Have you any secrets?

A few days ago, one of our customers, a lovely lady, came into the restaurant to take advantage of a Chef-for-a-Day voucher she’d been bought by a friend. “Some friend”, you might think, giving her the chance to slave away for a day in our kitchen without pay. But actually, our Chef-for-a-Day package has become amazingly popular over the years and there’s always a waiting list for people to do it. I suppose spending a day in the kitchen is tempered by the promise of a table for two that evening when you get to eat what you’ve prepared.

However, I went into the kitchen to find her smartly togged up in Oldfield’s chefs whites; peeling, chopping and mixing with a big grin on her face only for her to say that she was amazed that we allowed people to come into our kitchens to see what goes on behind the scenes. And this started me thinking because it had never crossed my mind before; as a business, we’ve no secrets and nothing to hide.

For instance, you might think that I sit at my word processor once a week, coffee or glass of wine at hand, with a blank page in front of me, racking my brains for ideas about what to write before I get into trouble with the Echo’s features editor. Well nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve downloaded from the internet this really clever programme that lets me tell it that I want 1,000 random words generated to include the word “food” at least three times and the rambling you’re reading is the result! It’s easy really. You see, no secrets. Hmm.

But to respond to the lady’s comments, we’ll allow anybody access to our kitchen at any time. If a customer wishes to see what’s going on behind the kitchen door, that’s fine; assuming they’re prepared to excuse the chance of colourful language, the chaos of a busy service time or mountains of vegetable peelings scattered around as frantic preparation goes on.

If we’ve got the confidence not to fear the environmental health inspector coming without notice, why should we fear a customer popping in? But, when I was changing career and gaining experience by working in various restaurants around the country, I saw things you wouldn’t believe and you’d understand why they wouldn’t want people to see inside their kitchen.

At the same time, when I was trying to get into the restaurant business, I frequently asked places I was eating at for menus to take away, obviously for ideas, and had about a 50% success rate. I assumed that those that didn’t want to give them out had some wonderful trade secret and didn’t want to let it slip lest someone else steal their success.

Which, I’ve subsequently discovered, is bonkers because it just doesn’t work like that. No two chefs will interpret a dish the same way. Even if they’re both given a clear recipe the dishes will turn out slightly different. They might both be good but they’ll be different.

And talking of bonkers, a few weeks after opening my first restaurant in Barnard Castle I was up in Newcastle and went for lunch in a nice café restaurant that had a great range of sandwiches on a blackboard, many of which I thought were super ideas that I’d like to try and interpret in our restaurant. Not trusting my memory to remember all the combinations I asked if they had a menu to take with me. They hadn’t so I pulled out a pen and paper and stood in front of the board, jotting down a list of ideas. As a result I felt a tap on my shoulder and a burley manager or owner asked me to step into his office. Happily expecting him to offer me a menu, he closed the door, slipped his hand around my neck, slid me up the wall and asked: “What the **** do you think you’re doing?”.

Anybody can have a copy of our menus. We hand one to every customer with the bill. We have them in a container outside our restaurant front door. They’re in our window and on our website for goodness sake. I can’t for the life of me think of a reason for not letting someone take one away. So why was he so bothered? After all, I could have gone in repeatedly, memorising one sandwich each time.

I got out alive after a bit of fast talking – once he’d let go of my throat. But what did he fear? And mate, if you’re reading this, I hope you realise what a plonker you are.

Previously published in The Northern Echo

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