Dear Kitchen Agony,
I feel inadequate every time a TV food programme goes behind the scenes in a restaurant kitchen. The chefs are always super-efficient and the kitchen runs like clockwork. My dinner parties are fraught with chaos, panic and dropped potatoes. What am I doing wrong?
Give yourself a break. Ask yourself these questions: Do you have a kitchen equipped like an aircraft carrier? Do you have a coffle of drudges to scrape the carrots and swear at when you feel a Gordon coming on? Do you have a flight of mutely obedient waiters hanging on your every last gobbet of basil oil, eager to whisk your masterpieces to the diners?
No you don’t.
And these aren’t the only reasons why the restaurant chef has such an easy job compared to the home chef. Most crucially, he doesn’t have to spend three-quarters of his time sitting with the diners. You do, albeit in a neurotic, dashing-in-and-out kind of way.
All he has to do is stand at his work station making 120 portions of oven-roasted squab pigeon with oxtail and chocolate sauce. Easy. He doesn’t have to shop for, prepare, cook and serve the entire meal and listen to a blow-by-blow account of someone’s knee operation, like you do.
Not that you can concentrate on your dinner guest’s knee – you are far too worried that the lobster mousseline you left in the oven will remain forever liquid… Unless of course it has already turned to rubber. You interrupt the account with a rude concluding sort of noise and rush out.
And back again, because etiquette demands that you are there at the table for at least half of the first course. And yet there is still so much work to be done on the main. You eat mechanically but your mind is elsewhere and you can no longer taste the food. Paranoia tells you this is because it’s bland.
You try to keep your conversation manner light, to prevent long disquisitions, but this makes you seem frivolous and shallow, especially as you can barely comprehend the responses. And it’s futile anyway because you can’t avoid being pinned down by your neighbour, who has moved on to her varicose veins, the extreme aircraft turbulence that almost killed her and the Lyme disease that carried away her beloved spaniel, or mother – you forget which. Your rude concluding sort of noise would not be appropriate in the face of such heartache, so you have to grin and bear it. More than once I have overcooked my vegetables because of somebody’s dying relative.
When you do manage to get back to the kitchen (if it’s as small and sordid as mine), you have to wash up a pile of pans just to make room to work. The menace now, as you stand elbow-deep in scum, sliding about on the squashed potato on the floor, is the guest who follows you into the kitchen to confess a secret vice, or ask you your thoughts on climate change. You can’t cook and you can’t talk properly either. This is a direct hit on mission control.
Your dinner would be magnificent if it wasn’t for your dinner guests. You manage to tell him this and he leaves looking crestfallen. But at least you are alone again and are able to crack on (as they say) with reducing the sauce for the main course. In the distance you can hear that the dining room atmosphere has cranked up a few gears and is becoming riotously merry. Suddenly you start to feel a little lonely. And you’ve still got to roll the fiddly cinnamon tuilles into sodding cylinders for the dessert. You strain to hear what is being said but can only catch the odd phrase – ‘…multiple orgasm!’ or ‘…told her straight: ‘It’s Me or It!’…’ or just the irritating ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha!’ every few seconds.
At the end of the night when you swap notes about the evening with your wife or husband, it will become painfully clear that you have very little idea what took place.
‘Did anyone notice the food?’ you will ask pathetically.
Sunday lunches are as bad, with the added handicap of the friend’s little girl who wants to sit on the kitchen surface beside you and help you mix things. Don’t think your friends will make life easier for you either. Once, when making a starter of scallops with rhubarb sauce, I turned round to see a man called Danny Danziger scuttle into the kitchen like a naughty satyr. Before I had time to throw a pan at him he’d hoofed it with two crispy pancetta wafers that I’d painstakingly ironed into strips to garnish my dish. If you know how hard it is to make eight unbroken crispy pancetta shards, you’ll know why this is a hanging offence. I had to hide the rest on top of the kitchen unit.
Restaurant chefs used to delivering offerings that are received in worshipful silence don’t realise how tough it can get. So don’t let yourself be intimidated by their efficiency. And don’t undersell your own heroic efforts. The dinner party is the culinary front line and we are its foot soldiers. Without our frenzied efforts nobody would want to go out and pay for a decent meal. And where would your professional chefs be then?
Recipe: Last Minute Risotto
Actually this is the way it’s done in restaurants, because despite the disapproval of risotto purists, nobody has 25 minutes to spare at 9pm to stir a rice dish. This can be brought to an almost finished state beforehand, and finished off on the night. And the constant stirring demanded by traditional recipes doesn’t seem to be important after all.
300g risotto rice
1 litre stock (chicken, vegetable fish, depending what kind of risotto you’re making)
Cook the shallots in olive oil in a large pan until soft. Add seasoning, turn up the heat and throw in the rice, stirring for a minute or two until it’s coated with oil. Pour 700ml of the stock in at once and bring to a simmer. Cook for 8 minutes on a medium heat until the rice has absorbed the liquid (it won’t be fully cooked at this stage). Spread the rice on a lightly oiled baking tray and leave to cool. Then cover with cling film and place in the fridge.
All the above can be done earlier in the day. Just before serving put the rice back in the pan with the remaining 300ml of stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until al dente. Stir in whatever vegetables, fish or cooked meat you require and season well. Add the butter, put a lid on and let all the flavours meld while you get on with other stuff.
Cookery book tip: Ruth Watson’s Something for the Weekend (Quadrille), contains cook-friendly recipes for a minimum of eight people. It’s full of recipe ideas and strategies for keeping the last minute work to a minimum.
Please send any kitchen queries/agonies to Martin Plimmer at [email protected]