Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sizzle or a new sausage?

I love a bit of car crash television and my taste was rewarded hugely last night by the first episode of Channel 4's Big Chef takes on Little Chef which pitched Heston Blumenthal, he of Fat Duck fame into that twilight world that is Little Chef.
Never has a chef's concept of great British food been so mismatched with an audience whose sole intention in walking through Little Chef's doors is to have a close encounter with a coronary on a plate.
Blumenthal's known for his scientific approach to food. Dishes take years to perfect, and a trip through the tasting menu at his three Michelin starred restaurant in Bray will set you back £122...per person.
In the other corner sat Ian Pegler, a failed B&B owner in his time, but a success at Dixons, M&S and, back under the Fortes, Little Chef. Pegler's focus is on delivering fast roadside food for as little cost as possible but has a vision of returning Little Chef to its status as the nation's favourite family diner - much as it was back in the 1970s when my dad would take my sister and I to one of their locations as a treat. The chips used to be great and the strawberry milkshakes a dream.
A decade ago when I worked for Forte, Little Chef was in the same stable, and I'd often break my journeys between our hotels to grab an Olympic Breakfast for lunch - especially as I got 50% discount!
But I haven't been in a Little Chef for years. They're dated and pretty grotty now; the standard of food has declined and most I pass look on their last legs. Blumenthal found that too.
Pegler clearly wanted good PR - the 'sizzle on the sausage' - a high-impact low-cost solution that would introduce new Blumenthalesque dishes without the need to change a style of cooking reliant on microwaves and a hot plate. Blumenthal's response was to suggest that he replace the sausage.....and everything else on the menu......and the pan-free kitchens too.
As HB put together a taster menu, the audience was definitely meant to be on the side of the celebrity chef. But as he put his ideas into practice, the programme delivered another delicious twist. Blumenthal's recipes for scrambled egg with salmon and an infusion of tea; lamb hot pot with oyster and chocolate orange sorbet with a chemically-induced mist did just that with the Little Chef clientele....they missed. Coupled with 'poncy' table cloths and gratingly arrogant chefs, his initial creations were so wide of the mark for the average Little Chef punter that you almost expected to find them sat on the opposite carriageway.
Pegler, the money-man did himself few favours either, refusing to discuss profit margins, staff wage bills and operating costs - making Blumenthal's task in creating a new, cost-efficient menu rather like fighting Joe Frazier with one hand tied behind your back.
The programme picks up tonight, and it'll be interesting to see if either protagonist has learned his lesson. Blumenthal needs to realise quickly that it takes a lot to wean the average Brit from his double sausage egg and chips, while Pegler has to wake up to the fact that he has pared costs past the bone and that he'll have no business to relaunch if he doesn't bring up food quality and service standards soon.
Given that this is TV, it'll probably all have a happy (eater) ending when the series concludes tomorrow -but last night's offering was a true British classic.
It's just a shame that the motorway services aren't still under the same business umbrella - then we could have had Heston takes on Heston!

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