29 September 2006

The World's Biggest Coffee Morning

Today MacMillan Cancer Support has been holding a fundraiser called the World's Biggest Coffee Morning. People all over the UK have organised coffee mornings in the community, collecting donations to help people whose lives are affected by cancer.

We held a coffee morning today at the restaurant, and Chefette did her part by baking a couple of cakes and helping out with service. A fabulous excuse to eat cake and give to charity at the same time! Big thanks to my pals Lee, Nicola and Stephen who gave their support.

Here are a few photos from the day, including one of the gang with the Mayor of Southwark and the Southwark Town Crier.

27 September 2006

Un pique-nique delicieux

One of Chefette's little pleasures is to spend a couple of hours a week in front of the laptop, combing the blogosphere looking at other foodie posts.

Not sure if any of you saw it, but a couple of months ago the chappie at 'A la Cuisine' -- a mildly geeky and endearingly earnest young Canadian called Clement -- came up with his Theorem of Deliciousness, a mathematical formula expressing deliciousness not only as a function of ingredients and technique, but also nostalgia. His point was that delicious (as opposed to merely good tasting) food is about more than quality ingredients cooked in a sympathetic way. Truly incredible food evokes past experiences. We all have our own ways of identifying with this universal truth. I'm certain that my grandmother's recipe for blackberry cobbler will never appear in a three-star Michelin dining room. But to this day, taking a bite of any well-made warm concoction involving flaky pastry and sweet, juicy blackberries has the power to transport me to her farmhouse kitchen on a summer afternoon. I can taste it even now!!

Anyway, much as I am enamoured of the theorem, my trip to Paris last weekend made me realise that it has a major shortcoming. It's failed to take account of a vital component that can affect the deliciousness of food-- the Al Fresco factor. Good food tastes even better out of doors in good weather. I challenge any one of you to say it's not so.

Last Monday, on a park bench in Square Boucicaut, it all came together. The good ingredients, artfully prepared, with a big dollop of nostalgia and lashings of glorious autumn sunshine.

After a somewhat hectic morning spent accomplishing chores, the Husband and I decided we deserved a little reward, and so loaded up with picnic goodies from the Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marche department store on the Left Bank. How to describe this unparalleled grocery store? Suffice to say that every section is stuffed to brimming with delectable treasures, from spankingly fresh fish and seafood, to artisan bread and patisserie, to mouthwatering ready-prepared meals from every ethnic background. The cheese island alone is a veritable continent, with 200+ kinds of French cheese.

Naturally, the prices are a bit on the high side from a grocery perspective, even for Paris. But the value for money lies in the quality, which is unsurpassed. The price of our picnic was less than half of what we would have paid for a two-course lunch for two at any decent bistro in the 7th arrondissement, and the food was no less than fabulous. For just over 20 euros, we had: a ‘croque antipasto’ (mini multigrain baguette stuffed to bursting with grilled vegetables and lusciously dressed with fresh pesto), a ‘croque Parisienne’ (mini white+rye baguette with ham, cheese, rocket, olive oil and fresh capers), a seafood salad of prawns and crabsticks dressed with lemon oil, a Chinese noodle salad with crayfish tails, fresh white crab meat and coriander, and a small handful of perfectly ripe Reine Claude plums. Oh, and two bottles of mineral water as well.

And so, perched away in our secluded corner of the park, we savoured our bench-top ‘bouffe’, while soaking up the sunshine, and fondly remembering the many Parisian picnics that have gone before.

21 September 2006

Goats cheese with figs and radicchio

Two and a bit weeks in, and Chefette is starting to get her groove on in the restaurant kitchen. Not everything is going perfectly, you understand. Still the odd cock-up from time to time. Such as getting a bit flaky last night during a busy patch, and somehow misreading 'agnello' (lamb) for 'caprino' (goat's cheese). Luckily, the head chef caught it before it got sent out to the customer.

But my first attempt at ricotta cheesecake seemed to come out okay. And I think I have impressed everyone with the biscotti I made last week. Even the Italian waiter -- who criticizes everything as not being authentically Italian -- said they were really good, and asked me what I put into them.

Anyway, I thought I'd post an example of the kind of food we serve at the restaurant. We've been doing this dish for a couple of weeks now, and it's proved so popular that we're keeping it on the menu for a bit longer. We do it as a starter at the restaurant, but I think it would also be fabulous as a 'savoury' served at the end of the meal, with a nice dessert wine. Steps 1 and 2 can be done ahead of time.

Goats cheese with figs and radicchio

6 ripe figs
125 grams goats cheese
4 leaves radicchio
1 tsp honey
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
2-3 Tblsp extra virgin olive oil + extra for drizzling
Salt and pepper

1. Cut the figs in half lengthwise, and lay them cut side up on a lipped baking sheet lined with silicone paper. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, and lightly drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil. Bake in a moderate oven until some juice just starts to run from the figs. (Maybe 15-20 minutes, it will depend on the ripeness of your figs.) Put the roasted figs into a bowl, and pour over the accumulated juices from the baking tray. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Make the honey-balsamic dressing. Start with a teaspoon of honey, a couple teaspoons of balsamic and 2-3 T of olive oil. Taste and season carefully, with a bit of salt and pepper. Adjust the balsamic-honey ratio as necessary so that they counterbalance each other. This vinaigrette will not emulsify, but that's okay -- you're going for that attractive 'split' look when you spoon it onto the plate, an archipelago of dark balsamic dots floating in small islands of olive oil.

3. Lay the roasted figs out in groups of three with the cut side up on a grill tray. Cover each trio with a couple of generous slices of goat's cheese. Put the tray under the grill until the cheese starts to brown and bubble slightly.

4. While the cheese is grilling, tear off a large-ish leaf of the radicchio for each plate. When the cheese is done, put three cheesey fig halves onto each leaf. Spoon some of the honey-balsamic dressing decoratively on top of the figs, and around the edges of each plate.

Let me know what you think if you try it.

07 September 2006

People, it's official

It's almost midnight. My hands smell of garlic. I've got the beginnings of a headache coming on. And the husband is tucked up in bed, far too deep into REM to dole out revitalising kisses. But none of that matters. Because, despite it all, inside I'm jumping with joy. Why?

I'll tell you why. 'Coz Chefette is now officially working as a chef, that's why. I just finished my first ever service as a hired gun.

After ever so much hmming and hawing last weekend, debating the pros and cons of the three job offers ad nauseum, I decided to go for the part-time role at the little Italian place in the neighbourhood. Which got a very good write-up in the Guardian last Saturday, by the way. (Assuming the preceding link works, it's the second restaurant featured in the article.)

Tonight I worked on the hot and cold starters, and did some mise-en-place for the head chef. To summarise the highlights: (a) I didn't have any major screwups; (b) the head chef said the pesto I made "was really good"; (c) all of the plates I sent out came back clean from the dining room.

Now all I have to do is get faster at plating up orders.

Sweet dreams all.

03 September 2006

Decision time

Well it's all happening on the job front. Three trials completed last week, and three job offers in hand. Now if only Chefette can figure out which one to take. Decisions, decisions.

First trial was on Tuesday, at one of the smaller restaurants in the gastronomic empire of a well-known British designer and restauranteur. It's got a fabulous riverside location, with a sunny terrace, and a modern European menu. The kitchen was light and well equipped, with a good layout and a calm atmosphere (possibly due to the fact that, on the day in question, only about 10 tables came in for lunch). The head chef was a vivaciously flamboyant chap with a plummy accent and a somewhat eccentric manner. Very enthusiastic, if slightly hard to understand. The sous chef, in contrast, was a more gentle, soft-spoken type. He had told me not to bother bringing my own knives for the trial day, which turned out to be a misfortune indeed. I spent my day on a variety of unglamourous prep jobs with only a blunt serated tool for company. (Try preparing a crate full of globe artichokes with a dull knife and see how long it takes you!) But the vibe in the kitchen was professional and calm -- no loud, annoying characters mouthing off at everyone.

My second trial was on Wednesday, at a large, bustling restaurant in Borough Market. Their emphasis was on unfussy, well executed British traditional dishes, which they turned out at breakneck speed (during the lunchtime service when I was there, they served 130 covers). The head chef was a hyperactive, jovial and boisterous man, who led his large kitchen brigade with a loud mixture of cajolery, praise, teasing, swearing and even towel-whipping. His love of produce and good British ingredients was effusive, as he passed me the first of the season's greengage plums to sample (succulent yellow-fleshed beauties that were both sweet and refreshingly acidic). And he proudly showed me the quality of the strip loin of beef going into his newly repaired mincer. He told me frankly that any new hires were on a probationary period for four weeks, and at the end of that time, to be hired permanently, they must get the nod not only from him, but from his other chefs. The kitchen had been buzzing with activity from the early hours of the morning (they do a breakfast service as well as lunch and dinner), and the vibe during service was an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy. I've no doubt I could learn loads, but I'd be starting as the lowliest of lowly peons among a staff of thousands, and there would be months of real hard graft before I could graduate from commis to chef de partie. It would definitely be a case of suffering for my art.

The third restaurant was the complete opposite of the second. A very small, local Italian bistro with a neighbourhood feel. The chef-patronne is a lovely Irish lady in her late 40s, with a relaxed attitude and a twinkle in her eye. For the past six years, one of her mates has helped her out in the kitchen, and the two of them together come across as fun and sensible in equal measure. No rigid kitchen hierarchy here! They both pitch in with everything from desserts to starters to mains. I worked a quiet Friday evening service with the patronne, during which time we chatted away amicably as we worked. I messed up one hot starter, but instead of dishing out a verbal bollocking she very kindly showed me how I should have done it, and let me get on with the rest of the dishes. At the end of the evening, she poured us out a couple of glasses of wine. A very relaxing and civilised cap on the evening. Despite my minor mess-up, she told me that she liked the say I worked, and that I was sure to get faster with practice. The only downside is that it would only be 3 shifts a week, but at least I would be doing some real cooking and not just cleaning muscles, dicing onions, and picking herbs all day! If I took that one, I'd need to find another part-time job to get some more experience.

Now, I must dash. I've told all three chefs that I'd call them on Monday with my answer. Not sure yet what that will be. I've got some soul-searching to do.