Thursday, January 9, 2014

Omotenashi - little things that make big difference

Ordering some bits and pieces online for a sewing side-project I was struck by the little extras that were included in each delivery.

You see, I had ordered from a few different companies, but each item arrived with a little 'something extra', for free, and this really pleased me. Ribbons I'd ordered came with an extra sequined thread with "For You" on the packet, and these Liberty fabric samples arrived with this crazy-cute Hello Kitty swatch with a little note.

Little extras packaged with Liberty fabric and ribbons

If I think back, quite often when I've ordered things online there will be a little cute card in there, or a tiny package with one or two biscuits, or a recipe card.

It's not just online either - when you're at a restaurant you'll sometimes get given a サービス / service item (in Japanese "service" pronounced in English means complimentary, for free), like when we were the only customers in a bistro in Ebisu and they gave us "service espressos".  Think about times when you've had something like a packet of tissues or a mini soap bar put into your bag at the checkout at a drugstore, or been given free square of chocolate on leaving a restaurant. Once we even came away with a small bottle of "service" olive oil, as we'd liked it so much at the table!

I've been thinking about it and fumbled around a bit with ideas like 'they like to delight people here' and 'it's the excellent service culture here' before I hit the nail on the head. It's おもてなし omotenashi (kanji for this is rarely used but is お持て成し - to carry and to achieve).

The article linked to above explains it nicely, but in its simplest sense I feel it means doing something nice for someone that they didn't ask for. In customer service this is often described as anticipating the needs of the customer before they do and delivering generous hospitality. It's often also described as being selfless, which sounds like a subservient, surrendering mindset - I'd argue that choosing to act in this way, particularly in face-to-face encounters requires an assertive mindset, empathy and confidence.

Perhaps some of how this is employed today in business might be a little more cynical, as doing it 'without expecting anything in return' is not justifiable for purely logical businesses, and so customer loyalty, further sales and so on are probably expected results.

However I do get the feeling that carrying out omotenashi is a genuine pleasure for many people, and that the delight felt by the recipient is as much as was hoped to be achieved.

Certainly, even after almost 13 years these little gestures still manage to surprise me and are one of the things that make living here a pleasure.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Konditor and Cook - London Bakeries - Field Trip!

A series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

Purveyors of the "best mince pies in Britain" (as judged by the Telegraph in 2009), I'd wanted to visit the original Konditor and Cook shop in Waterloo after seeing their impressive spread at Curzon Soho Cinema last year.

It's a very attractive shop, with the Konditor purple on the window frames and wrapping ribbons, and it was still full of cakes and goodies just before closing time.

If you follow the display window along the outside of the store you can see through to the actual kitchens at the back where the magic happens every day. I believe they also have some eat-in space inside the bakery, but this was closed at the time I arrived.

The Konditor mince pies were indeed lovely, and that wasn't just because I was eating it on the bus home, starving. They are nicely homemade in appearance, not too perfect with charming cracks and leaks here and there. When we compared them to actually homemade versions later on, I liked how particularly juicy the Konditor and Cook filling was, although the freshly baked, crisp homemade pastry won out over the long shelf life Konditor casing. Anyway, lots of ideas to improve my mince pies for next year :)

Very pretty packaging

I also got one of the large and excitingly packaged stollen loaves to try back at home with the family. They are a bit expensive (I think it was about 15 pounds) but would make an impressive gift and go a long way when shared. It was my favourite type of stollen too, with marzipan through the centre. It was interesting to see that the sugar coating was made of caster sugar, as many recipes list icing sugar and I find that 'melts' within a couple of days to a sticky mess and doesn't keep that well.

The festive and cosy-looking window of Waterloo branch of Konditor and Cook, just before closing on a December evening.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Lily Vanilli - London Bakeries - Field Trip!

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

I first heard about Lily Jones and the Lily Vanilli bakery a year or so ago through a friend who was telling me about the zombie-themed cakes Vanilli had become famous for. What got me really interested was the quirky style of many recipes in the more recent Sweet Tooth recipe book.

Not much in the way of horror-cakes (though there is one for a glistening cake shaped like a human heart), the recipes are quite fun and punchy with chilli powder in the ginger biscuits, crushed and crystalised edible flowers as decoration, and strong alcohol in the caramel popcorn. I also liked the chapters on cool techniques that are then used in various recipes, like making sugar glass, honeycomb and candied fruit.

Having enjoyed making a few of these desserts, and just quite liking the Vanilli style I wanted to see if I could visit the bakery while in London, which is only open on Sundays.

Needless to say, it's *very busy* when it's open. Crammed with curious people like me who like the book, people who've heard of the commissions they have made for celebrities, and others wandering in off the equally busy Columbia Road flower market.

It must be lovely quietly working in the kitchens here when the bakery and market is closed, it's a beautiful area.

I gather that catering, wholesale orders and other commissions must form the backbone of the Lily Vanilli business model, with the one day a week walk-in bakery perhaps running as a fun exercise or PR channel.

Inside the bakery there were sausage rolls, cheese on toast and tarts available as well as the cakes. I got myself some of the thickly sliced courgette and onion cheese on toast, the taste of which reminded me of the fried onions you get with hotdogs at the fairground, and a red velvet cupcake, yum! In one of these pics you can spy a bag of flour from Shipton Mill - they seem to get everywhere :)

The bakery is definitely worth a visit if you're a Vanilli fan and want to try the real thing, or like a bit of an arty retro aesthetic, but do be prepared for the queues and busy staff, the elbow-to-elbow eating while standing and for making new friends at the tables and counter seats if you're lucky to grab a spot. Perhaps early is better than later in the day, and it does open from 8:30am.

Food served on cute porcelain saucers

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Leiths School of Food and Wine - short course

To celebrate the start of my new venture and to perhaps pick up a few professional cooking and lesson-giving tips along the way, in early December I had a little cooking holiday and attended the enthusiast's course run by Leiths School of Food and Wine - Intermediate Course (I did the 'white' course - there is also a 'blue' course which covers different dishes and runs in April-May).

Along with their main diploma courses and a host of one-day, evening and half-day lessons, Leiths run two 'key skills' courses, two intermediate courses and one advanced course. Aside from being an internationally well-regarded school with alumni including current TV chefs and restauranteurs, a friend had whole-heartedly recommended the school, having completed a course there herself.

Though I'd been looking forward to it immensely I found myself a little nervous as the day arrived, not knowing what types of other students would be attending - how competitive it might feel, and what atmosphere the teachers would create.

After coffee and a short orientation delivered by Managing Director Camilla Schneideman (Prue Leith sold the business in 1995, and there are currently two separate Leiths businesses - the main school in West London, with some informal pop-up courses held in a new Portobello road location, and a catering business) we were straight into the kitchens and let loose fairly quickly on choux pastry for our first dish - aubergine and prosciutto gougeres.

Not being a particular staple of British home cooking, I hadn't made choux pastry since school but the teacher pointed out the key steps (when to pour in the flour, how long to beat initially, the appropriate cooled temperature at which to begin incorporating eggs and what a "reluctant dropping consistency" should look like) in his quick demo and everyone ended up with an eminently successful lunch along with the choux pastry knowledge with which to create eclairs, cheese-puffs, profiteroles etc. in future at home.

During our first practical session we also had a professional kitchen health and safety run-down. This included never leaving knives in the sink, using appropriately coloured chopping boards to prevent cross-contaminating food (Leiths has two, red for raw ingredients to be cooked, and brown for ready to eat things. Some other businesses use a variety of colours for fish, meat, vegetables etc.), and my favourite rule, which was calling out "hot pan" as you walked across the kitchen carrying dangerous things.

With about 20 people including staff in each side of the teaching kitchen (a large room divided in two by rows of ovens and gas burners, with 4 aisles of 3-4 students in each classroom half) movement within the kitchen became more gracefully dance-like as the week progressed and as we all got used to each other, where things were, and to not just waiting around for the staff to bring us things. I'd say there were between 30-40 people on the course in total.

Included in the course fees were the new (huge! heavy! excellent!) Leiths How to Cook recipe book which we used extensively throughout the week but could thankfully leave at the school each evening, and an enthusiasts course apron to use for the week and take home at the end. Leiths also sell their smart and simple white aprons with the Leiths logo at reception, along with knife sets and additional copies of the book.

When you sign up for the course they recommend that you bring tupperware to take food away with you each day, but this wasn't actually necessary as they had rather snazzy take-out foil trays and paper bags for the purpose.

At the top of the school is a recipe book library - a lovely little room I got kicked out of at closing time on the first day with books lining the walls, some of which were very well-loved and well bookmarked.

Speaking of cool things at the school, outside the classrooms I was intrigued to find this motley array of tools on display outside the classrooms (above), once belonging to Elizabeth David.

Video screens in the seminar kitchen

Tasting different stocks

The one-week courses are made up of half a day of quick-fire demonstrations of multiple dishes and methods in the seminar room (all passed around to taste too) and half a day in the kitchens preparing related dishes. Ingredients were generally weighed-out for us ahead of the lesson and awaiting us at our stations.

Our course covered meat, fish, pastry, meringues, bread, emulsion sauces and dinner party cooking. Foundational skills such as how to prepare different types of stock, or how to hold the knives and cut appropriately are assumed to be understood to some degree, but the teachers were quite happy to answer questions and demonstrate if anyone was unsure. Below are small dice sized tomato concasse (square and diamond) and julienne strips for fresh spring rolls.

It was interesting to see some of the brand choices in ingredients for the course, including some Shipton Mill flour (hurrah!), also how some things were stored and measured including this enormous bin of caster sugar:

Most butter at Leiths is salted, but this was for hollandaise

When applying I had wondered whether to do the key skills course instead of the intermediate, as I wanted to make sure all of my foundational techniques were best-practice, but I was slightly put off by the recipes being quite basic - crumbles etc. However, seeing how much additional insight you get, I think I needn't have feared being disappointed had I applied for a key skills course instead. The intermediate course seemed to be designed around 'wow' dishes to impress people with at home, this was great fun and certainly will be attempted at my home in that very spirit :)

My favourite part of the course was probably the fish day (heh, not very cake related!). The teacher giving the demonstration was so knowledgeable and excited about fish that her enthusiasm was quite contagious. She advised on sustainability, further reading, apps!, buying guides, and demonstrated a number of cooking methods including (I could not bear my own excitement at this) smoking mackerel.

This British breakfast flavour has been one of the foods I've dearly missed while in Japan - while we have probably the most wonderful fish in the world available to us in Tokyo, including various dried and smoked varieties of mackerel, I am yet to find the precise taste of the smoked mackerel from home. Until now! Hopefully… I asked lots of questions and took many notes :)

On top of the morning's wonderful demonstration, when we got to the hands-on part of the day, oh yes, there awaiting us were perfectly whole and beautiful sea bass, ready for us to descale, gut, fillet and de-bone. What an experience.

Despite my initial nervousness, the other students on the course were another very positive part of the experience. Students tended to stay at the same stations during kitchen sessions for the week and so you got to know your fellow aisle-mates a little and swap tips and opinions.

I found that most of the people I spoke with were really quite accomplished home cooks, and many had attended Leiths courses previously. Many were also living abroad like me, and had fit the course in as part of their winter vacation plans. I certainly had the impression that most of the people on the course were going to go straight back home and repeat and build on many of the recipes from the course, and the book.

Tarte tatin

Since returning to the North of England for Christmas my family has already suffered through choux pastry cheese puffs, courgette fritters with dukkah, pavlova, seared rib-eye steaks with chimchurri, pecan sticky buns, roasted red pepper and red onion polenta pastry tatin, braised red cabbage with apples… and I have many more pages of the book marked for experimentation when I get back to Japan!