Food and Restaurant Digest #31, 17 January 2018 
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Facing up to discrimination

Global concerns over the abuse of power by men over women was a sobering theme that not even the cheer of the festive season could shake. In the US restaurant business it was particularly acute, with several well-known American chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali (whose restaurant empire will now be headed by women) and Ken Friedman (co-owner of the acclaimed The Spotted Pig in NYC) being exposed as or accused of being complicit in creating and maintaining uncomfortable environments in the establishments they were guardians of (with Batali’s public apology stating “I take full responsibility”, bizarrely followed by a recipe for cinnamon rolls – which someone blogged about making in an entertainingly acerbic post, incidentally). 

(Lidia Bastianich and Nancy Silverton, the two women about to take leadership of Mario Batali's restaurant empire. Image courtesy of National Post)

So far the scandals have been confined to the US, but there’s no doubt a sea-change afoot in a restaurant culture which has historically comprised a work environment where short tempers and entitled behaviour are sanctioned, and apparently too often mistaken for permissable abusiveness. (Anthony Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly was probably the first book to glamorise that culture, making the drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll culture of restaurant kitchens “cool”, but which is now something he regrets having glorified, as it possibly contributed to creating an atmosphere in which women were reluctant to speak out about their experiences, or even to confide in him as a friend. While Bourdain has been criticised for his own silence following suggestions that he did have some knowledge of Batali's inappropriate actions, he has stated that he stands "unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women".)

We haven’t had similar descriptions of such misconduct in local restaurants, but social media isn’t confined to national borders, so the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements can’t be dismissed as concerns that don’t apply to every country and restaurant that also strives to be recognised on the global dining scene (as some of our top restaurants are).

South Africa has its own unique history of discrimination and abuse of power, but we now strive to foster a restaurant scene that’s growing in a very positive way (and which we take great pride in showcasing in terms of sustainability and responsibility in our Story of a Plate series). But The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells had a sobering summary of the situation when he commented that “Something has gone grotesquely wrong when chefs brag that the chickens they buy lived happy, stress-free lives, but can’t promise us that the women they employ aren’t being assaulted in the storage room”.

It’s clearly a time to stand up against any kinds of abuse in the industry that so many rely on for both business and pleasure – not for the sake of joining the proverbial bandwagon, but because it’s simply the right thing to do. The South African Labour Guide provides a comprehensive description of what exactly constitutes harassment, and the possible procedures to follow should anyone find themselves in - or observe anyone else in - the position of requiring assistance. There are additionally a number of crisis response services available, including TEARS which offers a free sms helpline (*134*7355#) which will track the location of its sender and reply with details of the nearest care facility. Such initiatives are certainly worth supporting in the name of a safer future environment for everyone.

Latest from our site   

In our first feature of the year, chef Pete Goffe-Wood invites us behind the scenes of an operation which brings five-star experiences to guests visiting the "bush" (in this case, "on Impalila Island in Namibia, at the point of the Caprivi Strip where Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge"). Let's just say that kitchens in remote locations don't build themselves, and that boerie rolls don't make the cut!

For our latest Story of a Plate feature, we visit The Pool Room at Oak Valley and enjoy the intriguing combination of duck liver parfait and citrus cured seabass, which perhaps sounds like the thing you shouldn't order, but turns out to be the dish that you absolutely should. As chef Gordon Manuel describes it, "When some people look at it, they’re still a little hesitant, thinking 'should we try that?', but the ingredients really work wonderfully together". We agree.

Don't forget to follow Rossouw's on Facebook to keep up with the latest on the local dining scene.
Bits and Bites
When free cheese disappoints: We've written before about food festivals which turned out to be scams. Sadly these are not isolated incidents, as a recent "cheese festival" in London proved. People lined up for the promise of limitless cheese, only to discover they were waiting for "students in sad cardboard mouse ears and smudged face paint to dole out cheese which tasted somewhere between corner shop ‘cheddar’ and that shrink-wrapped plasticky stuff you sometimes get on easyJet flights”.

To bay or not to bay?: There's been some controversy in recent years about whether bay leaves actually add anything to the slow-cooked stew that anyone who enjoys slow-cooked stews cooks. While some boldly claim that "Bay leaves are bullshit", others maintain that "Bay leaves are 100% legit". (If you're a fan of porridge, you might want to try reggae musician and celebrity chef Levi Roots' version, which is apparently amazing by virtue of its pronounced bay leaf flavour.)

Press for champagne: In what's being reported as a radical move for restaurant industry, one establishment in London is refashioning its menu according to the whims of the travel industry, "with different charges depending on the day of the week and time of your booking". This is built on the model of some travel days being less popular than others, so guests will get cheaper deals on Tuesday and Sundays, for example, at a place that is otherwise exceptional enough to feature buttons conveniently situated for your next champagne order. "The new pricing model means that if you fancy lobster macaroni & cheese, you may pay £20.50 [R350] off peak instead of the usual £26.50 [R450]. Go for Russian Oscietra caviar and 20 grams could set you back £36 [R610] instead of £49 [R830]". Being able to pressing a button for more champagne is an excellent concept, but even those discounted prices suggest that patrons of that restaurant probably fly first class anyway, and don't worry too much about paying an exorbitant amount for mac'-and-cheese.
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