View from Vitalia: Of cooking, food and restaurants
How do you detect a bad restaurant before you actually eat in it?
I want my last ‘View from Vitalia’ blog in 2017 to be yummy. In the true sense of that word, I mean, for what’s the most important part of Christmas and New Year? Not sure about you, but for me it is probably food. That can be explained by the fact that as the Soviet Union’s only depoliticised holiday (for, no matter how badly they wished it, the Bolsheviks could not be seriously credited with being in charge of the flow of time), New Year’s Eve was when people would empty their fridges and disgorge all the hard-to-get goodies carefully accumulated throughout the year (oranges, sausages, Russian salad and the so-called ‘poor man’s caviar’ – a cold starter, made of aubergines) onto the festive table – to impress the guests and themselves too. One could fast on all other 364 days of the year, yet on New Year’s Day the tables in every Soviet household would be sagging.
Were we obsessed with food? We probably were… nothing creates obsession as easily as shortages and deprivation.
With no comparable shortages in the UK (thank God), it is not often that we write about food and food technologies in E&T magazine. Some of our devoted readers may still remember the exclusive feature on printable food, which I commissioned in 2008 for the relaunch issue of the new-look E&T. (We would have died to be able to print a bit of borscht and Russian salad out of nowhere in the USSR!)
In my ‘After All’ column, I once wrote about the innovative chain of London techno-restaurants ‘Inamo’, and on another occasion about my memorable cooking class at the famous Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, where I learned some useful cooking techniques and technologies (e.g. how to make a parchment paper lid for a frying pan, which the French call ‘cartouche’) and was able to gobble up the results.
That cooking class about four years ago was my last experience of the kind. Until this month, I mean. Yes, in December 2017, I was lucky enough to have attended two cooking classes in two different cities, countries and continents – in Seoul and in London.
The first one was taught by the delightful Kim Minseon, Seoul’s up-and-coming celebrity chef. Prior to the lesson, we went shopping for the ingredients with her at a couple of local food markets. Describing them simply as a horn of plenty would be like calling London’s Shard a fairly tall building – a gross understatement: I had to shut my eyes not to be blinded by the palate of colours and to cover my nose not to be overwhelmed by the pungent potpourri of smells. Under Minseon’s expert supervision, I ended up cooking (or rather assisting her in doing so) an oyster soup, followed by a Yuzu fruit dessert, consumed there and then in the kitchen, and washed down with generous quantities of home-made Soju – strong Korean rice wine.
Which technologies did I learn at that lesson? Well, not a lot, if you don’t count making an anchovy stock and cutting a Yuzu fruit into six equal slices.
And last week I was subjected to another cooking trial. – this time in one of London’s best Italian restaurants. In all fairness, it was not a cooking lesson per se, but rather a cooking demonstration, followed by a competition to prepare the best Pesto Genovese pasta sauce – all organised and sponsored by the Liguria Tourist Board. The winner of the competition was to travel to Genoa to take part in the World Pesto Championship 2018, no less!
The very fact that pesto sauce can be handmade, and not acquired in nice little glass jars from a supermarket was a bit of a revelation to me. In that respect I can’t have travelled very far from the proverbial ballerina who was convinced that rubber was extracted out of galoshes and milk squeezed out of cottage cheese. Driven by curiosity, but also by my genuine affection for Italy and Italian food (as well as the temptation of winning a free trip to Genoa, no doubt), I volunteered to take part…
Here let me pause to say a couple of words about Italian food.
Having travelled extensively around Italy researching some of my books, having taught for a short while at the University of Bologna, I had NEVER come across a thoroughly bad meal. Pasta at the students' canteen at the University's medieval Bertinaro campus was always top-notch – as well as the unlimited ‘free’ wine which the students, incidentally, didn't touch (it would probably only take a day or so to bring down any British university campus by making wine freely available in its canteen)! Even a hurried plate of spaghetti swallowed once in haste near Palermo’s hectic railway station, had some redeeming features about it and could compete in quality with any of its namesakes from Britain’s ever-growing chains of ‘Italian’ restaurants.
No wonder the Italian government has recently unleashed its dynamic, secretive and (allegedly) incorruptible assault squad of food inspectors upon the numerous pseudo-Italian restaurants of the globe with the aim of uncovering those that abuse the sacred and immaculate concept (if not the conception) of Italian cuisine and mercilessly closing down the impostors.
Eating out in Italy is like dining at an Indian restaurant in London. Or like drinking Russian vodka… You cannot really make a mistake, for all of the above appear in only two varieties: good and very good. Well, an Italian meal – more often than not – exists in a third category, too: excellent!
Is it actually possible to have a bad meal in Italy, outside the ubiquitous McDonalds and other fast-food joints (some Italian regions – like, say, Le Marche – boast of not having a single one of those) or the tourist traps of Venice, Florence and Rome?
Some of my friends assure that it is. But finding one is not easy. Probably harder than discovering all the restaurants of the acclaimed ‘Unione dei Ristoranti del Buon Ricordo’ of which there are only 102 in the world (mostly, in Italy). David Dale, an Australian travel writer and a good acquaintance of mine, once tried to visit them all, to dine at each and to collect all the coveted Buon Ricordo plates, awarded exclusively to their diners and loved by collectors all over the globe.
Back to the pesto competition in which I so foolhardily agreed to take part. I didn’t win it. Didn’t even make it to the first three (out of ten). The reason? Politics of course – only joking. But seriously – most likely, my lack of pesto-making experience and low technological skills. Which technological gadgets did we use, you may ask? They were two: a mortar and a pestle! Oh, and nearly forgot: a lot of elbow grease!
I was tempted to quote here the recipe for Pesto Genovese, but on reflection decided not to, for, frankly, I don’t fancy being beaten by you in any future pesto-making competition. Instead, I want to share with you some much more practical tips from a book with a long and somewhat pretentious title, ‘The Obsessive Traveller Or why I don’t steal towels from great hotels any more’ [meaning that he still does from the not-so-great ones? - VV], by the above-mentioned writer David Dale, who came up with some rules of thumb to help travellers in avoiding bad restaurants:
- Never eat in a restaurant that revolves or floats.
- Never eat in a restaurant that is more than 10 metres above the ground.
- Never eat in your hotel dining room
- A restaurant that has a pepper grinder on every table is likely to be good (here I dare to disagree with David: to me, a huge pepper grinder on every table would rather symbolise a powerful, yet repressed, masculinity of the owner – VV).
- A restaurant that offers “thousand island dressing” as an option for your salad is likely to be bad
- There is no such thing as a bad Thai restaurant
- There is no such thing as a good Dutch restaurant
- There is no such thing as a good restaurant in Las Vegas.
Dale also quotes the great American food writer Calvin Trillin, who urges would-be customers to beware places with names like “La Maison de la Casa House Continental Cuisine” – to which I could add that one should also avoid restaurants with flags or banners above the entrance.
Having summed it all up and having discarded the irrelevant bits, we may safely conclude that, according to David Dale, your archetypal bad eatery would be a revolving Dutch restaurant on the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel.
After reading David’s book, I decided I needed some more objective signs of a clearly bad restaurant. So I did a “signs of a bad restaurant” Google search. The results exceeded all expectations. The subject of bad restaurants was obviously close to the heart of the broad internet-browsing masses and was routinely raised in a number of virtual discussions. The participants of a lively “digital spy” UK forum on food and drink were able to add the following important bad-restaurant signs to the list:
- menu with pictures
- huge menu
- laminated menu
- lots of ready-meal packaging, or rats in the bins area
- a Brakes ( large wholesale food supplier) lorry in the restaurant car park
- chavs (slang for ‘rough youths’ – VV) in the kitchen; one participant has narrowed it down to “spotty-faced teenagers who can’t speak a word of English, even though born, raised and taught in the UK, serving you”
- empty dining area
- caterpillars in the salad, as discovered by one captious lady
- dirty toilets
- food served in cardboard boxes (I only experienced this once, on board an RAF flight to the Falklands – VV)
- squashed cockroach on the stairs
And so on. The participants of the forum could be forgiven for being at times somewhat maximalist, not to say extremist. If we try and collate their warning signs with those of David Dale and myself, the extended description of a typical bad restaurant would probably read roughly like this:
“A totally empty and stinking revolving Dutch restaurant, with huge laminated and colourful menus, filthy toilets, rats in the backyard, cockroaches on steps, flies on walls, caterpillars in salads, spotty-faced youngsters as both cooks and waiters on the top floor of a dodgy hotel in Las Vegas.
Pretty definitive, isn’t it? But can you add to this list? Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Merry Christmas and Happy Eating in 2018!