IS THERE A CHEF IN THE KITCHEN? (or on the aircraft?)
These days it’s a question I ask before going to a restaurant. I have remarked on the huge changes in British catering (not for the better) during my absence in Cyprus from 1991 to 2011. This was impressed upon me when looking at several hotel and restaurant kitchens where, true, there were grills, fryers and ovens, but also a number of stainless steel tanks wherein bubbling water with heated plastic bags of pre-prepared foods and, nearby, microwave ovens for heating chilled or frozen items.
A ready supply of labour, large premises for chilling, the required storage and cooking equipment and the number of staff involved were alright when costs were low, but as they rose, the need to reduce overheads and buy pre-prepared goods occurred.
To see what the “good old days” were like, consider this drawing of the kitchen of the greatest popular restaurant in Paris in 1820, the Café Riche. who can is a costly and sometimes chancy business – “poaching” a chef from a competitor is common practice. One restaurateur I know solved this problem by making his chef a partner.
In the 1980s, we used to go to a 30-seater French restaurant in south-east England, where Michel, the chef-proprietor cooked five nights a week. It was home cooking as I would like to be able to do it.
Michel’s kitchen was not much larger than a domestic one. An eight burner, double oven gas stove, a big fridge and a walkin larder. The oven he used most was at eye-level and had a faulty door, which didn’t shut easily. Michel would open it, take cooked food out with oven gloves and shove the door with his elbow. When it didn’t shut, there would be a cry of “Merde!” and a foot would come up and whop it shut.
For ten years we followed Michel and his wife, Mary, to their three successive locations. They became friends. Then one day we were asked to be guests at a special dinner at his place. We gently enquired the reason. “It is for my best customers”, he said, “to thank them for their support these years… because we are selling the restaurant and retiring”.
To say we were shattered was an understatement. On reflection we thought how clever and how prudent Michel and Mary had been to have made enough to retire. They sold the premises well, but the new owner’s cooking wasn’t in the same league as Michel’s.
I am old enough to have travelled in comfort, in the days when doing so was not exorbitantly expensive. Pullman trains, for instance ( When I had to go about Britain a lot, I went by train and of the total of about 25 such famous “named” trains, I experienced well over half. As this picture shows, it was a very comfortable way to travel. You actually can sample this very coach today, on the “Heritage” line, the Bluebell Railway in Sussex.
These Pullman trains were running from the 1930s onwards, so perhaps it isn’t surprising to see that the interiors of passenger aircraft were not very different. In the early days of passenger air transport the well-heeled were the people who could afford to travel and the airlines made sure they were comfortable.