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Cookbooks are great, pastry is easy…

Jay Rayner
·7-min read

Won’t somebody think of the poor restaurant critics? Won’t anyone consider the plight of these hard-working, committed professionals, robbed this past year of their vital place in society? Week after week pre-pandemic, we pulled up to a thickly clothed table, ordered potentially nice things to eat at somebody else’s expense, and then returned to our desks to write sharply honed accounts of the great risks we had taken, carefully larded and barded with the most elegant of knob gags. Can’t at least a few of you take to your doorsteps to bang a pan? No? Oh.

I’ll level with you. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve attempted to check my privilege, really I have

I’ll level with you. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve attempted to check my privilege, really I have. I’m afraid I’ve always had to give up, exhausted by the sheer volume of fabulous things that required ticking off the list. When asked how I was, I have replied that I couldn’t complain. I meant that literally, because if I did complain, I’d deserve a slap. I have been gainfully employed. I have a nice house with a garden, and a family that seems, for the most part, to like each other. Things could have been so very much worse for this restaurant critic.

Instead, it has been an education. I have learned a thing or three. So, as we stand on the butter-smeared edge of what should be some form of permanent reopening, the smell of hope so thick we can almost taste it, let me share a few of them.

First up, I have had it confirmed to me that restaurants are not about the food. The food is important, of course. Going to a place that will allow you to look at a list of nice things to eat and get someone else to bring them to you is great. But over the past 12 months, it was never the food I missed. For the most part, that still came into my house. Phil Rosenthal, the pathologically cheery presenter of the Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, recently described this period to me as “the golden age of take out”. Granted, it’s not quite up there with the Enlightenment, but it’s still been quite a thing to behold.

I have been able to get almost anything I wanted sent to me, from the lowliest bucket of Korean chicken wings, through cassoulets worthy of any bistro, to the most intricate assemblies of the garlanded and tweezered. I’ve welcomed them all. Those new business models won’t fade away; the menu kit is here to stay. But an excellent venison wellington and a lemon meringue pie landing on my kitchen table does not make my kitchen a restaurant.

Early on in the crisis, the restaurateur Mike Belben told me that he wasn’t in the business of selling steaks and wine. “We’re selling atmosphere,” he said. It’s an atmosphere which echoes through time. The restaurant experience begins with a booking made, followed by the sweet tingle of anticipation, that little fizz of electricity which reminds you that in a day or two there are nice things to come. You think about reaching a respectable level of drunkenness in public and the joys of saturated animal fats. It is about pushing through the door and feeling the hum of the other people around you. It is about the shine on the glass, and the intrigue at the table next to yours. It’s about the washing-up: the fact that someone else is going to be doing it. I have come to hate washing-up.

I have learned that home kitchens are machines that need to be very carefully designed. A couple of years ago I was in a position to raze our misshapen orange and burgundy monstrosity to the ground and start all over again. (Lose a parent; gain a kitchen.) We got the triangulation of fridge, stove and sink about right. And thank God for that, because we’ve spent enough time wandering between each point of the diagram. Other elements have been less successful. As part of the kitchen makeover I bought a 17m-wide stove that looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It has a built-in plancha. I had ripe fantasises of searing things, nonchalantly. I imagined the phrase “a la plancha” becoming a casual piece of everyday chatter. During the pandemic I realised I never cook on it. At best it’s somewhere I put a pan when I need to take it off the heat. It is my ill-judged fantasies of self, realised in a pointless slab of metal that never gets hot enough. It’s a tragic metaphor for failed masculinity.

I have learned that cookbooks are useful. What, you knew this already? Why didn’t you tell me? I knew they were important documents. I knew they contained things that could be interesting, if I could summon the will to look. But I had decided that they were also what I have come to call those invitations to fail. There were a couple of books I turned to for methods, but otherwise, in what I suspect represents another male trait, I felt they impinged upon my freestyling, intuitive ways. Just let me at it. I was wrong. Cookbooks are great.

Which leads me to my most delightful discovery. I used to be scared of pastry. I could order a tart in a restaurant and tell you whether it was good or bad; whether the shell was underbaked or overbaked or tough. But my big, fat, dirty secret was that, at home, I was terrified of making it. A self-proclaimed bish-bash-bosh cook was always likely to run away gibbering from the precision of something like pastry, for fear that a soggy bottom and leaky rim (which sounds like a rectal complaint, but isn’t) would unmask me as a fraud. Far better to go nowhere near it than risk being found out. And so the big news: pastry is fine. Just follow the bloody recipe. From a cookbook.

A year ago, the chef and restaurateur Gary Usher shared with me his deepest concerns about the pandemic. “With all this time at home people will have learned to cook more and take pleasure in it,” he said. “I simply wonder what people’s relationship with restaurants will be.” At least where I’m concerned, Usher can relax. There’s a lot about cooking and eating at home that I’ve enjoyed during this period. The mark of it will stay with me for ever. But I can’t pretend. I’m gagging to pull a chair up to a table, order a cold drink, settle back and listen to the chatter of strangers. My relationship with restaurants remains robust. From next week, in some form, I shall be attending to it.

News bites

As the hospitality industry eases open, there is optimistic news with the announcement of various openings. The Glenturret in Crieff, one of Scotland’s oldest whisky distilleries, is to launch its own high-end restaurant in the early summer. The Lalique will be run by Mark Donald, formerly head chef of Number One at The Balmoral in Edinburgh, who also has time on his CV at Noma in Copenhagen and Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus in London. Visit theglenturret.com.

Meanwhile the Graduate Cambridge hotel has announced the hiring of chef Adam Wood, formerly of Perilla in London’s Newington Green, for its new Garden House restaurant. The launch menu will include oysters with gooseberry and jalapeno, grilled quail with pickled cherry and dandelion, Herdwick hogget and, to finish, a burnt cream tart because to not have something like that on the menu in Cambridge is illegal (graduatehotels.com).

And a quick round-up of other news. Ramen specialists Tonkotsu are to open their first stand-alone restaurant outside London. They are taking over the site formerly occupied by Polpo on New Road, Brighton. French Chef Alexis Gauthier has opened a vegan café called 123 Vegan at the department store Fenwick in London’s Mayfair. And the brilliant Afghan-South American inclusive barbecue outfit Cue Point have opened their outside dining operation at Chiswick Pavilion in west London, and have also added a drive-thru option. You can book a collection slot on their website, cue-point.co.uk.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1