24-hour restaurants

Night-time in the bar at the Duck & Waffle, one of the UK’s first high-end restaurants to stay open 24 hours a day

A feature for G2

At 11.30pm, the elevator for Duck & Waffle in the City of London has the hot, beery stench of an underventilated nightclub. I already feel jetlagged from heading out for dinner so late, and when it whooshes me up the Heron Tower’s 40 floors in under 30 seconds it gives me an extra headrush. It is a bit like being drunk, which seems rather appropriate for late-night eating.

In New York, Paris and many east Asian cities, 24-hour restaurants have become part of the eating habits of the population. Not in Britain, which is strange when licensing laws theoretically permit round-the-clock opening and many people work shifts through the night. “It may be because of our historically rigid licensing laws,” says Jonathan Downey, a bar and restaurant owner who has held two 24-hour licences. “At Milk & Honey our kitchen is open until 2am and we probably sell five plates of food during the last hour.”

Which is probably why many late-night British restaurants are aimed at drunk people. Buddies in Brighton has featured on Channel 5′s sociological study Brighton Beach Patrol, and with its fry-ups with lager, pizza and burgers, caters to a distinctly vomity clientele.

London’s oldest all-night restaurant, and the only one with a 24-hour booze licence, is Vingt-Quatre on the Fulham Road. “We have security,” says its managing director Simon Prideaux, “who make the call on whether someone has drunk too much.” At 11pm, VQ’s menu contracts to a few soaky classics: omelette, bangers and mash, a full English. The place has lasted since 1995 by harnessing one of the great truths of eating out: the squiffy don’t crave culinary invention.

“To eat at four o’clock in the morning,” says Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, “things are either going to be really bad or so good that it doesn’t matter where you are. You have to wonder how much value is being placed on the quality of the food.”

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Coca-Cola: still the real thing?

Various cans of cola. Photo: Photoshot/Hutton Archive

A piece for the Guardian on the continuing dominance of the world’s most valuable brand 

A health campaign group today calls for the UK to follow California and ban a specific colouring from soft drinks including Coca-Cola and Pepsi. A byproduct of the process used to make some caramel colourings is a chemical called 4-MI, and although British and European food safety watchdogs have decided its presence in colas is not a health concern, the substance has been found to cause cancer in rats and mice.

Coke is utter junk, of course, but it can be terribly refreshing. I probably drink a Diet Coke every other week. My “brand loyalty” is literally unquestioned – it never occurs to me to buy any other cola, not that there ever seems much of an opportunity to do so. Pepsi has a 9.5% share in the UK soft drinks market, far less than the 17% for Coke and even the 9.9% for Diet Coke. Diet Pepsi lags with a pitiful 5.3%.

On the few occasions I have bought another cola (even that word looks alien and amputated), I’ve never been impressed. Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola tastes flat and monotone, with a lingering undercurrent that reminds me of diesel. One ethically minded food and drinks company is launching a new cola in time for the Olympics. But a lifetime of conditioning and marketing can often make these products taste less like “the real thing” even though they may derive more of their flavour from genuine kola nuts.

It’s a brave company that seeks to rival Coca-Cola. The drink has a presence in over 200 countries: “more than the UN itself”, as one of its executives boasts. It’s been the most valuable brand in the world for years. This is all a long way from its origins in the 1880s, when a morphine-addicted veteran of the American civil war concocted a cocaine and caffeine tonic which he claimed cured headaches, impotence and, handily, morphine addiction. After a certain amount of internal wrangling, a man named Asa Candler wound up with the rights to sell the drink, and made a vast fortune from it. He marketed Coca-Cola with a ferocity never seen before, and his commercial heirs have always followed his lead.

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The wandering palate

From degustation to disgusting – our tastes can change for many reasons. Photo: David Levene

A piece for the Guardian on the way our tastes change over time

I still don’t know why it happened. I used to love white wine, knew of nothing nicer with a piece of fish, thought little more perfect than a misted glass of it in the sunshine. It felt right with certain foods, at certain times of day, in certain moods. I savoured and studied its permutations, regions and styles. I thought we were fixed for life.

And then, over the last few months, something changed in my brain, nose or mouth. White wine slumped from exquisite nectar to slightly qualified pleasure to just about fine to something I didn’t seem to want any more. Eventually I could barely touch the stuff.

We know that our appreciation for individual tastes is transient. Air pressure affects the way food tastes on planes. After a big main course, you might have no desire to eat anything savoury but still have space for pudding. Pregnant women often suffer strange cravings and uncomfortable taste changes as well. But in addition to these acute fluctuations, as we age our palates can change forever.

Mostly this will be out of our control. Children tend not to like vegetables, or any strong tastes other than sweet ones, but after adolescence they usually turn away from the most egregious sweets, and some even come to enjoy the sprouts they used to spurn. Old people’s tastebuds often fail them: when your grandmother complained that x dish or y ingredient didn’t taste like it used to, she was at least subjectively right. People can even lose their sense of taste altogether through disease or the treatment of disease.

But taste is also malleable. You can condition yourself to like things. Most people have to train themselves to enjoy oysters, durian or any delicacy that teeters between repulsive and exquisite. If you stop adding salt to your food, then after a few appallingly bland and colourless weeks, your palate will become more sensitive to it, and you’ll be able to get by with less.

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The KFC Cookbook

Colonel Sanders and his wares. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A piece for the Guardian on the ‘KFC cookbook’

On Monday, KFC will release what its spokeswoman calls a “long-lost” autobiography and cookbook, allegedly authored by the so-called Colonel Harland Sanders some 40 years ago and sequestered since then in the “vault” of some “forgotten-about storage facility”. The Sanders story remains the basis of the KFC creation myth, and the company has never shrunk from using his kindly, goateed image as a kind of avuncular mask.

I’ve seen a preview of the book and the recipes are deeply unappetising, using lots of canola oil and margarine. There are deep-fried parsnips, a peach cobbler (“If you use frozen thawed peaches be sure to drain them well in a colander”) and “coffee the way we used to make it on the farm”. This last calls for a whole egg, “shell and all”, to be crushed into the coffee grounds. Perhaps it’s sublime. What’s most striking about the recipes, of course, is how little they resemble anything the chain produces today. (Like BP, KFC now exists only in initials.) There isn’t a Zinger® salad or a Fully Loaded™ in sight.

But that isn’t surprising. According to Ron Douglas, who wrote a book exposing secret recipes and who claimed to have cracked the “11″, Sanders was furious with the “sons of bitches” to whom he sold the business. They “prostituted every goddamn thing I had,” he said. “I had the greatest gravy in the world and … they dragged it out and extended it and watered it down that I’m so goddamn mad!” In addition to the 11 herbs and spices in the “secret” recipe and the barbecue sauce it claims Sanders created, during the mid-90s KFC served rotisserie chicken supposedly based on a “lost” Sanders recipe. Odd, then, that two-thirds of young Americans don’t even realise he was a real person.

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The host with the ghost

An abandoned 1950s diner. Photo: Wave/Corbis

A feature for the Guardian on restaurant ‘ghostbusters’

Thai restaurant in London changed sites the other day, and marked the occasion by calling in Buddhist monks to bless the new venue. This practice is apparently de rigueur in Thailand: the chanting, incense and holy water, the romance and ritual, are thought to imbue a business with good fortune and the prospect of success.

It turns out, in fact, that religion, superstition and a belief in the paranormal are surprisingly common among restaurateurs. Camellia Panjabi set up the Bombay Brasserie in 1982; it served its millionth customer 10 years later and is still doing well, and she has around half a dozen other restaurants including the Masala Zone chain. “Namita [her sister and business partner] and I like to choose auspicious dates for opening the restaurants,” she tells me. “And we have the sites checked by our Vastu adviser.”

Russell Norman, who has opened a slew of restaurants in Soho during the last two or three years, says: “I’ve always had a thing about the number 86. When I was at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, we had a slate on which were written the dishes the kitchen had run out of. Colloquially, this dish was then referred to as being ‘eighty-sixed’. Of course, the term had other uses too: when someone was fired, they were ‘eighty-sixed’; when mistakes were made, the manager would say to the offender: ‘Don’t make me eighty-six you!’ I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the number ever since.”

Other restaurateurs organise menus and staff rotas around the full moon, or have rules about never giving anyone a knife as a gift. One lingering superstition is the “cursed site”, where restaurant after restaurant founders. Of course, it only takes ones great restaurant (Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, say) to remove the curse – that is, to fit the right concept to the right location.

Continue reading at the Guardian

Me and my spoon

Spoons made from different metals

A piece for the Guardian on a singularly bonkers dinner I recently attended

Has anything amusing ever happened to you in connection with a spoon? When Private Eye asks the question, the answer is usually no: the Me and My Spoon column features spoons because spoons aren’t especially interesting. Or weren’t until now. The other day I went to a dinner about spoons. Or, more specifically, on what spoons are made of, which would be a good name for an inspirational movie about spoons. It was at the Indian restaurant Quilon, and the idea was to see whether using different metals in cutlery affected the taste of food.

They sat us down in front of seven shiny spoons: copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc, chrome and stainless steel. We were about 12: Harold McGee looking owlish, Heston Blumenthal with his arm in a sling, some academics, journalists and PRs. The dinner was organised by something called The Institute of Making, which sounds like a university for toddlers but is in fact “a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world”. “Artist and maker” Zoe Laughlin, one of its founders, was there. Her website, asifitwerereal.org, includes “a selection of biographies” variously written by “a friend”, “a parent”, “a sibling”, “a stranger” (someone she met on the Tube) and “a pet” (“Zoe has no pets,” we’re told).

In front of me was a booklet with background research. “In this project,” it informed, “we asked ourselves how do these materials taste, do they affect the taste of food, and is it possible to understand, and thus design, the affect (sic) they have?” Overleaf was a series of tasting notes on spoons. Copper, I read with a creeping sense of terror, is “found to slightly inhibit saltiness”, silver has “a slight bitterness”, zinc carries an “earthly, dry, rasping tendency” while poor old stainless steel was prosaically glossed as “familiar”.

The food at Quilon is deliciously spiced and complex: it was impossible to focus on the spoons. To me, these varied only in their metal-ness – copper tasted more metallic than stainless steel, which tasted more metallic than gold. As far as I could tell, this was more or less it. But around me cooed a table in raptures at different “flavours” in the metals. “I dare you to try the copper spoon with the grapefruit!” challenged a dauntless soul. “Check out the taste profile of silver with beer foam!” raved another. Even Blumenthal, who looked thoroughly baffled by proceedings, gamely chipped in by observing “there’s a bitterness to the zinc”.

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Reviewing the Pizza Hut hot dog stuffed crust

The Pizza Hut hot dog stuffed crust: ‘delicious’. Photograph: Pizza Hut

A potentially career-ending piece for the Guardian on Pizza Hut’s hot dog stuffed crust

Those Americans who think of Britain as a backward food desert are this week eating their words. For we are the first to experience Pizza Hut’s latest wheeze, the “hot dog stuffed crust” – a sausage coddled in the crust of a large pizza. (Don’t all start hieing ye to your nearest branches just yet: it’s delivery only at the moment.) The Sun understatedly calls this creation “the stuff of dreams”Fox News and the LA Times deem us “lucky” to be so honoured. No less an organ than Time magazine hails a “caloric coma”, and in an existential cri de coeur, laments that Britain is “one step ahead in the heart-attack-in-a-box department”. How, it wonders, can America “redeem its title as most unhealthy country … Come on Paula Deen, where are you when we need you the most?”

It was Pizza Hut, you may remember, who unleashed the stuffed crust on to a peaceful world in the distant 1990s. They got that discriminating gastronome Donald Trump to flog it; Trumpy barked that we had to eat the slices “crust first”. (A Brooklyn family who owned a patent for crust-stuffing sued Pizza Hut for $1bn at the time; they lost the lawsuit in 1999 (pdf).) You’d have thought that mucking around once with crusts would be enough for these people. But no. “The new range,” gushes a spokesman, “builds on our proud tradition of creating innovative dishes to enjoy on a night in with friends.”

I hadn’t eaten a Pizza Hut in around a decade, since I worked in one during the school holidays. I remembered frozen discs of dough which we sprayed with a canister of “developer” so that they rose like boils in the pans. I remembered lumps of beef and pork distinguished by different shades of brown. I remembered sloppy tinned pineapple and anchovies that smelled of infection. Hopes were low.

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Is self-heating food the future?

A HotCan advertising image, accompanied on billboards by the strapline ‘Chefs hate us’

A piece for The Guardian on self-heating food

So there are these tins that heat themselves up. HotCan. “No microwave. No kettle,” they seem to scold from the label. They’ve been around for 30 years but the company has just started to promote them more intensively: rebranding the tins, opening a new factory, releasing new flavours and so on.

There’s something almost alchemical about them. The tins are fixed in thick, insulated pouches. You take the plastic lid off and there’s a sort of pointy Allen key inside, which you use to pierce three little holes in the insulation surrounding the tin. Then you wait a couple of minutes, an ominous bubbling begins, steam starts to hiss from the holes, and you panic the can is about to explode and shower you in shrapnel and lava. So you gingerly reread the label through slitted fingers, and it tells you you should have opened the tin first. You hold it at terrified arm’s length like a bomb you’re trying to defuse, lift its ringpull with a spoon, and give everything another 10 minutes to warm through. Or at least that was my experience.

They come in seven inescapably tinny flavours such as beans with meatballs, chicken curry with rice and cheese ravioli in tomato sauce. I had “spicy beef pasta” (at 8 o’clock in the morning – the things you’ll do to deadline). The contents reached 52C according to my kitchen thermometer: emphatically tepid, and best described as a brown, lumpen, heavily spiced sludge. HotCan also sent me “bangers & beanz” but, since that tin didn’t heat properly and its sausages were shrivelled like salted snails, you’ll forgive me if I merely tasted it with my eyes. In all, they’re better than Pot Noodles, in the way that a broken finger is better than a broken arm.

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The signals sent by signature dishes

Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge at The Fat Duck

A piece for The Guardian on signature dishes

Signature dish. There’s something old-school and stolidly Escoffier about that phrase, suggesting carpeted dining rooms and soaring toques, curly moustaches and copperplate menus. It carries a uniquely cheffy vanity.

They are vital to almost every restaurant, and customers tend to seek them out. It’s only when you start to think about it that you realise to what degree the restaurant industry relies on the concept of signatures, from steakhouses to Pizza Express.

McDonald’s has so many a list of them reads like a petition. Its most famous dishes are decades old. The Filet-O-Fish arrived in 1962; the Big Mac is a soixante-huitard; the Quarter Pounder appeared in 1973, the McNugget (such a pretty word) in 1979. These signatures – I think it’s fair to call them that – are embedded in customers’ minds and perhaps were part of their childhood. Repeat custom is the basis of McDonald’s business model, as it is for any restaurant.

Restaurants use signature dishes to entice as well as keep customers. Many of the high-profile openings around London in the last year have had a signature: the cod cheek popcorn of Mishkin’s, the lobster brioche roll from Burger & LobsterThe Delaunay‘s tarte flambée. “Have you had the such-and-such at such-a-place,” restaurant fans like to ask each other in knowledgeable tones. These dishes done well create a buzz around the restaurant; it would be a brave or foolish chef who took no time over them.

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Can slow cooking change lives?

A woman using a Wonderbag in Soweto, South Africa. Photo: Mark Lanning

A piece for The Guardian on the Wonderbag

I made a batch of chilli last night. Two, actually. One went into a very sleek and impressive slow cooker that Cuisinart sent me, the other into a brightly patterned, spongy bean bag of an oven called a Wonderbag. After six hours, both gave me a rich, smooth stew, and though the slow cooker’s was probably richer and smoother, the Wonderbag’s was more impressive for a number of reasons.

“Eco cooking that’s changing lives,” they call it. I honestly can’t remember when I last felt this positive about a recent addition to the kitchen. The principle is: you start your cooking on the stove, get everything hot then stick the whole pan in the Wonderbag, which is well insulated and will allow the food to continue cooking for up to 12 hours. Rice takes about an hour; I reckon lamb shanks would need two or three.

A South African entrepreneur named Sarah Collins, whose background is in social development, created the Wonderbag a couple of years ago for the townships of Durban. Many of the people who live there spend up to a third of their income on fuel, usually paraffin, or a large proportion of their time gathering solid fuel in the form of wood or dung. When burned these release toxic smoke that fugs houses and poisons lungs; the environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean says that 2m people, mainly women and children, are killed every year by these fumes.

Continue reading at The Guardian