up for the revolution, follow me I'm off to the kitchen.