Nick's new year's resolutions

Ksara and Chivite - badly packaged bottles

Nick, Unpacker in Chief, gets cross about how these bottles were packaged.

It’s that time of the year again, the time for new resolutions for the coming year, if not in this instance for the coming decade.

I am not talking here about personal resolutions that I believe I have made and failed to keep for as long as I can remember. Caring slightly less about my beloved Manchester United would be an excellent case in point.

But professional resolutions, about what will guide my writing in the FT and on on that wonderful topic of hospitality, are another matter. Here are a few of mine, most of which I trust I can keep longer than to the end of January 2020.

To have more sympathy with waiting staff.

I am never rude, I hope, to anyone who has to look after me, or those at my table, but occasionally I may err on the side of short temperedness. This is because of a basic misunderstanding.

I believe that, while waiting for my first or main course to be served, I can still remember what I have ordered. So why do so many of today’s waiting staff insist on repeating every ingredient in every dish before they will allow us to tuck in?

I may be getting old. I do forget what we ate and drank even six months ago. But in the 10 or 15 minutes that have elapsed since I ordered my first course, how much could even I have forgotten? And how much will have changed in that time?

Nothing that I am allergic to, certainly. And our waiter will have correctly checked on that as he or she was taking our order. I believe that if the waiting staff were to give the customer a little more credit and allowed them to get on with enjoying what they had ordered without a minute exposition on every single ingredient that is on their plates, then restaurants would be even happier places.

Until this happens, I will crusade for this change.

To turn my back on the tasting menu.

I believe that I am not alone in this view.

My reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, I feel that tasting menus are no longer a novelty but are now ubiquitous. Every restaurant with ambitions has one and while the chef may think that these are the perfect expression of what his, or her, kitchen has to offer, I disagree.

My second reason is that these menus are inevitably, and understandably, for the entire table, thus removing the theatre of watching how a kitchen copes with the challenges of the à la carte service for which restaurants are designed.

The consequences of tasting menus are that the kitchen is focused on servicing such a menu, and it reduces the waiting staff to the role of mere plate carriers.

I intend to eschew tasting menus from now on.

To give greater importance to first courses.

By this comment, I do not intend to go as far as Jancis’s habit of ordering two first courses instead of a first and then a main course. I will still continue to enjoy main courses, particularly if they include ingredients that I cannot cook at home. But I do believe that the time has come for me to place a greater focus on first courses.

This is what I wrote in the FT as long ago as 2011 and I still believe is where the principal attention of many chefs lies today. To quote chef Daniel Boulud from that article:

'Seventy per cent of first courses are cold and invariably half the size of the first course, so you can concentrate the flavours more. Also, just as in desserts, there is usually more complexity, contrast, layers of texture and taste because they are cold. There is more acidity, more seasoning, for example, which suits spicier white wines that customers usually order with their appetisers. Chefs cannot be that adventurous with the seasoning on main courses because they are invariably enjoyed with red wine. Finally, because first courses are served cold or lukewarm, chefs have more time to play with the final dish. They lend themselves to more playfulness', he added with a smile.

So the focus for me when reviewing restaurants in 2020 will be on first courses and, in particular, any chef who offers a soup on their menu, although this is, sadly, all too rare.  

When reviewing restaurants, I resolve never to use the phrase ‘fine dining’.

This phrase has, I believe, little meaning today.

The crucial factors in the success of any restaurant, regardless of whether fine dining (whatever that means) features, and wherever it is located, are the quality of the cooking, the wine list, the welcome from the staff and whether what is inside the front door matches what is outside the front door.

Bringing all of these diverse and difficult aspects together is the aim of the restaurateur or chef. Good luck to the many who have ventured forth in 2019 and will do so in 2020.

Name and shame those wine producers who continue to send samples in unrecyclable packaging.

Chez nous one of my major jobs is to collect packages from our reception, invariably loading then on to a trolley to convey them to our apartment, unwrapping them and then carrying all the recyclable material to the giant recycling bin on our floor.

Over the years I have become somewhat of an expert and I have developed a complete hatred of polystyrene, a substance that cannot be recycled and has to be thrown away in the rubbish. So I intend to end this well-intentioned whinge with a recent photograph of two offending bottles (see above).

The bottle on the left, a Gris de Gris from Château Ksara in the Lebanon, was perhaps the most infuriating bottle I have had to open all year. It came entirely swathed in plastic, including bubble wrap as the immediate wrapper and then the thick polythene envelope that encircled this. Everything about it had to be thrown away, except the bottle of course – although the fact that it arrived safely was little short of miraculous!

Chivite are less culpable but here too standards of packaging could be improved. This bottle came in its own wooden case that was then wrapped in brown paper. So far, so correct. But what was the point of the sheet of thick plastic that wrapped the wooden case? It would have easily survived the journey without it but unfortunately had to join our rubbish.

There are so many indestructible cardboard packages for wine bottles nowadays, it's really unforgivable to continue to use plastic and polystyrene. Couriers who repack sensibly packaged wine bottles, please note.