GastroChick I’m Back
Sunday April 01st 2007, 11:30 am
Filed under: Food in London

Hi everyone I’m back. After a long sabbatical from the blogging world I’ve decided to resume my blog from where I left off, albeit sporadically, to recount my recent forays into the world of food and restaurants.

So, you might be asking where have you been? Well to cut a long story short I’ve been studying for a food and wine diploma at Leith’s, a prominent cookery school which has seen the likes of Henry Harris, from Racine through it’s hallowed doors. I don’t think I’ll be hailed as the next culinary sensation to hit the London scene, however, over the past six months I’ve learnt an immense amount some of which I will share with you.

The first thing that you learn when embarking on a professional cookery course is that you can’t actually cook. Cast aside any delusions that you might have held prior to starting because they will quickly and harshly be knocked down. For any home cook these words will sound ominous, however for someone embarking into the world of professional cooking it appears to be a right of passage.

The diploma, which runs Monday to Friday, 9-5, for approximately 9 months, is an intensive course which equips students with the necessary skills to enter the culinary world. However, despite the practical skills learnt few go on to become chefs working in professional kitchen. There are a couple of reasons for this, the age of the students which ranges from 18-60, many are career changers who are not prepared to work the torturous hours with little pay demanded in the initial stages of chef-ing. Another factor might be that many of the students are women who sometimes feel out of sorts working in the predominantly male environment of a kitchen.

I myself fit neatly into both categories and can honestly say that the world of chef-dom is not beckoning. At this stage, I am just about to enter the advanced term, so still have a little time to decide what the future might hold for me in terms of my culinary career.

At the moment I’m taking a well deserved break for Easter so have a little time on my hands to recount some of my recent experiences. I would be interested in answering any culinary questions that you might have, not that I am an expert or anything (yet!) however the Leith’s methods are somewhat foolproof and I would be more than happy to talk you through them.

GastroChick Dirty Sugar Cookies
Tuesday June 20th 2006, 7:46 pm
Filed under: Food in New York

dirty sugar cookiesSorry to all for my brief departure from the blogging world. However I’m back to participate in Ayun Halliday’s virtual book tour. Rather than schlepping around the globe Ayun made the wise and novel decision to enlist the help of the blogging community to promote her excellent new book,‘Dirty Sugar Cookies’.

‘Dirty Sugar Cookies’ is Ayun’s hilarious and sometimes moving food memoir that charts her personal journey from self -confessed picky eater (eschewing her mother’s gourmet delights in favour of Pop-Tarts and Grape Fanta) to bona-fide foodie.

I got the chance to catch up with Ayun, over the net, and quizzed her about her motivation for writing such a food-centric autobiography and in the process also discovered that she is an unexpected supporter of the much maligned Durian fruit.

GC: What motivated you to write a memoir that largely centres on food?
AH: I’ve had the good fortune to have Leslie Miller as editor on all four
of my self-mocking autobiographies and I knew this was a subject dear
to her heart because she’d also initiated and edited an anthology that
I contributed to called Women Who Eat. When that book rolled off the press, I was surprised and a little embarrassed that all the other authors had tackled the subject of food head on, while I concentrated on describing this great restaurant where I once worked, and what a
crappy waitress I had been. So, I guess this was my chance to redeem

Food is also more of a universal subject than some of my other passionate interests, like low-budget theater, or pirates or dressing up for the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, so there’s a chance it will appeal to a wider audience. It’s always a bonus when a smaller press publishes a book that proves evergreen. If you could publish a book about Angelina Jolie’s Cesarean section in the next five minutes, you’d find yourself with a best seller, but that thing’s shelf life would be shorter than an unrefrigerated boysenberry’s.

GC: The Betty Crocker cookbook features heavily in your childhood, do you still prepare recipes from it?
AH: Oh HELL no! I thought maybe I’d make the Bunny Salad for my kids, but before I could, we ran out of fresh produce, so in desperation, I
cracked open the canned pears I had bought for this purpose. The kids
were like, “No offense, but is it okay if we don’t finish these things?
We tried a bite.” I was kind of pissed, because canned pears had been
one of the few things I did like as a child, but I have to admit, it was a labor saved.

GC: Do you think that your mother’s appreciation for gourmet food rubbed off on you in any way despite being a self-confessed fussy eater as a child and ultimately refusing to eat most of what she cooked?
AH: Most definitely. Even when I didn’t like to eat, I liked to pretend
that I was cooking. My grandmother and I used to take colored pencils
to the inside of oyster shells, which we would then line up on a patio bench as if they were the items on display at a cafeteria. And I also had this book called Mud Pies and Other Recipes: A Cookbook For Dolls, with these totally compelling, pen and ink drawings of stuffed bears and these creepy looking dolls dining on sawdust and leaves. I remember once, I went outside to play on this raw, early spring day and my mother’s only condition was that I not turn on the hose, but of course I turned on the hose, because of course, that was a requirement of the recipe.

GC: In the book you describe an incident that inspired such wrath that you considered ramming a doll down your friend Darla’s throat as a result of eyeing up her Enchanted Castle birthday cake. Is food envy a condition that still afflicts you?
AH: Well, with Darla, it wasn’t so much food envy, as material envy. To my eyes, that elaborate, much fantasized about cake was just one more fancy thing that she had done nothing to deserve, but had been given all the same. Sometimes I feel that way when I go to some celebrated restaurant that I’ve heard about for years, and it’s full of people who
think nothing of eating there every day and totally take it for granted and order $20 dollar entrees for their two-year-olds. My husband used to have a very lowly job scouting locations for a popular television show that shoots in New York, and every day, the director and the
producers and the location manager would expense account these incredible meals. Every once in a great while, Greg would do something to distinguish himself in some wow-you-really-saved-our-asses-this-time way, and they would reward him by inviting him to join them for lunch. After which I would pump him for every single detail. What did you order? What did everybody else order? Did you get dessert? Did everybody get dessert?

GC: Do you still pine for pop-tarts and grape Fanta or do you think your palate has become more refined after living in New York and extensive traveling?
AH: I’ve branched out, but every now and then, I have an unindulged
hankering for a cinnamon frosted Pop-Tart. Once I bought my kids a
health food store version - unfrosted of course. They hated them, as
did I, but that didn’t stop me from eating the whole box. Wouldn’t want
to see food go to waste, not if I paid for it, anyway.

GC: I was interested to see a mention of the dreaded durian in your memoirs. I sampled it for the first time on a trip to Malaysia last year and actually rather enjoyed it. However my husband retches at the sight and more specifically the smell of it despite being from Asian descent. Why do you think this fruit inspires so much mixed opinion?
AH: Possibly because it smells like a soiled diaper? Its legend definitely
precedes it, as far as traveling Westerners are concerned. The first I
heard of it was when I was reading Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a
shoe-string guidebook in preparation for a trip I made in 1989. The
editors noted that Singapore’s elegant Raffles Hotel had banned durian
from its the lobby, it’s odor was so offensive. I should add that the
Raffles did not permit hairy, Birkenstocked backpackers like me in
their lobby, either. I actually wrote about the moment where I got to taste some in Job Hopper - I think it tastes like sweetened cream cheese! I love it! But I’ve never felt compelled to haul one home from Chinatown.

GC: What is the most unusual dish you have ever consumed and did you ultimately enjoy it?
AH: Good lord, that’s a good question, but I’m not sure I can supply a
definitive answer. Once I inadvertently ordered a bowl of offal in Nha
Trang. The menu was a little vague. Not wanting to give offense, I ate
it all. The cook had served it in some sort of lemongrass broth. It
wasn’t awful (rimshot!) but I probably would have preferred it, had it
been prepared by a four-star French chef in Paris in 1942, when
hardship dictated that nothing be wasted.

GC: As a convert to vegetarianism do you ever secretly hanker after meat?
AH: No, just butcher’s refuse. Of course, I do, and not so secretly,
either. It’s the way most meat is raised and slaughtered in our country
that I object to, not the taste!

GC: Do you hope eventually that your daughter, once freed from the
shackles of picky eating syndrome, will share your culinary

AH: It’s what I’m wishing for, if I ever manage to get the damn genie out of this lamp.

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GastroChick Day 1 – Coastal Drive from Malaga to Estepona and onwards to Gaucin
Tuesday May 30th 2006, 4:39 pm
Filed under: Food in Spain

Finally back from my wonderfully relaxing but maddeningly frustrating food week in Gaucin. I would love to be able to entertain you with stories of eating in local, out of the way places, frequented by Spaniards enjoying simple regional food. Alas this was not the case, instead I felt like I had stumbled onto the long lost set of Eldorado (a dreadful soap opera about a bunch of British expats in Spain)

Anywhere, within reasonable driving distance of the Costa Del Sol or Malaga, it pains me to say, is unashamedly overrun with Brits. On the coastal drive from the airport I took in one tragic sight after the other – high rise timeshares, fish and chippies, fast food outlets. It wasn’t until we’d reached Estepona, a small seaside resort, that I finally felt like we were in foreign country. Famished we parked the hire car and strolled along the seafront in search of somewhere to eat. Unfortunately our random restaurant choice was a bit of a shocker, frozen vegetables, gritty prawns and leathery pork didn’t endear us to the place and we made a hasty retreat to the Carrefour, the local supermarket, in order to stock up with same basic provisions for the week. Pictured below is the quite astounding selection of ham on offer.

esteponaf The Spaniards must have a real love of pork because half the supermarket was devoted to it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different types of chorizo or pork products.

Onwards to Gaucin the scenery dramatically changed and with it my spirits were lifted. Undulating green countryside, windy roads with steep drops were a welcome contrast to the tacky sights witnessed along the coast. Climbing further and further up steep hills I secretly prayed that the remoteness would deter only the most foolhardy tourists and as a consequence we might after all sample an authentic taste of Spanish life. Finally we reached our destination, Gaucin, a gleaming white village, with our cottage situated a couple of hundred metres down a dirt track.

This pictures, taken from our balcony, gives you some indication of how beautiful the surrounding countryside is. It provided the perfect spot for a week of relaxation.

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