“You’re joking me, right?”
“No mate. That’s what you said on the phone. That’s what I’ve written. That’s what you’re paying me for.”
Sign writers; couldn’t write their own name if it wasn’t taped in the back of their boxers. I said it clear enough:
“The Great Fryer of Luncheon” I said. “Fancy font, curlicues or whatever you call those poncy swirly bits.”
Turn some heads, have a laugh. Now look at it. Right above the door, making me sound like ruddy Samuel Pepys grappling with Gordon Ramsay. No subtle chippy reference after all, thanks to this jobsworth.
“It’s a license to print money, mate,” my cousin Nobby said to me and the missus, as we were driving him to the airport. He’s off to Australia to open another chippy there for ex-pats. I say he just has a crush on that Nadia Sawalha and fancies escaping to the sun instead of being stuck in sunny Plumstead. He’s had this chippy here since Uncle Horace passed away. Good turn over, nice little earner, catches the passing trade, you can’t lose.
So I do a bit of brainstorming with the wife and she has this flash of genius. Jane calls it ‘re-branding’. I call it a disaster-in-waiting. When the sign guy peels off the dust sheet I see the writing on the wall, literally.
‘The Great Fire of Luncheon’ it says in great magenta letters two feet high. Thank crikey we didn’t go for that flat fish logo in the catalogue. We might have ended up with a Technicolor Jaws slavering over the door. Anyway, I’m not one to stick fast, so I say to Jane, “Let’s go upmarket. Ditch the deep fat and go Bistro.”
How hard can it be? Jamie Oliver eat your heart out, just don’t book your holidays in Rotherham. The refit goes like clockwork and we put in these up-lights that stop you seeing what you’re eating and a bit of the old Rennie Mackintosh I saw once on the Antiques Roadshow. Then some mood music and a bit of silver service. I’ve stocked up with a load of crates of plonk in the back. Three Pinot Grigiots and Jane’s anybody’s. Health and Safety gave us the green light when the wrappers were still on the fish knives.
It was over that weekend Jane said to me, “Can you cook all this stuff?”
That made me stop for a minute. Only a minute, mind, because I’ve never been much of a one for navel-gazing.
“Cook it? What’s the point? There’s that little restaurant on the High Street that does takeaway deliveries. Why keep a dog and bark?”
So it’s into cruise control with Plumstead’s own Antony Worrall Thompson. Once we’ve taken the orders, out comes the complimentary carafe and while they’re getting a bit chillaxed after a hard day at the office, I’m ringing the ‘Fatted Calf’ for whatever’s required. I mark it up a bit, natch. I’ve my overheads, phone bill, free plonk and all that to cover, but I’m quids in at the end of the day as there’s no delivery charge for orders over twenty pounds within a radius of two miles and the ‘Fatted Calf’ is only just round the corner.
“Sorted, love,” I says to Janey, cos I could see she’s going a bit EastEnders boom-boom-boom-bup-bup-buddly-buddly on me. But it was all working like a well oiled machine until 'that day', as we call it.
That day, when I rang the order through, the phone just kept on ringing.
“Come on, mate,” I'm saying into the receiver, “get a shake on, we're getting busy this end.” We were, as well. The lads from the new solicitor's office on the High Street came in with their other halves as well as the usual steady flow of couples on a first date when he fancies a bit of the old Dutch courage and she fancies getting him blotto so she can go back and watch Sex and the City.
“Come on, come on,” I'm going into the receiver like an old Gary Glitter record when suddenly the answer phone kicks in and I'm hearing this plummy speaker phone voice:
“I'm sorry. 'The Fatted Calf' will be closed until Monday next, due to a family bereavement. We regret being unable to serve you at this time, but look forward to welcoming you when we reopen after the weekend. Thank you for your understanding.”
Jane comes through to fill up some of the glasses and she sees me there with my mouth open, staring into space.
“Have you rung them yet, Dave? One of the girls is debating whether to order your famous quail with cucumber and peppermint jus. Peppermint jus, Dave! Where's your head at, tonight?”
So I tell her the news and she just looks at me like I've completely taken leave.
“Well, there's only one thing for it, honey bun, beloved. You're going to have to do exactly what it says on the tin. You're going to have to step up to the white imitation porcelain square dinner plate, and actually be a restaurateur.”
Jane does an impressive line in comedy when it's called for; most often when it's not. I put the phone down and flick through the phone book but no restaurants are making what's on our menu. That's all down to the “Fatted Calf”. They've rubbed shoulders with Egon Ronay, somewhere down the line, which is why I now find myself up the proverbial creek without said paddle.
I tentatively ring a couple of places further away, but they either don't do deliveries or we're out of their area.
Jane's schmoozing and each time she comes back to see how I'm getting on, she makes one of her little comments.
“Get a wriggle on, Dave,” she says, “the natives are starting to get twitchy. We don't need the background muzak any more with all those executive bellies rumbling.”
I look in one cupboard, then another. Then I push my head in the chest freezer. It's actually looking quite appealing to leave it in there. Bare, apart from some frozen vol-au-vents and a tub of cookie dough ice cream.
Then I have a look in the fridge: left over lasagne verde that Jane buys because she thinks green means it's healthy; half a bottle of brown sauce that I buy in because my dad always had it with his corned beef sarnies for work; eggs, bacon, hash browns, all the breakfast stuff. Perhaps we could ask the patrons to stay over and I'll do them a full English as compensation.
There's a huge plastic bag of baby potatoes with some wilted salad, scotch eggs and two packets of mini pork pies, one with pickle, one with apple. That's something me and Jane can't compromise on, so the pies are sort of a his and hers selection. There's white bread rolls on the counter, and those rye cracker things that Jane has to make up for it when she's been at the cookie dough deluxe.
I can hear the hubbub in the front of house getting a bit more lively. I'm hoping that's the free booze though time's ticking by. My mind does a little juggling with those ingredients but then I realise it's now or never; do a runner or run them up some grub, sharpish.
I grab a frying pan out of the bottom cupboard and look around for some oil. Every proper establishment in our game has its signature dishes, so perhaps it's time I left the 'Calf' with its Peppermint jus and its balsamic vinaigrette and got our clientele's palates buzzing with some all-new flavours.
I find some garlic butter, a bit dried at the edges but serviceable and that gives me a bit of a confidence boost. I tie on an apron. It's got fake boobs and striped like a butcher down below, but I'm on a roll, so I stride into the front and shout:
“Ladies and gents, tonight you're in for a treat. Our usual dishes are being suspended for one night only in order to introduce you to our brand new special gourmet menu. These dishes have been a long time in the production, and as we value our customers very highly, we would appreciate your feedback...on the feed.”
This seems to go down reasonably. Nobody cries. Nobody starts eating the place mats. Nobody screams and pulls the table cloth off, and more importantly, nobody leaves.
Jane starts clinking the bottle against their glasses to cover my exit, talking about how her genius husband is expecting to be asked onto the advisory panel for Ready Steady Cook very soon, though he's such a connoisseur, he's had to turn them down a couple of times for their disregard of the requirements of the more discerning palate such as we cater for here.
I can still hear her going on loudly about me in the background while I stick a couple of the scotch eggs into the pan with the garlic butter and grub around for the rest of the starter ingredients. We'll deal with the mains and desserts later.
There's some ready-grated cheddar in the fridge door next to the piccalilli and pickled onions. It isn't actually cheddar, it's that half fat nonsense, but who's counting? I sprinkle some over the scotch eggs (giving my trade secrets away, here) and bang it all under the grill.
I plate up and bung on some wilted salad. Well, not wilted in the traditional sense, but this is gastronomy at the cutting edge, after all. It's pretty limp, anyway. I do one of those streaks of brown sauce that all the chefs do today. Not enough to satisfy, just enough to make the plate look a cross between dressy and messy so you wonder whether you can get away with licking it off before the waitress comes back. I daub a quenelle of piccalilli on each plate; they don't all stay as quenelles, mind, a few slump a little, but what the heck, I've got my mains to churn out, yet.
“Here he is, the man himself,” I notice Jane is swaying slightly, even though she seems to have taken her heels off. Not too formal, casual but welcoming, that's our way. She helps me serve up and there's a real buzz starting round the room.
“Ladies and gents, I present our exclusive new starter, oeuf sauté with wilted salad and a quenelle of crudites à la moutarde jaune. A votre santé!” French GCSE comes in handy, at last. It never did in Ibiza.
The punters are all busy chewing so I hare back into the kitchen to look for the next hotchpotch of ingredients. I need to go for more substantial this time, so I winkle out the bag of baby potatoes and fling open a couple more cupboards. There's the lasagne verde, of course, and a line of microwavable packets of savoury rice. That'll do for the carb fix.
Now for the protein. I end up back at the fridge where the only protein I can spot is the pork pie selection. I get to work with a knife and teaspoon, gouging out their innards onto a baking sheet. Offal's very popular these days, so maybe I could pass these pie fillings off as something similar. I put the bacon and hash browns in the pan for good measure.
I'm mashing the potatoes when Jane comes in carrying the crockery from the starters.
“Nobody's got food poisoning yet, as far as I can see,” she says, reaching under the counter for a couple more bottles of Blue Nun. She's crashing about in the sink when I start to gloat.
“Mains is pork paté with bacon and hash served with mashed baby spuds and a whole raft of subtle and innovative sides. Sorted. Then it's out of the freezer with your cookie dough delight smothered in a bit more alcohol and drinking chocolate powder and job's a good 'un.”
“I ate it.”
“Ate it? Ate what?”
“The ice cream. I had a midnight feast at eleven o'clock. I think I left a little bit in the bottom of the tub, just in case I get the munchies before I do the supermarket run.” I can see she isn't joking.
One of the guys staggers into the kitchen, tie askew by this point, a bit flushed and merry, looking for the gents, so Jane waltzes back out with him while I stick the insides of the pies on the plates in a bit of horseradish sauce with the mash and some dollops of white bread soaked in gravy, which is a new kind of dumpling, the way I sell it to them in my best jovial host mode. I've had it with fancy. Needs must.
Jane's rarely wrong, but this time she's way off. There isn't even a lick of ice cream in the empty tub. It must have been a heavy night. That's why there are all those blinking rye crackers on the counter, to redress the balance.
I eye these up, with dessert on my mind. I do a bit of a find and replace for any sign of fruit, but nothing's doing.
I didn't bother investing in one of those expensive solid marble mortar and pestles, so I get the rolling pin and start giving the rye crackers a good going over. Could have done cheese and biscuits, but I've used all the cheese and anyway, that is SO seventies.
Jane comes in tutting and frowning to see what the noise is, and I manage to keep the blunt instrument focussed on the task in hand. I'm glancing round wondering how to make the crackers less dry; sweet, moist and melt-in-the-mouth would be good, too, but I'm not going to push it at this late stage.
“That bloke who came in here's very chatty. I think he's impressed. Keeps asking where you get your inspiration,” Jane giggles as she necks the dregs of the Blue Nun without bothering to decant it into a glass.
“Gotta keep the customer satisfied,” I mutter as I put some black pepper on the rye crumbs. Well, it works on strawberries. It's supposed to get your juices flowing so everything tastes more intense. I can see the dishes are maybe lacking a little je ne sais quoi so I do some fancy spoon work with half a jar of marmalade and some treacle topping stuff we never used out of a hamper our Doreen won from the old folks' bazaar last Christmas, and we're in sight of the winning post.
When I'm clearing the dishes and Jane's showing out the last of the diners, I notice a few tips under the mats. A bit of my sweet Seville sauce left on the occasional plate, but nothing major, so I'm ready for an early night and a private pat on the back. Never again. Then I see the card on the table by the window.
“This is where your chatty mate was sitting, wasn't it?” I say to Jane as she turns the 'Closed' sign round with a long overdue burp.
“Excuse me, soggy muesli” she says, as per.
“He's left his business card, if we ever need a solicitor with no taste buds.”
Jane snatches the card off me before I can turn it over.
“Joe Collinger. Food and Wine critic of the Saturday Standard,” Jane looks a bit blank, but it is late.
It's only the local freebie paper, but it's a start. We're taking on more staff next month when I can get the paperwork sorted out. They're queueing up for a job here waiting tables.
Joe did us a great write-up, and the review online got loads of hits. We've set up a Facebook page, but Jane deals with all that when she's Twittering with her girlfriends. I'm back in the kitchen, dreaming up all these new dishes.
“Tastes like home but with a twist. You'll be laughing from the moment you catch sight of the quirky name over the door. What cookery lacks today is comedy. Mine hosts Dave and Jane have changed all that. Theirs is the most comical bistro this side of the Thames,” wrote Joe in his article.
I read the other week that 'The Fatted Calf' is selling up and shutting down. It's a competitive world, and with us on their doorstep, who can blame them?