Tuesday, 20 January 2009

So long for now

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed how long it's been since my last post - a good month and a half. Unfortunately balancing business, baby, and blogging is proving tricky and sadly something has got to give. So I've quit my job and put the baby up for adoption. Only joking of course.

No, I'm afraid the time has come to take a break from the blog for a while, at least until I can find the time to write something I'm proud of. I'd much rather take a blogging holiday than churn out slightly dull articles for the sake of it, nor do I want writing to become a chore or something that I feel I have to do every week. It's a hobby after all, not an occupation.

So I just wanted to say thanks for following my edible life so far. For those who have been with me from the beginning, you've seen what it takes to follow a dream and change career and I hope it's been inspiring to anyone thinking of doing the same thing. To anyone who has found me more recently, then it's a hi and goodbye and a promise that I will return, hopefully sooner rather than later, and with more culinary tales to tell.

In the words of the Governor of California, I'll be back.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Meat Snobbery

It is clear that the time has come for many people to reassess the way they spend their money and our household is no different in that respect. Where we differ from the majority is that our fall in income has been brought about by choice and not by some guy in America who couldn't keep up his subprime mortgage payments triggering the meltdown of the global financial system. Nevertheless, a 75% drop in salary coupled with statutory maternity pay of £118 a week necessitates some serious belt tightening. We are no longer considered DINKYs, the marketeers dream segment of high-earning, big-spending twentysomethings.

Much of the credit "crisis" we now jointly face has to be put down to a culture of continually wanting more, not less. By launching new 'generations' of Ipod, or digital cameras with a bit more pixel capacity, or handbags in this season's colour, companies manage and manipulate the desires of neophiles for whom owning the latest thing is a defining aspect of their personalities. With our food, we're urged by supermarkets to 'Taste The Difference' or buy the 'Finest' bag of potatoes, as if the previously normal but slightly misshapen spuds would scream out "pikey" to anyone who might casually glance over from a neighbouring checkout and see the word 'basics' written on the packaging. Keeping up with the Joneses can be expensive and all consuming, but when we become insecure about things as insignificant as the size and shape of our carrots, we may be taking things a little too far.

The master of food snobbery has to be Marks and Spencer. For years, its food porn advertising campaign has basically been one huge sneer, a show of oneupmanship, a look down its nose at the fridge contents of the hoi polloi. "This isn't just food, this is Marks and Spencer food", they say, a well copywritten line that seems to paraphrase their true thoughts of "I wouldn't eat what you eat if I was alone on a desert island with only a rotting fish and a coconut for sustanance."

"Connoisseur Christmas pudding packed with plump sultanas and steeped in Courvoisier cognac", she gushes. But it's still mass produced in a factory somewhere and what's aspirational about that?

The rise of the organic movement and interest in sustainable farming has created a new class of food snob where provenance of meat has become the new "terroir" or "vintage" to be bragged about over the dinner table. "If it's not rare breed, it's not going anywhere near my plate", they whinney, juices slowly dripping from their invisible chins. "I'll see your Gloucester Old Spot and raise you my Lincolnshire Curly Coat." "You're not seriously going to serve me that 21 day aged sirloin are you? It's 55 days or nothing for me." The question is, does a breed's rareity make it any better to eat, or is it like the most expensive of fine wine where your money is being spent on a feeling of exclusivity rather than a pound for sip improvement in quality?

Everyday I have to walk home past The Blackfoot Butchers, the new outpost of the Salt Yard and Dehesa crew. I peer through the windows at their sumptuous display of rare breed meat like a petrolhead passing a Ferrari dealership. The Cote de Boeuf, the rack of salt marsh lamb, the aged ribeye - it's all on show, stoking that strange, irrational desire that I rail against in other areas of consumer society. Fortunately the prices are enough to snap me out of my reverie - beef fillet at £50 a kilo, ribeye at £36. That's a full 33% more expensive than the Ginger Pig which I would class as some of the best meat on sale in London. It may not be as expensive as Japanese Wagyu, but then I doubt it has been treated to sake and a daily massage - maybe a bottle of alcopops and backrub without the happy endings. This is British Beef after all.

With buying expensive meat comes the pressure of cooking it perfectly. If you're going to spend £15 on a single steak then overcooking it must be one of the most disappointing feelings around. Who cares how rare the breed if it turns out as leathery as Judith Chalmers after a few too many minutes in the oven? Far better to buy something a little cheaper, a little more, how shall I put it, common, and cook it well. I can guarantee that the best way to 'Taste The Difference' in a potato is to cook it properly and season it well, and the 'Finest' Turkey you'll find this Christmas may just be the cheaper one that is cooked with a whole lot of love.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Review: Lantana

I've written quite a few restaurant reviews on this blog, some favorable, some not. I'm sure that whenever a new restaurant opens, the owners must wait nervously on tenterhooks for the first reviews by both recognised critics and public alike. They can make or break a business in those first crucial weeks after opening, and in these difficult financial times it's positive feedback that can boost a new restaurant and bring customers through the floor. At Lantana, we've been keeping a keen eye out for our first reviews and we're chuffed with the sheer amount of positive feedback we've received so far. We've witnessed the marketing power of blogging, not only from Shelagh's own blog, but from coverage on some extremely well respected food blogs such as The London Review of Breakfasts, and that of breakfast aficionado Russell Davies. Mowielicious describes Lantana as "The Best Australian Cafe in London", complete with pictures of my lovingly iced Hummingbird Cakes. Nice one Mowie!

The web now plays host to loads of customer feedback sites. Tipped, and Qype are two of them that feature some customer reviews about Lantana and again for the most part the customer experiences are favorable. Reading them gives us a great idea of what people want and allows us to iron out any teething problems that any business experiences during its first few months.

Then there are the reviews from established publications. We've been featured in Time Out as one of the top 5 cafes in London for cheap eats,

"The super salads (smoky aubergine or a crunchy sugar snap and red cabbage combo, for example) are Ottolenghi-esque, the cakes and sunny breakfast offerings already drawing in a band of regulars."

and in the Evening Standard the mighty Fay Maschler wrote of Lantana,

"Breakfast has a list of dishes to inspire your day and lunch offers fine, healthy, inventive salads and irresistible home baking."

Well, as much of my day is spent baking, I'm pretty happy with that feedback!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Darkness

It is early morning. Between the house and the train station the only sign of life is a lone fox prowling the front gardens of the terraced houses. It stops in its tracks, looks back over its shoulder, then continues down the road nosing through bin bags in search of scraps. Upstairs, curtains are drawn and for a few more hours at least, the residents will slumber on until alarms break the silence of their bedrooms and announce a new working day. Some will wake to the vibration and ringtone of their mobile phone. Others will be roused by the high energy voice of a radio dj. Many will hit the snooze button of their alarm clock, roll over, and catch another five minutes of sleep. Oh precious, precious sleep! Who can blame them? The first autumn frost has covered the cars parked outside and the duvet offers a far cosier place to shelter.

On the 5.29am train to Charing Cross, the first train of the day into central London, bleary-eyed passengers sit in silence peering into the darkness outside. At each stop, a handful more workers get on. They slump into empty seats and sleepily rest their cheeks against the chilly windows. They close their eyes wishing they were still in bed, dreaming in many languages from Portuguese to Polish. There is no jostling, no fighting for a seat or desperate shouts of "can you move down the train please?!" In three hours time the carriages will be crammed with commuters on their way to offices across the capital. Men in suits, freshly showered and with hair coiffed. Women vainly attempting to apply mascara as the train lurches from side to side. But here on the 5.29, no one has really made much effort over their appearance. There are construction workers in heavy boots with paint-splattered trousers and stubbled chins. There are cleaners, transport workers, hotel chambermaids, and kitchen hands all of whom will change out of their hastily chosen clothes and into the uniforms that await them at their workplaces. It feel strange to be amongst them, to see delivery vans hurtle down the empty London thoroughfares that will soon become congested with all manner of vehicle, to see the bare shelves of Pret and Starbucks being stacked with croissants and muffins. I am seeing London in a different light, although in reality at such an early hour, there is no real light to speak of.

It is the end of British Summertime, another summertime only in name. The clocks have changed and as I reach the cafe, the sun is beginning to rise. The faint dawn glow will be the only natural light I will see for the next week; that and the five minutes of twilight I might glimpse on my way home. With a kitchen in the basement, exposure to natural daylight is going to be minimal over the winter, something that is a scarier prospect than a trick or treat visit from the Ghetto Boyz of Brockley. By the time the end of March comes around I will probably have the skin tone of Marilyn Manson and the eyesight of a mole. Now if I can just get the fashion bibles to sell "Blind Goth" as the look for Spring/Summer '09, it will all be worthwhile.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

The One Hundredth Post: Going Pro

Well fellow bloggers, what is the longest amount of time you've spent composing a post? For me this article, the hundredth post of This Edible Life, has taken about three weeks to write. I guess such a milestone certainly deserves a bit more care and attention but the fact is I haven't been scratching my head and wondering what to write, nor have I been writing, editing and re-editing to craft the perfect post. I've just been really, really busy.

Given that the very first post of this blog set out my ambition to become a professional chef, it seems fitting that my hundredth post should be about turning pro just over a year later. I now get paid to cook, and if I needed any further confirmation I only have to look at my daughter's birth certificate where it is there in black and white; Occupation of Father: Chef. On another official piece of paper, my marriage certificate, my occupation is listed as Advertising Executive and in a few hundred years time my descendants may come across both documents in the archives and wonder how and why this guy actually ended up as a cook. They'll probably learn about the great "credit crunch" of 2008 and surmise that he must have lost his job and been forced into service during hard times. Hopefully though, they'll find a record of this blog and learn what really happened.

Deciding what to do after training has been tricky. I know that if I was in my early twenties, I would have gone into a michelin-starred fine dining restaurant and worked my way up through the ranks, preferably indulging my interest in modernist "molecular" cookery along the way. Realistically though, at 35 and with a new baby, the punishing hours required to make it to the top in fine dining just aren't an option. I have to say goodbye to that dream.

So if fine dining wasn't an option then what else could I do. Well I came to the conclusion that at my age I needed to be more than a commis chef. I needed to work with people who wouldn't pigeonhole me as green college graduate but would see the benefit of my maturity and be prepared to give me more responsibility from day one. Fortunately I was introduced to a fantastic bunch of people who were in the process of opening an Antipodean cafe in central London, an idea I had once toyed with myself after returning from Sydney a few years ago. I loved their concept, I loved the idea of being part of another start-up, and I loved the fact that I could be involved in everything from menu design to pricing,and even ordering all the utensils needed for a fully functioning kitchen. Most importantly though, I wanted to be part of a small kitchen team working on everything from pastry and baking to grills and salads. With a view to running my own place in a few years time, I wanted to be in a position where I could learn the role of a head chef, deal with suppliers and ordering, and essentially learn everything there is to know about running an efficient kitchen. They offered me the role of Sous Chef at Lantana and I've been working there, six days a week for the past month. I am exhausted, but the learning experience has been fantastic.

It's hard to describe Australian cafe culture to people to haven't had the good fortune to experience it down under. The food is unpretentious but beautifully presented, the service is informal and friendly. Breakfast and brunch are celebrated and given the true status they deserve. In fact I don't think I'll bother trying to describe it any further, I'll let the menu speak for itself.

Breakfast 8-12 (All day Saturday)

Toasted muesli w banana, yoghurt and honey 4.5

Bircher muesli w apple and berries 4.5

Poached fruit w greek yoghurt + pistachios 4

Fresh fruit salad w mint and sweet ginger dressing 4.5

Toasted banana bread w date and pecan butter 4

Sourdough toast w vegemite or jam 2.5

Lantana baked beans w crumbled feta, sautéed spinach and sausages on sourdough toast 8.5

Field mushrooms sauteed w parsley and garlic served with
grated parmesan on sour dough toast 7.6

Pancakes w greek yoghurt and baked fruit 7

Poached eggs on toast 5

Scrambled eggs w smoked salmon on brioche w
fresh tomato salad 8

Corn fritters w crispy bacon, rocket, oven roasted tomatoes and
lime aioli 8

Baked eggs w buttered baby spinach and mushrooms served w tomato and red pepper chutney toasted sourdough 8

Bacon 2.4
Lantana baked beans 2
Slow roast tomatoes 2
HG Walter’s sausages 3
Sautéed spinach 2
Mushrooms 2

Lunch from 12pm

Open sandwich w bacon, rocket, sliced tomato, & fried egg w aioli 6.5

Corn fritters w layers of crisp bacon, rocket, oven roasted tomatoes, drizzled w roast garlic & lime aioli 8.5

Tart of the day served w choice of two salads from the counter 8

Salad plate of your choice of three from the counter 7.8

Steak sandwich w rocket, fresh tomato, caramelised onion relish and horseradish crème friache 8.5

Moroccan lamb skewers w flat bread and mint yoghurt served w bulgur, walnut, celery and pomegranate salad 8.7

Lemon & coriander infused chicken skewers served w served with salad from the salad bar and tomato and red pepper chutney 8.7

Sharing plate w bruschetta, olives, dips and prosciutto (for 2) 10

To Drink


Fresh orange juice
Virgin mary
Belu Still (750ml)
Belu Sparkling (750ml)
San Peligrino Limonato, Orangina
Bundaberg ginger beer

Bloody Mary
Di Valdo bbiadene Proseco

St Roch grenache blanc
Bird in Hand sauvignon blanc
Camplazens rose
St Roch merlot
Bird in Hand shiraz

Coopers pale ale
Coopers sparkling ale

Coffee (extra shot 30p, Soy milk 50p)
Long black
Hot Chocolate
Pot of Tea: English breakfast/Earl grey/Rooibos/Chai/Peppermint/Green

You can read more about our progress at Lantana on Shelagh's blog and if you're in the Oxford Street/Tottenham Court Road area than please come by and pay us a visit. We're at 13 Charlotte Place which is a little pedestrian street between Goodge St and Rathbone Place.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Naked Lunch

It seems I strangely have something in common with loony US senator Sarah Palin - I have the utmost respect for fig trees. Whilst John McCain's running mate is more impressed by the fig tree's ability to provide cover for mankind's naughty bits, my love of the fig tree relates to its fruit rather than its leaves. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve should really have spent less time worrying about their modesty, and more time picnicking on fancy fig dishes before another game of naked frisbee.

If you ever need a dish that's low on hassle but high on glamour, try this one. It's a simple fig and fennel salad as served at The French Laundry and even a child could make it. That's a child with no Michelin stars. It's just sliced figs, roasted peppers, a fennel salad, and a balsamic and olive oil dressing. Its simplicity belies its flavour and texture. The crisp fennel counters the moist, giving fig which explodes, seeds and all, in the mouth. It looks pretty fancy too. Let's face it, if this was served up in the Garden of Eden, all eyes would be on the plate rather than Adam's dangly bits so there'd be no need for fig leaves anyway.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Ricotta Hotcakes with Caramelised Pears and Greek Yoghurt

In a word, fluffy.

Fluffy as in the pillows you had your head on a few hours ago rather than fluffy, the contents of your bellybutton.

Whisked egg whites are incorporated into the ricotta pancake batter making the finished mix more like a soufflé. The result? Expanding air bubbles and hotcakes that puff up for a lovely light breakfast or brunch dish. Goodbye greasy fry-up. Hello hotcakes!