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March 06, 2009

Too much juxtaposing and not enough combining - David Womersley finds fault with Gordon Ramsay: Cooking for Friends - Gordon Ramsay

Posted by David Womersley

Cooking for Friends
by Gordon Ramsay
Pp. 270. Hammersmith: Harper Collins, 2008
Hardback, £25

I have eaten only once in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. I was taking an early flight out of Terminal 5, and had breakfast at his Plane Food outlet. The juice was fresh, the coffee was hot, and the eggs benedict was passable - they got the hard bit right (the poached egg was very good), but fell down on the easy bit (the hollandaise sauce hadn't been warmed through properly). So in one sense I have very little experience of Ramsay's food. On the other hand, it seems like ages since I've eaten anything else, at least in other people's houses – Gordon Ramsay influenced food seems to be ubiquitous in the middle-class kitchens of the Home Counties.

What kind of food is it? Well, it is certainly not bad food. But it tends to be under-integrated - that is to say, it is food in which the ingredients are simply introduced to one another, rather than cooked together to produce something in which the separate tastes of the original ingredients can no longer be picked out. The loose integration of ingredients is a signature of modern British cooking, and it has been caused by a number of factors.

The first is the fetishing of the best quality ingredients. If you have been foolish enough to spend over £1 for a kilo of carrots, I suppose that you definitely will want to be able to taste them distinctly when you sit down to eat them.

Second, the fashion for so-called fusion food, which in my experience would be better labelled car-crash cookery (if retaining the alliteration is a priority). The point of these collisions of ingredients is lost if you can't discern them when you eat.

Thirdly, there is the erosion of the time devoted to cooking. It is rare to find a dish in a modern British cookbook which takes more than an hour to prepare and cook. Of course, this reflects a way of life in which in many households both adults work, and the preparation of the evening meal - always assuming that it is prepared, rather than simply re-heated - is something that has to be fitted into the brief period between returning from work and falling into bed.

The weekend should theoretically offer the chance to cook in a more leisurely and reflective way, but corner-cutting is a habit which takes quick and vigorous root, in the kitchen as elsewhere. In this flash-in-the-pan cookery, the application of heat is often so brief that the taste of the individual ingredients is barely altered by the process of cooking.

The popular television programme, Masterchef, illustrates the point. The contestants are made to cook against artificial and quite unnecessary time limits, and evaluation of their food almost without exception takes the form of a listing of ingredients - "I get the sweetness of the tomatoes, the sharpness of the lemon, and then that great kick of chilli warmth". Why not just put the separate ingredients into your mouth one by one, if the effect you value is the mere sequence of flavours? The point about a really great dish is that it creates an entirely new flavour from familiar ingredients. It is hard to achieve this without the lengthy application of heat.

A French friend recently sent me a recipe for cooking a leg of lamb. It is simple, but not easy. First you make a broth with a bouquet garni and an onion pierced with cloves. Wrap the leg of lamb in a cloth, and simmer it in the broth for fifteen minutes. Take the lamb out, dry it, retain the broth. Brown the lamb on all sides in a large casserole, then flambé it with a glass of Armagnac. Lift it out, place 20 peeled cloves of garlic in the bottom of the casserole, rest the lamb on top, pour round it a ladle of the retained broth and the best part of a bottle of Monbazillac (it is worth experimenting with different wines; a demi-sec Vouvray produced good results, as did a minor Sauternes from an indifferent - i.e. unbotrytised - year): you want the liquid to come up about an inch on the side of the lamb. Add salt and pepper, cover tightly, and cook in the oven for one hour at 180, and then three hours at 150. Check on it from time to time, to see that it is not drying out; if necessary, add a little more of the broth.

When it's done, take the lamb out of the casserole carefully (it will be very delicate), put some chopped parsley on it, and bring it to the table with a little of the strained cooking liquid around the meat, serving the remainder of the liquid in a sauce-boat (reduce it if it seems too thin). Dauphinois potatoes are all you need to go with it (try Joel Robuchon's recipe, if you don't already know it).

This tastes quite unlike any lamb you have had before, and I defy anyone to identify how the sauce was made on the basis of a blind tasting. But you won't find anything like that in Cooking for Friends. It is both too simple and too demanding.

Having said that, there are enjoyable things here. The recipe for Alnwick soup is very good, provided you have a butcher in reach who can supply you with a couple of smoked ham hocks; ditto the recipe for oxtail soup. The barley and wild mushroom risotto is worth a try.

I have found the fish dishes to be less impressive. Too often, as with the recipe for sea bass with olives, tomato and fennel, they are just chance encounters of ingredients in a pan. It is good to see meat such as rabbit being used, although my distant memories of once eating goat are still so vivid that it will be a long time before I try the recipe for goat curry.

As well as the recipes, Cooking for Friends gives you a lavish helping of brand Ramsay. After the tabloid revelations of last year, it is hard to look at the photos of Ramsay and his wife, to read in the "Introduction" about the culinary education he is giving his four children, and respond to the descriptions we are given of their home life, in quite the way that I imagine was intended.

The intrusion of personality and private life into a book such as this is out of place, though I suppose that it was included as a selling point - you too can share the domestic bliss of the Ramsays! It's a pitch that has lost some of its appeal. Perhaps here, too, the ingredients were more juxtaposed than combined.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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