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Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Big Chef Takes On Little Chef, Channel 4

Did we like it?
Channel 4's trailers for its Great British Food Fight season smack of too much hype, too little substance, but this three-part reality show-cum-documentary kicked off (very nearly literally) with a tense, absorbing hour of television. In the battle between Poncy Chef and the culinary equivalent of Woolworths (RIP), we were surprised to find ourselves siding with Heston Blumenthal.

What was good about it?
• Getting Britain's most eccentric chef to soup up a run-of-the-mill chain is a brilliant idea. What will TV executives think up next. Getting Andrew Lloyd Webber to mastermind the UK's Eurovision entry?
• These sort of programmes normally manufacture their arguments but Blumenthal's battle with Little Chef chief Ian Pegler exploded naturally. "At the end of the day, I have asked you for blue-sky thinking," said Pegler, yet he was quick to put on the blinkers whenever he got it. “Take this core product and explode it in terms of your uniqueness,” urged Pegler, ludicrously. Pegler was full of David Brentish management clich├ęs; Blumenthal was full of passion and sense.
• Blumenthal does back up his arguments in an articulate way. "I think our roadside restaurant chain does not reflect, one iota, what food in Britain actually is,” he says, after discovering the menu is more like a world atlas. “What I found fascinating is that the Little Chef brand is really strong and iconic in terms of nostalgia. But that brand is not iconic today, in reality, it’s in the past. So you’ve still got fond memories of people who would have gone there when they were kids, but who wouldn’t set foot in a Little Chef now. It’s not what it was.”
• Lots of sniping about food. "A shoe would taste better," is the verdict on the Hawaiian burger (which comes with an exotic pineapple ring). “It's interesting how it coats the roof of your mouth,” was Pegler's looks-can-kill-inducing opinion of Heston's take on lamb thyroid hotpot (which comes with an oyster, like in the old days). “It didn't layer quiet as well as I thought it might: the aromatics of the mint dissipated very quickly,” was how Pegler poo-pooed the pea and ham soup.
• The juxtaposition of Blumenthal's reaction to the customer verdict on his new menus – "Those comments of it being poncy, fussy, complicated – it's like being kicked in the stomach. I don't consider myself a poncy person" – with footage of him pipetting a drop of something on to one of his miniscule meals and using tweezers to place a lettuce leaf in exactly the right spot.
• Little Chef has landed on its feet as far as staff recruitment is concerned. Everyone seems to love their job and is passionate about the brand. So it was heartbreaking to see them having so few customers to charm and cheer.We especially liked restaurant manager Michael's observation: “I’m not sure people are ready for snail porridge yet in Little Chef. But they weren’t ready for muesli either and we got them there in the end.”
• We'd be racing off to Little Chef right now if the menu was to include Blumenthal's Sound of the Sea fish dish (served with an iPod poking from a shell). Pure crazy genius.

What was bad about it?
• The old Little Chef menu, where quantity beats quality hands down, seems ghastly. It satisfies a loyal clientelle but, like Heston, we'd rather sit in the car eating a sandwich then struggle through a massive plate of cheap ingredients which have been microwaved to mush and griddled to death.
• Too much scrambled egg. The pot/pan-free Little Chef kitchens opt to microwave it into a solid mass; Blumenthal adds Lapsang souchong tea and then goes down the boil-in-the-bag route. Either way, it's a waste of an egg that could and should have been fried and then liberally covered in salt.
• Enough already of Blumenthal in his black BMW.

4 comments:

MISA said...

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Anonymous said...

i work for little chef and think that the programme for the first two episodes give us a bad image. not all little chefs are of this poor state of repair. we are however a fast food restaurant and people do not expect to wait longer than 15 minutes for their meal.

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