THE RESTAURANT REBORN
The television series is seeing some major changes. Time to reflect on times past.
It was probably time that The Restaurant had a bit of a makeover. After all, the eleventh series will air in January 2016. But none of us foresaw that Paolo Tullio would be leaving us so soon to dine in celestial splendour somewhere in another universe. A lifelong atheist and sceptic, I hope he has been pleasantly surprised; he deserves to be.
Paolo was not in great shape when we recorded the last series in Co. Westmeath during November 2016. He was on frequent dialysis and was losing weight rapidly, partly thanks to a very restricted diet. Even when the meal was good, he usually only managed to toy with the food.
And I wasn’t in the full bloom of health, myself, having broken both of my left arm and my right shoulder only six weeks before. The pain was mighty but clever surgery meant that I could use my left hand – just – while my right was strapped up and immobilised. We were the walking wounded.
The coup de grace was very nearly Jackie Lavin’s “celtic warrior’s feast” over which I think we should draw a veil. Suffice it to say that I don’t think I will ever forget John Healy delivering skillets of prawns to the critics’ table for Paolo, myself and Lucinida O’Sullivan, and solemnly intoning “sizzle, sizzle”. Anyone who watched that episode carefully will know the context.
Anyway, we are no longer doing The Restaurant in Glasson but have moved to Marco Pierre White’s restaurant (part of the Fitzer’s empire) in Donnybrook; some people will recall it as The Courtyard, but it looks a lot better now. Indeed, it’s a fine venue.
Marco Pierre White himself has taken over Paolo’s role and while they are difficult boots to fill, he has brought a new style to the show and, of course, an outstanding appreciation of technical skill (he had 3 Michelin stars at the age of 33).
The series which we have just finished is an interesting one but my lips are sealed until after broadcast in the New Year. But it might be time to reminisce about previous series, bearing in mind that the first one was made (in Dalkey) in 2004.
First of all, I should say that The Restaurant is some of the easiest work that I do. Essentially, I turn up, comment on the food and that’s it. We need to be aware that it’s television (and light entertainment at that) and that certain protocols are required and that some things we say may need to be done a few times so that there’s a clean take. But, broadly speaking, it all happens much as you see it at home.
My role, of course, used to be the tough cop. The tough cop sitting down and just having dinner with Paolo and a guest, conversation flowing. Sometimes it flows a bit too much and there can be comments which are probably not well received in the kitchen. Like the time when a distinguished and unambiguously heterosexual man was described by our female guest critic as "a seriously repressed gay man, firmly in the closet." Just on the basis of his food! Or when I spoke at length about Diarmuid Gavin's shortcomings as a voice-over artist (we cover a vast range of subjects) not knowing that Diarmuid himself was in the kitchen listening to every word.
This sound-link between our table and the kitchen is really central to The Restaurant. We have to say what we think, without fear or favour as they say, and then we must face the unfortunate creature who has been slaving away all day in the kitchen. This is fine when we've been making little moaning noises of pure pleasure but when we've been going through the menu like stormtroopers it's pretty uncomfortable. These days, Marco takes a rather forgiving approach but not always; my attitude, I find, has mellowed.
I've only once sensed that I might get thumped - and that was by Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, but she restrained herself. Showjumper Jessica Kurten's menu had been torn apart by all of us but she directed her ire solely at Gino di Campo, who seemed to be singed in the process. Just as well that the cutlery had been cleared, we decided. He needed a very stiff drink in the bar after that but Jessica followed him and continued the verbal assault.
We've had some terrible meals, of course, and I used to think that the worst, the most truly terrible meal in all series broadcast to date, was back in the mists of antiquity. Well, right back in 2005, and Brendan O'Carroll. Now, I’m not so sure. Jackie Lavin’s 2015 meal is level pegging or a close second.
Brendan started his working life in the kitchen and subsequently became a waiter - and I think I can see why he went in that direction. When things got rough, Paolo and I used to recall how the comic's meal still effected us - and not in a good way - more than 24 hours after we ate it. Let's just call it abdominal discomfort.
We're all inclined to suppress traumatic memories and, on that basis, I should have no recollection at all of what appeared on the table. But I can still recall, with terrible clarity, three of the dishes.
The first was a baby pineapple filled with prawns in pink sauce, the creation of which would require a twisted mind. But it got worse; it was cooked! I have to say it was one of the most unpleasant things ever to appear on a plate in my presence.
The other starter was, in effect, a deep-fried ham sandwich which Brendan described as a beignet. A main course involved a fillet of sole, a banana, sugar and a blowlamp which he somewhat implausibly claimed was a dish created, not by a torturer, but by the great French chef Escoffier.
My main recollection of Jackie’s meal was of bits of meat skewered on massive tridents and the fact that I only managed a few mouthfuls before giving up.
By comparison to these experiences even the worst misjudgements and mistakes of our other guest chefs pale into insignificance. Frank McNamara's Vodka and Chicken Penne (I am not making this up) may have been marked way down for being unambiguously unpleasant but it was ambrosia compared to O'Carroll's Sole aux bananes which, by the time it hit the table, resembled a non-slip floor covering. Jessica Kurten's coddled egg was more like a cricket ball than anything produced by a hen and John Water's non-alcoholic red wine made cough mixture seem a tasty tipple, but they were nirvana compared to what Paolo and I used to refer to, with a shudder, as the Nuit de Beignet.
We've had some interesting guest critics over the years. The late Keith Floyd, despite a reputation for towering rages and protracted silences, was always charm itself. But he did require his not insignificant alcohol level to be maintained and it fell to us to ensure that his glass was refilled often enough to do so. But not often enough to make him nod off. It was a fine line.
On one occasion he tried to wander off in the middle of recording but we managed to keep him at the table. On his second visit he told us off for being too tough. In fact, he threatened to walk out if we didn't agree to a higher star-rating but after a couple more glasses of red wine he was oozing charm again. I have a hazy recollection that he invited Paolo, the most peaceful of men, to “step outside” during a disagreement about pasta. But I still believe that he was fundamentally a very nice man.
Another celebrity chef, from across the water, demonstrated a truly remarkable capacity for the booze (and, we suspected, other substances too). All the same, he got through the proceedings with a kind of grim determination and, in the circumstances, a lot of style. After the show, we all adjourned to a quiet country pub in deepest Westmeath where our friend, pint in hand, suddenly passed out at the bar, hitting the floor with a mighty crash. His other half was heard to mutter "Oh Lord. Not again."
There's always a niggling worry that the guest critic might be the strong silent type. This proved to be the case on only one occasion when we were joined by Anthony Worall-Thompson who was going through a particularly grumpy patch (and I should add that he is utterly charming and chatty these days). Getting much out of him required Herculean effort but when the guest chef appeared at the end of the evening, and turned out to be young, female and very pretty, he wouldn't recovered his verbal facility.
On another occasion, much of the evening was taken up with Paolo and Gary Rhodes passionately discussing Strictly Come Dancing, a subject about which I know nothing. I had to act as referee.
There's no doubt about it: five stars means a hugely impressive performance. Even in the early days, during the first two or three series, when we were a bit generous with our threes and fours, five was a real achievement. The first guest chef to reach this level was Tracy Piggott who started off by choosing superb raw materials (particularly wild salmon and dry-aged beef) and then did very little to them. That kind of confidence is what marks out someone who really understands food.
Confidence in itself is not enough. Some of the worst meals have been created by people who breezed into the kitchen bursting with belief in their culinary abilities. Actually, the two very worst meals suffered in this was, I believe.
Mind you, a brass neck can get you five stars. For example, if you get a Michelin starred chef to teach you how to cook a menu and you stick to it like a limpet. I'm thinking of the lovely and charming Amanda Brunker and I take off my hat to her.
Very bossy guest chefs tend to do well. Gardener Dermot O'Neill, who drove the kitchen team to distraction with his insistence that everybody just shut up and do it his way, is perhaps the most impressive example. But it worked brilliantly. And Dermot was one of only two guest chef whose identity I managed to guess. The reason? There was a lot of his garden on the plates.
When we have a stab at saying who is in the kitchen, we get it wildly wrong. But we also have a long and undistingusihed record of getting even their sex wrong. For some reason, very large, masculine men can come across as quite girly on the plate. For example, we had both Gerald Kean and Tom McGurk put down as dainty little females.
The best memories? Well, one of the best things I've eaten on The Restaurant was Ray Darcy's smoked haddock with black pudding and poached egg. Unfortunately his starters were dire, so he only managed three stars. There's a cautionary tale. Kevin Myers' oxtail and kidney pudding was another magnificent milestone, Gillian Bowler's orange jelly lives in memory after several years and Kate O'Toole's salad of fresh figs and Irish air-cured beef is something I want to cook myself. Norah Casey’s bravely fabulous licquorice ice cream (for which I want the recipe) was stunning. Somebody else did Vietnamese rice paper rolls – I can’t rember who – and I asked for seconds.
On the other hand, I can still taste that deep-fried ham sandwich...sorry, beignet. And what Enda Kenny did to an innocent Moy salmon. But that’s another story.