147 posts categorized "Opinion"

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.

04 June 2010

It's all rather humbling

It's been an awfully long time since I last posted on the blog because life, in a very real way, has come knocking.

As a consequence I've been mulling over giving up writing the blog. I have found it quite tough over the past couple of years to find the time to write anyway, but the last few months have been extraordinary, in the very worst sense of the word. 

And yet, I keep thinking about topics I want to write about.  Whether it's a response to the JC's series on meat, or a fantastic dinner at Dinings, the wonders of fried chicken recipe in Momofuku or the ethereal joy of a plate of Jerusalem grill and mujadara at Sima in Jerusalem.

And then an inocuous tweet brings a bit of light into my day.  It seems that this effort of mine, Silverbrow on Food, has been recognised by Rose Prince.  She is a lady I have long admired.  Rose for those not in the know, is a grande dame of British food, she's written several books and regularly writes for The Telegraph

I have had the pleasure of meeting her once, many years ago when we were both speaking at one of Lulu Grimes' writing classes.  When Lulu asked me to talk about blogging I was only too happy to oblige.  When I walked into the room and realised that Rose was putting across the newspaper perspective, I was more than a little awed.  It turned out she was nothing other than exceptionally knowledgeable about food, passionate about newspapers and most importantly friendly and gracious.

That's a very long winded way of saying that I'm honoured to have been included in her list of the best food blogs.  And as I said before, to be included in company with Dos Hermanos, Scrambling Eggs, Eat Like a Girl, Hollowlegs, The Passionate Cook and The Lambshank Redemption.

I hope to be back shortly writing up some of the above, rather than cluttering the blog with navel gazing posts highlighting when someone says something nice about me.

13 April 2010

Kosher Food Week

I can't remember which book it was, but in one of his earlier works Bill Bryson declares his love for local newspapers.  He argues that it's only by reading what's going on at the community level can you get a feel for the people who live there.

Whilst I wouldn't deride The Jewish Chronicle as merely a local paper, it is as the title suggests a community paper and is rightly proud of it.  It can generate rather mixed feelings across the UK Jewish community, some think its too parochial, others argue its too sensationalist and others still just enjoy reading it after dinner on a Friday night.  (As an aside, if you really want to see a parochial title go and check out The Jewish Telegraph.)

Personally, I don't agree with everything I read it in the JC, but that's true for any paper and being challenged is good.  Under the editorship of Stephen Pollard the JC has at last embraced the internet and has been running some pretty interesting content on its still-slightly-clunky website. 

I was particularly taken by a series of guest articles proposing suggestions for how best to improve the Jewish community in the UK.  The ones I liked most were those focused on making the most out of being a small community: creating a community service programme to provide further support to the least fortunate in society and streamlining our charities to ensure they are providing the right services.

Obviously I couldn't pass up the chance of offering my thoughts on how we could do more with our food and it is on the site now.  For context, it's worth noting that I wrote this during the recent festival of Passover, during which the Seders are the ne plus ultra of Jewish festive dining.

The basic premise of my idea is that we really need to be reminded of the value of what we're eating.  For a community that sets so much store in food, we seem blithely unconcerned about it.

One final point, in the JC article they've titled my idea Kosher Restaurant Week, that was just one idea, part of a bigger picture. But I like it, as this post's title shows though I'm keen to widen it beyond restaurants to kosher food in general.

This is cross-posted from the JC's website.

I know the point of maxims is that they are poignant because they ring true and for me “They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." is a nice encapsulation of the Jewish approach to eating. Along with images of bubbes or Jewish mothers force-feeding their offspring, food is both perceived as, and is actually, central to the Jewish identity.

Yet as a community in the UK, food is rarely a topic for debate. Food is something we all do, it is something we sometimes do together as a community, but it is rarely a topic of discussion.

In the United States there is a vocal movement discussing the ethics of kosher food. These are not debates about shechitah, rather it is a discussion about why is kosher meat so expensive? Why have animals destined for the shochet`s knife lived in conditions rarely much better than factory farms? Is it all about quantity, or does quality matter as well?

The secular world has handled similar issues, focusing on provenance, animal husbandry and alternative farming methods. The kosher community in the UK blindly goes on eating puffy, watery chickens and heavily processed foods.

In the UK, kosher shops or restaurants get credit for selling food approximating treyf [not kosher] equivalents, not the quality of their produce.

I'm advocating that we shouldn`t just be celebrating with food, we should celebrate our food.

We should have a kosher restaurant week where restaurants show off the quality of their cooking rather than crowing that they can cook kosher versions of sizzling beef or an ersatz version of the already ersatz chicken tikka massala. Butchers should do blind tastings comparing organic-style and `normal` chickens. Fishmongers should remind us that it was Jews who brought fish and chips to the UK.

It’s time to embrace what we eat and how we eat it and stop being so reticent about something so self-defining.

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.

17 January 2010

What should Howard Schultz do in London?

The news that Howard Schultz, Starbucks' Chairman is due to present the firm's financial results in London this week is interesting.  As the Telegraph points out it is because Starbucks is keen to demonstrate that the firm is a global brand.  London has been chosen for the honour because the UK is the second biggest market after the US.

I'm guessing that in the results presentation he'll be keen to push his message that they are not the evil empire - it's the week for it - and they serve really good coffee to coffee lovers.

I feel that as a Londoner and coffee lover I might be able to suggest to Howie some things he should do whilst he's in town, to take his mind off the drudgery of meeting investors:

  1. Meet Gwilym Davies and James Hoffman - these two men, often in concert, are at the forefront of London's exciting coffee scene.  Not only are they making black gold sexy, they are also putting the science into coffee because they're passionate about it.  They're evangelical.  They want every cup of coffee to be the best, because they want everyone to enjoy coffee as much as they do. 

    I assume they share this with Howard.  If Starbucks is a global brand, Schultz must be seeking a level of homogeneity in the coffee he serves.  The same tasting coffee is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it tastes like pissenwasser.  If I knew that in every city I could get a latte as good as the one I had on Friday from The Milk Bar, I'd be very happy.
  2. Meet me - I'd explain that I can't stand Starbucks because I can't stand the coffee.  Simple as that.  It all comes down to the product and I think it's bland and nasty.  I've sent an email to his PR and IR people to see if they've got a slot free.
  3. Meet Silverbrowess - she'd explain that she loves Starbucks.  Really loves it.  She loves the coffee, the more syrups the better.  For her, it's all about the product.  It's perfect and her mood distinctly improves when she see the chaste mermaid.
  4. Drink some tea - he should meet Henrietta Lovell and remember what it is to love the product you're selling and how to do the best by the people producing your raw product.

Why do I care what Starbucks does?  Because I can't help but be excited about the prospect of so much good coffee doing the rounds.  I'm a mug-half-full kind of guy, but I am also a realist and don't hold out much hope that Starbucks does actually care about the flavour and quality of the coffee it sells, despite Howard's protestations.

I do wonder whether it is possible to have a large food or drink company, that retains the elements of what made it great and is attractive to investors.  And don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against being driven by an economic imperative. There is not a single company that doesn't exist to make money.  But can an entrepreneur with a passion for food and drink can ever scale their business so that they keep others with a similar passion as happy as they keep investors?  You might as well have a go.

Howard, whilst you're here take advantage of your time.  Understand why you're loved and loathed, and then do something about it.