Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Taking A Break

One Saturday morning when I was just 15 years old, I got dressed, grabbed a quick breakfast and set out to catch a bus from Hackney up Blackhorse Road to Waltham Forest College.
I was understandably apprehensive that morning. I was heading somewhere new, meeting a bunch of people for the first time and about to realise a dream I'd had since I first helped mum to make cupcakes as an eight-year-old. Months later, in the spring of 2004, I returned to Waltham Forest for the final time, to proudly collect my Junior Chef's Academy certificate. From that moment I knew that I was never going to look back. I would become a professional chef.My Junior Chef's Academy certificate
Of course I couldn't realise that ambition overnight. For the next few months I had to put all thoughts of cooking aside and concentrate on my GCSEs. That was a condition laid down by my parents for allowing me to go to catering college and, as it turned out, it was also a demand of the college.
Parents' Day at Westminster KingswayWestminster Kingsway took no prisoners when it came to the battle for achievement. Those three years were mercilessly hard at times, but that merely served as a foretaste of the pain that was to come later as a hospitality professional. It's not an easy industry in which to excel. At least we were well prepared, with great work experience postings and a "realistic working environment" restaurant open to the public. In summer 2007, I collected my Professional Chef Diploma.
During my second year summer break I had discovered the fun of writing something about what I was doing and this blog was born. In those days I had buckets of spare time - enough to research and write, to document and record, to video and share my thoughts and experiences with the wider world. For a while I even managed to knock out a few pieces for a national newspaper.
But my focus was always on my career and during my third year I spent a lot of my spare time researching the world of fine dining. I concluded that Spain was the place to be and found a restaurant that looked just perfect. Back then I was as cynical about the awards system as I am today, but that feeling of being part of kitchen team winning its first Michelin star was something I'll never forget as long as I live. Being part of that crew at Comerç 24 taught me so much about teamwork and I'm so proud to count many in that kitchen today as life-long friends.Winning a Michelin star
If Comerç gave me a solid foundation, Martín Beresategui's Lasarte gave me a taste of cooking at the next level of refinement. And that prepared me for Ferrero, where I learnt such a massive amount about self-discipline, professional organisation and perfection of execution. I may have had a few difficult moments during my time there, but I'll always credit Paco Morales as the man who showed me how a restaurant should be run.
Working at Viajante with Nuno MendesViajante was never part of my career plans but was always destined by the Gods to happen, like an adventure of Jason and the Argonauts. Bacchus was my last fine dining experience before I set off for Spain and I already knew by then that Nuno Mendes, working just a few hundred yards from my London home, was one of Britain's most creative chefs. And when I returned to London, Nuno was preparing to open Viajante down the road in Bethnal Green.
Very few restaurateurs get an opportunity to work through the agonies and ecstasies of the birth of a serious fine dining restaurant before they open their own establishment. I'm sure that in future years I'll count this as one of the most valuable learning experiences of my career. And it reinforced what I always knew - that there are very few chefs in this country with the creative brilliance of Nuno Mendes.
It's been six and a half years since I made that first bus trip to Waltham Forest. Six and a half years during which I've emerged both as a chef and as a person... and it's time to take a break. My passion to become a chef and restaurateur hasn't diminished one iota, but lately I've come to understand that there are some things in my life of even greater importance than my career. Working 17-hour double shifts and then collapsing in bed at half one in the morning is a guaranteed way to lose those precious gifts and that's not a mistake that I intend to make. Last week I handed in my notice and Sunday was my last shift at Viajante. I wish Nuno and the crew the best of luck with a venture that, if all goes well, will surely become one of London's most respected places to dine.Jocelin and me
For the time being, this will be my last blog post. It was becoming increasingly difficult in any event, as regular readers will have noticed. Lack of time is one factor, but it's also the case that at this stage of a career it's almost impossible to write about your activities. You can't criticise your employers because that undermines your own position and you can't praise them without being thought biased. So with that in mind, I'm taking a break - from fine dining and from blogging - to do something different for a while.

I'll keep the blog open, because I know from my email that many young people starting out in the business come here and read about my experiences. I can be contacted via the email link if you click on contact above. Friends can search me out on Facebook as Aidan 'Trig' Brooks and keep in contact that way. All that remains for me to say is - in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger - "I'll be back."

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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Open For Business

It's been six weeks since I posted. Six incredible, crazy, exhausting weeks during which I've been helping to prepare Viajante for the official opening which took place a week ago. We're open for business!

Several food blogging friends of mine have already sampled what we have to offer during the past month or so and everyone seems to have enjoyed the overall experience even if, inevitably during a startup phase, not everything was perfect. Thanks to you all for putting up with the inconveniences that come with visiting an establishment during a pre-opening trial period and in particular for accepting the restrictions on publishing that applied during soft openings. I'm well aware of just how frustrating it must have been for food bloggers to eat a meal that stimulated both their intellectual and digestive juices, but which they were unable to write about. It's one of the reasons for my blog silence recently - it didn't seem fair for me to post when other food bloggers were so tightly circumscribed.

Viajante at The Town Hall Hotel, Bethnal Green

I'd like to say hello to Douglas Blyde of Intoxicating Prose who, along with the other members of his party, really appeared to enjoy his experience here the other week and who wrote a really excellent article in Glass Magazine. I thought it was a brilliant example of how a skilled columnist can overcome restrictions that would paralyse an ordinary scribbler like me, to end up with an entertaining and informative piece of writing. Next to my long-standing cyber-friends Jeanne Horak of Cook Sister! and Johanna Wagner of The Passionate Cook. I'm so pleased that you and your husband enjoyed your dining experience the Wednesday before last, Jeanne, and equally sorry that you and yours couldn't make it in the end, Johanna. I hope you'll visit us soon - we'll do our best to make up for the earlier disappointment.

Last Saturday night my dad came to visit, accompanied by Niamh Shields of Eat Like A Girl and Patrick Carpenter of Ostrea Edulis. Apologies once more for the fact that we were still on soft openings, which had been extended for a few days - I know it was disappointing and frustrating not to be able to take photos and write up the visit. Recent focus on work has meant I've neglected some other people, so let me make amends. Firstly, apologies for my silence to my long-standing cyber-friend, The Boston Foodie.

Stagières hard at work at NomaNext I want to say hello to another very good friend, Aaron Langille, who started working at Comerç 24 around the time I left and with whom I spent many happy evenings and weekends eating and drinking in Barcelona. London-based American food academic and blogger Adrienne of Gastroanthropology recently ate at Noma in Copenhagen and photographed the stagières hard at work, including Aaron (second left). Those who have followed Nuno's progress from The Loft project to Viajante will know just how influential Noma has been in the development of his philosophy as a restaurateur. Ben Greeno and Clayton Wells from Noma have both been Chef in Residence at The Loft and René Redzepi has been an advisor and mentor for Viajante.

Hopefully, once we've fully settled into a routine (though routine is not exactly what Nuno Mendes and Viajante are about) I'll find time to blog occasionally, although it's likely to be very irregular from now on. Right now my priorities are clear and I am totally focused on the task in hand.

More importantly, there's simply no time for writing. Take a look at this pie chart, which shows how my time is currently divided. On a normal working day I have just one hour to get showered, dressed, breakfasted and prepared for work and the same amount of time in the small hours of each morning to catch something on TV or just flop down with a drink.How my time is divided

There's an ironic twist here. In 2006 I spent five weeks on college work placement at one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, trekking across London each day from the East End to The Berkeley Hotel in the West End to learn something about cooking. Some time afterwards a little birdie told me that El Gordo, when told he had a young food blogger working for him, replied: "If he's got time to blog, we're obviously not giving him enough work to do." Well, Mr. Ramsay, I've got plenty enough work to do nowadays thank you, with hardly any time to blog. But it's all worth it. Ask your former protégée Marcus Wareing, now Michelin 2* chef/patron of his eponymous restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel, who trekked across London the other day from the West End to The Town Hall Hotel in the East End to experience the food at Viajante and pleasantly surprise Sabrina at the next table. It was a pleasure to cook for him, as it was also a pleasure to cook recently for the executive chefs of two of your current fine dining restaurants. Presumably they don't have enough work to keep them fully occupied these days. Touché!

To someone very, very specialDuring working hours I'm dedicated to my section, to Viajante and to our customers - the executive chefs, food writers, gastronomes, celebrities and the hundreds of ordinary people who simply love great food. What little time I have to spare outside of work is devoted to spending quality time with a very special person in my life. I hope your question is now fully answered, William.

For those readers who never managed to pay a visit to Bacchus or The Loft and don't know about Viajante, here are the links to Viajante's official websites and online services: Viajante, Viajante Facebook, Viajante Twitter, Viajante at The Town Hall Hotel.

So far I've seen some great comments: "the most exciting opening of the year so far", "tastebuds still singing", "spectacular meal there last night", "groovy", "masterful 12-course journey", "sublime soy jelly consommé", "Nuno's food has gone up several knocks in balance, flow and flavour", "fantastic dinner at Viajante this evening... each dish was meticulous" and (surely a bit OTT) "blew Fat Duck out of water". I especially liked: "I read that [Viajante] as Viagra at first." OK - if our food can help with your more intimate problems... we're only too pleased to help! I hope the writeups that will appear in the coming weeks now we're fully open will be as positive as these initial reviews that I've collated.

Many readers will be aware that, tomorrow night, the magnificent Guildhall in the City of London will once again host the annual San Pellegrino World Top 50 Restaurants event. The list of restaurants is drawn up following a poll of the world's most celebrated chefs, renowned food critics, leading restaurateurs and well-travelled gourmands – collectively known as The World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy. San Pellegrino always causes controversy and this year will be no exception. Chefs who have been ignored by Michelin sometimes find themselves propelled to international fame by the recognition paid to them by their peers - Fergus Henderson at St. John was perhaps the best example of this a few years ago. So, watch out for some interesting news in this year's announcements.The San Pellegrino World's Top 50

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Sunday, 14 March 2010

Now, Voyager!

The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.


— Walt Whitman
Viajante, the Portuguese voyager

From its earliest beginnings, the East End has been home to the poorest inhabitants of London. Much of its land was in need of drainage, development was inhibited by the medieval system of copyhold and it was home to noxious industries such as tanning, glue-making and the Bryant and May factory at the centre of the infamous Matchgirls' Strike of 1888. While the political centre of London developed in the west of the city, the east remained a low-wage economy, with slums, sweat shops and low-paid industries based in and around the docks. What Ellis Island was to American immigration, the East End was to British immigration with countless waves of migrants - from oppressed Protestant Huguenots, to Jewish victims of the pogroms, to Muslims fleeing more recent poverty and oppression - all making it their home and turning it into the vibrant multi-cultural centre it is today. I was born in the East End.

Now I've returned to seek and find an untold want: great fine dining in the place where I spent my formative years. It's a daunting prospect, as evidenced by this map of Central London:

Michelin-starred restaurants in Central London
Red dots denoting London's 2010 Michelin-starred restaurants flood the West End - an area bounded by Chelsea to the south, Kensington to the west, Marylebone to the north and Holborn to the east. Three can be found just off the map to the southwest and three have dared to wander eastwards into Smithfield, Clerkenwell and to the edges of the City, but the vast majority are happily based in London's safe, trusted, wealthy West End. The East End - an area bounded by the Thames to the south, Shoreditch to the west, south Hackney to the north and the River Lea to the east - has precisely none. The man who gave me my very first cooking certificate and one of my first ever experiences of work in a kitchen, Professor Cyrus Todiwala, earnt well-deserved Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition for his excellent E1-postcoded Café Spice Namasté, but it's not fine dining. To my knowledge, there has never been a Michelin-starred restaurant here... and few if any fine dining establishments. Only the insane, the recklessly brave or a true visionary would open a fine dining restaurant in the East End...

For those who don't know him, let me introduce you to Nuno Mendes. Back in October 2006, just starting my third year at Westminster Kingsway, I read a post on the Food and Drink in London blog about a "molecular gastropub" called Bacchus that had opened in Hoxton, within walking distance of my home in Hackney. Its unique selling point was "fine dining in trainers" - and when I eventually got there almost a year later, it blew me away. What I loved most about Nuno's menu was its fluidity - the extreme opposite of French conservative haute cuisine. Where a top Paris restaurant would insist on perfect replication year on year, Nuno wasn't afraid to develop and improve dishes even in the middle of service. I described his food back then as "combining the precision of classical music with the inventiveness of jazz".

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that night. Nuno encouraged me to train in Spain, extolling the virtues of his mentors at El Bulli and nominating Mugaritz as the place for me to learn my trade. I never worked at either, but during my two years in Spain I trained with two of their great chefs - El Bulli's Carles Abellan at Comerç 24 and Mugaritz's Paco Morales at Ferrero. Returning to London recently, I met up with Nuno and enjoyed a brilliant night cooking with him at his dining club, The Loft:

Nuno and me at The Loft

What I found was a chef who, while I was away in Spain learning the basics of our trade, had been perfecting the skills of chef/restaurateur. A man neither insane nor recklessly brave - but a voyager with a truly sparkling vision for the East End of the future. The Portuguese word for "voyager" is "viajante". And, in the new 5* Town Hall Hotel rising from the ashes of the former Bethnal Green Town Hall, just 300 yards down the road from my old school Raine's Foundation, is Restaurant Viajante.

If ever there was a time for change, this is surely it. The area to the west of Bethnal Green has been transformed by the yuppification of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston. The area to the southeast is London's new financial district of Docklands, emerging strongly from the recent recession. And to the northeast is the site of London's 2012 Olympic Games. Communications in the area have been transformed, with the Docklands Light Railway, a new underground link and the forthcoming Crossrail overground service. Government agencies have made huge efforts to shift the balance of wealth from west to east, with the result that Bethnal Green is unrecognisable as the crime-rife former stomping ground of the Krays. The trainers have gone. It's a great spot for fine dining going forward from 2010.

If the photo above looks a bit odd, that's because it's a still from the Portuguese daily TV current affairs programme 30 Minutos, transmitted recently by national broadcaster RTP. For anyone with a keen eye and a working knowledge of Portuguese, it was rather a give-away. Of course I only have a bit part, but it's pretty obvious that I'm doing a little more than just helping out on a busy Friday night:



I am thrilled to announce that when Viajante opens soon I shall be Chef de Partie, Cold Section - a proud part of a team of chefs from around the world who have descended on the East End, determined to achieve something that has never been done before. I look forward to seeing you there.

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Sunday, 7 March 2010

Koy Shunka - Barcelona's Hidden Treasure

Nobody goes to fine dining restaurants to eat. Even people like me, whose lives are committed to fine dining, divide eateries into two groups: those we go to for the cerebral thrill of experiencing a great chef's creativity, passion and originality... and those we go to because we're hungry. But every now and again you come across a restaurant that spans the gap between dining for intellectual pleasure and dining for hedonistic pleasure. It's a rare experience, but a handful of chefs have managed to build that bridge. Peter Gordon is one example and I'll be writing about him again soon. Hideki Matsuhisa is another. If you read this, Hideki, I haven't deserted you. It's just that I'm now living 709 miles away, so it's a bit difficult to pop in on a Sunday night.

Hideki Matsuhisa and his business partner Xu Zhangchao (known to regular foodies and local pool players as "Sam") run one of Barcelona's true hidden treasures, Koy Shunka. Located in a small alleyway off the Via Laietana not far from the city's tourist hub at Plaça Catalunya, you could easily walk straight past the place and not notice it was there. But great quality doesn't go unnoticed. Pop inside, and you could find yourself seated next to regular customer Ferran Adrià or any one of a number of other top chefs, celebrities and gastronomes. For Koy Shunka is predominantly a kappo-style counter restaurant in which customers sit at one of about 24 places around a bar, while 10 or more chefs busy themselves preparing the food right in front of the customer. The most junior chefs cook the hot food in the centre, their superiors work around them and the most senior chefs plate up dishes, prepare cold food, sauces and extras and attend directly to their 'personal' customers. Hideki Matsuhisa supervises all sashimi dishes personally.Hideki Matsuhisa, chef/proprietor of Koy Shunka

Although I've eaten there several times and written enthusiastic comments about the place more than once, I never managed to take any food photos and consequently never wrote it up in my restaurants section. Thinking about that the other day it came home to me that it wasn't a coincidence - when you dine as a critic you bring your critical apparatus with you, but when you dine as a member of a family it just doesn't seem appropriate somehow. Hideki Matsuhisa always made me feel like I was at home.

Luckily for me my friend Professor Paulina Mata - Portuguese food scientist, molecular gastronomist, author and broadcaster - paid a visit to the Catalan capital recently, equipped with a copy of my 2009 post Dining out in Barcelona. Better still, she returned home with some great photographs of the food at Koy Shunka, which she's encouraged me to reproduce. Click on slides for descriptions of dishes:


Readers with a command of Portuguese should read Professor Mata's writeup on her gastronomic forum NovaCrítica-vinho.com. "I adored the environment, I adored the food", she reported. "When I return to Barcelona I shall certainly revisit Koy Shunka." I'll raise a glass of sake to that!


It's front of house, rather than the kitchen, that ultimately makes all the difference to a restaurant by turning great food into a great customer experience. In Koy Shunka, personal chefs entertain and inform you throughout the meal. But waiters and waitresses also operate almost invisibly on the customer side of the counter, removing and replacing crockery and cutlery, topping up glasses and attending to every issue that makes the experience perfect. Including important rituals such as offering a hand towel at the start of the meal. Except that at Koy Shunka, even this transcends ritual to become entertainment. Click left and enjoy!

For anyone who can't afford to visit Tokyo but can manage the fare to Barcelona, I can't recommend Koy Shunka too highly. Make sure you call ahead and book - then just turn up and be pampered.

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Friday, 5 March 2010

So Proud Of Our Global Community

I always knew there was something very special about the global foodie community. Ever since I started my blog over three years ago, I've been surrounded by friendly, supportive people from all corners of the globe. My stats report tells me that the quarter of a million people who have visited my site in that time come from a staggering 207 different countries, as far apart as Haiti, Rwanda and Norfolk Island. Not only is it a global family - it's a wonderfully generous global family. Take a look at Pim Techamuanvivit's annual Menu For Hope fundraising for the World Food Programme to see just how generous.

When on Monday 15th February I heard about the kitchen fire at Mugaritz, I was particularly moved by the story of the stagières' knives. As someone about to contract his first ever paid position as a chef without first starting as an unpaid stagière, I knew how devastated these three young trainees from Guatemala, Sweden and the US would have been to lose their most precious possessions and the tools of their apprenticeship. That night my dad and I decided to see what we could do to help. After a few days fruitlessly trying to sort out the logistics of an appeal fund, dad wrote to food blogging friend John Sconzo in upstate New York... and the rest is history.Mugaritz Stagieres Knives Appeal

Overnight, the appeal fund that John established a fortnight ago smashed its target of $2,500. The overwhelming generosity of chefs, foodies and bloggers everywhere means that Diego Telles, Mattias Hogebrant and Greg Kuzia-Carmel will soon be able to buy brand new knives to replace the ones destroyed in the fire. I won't acknowledge all of the individual donors here, as John Sconzo has published a comprehensive thank you on his own blog. What I will say is that seeing the names of world-famous chefs, food writers, bloggers and fund-raisers on that list of donors, inter-mixed with the names of ordinary people like dad and me, makes me so incredibly proud of the global food community.

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Thursday, 25 February 2010

Bananas!

Back in November 2008 I published a post celebrating Victory For The Different! After years of massive food waste, the European Commission had at last agreed to abandon the laws that dictated the look of Europe's fruit and vegetables. For the previous two decades, EU legislation had meant that greengrocery which failed to meet the "perfect profile" in terms of shape, size and absence of blemishes could not be sold for direct consumption. Wonky cucumbers and comedy carrots were outlawed and only perfect-looking produce could be found on supermarket shelves. One of the first challenges to the law came from Waitrose, when in 2007 they introduced Class II produce, offering ugly fruit to their eco-conscious customers. A year later the EU caved in to pressure from the green lobby and we celebrated a wonderful victory for ugly fruit, sexy vegetables and non-conformist people.

According to the French, Spanish and Hungarian protectionists, it's not an EU-compliant banana
Fifteen months later and the protectionist farmers are back. Greater availability of food and the introduction of new competition into the expanded European markets had resulted in significant price reductions during the intervening period... and the French, Spanish and Hungarians are not happy about it. Their massive agro-industrial producers could afford the physical handling and computer-aided sorting equipment necessary to manage compliance with the EU legislation, whereas the smaller local growers couldn't afford to go down that path. The ending of the 'ugly fruit ban' meant that the market dominance of the few was challenged and the consumer benefitted hugely as a result. But a few days ago, led by Spanish MEPs, the European Parliament's Agriculture Committee voted to bring the ban back.

The proposed re-introduction will now go before the European Parliament where, hopefully, it will be thrown out. "Food is food, no matter what it looks like", said Timothy Kirkhope, Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber. "To try to stop stores selling perfectly decent food simply because of its shape or size is morally unjustifiable, especially when we are worried about global food supplies and still in the mouth of an economic downturn." His colleague Richard Ashworth MEP described the Spanish-led move as "nonsensical" and UKIP Euro-MP Stuart Agnew said: "They are crackers."

When the debate first started back in the 1970s after the establishment of the European Community, the tabloid newspapers revelled in stories about rules defining the shape and size of bananas, which became an iconic target for eurosceptic fun in the years to follow. Ironically, however, bananas are one item of produce that has never been covered by the legislation, being covered by other laws. But the papers were never going to let the truth get in the way of a good story. And with the picture above, neither am I.

Thanks to -eko- for the Magritte-inspired banana photo.

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