On a rubbish tip

Cote

I’m not a serial restaurant user, as I rather resent how much they charge and I like cooking, but it’s nice to go out occasionally as a treat, and I have been to the large French eaterie chain Côte. They do an especially nice breakfast deal for a tenner. In fact, oddly, I went to the first ever Côte, before it was a chain. (Get me.) It now has 72 restaurants around Britain and is one of those brands that ensures that everywhere is the same. It was last year bought out by the statutory private equity firm. It is dead to me now.

If I ever use a chain restaurant and the service charge is not automatically included, I will ask the waiter if they still get the tip if I add it to my bill on my credit card and then start doing the maths. I assume they are not lying if they tell me that they do. Or at least I did. No longer. Because, thanks to an exposé in my local free newspaper, I now know that Côte, which adds the “optional” 12.5% service charge, does not pass this onto its staff. It goes straight to the company instead of being kept by workers at the restaurant where the diner dined.

The chain defended this practice in the article, saying it “allows them to pay restaurant staff an hourly rate of around £7.50-£8, above the national minimum wage of £6.50 for over 21s.” (Good luck with that in London, where the Living Wage is £9.15.) A whisleblower told the Evening Standard One that the staff are supposed to be “grateful, but most of us would prefer earning the minimum wage and take home our tips for the hard work we do.”

Cote

The worst part of all this – and it’s probably occurring in every restaurant chain run by a fucking loveless, food-hating, bottom-line-chasing private equity firm – is that Côte staff are “told to tell customers who ask where the service charges goes that it is given out between workers.” They are being instructed to lie in order that they don’t get to keep their tips. It’s like living in Ripper Street times. I know, you can technically ask for the “optional” charge to be removed, and then put your tip, in cash, into the palm of your waiter’s hand. That’s the only way to get round it. Except that in Côte, management have got this covered. They said that waiting staff can “decide” whether to keep any cash tips left on top of the service charge or put it into a general pot to be shared with other members of staff. So the service charge doesn’t cover service.

One staff member told the Standard they were “told to hand over cash tips”. I’m sure there’s small print in the waiting staff’s contracts to cover this, otherwise it would be theft. One sympathetic politician failed to see his own joke when he told the newspaper, “This seems to be the tip of the iceberg.”

Or the tip for the iceberg lettuce. Côte’s profits rose 27% last year to £16.3 million. I bet private equity firm BC Partners went out for a nice meal at somewhere other than Côte. It’s all bullshit. Pizza Express, Strada, Zizzi and Ask Italian charge between 10% and 8% to staff to claim back their tips paid on cards, making up some flimsy excuse about having the pay for the administration of taking credit cards. Don’t take credits cards then and see how many customers you lose. Does anybody care about their staff? Of course they don’t. Staff are expendable units of labour

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t stand for it.

 

Advertisements

Currant affairs

LemonGrapeMuffinsSep8

Unlike David Loftus, who was in the year above me at Chelsea School of Art in the mid-80s and is now Jamie Oliver’s go-to guy, I am no food photographer. But I’m quite proud of the above snap of this weekend’s experimental Lemon and Grape Muffins. I’d love to say I “pimped” the recipe in Linda Collister’s Great British Bake Off: Learn To Bake book (with foreword by Mary Berry), but all I did was replace 200g of blueberries with 200g of grapes. This seems to have been a controversial move within the home baking community. I threw out a call for advice via Twitter, and @-ed in @BritishBakeOff for luck, asking if I could use grapes for blueberries in muffins. (I’ve only ever made muffins once before, without a dedicated muffin tray, and they came out like muffiny pancakes: lovely, but not muffins. I was keen to use my new tray.)

A few decided to greet my sincere query with withering responses along the lines of, “This is what bakers call ‘raisin muffins'”, which were atypically unhelpful and snidey, two qualities I do not associate with Twitter’s bake-iverse. Most people kind of said, “Hell, why not?”; one supplied a link to a British Heart Foundation recipe in which grapes were the number one choice; others cautioned against the grapes sinking the muffin (I had always planned to cut the grapes up); and Ali, current contestant on The Great British Bake Off, wished me well and advised me to peel the grapes. (Currant contestant, more like.)

Home bakers are, on the whole, nice. This is my nuanced conclusion. (On the wholemeal, more like.)

I peeled the grapes. It was a fiddly, but worth it. I then quartered them and threw them in at the point where the blueberries would be thrown in. I enjoy baking muffins and cakes, I find: the arm-breaking creaming of the butter and sugar (and lemon rind), and the follow-up workout with the beaten egg, adding a gloopy spoonful at a time. The addition of lemon juice to the natural yoghurt. The ethereal dust of sieved flour and bicarb. I don’t use the Magimix when baking. I don’t know if this is martyrdom, but I like to feel like I have added the air myself, with my bare hands. It’s not a macho thing. And there is an element of laziness: can’t be bothered to clean the dishwasher-unsafe mixer parts.

LemonGrapeMuffinstraySep8It’s a thrill when you finally blob the mix into the paper cases using a succession of spoons. It’s even more of a thrill when you “discover” that you have just enough “spare” on the spatula for a good lick: the ultimate perk of the home baker. Recognise: these are only my second batch of muffins ever. Allow: I’m quite proud of them. Ali was right; peeling the grapes was worth the effort (I envisaged the horror of curly tomato skin in homemade soup). What you get is little, jelly-like bombs of grape flavour, not too sweet, not too sour, perfectly encased in the muffin mix. Unlike blueberries, there’s no attractive “bleeding” of purple, but it’s still a worthwhile experiment. Jamie’s all about pricing up portions on his disingenuous Money Saving Meals, and I started home baking in order to fend off any evil temptation to spend money on pre-made carbohydrate parcels in the Outside World. Shop-bought muffins, which are mostly air – industrially pumped factory air – cost a fortune. Mine – and I got 15 out of a recipe promising a dozen – cost pence.

I don’t have a team of “girls and boys” like Jamie does, to calculate exactly how many pence, but I do have a freezer drawer – if not the massive chest freezer Jamie assumes to be in every dream home – and I’ve already entombed 12 of my muffins in there, to be removed at a fixed rate of one a day for the next 12 days. That’s how to make these moreish morsels go further. And to save money. I laugh in the face of the expensive cakes and pastries on sale through the Peyton & Byrne concession at the British Library.

Yes, I Tweeted the above pics of my still-warm wares on Sunday. I can’t help it. It feels so right. And it never feels like showing off, merely sharing. Self-raising is the great leveller. And it’s sweet when bakers on the other end of social media type, “Save me one,” or “Send me one.” It’s enough that the request is made. No cake need actually change hands; we never need to meet, we Twitter-connected home cooks. It’s enough to know that others are creaming, beating and pricking with a cocktail stick for victory.

While I’m here, I feel moved to publish this spring and summer’s other baking highlights: the lemon drizzle cake of June 2; the trayless “pancake” muffins of July 20 (don’t inspect them for too long; they tasted super); and the flapjacks of 4 May.

LemonDrizzle2JunMuffins20JulFlapjacks4May

It’s amazing what some flour, butter, eggs and sugar can do, along with the willpower to self-ration, as if there’s a war on (which there always is, somewhere). By the way, I have eaten one muffin today, and I ate one muffin yesterday. My evil plan to beat George Osborne is working. He’ll never take away our freedom to save money and – get set – bake!

New drama on the BBC

As you know, I’m hooked on TV cookery competitions, and I’m currently following The Great British Bake Off – to which I came relatively late – and Celebrity Masterchef – which I have been faithful to since its inception. (Pictured above is my favourite Bake Off contestant, vicar’s wife Sarah-Jane, who I really hope goes all the way to the final, although she’s prone to mistakes and self-flaggellation, and had never been on a train on her own before the competition, so it won’t be a breeze, and that’s why I’m rooting for her.)

You’ve probably noticed, but there’s also a lot of very expensive, star-studded, cinematic new drama on both BBC and ITV – Parade’s End, Downton Abbey, Good Cop, Mrs Biggs … But I sometimes wonder if all of the talented, hardworking, dedicated, creative and technical people who write, perform and produce this drama could ever speed up an audience’s heart rate and lure them closer to the cusp of their sofas as economically and efficiently as last night’s episode of Masterchef, when Emma Kennedy (someone I’ve met!), footballer Danny Mills and Northampton-born TV presenter Michael Underwood were tasked with feeding the hungry cast and crew of … a BBC drama, New Tricks, from a catering truck.

It was all going so well. They were confident. They were on time. And then one of them left a pan of custard literally spinning around on the edge of a work surface …

Look at her poor face! (Scroll through on the iPlayer to about 20 minutes in for the moving pictures. Or, watch the whole thing.)

The PepsiCo Challenge

I went into a Shell garage for a paper and I saw some eye-catching signage promoting the Shell shop’s new sandwich/snack/drink range, Deli2go. Nothing unusual about this. Since the success of BP’s Wild Bean Café, petroleum giants have been falling over themselves to massage their garage shops upmarket. Deli2go is Shell’s go at this. The poster I saw was doing little more than advertise a “meal deal” promotion, where you pay a fixed price of £3.99 for a pre-packed sandwich, some kind of snack like a bag of crisps or a sausage roll, and a drink, such as a Coke, or a juice. I’m sure this will appeal to drivers looking for a quick fix of carbohydrate-based fuel, and will fool a few people into buying three items when they only want, or need, one or two. What tickled me about the promotion was this line, which appears underneath a mocked-up image of a wicker basket lined with gingham, containing the sandwich, crisps and Coke:

Inspired by farmers’ markets

Inspired by farmers’ markets? Have you ever heard anything so flimsy and pathetic? I’ve looked into it, and Deli2go use things like “farm-assured” cheese and “line and pole-caught” fish, which is to be praised and the veracity of whose ethical claims is not to be queried, but to throw in the weasel phrase “inspired by” and then link takeaway food to “farmers’ markets” is a cosmic joke. Since actual farmers’ markets are all about the producer cutting out the middle man and bringing their produce direct to consumers, which part of “farmers’ markets” is the processing of produce by a third party, packaging it up, distributing it around the country from a centralised base and selling it on at “value added” prices at garages is this “inspired by”? Oh. The idea of farmers’ markets! The notion of farmers’ markets! The general feeling of farmers’ markets! In actual fact, it’s inspired by the two words that make up the phrase “farmers’ markets”: farmers and markets. Sorry, I was being thick.

Shell is one of the largest oil companies in the world, with revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars. I sometimes buy petrol from them. But I don’t take kindly to being treated like an idiot by their marketeers and corporate strategists. Shell and farmers’ markets are polar opposites in terms of what they do. How dare Shell claim to be inspired by markets? Inspired by the market, certainly. But not markets. I’ve been to a farmers’ market: it was some vans and trestle tables in a school playground on a Saturday morning with meat and cakes and vegetables for sale, in exchange for cash. The vans might run on Shell petrol but that’s where the connection ends.

I think we live in a deeply sad world. A world where an oil company might seriously believe that it can sell more oil by pretending its fast food is in some way taking us back to nature. Corporations run our world, not governments – corporations to which I regularly give money, so don’t get any funny ideas that I think I am above it all. But it’s as well to see the danger. Corporations care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. This is why they are corporations and not governments or charities. They will do and say anything in order to take more money off us, even a single penny. (I loved it on Episode 3 of The Apprentice when one of the idiots complained that a gentlemen’s outfitters wouldn’t even take “one penny” off the retail price of a top hat. “Not even a penny – I mean how greedy can you get?” This is not a woman who understands capitalism and yet capitalism is her career choice.)

I have just read a typically fascinating and rigorous article by John Seabrook in the New Yorker (which I’d provide a link for, except that you have to be a subscriber to read their articles in full – non-subscribers can read a precis here), about PepsiCo, the largest food-and-beverage producer in the United States, and the second largest in the world after Nestlé. If PepsiCo were a country, its GDP would place it 66th in the world, between Ecuador and Croatia. It is not a country, it is a company. It rules the roost thanks to Pepsi, Tropicana, Gatorade, Fritos and Lay’s (which are crisps) and other “bad for you” snack brands. Actually, they don’t class them as “bad for you” at PepsiCo, they are “fun for you.” But the big drive there, at the Mecca of Snack, is to render their famous branded products as “good for you.” How? By reducing the salt and sugar content, mainly, but also by reintroducing things like antioxidants and vitamins into products where such inconveniences have been processed out in the process of processing them into other things. Why are they doing this? Because they care about America’s obesity epidemic, and obesity epidemics further afield? No, because they care about the bottom line. And as people become increasingly aware of the link between eating snack food and drinking sweet drinks and getting fatter, they look to healthier options. In the piece, we learn that PepsiCo’s share of the useless food market is down – in 2010, sales of Pepsi cola were down 4.8%, and overall carbonated drinks were down 2.6%. One way to reverse this trend, the brains at boardroom level seem to think, is make people who eat unhealthy food think that it is healthy.

It’s a fascinating inside look at the way a massive corporation thinks, from the CEO – Indra Nooyi – down. Surprise, surprise, there’s a lot of jargon about food and drinks being “scientifically advantaged” (the Flora ProActiv revolution in action), and we discover that the PepsiCo HQ screensaver bears the phrase, “performance with purpose”, a brilliant way of rewriting the phrase, “profit with more profit.” On top of all this guff, Nooyi herself, while overseeing a taste test, says with a straight face that the next phase for PepsiCo is to “snackify” drinks, and “drinkify” snacks. It would be laughable were it not so deadly serious. Basically, the biggest food-and-beverage producer in America, whose $60 billion revenue in 2010 was largely supported by selling crisps and fizzy drinks, expects us to believe it when it tells us that it wishes to “re-educate” us. No it doesn’t. The only reason any corporation selling snacks and soda wants us to stay alive is so that we buy more snacks and soda. In an ideal world, it would keep us all on life-support systems so that we can at least still eat Fritos and drink Pepsi via tubes. It wants us alive, but only just.

This is fair enough. Why should any corporation care about obesity or health? Why should any corporation care about fair trade or farmers? It’s a corporation. It exists only to make money, and if it takes a penny off a top hat, it loses a penny that it would much prefer not to lose. Which is why it irritates me when a corporation, be it Pepsi or Shell, pretends it’s doing some good to the world. Pepsi doesn’t want its food to be “good for you,” it wants its food to appear better for you if it thinks you’re more likely to buy it if that’s the way it appears. If you, or I, fall for this, then more fool us. (And we do. We do.) Shell is not inspired by farmers’ markets; it wants to appear to be inspired by them if it thinks you’re more likely to buy their petrol if that’s the way it appears to you.

Mind you, £3.99 for a sandwich, crisps and Coke? More Coke! More Snickers! I love these products! I wish they sold them at the farmers’ market.

Fat lot of good

To be fair, this story was broken in the Sunday Times yesterday, which is where I read it, but I don’t have the paper with me, and as the Times website seems to have mysteriously disappeared, I’m having to quote from the Mail online. The facts seem to be the same. Susan Jebb [left], Head of Nutrition and Health Research at the Medical Research Council, and a senior adviser in the Government’s “battle against obesity” (how’s that going, then?) has been found to have pocketed thousands of pounds from the slimming industry. She has been paid to write articles and appear in promotional videos for the Rosemary Conley [right] fitness company. Now, you may not care that someone in such a lofty position on an influential Government-funded group takes money from a private company. But when that company stands to benefit from this influential individual’s findings, the lines between public and private blur – as they so often do – and in the case of official scientific and dietary advice, this strikes me as problematic.

You may remember the headlines that ran right across our national press in June, claiming (and here I quote from the Guardian’s cover story), “Today science is offering an authoritative and surprisingly positive endorsement: two studies from the Medical Research Council, led by one of Britain’s leading nutrition scientists, say that Weight Watchers really does work.” These studies were partly funded by Weight Watchers. Meanwhile, Jebb was also being paid for endorsements by Rosemary Conley. It all adds up to a scientific body advertising private companies, and harvesting headlines in the press for those companies in the process. The Guardian’s was unequivocal: WEIGHT WATCHERS DOES WORK, SAY SCIENTISTS. The other papers went with variations on this theme. Many people will not have even read down to the bit where the source of the studies’ funding came from. Many who did will not have minded. I mind.

Now, the issue here is not whether Weight Watchers does or doesn’t work. From what I have read, and heard from those who’ve used the system, it works for some, and not for others, as with many dieting techniques, and the weight generally goes straight back on once you stop doing it. I am not having a go at Weight Watchers – as I say, I know people who’ve joined and benefited, and the social aspects seem positive – but let us be in no doubt: you have to pay to join (around £18 a month, after introductory offers), and members are vigorously encouraged to buy Weight Watchers processed food products: cake mixes, potted desserts, readymeals, sauces, pizzas and “savoury snacks” which by their nature can’t be as good for you as eating whole foods, or as cheap. So is it right for the Government to endorse Weight Watchers and put out a sensational press release based on the abstracts for these studies? It was, understandably, gobbled up by the newspapers – a big deal for the company behind Weight Watchers (which was owned by Heinz between 1978 and 1999, who still manufacture chocolate brownies, frozen risotto and pizza with the Weight Watchers logo). Hey, it’s the kind of advertising you can’t buy.

So if Susan Jebb, the Government’s “authority on the best ways to get fit”, publicly praises fitness clubs that she’s receiving money from, personally, does that not undermine her authority, or at the very least muddy the waters? As head of the MRC’s Human Nutrition Research unit, a major part of Dr Jebb’s job involves ­advising the Government on ­obesity. How can she do so with a clear conscience when she still appears on Rosemary Conley’s internet channel or website endorsing her methods? “Health kicks that have stood the test of time, like Rosemary Conley’s, usually do so for a good reason – they work,” she writes on the website, one of Conley’s “health experts.” If she’s been paid to write this, what are we to make of it? Again, I’m not saying it does or doesn’t work, but like Weight Watchers, you can buy Rosemary Conley processed food off her website. I have never met a nutritionist who would advise anyone to eat processed over non-processed food.

It’s not a crime to sell this stuff, or offer any dieting service that may work and then charge people for it, but when the line is blurred between private business and Government advice, my conflict-of-interest sensors start to twitch. In another piece on Conley’s website, Jebb advises, impartially, “Enrol now in a Rosemary Conley class to get the information, support and encouragement you need.” Would you mind if an MP did a voiceover for a McDonald’s advert? I would.

In an online interview, according to the Times (I can’t find this online), Jebb discusses the importance of using “portion control”, while an ad goes by advertising Rosemary Conley’s Portion Pots (plastic measuring pots in bright colours which help you measure things if you are unable to operate kitchen scales). Now, as a nutritionist, Jebb is entitled to take money from whomsoever she pleases, and offer advice for money. But when she is the Head of Nutrition and Health Research at a “publicly-funded organisation dedicated to improving human health” (their words) – one of only two recipients of Government health research cash, along with the National Institute for Health Research – should she really be popping up on Rosemary Conley’s website helping to legitimise the health benefits of Rosemary Conley? In 2008, Jebb chaired a Food Standards Agency meeting which concluded that Conley’s Portion Pots “could be a valuable aid to losing weight.” On the website, she sings the praises, by name, of Benecol and Flora Pro-Activ. This is not a conflict of interest, just free advertising, because as far as I’m aware, she’s not even being paid by Raisio or Unilever, who make these products.

The Medical Research Council has defended Jebb’s position, saying that while it is “committed to transparency, scientific ­integrity and independence”, its scientists “can provide scientific advice or consultancy to third parties”. That’s OK, then. Government-paid advisers are for hire. They say that Jebb was working for Conley before she took up her post at the MRC, but the videos and columns are right there on Conley’s websites, and she was paid “under £10,000” a year for her expertise. I’m not sure when she took up her post, but she’s certainly been at the MRC since 2003, when she officially rubbished the Atkins diet, which again made headlines across the media, as it was a good headline. The Telegraph ran the story on August 13, 2003: ATKINS DIET MAY BE BAD FOR HEALTH, WARNS NUTRITIONIST. Five days later, the paper ran a follow-up story, headlined: ANTI-ATKINS NUTRITIONIST WORKING FOR FLOUR MILLERS. Turns out that Jebb’s research into diets had been part-funded to the tune of £10,000 by the Flour Advisory Bureau, the lobbying arm of the National Association of British and Irish Millers. Who make flour. Which people on the Atkins diet don’t eat much of.

Hey, it’s not exactly hold-the-front-page that the private sector is funding research. I know. It happens in every corner of the industry. But I felt like writing about this example, because although flogging processed food as a healthy alternative to unprocessed food is not a crime, I find it all a little tasteless when the influence of business can encroach upon the Government’s scientific and health advice. I might not, but a lot of people take Government advice seriously. And a headline on the front page of my Guardian telling me that Weight Watchers officially works is something I find hard to ignore. I thought the papers were finding it difficult to sell advertising, but the Guardian gave an advert away that day.

The Sunday Times quoted Dr Jebb, although I don’t know if this is an existing quote or one in response to their article. She said: “I have scientific advice which I am keen to get out to people – working with Rosemary Conley gives me an avenue to do that.” An avenue lined with money. Either work for the Government, Doc, and tell us how to live our lives, or work for Rosemary Conley and Weight Watchers, whom we may or may not choose to pay to find out how to live our lives.

Phew! Nobody in their right mind can tell me I’m being anti-science today!