Monthly Archives: October 2013

JASON AND THE GASTRONAUTS

I am interviewing chef Jason Atherton for the Sunday Times sometime soon and I recently realised I had a gap in my experience of his rapidly expanding gastro-universe. I had eaten at Maze when he was Gordon Ramsey’s small-plate protégé, had a memorable lunch at the Pollen St Social Club and a decent dinner at the Social Eating House (on the first full day of opening, and the debutante nerves showed a little) and a good-value lunch (£25.50) at Little Social, which for me showed Balthazar the way to do a Manhattan-influenced brasserie in London. But I hadn’t eaten at his latest joint, Berners Tavern, at the new London Edition hotel, just north of Oxford Street. Time to make amends before the meeting.
I used to have my breakfast meetings (a thing of the past, I’m pleased to say) there when it was the Berners Hotel, a low-key, faded five-star that clung to memories of its (distant) heyday. Now, it has been Ian Schragered – spruced and primped and Fabergé-d (look at the chandeliers) to brash, contemporary glory. Shrager’s still got that same quirk from the Royalton of trying to save on the lighting bills (maybe he’s heard about our energy companies), so there are corners of the public areas where flashlights ought to be provided, but it’s a very impressive lobby with, Schrager’s essential ingredient, a busy little bar. Oh, and that other trope of Ian’s – a phalanx of unnervingly attractive staff. You could certainly forget that, under its scrubbed, moisturized and waxed skin, this is a Marriott hotel.
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The restaurant is even grander, the walls covered with a Tetris of mis-matched artwork, a soaring illuminated cabinet of spirits centre-stage at the bar and a roof to remember. Nobody could tell me when the triple-height, ornately plastered ceiling dates from (although the marble floor in the foyer is apparently 1830s), but this was once the site of Messrs Marsh, Stacey, Fauntleroy and Graham’s private bank. Like all good banks, this had its share of scandal. Henry Fauntleroy was light-fingered to say the least, helping himself, with a little creative accounting and the Georgian equivalent of dodgy OTC Derivatives, to £250,000 (a very large fortune back then). According to the judge at his trial at the Old Bailey, the banker “squandered it in debauchery”. Some things never change. Well, that’s not quite true – they hanged him for his embezzlement on November 30, 1824, the last man to hang for forgery in the UK.
Still, back to the food. I am not going to list the meal beat by beat in time-honoured fashion (‘We started with the soup..’). We went fishy, apart from a playful “ham, egg and peas” starter (brilliant), with perfectly cooked fish, lime-chilli scallops, baby squid and a watch-the-white-shirt squid-ink risotto. It was all executed and served with admirable precision. Prices are commensurate with the setting, mind. We paid £110 for four courses, water, tea and a reasonable bottle of Torrentes, from the lower rung of a wine list that quickly ascends to the heavens.
One bugbear among the opulence, and Berners Tavern is far from alone in this, is that I don’t like those credit card machines which say, even though you’ve paid 12.5% already, ‘Would You Like To Add A Gratuity?”. It makes you feel Steve Buscemi’s Mr Pink (‘I don’t tip.. I don’t believe in it’) when you press ‘No.’ There should be a “Yes, but I’ll pay it in cash, thanks” option. Better yet, just shut up with the questions.
So, the overall verdict – rolling in the whole experience, ambience and food – is that Berners Tavern provided one of my best meals out this year in what is unlikely to be topped as the most splendid setting (it certainly rivals the Wolseley in that respect). And it’s open all day. Maybe I’ll start doing breakfast meetings again.

BODY PARTS/SHERLOCK and WATSON

A must-see event at St Bart’s Pathology Museum next week. On Wednesday October 23rd there is a “Potted History of the Pot” seminar (the name comes from Sir Percivall Pott of St Bart’s : see potts-pot.blogspot.co.uk). The museum’s curator, Professor Paola Domizio, will discuss the history of potting pathological specimens and how medical teaching has developed. Then the museum’s Assistant Technical Curator, Carla Valentine will “Re-Flesh the Bones” by discussing the stories behind the specimens. Doors – 6:30pm for a 7pm start (ends by 9pm). Cost: £6.50 inc. refreshments and booking fee. Booking via Eventbrite on http://bartsautumn3-eorg.eventbrite.co.uk.

Also next week, Dead Man’s Land is out in paperback (Thurs 24th).
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And here is a video that links the two events:

Video by Bella and Gina Ryan

THE GEEKY TRAVELLER: HOLLY SMALE

Holly Smale, 32, started modeling at 15 before leaving the industry to study English Literature and an M.A. at Bristol University. She is the author of the very successful blog The Write Girl and the novel, Geek Girl (Harper Collins), is out now. Single, she lives in South London. Geek Girl: Model Misfit is published by HarperCollins at £6.99 RRP.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have this terrible urge to travel that builds and builds inside me until it just goes pop and I have to leave. It’s a very powerful drive. When I finished Geek Girl I turned to my parents — I was living at home at the time — and said: ‘I’m going travelling to India and Nepal. In three days.’ They were used to it by then and I could see them steeling themselves for the phone calls in the small hours because the truth is I am a very klutzy traveller. I do things like leave my bank card on a bus or get mugged – I’ve been mugged twice, once in Hollywood, which rather took the edge of the glamour, and once in Australia. I realise I am meant to be a grown up now, so I have to stop relying on my parents to bail me out – I’ve recently discovered travel insurance, much to their relief.
I probably get my love of travelling from my dad. My mum doesn’t like it at all, which is probably why when we were little we stuck relatively close to home, France and Italy, but once my sister and I got a little older my dad insisted on something more adventurous – Egypt, Dubai, Morocco.

Unknown-1 So, after Geek Girl, I did head off three days later to Delhi and it turned out to be more of a culture shock than I was prepared for and I did have a little bit of a weepy meltdown. I had lived in Japan for two years, working as a teacher, and I thought I could cope with any alien culture after that. But India was on another level. But the meltdown passed, I began to enjoy myself and the country, and I travelled to Varanasi on the Ganges, which is about as remote from clean, ordered Japan as you can get, and on to Goa and then flew to Nepal where I sat in the rain for three weeks. It wasn’t the wet season – it was meant to be dry. But it just poured every day. The teahouses were full of miserable looking climbers in their fleeces and hiking boots. It was like waiting for a bus – I should have given up but after a few days I thought, I’ve invested so much time in this, what if I leave now and tomorrow it clears up? And every weather forecast always said it would. I went to Pokara with its lake and the Anapurna range as a backdrop, which is meant to be stunning – and the mist was down to the water. In the end I left Nepal without seeing a mountain, which must be some sort of record. I think I got my taste for travelling alone from a school trip to Moscow, which actually allowed us a lot more freedom than that suggests, it certainly seemed freer than travelling with parents. So once I finished school I took a gap year and headed for Australia by myself. To be honest, I am not sure I really plugged into the country, more the backpacker trail, meeting other people from home. But I was eighteen, so it was first steps.

I did get to see the Whitsunday Islands, perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life. And seven years later, I was living at home again and trying to write a very serious book about, well, about death and I think I was driving my parents mad being terribly artistic. My dad thrust a newspaper and under my nose for ‘the best job in the world’, as ‘caretaker’ of Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays. So I applied and I did get to the last batch of fifty but then in interview admitted I really wanted somewhere to finish a book. Which, quite rightly, scuppered my chances.

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So having not got that I decided I had to do something and I went off to Japan. I was offered a chance to go there when I was modelling, but my mum said no and I was secretly relieved – I was only 15. I spent some time teaching English through drama in Yokohama but then moved way south to Nichinan, a little fishing village and I taught the children of the fishermen and rice farmers English. The nearest city was Myazaki, over an hour’s drive away and it was also the closest Starbucks. So every few weeks I’d get on my scooter and do a Starbucks run along the coast road. It is a fabulous part of Japan – the climate is Mediterranean, there are palm trees and my parents came to visit and thought it was like the Riviera. And the beautiful beaches are all empty. The Japanese do not sunbathe, it is culturally unacceptable – only surfers get away with a suntan — so if you saw anyone laid out on a towel on the beach, you could bet it was a foreigner, of which there were about twelve in the whole region.
The problem with having spent so long in Japan is that it has spoiled me for everywhere else. By the time I left after two years I felt I was finally getting under the skin and it’s made me realise what a superficial experience most of our travelling is. I really want to go to China, but I don’t want to just tick off the sightseeing boxes. Still, I can’t let that put me off – I added up recently that I’d been to 21 countries so far and I started hyperventilating in panic – it’s just not enough. I’ve got to get travelling again, I can feel my inner nomad ready to pop.

THE (SLIGHTLY) NERVOUS TRAVELLER: KIMBERLY McCREIGHT

Kimberly McCreight, 40, is the author of Reconstructing Amelia (Simon & Schuster), which has been compared (by The Sunday Times and Jodi Picault) to ‘Gone Girl’. She originally trained as a lawyer but realized she was in denial about being a writer, so left to pursue that career. Reconstructing Amelia is her fifth written novel, but the first to be published. Married with two daughters (6 and 9), she lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.

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I never travelled as a child. I was brought up in the Tri-State area around New York, my parents were divorced, and we just didn’t get away much. So, as an adult, I was determined to make travelling a part of my life. The first chance I had to go abroad was to Japan when I was at college, to a small town between Osaka and Kyoto. Talk about a baptism of fire. But it was a fabulous experience. I was studying, but also got to do some touristy things – I climbed Mount Fuji. What I didn’t realise was, it’s a proper mountain. It was in the guidebook as a ‘must-do’, so I thought: how hard can it be? Well, it’s a tough climb and there is snow at the top and you really shouldn’t do it in running sneakers. My feet ached for days. I was walking like a Geisha. Lesson one of travelling for me: always double-check whatever the guidebook recommends.
I lived in London for a year when my then fiancé and now husband came to study. What I loved about being in the UK was how you could zip off to other countries so easily. I don’t think you appreciate that here. So we went to France, Italy, even Russia. That’s another thing I learned: don’t try and do St Petersburg on a budget. It was beautiful and fascinating, but we definitely weren’t prepared for the expense.
I am also trying to give my kids the chance to travel, because I do feel I missed out on seeing other cultures when I was young. One of my daughters has a fear of flying, which I think she got from me – I have a mild form. When we were on honeymoon in South Africa, I realised how small the plane was going to be taking us up to the Kruger – you could wind the windows down, for goodness sake – and I had to go to the doctor and get tranquilizers to get onboard. It was worth it, though. I have never been to a place that made me feel so insignificant. Not just the animals, but also the scale of it – one tree standing on an enormous horizon beneath an even larger sky. I can’t wait to go back.
We’ve fortunate in that neither of the girls are ‘Princess’ types, so we don’t get Disney pressure. It’s not much talked about as school, which is just as well – it’s such an expensive vacation. I looked at how much and then said: you know, we can go to the South of France for the same number of dollars. So we’ve just come back from Provence, although it was a challenge persuading my daughter about the flight. But by the time we got there, she was ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ She is also a very picky eater and I think it’s great to get children out of their comfort zone and into eating different foods. I told her she couldn’t afford to be fussy in France. Neither my husband nor I speak very good French, so I said we’ll be lucky if we get something that isn’t snails, and it worked, she tucked in.
We also try and go skiing every year. My husband is a very good skier and I’m.. not. But I try and hide that from the kids when we are teaching them. ‘You follow, dad, I’ll be right behind’ kind of thing. Normally, we ski on the East Coast, but last year we went to Vail in Colorado. It’s better in a number of ways. It’s less icy than the in East and it’s much less crowded on the slopes. Which means I can look like I know what I am doing – it’s much easier to fool the kids on the wide, empty slopes.
We are lucky because we can leave the children with the in-laws and get away by ourselves for short breaks. Often, though, we just stay in the city and do a show and restaurants. But a few years back we went to Costa Rica, which I love – it’s so lush and both the animals and the people are wonderful. We didn’t make the coast, but stayed in the centre, around the volcano. It was actually my second time there. After college I had backpacked there down through Mexico with a friend. Two girls backpacking alone in Central America – what were we thinking? Nothing bad happened, but the hassle was constant and relentless. We definitely had hassle fatigue by the time we had finished the trip. And again I made the mistake of believing the guidebook, that climbing the Chichen Itza pyramid on the Yucatan was easy. That thing is steep. I got to the top and thought: there’s no way I am ever going to get down.
I’m not very good with beaches. My husband is OK. In St Thomas in the Caribbean I kept insisting we go into town for dinner. Which was usually disappointing for one reason or another – I simply didn’t realise, that’s not really what you do in the Caribbean. It’s a beach holiday. Just stay put at the hotel. But I like a little adventure. So the next big trip is probably Macchu Picchu or possibly Kilimanjaro. That’s more climbing iconic sites – but this time, I’ll check what footwear I need.

* Kimberly McCraight talked to Robert Ryan

IT’LL BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF

I recently interviewed Ian Burrell, a (possible the only) “Global Rum Ambassador” for a piece in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine about rum in the Caribbean at Cottons his bar/restaurant in Camden (cottonscamden.co.uk). That will be out in the December issue (available in November), but in the meantime Ian’s RumFest is taking places next weekend (October 12-13, 12-5pm) at Excel, with over 400 rums, including dozens you’ll never had heard of. Tickets cost from £25, which includes tastings and seminars, see http://www.rumfest.co.uk. Meanwhile, here is a rough outtake from the filmed interview, where Ian explains the legend of ‘overproof’ rum. There’s a little slip of the tongue (Spain captured Jamaica, not vice-versa), but watch for a different, more polished version when the ST Travel Magazine comes out. For more on Ian see http://www.rumexperience.com.

THE SOULFUL TRAVELLER: GREGORY PORTER

I first saw Gregory Porter on September 29, 2011, in New York. He was playing Smoke, a tiny club on Broadway, up at 105th St. he was doing three shows a night and I caught the third and came back and told everyone who would listen to go out and buy Water, his debut. The combination of soul, jazz, a voice that drew on the past but was very much his own, a great band and fantastic material was irresistible. Then Guy Barker and Gilles Peterson over here began championing him, he appeared on Jools Holland to great acclaim and now he is playing the Albert Hall on October 30th (see http://www.bluesfest.co.uk). So that’s been some ride these past two years. I have now seen him perhaps half a dozen times. He never fails to deliver. This is from an interview done backstage at the Love Supreme Festival this summer. You can see the new video for his song Laura here:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x15g9zs_gregory-porter-hey-laura_music

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Grammy-nominated singer Gregory Porter, 42, was born in Bakersfield, California. After a shoulder injury put paid to his ambitions to be a Pro footballer, he took his baritone into musical theatre and jazz clubs, until his first album, Water, and a career-defining appearance on Later with Jools Holland brought him international notice. His third album, Liquid Spirit, is out on Blue Note now. Married, he lives in Brooklyn.

“I am on the road a lot at the moment, but I keep notes on where I am going to come back to for a vacation. One thing that surprised me is how beautiful the UK is. I knew it had history, but in the States we tear everything down every ten years. Here, you got original castles and Tudor houses and country estates coming out of your ears. For instance, I love Cheltenham and the Cotswolds – I got to hang out for a few days there earlier this year and that’s gorgeous countryside with really cute hotels like Cowley Manor. I’ll be back there, for sure. Some of my other choices surprise people, especially when I tell them Skegness is in my little book.
Yes, that Skegness. I like the political side of this. You see, the working class got to have somewhere to go on vacation. They can’t afford the Cotswolds. When I saw the rows of neat beach huts, and the lines of cheap shops and food joints, I thought, yes, I recognize this. It’s where the blue-collar families go – like we were. And people here say to me: I used to be taken to Skegness as a kid and eeewww, it’s horrible. And I say – well, you turned out OK didn’t you? You’re a decent human being? There’s a lot of snobbery about such places, but I think you should embrace them for what they are.
For us growing up, vacations meant Santa Monica Beach. Now, Santa Monica has been spruced up, it’s pretty clean and chichi now. But back then, we’d go swimming and you knew you risked coming across something in the water and go: what’s that? It’s not.. it is, it’s a bag of sheeeee… Well, you know what I mean. But if the water was too rough or dirty, there was also the pier, with the Ferris wheel and the Playland Arcade, which are still there. We had good times at Santa Monica.
Then we’d go to Venice Beach. That’s a place to see. Venice Beach is where someone will try and sell you something, hustle you, entertain you, day and night. There was a guy who when I was a kid used to roller skate around with an amp on his belt, playing Jimi Hendrix electric guitar. And the last time I went, he was still there, and he hadn’t changed at all. That’s freaky. Some people there are pretty desperate, though. When I was a teenager, I saw this guy lying on a bed of nails and he let a woman walk over his chest. And there was blood everywhere. And I said, man, you better get a different act because this one ain’t workin’ for you. In the end the cops came and took him away, because he was frightening the little kids.
The first time I left California was on a road trip. We were going on vacation in Oklahoma, where my mom’s sister lived. And my mom always worked hard – when she was thirteen, she was still pickin’ cotton seven days a week. So when people say I work too hard, I just tell them that. So, we are driving from California to Oklahoma, which is a long way even by US standards, and my mom says she is too tired to go on. I was fifteen and my brother was sixteen, never driven, but we said: we’ll take over. So we took turns at the wheel. Look, it’s the Texas desert. It goes on for two days. There are no bends. All you got to do is point. And Paul Simon’s Graceland had got jammed in the tape deck, and so that’s all we had to play, so whenever I hear those songs, I think of driving through the desert at night, heading for Oklahoma, with my mom asleep in the backseat.
I didn’t get to leave the States till much later, when I went to Moscow. It was a gig, with my band, in some underground club. I mean, really underground, down and down. It must have been a Soviet-era bunker, but when you got to the bottom it was a wild jazz club – beautiful jazz singers from Siberia, Tuvan throat singers with weird harmonies, and this bunch of guys from New York in the corner just trying to take it all in. I always say, you want an intense time, head for Russia.
If I could go anywhere right now, it’d be Curacao. It’s part of the ABC islands, the Dutch Antilles. I don’t think they are that well known here. But they are really interesting. I discovered Curacao because there is a link with Holland’s North Sea Jazz Festival, so I got to play there. But I fell in love with it – fabulous beaches, clear water, lovely people, it’s a place where you can relax. And I can relax, given the opportunity.
I got married recently. We took a break rather than a honeymoon, went to upstate New York, to the Taconic Mountains, which are part of the Adirondacks. Again, I don’t think many Brits get up there, but it’s a really beautiful part of the country. You’ve got the castles, I think we’ve got the scenery, right? It’s all about taking a little cabin on a lake, walking in the woods, it’s a very romantic, very cool place. But, as I have been told, it wasn’t a honeymoon. It was a post-wedding break. So, I still have that to do. I wonder if she’d like Skegness?”