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”.
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...