Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Whiner Diner

Heston BlumenthalApologies to my international readers (oh what a thrill to be able to say that) who won’t have seen the relevant programme but I’m greatly enjoying “Big Chef Takes On Little Chef” at the moment.

I don’t usually go overboard on cooking / food TV shows (unless they feature Nigella Lawson’s oscillating bosom as she hand whisks a soufflé) but this particular outing has reeled me in hook, line and sinker.

For those of you that don’t know, celebrity chef of international renown, Heston Blumenthal, has been engaged by the big boss of Little Chef to revitalize the company’s ailing fortunes by souping up (ahem) the old hackneyed menu and injecting a bit of dynamism into their geriatric “business model”.

Hmm.

Apparently, in its heyday, Little Chef was a motorway restaurant of world class reputation.

??!

Yes. I was surprised by this revelation too as, even in my childhood, Little Chef was only ever viewed as a toilet stop of the very last resort on long motorway journeys rather than as a place in which the human body could be effectively nourished – and, to be honest, you had to be faced with some pretty scummy hedgerows and embankments to prefer the dubious environs of the Little Chef latrine to spraying the contents of your bladder over the passing wildlife.

But I digress. The Little Chef boss – a man both improbably vacant and impossibly conniving whose name I have deliberately forgotten (let’s just call him David Brent) – has drafted in Heston to “blue sky think” his company back onto the fast track to fame, fortune and Michelin starred glory. Mr Brent – let’s not think of him as a company director, more of a chilled food entertainer – wants pizzazz; he wants culinary extravaganza, he wants the wild, the wacky and the wonderful. He wants some of the “out there” experimentation that has put Heston’s own restaurant – The Fat Duck – onto the global map. And he wants it all for under £10 a head in a greasy motorway restaurant who’s kitchen equipment doesn’t extend beyond a griddle and a microwave and staff who have no idea how to operate a saucepan (“where’s the effing button to turn it on?”).

Mr Brent’s utopian vision of culinary excellence ran into one or two fundamental obstacles right from the start.

1) The “out there” experimentation at The Fat Duck costs punters approximately £250 a head (to quote an unabashed Heston) which is a little out of the price range of the average Little Chef punter...

2) Heston did what Mr Brent should have done, i.e. some real actual market research which quickly confirmed what was bleeding obvious to everybody from day one: Little Chef customers don’t want to be chowing down on snail porridge or beef hotpot with oysters floating around in it. They want the legendary Olympic Breakfast. They want ice cream that’s cheap and cheerful. They want fish fingers and chips that look like fish fingers and chips. And they want baked beans with everything.

Heston, to his credit, realized immediately that his normal fare would never be acceptable in the kind of establishment that Little Chef epitomizes and reined in his humungously large creative flare to come up with stuff that was far more suitable and appropriate, i.e. ideas that stood a chance of actually being implemented by the socially lobotomized staff on the front line.

Good ingredients, fresh and nutritious, cooked well and served fast. Shazam!

The basics of any successful restaurant business surely?

Mr Brent didn’t seem to get it though. He was disappointed with Heston’s ideas. In fact he rather insultingly told him that “any celebrity chef could have come up with such a menu”. Cheeky get.

I won’t go on. Suffice to say that it is surprisingly addictive viewing: Heston trying to maintain his integrity in the face of political manoeuvring behind closed doors (and frequently off-camera) and soldiering on in the slow-dawning knowledge that the Little Chef upper echelons are merely using him as a marketing ploy without any real commitment to re-branding their product. And Mr Brent’s constant media speak and blue sky malapropisms.

The show highlights where the problem lies with most ailing businesses these days. Forget the Credit Crunch, the fault lies in the fact that they are invariably run by sad little egotists who are accountable to nobody but their own shareholders and who are obstinately out of touch with what their customers really want.

It’s no wonder that so many of them are going to the dogs.

And I have to say, the hedgerows of the M40 are looking better by the minute...

14 comments:

Reluctant Blogger said...

It is a very long time since I have stopped at a Little Chef but I did regularly stop at the one at Elkesley on the A1 for several years.

The food was OK (yes, I had the breakfast - was it really Olympic?) but it was the time that it took to arrive which finally made me stop going there. And I think it got a bit pricey too - but this was a long time ago (early 1990s). Oh and the toilets were always stinky.

I'm afraid I haven't watched the programme though.

Steve said...

Gina, stinky toilets and slow food is a bad combination in anyone's book... alas the toilet facilities are a little outside of Heston's remit but I'm sure he'd give it a go if asked!

Sweet Cheeks said...

I agree, no one cares what Nigella cooks, they just want to see her boobs...
'Big Chef Takes On Little Chef'.
I admit I was excited by the name of the show. I pictured a rather tall, fork brandishing chef engaged in sword play with a short, spoon wielding chef...but it turns out it's just all about cooking...darn!

Steve said...

The third part is being shown tonight, Sweet Cheeks, so there is still time for the culinary fencing to deteriorate into something far more violent and physical involving carving knives, garlic crushers and Heston's Kenwood... now that's a contest I'd pay to see.

Maybe Nigella will come in and hold up boards with numbers on at the start of each round? Not that anyone will be looking at the boards, of course...

Either way it's all good.

Captain Smack said...

I think that the key to success for any restaurant is to make sure that the salad bowls are big enough so that one can actually stir in their dressing without causing salad to spill over the edge.

Ok, maybe there's more to it than that, but that really annoys me.

Lucy Fishwife said...

It's the first TV programme I've watched in ages where I was actually SHOUTING at the TV - God you're right, Ian Pegler (name and shame, I say) was the David Brent to end all David Brents. Heston food at motorway prices?? What "blue sky" planet "outside the box" is he living on??????? No wonder Little Chef was going down the toilet. And when Heston said that being called poncey made him feel like he'd been punched in the stomach I nearly cried, sad git that I am. I make no secret, even to Mr Fishwife, of my deep and abiding love for the totally endearing Heston - the kind of man who would jump up and down and say "awesome!!!" about agar gel, capsaicin and the obscure works of Harold Mcgee. And to call what he does "poncey" is to miss the point - he doesn't do it to be poncey, he does it for the love of boffinhood and Space Dust cocktails. And I have to say I think the singing toilets were genius, and far better than Little Chef deserved...

Lucy Fishwife said...

PS - Feel free to return my Davina comments to me, substituting the name "Heston" throughout.

EmmaK said...

Yeah I'm sorry mate, I'm an international reader and this is going over my head.

Do you think Nigella would ever be persuaded to be in an art house movie, semi clad or nude in silhouette, playing about with various courgettes and blobs of cream? I know I have just gone straight to the core of your favorite fantasy haven't I?

Steve said...

Captain Smack, nope, that about covers it all in my book. See, running a good restaurant is dead easy. I'm amazed these celebrity chef's mess it up so much.

Lucy, glad we're in total agreement. And by the way, you luuuuurve Heston, you do, you luuuuuuurve him! ;-)

Emma, you've missed out an essential scene involving chocolate spread and a warm spatula but other than that you're right on the ball(s)...!

Brother Tobias said...

I'm going to seem like a complete an utter philistine here. Quite right, so I am. But one of the joys of an annual thrash up the A1 was a Little Chef all-day breakfast. With fried bread and a shortened lifespan. The sort of thing the SS never allows. And Heston's courses were creeping up to the 15 quid mark, which is £60 for a family of four. Looks like it's going to be pasties in Lockerbie again this year.
I loved the programme though.

Steve said...

There's nowt wrong with a good pastie, Brother T, and all attempts at culinary snobbishness aside, I must confess that I do, with surprising regularity, desire and acquire a fry up of heart attack proportions. One of life's little treats...

Steve said...

Lucy, forgot to say: I loved the musical loos too... though wish the track had been "I'm a lumberjack and I'm alright..."

Lucy Fishwife said...

Or "It's Raining Men" except with a comma - "It's Raining, Men"...
PS You luuuuurve Davina, you luuuuurve her

Steve said...

I do, Lucy, I do but alas I doubt she luuurves me. Do you think we should all go out on a foursome - you, me, Davina and Heston? Bet the food would be ace and Davina could entertain us with her post-CBB cute gurning...