In the cooking game, there’s always more to learn. You could have a fifty year career in the best restaurants and still retire thinking ‘maybe I should have gone to Japan to learn how to fillet fish better’.
Every work day and every meal out is a reminder that there’s more to learn. You hear about a different method, see a new ingredient, watch someone who is better than you, and make a mental note to practice boiling vegetables until they’re as good as the River Cafe.
Cooking is a broad church. It requires a huge number of skills alongside the core ones of applying heat to raw ingredients. Butchery, baking, pickling, preserve making, curing, fermenting – each is a craft in its own right, to which people devote entire careers of continuous learning and development. And chefs try to master them all in a few years. Getting the balance right between learning your craft and progressing in your career is a tricky one to make, especially for someone like me who is brimming with ambition and impatience in equal measure. One the one hand it’s tempting to just get on with things too quickly, take a promotion, get a payrise, move on, get another promotion, open a place, just like that. On the other, it can be tempting to take your time, specialise, keep going back to the bottom in order to learn a new skill in a new place.
I spent a year and a half learning to bake before I became a chef. It was a fantastic experience and I learnt a huge amount. Enough, at least, to make some decent bread when I have a kitchen of my own. But I can’t help feeling that there is so much more to learn. I could do a year in a San Francisco bakery to learn about their legendary breads. I could do a year in Paris making baguettes or one in Sweden perfecting cracker breads. Six months as a miller would be useful in understanding flour science, and it would help to go somewhere like Hedone for a year to learn how they fit the cyclical baking process into the hectic time scale of a restaurant and come out with an excellent product.
To learn how to cook vegetables, two years at the River Cafe and another two under Alan Passard would almost cover it, plus a season or two working somewhere like L’Enclume who grow their own vegetables. Fish wise I’d have thought two years in Japan, a year with Nathan Outlaw and a year at The Sportsman would make you a well rounded fish cook. A butchery apprenticeship and a couple more years at a butchers would put you in a good position to learn how to cook meat. I could go on but I think the theme is clear – there’s a lot to learn. Of course, a year with Nathan Outlaw might just convince you that a year on a fishing boat is simply essential. Two years in Paris could easily extend to ten, just to work at a handful of the brightest places in the neo-bistro category. Every lesson you learn ends with a footnote – a little voice which wonders “surely there’s somewhere else to learn to do that better.”
You could follow that voice to the ends of the earth, and sixty years down the line end up exhausted, the best chef in the world, working as a commis chef in a restaurant no one has heard of, just to learn how they cook their carrots so well. It’s surprisingly tempting.
It’s a dream I’ve had for a while. Sitting at the back of my head, simmering away and slowly growing, finding a shape and a direction. At the start it was a dream I wouldn’t share with anyone, it seemed too far fetched, too much work, too risky.
But little by little I started telling people and now everyone seems to know, and you know what? People don’t laugh. In fact they are generally supportive, and then this week, something happened which feels like a gigantic triple jump forward. Someone offered us some funding. Not enough to open straight away but a serious whack which will look good when we start going to the bank with cap in hand.
So now it all feels like it might come true. All the endless conversations – the discussions of wine glasses, menus, tiles, service, chairs – they now have a tangible quality. Back of the envelope calculations of spend-per-head and covers-per-night and runnning costs and the big ‘does-it-all-add-up?’ question are now migrating into spreadsheets. Mental pictures of layouts are becoming back of envelope sketches and a host of unimagined factors like bank charges are slotting into the mental picture. Casual musings on ‘so where would we do it’ are now casual browsings of estate agents websites and google maps.
I’ve tried to tell people what it’ll be like, but it’s hard. You say British food and people think ‘OK’. They think pies, sunday roast, crumble, bangers and mash, chips. I think cheddar cheese, cream and milk; fresh Devon crab and samphire, hake from Newlyn, herring and mackerel sizzled in butter; I think cider and ales; mutton from south Wales, salt marsh lamb. I think Dexter beef and wild mushrooms, pork pies, rabbit, elvers and smoked trout. I’m talking about roast beef and swede and anchovies. I’m talking about grouse and partridge and roe deer and snipe and woodcock and teal and widgeon and pigeon and mallard and all the good things that you might serve them with: game chips and bread sauce and rowan jelly and frazzled bacon and watercress.
I think of the classic dishes that have persevered through the ages. I think of the old dishes which slipped from favour in our late rush for ready meals but which are still there ready to go again. I think of a lighter cuisine to suit our modern tastes, where you can cook slightly different things in familar ways, or familiar things in different ways. And I think you can do all this without cherry picking from France or Italy. You can come up with a good vegetarian option without resorting to pasta or risotto, and if you can’t it’s not British food that’s lacking, it’s you.
Because we have such great *stuff* here. Our seafood is the best in Europe. We have so much game here it’s almost embarrassing for our poor friends in the USA. Our dairy products are rarely equalled. Our borderline climate – cool and wet and a bit windy gives fruit of fantastic flavour and crunch that the continent finds difficult to match – they grow shiny apples which are big and uniform and neat. But when have you had a tasty apple in France? Exactly. We have lovely soft flour which bakes bread with chew and flavour and lovely big holes, if only people would let it do its thing.
A small place, convivial, relaxed and friendly. Delicious food with a menu which changes every day to reflect what good things are growing or being shot or caught. A simple but comfortable place. Our place. The Dream.
I have a perennial fantasy: we’re in south Devon, on a balmy lunchtime, taking in the sea air and basking in the August sun. There’s a whole crab, a lemon, some mayonnaise and a loaf of good crusty bread on the table. In a bucket of ice there’s a couple of good bottles of champagne. There’s a green salad and later there’ll be some strawberries – warm from the sun and drippingly ripe – with a jug of jersey cream. If you can think of a greater gastronomic experience, I’d like to hear of it.
If one is to move from Bristol to London, it only makes sense to stop off somewhere en route, in between jobs and houses and bills. We chose China; we were, after all, headed East.
As a training ground for the bustle and hubbub of London, China is pretty much ideal. Piccadilly circus of an evening seems almost placid when put up against the dirty, honking, chaotic streets of Chengdu. We stepped out of the railway station to an ocean of humanity: a cacophonous, surging, spitting mass of travellers. Businessmen in sharp suits and with expensive luggage whip past peasants with vast grain sacks at each end of burnished bamboo poles slung over the shoulders, milk maid style. China is busy in a way that is difficult to imagine. A populace of barely credible size. Each small city on our map turns out to be huge, vast roads crossing it, utterly choked with cars. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, urban on a new scale and in a new century. It’s a country in a mad rush – to finish that bowl of noodles, to barge onto the train, to demolish itself and rebuild in concrete and cheap tiles.
This mad rush does not always make for a pleasing eating experience. Having the tables around you frantically gobbling as if in a race does not foster a relaxing atmosphere for a holiday lunch, neither does chair stacking and mopping around your feet at ten to nine precipitate a perfect supper.
But if you suspend any notion of western style service, and are prepared to hunt around a bit for where the produce looks freshest, my goodness can you eat well in China. The best food is to be had in the small places, with no front door: open fronted concrete boxes – about the size of a domestic garage – with a wok burner out the front, three or four tables inside and a fridge with all the ingredients on display. Just point to what you want, sit down and watch as vegetables are chopped before you and cooked quickly with a few flicks of the wrist. It’s disarmingly simple and incredibly inspiring for an budding restauranteur. England is a country of multi million pound new eateries, where even to open somewhere ‘small and simple’ usually involves dropping a hundred grand plus.
But in China that sort of thing seems laughable when you’re tucking into three or four dishes for a couple of quid, bottle of beer in one hand, plastic cup of green tea in the other. Who needs a coffee machine when you have a thermos and a kettle on a little cylindrical coke burner? What’s with the brigade of chefs and battery of equipment when one guy with a knife, a board, a pair of chopsticks and a wok can push out some stunning food with incredible speed? Who even needs fridges when your ingredients come from the market a few steps away and are bought just before lunch starts?
The more I think along these lines, the more accessible the idea of our own restaurant becomes. Not that I’m going to open a ‘keep your coat on’ concrete box in England’s inclement climate and expect people to come. But this sort of thinking is a useful exercise – it focuses the mind on what is important (good food, good drinks, charming service, a comfortable chair) and filters out what is not: little kilner jars to serve pudding in, funkily shaped wine glasses, menus on ipads.
There are places like this in England already, of course, where things are pared back to the essentials, but they live and die on those essentials: when you do three things, they’d better be good. Nowhere I can think of is a better example of this than 40 Maltby Street, home of Gergovie Wines and an informal three-day-a-week food and drink place. Not sit down-y enough to be a restaurant, but with food far too good to be a bar. An inbetweener. And God, is the food good. A perfectly boiled egg under a duvet of luscious mayonnaise, criss crossed with delicately cut anchovies and served with a wedge of baby gem lettuce alongside is superb, a dish that only a brilliant chef, who truly ‘gets’ it could produce. There is a pate en croute which is extremely fine; unctuous wet rice with prawns and tender cuttlefish which could be the best £10 ever spent. Beautiful quality PSB comes dressed in a rustic green sauce, a lesson in simplicity and seasoning. The wine, as you might expect, is eye-openingly good. Really delicious, characterful, vital wines which slip down all too easily before noon on a saturday.
Of course, it’s busy, brilliantly so. Stand up, shoulder to shoulder, “how-do-you-do” busy; “can I slip past”, “would you like this stool” busy. Full of life and laughter and joy of the finer things in life: good food, good wine, good people. I could eat there every day.
And so to London. A gradual realisation; a creeping sense that things were happening at the other end of the M4. Bigger things, better things. And faster, too. For every restaurant opening in Bristol there seems to be five in London, each more interesting and exciting in their own way. Bristol has a reasonable base of ‘solid’ eateries – places where you wouldn’t complain – but the really great restaurants can be counted on one hand, with fingers to spare.
Learning is the plan: working, eating, reading, thinking and writing it all down. One day there’ll be a restaurant, for sure (though not in London). I can visualise it with crystal clarity, down to the little details: the fold of the napkin, the flooring, the layout of the menu. But there’s a long way to go before that becomes a reality, a lot to learn. There are days when I feel like I’m twenty percent of the way to being the chef I want to be. The next day I realise I’m a good deal short of that. With new knowledge comes further knowledge of the unknown.
And so London: to prostrate myself at all that is to be learnt. I suppose this blog is for two things: to provide a record of meals out, in the hope that something might be gleaned from them posthumously; and as a way of encouraging a little light writing for its own sake. If it’s worth a read then so much the better.
Have you ever heard of a Colston Bun? I hadn’t either, until fairly recently, when I stumbled upon it in Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food. It’s a traditional Bristol bread: a lightly enriched sweet dough bun with spices, dried fruit and candied peel, shaped into rounds and divided into 8 segments by cutting part way through before baking.
As things go, it’s not all that remarkable – a fruit bun in a different shape. Other than Bristol’s legacy as a port, and the resulting influx of spices into the city, there’s not that much about the Colston Bun which reflects the surrounding area. But the fact I didn’t know about it has given me pause for thought. What other forgotten treasures are waiting to be rediscovered?
Inspired by the Colston Bun, I have set myself a project for the year – to collect and collate whatever information I can on Bristol’s food history – the producers, produce and regional specialities which mark it out from Manchester or Newcastle or Truro.
Today’s ‘Modern British’ food as it appears in gastropub menus is a lazy, ignorant cobble of St John hand-me-downs and casual loans from further south when the mood suits – risotto, pasta, béarnaise and dauphinoise all feature heavily in menus that pride themselves on Britishness. In order to cook British food with any sort of integrity, it is right to focus not just on local produce, but to do that in tune with local growing conditions and tradition. And so using Old Spot pork or cider in Yorkshire is as incoherent as serving French chestnuts in Exeter, or Cornish fish in Whitby: it is important not that the cherry was grown locally, but that the cherry should be grown locally. A country as diverse in landscape as Britain cannot be completely united under one set of foods, when the microclimates of each area do so clearly demarcate what can be produced.
Bristol is right in the heart of cider and dairy country, so it’ll be no surprise to find a history of cheese, cider and apple snaffling piggies, but I am excited by the prospect of uncovering new ingredients or dishes that reflect the produce of an area. And you can bet that what I find will be on the menu at the supper club or the blog.
If anything could be described as a daydream, new year’s resolutions would be it. Usually they slip from my mind during the new year hangover, and disappear from memory by the end of the month. Arbitrary it may be, but the new year is as good a time as any to reflect and plan, and rules have their place. The past year has been a good one in a whole heap of ways, and I have an inkling 2011 might be similarly so. I’ve come up with a list of resolutions which will hopefully keep things on track for the year.
Write every day – something, at least.
Cure my own bacon
Make a cold smoker
Steal a water bath
Happy New Year.