Friday, 21 July 2017

Massimo at Osteria Francescana, Modena



The Robinsons watched Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ few days ago. It was very interesting in parts. Very. What was particularly interesting was watching the episode on Massimo Bottura, an Italian born chef, working in Modena. There he is head chef for his restaurant called Osteria Francescana.

This restaurant was, during the early stages of its existence, so quiet that it sometimes fed no one. It now has three Michelin stars and is, as expected, fully booked for months. This is despite its home being a small and extremely traditional Italian village. Now, most will assume that it being in a small and traditional village is a challenge to its success because it is out of the way and populated with the non-cognoscenti one expects to find in rural areas. But, in fact, the reason why it is a wonder that it exists despite its surroundings is because the people of Modena, for a very long time after the opening of it, judged its extravagant and lawless reproduction of traditional Italian cuisine as unacceptable. What were those splotches, broken pastries and strange compositions which only remotely represented what they were used to eating? From where the audacity to mess with what has been firmly established and is, evidently, the food people have grown up on?

Of course, the Netflix ‘Chef’s Table’ sings the praises of Massimo’s self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision; one which flies in the face of tradition. The Glenwood Restaurant too sings his praises for his self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision. But we do not share his actual vision. We found ourselves strangely siding with tradition – with the people of Modena and not with the bedazzled Milanese making their way to Osteria Francescana to eat deconstructed tortellini en brodo. We found ourselves very sympathetic to the fact that there should be ten tortellini for every mouthful and not six marching on a piece of slate towards something which merely represents the brodo. Call us old fashioned, but we think the people of Modena have been robbed.

There are indeed many, many traditions which must go. Such as expensive wedding dresses and American movies with a Christmas theme. But do not mess with tortellini en brodo. Nor with lemon tart. So, if The Glenwood Restaurant ever closes its doors due to a lack of comprehension it will be because the supposed cognoscenti are looking for pieces of slate carrying food that looks like Jackson Pollock paintings (note, we are fans of Pollock paintings when done in oils on canvas). Such food, for good reason, will never, ever be found across our threshold.

Nevertheless, we genuinely love Massimo for his commitment to, and revelry in, cooking. Also for his evident skill. But we looked in wonderment, with much real entertainment and with not just a little horror at what emerges from his kitchen. Viva la cuisine!


Saturday, 24 June 2017

How to make risotto nero. Or, once more, unto the breach.


How does one make risotto nero? It depends on where it is being made. Cooking risotto nero can either be done in an hour holding a glass of wine, or it can take many days, as part of a violent battle. Cooking it in a restaurant makes it akin to waging war.

We know very little about each other’s professions. And why should we know more? We are, naturally, more interested in ourselves than in others. Some of us, however, have created a little soapbox to speak from. Here is that soapbox, and this is that speech. It is the speech that answers what it takes to make very simple, good food for restaurant patrons. It takes much, much more than what most people think. Any person who actually cooks, and by this we mean a person who takes in hand stuff that grows, walks, swims and flies, knows that to produce a plate of food which is good, even if it has seemingly only one thing on it, often requires many steps. Sometimes, but not always, it also requires a lot of time. But to make good food in a restaurant is never a case of combining pre-existing ready-made components in novel, or not novel, ways. Good food does not manifest from dabs of this, slices of those or splashes of that unless the dabs, slices and splashes were first made under a very watchful eye.

These steps include finding the raw ingredients. Thus, much time is spent holding a phone with a chin speaking to the butcher, the baker, farmers and grocers whilst bringing to the boil two or three stocks. Lists, which have been written at the end of the previous night’s service, over a glass of wine while high on adrenaline, are now studied and soberly executed. These lists are based on what has been used up and needs to be replaced – and this depends also on what will change on the menu that day and what remains the same. So the list is not simply a ‘stock’ take, it involves menu planning at the same time.

Any restaurant which actually engages real cooking, and The Glenwood Restaurant is sadly one of only a few in Durban, will have such lists. At The Glenwood Restaurant this includes instructions to make certain types of pasta doughs – things like herb tagliatelle, linguini, mezzaluna – butter, ricotta, tart pastries, butchering, poaching and reducing. Whilst three people attend to these lists as from 8 am, the head chef, if he is also the owner, will meet with managers, work out the cost of goods, determine the margins, look for better suppliers of better ingredients and fire bad ones. In the afternoons, wines must be tasted, wine lists updated to remain in keeping with the menu and the general ethos of the particular restaurant. This includes the decisions which have been made around the pricing of items on the menu. In short, a day running and cooking for even a small restaurant, which offers a certain type of menu, is a fourteen hour non-stop affair, if one is lucky.

This is certainly not a complaint. This type of work is self-inflicted, of course. And it is chosen as an occupation by people of a certain type. Given the chances of receiving criticism on a daily basis, because food and eating is a very emotional thing for most of us, often whilst under pressure and barking orders at others, makes for a nerve wracking work day. Like actors, cooks, have tomatoes thrown at them. As they should have. No, kitchens are not pretty. They are stages, bared to scrutiny. One either becomes an actor, soldier or a cook. Turning on the first flames and sharpening your knives when the sun has just risen, so as to feed people when the sun sets, is a case of ‘unto the breach, once more’. And the battle is won in systematic layers; each, time consuming and, all, indispensable. That is how one makes risotto nero with squid tentacles and mussels. It has very little to do with the tentacles and mussels, except that someone must be certain that they are very, very fresh. But it really starts early in the morning with a good stock and ends, before plating, with copious amounts of hand-made butter.

Important notices:

The Glenwood Restaurant now serves lunch all week, from 12 am to 3 pm, in the form of a harvest table. We are making beautiful salads, tarts and warm dishes. You may help yourself to what you want. Take-aways are possible. Weekend lunches, and all dinners (Wednesday to Saturday) remain menu based, as they always have been.

The Glenwood Bakery now serves breakfast all day.  

Thursday, 8 June 2017

I love you, Thomas Mann.



I have recently discovered Thomas Mann. I am not sure how I would have turned out had I discovered Mann in my youth. But there is no doubt that my character would have been significantly, and permanently, altered on reading his work. Even after just two novels.

I first read The confessions of Felix Krull, confidence man. And then I read The Holy Sinner. Presently, for me, if a novel cannot make me laugh out loud – preferably bitterly – it is doomed at the outset. Profundity, as a rule, is ruled out. If, however, profundity, is an absolute must for the author, it should present itself properly armed with satire, or it should invoke personal embarrassment in the reader, or it should make you want to meet the author and spend a whole night holding them very tightly. When it does all three, whilst firmly prohibiting any saccharin and exalted delusions of wisdom in the reader, it is safe to call the author a genius. Thomas Mann is such a genius.

He manages to consistently make me feel as if he has seen humanity naked, finds it often wanting and just as often beautiful, but never commits himself to an opinion. But this lack of commitment does not take the same form as J. M. Coetzee’s refusal to offer a moral exemplar. It is not nearly as self-consciously detached and objective (please note, I am a fan of Coetzee’s too). Unlike Coetzee, Mann often comments through his narrators. He judges, he approves, he fears for them, he puts his reader at ease about them. But his narrators (at least, in these two novels) are themselves characters like confidence men or Catholic monks. Objectivity is thus instantly thwarted. What I have loved about them both, the confidence man narrating himself into existence and the monk narrating a very holy man, is that through their respective biases there is a sort of fictionally tempered objectivity. I suspect Mann’s reasonableness, his clarity about people, is simply a feature beyond his control. He cannot help but see things like they are. His humour is surely an extension of this reason.

But, granted, love is blind. And I am in love with Thomas Mann. How is one when one is in love with Thomas Mann? You first tread carefully to see if it is appropriate to express this love. One does not simply fall at his feet. That would be madness. A path to self-ruin. If one wants the love to be reciprocated (figuratively, of course), one investigates, plans and then approaches head on. To love Thomas Mann is to approach confidently, but be ready to retreat should his gaze begin to, as they say, ‘go right through’. That would make one invisible – the death knell to a hopeful lover. Unless one’s flaws are interesting, sophisticated and even glamorous – in the broadest sense of the word – one should rather simply be Mann-perfect. Either way, it is very evident to me that what he wants from his lover is a person who is able to temporarily bend the path of his gaze. I’ll probably never be ready, but I will declare it in this very, very private place: I love you, Thomas Mann. Also for your politics. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The meaning of a white table cloth



What does the object, a white table cloth, mean? What does it symbolise, conjure up or denote? In terms of denotation, of course, a white table cloth is a white table cloth. Since there are no words involved here, the thing denotes itself. But what it conjures up and symbolises is as varied as the cultural milieus in which this item might be put to use. It is as complex as the societies which eat from its pressed linen surfaces. There are those who flagrantly spill wine on it, those who revere it, those who regard it as an indication of their excellent choice in eating place or those who regard it as an artefact, minimally, required for civilised eating. Does the reader find this hard to believe; the claim that white table cloths mean different things to different people? Can anything be a more unassuming object than a plain of white cloth? Bear with me.

Whilst making my case about white table cloths I would like the reader to extrapolate the moral expounded here to other physical features of eating places; such as tables (with or without white table cloths) set up with wine glasses and cutlery, the absence of brightly coloured menus with seasonal, uplifting messages on them, waiters in black and white, cut flowers, cloth napkins and many more. All these features, these moments of creating an identity for an eating place, have the potential for meaning different things to different people. Sometimes, they evidently mean different things to the Patrons and the owners.

In France something called a bistro or even a café can have starched white table cloths and waiters dressed in black and white. And that is not because a café in France is like a posh restaurant in South Africa. Cafés in France are what they say they are; places where people drink coffee during the day and have light meals, and perhaps a glass of wine. To eat in a café in France is to not plan one’s outfit, gather a group of friends and secure a booking. It is a place where one arrives, perhaps, in the middle of a working day, asks for a sandwich, pastry or bowl of soup and have that, perhaps, alone over a white table cloth served by a waiter dressed in black and white. One might do so in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Why is this? Why are the French not intimidated by the same things that we see as formal and demanding? I am not sure. Perhaps it was their revolution that changed things. This is not the seminal question though. The point is simply to show that white table cloths and other artefacts, mean different things in different contexts.


To others a white table cloth, or tables set with wine glasses, or cloth napkins means a show.  A show of pomp and ceremony; of finery and formality. But my suggestion is that to think of a white table cloth – and any of the other artefacts mentioned – as necessarily signifying formality is either a sad petit bourgeois hangover or it is an unresolved childhood fear of bed linen and going to sleep at night. White table cloths, wine glasses, rows of cutlery, cut flowers are beautiful, and beauty is supposed to bring succour to the artistic soul, the unconstrained soul, in pursuit of finer things. This is surely the only way to think of such things. Beyond social demarcations and etiquette – into a meritocratic world. A world where a beautifully arranged space can simply be there to form a backdrop to a quick bowl of soup and a glass of wine.