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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Outdoor Dining, Street Food & British Weather

Ah, British Summertime. British Spirit. British determination. British decision making. British stupidity? Well I'm writing this in order to ascertain whether we, the all-consuming public are completely mental to even consider eating a meal, planning an event or entertaining friends, in the great outdoors. 

And yet, a great deal of our local, food-producing businesses absolutely rely on our continued determination to choose it, against the safer but arguably more sensible option, of eating indoors. 

All the usual thought processes occur in the decision making that takes place when food should be eaten. Who am I with? What is the occasion? How hungry am I? Will there be enough options to choose from? 
However, crucially, between the months of April & October, a fair old chunk per annum, a thought process overrides all aforementioned factors, rendering them almost insignificant. 
That all-important new factor is of course - What will the weather be doing? 

Suddenly, all caution is thrown to the wind. Your tried and tested regular eateries, discarded from consideration through lack of so much as a courtyard. The quality of food on offer, insignificant, so long as you can eat it in a garden, on a picnic bench, or within the confines of a town restaurant outside section, frequently fenced off with branded suggestions. All things that are normally so important to you are out of the window, because the temperature has just gone over 12 degrees. 

Logically - we as consumers are mad the let the weather be our guide. 
Logically - business owners are mad to let the weather be a defining factor in trade. 

Thankfully - we are British (or of similarly mental origin) and as consumers we do pursue outdoor delights and with that demand there is growing trade in outdoor/alfresco/street dining. 

My recent experiences have obviously shaped my thoughts on this matter. 

I started writing this on the train to London on Friday afternoon. It. Was. PISSING IT DOWN. but it was Friday afternoon and for me now as a Brightonian, that means only one thing - Street diner. Working in the trade, Fridays off are not a given, so I'll be damned if I'm going to let a little rain stop me going to to see what's on offer. 
L'eglise are in the guest spot this week - and I do try and go for something different every time. Twice I've thoroughly enjoyed the textbook smoked treats from the Little Blue Smokehouse, the irrepressible juiciness of a Trolls Pantry Burger, a few oysters from Yum Yum Ninja, and always, always, a substantially chocolatey fix from Honeycomb cakes. 

Normally, it's a slow wander from stall to stall, chatting to the always enthusiastic guys & gals behind the counter, followed by a perch on the grassy slope behind. 

This week had a much more business-like approach. To my surprise, there were still plenty of people there. To my frustration I had to queue in the rain. But now in my possession, a Hogget Lamb Baguette from L'eglise. 

Classic street presentation - a paper napkin. But now the dilemma of where to eat it. Ideal world, go and get a coffee and eat it in there, but that's frowned upon right? So no, I'll eat it here, as drip by drip, the paper napkin becomes more & more soggy - bite by bite I try and get it down me before the baguette becomes soggy. I stood under a tree. 

Was this delicious? Of course. Was I comfortable? Of course not. Will I do it again? You bet I will. 

Why? Because I could see the appreciation in the nice French guys face for braving the rain. Because of the knowing smile in my fellow Street Diners faces that said "yes, we do look ridiculous". Because this is British Summertime. 

Next up, and the reason for my trip to London - was to be an Usher at a great friends wedding. 

The food bit - a three-course, sit down meal, in a gated garden community, in a marquee, for 150 people.

The option - no option. Charcuterie starter for all. Shoulder of Lamb. Trio of desserts. (Everyone loves Lamb). 

The Catering Team (name to follow) - consisted of fully operational kitchen with ovens, ample prep space & absolutely loads of room to plate up. Not sure how many chefs, around 10 waiting staff. 

The result - in all honesty, the food was exquisite. Yes there was only one dish that actually required cooking on site. Yes it would be simple enough to churn out even to the numbers in our party. But my experience in the past of these things, have been comparable to good aeroplane food - nice enough, but you can tell its been kept warm for days. The main event here (Shoulder of Lamb, beautifully pink with crisp Greens, Bubble & Squeak, Jus & a wonderful little Fig Tatin) was perfectly executed and presented with uniform precision (although the last few that came out missed out on the fig for some reason?). 

So as far as the food goes, big thumbs up. 

But the service... Well we were sat for a good 3 hours. The charcuterie, on huge round plates, served to us individually, took an eternity. An hour later the Lamb starts arriving. A good 20 mins later, the last lamb was delivered. And so on. You get the idea. SLOW. 

Then you consider the trials the team face. The complete unknown is first to spring to mind. Now I for one relish the prospect of banquet service in a restaurant, directing the process alongside the chef and watching it all come together like clockwork, supported by my team of professional waiting staff. The Chefs, bang on time and prepared. IN OUR COMFORT ZONE. 

Would I enjoy doing it in a pop-up kitchen in a marquee with a team of art student 'waiters' backing me up? No I would not. 

So I acknowledge that their task is an impossible one. And I think the outdoor catering business has come a long way in recent years, with fierce wedding demand and completion, everyone's had to up their game. 

So from my point of view, any fault lies not with the caterers, but in the decision to take that option in he first place. 

Not for everyone, but for me an outdoor reception with a marquee goes hand in hand with a hog roast. A simple, come-and-grab-it-when-you-want-it approach. And grab more later if you're still hungry. Desserts? Well the whole nations gone cupcake-crazy. They look pretty. Done. Want something more formal? Then do it in a hotel. Do it in a restaurant. Do it somewhere where the thousands of pounds you're going to spend will actually be rewarded with a flawless service, and stunning food. 

As I say, this experience was actually wonderful, but slow, and masses of room for improvement! 

And so my final alfresco venture of the weekend - a Sunday brunch with another great friend at Caravan - Kings Cross. Capable on a normal (and by normal I mean, cold, wet & windy) day of seating 100 minimum indoors - this was no normal day. It was a Scorcher - and fantastic, there is potential for another 50-60 covers outside. 

12:20 - we joined the waiting list. 
13:00 - we sat. 
13:15 - we ordered DRINKS ONLY
13:30 - we ordered Brunch
14:00 - Food arrives. 
14:00 - Foods gone (because it was bloody amazing!)
Then spent the next 20 mins trying to get someone to bring us a bill. 

Now the experience here is so totally worth the wait(s) we had to endure, and the grumpy service from more art-students who clearly had never seen this many people in their lives. The food here is outrageously good and could not more strongly recommend it (Salt Beef Bubble, Spinach, Poached Egg & Hollandiase I mean COME ON!). But the weather in this case has ground this business almost to a halt. It is almost as though the owner had spent a fortune on exceedingly comfy outdoor furniture and lovely pots of herbs knowing full well that British weather would never actually see it used. 

I've been there myself, and the message to staff on those freakish weather days goes something like "Okay guys, this is going to be pretty fucking awful, but please keep smiling, please drink lots of water and just try and do everything really quickly". 

The place I currently have the honour of Assistant Managing has a small secluded outdoor area, but is not at the forefront of Joe Publics mind on these freak weather days, and as such, summer is many restaurants quiet season. 

Unfortunately to many, who have built business models around taking X amount of cash in the summer months, having invested in property with beer gardens, courtyards, or beach front cafes, the increasingly shit summers have hit them hard. 

So this is me endorsing the use of all these places! 

Embrace Street Food, even in the rain. 
Employ Event Caterers provided the food is worth the wait. 
Choose the place that would be packed on a sunny day but who's views may not be so stunning on a normal day. (But do so with caution - a lot of restaurants boy selling point is the view, and the food is thoughtless & without heart).

Eat outdoors. There's amazing food to be eaten outdoors. 
(And finally, it is hilarious sprinkling Parmesan, or cracking salt & pepper in the wind) 

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