Play it again, Sam 13 December 2019 Sam Harrison returns to the floor at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where his brasserie is set to be a blockbuster
In this week's issue... Play it again, Sam Sam Harrison returns to the floor at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where his brasserie is set to be a blockbuster
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The bland have been leading the bland too long

01 January 2000
The bland have been leading the bland too long

"There's only one prima donna in this hotel, Chef, and that's me. You're fired." So said a hotelier. Alas, gone are the glory days when the chef was the king of the hotel and the hotelier had to beg permission to enter his domain. Gone are the days when chefs and their brigades were left to their own devices, and a steady stream of succulent dishes flowed out of their kitchens.

Today, it's the age of food and beverage directors, labour costs, food costs, recipe cards, portion controls… The modern chef de cuisine is, more often than not, to be found working on his laptop rather than hovering over simmering pots in the kitchen.

The hard-pressed cook, if his soup is too thin, will grab a can of instant mashed potato mix for a thickener. Technology has destroyed the roux.

It's the age of production-line cuisine, cans of tomato ketchup, plastic gallon containers of sauce tartare, meat tenderiser, chicken soup base, handy cereal packs, portioned steaks and marmalade, powdered garlic, powdered herbs, powdered spices and bottled fruit purées.

Blander

It's the age of bland-tasting food and, more often than not, the larger the hotel, the blander the tastes coming out of its kitchens.

So how can we get the taste back into hotel food, and prevent our noblest culinary efforts being chopped up with relish (literally) by the Michael Winners of this world?

The first step is to hold a meeting with the chef and his kitchen brigade and tell them to rub the rust off their Sabatier knives and start cooking again. You may say: "But they're doing that already."

Really? Take a walk around the storerooms and look at the shelves groaning with artificial soup bases, stocks, sauces, dressings, canned vegetables and fruits. Walk into the deep freeze and see the frozen breads, the portion-cut steaks and main-course dishes, the sausages, the ice-creams, the butter patties. Everything is mass-produced and wrapped in convenience packing.

Shortcuts

One would almost think that nowadays you don't need to apprentice any more to become a hotel cook, you just need some imagination and the ability to use a can opener. It's made our chefs and their brigades lazy, always on the lookout for shortcuts. It's a key reason why so much hotel food is bland.

So how can we overcome this problem?

Marshal the kitchen brigade, lead them into the storerooms, form them into a chain and start tossing out everything which can be made with fresh products. Then tell them to start preparing from scratch.

OK, you can hold back on the mayonnaise, but threaten to toss that out as well if they don't produce up to standard.

Then inform them you wish to see the stockpots back bubbling on their ranges, and that all the stews, casseroles, curries, daubes and ragoûts are to be cooked the day before serving. If the kitchen shop steward demands a meeting, saying: "We only prepare fresh food, not stale food," threaten to call his mother and ask her to sample the dishes to see which is better.

Demand of your chef and sous chefs that they taste everything before it leaves the kitchen. Insist that all hot sauces are made daily, that mint jelly is out and that fresh mint, vinegar and sugar are in.

Demand that all local seasonings are freshly chopped and used correctly, that flying fish is pan-fried and not greased out in the deep-fat fryer, that chicken is marinaded in lime and salt, that creamed potatoes are rich in nutmeg.

Insist that all the basics of quality cuisine preparation are reintroduced to the kitchen.

Finally, steal an idea from All Inclusive Resorts. They knew they had to improve hotel food or their guests would start dining out and not in, which would soon put them out of business. They offered their guests multi-optional dining experiences: Mexican, Chinese, Italian, French, Thai, Greek and Spanish restaurants abound in their compounds, much to the culinary enjoyment of their guests.

Local cuisine

Set aside 24 covers in your dining room, enclose them with a cheerfully coloured decorative garden trellis, call it the Creole Kitchen, and offer your guests local cuisine as it is prepared in island homes.

Do a sampling of all dishes before opening and, if the brigade hasn't got the flavours right, invite them out to lunch. Hire a bus and head to the nearest construction site, and buy for them the delicious food sold to the workers from the backs of Suzuki vans to remind them what taste is all about.

Vive la cuisine Creole.

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