Chef Magazine article. 2021.

Quite frankly, I’m furious with Meg and Haz. Not because they bagged all the low hanging fruit of the Victim Industry by scoring those gargantuan contracts with Netflix peddling their woe-is-us-stories, but because they’re making out they pioneered the pronoun-exit narrative. Of course there was the torturous and drawn-out Brexit melodrama before them, but just because Meg and Harry were the first to commercialize the whole Megxit stuff, they shouldn’t get all the credit. Whilst they luxuriate in their over-sized mansion, I am yet to receive a single word of gratitude, me, the guy who left London in a tizzy-fit back in 1996 with –can’t do Nexit as it sounds too much like Netflix and will expose me to potential lawsuits- then what must have been Rexit?

Running with the Palace ball, where “some recollections may vary”, I’m still struggling to develop a griping yarn of betrayal/deception/abuse as to why I fled London at the height of our success at Pied-a-Terre. Without some kind of lachrymose back-story I guess I’ll have to earn a living like everyone else.

Anyway, for the record, I love the UK. As opposed to Meg and Haz, I’m not here in a foreign country maligning GB and telling all my Latin friends what a dump Britain is and the, uh, structural/institutional problems you have there? I’m thrilled to visit the UK each year and just try to land on a day when there’s some sunshine. I congratulate myself on my timing as I dodged both the Spice Girls and the Blair years. If a low point of English governance was the reign of Stephen in the twelfth century, known as ‘The Anarchy’ then ‘Tone’s’ chaotic decade, where he pioneered a new methodology of government based upon lies, insincerity and a nascent State corporatism is pretty close. I’m so glad I wasn’t there as I would have had to have gone on demonstrations, probably have grown a beard and dressed in all the gothic protestor-chic clothing that are de rigueur at such events.

So, like being on the last helicopter out of Vietnam in ’75, as the Major government was imploding around 96, I managed to be on the early morning Easy Jet flight to Nice in May to start a journey that has taken me around the world.

The truth is, French gastronomy exports really well. Personally I’m a devotee of Thai, Chinese, Maghrebian, Indian, Mexican and Peruvian cuisine, even the South African food we ate on the game reserve where they barbequed their way through the creatures we had photographed during the day, yet it seems indisputable that there is a global appetite to enjoy, and pay for the pleasures of French (European) gastronomic fare.  I’m sure Team Meg could put a sinister spin on this, but I’m convinced there is a more prosaic and innocent explanation, simply that Euro-fare is tasty, well crafted, and encapsulates the whole ideal of living well.

Enough said. We were meant to go directly to the south of France but our plans were upset by a chance meeting with the President of the Taj Group. I arrive at their offices in London for a discussion about their invitation to recreate Pied-a-Terre at their Taj property in New Delhi. I’m expecting a meeting to talk about products, menus, Public Relations, whatever, instead the presidents opening gambit is, “do you know Marlon Brando?” I said, of course I know of Marlon Brando as I tried to present a list of demands for any potential contract, to which the guy replies, “give him what he wants” before returning to the Brando theme about how we could count on MB dining with us in India and what a fabulous country it was. The most surreal interview where food wasn’t mentioned once. A month later we arrive in New Delhi for our honeymoon, one that took in a dozen of their properties. Stunning, stunning, stunning. India is one of those places you must visit before you die, or before the debt accumulated during covid impoverishes everyone to such an extent that foreign travel is unaffordable for mere mortals, those who don’t work in the public sector or the sports and entertainment industries.

Paradoxically, we ate the best food in India in peoples’ homes, an incentive itself to accumulate as many friends as possible. I’ve wondered a lot about this over the years -the difficulty in the commercialization of food- as it’s a phenomena I’ve encountered elsewhere. Maybe something about the need for the people working in restaurants and hotels to actually use restaurants and hotels themselves? If not, then having the time to devote to preparing a decent meal. Even now, when we travel to India to buy the antiques for my girlfriends store, we eat spectacular food at the home of her Jainist supplier. The family are strict vegetarians, though the meal is still one of the highlights of our trip. Tasty Dahl’s, an amazing spinach palak paneer. A spicy dish with okra, which was enough to make you believe in God. Because the country is so vast, you are left with a gnawing doubt as to whether you’ve really experienced India, qua India. Probably best to buy the DVD?

After Cannes, we’re off to Morocco. What can I say? Marrakech is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever lived in. Like India, living here was an assault upon the senses. UNESCO protected Medina and even more cool, where the Stones took their holidays. Marrakech is about colour. Piercing blue skies hang nonchalantly above the town for three hundred days a year.  ‘Marrakchi Red’ is the colour of every building in the old town. These blues and ochres’ are punctuated with sprightly greens from the ubiquitous palms, as well as the obscenely intense tones of the bougainvillea that lounge lazily on every wall. And lastly, as though a mad pastry chef has squirted that canister cream all over the place, there is a brilliant white from the snow-capped Atlas mountains that are perched majestically on the horizon. I love Moroccan food. Thankfully the restaurant of our Riad was on the roof terrace, so I had to run up and down eight flights of stairs forty times an evening with the plates, a feat that allowed me to work off the calories that I had put on as I scoffed the delicious Tagines, Couscous and Pastillas that our staff made for our lunches. Simply, Marrakech is a great place for a cook to live. 

Sometime in between I spent eighteen months in Moscow. I know I have a maximum number of ‘amazings’ that I can include amongst my travels before I sound as though I work in Public Relations, so I will try to use them sparingly, but Moscow definitely deserves one.

I’m a history buff, and much of the interesting stuff that occurred in the twentieth century took place in this country, in this city. My best pal there was Pyotr (Anglicized Peter), the son of one of the owners. He spoke English like an Englishman and had an encyclopedic mind. We would walk around town, where every ten meters he would point out a house, a building of historical significance. He introduced me to Gogol and Turgenev –not personally- and we played chess in Gorky Park. We ate in his favourite Soviet-era restaurants, where lashings of Russian Standard vodka would miraculously transform the inedible food into something almost tasty and the terrible musicians playing Stones covers into something indistinguishable from Mick and Keith. Well almost. We ate mountains of affordable caviar and in Georgian restaurants grilled meats of uncertain provenance covered in powdered pomegranate. I used to go to a friends dacha at the weekends where I had my own bedroom, complete with my own Kalashnikov propped against the door. The colder the weather became, the more the Russians would insist on eating outdoors, a fetishism that gave a totally new meaning to al fresco. Dinners were on the outdoor terrace on a huge semi-circular leather sofa in front of a blazing fire where you would hear wolves howling, gamboling and generally misbehaving beyond the fence. We would all wear coats, scarves and hats (hopefully polyester-mix rather than made from aforementioned wolves) in the minus thirty-degree temperature. The Russians are a great people. I think fun has been outlawed for centuries, under the soviets, the czars and they are now making up.

Briefly back to Morocco before meeting Louise at the Royal Albert Hall where my pal from the south of France had launched a career as a rock star and was doing his first gig. Louise is a fellow Brit living in Costa Rica and she whisked me away to this wonderful country in the summer of 2006.

The country is really beautiful. We have primary rainforest, active volcanoes, world-class beaches, raging rivers for level four white water rafting, and a whole cast of exotic creatures like sloths, iguanas the size of small Labradors, macaws in colours that would make the Biblical Joseph jealous and all the creepy-crawly and slithering stuff. We also have a super friendly population.  Costa Rica has been a laboratory for some incredibly courageous and avant-gardist social ideas. We implemented mandatory and universal education in 1869 and abolished our army in 1948. We have 5 percent of the world’s total biodiversity and aim to be carbon neutral by the end of this year.

Despite being only 9 degrees north of the equator, the temperature in the central valley, where we live in the capital, is particularly pleasant. Shirt sleeves all year round, a privilege that left a friend of ours lamenting that he was unable to wear his Imelda Marcos-esque wardrobe of thirty three leather jackets.

The people here love the whole dining experience. Groups of friends, family gatherings, amorous couples. Outdoor dining is particularly popular and if you’re lucky, you’re find a place to eat where the ylang ylang perfumes the air like an orthodox priest waving his thurible filled with incense. One New Years Eve, we carried a table to the seashore and placed ten log segments around for seats. My best friend had a wheelbarrow filled with charcoal and he proceeded to cook the tastiest beef fillet imaginable. There was a full moon above us and gentle waves, fringed with what looked like lace, collapsed exhaustedly upon the shore. Someone had had the foresight to bring some Rosé Champagne. If I couldn’t imagine a better evening, the night triumphantly concluded with a shooting star roaring through the night sky above our heads.

In the capital, I have the whole Disney cast available for the menu, at least before Disney started cancelling some characters due to their unsavoury pasts. For the first fourteen years Louise magnanimously gave me an aisle and garden of the house/antiques store for me to use as a restaurant. Since the end of 2020, I’ve been taking my skills out on the road, doing pop-ups with friends. I’m particularly proud of the food we serve here. I’m still in the kitchen every service cooking every meal, as I would hate to be an absentee chef. Cesar has worked for me for seven years, great guy and definitely the ‘god of pasta’. He makes the Cannelloni of Crab, the Ravioli of Wild Mushrooms for the Lamb dish. He makes the delicate Goat’s Cheese Tortellini with Spinach and Pecan. Milton has been with me the same amount of time. Really one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever met. His work is flawless and whenever we need anything intricate of beautiful performed, he will always execute it perfectly. 

We use a lot of products that I’ve never used before. The Tuna here is spectacular. On the last menu I made it with Mango Puree that were from the shockingly delicious Piña Mangoes and served it with and Deep-Fried Shrimps and a little Ginger, Coriander dressing. Also Octopus. Lou believes I will go to Hell for serving this fine, intelligent creature, it might be true, though at least I’ll know a lot of the residents. I braised the Octopus in white wine and then sliced it really thin with Asparagus, Spicy Chorizo and Pesto Sauce. The presentation was in the shape of the Octopus itself. A bit of fun! I do a Quail stuffed with Prunes on top of Basmati Rice and Curry Sauce. It’s a remake of my Marrakech Tagine of Quail filled with Prunes and served with couscous. I get great local Rabbits and do the whole bunny, fillet, confit leg, liver and kidney with Gnocchi Gorgonzola. Really yummy. A guy brings me Red Snapper from the beach a few times a week and we carve it up for an excellent Cerviche with Passion Fruit and Coriander and use the thick tummy steaks to wrap in Salt Pastry and serve with Pea Puree and Paella cooked in Coconut Milk, this accompaniment amongst the favourites in our repertoire. For desserts we serve a tasting plate, one of which is a meringue swan with home made sorbet.

It hasn’t always been easy and there have been plenty of dark hours and days in the years since I hastily left London, but cooking, restaurants and gastronomy have at least afforded me an exciting adventure. 

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