Thursday, 21 June 2012

So you want to run a restaurant?

I was firkling through some old files today, as you do, and I came across a whole pile of the articles I wrote for a Norfolk magazine a few years ago. This one made me smile. I thought it might make you smile too.

So you want to run a restaurant …?
One of the things we hear most often, especially in the summer when half the
population seems to be looking for ways to Not Do Their Jobs, is “Oh, it must be
soooo wonderful to run a restaurant …”. And yes, it is (usually) – though I suspect
perhaps not in the way that you think. Oh yes, we’ve all had celebrity-chef fantasies
of spending long, hot afternoons at the beach, before sauntering into a pristine
kitchen to don an immaculate set of whites and do a few achingly clever things to the
day’s ingredients before socialising the evening away over a glass or two with the
diners and collecting the evening’s accolades, while the minions toil away at the
sheer hard graft.

Real life, of course – at least in the ever-decreasing number of owner-run restaurants
in this country – ain’t like that. So this article is for the curious, for anyone who’s ever
thought about starting a restaurant, for all those who wonder why we don’t open for
lunch, ‘only’ open six evenings a week, and close down from December to February
… and especially for you, if you’re the man I overheard at our noticeboard the other
day who grunted while reading our opening times, “Hmph. They don’t put themselves
out, do they?”. What follows is an unembellished account of a perfectly ordinary day
in the middle of July – just one of a couple of hundred other such days through the
year. Yes, this, my friends, is the reality …

7am. Rudely awaked by Today programme. Groan. Drag self out of bed (John) to
start clean-up from previous night and prepare for guest breakfast (I am unspeakable
and best avoided before 8.30). Wash/rinse/dry/polish 40 glasses/120 pieces of
cutlery/12 coffee cups and saucers. Remove red wine and coffee stains from
napkins. Guests have asked for room service breakfast, so prepare and serve for
9.45. Eat own breakfast (sort of).
10am. Shopping. Sprint with famous purple shopping trolley round usual haunts in
Holt. We won’t buy anything that we can’t taste, smell or feel, so always hand select
every bit of fruit and veg that we or our neighbouring growers don’t/can’t grow, right
down to last onion.
11.15am. Back. Unload supplies. Deal with 5 voicemail messages; iron 3 days supply
of napkins and aprons; polish and lay up restaurant tables; update blackboards;
clean windows. Clean guest suite; replenish supplies. Guest has mopped up major
coffee spill with white hand towel. Attempt to deal with stain – fear may be write-off.
Put first of 3 loads into washing machine. Washing machine dead. Swear. Call
regular repair guy. On holiday. Call other repair guy. Will come tomorrow [machine
stays out of service for 6 days. Napkins, aprons, tea towels, guest bedding and
towels washed by hand till fixed]. Start day’s bread, plus brioche for guest breakfast.
Slurp coffee.
12.30pm. John: to restaurant garden with 4 buckets of compost and wheelbarrow full
of bottles to drop at bottle bank. Dig 3 rows of potatoes; pick French beans and
courgettes. Hand weed round leeks. Collect beetroot from neighbouring gardener,
plums from another. Kalba: to desk. Check and answer emails; deal with post, phone
calls, accounts and payments; update guest suite availability on website. Think about
next EcoEcho article (late). Time runs out. Interrupted by (1) delivery of 7 cases of
wine; (2) non-delivery of cheese; (3) 17 calls from BT trying to persuade me to buy
back line rental. Start preparing dessert.
1.30pm. John phones on mobile: pigeons have pigged out on cavalo nero seedlings
– needs to reinforce netting cages so will be late back.
1.45pm. Write rest of menu for evening – open to change, of course, if (a) garden
offers unexpectedly large/small/early/late/no yield, or if (b) something different
suggests itself during afternoon – nothing ever fixed until moment it hits the plate.
2pm. Start mise en place: gather ingredients, pick herbs, make stock, clean and prep
first round of veg. Make aioli and pesto. Listen to play on R4.
2.30pm. John returns. Knock back bread. 30 minute tea break. Miss end of play.
3pm. Clean/chop/prep/cook/wash up, ad infinitum. Bake bread and brioche. Do usual
daily round of minor repairs, paint touch-ups etc; check stock and place orders for
eggs/milk/cream/wine/water/oil/cheese/coffee/olives etc as needed.
5.45pm. Kalba: yes, still in the kitchen! John: sort out day’s recyclables; check and
bring in wines and mineral waters; clean restaurant, serving area and loo; sweep
kitchen floor.
7pm. Listen to Archers. Final prep; psych selves up for service. John makes self
beautiful. Figuratively speaking.
7.30pm. Doors open; first diners arrive. John: greet, settle and put everyone at ease;
serve aperitifs, wines, waters. Kalba (in kitchen): in fast forward mode, now alone,
preparing to serve roomful of first courses at 8pm.
8pm to 10pm: John: serve all tables, describe each course, ingredients and
provenance to each; ferry plates in and out; serve more wines and waters, answer
questions about food, us, life, universe and everything. Kalba: cook, finish and plate
four courses; clean down kitchen between each course. Eat saucerful of dinner.
Wash, dry and polish 60 plates; wash all pots and cooking implements. Raise energy
by listening to Queen (no, not that one) on headphones. Leap around kitchen. Scrub
down kitchen. On good day, talk to kitchen-visiting diner. On bad day, talk to self.
11.20pm. Last diners leave. Clear room. Stack glasses and coffee cups ready for
washing tomorrow morning; wipe down tables; straighten chairs, sweep floor. Go out
with torch to remove slugs and snails from lettuce and herb plants.
11.45pm. Check evening’s emails and voicemails. Slurp tea. Do Sudoku puzzle. Go
to bed. Have now been working for nearly seventeen hours: that’s one and a half
hours – each – for every person who dines. Never mind. Soon be December.

So tell me … do you still want to run a restaurant?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Somewhere, under the rainbow

Suddenly at sunset this evening our world went golden.

I ran outside with the camera. It had been raining for most of the day; it was still raining, but soft and warm. The cloud was thin and gauzy, and the rays of the sun lit everything up like a Photoshopped soft focus image.

Turning back towards the house, I found the biggest rainbow I've ever seen arched right over Maison Grillou.

As I watched, the light changed colour before my eyes.

And then changed again ...

And then the heavens opened and the rainbow faded. I ran upstairs to catch the last moments of the sun.

And then it was gone.

But at least I now know what's at the end of the rainbow.

We are.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

A jam session

Over more years than I can believe of providing breakfasts for guests from all over Europe (and now all over the world), I've learned that there are two sorts of jam that will always fly out of the pot almost faster than I can make them: one is strawberry, the other apricot. Sometimes, here, you'll find on the markets little pots of home-made but ponced up jams such as strawberry and mint, or apricot, lemongrass, rum and cardamom (?!), which to be honest are not really ma tasse du thé: I just want to taste fruit, big fruit and more fruit. So with a few exceptions (like courgette, which on its own is pretty boring ...) I don't add anything to my jams except sugar.

My own very most favouritest jam in the universe is apricot. I adore everything about it it: the tartness, the colour, the smell, the flavour, and at this time of year I'm like a excited hunting dog who can sense in the air the approach of the hunting season. And so when in my usual greengrocer's yesterday I spied a bunch of elderly women in flowery pinafores all jostling round some crates right at the back in the corner I knew straight away what they were up to: apricots! In spite of not wearing the trademark apron and slippers I made a beeline for their corner, and sure enough there they were: an 'arrivage' of 5 kilo crates of the biggest apricots I've ever seen - the size of small peaches, in fact - from Trouillas, in the neighbouring department of Pyrénées-Orientales where we reckon the best apricots come from. They were Pinkcots, one of the earliest varieties and a new one to me, but they tasted good, and anyway all those pinafores can't be wrong ..... so having indulged in the obligatory nods, half smiles, tastings and finally conversations, I was eventually permitted to join their number and appropriate a crate.

In my never-ending quest for flavour, I've fiddled and farted around with my methods over the last few years and now make jam quite differently from how I used to do it in England. My aim is to cook the fruit for as short a time as I can get away with, so I start by macerating it with the sugar overnight; that means I'm starting off with the sugar already liquified which cuts precious minutes off the cooking time.

Then there's the sugar. We can't buy pectin here, so I use this ...

... special jam making sugar which dissolves easily and has natural pectin added to it, which means no need to add lemon juice and adulterate the flavour of the fruit.

And then there's the thorny question of when it's done. I much prefer the French set, which is a lot lighter than the more typical stand-your-spoon-up-in-it English one, and so these days I tend to stop as soon as the jam hits 103°C (sometimes even 102°) instead of boiling it for 5 minutes at 104° as so many UK recipes would have you do. But mostly I do it by ear, by feel and and by eye: when it's ready the bubbling sound changes timbre, the spoon drags ever-so-slightly more in the fruit, and when I flip a little bit onto the granite worktop and wobble it with my finger it feels like jam. At that point I do the fridge test: I take the pan off the heat, put a teaspoon of the jam onto a cold saucer and stick it into the fridge for 5 minutes. If after that it's clearly jam, we're there. (Some books will tell you to look for wrinkles, to which I'd say 'yes, but ... too much wrinkle, too solid a set'. If that happens, no worries: add a little fruit juice to the pan, bring it back up to temperature and test again). And that's it. Whole batch done and dusted in 12 minutes.

This morning, observed by a salivating guest, I made 2 batches: one with 600g of sugar per kilo of fruit, which gives a very light, almost compôte-like jam (on the left in the photo below); the other - on the right - with 750g of sugar per kilo of fruit, which makes a more traditional jam.

It'll be on the breakfast table, along with several other flavours, tomorrow ....

PS  Oups - I nearly forgot to mention the free froth! As the fruit and sugar mixture comes up to the boil, it froths up like mad and threatens to invade the kitchen like something out of a sci-fi novel. All the books will tell you to scoop it out and discard it. I don't. Or rather, I do scoop it out, but I never discard it. I let it sit for a while; it'll separate into a light foam at the top and a syrup at the bottom. I pour the syrup into some glasses, add a little Amaretto, then mix the froth into some crème fraîche or whipped cream and spoon it over. Et voilà ... free dessert. It's a bit like a mousse or syllabub, and quite, quite delicious.