Thursday, 8 July 2010

A kitchen nightmare

I’m not a fan of “reality TV”. In fact I’m not a fan of most TV, despite the fact that I probably watch a bit too much of it. Much of what is broadcast in our direction, particularly on DSTV, is complete dross but for once I’m going to restrain myself and not rant about DSTV.

Instead I’m going to ramble on about a program that has become a complete addiction.

Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

Before I explain why I love it, I feel obliged to say that I can’t normally abide Gordon Ramsay. He’s everything I despise about the TV food industry at the moment. He’s a personality, a celebrity, a character who is more important than the food he allegedly cooks. When I’m in a restaurant I don’t really care about the personality, arrogance and ego of the person who cooks my food, I am only interested in whether it tastes good, is served hot and comes in large enough portions. Ramsay is the opposite of that, he’s a media-constructed TV chef, famous only for his incredible rudeness and arrogance. The food comes in second place when Ramsay is on screen.

However, the Kitchen Nightmares show is different. In case you haven’t seen it, let me explain. Ramsay arrives at a restaurant that is failing and does his best to put them on the straight and narrow. Of course he does this with a staggering number of four-lettered words, a lot of shouting but always with a degree of success.

Of course the secret is actually very simple. Almost all the restaurants he visits are failing for the same reason. They’ve forgotten what all restaurant customers really want.

We all want simple, tasty food prepared hygienically, served at the right temperature and at the right price. It doesn’t matter whether you want to spend P20 on a burger or P200 on a massive feast, that’s what we all want. However so many restaurants seem to forget that simple formula. That’s where Ramsay fits in.

His intervention is the same every time but it’s amusing to see him do it. He dramatically simplifies the menu, implements a simple chain of command and demands perfect cleanliness. There are many lessons for all businesses in that but the one uppermost in my mind for restaurants at the moment is hygiene. There have been several episodes when he and his camera crew have uncovered shocking kitchen hygiene problems. On one occasion the camera witnessed a chef dropping a chicken wing on the floor, picking it up and continuing to serve it. In another they found pieces of meat in buckets that clearly were weeks old, rotting in the store room. In another there seemed to be 100 times more cockroaches in the kitchen than there were customers in the dining room.

Of course we don’t have any restaurants that bad in Botswana, do we?

Yes, we do. There is a restaurant I know that no other restaurant owners will visit. A friend who is a food safety specialist tells some complete horror stories about it. She, of all people, saw a rat running through the restaurant. You do NOT want to eat there.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking to the owners and managers of various restaurants that I like. They’re all very different but they have a couple of things in common. They all have an active, hands-on manager. They all understand exactly the style of food they serve. They are all scrupulously clean, I know, I’ve been in their kitchens. Most importantly they all make decent amounts of money, even in these hard times.

I asked them all about how they maintain hygiene standards. All told me about the random inspections they have from the authorities who do things like taking samples of cooking oil to ensure it’s clean and safe. That’s all well and good. However, not one of them had even been told about the Public Health Act and Regulations. In my innocence (yes, honestly!) I assumed that when they applied for their original licence from the City Council they would have been told about the Regulations, told about some of the basic rules that all restaurants must abide by. For instance that a waiter may not touch the rim of a glass, can only touch the handles of cutlery and can only wear clean uniforms.

None of the restaurant owners I spoke to knew about this. That’s not a criticism of them, they’ve all got standards that are already far ahead of these basic rules. It’s a criticism of the authorities, yet again. The danger is not the decent restaurants, it’s the dodgy, disreputable, rat and cockroach-infested, poisonous ones. The ones that might actually kill you. Not me, I hasten to add. I’m immune. The reason? I do something that I earnestly suggest that you do too.

Become intimate with the manager of your favourite restaurants. Not too intimate of course, none of them are that cute. OK, there’s one, but that’s beside the point. When you know the owner or manager of a restaurant you can do some amazing things. You can ask to see the kitchen, your opinions will be treated with more respect and your food will be prepared with just a little extra attention.

However I still think that we should demand more from the authorities that are empowered to check restaurants for hygiene standards. Maybe they should be giving out standard packages of information on the hygiene standards required? Or is Consumer Watchdog going to be forced to do that instead?

This weeks stars
  • The owners and managers of Apache Spur, Café Dijo and Chutney restaurants for their help and support.
  • Sergeant Rinka from Old Naledi Police Station who stopped one of the Watchdog team (now known as Mrs Schumacher) for speeding but did so with enormous friendliness and charm.
  • Ian and the team at Barloworld for responding to a customer’s concern very effectively.

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