The Restaurant 2008: part one

Nine couples have been given the chance to run a restaurant under the watchful eye of Raymond Blanc and his two inspectors. Depending on how well they meet the challenges dished out to them, each week one couple will have their restaurant closed. The last couple standing will be given the opportunity to become Raymond’s business partner and open their own restaurant, but who will get to hear the immortal words ““I want to open a restaurant with you”?

Although I didn’t catch the 2007 series of The Restaurant, upon hearing that it was like The Apprentice for restaurateurs, I knew that I could do no less than to try it for myself. Fronted by Raymond Blanc of the delightful French accent, the series sees nine couples (one head chef, one front of house) attempting to fulfil their dream of running a restaurant without having any idea how much hard work it can be- and what could be more entertaining than that? So far, six of fifteen episodes have aired and three couples have gone home, but what challenges have they had to face?

Signature dish

With nine couples and only eight restaurants to distribute between them, someone had to go right at the outside- and the way to decide was to have them all cook a dish representative of their restaurant concept. With that in mind, each team served up either a starter, main course or dessert, with such offerings as the rather bizarre and wasteful soup in a hollowed out loaf ending up on the table. In the end, however, it was a mother and daughter team of Jamaican descent who got the chop when they tried to sell their Caribbean restaurant concept via a ‘mango whiz’- not, as you might imagine, a visit to the lavatory after too much fruit, but a blended up mango puree that took all of three minutes to make. Perhaps not the best choice to show off your cooking skills, eh?

Opening Night

Having made it through the first round, the eight remaining couples must prepare for their opening night, and it is here where the series becomes truly entertaining. At the Blue Goose, father and daughter pairing Mike and Harriet manage to go dreadfully wrong- despite making customers pre-order their food several days in advance, service on the night is a mess, with no one on staff having any idea who is eating what, and customers waiting two hours for their meals. To add insult to injury, Mike- who is clearly a little deficient in the people skills area- tries to charge people for their drinks when they get fed up and go home without eating. It’s hardly a recipe to inspire repeat customers.

Whilst the Blue Goose was probably the worst place to spend a night out, the restaurants were having their own issues. The Gallery, run by a perfectionist chef who treats his front of house ‘best friend’ as little more than a gimp, couldn’t even open thanks to a gas leak, leaving them at a loose end for the night. Over at Sorbet & Seasons, two gay air stewards were keen to try out a mixture of sorbet and seasonal foods- but not only was their menu not particularly seasonal, they only had one sorbet on the menu. Now, I’m not a particular fan of sorbet at the best of times, but I can’t say that pea sorbet would ever be something I wanted to try.

Elsewhere, one husband and wife couple had the unique idea of offering a Chinese-Welsh fusion menu, and after much debate over the name, The Welsh Wok served up a menu that proved to be confusing to the customers as they made their way through confusing combinations of food. At True Provenance, a restaurant based on the idea of knowing the source of all the food used, the question “where does this pork come from?” was answered by “belly”- hardly an illuminating answer!

At the end of the night, there had been plenty of mistakes and a small portion of success, but not everyone was home safe. Having messed up their ‘foolproof’ plans, Mike and Harriet of the Blue Goose were to be in the upcoming challenge, but they would also be joined by two more couples…

Pay What It Is Worth

Before that, however, everyone must take part in one more exercise- “What It’s Worth”. This time around, the restaurant menus will have no prices printed on them, leaving it up to the customer to pay what they think their meal was worth. Nonetheless, Raymond and his inspectors will have menus that do have prices on them, so that the expected takings can be compared with the actual takings.

Despite already being in the challenge, the Blue Goose is still expected to participate, and this time Mike isn’t taking any chances, booking just thirteen customers for the evening. Playing it safe is one thing, but thirteen customers on a Friday night is hardly the mark of a thriving restaurant.

At the other end of the scale, over at the Cheerful Soul, front of house Michelle decided to maximise takings by overbooking, forcing people to stand waiting for the same table to be free. Meanwhile, having disregarded advice from Raymond to actually include some sorbets on the menu (on the grounds that it would be too much effort to change the menu and include some hideous tomato and fennel sorbets), Sorbet & Seasons soldiered on with its one pea sorbet- which actually turned out to be a pea soup. For a restaurant so focused on sorbet, its proprietors seemed oddly averse to actually serving it!

Their gas leak fixed, The Gallery was finally ready for a belated opening night, but whilst perfectionist James ruled the kitchen, Alistair found it hard to keep up with front of house- even forgetting to deliver cutlery to one of Raymond’s inspectors when they came around for a meal! Such a mistake may seem elementary, but he wasn’t alone in falling down on a simple task- Pete of the Welsh Wok managed to mess up rice, a staple Chinese food! And elsewhere, a lack of portions saw one ‘inventive’ couple fail to admit that they were sold out- instead they just started cutting everything in half. Ah, I’ll take half a burger, thanks.

Ultimately, however, it was the Cheerful Soul and Sorbet & Seasons who were to join the Blue Goose in the challenge- but who would end up going home?

Motorway Service

Over breakfast the Oxford motorway services (ah, many’s the time I’ve stopped in there), our three bottom couples learned just what they’d need to do to keep their restaurants open- sell their food out of three such services. With the aid of the safe couples, the brief was simple- design and photograph five courses, and then sell as much as possible over a lunchtime shift. Canny marketing, good cooking and efficient time management were order of the day- funnily enough, just what you’d need for any restaurant.

For the Blue Goose team, “people skills” Mike’s strategy for picking the best team was to run full tilt towards the helper couples and pick the ones he thought would do best- snagging the nel’s and Gallery couples. Next up was a spot of research, and after hearing that fish and chips was the most popular motorway meal, Harriet decided to cook fish and chips er, a fish pie for main course, completely leaving meat dishes out of the equation (even though if you put them all together they are more popular than fish) and adding insult to injury by serving up bricklike fish cakes.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, forever, for before service day, all teams had to cook and photograph their five dishes so that they could be sent off to the printers. On the advice of Helen, Mike and Harriet decide not to actually cook their food, instead taking the shortcut of buying ready meals and dressing them to look like the dishes they plan to serve. Apart from the fact that this is illegal (as Raymond informs them later), the effort involved in trying to pick bits out of the ready meals to make them resemble the actual dishes seems more work intensive than just cooking the damned dishes would have been. Still, when has Mike ever been known to take the easy route when it can be unnecessarily complicated?

On the day, however, it was Mike’s team who probably had the best marketing strategy, simply through a lack of effective competition. The fish pie may have been sloppy (to call it a pie seems to be a stretch of the imagination) and the fishcakes inedible, but laying out bird footprints leading to the store and having Alistair step out of his gimp suit to dress up as “The Blue Goose” seemed to at least engage the kids. Of course, Alistair was less than enthusiastic about his role as the Blue Goose at first, but with his master James sequestered away helping Harriet in the kitchen he soon began to loosen up.

The Cheerful Soul may have cooked their own food for the posters, but having only started about 40 minutes before the pictures were due to be mailed to the printers, they only managed to get three done, leaving them to come up with two decidedly less professional home made posters. Their marketing plan proved little better, consisting of the annoying Michelle handing out stickers with “I have a cheerful soul” on them to today’s sophisticated youth and asking in her irritating voice “are you eating with us today?”. It’s a shame, because the food was really rather good- not to mention served in individual ramekins instead of as one sloppy platter- but with marketing like that, I would have made a point not to eat there.

Meanwhile, over at Sorbet & Seasons, the gay air stewards had finally overcome their fear of sorbets in order to market their food with tasters of pink sorbet- even though sorbet wasn’t on their main menu. What they did have to offer wasn’t terribly spectacular either- having only asked how many people come to the service station rather than how many come to eat, they ordered far too much chicken, and then proceeded to turn it into a sloppy, unappetising mass of coq au vin (determined to be what the customers wanted by asking a handful of people “would you like to eat coq au vin?”). Still, at least that was edible- having miscalculated the cooking time for their dessert before forgetting about it entirely, they ended up with a charred lump of carrot cake that was last seen being used in the construction industry.

Regardless of actual food quality, I couldn’t help feeling that all three teams had let themselves down with their marketing- in a world where people are bombarded by so much advertising that they tend to shut it out, you need to be very direct and effective at communicating your point. I’m not sure how much marketing was allowed, but if possible I would have set up a stand out the front with samples of the food actually being cooked (a slice of meat, small roast potato and so forth), had an accompanying board with a nice big photo and the relevant text on it, and, if possible, a small billboard over at the toilets. I’m no marketing expert, however, so I’d love to hear some effective strategies from other people.

When it came to the crunch, however, one couple had to go, and after some intense interrogation from Raymond, it was Sorbet & Seasons who met the chop for a) failing to listen to advice, and b) obsessing over sorbets but never actually including them on their menu. Hilarious.

No Waste, No Loss

A new week means a new task for everyone, and after explaining how his Maman taught him never to waste food, our aspiring restaurateurs are given a rather unique present- half a pig. The goal is to sell as much of the pig as possible, but in a day and age where offal is frowned upon more than it is regarded as a delicacy, how well can they do?

Although the sight of half a pig turned the stomach of the animal-loving Helen, she bravely got on with the job with the help of a local butcher, who was keen to teach her the finer details of the animal, such as pointing out where the leg is located. Even so, since it didn’t occur to anyone to make a mince for sausages, rissoles or faggots, all the couples were left with the problem of having to shift the less savoury parts of the animal.

Where one couple chose to keep customers in the dark by serving them a ‘crispy pork salad’ with unidentified bits of pig in it (reasoning that if no one asked what was in it, it was plain sailing), over at the Welsh Wok Pete decided to get rid of as much pork as possible by flooding the menu with pork and serving huge portions that no one could possibly eat. Not only that, but he burned the most valuable parts of the meat- way to minimise your profits.

Elsewhere, marketing for this ‘pig out’ night was less than impressive- whilst Alistair gave up when he realised he couldn’t hand out flyers in the middle of nowhere (what about online and local newspaper ads then?), Mike went the extra mile of uh, printing out simplistic home made leaflets, cutting them with a bread knife and then trying to shift them in an Oxford back street. He himself didn’t think much of the flyers, so why not try a little harder? And it’s not like the ever bustling Oxford High Street was a million miles away from him, before you even consider the fact that he could have probably had an e-mail ad sent around the university.

Still, Mike hadn’t finished entertaining us with his ineptness just yet, for once the evening began, how did he greet his customers? Instead of sticking with the standard but safe “good evening”, he decided to show people to their tables with the rather worrying “welcome to the madness”- hardly the most edifying thing to hear when settling down to a meal. And, having learned nothing from the mix-ups of opening night, he decided to put a numbering system in place for the different pork dishes- without telling Harriet what the number meant? How hard would it be to write a check for various pork dishes instead of scribbling down “three number fives and a number two” (the latter of which sounds most unappetising)?

Personally, I would have either gone the route of making sausages or some other mince product to shift the pork, or had some kind of ‘experimental night’ with information on various pig dishes with samples so that people could try something they might normally reject and perhaps want to order it. I wouldn’t have restricted the menu to pork, but it would be easy enough to do some sort of “two for one” deal or make a pork platter a special to sway people into ordering it without restricting vegetarians from joining their friends for dinner.

With ‘pig out’ night earlier, three couples had to once again be selected for the challenge. Naturally, Mike and Harriet were there, joined by James and Alistair, neither of whom had got the hang of working as a team or even giving the customer cutlery (adult readers, I suggest looking up ‘uke’ and ‘seme’ to understand their relationship better). Joining them were the team from Ray Whites, who despite having ripped off Raymond Blanc’s name, seemed to lack the palate to produce appetising food.

Oxford Formal Halls

For the three couples in jeopardy, the challenge was nothing other than to cook for formal hall in three different Oxford colleges, observing all the traditions that have built up over the years. Although I was hoping to see my beloved Magdalen, the three selected colleges were Oriel, Wadham and Trinity instead. Oh well.

Although I would have personally just focused on cooking good food and serving it to college traditions, for some reason two of the teams decided to throw in some pointless gimmicks. The Ray Whites team decide to celebrate a famous former attendee of their college by paying tribute to “Sir Walter Riley” with snuff and a juggler, but at the same time they made a crucial mistake-serving the same meal at High and Low Table. Never before have the dons had to eat 70p chicken legs- could this be the start of the apocalypse?

Elsewhere, Alistair the gimp was unable to dissuade his master James (who conveniently cooked only for High Table, leaving Helen to handle the rest) from blowing most of their budget on expensive food, leaving around £50 left for the wine budget. With the dons used to drinking only the best wines, drastic measures had to be taken in order to get ten bottles of cheap wine that at least tasted acceptable. And as far as traditions went, they decided to go with ‘prime number portions’ on a plate in order to celebrate a famous mathematician- but since they neglected to tell anyone or mention it on their menus, it was a wasted effort that no one appreciated.

In the end, however, it was Mike and Harriet’s time that was up- having gained a semblance of efficiency by starting to cook early, they then had their food ready too soon, resulting in bloopers such as steaming roast lamb. It was all too much for Raymond, who closed their restaurant.

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