IS THERE A CHEF IN THE KITCHEN? (or on the air­craft?)

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - FOOD, DRINK and OTHER MAT­TERS with Pa­trick Skinner

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.

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