Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)


Chapter Seventeen 

Off to Norfolk & Book 3

It seemed a logical break point to me, I like to take opportunities as they come along, they often don’t come along again. Take sometime writing the new book while also working on content for The Repertoire and start looking at setting up a consultancy at the same time, what could possibly go wrong?

We needed somewhere to live though. Shaun suggested we move up to Norfolk, where he was now based. I have never been to Norfolk before so there was another first for us. I did an exploratory run with Shaun as a guide and had a look at some properties. I arranged to see an old farmhouse that was for rent up in North Norfolk, in a little village called Wickmere, well off the beaten track about 8 miles inland from Cromer and Sheringham, 4 miles east of the beautiful town of Holt. It took us ages to find the house, back then, not sure if it’s still the same but the road signs rarely pointed to the right places so it was a bit of a lottery finding places, pre sat nav too. During the war all the signposts in Norfolk were changed to point in the wrong direction in order to fool the Germans should they ever land! They just never got changed back! We found the right place in the end though and how fabulous it was. it wasn’t the prettiest of farmhouses but it was three bedroom with two reception rooms, a separate garage and a shed, it also had an open sided Dutch barn and over an acre of ground!

Our House in Norfolk

The garden was lovely and it had apple trees, a plum tree and a pear tree, appropriately it was also called Pear Tree Farmhouse and I loved it, I say I, Jane like where it was but was less keen on the house than me, I still believe it was the best place we have ever lived! I loved living in Kent but this was something else.

Our immediate neighbour, behind us with our field between us was Peter, a real Norfolk character if ever there was one but more about him later. His house was he nearest of a pair of council houses, in the other lived a couple we hardly ever saw, then next to them a newish house which belonged to the farmer whose land was all around us.

This was definitely the house for us, or me at least! As I was leaving The Boathouse a bit short I offered to stay on 2 days a week till they got themselves sorted. Shaun helped us move up and once we were in I went back to Hythe every Friday and came home again on the Sunday. Besides helping them out it also helped my finances too so it was good for all, except that was for the drive home on a Sunday, the traffic was always mega. 

It must have been mid 1998 by now, we were fully ensconced in Norfolk, I still had a book to write, or at least finish off as I had started it before moving up. I stopped going down to Southampton and spent more time working on the book with Shaun’s help. Both Shaun and I got stuck into working on The Repertoire too, he had teamed up with a wine merchant Hall Batson and was using their offices to work from. This worked okay as I could do a lot from home but Shaun was better off in the office as he had two very young daughters at home to distract him. The other issue of course was money, okay – just about – when I was going to Hythe each week but that only lasted about month. Shaun was getting some money from the wine merchant as I think he was working on their web site and I.T.

When I got the contract to write this new fish book the publishers said they would withdraw the first one from publication so it did not compete with the new one. The first Feast of Fish was on the shelves for a total of 12 years which wasn’t half bad so I had high hopes for this one too.

Shaun had a lot more brass neck than me and he got my main ingredients sponsored by a fishmonger in Norwich for a mention in the book, so Gary Howard of Howards in Norwich, not sure if you are still going but this is now a 2nd mention for your invaluable help with A Feast of Fish 2. I also credit Peter Tibbetts in the book for the encouragement he has given me over the years and his unwavering belief in me, I’m not even sure if he is aware he’s mentioned, thank you once again Mr Tibbetts you’re a star!

Once again, I turned to Martin Brigdale for the photography for my third book which was to be called A Feast of Fish 2. Again, Martin came up trumps the only difference this time around is that Shaun came  to the studios too and helped with the photography. The majority of the dishes in this book were from the menus of The Boathouse and this time around I aimed the book more at the public rather than Chefs. Unfortunately, I think it was perceived as a reprint of book one and not a new book in its own right. this was down to a clever designer being too clever, meaning no-one really got the meaning from the book cover. As I say it was to be called A Feast of Fish 2 but instead of the number two being present as either a digit or written out in letters it appeared as two fish tails (sea bass) and the subtlety was lost on most and as a result it did not sell as well as it should have done or was expected to do. 

A Feast of Fish 2

This was published in 1999, I did the usual book tour but this time it was not so extensive as it was with book one, not entirely sure why that was either. This time round Anton Edlemann wrote the introduction which was very nice of him but the book did not sell nearly as well as the first one or as well as Poultry & Game for that matter. As I say I can partly put that down to the obscure reference to it being a 2nd fish book rather than just book one with a new cover but I can’t place all the blame on that, some of the blame for it not selling well had to be because I no longer had anywhere to hang my hat as it were. I could not be/was not connected to an establishment. Shortly after it’s publication I was asked by the Norfolk magazine to write an article on my thoughts about fish, how it was perceived, why fish had never been as popular as meat, the state of the fishing industry and fish stocks etc, which helped sales slightly but not so’s you’d notice, also I now didn’t have an audience which to sell copies to either, that is I no longer had a restaurant to sell the book to my customers. 

In March of 1999 about 6 months before the book was published Shaun and I, through a contact of his, were invited over to New York to cook a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner at the James Beard Foundation in Manhattan, an opportunity not to refuse. I think the contact was an Irish Whisky supplier. The Dinner was to take place on the 17th March, but! And there was a BIG “but”. The 16th March 1999 was actually my 25th wedding anniversary, no way I could miss that without a great excuse! 

James Beard Foundation Certificate

So Jane came with us and we spent our 25th wedding anniversary in New York with me working and Jane wandering around New York by herself. Luckily enough I did not work all the time, we did get some time off to explore. We had dinner one night at The Inn on The Park which was hugely disappointing. We did have a pizza in a tiny little Italian Pizza restaurant not far from the restaurant we were working in and it was probably the best Pizza I had / have ever eaten and have eaten since, it was superb. I must go back one day! 

We did all the prep in the kitchens of a restaurant called “One if by Land, Two if by Sea”, the chef there, and I forget his name, was doing one of the courses and we were doing the rest and all courses were meant to represent traditional Irish Food. Their kitchen was a very bizarre set up and the staff – there were a lot of them but very few actually did any work!

They seemed to have 2 teams of cooks, one team downstairs in what was a basement kitchen with lots of big equipment, this was where all the heavy, lengthy, time-consuming jobs were carried out and was completely staffed by Hispanics. Upstairs in the service/line kitchen was where the American chefs worked, or at least turned up for work in. so the Chef de Parties/Line Cooks, Sous chefs and Head Chef were upstairs, they concentrated on the garnishes for the dishes. I recall one line cook coming in one morning and when he eventually got around to working all he did for the next 5-6 hours was to carefully prepare about 12 soft shell crabs. Another chef spent a similar amount of time peeling off the outer shells of individual peas, how many peas? About a large mug full, so half a pint maybe slightly more but it took him his full shift to do that. Then he went home. Actually I think  he went home even before he’d finished them and someone else had to take over. There was also a separate pastry kitchen, the head pastry chef, a French boy, as cocky as they come, was bloody useless and let us down massively. We had left him to make individual pastry tart cases for the dessert. They were an absolute mess; he saw we were not happy with them and just didn’t bother to turn up to do the dinner! 

The dinner itself was held at the James Beard house, it used to be where he lived but was now a sort of dining museum. It was a typical brownstone Manhattan house of about 6 stories and a basement. Some of the brigade from the restaurant came round to help us finish off and serve then there were also a “brigade” of “volunteers” that were there to help with the dinner, but by God I wish they hadn’t! 

There were table’s packed into the building in every conceivable nook & cranny they could get them into and the numbers kept rising. It started off at about 70 when we arrived, in the end I think it must have been about 97 we served.

I don’t recall what was on the menu and nor does Shaun but what we both agree on is that it was a bloody shambles, not down to us but definitely down to the useless bloody cooks from the restaurant. We came away with a certificate each!

We had about 5 days in New York, got to see some of the sights, Ellis Island & The Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Grand Union Station, Maddison Square, Jane went round the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, Jane and I had dinner in the restaurant which was okay but nothing special and we can say we spent our 25th wedding anniversary in the big apple. Unfortunately, Jane travelled over there with food poisoning which she contracted from the hotel we stayed in the night before the flight and she never really recovered from it until we returned. But hey other than working our bxxxxxck’s off we did all that pretty much without spending any money! It should have been a highlight in my career but it ended up being a bit of a sad talking point at best.

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