Britain’s best food critic! 1 minute Q&A

My first novel, Pearshaped, is about a pudding developer for a supermarket – a job I used to do (more or less: I worked in soup, breakfast cereal and vegetable side dishes – sadly not in cake.)

My second, Leftovers, is about a girl who makes TV ads for pizzas. Hmmm, I used to do that too – are you sensing a theme here?

My brand new book, The Dish – is about a food critic – my absolute dream job but one I have yet to do. It was partly inspired by a hilarious hissy fit American restaurateur and TV personality Guy Fieri threw, when NYTimes food critic Pete Wells gave his restaurant the mother of all slaggings.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/dining/reviews/restaurant-review-guys-american-kitchen-bar-in-times-square.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

And it was partly inspired by my belief that a food critic needs to be anonymous in order to best replicate a normal diner’s experience. Ruth Reichl, award winning New York Times critic, wrote a whole book about her sometimes-extravagant attempts to disguise herself while on the job – Garlic and Sapphires

False moustaches aside, Reichl has a point. I’ve eaten out with a food reviewer and it is a very different experience from being a civilian, as dear Elizabeth Hurley would call us mere mortals. Free Champagne, extra amuse bouches, obsequiousness-a-go-go.

That’s why my favourite restaurant critic is the brilliant Marina O’Loughlin in The Guardian. Well, that’s not the only reason she’s my favourite. Other reasons: she is knife-sharp, and funny and a great writer and her palate is spot on. She basically nails a place without putting herself in the centre of it, her ego is not on the page – just her ability to bring a restaurant fully to life as though you were sitting right there at the table with her.

She very kindly agreed to a speedy Q&A with me, below:

Your ideal Valentine’s meal / restaurant

On the sofa, in front of Millionaire Matchmaker, eating cheese on toast. ALONE. Am very anti-Valentine’s, or any kind of ‘organised’ romance.

The very best thing about being a restaurant critic

All those restaurants, of course.

The most delicious thing you’ve eaten in London in recent months

The game pithivier at Portland. It made me come over all unnecessary. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/06/portland-london-w1-restaurant-review-marina-oloughlin

Most jumped on bandwagon in food

Pulled bloody pork. When KFC start doing pulled chicken, you know we’ve reached peak bandwagon.

What job do you dream of doing (if any) – given you have a lot of people’s dream job

I’d like to work for Patty Stanger, The Millionaire Matchmaker.

Your favourite burger in the UK

Have a massive soft spot for Patty & Bun.

The best way with a potato you’ve ever encountered

Joel Robuchon’s mash is ambrosial – reputed to be 50% butter. Otherwise, crisps.

IMG_5923

(This is not a picture of Marina, by the way.)

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Lunch at Petersham Nurseries

Ok, so February is the month the e-book version of my new novel, The Dish, comes out. Paperback lovers – it’s coming soonish, May 20th, hurrah!

The Dish is all about the world of restaurants, chefs and food critics. I wanted to celebrate its publication by eating more than usual this month (not least because I’m going to Insane Diet Camp soon – more of that in due course.)

So I’ll be posting anything I eat that looks / tastes good this month on here. First up, Petersham Nurseries – a place I’ve been meaning to go to forever but haven’t because:

a) it’s bloody expensive, and
b) it’s a million miles from where I live.

Fortunately a very kind friend offered to take me as a special treat and I can heartily say that when someone else is paying, it’s fantastic – great food, terrific staff, and oh so pretty.

January, 2015…

It occurred to me when I was compiling my Best Of list for 2014 that I’d forgotten everything good I’d seen and read from January to June.  Turns out I have major short and medium term memory loss.  So! My only new year’s resolutions for 2015 are as follows:

  1. eat more fish
  2. drink less like a fish
  3. read and watch more (good) stuff
  4. and write it down shortly after it happens

Worthwhile stuff so far:

Birdman – had a row with my mate Dave about this.  He said it was empty and vacuous and went nowhere.  Even if that were true, (which I don’t think it is) it does so with such originality and energy and style, and did I mention?  I LOVE ED NORTON. Always have and I guess I always will.

Kick-Ass (I know I’m very late to the party on this one, but thank heavens for Amazon Prime free trial month!  Making day two of no booze endurable.)

Babylon – Channel 4.  I always find out about good stuff 2 minutes before it’s about to come offline, so have had to speedwatch this, but it’s bloody brilliant.

Transparent – on Amazon Prime, with the brilliant Amy Landecker.  Most excellent use of Leonard Cohen song in episode 9.

Whiplash – Oh my goodness, I loved this film.  If you’d pitched it to me (boy wants to be best drummer evah, comes up against brutal / sadistic band leader) I might have thought: meh, not for me.  But oh my: so for me, and for you!  A super simple story, extraordinary acting, awesome music: utterly mesmeric.

I also saw Bull at The Young Vic – a short, brutal play, starring the lovely Neil Stuke – also about bullying (this time set in an office, though actually staged in a boxing ring at the theatre.)  Really quite painful watching bullying so close up – it makes you feel complicit, and dirty, and not in a good way.  Go see it, and then be much nicer to the person at work you really don’t like.

Wolf Hall – I’m reserving judgement.  Rylance is as ever fantastic, and Claire Foy is mesmerisingly unpleasant – but Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are two of the greatest English language books of the 21st Century, and I wouldn’t say they’re translating in all their glory (but then again, so much of the brilliance of that book is, I’d wager, untranslatable onto screen.)

(Incidentally, anyone who puts Junot Diaz above Hilary Mantel or Marilynne Robinson in a list such as this

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/20/brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao-novel-21st-century-best-junot-diaz

is clearly doing it to be controversial and doesn’t mind being utterly wrong.)

Night Will Fall – a Channel 4 documentary about a documentary about The Holocaust.  Without a doubt the most horrific, grotesque footage you will ever see.  Unbearable to watch but essential viewing if you have any interest at all in history, or what people are capable of.

Nebraska – I’d relegated this Alexander Payne film to low priority as I thought the Clooney / Hawaii film he directed was over-hyped – but this is just such a gem.  Funny, heartbreaking, beautifully observed and beautiful to look at. Bruce Dern’s performance is magnificent.

Books

A mixed bunch this month: finally got round to The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, and the new Marian Keyes The Woman Who Stole My Life. And How Fiction Works by James Wood, Levels of Life by Julian Barnes, A Lovely Way To Burn by Louise Welsh, and just starting A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale – so far so very good.

 

Goodbye, 2014

Not my favourite year by any stretch of the imagination.  Nonetheless, plenty of good things kept me going (along with the obvious – friends, booze, family, food.)  Here are some of them:

On screen

Game of Thrones – funny, ludicrous, panto meets porno meets soap opera – relentlessly entertaining.

House of Cards – an unremitting exploration of power and cruelty.  Sickeningly brilliant, classy TV.

Shia LaBeouf by Rob Cantor

I saw this retweeted on the marvellous Sam Binnie’s twitter feed and it has given me much joy ever since.  As life affirming as a Bread Ahead custard doughnut, less fattening.

Movies

Despicable Me 

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Artist is Present

In A World

On stage

A Streetcar Named Desire, with Gillian “Girl Crush” Anderson

King Charles III

On the page

I read about 40 books this year and my favourite, hands down, was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  Original and funny and moving and unexpected.

Also awesome were:

Emma Brockes – She Left Me The Gun

Bad Blood – Lorna Sage

Vacant Possession – Hilary Mantel

Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

Music

Most played, according to my computer:

Clean Bandit – Rather Be

Arcade Fire – Here Comes The Night Time

Go West – We Close Our Eyes.  I wouldn’t tell you this fact if I wasn’t ok with sharing it.

Jeremih – Don’t Tell ‘Em.  Strange, I actually thought this song was about anorexia for the first 10 listens – I thought he was singing ‘you ain’t eating’ – instead of ‘you ain’t even’.  I actually hated it when I first heard it, yet found myself repeatedly drawn back to it.  Lorde’s cover is interesting and sounds, to me, quite menacing.

The National – Pink Rabbits, Fireproof, Demons

Favourite lyrics

Every song on The National’s Trouble Will Find Me is filled with gems, too bountiful to reference. So

I’ll go in the other direction and just put down my favourite dumb, tautological, ridiculous lyric, again on Jeremih: On my late-night thirsty, because it was late-night and I was thirsty.  I suspect it means something filthy, given the lines preceding it but whatever – for sheer dumbness, I applaud it.

Best gig

Arcade Fire in Hyde Park.  On a perfect summer’s night I cried, laughed, ate chips, danced like a pagan who thinks they’re a really good dancer and then was nearly sick on the up-in-the-air merry-go-round – what more joy is there in this world?

Most over-rated

I don’t like it when people write mean things about me online.  I try not to do it either, so I’ll just say that I SERIOUSLY don’t know what all the fuss is about with this little list:

Kurobuta restaurant

Chiltern Firehouse

The Missing

The Fall, season 2

Serial – podcast

I mean I understand why people have frothed at the mouth in delight at the above – I just don’t agree with them.  I don’t agree with them at all.

Here’s hoping 2015 is more Tyrion Lannister and less Kim Kardashian’s arse.

Happy New Year.

x

My favourite food of 2014

It’s not like the only thing I ever think about is my next meal – it’s just that food has proved to be one of the few reliable pleasures in my life.

Mindfulness, shmindfulness – give me great American TV and a perfect cheese burger with bacon and I’m at peace with the world (well, maybe not quite at peace with my upstairs neighbour and his wooden floors).

In 2014 I ate out loads – partly because I was researching The Dish – partly because eating is my running and my knitting and every other hobby I never had. I try to avoid taking photos in restaurants but occasionally something is so delicious I have to take its picture so that I can reference it for work, or use it to urge a friend to hunt down this perfect toasted cheese sandwich at the Towpath cafe in Hackney!

I’m never really comfortable in poncey restaurants – not least the ones with severe attitude problems. The places I enjoy the most tend to be low key and sincere, and purveyors of quite fattening food: C&R cafe in Wardour Street for their mega-laksa soup; Honest Burger – great chips; my local curry house – chicken dhansak, once a week, every week, baby.  Having said that, my favourite place this year was a tiny little restaurant called Wheeler’s, in Whitstable.  It’s certainly not poncey, though it’s not cheap either – but it’s one of the places where you turn to the person you’re eating with after each mouthful with a big dumb grin on your face.

Anyway, I’ve put together a board of my highlights from this year – a few of the places are abroad, where they tend to do things like tacos and croissants better than here, but for the most part they’re in the UK.

And here’s a list of some of the food on there, and some I didn’t manage to photograph before ramming it into my gob…

Best deep fried crunchy snack: Arancini at Hodder Hartnett in Limewood, Hampshire; Crispy buttermilk chicken with aioli at The Bull And Last, Highgate Road, London

Best bread: Giant Persian flatbreads at Patogh, off Edgware Road, London; Ciabatta rolls from Bread Ahead, Borough Market; Nduja & gruyere flatbread at Duck and Waffle

Best butter: No butter I ate this year (and believe me, I ate all the butter) can compare with last year’s best butter – caramelised onion butter from Radio in Copenhagen.  I know this is unhelpful, but all I can say is, that butter set the highpoint for butter in my life, and every butter since just does not compare.  Very sad, I know.

Best soup: Singapore laksa, at the newly refurbed C&R cafe, in an alley off the bottom of Wardour Street

Best burger – high street: Honest burger, with those rosemary fries

Best burger – payday: Goodman’s, Maddox Street

Best vegetable / side dish: Cavolo nero with chilli and cream at Hartnett Holder, Limewood

Best pastry – circular: Bread Ahead’s mince pies, Borough Market

Best pastry – long and thin: Kouign Amann, (is this ok for Scrabble I wonder?) at Le Patisserie de Reves, Marylebone

Best pastry – swirly: Chocolate and pistachio escargot at Du Pain et Des Idees, Canal St Martin, Paris

Best custard-based enterprise: Bread Ahead doughnuts, obvs.

Best prawn crackers with a view: City Social Bar, Tower 42

Best posh meal (and a bargain at lunch): Chez Bruce, Wandsworth

Best meal under a tenner: chargrilled lamb, buttered rice, flatbread – Patogh, Crawford Place, London

Best meal, best meal, best meal: Wheeler’s, Whitstable

Happy eating in 2015!

x

My ideal Christmas dinner party…

Christmas is that time of year when dreams can come true, apparently.  So I thought I’d write down my Dream Christmas Dinner Party Guest List, in case Santa is taking note.  I know I haven’t behaved perfectly this year, but perhaps not as imperfectly as some (Tesco finance department, anyone?)

 

I only have seven chairs in my flat, two of which are wont to break if someone heavy sits on them – so I can’t invite my family (not because they’re too heavy but because there aren’t enough chairs – and besides, the Newmans have spent many a Christmas together.)

 

Instead, here’s my list of guests for the perfect Christmas celebration: 

 

1.  My friend, masterchef Marianne Lumb, who could cook for us.  She now runs her own restaurant in West London, but even cheese on toast made by Marianne tastes better than a lot of things I’ve eaten in restaurants this year.  

 

2.  Jamie Dornan, for obvious reasons – as long as he promises to leave his balaclava at home.

 

3.  Michael Fassbender – Eye Candy part II.  Well it’s my dream Christmas so I’m allowed more than one piece of Eye Candy, as well as real candy.

 

 
4.  Tina Fey – who manages to do funny and feminist better than anyone.

 

5.  George R R Martin – I would get him drunk on my friend Anna Potts’s homemade Sloe Gin – and force him to tell me the secrets of what’s in store for all my favourite Game of Thrones characters.

 

6.     Justin Gellatly of Bread Ahead – creator of the most extraordinary doughnuts in the world – and author of my favourite cookbook, and favourite titled book of 2014 – Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding.

 

7.     Gillian Anderson – my ex adores her and I used to get a bit jealous about that.  But then I saw her in Streetcar earlier this year and now I bang on about how amazing and talented and luminously beautiful she is far more than he ever did.

 

That sounds like a pretty fun party, right?  I’m willing to stand for the duration of the meal if it means I can invite all seven – though if Jamie or Michael wanted me to sit on their laps at any point in the festivities, I suppose that would be ok too.

A Pear Shaped Christmas…

My first proper job was working in an advertising agency, Bates Dorland, on the Woolworths Christmas campaign.  This was in the late ‘90s, the year Keith the Alien starred in our campaign.  (The fact Bates Dorland and Woolworths both subsequently went out of business is not my fault – honestly, it isn’t.  I wouldn’t even blame Keith – he was endearing, in his own way, though no John Lewis penguin.)
But right from the start, my choice of day job seems to have messed with my Christmases.  Working on Christmas every day of the year might seem like a great idea – like eating chocolate at every meal – but inevitably you sicken of it far quicker than you’d think.
The last job I had, before giving up day jobs altogether, was the anti-Christmas job of all anti-Christmas jobs: looking after turkeys for a supermarket in the run up to Christmas.  I shall spare you the details  – I don’t wish to ruin your Christmas dinner too – but suffice to say: not a single bite of turkey has passed my lips since.
So anyway – there are lots of lovely, romantic Christmas short stories out there on the internet for you to download and enjoy.  As the title might suggest,  A Pear-Shaped Christmas is not really one of them.  Nonetheless I hope it brings you a small slice of festive cheer, and an idea of what really goes on behind the scenes in advertising.

Happy Turducken!

x