Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A few facts for newcomers

1) I do lots of different themes and menus: quiz night, Marmite night (where every dish contained Marmite), flower night (used edible flowers), Elvis night, Astrology night(where the meal was based on the chart of the night), Middle Eastern food night, and so on. They all sell. I didn't do a Harry Potter night to sell tickets. I have no problem selling tickets, dates up until Christmas have been sold out for sometime. I planned this night because my daughter and I are fans of the books.

2) I support JK Rowling's authorial rights. I am fully aware of the issues of people stealing other people's work. I have the same problem. My training is photography, people steal my pictures all the time. People use the information and the writing from my blog all the time. Often they don't ask. In my ignorance I hadn't even thought that Warner Bros and JK Rowling would be bothered by a cook being inspired by the books to try to recreate the dishes. They are big, I am small. However Harry Potter is now part of the culture and a part of my daughter's childhood, of this generation's childhood, it seems heavy-handed to clamp down on every use of Harry Potter.

3) The Underground Restaurant is a home restaurant and asks for tickets to be pre-paid to cover the cost of the ingredients. If people don't pre-pay, they often don't turn up and I actually lose money. I can't afford that. The dinners are my only income at the moment as it has become a full-time job. I have a child to raise.

4) I don't make alot of money from the dinners. I keep prices low. Part of the reason I started The Underground Restaurant is because I can't afford to eat out at many London restaurants, so I try to keep the price down. Each dinner takes at least four days work: shopping, ordering, prepping, cooking, the night itself, then cleaning up, laundry, ironing, start again. Then I blog it. I regularly do long hours. It's no picnic. I no longer have a living room. There are sacrifices. And of course I can't buy ingredients as cheaply as a conventional restaurant. Generally guests are well behaved and appreciative.
You get the odd hurtful comment posted anonymously on websites. It feels personal, as it is in my home. It takes a certain courage to open up your home to strangers. However when you are in the public eye, so to speak, you have to take the rough with the smooth. I have never courted publicity, I've just been myself, and if people are interested in what I do, then that's great.

5) This is a movement. I'm not the only home restaurant, although I'm one of the first. You can find out about your local supperclub here: http://supperclubfangroup.ning.com/

6) I'd like to see a culture in which home cooking is appreciated. I just went to a top hotel where the main dish cost £30. It was practically inedible, tasteless and bland. But the food was so processed, so tampered with, a gelée of this, a mousse of that, a sous-vide here, a purée there, everything served in tiny puddles with smears and droplets of sauce which you couldn't pick up with your cutlery, so I was reduced to scooping it up with my fingers ... Why do chefs think they can improve on nature?
I'd like to raise the profile of mother's cooking too, for women do most of the cooking in the world, day in, day out, as opposed to a culture of male celebrity chefs. If you were an alien landing on this planet, turned on the TV, you'd think it was men doing all the cooking.

7) I don't eat or cook meat. I do sometimes cook fish. Everything is cooked on an Aga. I do love Marmite.

8) I'm single and available. I'm a teensy bit desperate actually. Hence the terrible dates on my The English can Eat blog.

9) I'm doing Christmas Day at The Underground Restaurant and New Years Eve. I'm basically sold out until Christmas so book after that date. Unless I suddenly get a large staff and a bigger house. Christmas day should be fun. We, my daughter and I, are a tiny family so we'd like to invite paying guests to share Christmas with us, eat lovely food baked in the Aga, play games, enjoy the roaring fire. Christmas...doing it so you don't have to...

10) I've been doing this since the beginning of this year. I've always wanted a restaurant, but many restaurants go bust in the first year and I don't have any financial backers. I love to cook. I have a beautiful flat, garden and an Aga oven so why not use it and share it. A living room restaurant is also a great little business from home. Perhaps I've forged a new career path? Delving deeper into my motivation for starting The Underground Restaurant, I always wanted lots of children, a big happy family sitting around a large table, eating, arguing, laughing, drinking. A bit, dare I say it, like the Weasleys. I guess this is my way of reproducing that vision.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Generic Wizard night

I was just about to post up the menu for my Harry Potter nights at The Underground Restaurant which will take place, appropriately, on Halloween when I received the following letter from Warner brothers.
    Dear Ms Marmite Lover,
    I have been asked to write to you by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment UK(together, "Warner").
    We notice that you're planning to hold a "Harry Potter Night at the Underground Restaurant" on 30th - 31st October 2009 with a Harry Potter style menu and butterbeer (the "Harry Potter Nights") and that tickets are being sold for the Harry Potter Nights on http://www.wegottickets.com/location/2522. While we are delighted that you are such a fan of the Harry Potter series, unfortunately your proposed use of the Harry Potter Properties (as we explain below) without our consent would amount to an infringement of Warner's rights.
    As you may know, Warner owns the trade mark and owns and/or controls the copyrights in and to the Harry Potter series of films based on J.K. Rowling's internationally acclaimed children's novels. Warner also owns the associated merchandising rights and has licensed to others the right to use various aspects of the Harry Potter property including the Harry Potter name, stylised logo, the names of the characters, themes, incidents and other associated indicia from the series of Harry Potter books and films (collectively, the "Harry Potter Properties") in respect of a wide variety of goods and services. In view of Warner’s ownership of these rights, no one may copy, license, exhibit, reproduce or otherwise trade on the Harry Potter Properties without the prior authorization and consent of Warner.
    We would therefore ask that you refrain from holding and/or offering for sale any tickets to the Harry Potter Nights and confirm to me by return email that the Harry Potter Nights will not go ahead as planned. Warner does not, of course, object to you holding a generic wizard/Halloween night at the Underground Restaurant.
    As I am sure you can appreciate, this email is not a complete statement of Warner's rights, all of which are expressly reserved.
    I look forward to hearing from you and please do feel free to call should you have any questions.
    Kind regards,
    Legal and Business Affairs - Europe
    Warner Bros. Entertainment Europe
    Warner House
    98 Theobald's Road, London, WC1X 8WB  
I've written back, saying that I've changed the title of the event to Generic Wizard night. But I added that J.K. Rowling herself, having at one time been a struggling single parent, and having donated to the National Council of One Parent Families, would probably approve of a single mother being entrepeneurial and creative.

I announced it on Twitter and there were plenty of jokes:

MsMarmitelover: Just got letter from Warner bros saying can't call my halloween dinners Harry Potter nights but Generic wizard nights

MsMarmitelover:Do I have to change the names of all the foods Icantbelieveitsnotbutterbeer?

Craftilicious @MsMarmitelover if the foods are trademarked, then probably yes, but I doubt it, it will just be the name harry potter that is tm'd

StefanChomka @MsMarmitelover 'Do I have to change the name of Icantbelieveitsnotbutterbeer?' Hell yes, or expect a Unilever/WarnerBros tag-team lawsuit

headtofoot @MsMarmitelover Why not just call it Parry Hotter nights, serve hint mumbugs,semon lherbets just turn it round a bit

katethebake @MsMarmitelover can you call them HARRY POTTER fan NIGHT instead? j write "fan" v. small. they can't knock their fans surely?!

MsMarmitelover Utterlybutterlybeer? Can I use the names lemon sherbets and mint humbugs please Warner bros? Not cauldron cakes, but lecreusetcakes

josordoni @MsMarmitelover and LargePot Cakes

MsMarmitelover @josordoni lol that makes it sound very interesting! Le creuset cakes is the yuppie version

and on Facebook I got these replies:

J:So even if you bought WB merchandise to decorate your room, it can't be referred-to by the movie's title? Beyond imagination. But then, that's WB for you.

Nicola Swift : Harry Notter!

Myself, my daughter (an HP obsessive) and food writer Catherine Phipps (qualification: used to moderate a HP forum) have been researching and developing the menu based, as accurately as possible, on food described in the books.The evening, as it stood, consisted of:

Journey through Diagon Alley...Give the password to the Fat Lady...

On Saturday night Professor Trelawney will be reading fortunes in the shrieking shed at the bottom of the garden, cross her palm with silver...

Sorting Hat to determine which house table you will sit at:


Dumbledore's favourite sweets, lemon sherbets and mint humbugs will be scattered on the tables.

To start we will have pumpkin soup accompanied by Witches hat pumpkin pasties.

It was difficult to think of main dishes that are not meat based for Harry Potter characters seem to be mostly carnivore. The only fish mentioned are pickled eels. They do eat Shepherd's pie and therefore I thought that Fish pie would be the most likely fishy equivalent. Also it contains mashed potatoes, which, along with roast potatoes, is always on the table at meals.
The main keynote is abundance; they can eat whatever they want, pluck it out of thin air.
Harry Potter characters do not eat complex exotic food. The dishes are recognisably English for the most part except a fish bouillabaise which the French ate during the international Quidditch tournament.
Minted peas and roast potatoes will accompany the fish pie.

For dessert...

Fizzpop chocolate frogs, cauldron cakes

Many Potter foods are magical, transformative. How can I reproduce that? I thought of the miracle berry, a fruit from Africa that transforms sour foods into sweet foods.
I will serve miraculin powder, an extract from the miracle berry. Guests will pour the contents of the sachets into the mouth, savouring the taste.
Accompanied by a tiny sugarless tarte au citron which will taste miraculously sweet.

Drinks available:

Goblet of fire: Schnapps with spun sugar balls £5 a glass
Butterbeer £4 a glass
Pumpkin juice £3 a glass
Dandelion wine £4 a glass

Price: £25, £20 for unemployed
Tips will be appreciated, but more than a quidditch please...

Update: Butterbeer is an old English recipe, Pumpkin pasties is a Caribbean recipe, chocolate frogs were popular before the book.
Update: The BBC, The Guardian, The Evening Standard, The Telegraph, The Observer have all written stories about this. I've even been interviewed on Australian radio where they've never heard of home restaurants!
I'm also getting to know a lot more about the world of Harry Potter fans. The British one's help 'translate' the books for the Americans, explaining certain terms and the grammar'Brit picking' they call it. There are Harry Potter conferences, Harry Potter re-enacted trials, there was even an academic paper explaining why Harry Potter is "a good Jewish boy".

Update: Some very interesting comments on this link. Such as ...

Definition Of Hollywood Lawyers:
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soul-less and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

63 Oct 26, 2009 at 18:45 by Noneya Bidness
When Barnes and Nobles was selling one of the Harry Potter books they were informed that their pre-release parties could not use the name Harry Potter or images of Harry Potter.
Publicity for the very books they wanted to sell was considered copyright infringement.
98 Oct 27, 2009 at 00:26 by Mitch
The problem for companies like Warner is that if they don’t “defend their copyright” other companies can make the claim that it has become de facto “public domain.” Thus, in order to prevent some low down snake from stealing your legitimate copyright, you have to be a low down snake yourself and stomp on little people who aren’t really doing you any damage.
What they really should do is offer a “fair use” license which acknowledges the copyright. Then everyone could be kept happy and legal, but they are too busy hissing at everyone in their best snakish manner to “defend their copyright.”
104 Oct 27, 2009 at 01:32 by Iain
There is a much better solution where everybody wins. Warner can give Ms Marmite Lover a license for a token sum ($1, for example), in exchange for her mentioning the generosity of Warner at the party or even in the press.
Ms Marmite Lover gets to have her harry potter party. Warner exercise their rights and get good publicity.
106 Oct 27, 2009 at 01:48 by Carface
She should have just ignored the letter, as it was addressed to someone who does not legally exist.
139 Oct 28, 2009 at 23:46 by Ninja
That’s real life for you. Those places are awesome, just like Ms Marmite’s initiative.
I have to agree WB is completely right there, however there are other ways to deal with it where every1 gets happy. Don’t sue, don’t threaten, tell her about the rights and add that you encourage such parties but request the permission to offer or make HP products available at the place – HP fans will probably end buying something and everybody gets money, including the money hungry WB.
Reminds me of the UK industry telling that piracy is killing the creative process or something like. Now, would that be a case where the victim becomes the killer?
WB, learn from this. Work with your costumers, not against them.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

First Weekend

Purple cauliflower with anchovy mayonnaise

Champagne 'Les Vignes de Vrigny', milk of maize shots, and padron roulette.

Cucumber boats with trout

David Clasen with spoons of caviar 'Belgian Flag'

Seared tuna, again cooked 'a point' just so. An energy boost that only clean tasting fish can deliver.

Chilled courgette soup and it's rollmops, seared foie gras

Beautifully bottled water from Les Vosges

The softly lit room with a perfect 12 and Jont singing

Shimeji and Gres des Vosges Risotto (perfectly cooked and creamy) served with Riesling Turckheim 2006 Zind-Humbrecht

Aubergine with delicious and unusual nutmeg icecream with pointy cabbage

Sanglier slow-roast with pointy cabbage, onion tart and nutmeg ice-cream. Obviously I didn't taste the meat, but everybody was oohing and aahing and conversation ground to a halt so...

Guests listening to Jont's songs of failure in love and other areas...

There were three plates of cheese, passed from table to table

Vacherin with a spoon, one of the season's earliest...

Going goat (my fave)

I was greedy and had a bit of both desserts...1)Apple and blackberry oat-crumble with saffron custard 2)Victoria jelly and 'whoosh' (an aeriated mousse)

Exquisite china...a wedding present

A decade before Horton and I started our home restaurants, sparking the new wave of supperclubs in London, David Clasen was doing the same thing every first Saturday of the month in South Kensington.
Until recently he never charged, and in the early stages, all the guests were friends, contacts or friends or friends. "A gentle marketing" he calls this. But things have changed, he's given up his job in the city, and he's now asking for donations of around £50. The standard of his food and the wine is very high.
The night I went, arriving just a little late, as instructed (1), ARTE, the Franco-German channel were filming. Cameramen were positioned on roof tops over David's small back yard. Looking up while drinking champagne, one felt, somewhat thrillingly, that we were about to be shot at by snipers...
David only ever cooks for 12 diners, for him the perfect number(2) for a successful dinner, and besides he only has 12 plates, glasses and chairs. Like many home restaurants, decisions are made due to site specific limitations, he can only lay out 12 plates at a time in his rather small kitchen. He also cites as inspiration, the New York restaurant Momofuko which only has 12 covers, set dining times and an egalitarian pre-paid booking system.
Normally he is helped by his son Leo who, until recently, in a bizarre coincidence, also went to the Lycee in London, just like my daughter. On this occasion his French wife Caroline did front of house honours.
We are seated, after a selection of amuse-bouches, in traditional style, alternately man then woman. Halfway through the meal, the ladies stood up and swapped tables, a great way of getting to talk to everybody.
The guests, interesting conversationalists, are older and better off than my crowd. The exception, along with me, being a young man Jont, playing 'inter-course' songs, strumming on heartfelt guitar, who specialises in house concerts.
There were excellent matched wines (I loved the Bourgogne Chardonnay 2005 Jean Grivot)with every course, water from Les Vosges, an area of France that is mostly unknown to British tourists...
David calls this 'a slow burn'. He's gradually perfecting his skills to start his own restaurant which will be part-time. (Contact him if you know of any A3 premises available in central London). He has worked as a commis chef for various restaurants, but he didn't want to be a full-time cook. Like me, he's never done catering college. He describes his food as 'aggressively seasonal". Every menu is different. His other passion is singing.
We talked about what night to hold suppers, how that changes the dynamic...Thursday nights are good for people with second homes or families in the countryside, Friday lunchtime to evening is urban, people coming straight from work, still in work mode. Saturday night is a dress up, going out, special occasion night. Sunday is relaxed.. a roast and BBQ vibe.
The cheese board, including one of the first Vacherin cheeses of the season, was stunning, a real treat. We finished with Tomtom coffee and sweetmeats...the owner of Tomtom coffee was sat next to me. He also owns a cigar shop, one of the few public places you are allowed to smoke indoors, and regaled us with funny stories of 'working ladies' in his area.
The warm atmosphere, careful management of the evening, skillful cooking and well chosen wines make First Weekend a must visit. Contact David at www.firstweekend.co.uk

(1) So difficult when people arrive early for dinner parties for it's the moment when you get that final chance to stick on a bit of mascara and lippy. You feel you have to entertain them. But with transport problems at present, this is happening more frequently, and you can hardly make them wait on the doorstep in the cold. The perfect guest arrives 10 minutes late.

(2) Twelve is an important number to Abrahamic religions, astrology, the Chinese Zodiac, the modern Western calender, and of course time. According to wikipedia "Twelve is a sublime number, a number that has a perfect number of divisors, and the sum of its divisors is also a perfect number" and relevantly "The duodenum (from Latin duodecim, "twelve") is the first part of the small intestine, that is about twelve inches long."

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Being seen at the Zine scene

Punk wasn't just about music, it included design, fashion and journalism. It led to a movement of home-made magazines, ready to fill the gap of the stuff that wasn't being published in all the straight press. Some of them were fairly rough, traced painstakingly on blue carbon copy paper... This was before photocopiers remember, before scanning, before digital photography...
But the energy and passion rippled off the folded pages, decorated with hand drawings, fiery opinion pieces and interviews. Out of the 'zines, Sniffin' glue' by Mark P. was probably the most well known. I also remember that heady moment, imaginary fists punched in the air, a feeling of having won the war, when zine ZigZag banished long haired whiskery hippies from it's front page and embraced the new wave with it's first punk cover.
Along with the punk style roots of do-it-yourself home restaurants, the 'zine scene has spread to food.
How do we read about food at the moment? The newspapers carry articles, but they tend to be rather short, lacking the space to explore food writing in detail. The Guardian Word of Mouth blog, one of the most popular food blogs in the world, is carrying the banner for lively up-to-the-minute democratic food writing, sometimes even plucking talented and regular commenters from anonymity and urging them to write articles. There are glossy magazines which publish luscious photographs, wonderfully styled and detailed recipes but confusingly will carry ads for junk food on the next page. And of course there are blogs, new ones starting every day, covering every aspect of food from the cup of coffee at your local caff, the dinner they made last night, the restaurant they started in their front room, to Michelin starred restaurants and trips to El Bulli.
But there is something to be said for the tactile pleasure of holding a work in your hand. Otherwise why do books still sell? In terms of comprehension, we read differently on the net. Even with books it is said that we retain only 10 percent of what we read (1). I'm sure this proportion is even less when reading off a screen.
So I am excited about the emergence of two new food zines (what to call them? chow-zines?nutri-zines? No, that sounds like a sweetener). Guardian writer Tim Hayward has started a zine, a rather upmarket one, called Fire&Knives, the first issue due out in November. He describes it as giving
"established writers a place for work that would not be published elsewhere; new writers a place to show themselves and experts in other fields an opportunity to write about our favourite subject"
On Monday night I attended the launch of Galleyslave, a stylish and witty pirate-themed 'zine from food journalist and broadcaster Joe Warwick, it's strapline 'putting the wind up the London restaurant scene'. Printed on folded broadsheet size recycled paper, Galleyslave carries articles on new restaurant openings, gossip from the restaurant world, and classified job ads, a section entitled 'Slave Auction'.
The launch was held at Hix, Mark Hix's new restaurant and bar in Soho. We were served fantastic cocktails, cleverly based on the pirate theme, a rum punch and a gin punch. There were bowls of pirate eyepatches on the bar. You could tell that the food was pretty stunning, even though we only got to try the canape version.
In particular I loved the goujons of battered fish served on a bed of sweet mushy peas. The chips, and readers will know how important chips are to me, were out of this world, served on huge platters with a bowl of mayonnaise in the middle. Standing with some food bloggers, positioned accidentally by the kitchen where the wait staff emerged with the plates of food (2), I noticed that one of these large trays of chips had been left casually on a table of four thin girls. I can't abide waste of that nature, so quickly relieved them of the platter.
Mark Hix, who I tried to talk to, explained that the chips were blanched in water, then in oil, then given a final fry.
Your intrepidly scoffing reporter here, however, got rather upset on this evening. Why? I was introduced to a food writer, Sharp by name, sharp by nature, who snorted with derision when she found out that I was a blogger.
"I NEVER read blogs" she harrumphed. "NOT interested AT all"
"How very 20th century of you! " I quipped lightly, thinking her overreaction was in good spirit, joshing like.
I can't remember exactly what she replied, as I was too busy reeling backwards from the venom spurting from her tongue, but it was something along the lines of
"Go away you nasty blogger, I'm trying to talk to my friend Joe and you are interrupting".
Thinking, well perhaps that was a bit rude of me, I took a step back and went up to her a little while later, apologising... Jesus, I never learn do I?
" I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to be nasty. I do understand how you feel as a print journalist. My dad's a journalist and I'm a photographer, I have exactly the same problems getting paid. Things have changed, but I think we have to adapt..." I gabbled, the words tumbling out in my attempt to appease her.
She eyed me steadily, I thought I was being given another chance. How wrong I was, she was merely gearing up for another mauling. One of the best of the food bloggers, an aspiring journalist, came up to us
"Oh you two have met, oh you will get on soo well, she's amazing this lady she..."
"Er well we've already had a bit of a spat" I ventured
I then go on to explain the dispute when this lady spears me with a look saying
"EXCUSE ME, I think (this food blogger) knows me quite well enough and my views on the subject and doesn't need it repeated by you. Now I'M HERE to speak to my friends"
and swivelled on her heel, turning her back to me.
The young food blogger was pulled away to talk to somebody who'd just come in and I was left on my own, feeling stupid. I hardly knew anybody there.
I'm always going to places on my own, thinking it will be fine, I'm a brave lass like that. I have social skills, I can talk to pretty much anybody. But suddenly I was projected back into the nightclub scene of the 80s when I used to feel like the loser at fashionable clubs. I didn't realise then that much of the arrogant behaviour was fuelled by cocaine and other drugs. The atmosphere of this launch reminded me of the 'greed is good' selfishness of the 80s. I stood back stung by the sight and sound of professional networkers using their metaphorical stilettos (heels and knives) clawing over each other's backs to talk to someone higher up the food chain. So I cried. Yes, that bad lady made MsMarmitelover cry. Hot humiliated tears spilled onto my pink dress with it's peekaboo cleavage.
I was going to leave but Joe Warwick and his lovely kind girlfriend offered therapy by way of more cocktails.
The whole food blogging scene has become quite cliquey, there are practically gangs; not so much the 'crips and the bloods' but the 'chips and bloods'. Food writers lurk in restaurant doorways, spit in each other's food and turn the knife slowly. It's surf and turf wars. Thrusting new bloggers are giddy with perceived power the result of PR emails inviting them to tastings and desperate for the recognition that getting into print will give them. Older established bloggers are bothered by young upstarts ...
"Some of these young bloggers in their 20s, know very little about food..."
Whereas print journalists are threatened by all bloggers, young and old, as evidenced in Nick Davies book 'Flat Earth News' and his talk which I blogged about last year. Murdoch is trying to think of a way to make online journalism pay. You can download everything, music, film, tv, photographs, your latest school essay, for free off the net.
But how is the 'talent', the people who make the content, going to live when nobody will pay ?

(1) I found this quote.. "Memory: We retain: 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we see ?50 percent of what we hear and see; 70 percent of what we say; 90 percent of what we say and do "
(2) Standing by the exit hatch is always the best place to position yourself at parties, in order to avoid that terrible condition known as 'canape stress', where you see a platter tantalisingly bobbing through the crowd, invariably empty by the time it gets to you. It's even worse for veggies I can tell you. Coming up to the Christmas season, you'd be surprised how many hosts and caterers don't think of those that don't eat meat. Shut up at the back, you. Vegetarians do count.