LITTLE CHEF, POPHAM: HESTON'S FOLLY
I vacillate over Heston Blumenthal (oh, do grow up)
On some days, I can buy into him as the culinary equivalent of haute couture, you might not indulge very often, but some, at least, of the creativity will eventually filter down to be sampled in the mainstream. Triple cooked chips etc etc. And, on his current series “Cooking feasts for Who the hell is that?” he comes over as a beguilingly barking English eccentric, even if you do long for the food to choke most of the diners or at least just Germaine Greer.
On other days, when I remind myself how little his menu at The Fat Duck has actually changed over the years, I think he is a charlatan, a one trick pony who has managed to create a whole career out of flim flammery and who, in his series “Big Chef Takes on Little Chef” to be honest came over as a bit of a cock.
Heston at Little Chef? You can just hear the TV exec’s squeal with delight. It’s the best high concept idea since someone first uttered the words “Danny DeVito and Arnold, twins”
What next? MPW asking if you want ‘extra crispy” at KFC or Tom Aikens flipping burgers at Wimpy (actually, that’s just about all TA is good for, but that’s for another post)
If I had not been heading down to Dorset to do something more important, I might never have visited the Little Chef in Popham, which recently underwent the much-publicised Heston treatment. Not that I have ever had any great problem with Little Chef. Trust me I have had a lot worse breakfasts than their Olympian for a lot more money.
Pulling into the car park tells you all you need to know. This is now a destination restaurant and my ten-year old Ford Focus looked a poor specimen compared to the Audi’s and Merc’s already filling the spaces.
The inside too tells its own story. As HP found out on his recent visit to The Chippy, irony and food are seldom happy bedfellows and the Little Chef in Popham just screams out with knowing wit. Bright red tables archly adorned with little round ketchup bottles, dangly bright lights hanging from the ceiling and waiters with the word “Waiter” in big letters on the back of their bright red shirts, as if anyone would wear something that vile if they didn’t have to for work.
Some people obviously loved the design, because also there was a contingent from the responsible design company, dressed in lurid greens (“against the red, it will look fab. Right?”) for a photo shoot, no doubt to show off their skills to other potential suckers, I mean customers, of course.
It all served to make what should be a simple diner look like an eatery from Pee Wee Herman’s Great Big Adventure and, quite frankly, after sampling the food, I would rather encounter Paul Reubens jacking off in a shabby L.A porno cinema than be faced with this Heston-ised version of short order cooking.
To be fair to Mr B, however, he did his bit. After the usual T.V silliness of creating a challenge, adding a bit of tension with “Mr Blue Sky Thinking” the boss and doing that thing he does with dry ice one assumes is in the contract for every show, he finally settled for just getting really great ingredients and trying his best to teach the Little Chef staff how not to fuck them up on their spangly new equipment.
He succeeded in the former, as the ingredients are all (little plastic pat of butter aside) well sourced. The menu trumpets free-range eggs, Wiltshire cured bacon, and even a bit of Scottish black pudding. But he obviously failed in the former and although my breakfast, the “All New Olympian” looked adequate from an arial view, a quick peek at its dark underbelly told a different and more challenging story.
A failure to clean the hot plate meant that every element of the meal had a nice brown crust underneath, the eggs particularly showing off a nice tan, which explained why there was no request for how you would like them cooked. "Sunny side up, or charred, luv"
The bacon flipped to reveal a nice burnt streak, like wise the sausages and a few misplaced strands of thyme, that great breakfast staple, had been fried to a crisp on the underside of a blackened mushroom. Worst of all, two semi-cooked halves of tomato tasted as if they had been drenched in oil gone rancid from being kept too close to the stove.
A visit to the toilets, where more irony abounds, compounded the feeling that someone was taking the piss. A handful of wall tiles were adorned with cooking tips (obviously the staff never need to go during the day or they might learn something useful) and there was piped music that, God give me strength, taunted one and all with the sounds of Lionel Bart’s “Food Glorious Food” Like showing a parched man in a desert a picture of a glass of water.
Food this atrocious doesn’t come cheap and, with the breakfast at £6.50, a thimble full of decent fresh orange juice, a pot of tea and a tip for the staff, who asked how my meal was more than once and more in hope than expectation, it came to just under a shameful £13.
A further ten miles or so up the road, I stopped for petrol and peered through the windows of another Little Chef, this time, untouched by ironic design or the whims of a 3 * chef. It was like Heston Blumethal had never happened and one can’t help thinking on the showing of the Little Chef at Popham, that this could be a good thing.