Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Food and drink in Kent, England

the Corner House restaurant, Kent

Margate beach, Kent
English asparagus, Kent

I get an email:
'Would you like to come down to see the asparagus farm in Kent on April Fools' Day?'
'Yes please.'
Grabbing my tickets at Kings Cross St Pancras I ran, puffing for the train. You could only get on the first six carriages up the other end of the platform.
Once I'd settled in my seat, I realised I had no idea where to get off. I DM'd the PR. 'You get off at Minster.' Cool. I relaxed.
A few minutes later: 'But you have to change at Ashford International'. I got this message one minute before we arrived at Ashford International.
I disembark and ask a train guard how I can get a train to Minster.
 'On platform 5 here. It's the next train'.
I wait. Sitting down. Minutes pass. I start to wonder why the train hasn't arrived.
I find the guard. 'Oh it's been and gone.'
'What? How can I not have seen it?'
I'm seriously doubting my own sanity. A train arrived in front of me and somehow I didn't notice.
The next one is an hour away. Or you can get on a train to Canterbury. By now I'm sending hysterical tweets to the PR:
From @msmarmitelover: 'Lost. Mess.'
I get on the train to Canterbury.
I get a tweet saying, 'Don't get on the train to Canterbury'.
I reply: 'I'm on the train to Canterbury'.
'Get off at Canterbury then wait for another hour to get to Minster.'
By now I'm stressed, tired. I'm losing it, I think.
Eventually I get to The Corner House restaurant in Minster, where I've missed lunch.
We drive to farmer Matthew Spanton's farm, and he shows us the sorting house where the asparagus is washed, sorted, snipped, measured, sorted for size, grade and crookedness. If it's too bent supermarkets won't take it. The machine is impressive but there are no asparagus on the conveyor belt.
asparagus in Kent, Mathew Spanton Farm.

We then walk to the middle of a field where the farmer uncovers a mound and points to three barely discernible shoots.
'I'm afraid it's been cold the last couple of days and the asparagus isn't ready.'
We gaze at the shoots. I take pictures. The farmer holds a knife next to the asparagus:
'When the asparagus reaches to the top of the knife, we can pick it.'
Chef Matt Sworder of The Corner House takes a small bunch of asparagus from the farmer who apologises, 'that's all I had', and sets up a mini-kitchen on the back of a truck, including a camping gas hob, some rapeseed oil, some green hop beer, butter and a little salt. He cooks asparagus like I do, griddling with a little oil or butter and then adding some liquid to steam it.
asparagus, beer, rapeseed oil
Although the market for asparagus is growing, still people are afraid to cook it. They think you need special pans. Often they over-boil it and are disappointed. As asparagus is not that cheap, this failure puts them off.
Green asparagus is exactly the same as white asparagus, which the Austrians and Germans are obsessed with. White asparagus has been forced underground, deprived of the sunlight and chlorophyll that will make it green. It has perhaps a slightly milder taste.
Matt gives us a precious spear each, which we dip into mayonnaise. It is delicious. Nothing like eating produce next to the field that it was grown in.
Next we drive to a rapeseed oil farm, Kentish Oils. I've visited a rapeseed farm previously. It's Britain's olive oil. We are shown the processing machine, the seeds and the 'cake' which is what is left after the oil is pressed out. The cake is sold as animal feed. I taste some, it's pretty good. I start to think about the seed. How come one never sees rapeseeds for sale? You know, like poppy seeds or sunflower seeds or hemp or linseed? I grab a handful and eat them. Not bad. Not great but there's probably tons of vitamins in them.
rape seed, Kentish Oils, kent
We have a go at bottling our own oil then do a tasting of different rapeseed oils. The lemon flavoured one is particularly good. Then I feel my stomach cramp. The toilet is right next to the tasting room. I sit on the loo and I can hear the people doing their tasting. Me I've got the shits all of a sudden. Plop plop plop. The noise resounds. I'm sure they can hear me. I turn the tap on to try and disguise it. They probably think I pee like an elephant. After an unfeasibly long period in the toilet, I emerge back into the tasting room. I'm not completely ready but it's all getting embarrassing. But nobody says anything. This is Britain after all.
We get back into the van and my stomach starts to seize up. We are driving along Kentish lanes.
'How long will it take to get to the next place?' I squirm.
'About fifteen minutes,' the driver replies.
I throw dignity to the wind and squeak: 'I hope I can keep it in until then.'
'I can stop next to a field,' offers the driver.
'I've got a tissue,' says a blogger.
'I've left my phone back at the rapeseed oil place,' gasps another. We have to turn back.
I google rapeseed on my phone. It's highly toxic.
I've taken to praying to the god of poo. It works, my stomach calms itself.
Our next stop is the Ramsgate Brewery run by a droll fellow called Eddie Gadd who used to be an engineer and helped dig the Channel tunnel.
He says: 'I'm going to tell you how to brew beer.' 
And he does.
Left to Right: malted barley, crystal malt barley, roasted barley, hops. Ramsgate brewery, Kent
Kent is famous for hops 'East Kent Goldings' which is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). But hops are fairly recent in the history of beer, an innovation brought over from Holland 500 years ago. They add bitterness and  shelflife: preserving the beer beyond a few days. Now beer lasted a matter of weeks rather than days. This is when production grew larger and men took over brewing as a profession. Prior to that, making beer was a woman's job (wasn't everything?). Women would place a broomstick sticking out from their door to signify 'fresh beer for sale'. Hence the expression 'small beer'. We still see this tradition in pub signs hanging perpendicularly from the outside.
the Cornerhouse restaurant, Minster, Kent
That evening I eat a fine local meal at the Corner House, which uses, where possible, Kent produce. We have Kentish beer, Kentish wine, asparagus, flavoured rapeseed oil, cheeses from Kent. I spend a comfortable night in the B & B upstairs.
Oast house Kent
Even Kent's architecture is influenced by beer, with occasional Oast houses, where hops were dried, still to be seen. I spoke to one woman who lives in an Oast house dating from the 1840s, converted to a house in the 1970s.
'When it's windy the cowl at the top of the chimney spins around', she told me, 'and it sounds like a ghost lives here.'
Thanet in Kent, the garden of England, is an island. There is a river that surrounds it, which has been silted up. Before you had to ask the boatman to take you across. I walk around the village of Minster, the 'capital' of the island of Thanet, with the owner of The Corner House restaurant. It's the kind of picture-perfect English village where everyone knows everyone. He says hello to virtually everybody we come across.
Minster Abbey, Kent
Minster abbey, Kent
We visit Minster Abbey, which is a rare Pre-Conquest building with Norman additions. The herring-bone style of brickwork is Saxon, and the original window slits, without glass, gave air and light. A Benedictine order of nuns live there. There are still about 20 orders of nuns in the UK. In English we tend to say 'nunnery' but actually monastery is technically accurate. It means an enclosed community, where the community comes in rather than the sister going out. So hospitality is important and you can still stay with the sisters, using the abbey as a retreat. The abbess Domneva was the original founder of this religious order, and was given Thanet as blood money by the Saxon King Ethelbert of Kent. Her daughter, St Mildred, was the second abbess.
Margate beach bubbles
Dreamland Roller disco, Margate
We drove to Margate and visited Dreamland, a retro seaside funfair with old fashioned rides. Margate is now a thriving and fashionable resort, with vintage shops selling fashion and furniture. The Sands hotel has been updated, you can eat on the balcony overlooking the sea front.
cafe, Margate, kent
The most thrilling part of my trip was visiting the Turner Contemporary gallery, named of course, after the artist, who frequently painted in Margate. The exterior was poorly designed, looking like a modern warehouse blocking a view of the sea but inside it was light and lovely. There was a stunning exhibion by Yinka Shonibari of Dutch batik wrapped books with the names of public figures printed in gold on the spine. A must-see.
turner contemporary, Yinka Shonebari

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Voluntourism in Calais

dunkirk refugee kitchen

refugee camp The Jungle at Calais
People who have succeeded in getting to the UK. refugee camp 'the jungle' Calais
Dunkirk refugee Kitchen
Refugee Community Kitchen, Calais
From the moment I arrived in my tiny car with catering tins of coconut milk and tomatoes and 100 kilos of donated Shipton Mill flour, slumped like lumpen bodies in the boot, the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais reminded me of my activist past, of squat cafes, of cooking at festivals.
Young people with dreadlocks, fresh faced students, punctuated by the odd older person were basking in the May sunshine, eating a simple lunch of lentils and salad.
scenes from Refugee Community Kitchen, Calais

I off-loaded my food supplies, a young Australian woman noting with concern that they only have one week of rice left.

'We are desperate for donations. Usually there is a line of vehicles waiting to deliver, but today we only have three: you are the third.'
In the kitchen, set in a tented section with low burners lining one wall crowned by enormous hundred litre stewpots, I suggested I could make flatbreads with the flour. The kitchen comprises several stainless steel counters, an industrial mixer, a robo-coupe, hot water and a slightly dodgy oven.
The stores are well organised with sections for dry goods, tins, spices, fresh vegetables, herbs, and an area where they bag up family packs so that some refugees can cook for themselves.
Further along the vast warehouse is where the clothes and bedding are stored. First they are cleaned then sorted into types of garment - hoodies, men's trousers, womens t-shirts long-sleeved, etc. There is a large area for sorting shoes into sizes; one woman volunteer checks their laces - are they matched? Are they in good condition?
At the back are shelves full of water bottles, camping stoves, saucepans, plates, cutlery, childrens' toys.
If you volunteer for the kitchen you will be catering for around 1,500 people a day. Usually three pots (300 litres) are for stew, all made with the same aromatics - 1 part ginger, 1 part garlic to 2 parts onion.
Paul, the head chef, has perfected the art of making perfectly fluffy rice, 500 litres, for 1,500 people. This requires experience and know-how. Their technique is to 'dress' the rice with oil then parboil it, scoop it into gastros (the metal rectangular pans used in catering) and let it continue to steam, adding nuts, sultanas, spices, fresh coriander.
'This is basically Ready Steady Cook en masse,' explains Paul. 'We use one tonne of food per day.'
Always there is a curry or stew, rice and salad. The refugees LOVE salad. I can see why: when you are camping for months on end without running water, you end up craving raw vegetables.
Simone, who used to be a singer and is now the kitchen coordinator, tells me:
'Some chefs get here and want to do complicated dishes, say fennel, ginger and orange salad. But actually the refugees want simple food: lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes.'
At the moment there is a surfeit of swedes. The trouble is the refugees don't like swedes, finding them too sweet. The idea of sweet vegetables in curry is anathema to them. They aren't mad on courgettes either.
Another chef tells me: 'The Africans don't like salt, other nationalities love salt. Some of them love spicy food, others don't. Surprisingly they don't really like Indian food...' (implying there is a kind of snobbery about it)
It's difficult to cater for everyone. Some of the chefs are professional, but this is mass catering, a different ball game. Viv, for instance, who has worked for Deliciously Ella and The Detox Kitchen, volunteers one week a month, depending on how much paid work she has.

All sorts are providing supplies: Riverford Organics sends vegetables by the tonne. Welsh vegetarian organisation The Parsnipship regularly bring over produce. Sometimes individuals drive up with just a few items. The day I was there, dozens of five litre glass jars of red pepper sauce and babaghanoush from Ottolenghi were being added to a curry.

'This week Ottolenghi saved our arse, we've so few donations.'
Lush cosmetics gave £53k to build the warehouse.
'Pretty good considering they get no advertising from it. They gave us cash, not products.' 
'We have the best smelling refugees in the world,' joked Paul.
Later we visit the infamous Calais 'Jungle'. There are myriad rules. Don't go at night. Wear baggy clothes. Don't give any personal details. Don't ask their stories, you might trigger bad memories.
I leave my car outside the camp.
 'Have you got anything valuable in there?'
'Yes I've got my laptop.' (I hadn't yet checked into my hotel.)
'Hmm. You might be ok as there are police around.'
This place is full of rats at night.
'I thought they were rabbits,' says Viv. 'There were hundreds.'
During my entire three day visit I only see four female refugees. Paul, the Scottish chef who is a long term volunteer, talks about the hidden women:
 'We mustn't judge their culture.'
Behind me, my daughter fumes, remarking later that he is a mansplaining brocialist.
Walking down the 'high street' of The Jungle, there are two bakeries, a barbers, a bookshop, several grocers (packs of ten cigarettes wrapped in silver foil) standing in front of neat shelves, a few chai shops, some restaurants. I take a picture of the cigarettes.
'Don't take pictures,' says Paul. 'Things could spark off.'  
'I only took a picture of an object with my iPhone,' I protest.  
'Yeah, well, it's really delicate.'
I take pictures of things and ask people if it's ok. It's always ok. In fact, some people want selfies. They love that I'm with my daughter. Normality. Families. They ask Paul why he isn't married, why he doesn't have children when he's in his 30s.
At one chai shop, the edges of the room covered with billowing rose-blotched fabric, men sprawl and smoke as the sun filters dustily through the gaps in the tarp.
Under the bar are pinned photos of successful emigrés to the UK, each has a date below, the date that they managed to get over the water. 30/11/15. 2/1/16.
'It's like tombstones but instead of the date of death, the date is when their life begins,' I try to explain to one. 
He understands and he laughs, translating for his friends. They nod. These are the success stories - those who have made it through the fence, through the tunnel, over and under the English channel to the chalky cliffs and beyond.
Sweet milky chai is offered, a toot of a fruit shisha pipe.
I look at some pencil drawings on a wall. A man sidles up to me and lisps in a whisper:
 'Can you help me? Ten euros please.'
I say no, shaking my head and smiling. If I start giving money, it may never end. It's hard to know what to do.
Dinner at the 3 Idiots restaurant,  refugee camp 'the jungle' Calais

Further along we stop to eat at the Three Idiots restaurant where the charming restaurateur, a Pakistani who learnt good English in Israel, welcomes us.

'Please please welcome. Remove your shoes,' he beckons, bowing, for us to ascend a small platform built around the edge of the space.
We eat cross legged around a piece of coloured plastic tablecloth, used as a picnic blanket. Vegetable samosas, spinach, lentils, rice with sweet carrot batons and raisins cost us eight euros. The food is very good, as is the nearby bakery that sells freshly made naan bread in a fiery tandoor oven. I start to feel embarrassed that us Westerners are cooking for them when these people cook so well.
'Why am I making bread when they make fantastic bread here?' I ask a volunteer. 
'Many refugees cannot afford to buy the naan.'
It costs one euro for three naan.
the naan bakery,  refugee camp 'the jungle' Calais
In this camp there are 5,000 souls sometimes sleeping 12 to a tarped-up hut, and I've heard claims that there are 1,000 women but I don't see one in The Jungle, not even one.
The men try every night to get on lorries, to make it to England. Some have got through and manage a couple of years before getting deported back to their countries. Then they go through the whole process again, making the gruelling journey to Calais. Sometimes, those that do reach the UK miss The Jungle. It's a community. Starting from scratch in a new country with no money, no accommodation, no job, no family, hiding from immigration, must be very lonely. When somebody gets asylum, there are celebrations in the camp.
As you drive from the ferry port you can see patched up areas in the white metal grills, topped with the rolling coils of barbed wire, where it has been cut. The camp is very near to the port, a tall fence, a sand bar, tufts of long grass and then the tented shacks, strapped like badly wrapped presents, tarp blowing in the beach winds. I imagine the atmosphere was very different through the long winter.
Right now lots of people are getting through to England because many French police have been deployed elsewhere in France to deal with riots.
I ponder the refugees I have met. The energy they must use up. The determination. I don't know how they keep going.
'Why the UK?' I ask a volunteer youth worker.
'It's the land of milk and honey. We have benefits, we aren't as openly racist as the French. They've been treated horribly by the French. And we speak English, plus there are already Afghani, Pakistani, Syrian communities in the UK.'
I meet a Belgian guy who gives slam poetry workshops. I think, but don't say, that this probably isn't a very useful skill for the British economy, but at least it keeps them entertained.
Perhaps they have a distorted view of the British people via the volunteers. We are all smiley and friendly and non-judgmental: the volunteer men are dispensing 'salam alaikums', back slaps and hugs. Many long term volunteers are judgmental of other 'lesser' volunteers, who they refer to as 'voluntourists'. There's always a hierarchy, the cool kids versus the rest, even in the most well intentioned organisation.
One young woman half my age tells me my footwear isn't adequate (it was), my apron shouldn't be worn to the camp (why?), if I put my bag down it will be treated as a donation (useful), that my cookbook will get splashed (so what?). I felt like I was treading on eggshells, everything I did was wrong.
There is the beautiful Israeli girl who speaks Urdu who gets told off for inadvertently showing her bum cleavage in one of the cafes.
I ask some heavily made-up peroxide blonde girls with blue face paint on their cheeks (yes, they seem to think they are at a festival) if I can take a picture of their meal.
'Only the food, not us,' they sniff. 
'Oh because you are illegal immigrants,' I say sarcastically.
What the refugees are seeing actually is British hippiedom in full flow. This is not England. This is alternative England, the England of Glasto and protest marches. Things will be very different if they succeed in getting here.
On the second day I make 300 peshwari pitta breads, filled with dessicated coconut, sultanas and ground almonds. The oven doesn't work so I cook them on flat pans on the low burners. By the end, my daughter and I are like a well oiled machine, dividing up the dough, weighing it, filling it, rolling it out, toasting it. It's not enough for everybody as I have to wait until the main food is finished. I feel disheartened but Paul assures me it'll be a treat for the refugees to have home-baked bread, even if it is just the women and children.
That evening we work till 7pm, clean up the kitchen and go to a restaurant in Calais, the only one open on a Monday night. It's a fussy looking restaurant with lace curtains, peach tablecloths and empty Balthazars and Jeroboams bottles of champagne lining the stairway. The restaurateur is alone and we are the only customers. We chat in French and I explain that I'm cooking for the refugees. She smiles sadly:
'No one comes to Calais anymore because of this situation. Les gens fuirent (the people flee). They read about the refugee camps and see it on the news and they are frightened to come. It's hard to keep the business going,'
Suddenly I see things from their perspective. Calais and the North has always been the poorest part of France, with the highest unemployment and alcoholism.
We eat our set menu, three courses and two glasses of wine cost 72 euros. The food is refined and well presented. This is the only money she makes all night.
A sleepless night at the F1 hotel (30 euros a night, walls like cardboard) and a decent croissant at a bakery, we drive half an hour to the refugee kitchen.
While waiting to continue with the bread, for a free work counter, I chop vegetables with the other women: tomatoes, aubergines.
We are told that we have been bumped off the distribution rota, the opportunity to serve our food to the refugees in The Jungle, which is disappointing as we are leaving that night.
dunkirk community kitchen for refugees
dunkirk community kitchen for refugees
dunkirk community kitchen for refugees
I drive instead to Dunkirk, which Jeremy Corbyn visited this winter, where they are building a new kitchen. You can see the camp from the autoroute, wooden structures rather than a shanty town of tents and tarps. This new camp is mainly Kurdish and Syrian refugees.
I'm shown to the kitchen where the atmosphere is very different from Calais, welcoming and relaxed. Here the refugees themselves are the chefs and the volunteers do the prepping.
My daughter and I are given name tags by Sylvie, a French volunteer, which is lovely as people can talk to us using our names.
One of the Kurdish chefs, a baker by profession, calls to me:
'Kerstin, you want to cook tonight? You be the chef!'
'So sorry I can't as I have to catch the ferry,' but I'm pleased to be asked.
shlai patata, dunkirk community kitchen for refugees
We catch the lunch session and are encouraged to help distribute. We stand in the serving van; there is a long queue of around 200 people. The first pot is rice and fried potatoes, the second is a Shlai Patata, a tomato and potato stew with mysterious objects floating around.
'What is this?' I ask the chef.
'Humi,' I think he replies.
'Hummus?' I haven't understood.
Then I eat a bowl, I'm hungry, and I pull apart the strange black object which turns out to be black dried lime softened in the soup. In fact the chef was saying 'loomi'. It's deliciously sour. I'm so nicking this recipe.
The third dish is the salad, a chunky cucumber and tomato salad with lemon and then my breads,  which are a mash-up between peshwari naan and pitta breads.
Some refugees just want salad and bread. They look at the sultanas intently. They pick them out, eat them then smile and ask for more. The breads I made that day are still warm.
my peshwari pitta breads, dunkirk community kitchen for refugees
The atmosphere is jolly with Kurdish music, loud joking, dancing, singing, catch phrases in various languages.
'No pasa nada' cries chef Rebar, something he's learnt from his new BFF, a Spanish guy with whom he plays dominoes after the meal.
Again, the majority are men (some of them, my daughter and I agreed, were rather handsome).
Later we drink tea together, or should I say, we drink sugar with a little tea. At the bottom of the cup I can see a melting mound of 'white death'. Haval, a Kurd, plays guitar.
Sylvie, a French woman who has been volunteering since December, tells me what they need:
'We don't need chefs so much, we need choppers and helpers. We always need help though. Yesterday we had hardly anyone. Here in this kitchen we want the refugees to cook themselves. Originally, Utopia, the organisation here, didn't want that because it's a security risk. We give the refugees cards. They all want to be here, they are near the food then.'
I think if I were a refugee, not having control of my food situation would drive me crazy. I hate staying with other people when you feel like you can't eat what you want. Sylvie continues:
'We are forming three teams that will alternate. We want one of the teams to be women but we have to get their husbands to agree. The husbands didn't want them to come because of the German men. We are working on that with the help of a Tunisian volunteer who speaks Arab - she's talking to the husbands. We've said the husbands can come and check, make sure everything is ok.'
In Dunkirk they provide three meals a day:
'The 'German Kitchen' makes the breakfast, fruit, hummus, babaghanoush, every morning. This Kurdish team make dinner every night.'
Outside the kitchen there is a large banner saying 'Volkskuchen Munchen' hung near an army tank that heats hot water. I talk to a German volunteer.
'Are you German?' I ask, as I want a translation. 
'Yes,' he says, pausing. 'But I don't want to be.' 
'I want to be me, not a German.'
I think of all the young men outside the kitchen in the camp that would love to have a German passport.

The German tells me that when the refugees cook for themselves, the queues are enormous.

'They know what the camp wants to eat. Their food is very popular.'
'And it's really good food! I exclaim. 'It gives them something useful to do, it's empowering. '
'Yes, it's the taste of home. '
Serving food, dunkirk community kitchen for refugees

Sylvie's List for Dunkirk Kitchen

Fresh herbs, particularly coriander

Natural yoghurt
Chicken (they rarely get meat)
Fresh tomatoes
Vegetables - lots
Fruit - always
Aubergines - they like them
Red lentils
Chick peas
Large white beans in tins
Spinach in tins
Green beans in tins
Basmati rice (good quality if possible as it's easier to cook in bulk)
Fresh yeast as they like to make bread
Knives for the kitchen (if you volunteer bring your own)
Large catering colanders
Chopping boards
For smaller quantities of food, they put it in the 'free shop' for families to take and cook.

Simone's list for the Refugee Community Kitchen at Calais


Natural Yoghurt
Fresh coriander
Money for gas
Brooms and dustpans
Catering sized clingfilm

Volunteering for the kitchens.

Volunteers, and this is what I did, must pay their own way in terms of transport, accommodation and meals outside of working hours. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

10 places to eat in Manhattan

It's really hard to do a 'best of' listicle about eating in Manhattan because most places are good. As fromager Tia Keenan said to me: 'You can eat so well in New York, you can eat a different meal, three times a day, for years without repeating the same restaurant.'
I ate a bit randomly, not following a structured route. There were three places I wanted to try before I got there: Dirt Candy, byCHLOE. and Dominic Ansell. 
Dirt Candy and byCHLOE are both vegetarian/vegan restaurants and Dominic Ansell, well- I wanted to try a cronut. The others I just sort of happened upon or was recommended.
Meatless cuisine is taken seriously in the states, unlike here.You have superb chefs and restaurants creating nose to tail vegetable dishes- for me a kind of culinary ecstasy.
One issue on this visit to Manhattan was how expensive it was to eat out. In previous years, New York restaurants have been very reasonably priced, but several factors listed below means that eating out in London is, by comparison, a bargain.

  • The disadvantageous exchange rate of the pound to the dollar 
  • The gentrification of Manhattan Island, for no grungy or down-at-heel areas remain
  • The ridiculous levels of tipping. You are tight-fisted if you only leave 10 to 15%. At a minimum 18% is expected and more commonly 20%. Along with the reported insults you get from staff if you don't leave a sufficient tip, the whole business becomes fraught. Eating out should not be this stressful. 
  • Sales tax. In Manhattan it's 8.875%. (Although in the UK VAT, effectively the same thing, is 20% in restaurants so with our customary 10 to 15% tip, you are paying up to a 35% surcharge on a meal).
Another thing I noticed is that when you pay a bill, they arrive with their machine for your card, you punch in the numbers and they leave you a 'check'. You then fill in the amount of tip. I spent the first few days impatiently waiting for the waiter to return and collect the check. They don't, which I find disconcerting, after all they could write anything in that section, changing the numbers of the tip amount.

I think we should all be like the French and not tip at all. Food prices charged at restaurants should cover a living wage for employees. Furthermore tipping means that front of house are paid more than back of house employees, and New York restaurants are struggling to find chefs right now. Some restaurants are experimenting with service charges included in the food rather than tipping. 

Dirt Candy

Oh my god this was just as good as I imagined - better, even. And chef Amanda Cohen was waiting on tables! And people ordered her about as if she were an ordinary person! W the actual F! I wanted to scream at them: 
'How very dare you! Do you not know you are making a culinary genius clear your plate? You ignoramuses! Apologise at once.' 
But thanks to the presence of my much more sensible daughter, I managed to restrain myself.
I ordered the squash biscuits. Biscuits are basically American scones, but so much nicer - flakier, more buttery, imbuing a melt in the mouth divinity. I'm a convert. These were served with yellow pepper jam and pumpkin butter.
I also ordered savoury mini glazed red pepper flavoured doughnuts, corn French Toast, a 'greens' sandwich with crispy fried potatoes and an enormous spicy green Bloody Mary. Everything was AMAZING.
And then I met her and took a picture with her. I totally fan-girled over her. I want to be her. Ok, this is getting embarrassing.
I also love the fact that there is a no tipping policy, because Canadian Cohen pays her staff a living wage.


Fronted by the young and photogenic Chloe Coscarelli, this is a foray into vegan fast food that has succeeded very well. The menu is fun, quick, nutritional, flavoursome and cruelty-free! I had the guac burger, daughter had the mac 'n cheese and we shared the air-baked fries (which arrived a bit cold but were not bad for a low fat version). We both enjoyed it and would go back. I'd like to do something like this in London. 


Kajitsu specialises in Japanese Buddhist vegan 'shojin' cuisine, with a series of small artfully presented dishes in the kaiseki style. I've always wanted to try a Kaiseki restaurant and this wasn't too expensive at $95 per person for the 'Hana' meal comprising of eight courses.
At the beginning of the meal, the waiters display a basket of the raw seasonal ingredients that will be used in the meal, which in this case represented spring. Then we were asked to choose a vessel from a tray of different porcelain cups, some of which are hundreds of years old, in which they poured sake. The method of serving the food is as important as the ingredients and cooking.
The restaurant is housed in a typical New York townhouse and we ate at a window table on the first floor. The atmosphere and furnishings are spartan and calm, service is deliberate and ritualistic.
A fascinating experience.


This beautifully designed Mexican restaurant on Bleeker isn't cheap but serves delicious food and drink. Hard alcohol can't be served because they are situated near to a church but I had a version of tequila, a fermented agave liqueur, in a cocktail. I ordered two types of tacos, fried fish and bean & sweet potato. The generous guacamole with totopos (fried tortilla chips to you) was terrific. It's probably a tourist trap but I'd recommend the food.

Barney Greengrass

This bagel restaurant, located on the upper west side a couple of blocks from Central Park, has been a New York stalwart since 1908. Now third generation Gary is manning the main till. It does classic New York style bagels: large, fluffy, chewy, savoury. They pride themselves on not toasting them, 'they don't need it!'. Barney Greengrass is particularly known for their selection of smoked fish such as sable and Novia Scotia salmon.
Other bagel recommendations include Murray's (best actual bagels), Sadelles (long wait, fashionable, get the Smoked Fish Tower), Russ and Daughters and the Montreal-style bagels at Black Seed. Read more about the difference between New York and Montreal bagels here.

Salvation Burger

My recently widowed aunt took my cousin, my niece, my daughter to April Bloomfields' restaurant. They kindly gave us an entire booth and let us sit there all afternoon. The food was not bad: highlights include the shakes, the fish burger, the fries, the creamy buttermilk and poppy seed dressing on the green salad, but the veggie burger was frankly disgusting. That needs work, it is misconceived. The fried apple pie, McDonalds style, didn't quite work. I would have preferred an actual McDonalds one.

Dominic Ansell

Reams have been written about social media star baker Dominic Ansell and his cronuts. I was game for doing the crack of dawn queue but having tried and failed to master the vagueries of the frustrating afternoon line for the 'cookie shot' (a cup made of cookie dough, filled with milk), I lost faith. I did try the much lauded frozen S'more (horrible) and the lacklustre croissant (my litmus test for a bakery is that their croissant should be superb - if they can't do that, they can't do anything). Maybe the cronut is life-changing on a patisserie level, who knows? Not wasting several hours of my life to find out. I'll leave that to the mode-driven millenials for when they fall off the clean eating bandwagon. Disordered eating much?

Bar Sixtyfive at The Rainbow Room

This is a very touristy thing to do in New York, but actually not too many tourists seem to know about it. Located at the top of the Rockefeller building, your coat is taken by the hat check girl before you ride the elevator up. The thing to do is to go at sunset: pearlescent sky scrapers and neon-lit buildings silhouetted against peachy skies. Have a glass of pink champagne and take some selfies. Wear nice clothes and book. Ditto for the restaurant, which isn't cheap but has live music. 

La Bonbonniere

Old style New York diner, full of characters and actors (both resting and famous). I loved it. Read more about the 'bonbon' as locals call it, here in my piece on nearby Jane hotel.

Cafe Gitane

This trendy cafe is apparently the original source of the avo-toast recipe, which is now 'overcado' on Instagram. I've been eating avocado on toast for years and it'll never be over for me. How can two basic ingredients be a matter for fashion? I ate in the super trendy Jane hotel branch. The first time I thought it was expensive but then I realised the prices were the norm.
On the second visit, I was tapping away on my laptop vaguely aware of two ladies sitting at the next table when my daughter announced:
'Mum, you need to be friends with these women.'
I started to eavesdrop on their conversation: they were funny, outrageous, crude, rude, loud, colourful and vibrant. They sounded like American versions of me. So I introduced myself by repeating what my daughter had said. It turned out that they were professional body painters. They paint baby bumps, children's faces, makeup for films and TV. One gave me a little cock - a small plastic chicken, her calling card. I'd like to be painted nude by them, a vegetable, perhaps an artichoke: all spiky but with a tasty heart.