Saturday, 26 January 2013

Three of My Restaurant Pet Hates

Three of My Restaurant Pet Hates
I think its all getting a little silly!

Firstly, I have to admit, when I started in the food business almost 25 years ago it was all new to me and I mean all new. I made the decision to open a coffee shop in Dun Laoghaire. I left my job in the electronic manufacturing business found a little premise and with the help of my dear friend Frank Bergin who sadly passed away, we fitted out the coffee shop and six weeks later it was opening day. Problem was I had no idea what I was doing! My Mother is a great cook and came to the rescue; she volunteered to come in for a few hours every day to make the soup and the pies.  I just had to sort everything else out.

A week earlier I had contacted an old friend of mine, Alan O'Reilly. I think it would be fair to say that Alan is one on the highest regarded chefs in the country and all round nice guy. We had known each other from the time we were kids. We even got to represent Ireland together in junior Ten Pin Bowling. Alan arrived on opening day to show me how to make some very nice salads. Ok then he said while straightened his apron, have you got a chopping board, no problem I said, mixing bowls please, no problem as I put everything in front of him. Get me some Iceberg lettuce he ordered me and with great enthusiasm I ran to the fridge, I returned and handed over the Iceberg. He fell around the place laughing, you moron he said, that’s white cabbage. That was my first lesson, 25 years later and I’m still learning, I’m just not the food cabbage I used to be.
Ireland, like me, has come an awful long way in the last 25 years in terms of food and restaurants. I believe we now have some of the best restaurants, the best food producers and some of the best chefs in the world. I often go into town and try a restaurant on spec and more often that not the food is very good. We are spoilt for choice but in our quest for even more greatness I think we sometimes get a little silly with food ideas and presentation.

Steak on a stone
“For the first time in my life I was actually afraid of my dinner”

The first time I ever came across steak-on-a-stone was on a lad’s holiday in Fuengirola, Spain. It was 1982, I was 20 and this was my first holiday abroad, everything was new and exciting. We sat in this wonderful steak restaurant in our sleeveless t-shirts (I heard one of my own kids refer to this type of t-shirt as "wife beaters" nice, now I can't believe I ever owned one) white as snow with our tans cut off just above the elbow. Steak on a stone was the house specialty and that’s what we ordered, we were all seriously impressed.   

So 28 years later I find myself sitting in a Dublin restaurant ordering the culinary masterpiece that holds so many found memories for me. It arrives and the waiter stretches across the table, I raise my hands to take the board and he retreats saying “no sir, I’ll put it down, its very very hot”. He places it in front of me and again warns me not to touch the stone, he was so serious he made me nervous. For the first time in my life I was actually afraid of my dinner. I certainly didn’t remember being afraid the last time, but then I was younger and a lot more reckless. By the time I was finished eating the steak-on-a-stone my arms were tired from holding my elbows at eye level in fear of needing a skin graft. The steak was awful, the whole experience was awful and my fond memories of Fuengirola 1982 were destroyed forever. The Fuengirolans were way ahead of their time on this trend and some 28 years ahead of the Irish. As for me, “bin there dun dat”

Chips in a Bucket
“I’d love a bucket of chips”

·        Why would anyone serve chips in a bucket?

·        Who decided chips in a bucket is a great idea?

·        Do chips taste better from a bucket?

·        Have you ever heard anyone say “I’d love a bucket of chips?

·        Do tourists return home and tell their friends “you’ve got to get over to Ireland, they serve chips in a bucket"?

Personally I just don’t get it, I think we've all gone mad.  

Dinner in a bowl
“Please, I’m not a Dog!”

There is nothing nicer that a beautiful fresh summer salad in a bowl, a bowl of home-made pasta carbonara, a bowl of hot Irish stew or even a Thai green curry. So there are lots of wonderful foods that need to be and should be served in a bowl. But that is where it should end. I recently ordered a steak sandwich in a pub and oh no, yes, it was served in a bowl. I was in a very nice restaurant in Dublin city recently, there were fourteen people at our table and all starters and all main courses including a baked cod dish were served in bowls.

I have just typed “food in a bowl” into Google Images. If you’re a chef designing a menu please stop what you’re thinking and go type those words into Google Images, you’ll get the idea!

To be continued…………………

(in the meantime, buy the best Irish produce, cook it well and let the food do the talking!)

Monday, 21 January 2013

How much do you need to know about lobster

How much do you need to know about lobster
to be a restaurant critic?

Restaurant critics, dontcha love them? Well, no, not really just at the moment. It’s Lucinda again.

Ms  O’Sullivan recently said while reviewing a restaurant that actually imports Canadian lobster “I liked the fact that there wasn't any bull about this being ‘local lobster’ – as I am getting in other restaurants.”  Bull? Look, as the owner of two restaurants that serves only local lobster – so local that it is caught by our own boat which operates out of Dun Laoghaire – I’m totally gobsmacked.

It doesn’t end there. It get’s better. Or worse, really. Lucinda goes on to say “They [the restaurant under review] intend to have local lobster in season”.  To qualify as a restaurant critic or food columnist (and that’s another story, of course) you need to know that there is no season for Irish lobster. Irish lobster is landed by hard-working Irish fishermen all year-round.

So, the Sunday Independent appears to be promoting the consumption of Canadian lobster (which, incidentally, is being dumped on the world market as the Canadians are experiencing an enormous glut in lobster production, See CBC News report) at the expense of Irish fishermen and women who risk their lives virtually every day to bring ashore “local” lobster for Irish consumers. In fact, it’s worse than that. The Sunday Independent, by publishing Lucinda O’Sullivan’s flagrantly erroneous comment, seems to imply that Irish lobster is not available at this time of the year and that claims for “local lobster” are, at best, spurious.
As a purveyor of genuinely local lobster, I take grave exception to this.

In our experience, imported lobster, such as Canadian lobster, is an inferior product when compared to fresh Irish Lobster. They are cheaper than Irish lobster and tend to hold their price throughout the year. ...In the case of Canadian lobster (which are mainly from the USA and exported through Canada), their shells tend to be softer and have a plastic feel when being cracked. There is little or no flavour from these lobsters. Certainly compared to Irish or Scottish lobster.

From an animal lover’s point of view, I was disgusted to see how these creatures are transported from Canada. Put in waxed cardboard boxes with dividers, they are forced into tight compartments “cruelly” pointing up-wards while forced to sit on their tails. The poor lobsters have to endure this for well over 2 days. If the lobsters do arrive alive, it is only barely.

From a conservation point of view, these lobsters might look the same but they are not. They are merely closely-related lobster species and it is only a matter of time, if it hasn’t happened already, that someone decides to release one or more of these non native American lobster, Homarus americanus (Canadian if you like) into Irish waters and we end up with some sort of cross between our European lobster, Homarus gammarus, and this American imported lobster. By allowing the live import of these lobsters we are running the risk of loosing our highly sough after Irish Lobster forever.

We are calling on the Irish government to ban the import of live lobster from Canada on the grounds of cruelty and conservation. There are so many things wrong with this practice its hard to know where to begin.

At Ouzos, we will continue to only support our hard-working Irish Fishermen and women and treat our live lobsters with the respect that lobsters deserve. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Restaurant Critics

Restaurant Critics
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly…
(And in no particular order)

What can a restaurateur say about the restaurant critic? We court the critic through press releases from our PR companies with announcements of grand openings, grand rebrands or any event to catch their eye.

So here we go, put the worm on the hook and hope they bite……………………….

Sometimes we land one and the review is glorious. We wallow in this glory like pigs in shite for weeks and we have even been known to frame this hard earned spectacular stamp of a food critic’s approval and hang it on the restaurant wall for all to see.

Sometimes we land one and the review is a stinker, everything was wrong. We fling the lid and rip it up while shouting “what the F**K do they know about restaurants and food.  
So, Rule No. 1, Be Careful What You Wish For!

Over the years we have had great reviews and a couple of terrible reviews. You would generally know that a review of your restaurant had taken place because the newspaper will contact you to arrange a photo to go with the review. So now that you know its coming you start to panic. Is it good or bad is all you can think of? I have had sleepless nights knowing that a review will hit the papers the next weekend. I have driven around Dublin at 3am in the morning trying to get a copy of the morning paper. I remember on one occasion getting my hands on the Sunday Indo late on a Saturday night. We had only opened Ouzos in Dalkey, Paolo Tullio, Tom Doorley and Ernie Wally had all given us great reviews and now it was Lucinda O’Sullivan’s turn. It was 2am when I showed the review to the staff. We had opened two months earlier. Neither the manager nor I had had a day off in 10 weeks and we were exhausted. Our hearts sank as I read the headline “All at Sea in Dalkey” Lucinda went on to slag everything in the restaurant, the colour, the shape of the restaurant, the food and even got around to slagging the customers. Both I and all the staff just got a good kick in the head from this woman.
So, Rule No. 2, Get a Good Nights Sleep & Wait Till Morning!

I reacted to Lucinda O’Sullivan’s bad review by writing to the Sunday Indo and telling them exactly what I thought of her and the things she had said about my restaurant. Needless to say, it got me nowhere. Three years later, I have apologised by email on two occasions to this critic for loosing the head. Both emails remain unanswered. I even invited her to be a judge at last years Dalkey Lobster Fest, Master Chef Final, she arrived, I offered my hand which she shook while keeping her eyes on the ground. She even ignored the opening of Ouzos Blackrock and has refused to write anything about Ouzos. I recently discovered that she had blocked me from following her on Twitter, Who does that??? I didn’t even know that you could do such a thing!!!
So, Rule No. 3, Never Criticise a Critic!

To quote the great Gordon Ramsay
“I’m now being judged by individuals that know less about food than I do”

 At Ouzos we have been operating our own fishing boat and catching, processing, cooking and serving lobster & crab for over ten years. We know a lot about crab and lobster.

Now imagine this, Katy McGuinness, food critic of what was The Sunday Tribune comes and reviews Ouzos Dalkey and pronounces “the crab claws were definitely frozen” needless to say I went berserk. Ouzos is probably one of few restaurants in the country that goes to the trouble of landing its own crab, we never need to freeze or buy frozen crab. To add insult to injury, she reviewed a famous restaurant in the city a couple of weeks later and declared the crab meat was “spanking fresh” The thing is, we had helped this restaurant out by introducing them to a supplier in Northern Ireland who was supplying them with….YES You’ve Guessed It…… frozen crab meat. So nice one Katy……We invited Katy McGuinness to come fishing with us and learn how we at Ouzos catch, process, cook and serve our crab, she has yet to take the opportunity.
So, Rule No. 4, Don’t Believe Everything the Critic Says!

So what does it take to become a food critic and what qualifications do you need? That’s a big question and after 25 years at their mercy I have no idea.

The only advice I would offer to anyone barking mad enough to open a restaurant is, when you get a great review, take it to bed with you and have a great nights sleep. When you get a bad review just relax, slowly rip it to pieces and shout out loud “what the F**K do they know about restaurants and food” I found it helped me.   

Naturally Aged Irish Beef

Only Naturally Aged Irish Beef Served @ Ouzos 

Over the last year I have noticed a big increase in the number of times I have been served tenderised beef in restaurants and pubs here in Ireland. In general it tends to be in places where beef such as a 10oz Sirloin steak is on the menu at €14 or €15. At first glance I would ask myself how can they sell Irish Beef at these prices? When the steak arrives at the table I understand how! Like my mother always says "In this life, you get what you pay for"

Tenderising beef is an old trick of the trade that is sadly creeping back into Irish restaurants as we all strive to retain margins and cut costs. In most cases I believe that non-intact beef is being served without the knowledge of what exactly the establishment is buying and serving. The butcher sells steaks at really good prices and nobody stops to ask "why so cheap?"

So long as there is no lableing of tenderised beef, we should know what to look for and if you feel it has been tenderised, make sure its cooked through before eating it. 

So what is Mechanical Tenderised Beef?
Mechanical tenderising is a method whereby fine incisions are made in the meat by closely spaced, specially designed knives (needles) which cut through the connective tissue. The mechanical tenderising process takes seconds with a roller type tenderised or a crank type hand operated tenderiser. Meat, which has been treated in this manner, is immediately tenderised without the need to wait for natural bacterial action to take place. The depth and the spacing of the knives and the number of times the meat is passed through the tenderiser allows for the degree of tenderising to be determined, thus controlling the amount of tenderising. Almost every grade of meat can be tenderised.
Why is Beef Mechanical Tenderised
There is only one reason to mechanical tenderise beef “Money” Ageing beef naturally is an expensive process.   

Why Should We Care?
In simple terms, E. coli O157:H7 can live on the outside of your steak and it’s a very nasty bug. When you cook a naturally aged steak the heat will kill any bacteria on the outside of the meat. Now, when you mechanically tenderise that steak you are effectively pushing any bacteria present into the centre of that steak. If you like your steak rare and the steak has been mechanically tenderised, you run the risk of very serious food poisoning.
Because the harmful bacteria can be introduced into the centre of beef when it is tenderised, United States Department of Aquaculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service recommends that mechanically tenderised beef be cooked to an internal temperature of 71oC , that’s well done, just like a beef burger. The only way to confirm that beef is cooked thoroughly enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer, preferably a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. Food safety advocates in the US have asked FSIS to require that mechanically tenderised beef be labelled with appropriate safe-cooking information.

How Can I Tell if the Beef I buy is Mechanical Tenderised
When the meat is raw, look for needle marks which will be clearly visible, tenderised raw beef will be mushy and limp to the touch. Cooked, it will be bloated and have the texture of mince meat inside.

The Americans call this tenderised beef Non-Intact Beef and there is a big move on in the states to have this beef labelled for what it is. We should all be calling on the Irish Government for the labelling of non-intact beef products on food outlet menus, wholesale packaging and retail packaging to include appropriate safe-cooking information.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Restaurant From the Inside

The Restaurant

I have been working in the food business for close on 25 years. We started with a tiny coffee shop in Dun Laoghaire "The Coffee Bean. With the help of my wife Cathy, we made it a success and today we operate two restaurants "Ouzos Bar & Grill" in Dalkey & Blackrock. We have been through thick & thin and somehow we have survived. This time next year, we’ll all be millionaires, again!

This blog is all about running restaurants in Ireland. The ups, the downs, the challenges, the serious stuff, the laughs, the good times, the bad times, the red tape, the lack of any tape, the good people, the bad people, the customers, the government, the suppliers, the critics, the chefs, the waiters and above all, the crack.

Running a restaurant is just like making a movie. Opening the door is the same as the shout "Lights, Camera, Action" and then everything better be in its place and working. The organization and the level of personal commitment involved is beyond most normal people’s comprehension. Trust me when I tell you, you have to be a little bit insane to work in a restaurant. Being a restaurateur is defiantly not a job, it’s a way of life and being married to a saint is a must. I love what I do with a passion and the good times far outweigh the bad.

Let me start by telling you about my two favorite complaints.

It’s a Wednesday night in Ouzos Baggot Street 1998 is the year. I am summoned to the table by a very irate guest who pushes his chair back, points with both hands to his dessert and shouts “what sort of a kip is this? My dessert is frozen in the middle” To which I replied “but sir, its Baked Alaska!” “I don’t give a shit what it is, it’s dangerous and I’m not eating it” Now, there are two ways I could have handled this, the first idea flashed through my mind and like an out-of-body experience I was looking down at myself. I grabbed him by the back of the head and stuck his face into the Baked Alaska while calling him an imbecile. I decided to go with the second option, I apologized and offered to get him something else. He left the restaurant happy and I was happy in the knowledge that it would not be long before one of his friends explained to him just how stupid he actually was. In fairness we laughed for a month about this one.

Saturday night Ouzos Ranelagh 2003, I was walking into the kitchen to begin the first service and a waiter walks past me with a fillet steak being returned from a table. The waiter tells the chef that the guest had ordered his steak very well done and the fillet needs to be cooked more. The steak had been cut in half by the guest and it was defiantly cooked through. We put the steak on the char-grill for a couple of minutes and flashed it under the grill for a further two. The steak arrived back a second time with the instruction to cook it more. The chef looked at me in astonishment, the steak didn’t look like a steak anymore, it was dried out beyond recognition. I said the customer is always right and if he wants it cooked more, then cook it some more. We cooked it some more, sent to the table and it arrives straight back and the waiter says to the chef “he said its over done now and he wants to know would you like him to come to the kitchen and show you how to cook a steak” it took two of us to hold the chef down while the floor manager went to the table to offer the guest something else.

We have our top 20 silly complaints and I will tell you some more later.

Before you open a restaurant, you should really ask yourself, are you really equipped to deal with the public?