20 December 2011

FOOD FOR THOUGHT


One of the things that made me first want to train as a chef was that I found myself becoming increasingly irate when spending good money on average run-of-the-mill restaurants. I now find myself being left seriously disappointed after emptying my wallet at some of the countries more established and award-winning eateries. Do you really get what you pay for?

In a world full of Michelin starred TV chefs, cheap pub food and pretentious brasserie grub, it’s easy to get caught out in a food whirlwind when you eat out as much as I do. So, I sat back and thought to myself… how do I analyse it all?

Low-priced pub grub is becoming increasingly popular in these hard economic times.  High streets are becoming awash with chain pubs offering ‘two for one’ deals or daily offers such as a ‘beer and a burger for £5', just as the old-fashioned British home cooked pub meal is becoming ever scarcer.  My foodie ethics hate to think where pub chains source their ingredients for their massive operations. Surely homemade classics like steak pie and chips or bangers and mash could be made with fresh meat from a local butcher (another community trade that suffers from today’s eating trends) whilst the quality of our local fish should mean we are able to serve up delightful fresh seafood delights? I for one would be willing to spend a pound or two more for fresh, local ingredients done properly, than frozen, mass-produced rubbish.

At the other end of the scale, I recently dined at one of Edinburgh’s most established and acclaimed restaurants where expectations were high. Maybe too high, but when you’re shelling out in excess of £65 for a three-course dinner, I believe it should be your right to expect it to approach grandiose heights.  

Often, these Michelin-starred restaurants are a little pretentious, failing to identify what the customer wants by fawning over what ticks the boxes of the alleged elite who award such culinary status symbols.  The prices in many of these establishments are so expensive, I surmise, because they have 49 waiting staff in the dining room; I know for a fact, though, that a lot of these kitchens have more chefs in their kitchens than they do reviews on Trip Advisor.

My philosophy is, or was, that you get what you pay for, but this visit dented my theory and resulted in further dissatisfaction with another much-coveted restaurant.  It left me thinking… what IS my ideal standard of cooking?

Realistically, I, like most people, couldn’t afford to blow £100 once or twice a month on a (disappointing) meal. It dawned on me that the best meals I’ve had have consisted of good, honest cooking that let the ingredients shine through when done properly, and at a price I'd call reasonable. 

No pretentiousness, no gimmicks.

The restaurants I found to my liking were not city establishments. They nestle beyond the Firth of Forth within the food Mecca that is Fife. The region is replete with award-winning eateries such as Ostler’s Close in Cupar, The Wee Restaurant in North Queensferry, The Seafood Restaurant in St. Monans (Now Craig Millar), the Michelin-starred Sangter’s of Elie, and for me, the jewel in the crown- The Peat Inn.

They champion locally caught fish, use mushrooms foraged from nearby woodland, and meat and game reared and hung within 50 miles of these wonderful eateries. They run their kitchens with a fraction of the chefs and far fewer front of house staff than their city cousins, thus creating a personal touch in the dining room and a sense of pride in the kitchen that lets the ingredients they use do the talking. You certainly won't find overly flashy dining rooms here, and yes, if you look closely, I’m sure you could spot a bit of wear in the carpet or tear in the wallpaper. I can look past that because there's no attempt made to paint an illusion of grandeur because none is needed. They’re homely, welcoming, and bloody good at what they do.   

So next time you’re thinking of taking a trip to the city; think again… think local – you won’t regret it.

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