Thursday, 31 March 2011

How Twitter can transform your restaurant

I recently came across this piece by social media guru Peter Kay (not the comedian!) and I think it's worth sharing as many restaurants, pubs, delis and food producers probably haven't quite realised the power of Twitter and similar outlets. Food for thought.

Now there is nothing new and particularly bold in this statement, I grant you, but the environment in which we sit as judge and jury of all that surrounds us has changed dramatically over recent years.
These are changes many people in the restaurant industry are struggling to keep up with.
There are many factors that a restaurateur needs to skilfully manage to ensure their enterprise is a success. They need to work hard to ensure their menu is mouth watering, the service is excellent and the ambience is just so. These are all finely balanced to ensure and that every customer leaves having had a great experience and they go and tell all of their friends what an excellent place to eat it was.
A great dining out experience is underpinned by the understanding from the management that every element is a public relations exercise. A process that needs to be managed to ensure that valuable positive word of mouth is flowing and keeping those tables full of hungry diners.
If the chef was having a bad night or the service was particularly slow unless you had a food critic in the place the impact would be contained. The restaurateur could get away with an occasional off night but not so much these days as in the immortal words of Bob Dylan;
“the times, they are a-changing”
We all now connected in ways that ten years ago most normal people would have thought impossible; but the reality is now that anyone can publish and distribute information on an unprecedented scale with incredible ease. I am of course talking about the social web which happens to be a bit of a fascination of mine but it is everywhere these days, even in our pockets as we are sat eating out.
What this means is that, more than ever, we are constantly updating our status or tweeting. With the advent of the mobile web we can take pictures and use apps that share our location. Think about that for just a second, we are not only walking around with our entire contact book in our pocket but we can now send messages and photos to thousands of our loose connections with a few taps of a button. If you then factor in that anyone, and I do mean anyone, can search for that information then the mind boggles.
What this represents in the restaurant trade is both opportunity and risk. Opportunity, because if your customer is having a good experience everybody gets to read about it.
Risk, because if your customer is having a bad experience everybody gets to read about it.
In an environment where we can all share information about what we are doing, where we are and who is with us we are increasingly doing it. Twitter recently announced on its fifth birthday that over one billion tweets were flowing though its system a week. That's a huge amount of information and I can guarantee some of it will be about restaurants.
What this means to restaurant owners is that every customer sitting in their establishment should be now seen as a critic with their own publisher and a massive audience sitting in there with them.
A sobering prospect, but full of opportunity. Opportunity because if they manage it right they can create the conditions where this activity is focused and beneficial to the business.
Just imagine if you created the conditions where you actively encouraged your customers to be creative and tell you what they thought of their dining experience whilst they were still in the place but at the same time they were telling everyone on the internet. It would keep the place on its toes that’s for sure so service would always be good but it would also create lots and lots of digital word of mouth. Combine that with pictures and you’ve got a way to market your menu to the masses at a relatively low cost.
What I don’t understand is why I am not seeing much more of this happening. It might be because restaurant owners are too busy to worrying about social media or perhaps they don’t even realise it exists.
I know that if I were in their shoes I would be all over it.
Food for thought, methinks.

Peter Kay teaches businesses how to best meet the challenges that social media creates and turn them into opportunities. His Twitter handle is: @notfrombolton

Friday, 11 March 2011

Interview with first-time cookbook author Genevieve Taylor

After years of working behind the scenes on other writers' cookbooks, Bristol mum Genevieve Taylor has finally penned her own.
This week sees the release of Stew!, a collection of 100 simple stews, braises and curries from around the world.
It is the first time Genevieve has seen her name on the front cover of a book despite working as a food stylist and photographer on a number of successful cookbooks.
For Genevieve, who lives in St Annes with her husband and two young children, it is a dream come true and, she says, the result of sheer persistence on her part.
“I had worked on half a dozen books as a food stylist and every time I did one I would joke with the publishers and ask to them when they were going to let me write one of my own. I think I ground them down in the end.”
For the past few years, Genevieve has split her time between looking after her children, running her Zest catering business in Bristol and working freelance for Bath-based publishers Absolute Press.
Out of the blue at the end of last year, Absolute Press art director Matt Inwood told Genevieve that they were looking for an author for a new book about stews and suggested she wrote a proposal for it.
Genevieve says: “I jumped at the chance, but then Matt told me I had to write it in eight weeks.
“It was a mad deadline but I dropped everything took myself off to the Brecon Beacons for a couple of long three-day breaks with my dog, laptop and various pots and pans.
“I rented a cottage up a mountain in the middle of nowhere with no television, no kids, no mobile phone, and just cooked and wrote. It was the only way I could get some head space.
“I had some of the recipes already but the book is also a combination of dishes I cook for my family, mixed with recipes from around the world.”
The book is a veritable encyclopaedia of stews and slow-cooked dishes, from simple Lancashire hotpot and coq au vin to pork braised with ginger, garlic and sweet soy and Sri Lankan salmon curry with coconut sambal.
As well as rich and comforting winter warmers, there are fresh and vibrant recipes for spring and summer, such as lamb, petit pois and little gem lettuce with mint.
As Genevieve explains, they are all dishes that involve the age-old method of cooking meat and vegetables gently in some sort of liquid. This is certainly not fast food.
“Stewing is essentially about cooking something solid such as meat, fish or vegetables in a liquid. You can take it as far and wide as you like.
“Most people just think of hearty winter dishes when they think of stews but there are many lighter stews for the spring and summer so I have included a whole chapter on those.”
Genevieve is a self-taught cook and came into the food world after a career as a freelance television producer working on wildlife documentaries for the BBC and Bristol-based Endemol.
“When I had my two children, I knew television producer wouldn’t be a viable career again so I set up my own catering business and took it from there with the food styling and now the writing.”
Now that Genevieve’s first book has been published, she is already planning more and is clearly proud to have made the leap from food stylist to author.
“I was absolutely thrilled to see the book when it came back from the printers as it was the first time my name has been on the front as the author.
“I had been wanting to write a book for ages and never thought it would actually happen. I have been jotting down recipes and ideas in notebooks for years just in case.
“I’m coming up with new ideas all the time and one of my roles as a food stylist has been to create recipes for certain ingredients, such as asparagus, so that has helped.
“I really hope this is the first of many books. I’ve always enjoyed writing and I really enjoyed the process of doing the book.”
Although she has yet to decide what the next book might be, it may well be based around her new blog, An Egg a Day, which she describes as ‘the culinary diary of a novice hen-keeper’.
Last November, Genevieve started to keep four hens in the back garden of her St Annes home and decided it would make for an interesting blog, creating recipes from the eggs her hens lay every day.
Recent recipes have included a ‘sublime’ onion tart, sticky beetroot and ginger muffins and coffee custard and bananas.
Although the initial outlay for the chicken coupe came to around £300 and the chicks cost £15 each, Genevieve says it was money well spent and the chickens have become a part of family life in the Taylor household.
“I have four chickens – Sam, Doris, Ellie and Mabel – who lay between three and four eggs a day so the whole idea was a diary of what I’m doing with these eggs, with anecdotes about what it’s like keeping chickens in an urban garden.
“The chickens are very easy to look after and the eggs are absolutely delicious. Getting the first egg was amazing – I was so thrilled by it.”
It looks like Genevieve has already found the subject for her second cookbook.

Stew! By Genevieve Taylor is published by Absolute Press, £12.99. To follow Genevieve’s blog, go to

Review: No.1 Harbourside, Bristol

It is almost a year since No.1 Harbourside opened beneath the Watershed cinema in the heart of Bristol's dockland area.
The second project for Coexist, the sustainable, creative collective behind the hugely successful Canteen and Hamilton House across town on Stokes Croft, this café bar and restaurant has brought something fresh and exciting to the waterfront.
In a stretch of the docks that has for years been dominated by brash bars and chains, No.1 Harbourside has been a breath of cool independence.
If nothing else, it has attracted a different crowd of drinkers – by which I mean people who go for fun and enjoyment, not drinking 12 pints of lager and spoiling for a fight.
It hasn’t been the easiest transformation, but then major changes like this don’t happen overnight.
In its first year, No.1 Harbourside has had to find its feet and gauge exactly what people want. It was never going to be simply transplanting the unique Stokes Croft spirit into a city centre bar.
For a start, there are no residents – part of the success of The Canteen is that it is used by the people living in the area – and much more passing trade, especially curious tourists and city visitors.
Whilst No.1 Harbourside has gained a reputation as a bar with quality live music most nights, it has struggled to become a food destination.
My early experiences of the food on offer were not memorable and even though the chefs were creative and introduced a locally-sourced tapas menu, the food tended to promise more than it delivered.
There were occasions over the past year when eyebrows were raised at such dishes as parsnip ‘three ways’ and pheasant trifle – two perfect examples of chefs cooking for themselves, rather than the people who pay their wages (the public).
Thankfully, there has been a major reshuffle at No.1 Harbourside and a new menu and kitchen team launched last week.
The owners have gone back to the drawing board and returned to the original plan of offering a short menu that is both affordable and accessible.
This means, out with the pheasant trifle and in with the house mussels with black pepper fries (£5), along with four daily specials scratched on a small chalkboard above the long bar.
The new menu from ex-Canteen chef Rhys Williams comes with the tagline of ‘eat something wholesome every day’, with dishes described as ‘square meals’ – a quaint term that belongs to a pre-fast food era.
Not only is there more of an emphasis on simpler food and a commitment to locally sourced ingredients (the aim is 90%), but value for money is key here and to prove the point every diner gets a free bowl of soup with slices of homemade organic bread before the main course arrives.
On the lunchtime I popped in, a hot bowl of well-made leek and potato soup arrived as I supped my pint of Stroud Brewery’s hoppy Budding ale – one of four local beers on offer.
The short menu read very well indeed – pan-fried fillet of grey mullet with lemon and chive butter (£7), bubble and squeak cake with homemade ketchup (£6) and duck casserole with pearl barley and mushrooms (£8) being the three main dishes I bypassed en route to ordering what was described as ‘giant pork chop with sage and apple sauce’ (£9).
Giant is an understatement. About an inch and a half thick, with an inch of sweet fat around the edge, this bone-in chop took up most of the plate.
The meat was juicy, impressively tender and boasted a genuine farmyard porkiness. The sage and apple sauce was a little shy and could have made itself known more but the unadvertised curly kale and sautéed potatoes were spot-on. For £9, it was excellent value, free soup or not.
I couldn’t see any desserts on offer, but there are cakes for those who still feel hungry. There are also bar snacks in the evening, including oysters.
When I reviewed No.1 Harbourside in the first week of opening last year, I wasn’t that impressed with the food and I thought the kitchen was trying too hard to impress.
The new menu and concept is much more on track. By offering generous portions of simply cooked food, it is finally achieving its original aim of making local, seasonal and organic produce something for the masses and not just the middle classes. That in itself is something to celebrate and reason enough to support No.1 Harbourside.

No.1 Harbourside, 1 Canons Road, Bristol, BS1 5UH. Tel: 0117 9291100.

* An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Bristol Evening Post and Metro newspapers

REVIEW: The Paulet Arms, Wiltshire

With his shaven head, tattooed arms and generous girth, Adrian Jones looks like a proper chef, or at least a chef in a Guy Ritchie gangster movie.
Thankfully, his bark is worse than his bite. He’s a gentle giant and when it comes to talking about food, he’s a pussycat waiting to have his tummy tickled. He is passionate about cooking.
This is a man whose simple and robust cooking resulted in him being described as a ‘gastroterrorist’ by the fiery Irish chef Richard Corrigan no less. High praise indeed.
Earlier this year, Jones turned up at The Paulet Arms, a newly-opened village pub close to Westbury in Wiltshire.
The pub used to be called The Three Daggers and then The Lamb but a wealthy American businessman acquired the red-brick building last year and invested around £1.3m into making it a smart pub with four chic bedrooms.
The Paulet Arms doesn’t want to be tagged a gastropub and the handpumps of Wadworth 6X and Bath Ales Gem are there as much for the locals on the barstools as the groups of diners in the light, conservatory-style dining room.
The scrubbed pine table and antique leather armchair style is understated but not without its quirky touches, including underfloor heating under the slate flagstones and flat screen TVs concealed behind mirrors.
No expense has been spared in making this a comfortable and stylish pub – down to the linen tea towel napkins and stainless steel cutlery especially made in Sheffield.
Jones had carte blanche when it came to creating the menus for the pub but his time at The Salisbury in Fulham – where he garnered a rave review from Fay Maschler – has equipped him with the knowledge of what people want to eat in pubs.
His food is produce-driven and he uses predominantly local suppliers, including nearby Bratton Pig - breeders of free-range Mangalitza and British Saddleback pigs – and La Chasse, the Dorset-based hunter-gatherers.
“I want to be told by my suppliers what’s good that day,” says Jones. “That’s got to the best way to write seasonal menus, and we are lucky to have such great produce on our doorstep.”
There are already plans to expand the operation at the pub, with a farm shop at the end of the year (the village no longer has a local shop) and even an on-site microbrewery to supply the pub with its own ales.
In the bar, there are tapas-sized snacks such as salt cod fish fingers, rare roast beef and pickles and sausages and mustard.
You can eat from the main menu anywhere in the pub, which is a refreshing change from all those self-styled gastropubs where diners and drinkers are segregated.
At lunch, there is a eye-rubbingly good value menu for £10 (two courses) or £13 (three courses) and on the day I visited choices included chicken and sweetcorn soup; salt cod fritter with Dorset leaves and garlic mayo, and grilled sea bass, hot smoked salmon and celeriac.
My starter of grilled scallops, Trealy Farm cured meat and red watercress (a supplement of £6) was bang on the money. The bushy sprigs of watercress were intensely peppery and were the perfect match for the sweet scallops and rich, salty meats.
A main course of slow roast venison, red cabbage and soft mash was beautifully cooked. The meat had been cooked slowly for several hours and it was pink and velvety in texture. The red cabbage was sweet and sticky but retained an earthiness, the mash was generously seasoned with white pepper and probably contained as much butter and cream as potato.
A flourless chocolate brownie made using ground almonds was almost fondant-like in the middle and the richness was cut with kirsch-soaked cherries.
In the evening, things move up a gear with the likes of salt cod fritters with garlic mayo (£4.75), bavette steak and chips with béarnaise (£11) and lamb shank shepherd’s pie with roast carrots and peas (£13).
This is confident cooking of well-sourced ingredients by a chef who doesn’t go in for froths and fads.
Everything on the plate was there for a reason and it was as honest and unpretentious as good food gets.

The Paulet Arms, Edington, Westbury, Wiltshire. Tel: 01380 830940

Friday, 4 March 2011

Arrival of ex-French Laundry and Fat Duck chef marks new era for The Castle at Taunton

The departure of Richard Guest as head chef at The Castle hotel in Taunton may have caused owner Kit Chapman a temporary headache at the time but the good news is that he has found a very gifted replacement.
Young Irishman Jamie Raftery, the son of a respected poet, has injected new vigour into this historic venue. The Castle has produced some notable chefs over the years, including Gary Rhodes, but after lunch there today I think we will be hearing a lot more about the newest recruit, who worked for a year at the French Laundry and also at The Fat Duck.
Raftery's arrival has coincided with some major changes at the hotel. From early April, the hotel's famous dining room will only be open for events and 'high days and holidays'. The Chapman family - which, of course, includes Michelin-starred chef Dominic Chapman who now cooks at The Royal Oak at Paley Street - has decided to move the Castle's food offering to the more informal Brazz brasserie next door.
Brazz at The Castle will essentially offer the same high level of service and food but in a more relaxed, contemporary setting.
I tasted a number of dishes destined for the new menu and they were excellent. Raftery is clearly a gifted and passionate chef who has learnt well at his previous restaurants.
His food is produce-driven and delivers big flavours, as was evident in a faultless starter of chicken liver parfait with medlar jelly and brioche and a delicate and beautifully composed goat's cheese mousse, beetroot, apple, celery and walnut.
For me, the star dish was a robust and rich main course of venison faggots with lentils, red cabbage and parsnips, although it was a close call between that and an inspired dessert of apple mousse, cider apples and sorbet.
Talking to Kit Chapman and his new chef, I got the sense that the move away from formal dining in the Castle itself marks the end of one era but the dawn of an exciting new one and I think Brazz at The Castle will be a huge success when it launches officially next month.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A taste of Simon Hopkinson in the Cotswolds

Simon Hopkinson may not be cooking professionally these days, but his food lives on at a new hotel in Gloucestershire.
The former Bibendum chef and award-winning author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories is the consultant chef at the newly opened Montpellier Chapter Hotel in Cheltenham.
Hopkinson has worked closely on the menus with the restaurant's head chef, Tom Rains, and many of the dishes will be familiar to any diners who remember Hopkinson’s cooking at Bibendum.
Starters include potted shrimps with wholemeal toast and scallops cooked in the half shell with garlic and herb butter. Main courses of roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing, bacon and sausage roll and bread sauce or shepherd’s pie with carrot and swede mash might be followed by chocolate mousse, rhubarb crumble with custard or lemon meringue pie.
For Rains – a long-time admirer of Hopkinson – it has been a dream come true to return to the town of his birth and work with one of Britain’s greatest chefs.
“I jumped at the chance,” says Rains. “We have really worked hard to put together a daily changing menu which showcases the best of the British Isles’ ingredients and well-executed dishes full of flavour.”
Hopkinson has been hands-on with the menus and has spent a lot of time at the hotel. Rains has even had to cook for the great chef at the home he shares with his wife.
“I was a bit nervous when I first met Simon,” he admits. “He is such a big name in the restaurant world but very few chefs would have this opportunity and I have learnt so much about cooking from him."
The two chefs have sourced as much produce as possible from the Cotswolds and the immediate area. Poultry comes from Madgett’s Farm in the Forest of Dean, meat from Hill View Farm in Gretton and smoked salmon comes from the Wye Valley.

The Restaurant at The Montpellier Chapter Hotel, Bayshill Road, Montpellier, Cheltenham, GL50 3AS. Tel: 01242 527788

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Countdown to the Love Food Spring Festival

The second Love Food Spring Festival has been announced for March 26/27 and this year admission will be free.

Held at the historic Brunel’s Old Station next to Temple Meads in the heart of Bristol, The Spring Festival promises to be the city’s biggest food and drink event of 2011.

Hundreds of producers, chefs, experts, writers, entertainers, artists and musicians will be joining forces with an estimated 8,000 visitors to celebrate, enjoy, and learn about all of the fantastic produce to be found in the South West.

Those of you who have attended a Love Food festival before will know that, as well as delivering some hard hitting messages about sustainability and provenance, it is also a family event with a fantastically fun atmosphere.

And to make the event even more accessible to everybody, founder and organiser Lorna Knapman has decided to make entry to the festival free.

“I want The Spring Festival to be enjoyed by as many people as possible,” says Lorna. “I feel it is so essential in these times that good food does not get missed off the agenda just because it is perceived to be too expensive.”

With a huge indoor Love Food market, garden, a beach, a rant room, cookery school, tasting theatre, picnic area, street food, local bar, music, café, children’s area, performers, art and much more, this is set to be a truly magnificent event.

Highlights of this year’s Spring Festival include:

The Love Food market
Seventy handpicked market stalls providing a vibrant, colourful, delicious and informative shopping experience. The market will showcase a fantastic range of amazing local produce and the opportunity for customers and producers to communicate and network, finding ways in which we can create a more sustainable future for our food.
Stalls already confirmed include: Love Patisserie, The Community Farm, The Thoughtful Bread Company, Bath Pig, Upton Cheyney Chilli Farm, Heavenly Hedgerows and many more.

The Cookery School
Some of the region’s best chefs will be sharing their skills with visitors of all ages and teaching them how you can make deliciously affordable food at home. Chefs so far confirmed include Mitch Tonks (Rockfish Grill), Freddie Bird (The Lido) and Ron Faulkner (The Muset by Ronnie).

Picnic area
Street food combined with a bar and great live music. A great place to sit down and enjoy some delicious food with family and friends and soak up the fun and colourful atmosphere. Stallholders confirmed so far include: Venison in the Vale, Bristol Ethicurean, Tom’s Pies, Orchard Pig, Bristol Beer Factory and Agnes Spencer’s Jerk Chicken.

The Children's Area
A dedicated children's area will provide a wide range of activities designed to entertain and educate. It will give children, parents and teachers from different communities the opportunity to learn and be enthused by food and nature through planting workshops, story-telling and hands-on cookery classes including children’s baking and butter making. Staff from Windmill Hill City Farm will also be on hand with some of their livestock and will be running some great workshops.

Anorak workshops
Anorak – ‘the happy mag for kids’ – will be making its Bristol debut at the Spring Festival, running workshops with food-related activities. The magazine’s staff will also be on the look out for child reporters so bring your notebooks and pencils!

The Garden
Workshops, talks and advice on all aspects of gardening and allotment-keeping, including culinary and medicinal herbs for sale from local growers Glenholme Herbs, bee-keeping, composting, growing fruit and vegetables and the Gorgeous Great Cake Café serving tea, coffee and light refreshments.

The Beach
A fun filled room with a hard-hitting message. Come and enjoy some delicious local seafood from the BBQ, relax in a deck chair, listen to the sound of the sea and fill yourselves with knowledge and inspiring information about what we can do to protect it. Sandcastles included!

The Rant Room
Led by Rude Health's co-founder and chief ranter Nick, our small but proudly outspoken gang isn't afraid of standing up for real, honest food - the way it should be. Join passionate food producers and famous foodies as they step onto the hay bale and up to the microphone to voice their opinions.

The Taste Theatre
Fun, informative and delicious tasting sessions with some local experts including Bristol Beer Factory and Orchard Pig in a super ‘Spring Taste Off’.

Art Exhibition
Local artists will show the beauty and wonder of the natural world, food in all its glory and revealing photo stories about the processes and results of local initiatives. All of these things take part under one roof with a fantastic soundtrack, a great atmosphere, lots of happy food loving visitors, massive amounts of bunting, straw bales and fun. Come and join the party!

Lorna Knapman says: “Like Love Food, this festival is about bringing the countryside to the city. It’s about reconnecting with our communities and the land, enjoying the space and air that natural landscapes offer us.
“By working outdoors, becoming more in touch with the changing seasons around us, learning to grow our own, eating together and encouraging our children to be a big part of these things, I truly believe that it can have a massive impact.
“It’s all about having fun while we do it and not over complicating things or making these changes seem difficult or intimidating. The last thing we want is for people to be afraid to ask a question.”

The Spring Festival will take place at Brunel’s Old Station, Temple Meads, Bristol, on Saturday March 26 (10.30am-6pm) and Sunday March 27 (11am-5pm). Entry is free.

New pub venture from former Wheatsheaf head chef

Next Monday sees the launch of The Apple Tree at West Pennard, near Glastonbury. It's the first solo venture for Lee Evans, the former head chef of the award-winning Wheatsheaf at Combe Hay. Lee and his wife, Ally, have taken over this stone-built country pub and added two en-suite bedrooms for visitors who want to make a night of it and enjoy Lee's fantastic breakfasts (anyone for caramelised porridge with whisky or grilled Arbroath smokies?). Open for lunch and dinner, the pub is still very much a place for a pint of ale or cider, but food is another reason to make a detour. There is a bar snack menu and sandwiches such as hot rump of Hereford beef and horseradish or Chew Valley smoked salmon and creme fraiche. The main lunch and dinner menu promises dishes such as confit duck with blood orange and chicory salad; chicken, leek and ham pie; braised beef shin casserole with horseradish mashed potato, and slow cooked belly of pork with black pudding, caramelised apples and crackling. To book, call 01749 890060.