A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Experience counts, scores of years of it, in fact. Cooking, looking after your customers and then collapsing, but only after cleaning up, most thoroughly in the case of those places that are open for breakfast the following morning. Hospitality takes its toll but it is one that is, fortunately, increasingly fashionable.
That is the conclusion I have come to having cast my mind back over the most memorable meals I have enjoyed over the past 12 months. Chefs’ careers start as if they are sportsmen, often reaching their peak in their 20’s, but many stay with it, not being diverted into an executive position or one where they swap what they have grown up doing for a career in front of the camera. Perhaps the current dearth of cooks almost everywhere is forcing many to stay longer at the stoves. If so, that is a good thing – at least for the customers.
Take the case of The Simone and the Chefs’ Warehouse and Canteen (pictured here), separated by 5,000 miles of ocean, the former in the lower ground floor of a brownstone on E 81st Street, New York, the latter on broad Bree Street, in Cape Town, South Africa. Both are run by husband and wife teams: Chip Taylor is the chef at The Simone alongside his wife Tina Smith, while chef Liam Tomlin and his wife Jan run the latter.
Each chef has chosen his own particular route. In the case of Taylor, his menu is a clear acknowledgement to the world that little has changed in his repertoire: the main ingredient of each course is underlined at the outset; the accompanying ingredients follow; and in each instance the dish seems to be more than a sum of its parts. Tomlin, by contrast, has put his years to more minimalist effect. Every morning he gathers his eager staff and distils their enthusiasm, via what his suppliers bring him, into a series of mouth-watering and, thanks to the weakness of the rand, great-value tapas dishes.
Slightly more expensive, but certainly in the same vein, is the professional transformation undertaken by chef Roland Chanliaud at the remarkable Maison du Colombier, built in 1598 in Beaune, the capital of Burgundy. Chanliaud has been cooking in this city for over 20 years but now with Françoise Vial at his side he has decided to serve smaller dishes alongside a great wine list: the flavours from the last mouthful of our bottle of Chambolle-Musigny, Les Cras 2010 from Roumier alongside his dish of slow-cooked eggs with summer truffles still haunts me.
The same feelings came over me staying at Little Barwick House in the middle of Somerset, which we only reached via a winding, sandstone cutting that dates back to the 18th century. This has been the professional home since 2000 to Tim and Emma Ford, with him firmly in the kitchen while she buys the wine – over 350 bins – takes the orders and manages her extensive cheeseboard. As we left the following morning, she was sweeping out the front steps.
The year was shot through with touches of culinary brilliance. These began on the evening of the tragic Charlie Hebdo killing in Paris when with two Frenchmen we drank a bottle of Hubert Lignier’s 1999 Gevrey Chambertin at La Trompette, west London. We ate a first course of crisp, Cornish mackerel, enhanced by bonito cream, underscored by thin slices of cucumber and toasted la belle France.
California brought two very different surprises. The first came via the smiling face of Pim Techamuanvivit who has been responsible for transforming this seemingly unprepossessing first floor site and turning it into Kin Khao which, in my opinion, offers the most authentic Thai food outside Thailand. One dish of caramelised pork belly will remain with me for quite a while. As will our dinner at Animal in LA, where our final dish of the fried collar of a yellow fin tuna, which had been rubbed in jerk spices and then served with palm sugar and thin slices of cara-cara oranges, proved irresistible – and extremely messy.
This trip also brought home one important lesson, that the service charge in the US, so long a matter at the customer’s discretion and a potential cause of confusion, will have to change to allow it to be shared equally between the front of house staff and the kitchen as the national living wage rises to US$15 per hour by 2018. Dinner at Camino, where its proprietor Russell Moore introduced this policy at the beginning of the year – the menu is headed NO MORE TIPS – was as memorable for this as the spelt, boiled and then cooked over the open fire before being finished in the duck fat that was the other star of this show.
Quite how long this important service change was fermenting in the active mind of restaurateur Danny Meyer prior to his company’s announcement that he will abandon the current system for prices that incorporate service, as in France, is anybody’s guess. But it will become effective at all his restaurants within MoMA shortly and then be rolled out across his group, one that has just celebrated 30 years since the opening of Union Square Café – almost exactly five years before the opening of his friend Drew Nieporent’s Tribeca Grill.
There is space, just, left to signal the emergence of Nuno Mendes at Taberna del Mercado in Spitalfields Market; the slow, but sure, opening of the third Barrafina tapas bar on Drury Lane; the increasing confidence of the Japanese cooking at Dinings, in Marylebone, where seat 106 remains fraught with danger, not least that of surreptitiously stealing a piece of someone else’s sushi; the sheer thrill of Mr Araki’s sushi cooking at the counter of Araki restaurant; and the emergence of the bar chef.
Finally, there is the thrill of living in London where, as a 25 year old recently explained to me, ‘Ten years ago everybody my age wanted to be a DJ. Now, they all want to cook.’