Beat the Lunch Crunch - 2009
For restaurateurs and diners alike, the weeks between Christmas and Valentine’s day are, traditionally, quiet: we need time to recover from all that present-buying, pudding-eating and resolution-making. And this year there is the credit crunch to factor in too.
Of course, we know that the recession, however painful, will be over one day. But there are many who have not lived through a downturn such as this before and who are about to enter uncharted waters. It is also the case that in two important respects today’s chefs have less room to manoeuvre than their predecessors had.
The first is in our relationship to the food we eat. Over the past decade provenance has become increasingly important. The names of many of Britain’s specialist producers of beef, dairy, poultry, lamb and salads are now regularly cited on menus, and these suppliers are often small or independent family farms or businesses who are less able to extend their payment terms. So now if a chef wishes to continue to source the best produce, he or she cannot simply delay payment in the way that was once the norm.
The second is that in the years since the FT introduced its original Lunch for a Fiver menu in 1993, most restaurants have taken to offering their own keenly priced set-price menus. There is not much fat for restaurant accountants to trim.
So when in late November I sat down at the FT with Richard and Peter Harden of Harden’s Guides to discuss which new approach we might devise to tempt both restaurants and diners in 2009, we knew some ingenuity would be necessary. The dining offer we came up with – Take a Friend to Lunch for a Fiver – is, I believe, new, sociable, easy to understand and great value, and it does not depend on fixed price menus (for more details, see box right).
And, in order to see how the experts might be feeling about their prospects for this year, I spoke to a selection of leading British restaurateurs – both participants and non-participants in our lunch offer – about their hopes and plans for the year ahead.
I put three very broad questions to them. What were their plans for 2009? Which restaurant were they most looking forward to trying during the coming year? And, particularly of interest to those exploring the menus of restaurants participating in the FT’s 2009 Take a Friend to Lunch for a Fiver, which of their own dishes were they most proud of?
Sally Clarke, who in 1984 was one of the pioneers of sourcing the best ingredients and cooking them simply when she opened Clarke’s in Notting Hill Gate, west London, said: “I want to encourage people to drop in, to have the full Clarke’s experience if they want but, on other occasions, just to have a plate of fishcakes and chips. Our daily specials and new dinner menu will be as keenly priced as I can manage without compromising the ingredients we buy. And at the shop next door we are going to be promoting far more heavily our prepared dishes– risottos, coq au vin, foie gras in Kilner jars, and all our bakery’s produce – so that we will be able to better serve the local neighbourhood with either an informal supper or a dinner party.”
Alice Waters’s famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, is where Clarke would go “if I ever got the time off ... It continues to be my touchstone, the best restaurant in the world in terms of style, flavour and balance.” The dishes she recommends looking out for are those “that look, taste or feel seasonal, which [at Clarke’s] today would be a salad with fruit – a pear, clementine or pomegranate – and a dressing made with chives, pomegranate syrup, balsamic vinegar and new season’s olive oil.”
At London’s most respected French restaurant, the two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in Mayfair, Michel Roux Jr and his staff confront a particular challenge.
“So far, occupancy has been good – in fact, in September and October we were up on the year before – but there has suddenly been a marked downturn in the spend on alcohol, both pre- or post-dinner drinks, or that second bottle. And our sommeliers are being grilled more and more by customers to recommend good-value wines that they may not have tried before or wines from a vintage not necessarily known as one of the best. But that is good for the staff and where, I think, they come into their own.
“We haven’t increased our set-price lunch menu for two years and we obviously won’t this year, so that, plus the fact that Le Gavroche is a ‘safe bet’ for that special-occasion dinner, should keep me and my chefs busy.
“I had some fabulous meals at Zuma in Knightsbridge last year, and I look forward to more of the same. Richard Corrigan’s new place [Corrigan’s in Mayfair] round the corner is top of my list for January.
“As to one particular dish, that’s perhaps the most difficult question as I enjoy cooking and eating everything on our menu. But, if you push me, I would have to say it’s the soufflé suissesse, our twice-baked cheese soufflé, which has been on the menu since we opened 40 years ago, because it is one of the simplest yet most difficult to get right. It is exceedingly rich, yet light, creamy and indulgent – perfect comfort food in the depressing months ahead.”
Cyrus Todiwala, chef/patron of the highly enjoyable Indian restaurant Café Spice Namasté near London’s Tower Bridge, responded with characteristic enthusiasm. “We’ve just had a brainstorming session to ensure that we go all out, with special dinners, masterclasses and promoting the products we make, to open up our world to as many customers as possible. For example, we will be holding an evening with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in February.
“And I will be cooking as much as possible with North Ronaldsay mutton, which comes from the northernmost of the Orkney Islands. This meat is fabulous because they live on a diet of seaweed and kelp, and it is very, very lean.
“And then one night I would like to take my wife to Mosimann’s Club in Belgravia. I’m not a member but he has always been my food hero.”
Outside London, Baba Hine at the Corse Lawn House Hotel in Gloucestershire – which attracts shooting parties at this time of year – saw a specific advantage for those like her who run small hotels or restaurants with rooms. “It is cheaper to discount the rooms than it is to discount the food or the wine,” she explained. “We can attract those who want to ‘get away from it all’ during a recession even [if only] for a night or two. Then they feel comfortable about having dinner here.
“When times are hard you’ve got to encourage your local customers even more: we’ve been running ‘credit crunch lunches’ and ‘recession winter dinners’ for the past few months and they’ve been very popular.
“If I were eating here, I would definitely choose the roast woodcock with game chips and bread sauce. Top of my list for our next outing is to try Dominic Chapman’s cooking at the Royal Oak in Paley Street, Berkshire.”
David Pitchford, who with his wife Rona runs Read’s in Faversham, Kent, said: “This will be the third recession we have faced together and we have come to realise that there are some benefits. It concentrates the mind and should remind us of why we are here – which is to serve people. That’s why I will be cooking cheese soufflé on parmesan-glazed smoked haddock with a cream sauce: our customers never let us take it off the menu.
“And then one night I want to take my wife off to Angela Hartnett’s Murano in Mayfair.”
I contacted Bryan Webb at Tyddyn Llan in north Wales and Tom Kitchin at the Kitchin in Leith, Scotland, because each has established a culinary reputation by using the finest local produce. Their responses shared a common emphasis on keeping prices down by using less expensive ingredients and wasting nothing, an approach Kitchin says owes much to his time under the renowned Gascon chef Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire in London.
Webb says he is keeping one particular dish on his menu, a fillet of line-caught sea bass with spinach and a beurre blanc mixed with lavabread, that I remember enjoying and writing about 18 years ago when he was cooking at Hilaire restaurant in London.
Kitchin, too, intends to stick to his signature dish, braised pig’s head with crisp ears and langoustine tails, which takes two days to prepare from start to finish. He is also launching a private catering service, Your Kitchin.
When he’s in London filming television show Saturday Kitchen, he intends slipping off to eat at La Petite Maison in Mayfair where his friend Raphael Duntoye is the chef. Webb, meanwhile, says he’ll be returning to Nigel Howarth’s Northcote Manor in Lancashire.
London chefs Peter Gordon at Providores, which draws heavily on Gordon’s native New Zealand for its modern approach, and Cass Titcombe, from the very British Canteen, described how they had been working hard during the past year to make their restaurants even more attractive.
“We’ve invested money in new lamps, plates and a wine preservation system, which allows us to serve a greater variety of wines by the glass,” said Gordon. “You have to invest to keep the optimism up. There will be a stronger emphasis on simple food, and New Zealand wines. I am really pleased with one dish at the moment, which is crisp roast Middle White pork belly with a Sichuan pepper broth: it is something my sous-chef and I have been working on and it’s great for winter.
“The place I have been meaning to visit for some time is Michel Bras in Laguiole, south-west France. I was recently at l’Auberge Basque in Basque country and the sommelier there said how exceptional Bras’s food was.”
Because of its focus on inexpensive British food, Canteen has usually been busy in January and February, and Titcombe suspects that this year he could be even busier.
“Canteen was designed to be a value-driven offer, and we are continually looking to increase our overall efficiency so that we can hold our prices during 2009. The Canteen pie represents what our restaurants are all about: it is freshly baked, the fillings change every day and there is always a meat and a vegetarian option. We serve it as a complete dish, with mash, greens and gravy, for £10.50, so you can come here, have a pie and a drink, and leave completely satisfied without spending a lot of money.
“Richard Corrigan’s new place in Mayfair is top of my list. I share his puritan ethos of sourcing great produce and not doing too much to it.”