Recently I had cause to be on the road again. Work (for a transcription company, the exact nature of which is ‘creating transcripts and minutes of events or meetings that people want transcribed’, the exact purpose or benefit of which remains unclear, but there we are, typing) has at least a personal benefit in that I get to spend time on trains and planes zipping about Britain and occasionally other European destinations. This makes me happy.
The work at the other end is often merely a means, although it is often actually quite interesting. Last week, at an event organised by a government body, it was a bit of a talking shop and, to be fair, slightly interesting. However, much more fun was to be had from our bed and breakfast (I use the plural here because there were six writers in attendance, from London, in the north east, which doesn’t seem to be an optimum use of funds for a government body, but there we were, typing).
We had been put up in the Travelodge in ———-, (this should be read throughout in the breezily confident tone of an 18th Century diarist, btw) and they were the usual sorts of Travelodgings that even Spartans might have made rumblings of discontent about. I did what I always do when checking in, which is to ask where and when breakfast is to be. The man at the desk indicated the Little Chef across the car park from reception, next to the petrol station. ‘It opens at 07.00,’ he added, helpfully.
Putting aside our disappointment at not being able to re-use the Alan Partridge ‘big plate’ joke in the restaurant/buffet, m’colleagues and I rubbed our hands. I think they had the same sort of memories I did. Growing up, on car holidays round Britain, my sister and I used to sing with delight (this is not sarcasm, we did, actually, sing with delight) when a Little Chef sign was spotted. (The tune was ‘here we go,’ which is the chorus of ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’, for those not familiar with it, and for which Little Chef has a conveniently rhythmic number of syllables).
With hindsight, this glee at the sign of the Little Chef was perhaps because we did not actually stop at them very often. Supposed to be modelled on diners dotted across the USA, serving the nation since 1958, Little Chefs have become a byword for greasy shit on a plate, the archetypal bad English food emporium, the kind of place where Bill Hicks would have howled ‘You don’t boil pizza!’ before – enraged American tourist – blasting the hapless waiter with a handgun. When John Major was Prime Minister, he made a great show of stopping off in one (or a Happy Eater, I forget) to have a fry-up, to show he was down with the proles and all things British, and not elitist. The proles, obviously, were all in Burger King, tapping on their temples.
More recently, there has been an attempted rehabilitation of Little Chef by television – as is the mode – where Heston Blumenthal, celebrity Big Chef, food scientist – and direct male line descendant of Doctor Bunsen Honeydew off the Muppet Show – was called in by the new owners of the chain to inject a little vim into a roulade of pastiche, or something, and pep up the Little Chef menu using his experimental know how.
For readers unfamiliar with Heston Blumenthal, the Bunsen Honeydew reference is actually more helpful than facetious (although it is, also, fairly facetious). Heston runs a restaurant called The Fat Duck, where he has pioneered the art of wilfully over-complicated gastronomy: Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, for example, Snail Porridge, or, splendidly, the ‘Sound of the Sea,’ which the Daily Mail (you can tell, for all their couldn’t-make-it-up demeanour, they actually love this sort of thing) described thus:
“The seafood dish is presented on a glass-topped wooden box containing sand and seashells and consists of what looks like sand but is in fact a mixture of tapioca, fried breadcrumbs, crushed fried baby eels, cod liver oil and langoustine oil topped with abalone, razor clams, shrimps and oysters and three kinds of edible seaweed. The final touch – the culmination of Blumenthal’s experiments exploring the relationship between sound and the experience of eating – will be the iPod so that diners can listen to the sound of the sea while they eat.”
Doesn’t that sound amazing though? Predictably, for such a bleeding edge confectioner, the programme ended in semi-triumph. Heston had visited his first Little Chef to discover that they didn’t even have pans any more. Everything is cooked in a factory somewhere and reheated on-site, on a vast griddle, presumably to claw back costs on inconveniences such as kitchen porters, second chefs, cleaners, etc. He gamely gave it a go, but when a restaurant chain lacks such basics as actual cooking implements, it seemed unlikely that a man known for firing eggs from a mortar at decelerating jet engines to achieve the optimum omelette consistency would be able to offer anything other than a whimsical ‘vorsprung durch technik’ wry thumb over the shoulder at The Way We Were. Or perhaps at least an impressive but inedible A-team-styled improvisation with petrol pumps, griddle scrapers and soil.
He didn’t really do the egg, mortar and jet recipe, but it’s the sort of thing he might, and a very appealing image. However he has, against some odds, re-tooled the menu at a Little Chef in Popham near Basingstoke, with moderate success and an option to expand his re-tooling should it prove profitable – although for some reason I keep imagining the dish “Burnished Turd, on a bed of False Expectations with a Jus of Over Ambition”. Anyway. It was with all of the foregoing in mind that we sat down to break our fasts on a misty morning in the north east of England.
M’Colleague Simon agreed to take part in a tribute to Heston, the Fat Duck and Little Chef. He had ‘Pancake Breakfast’, which seems slightly disingenuous given the actual absence of pans (a still scarcely believable fact, confirmed by the waitress), and I had the ‘American Style Breakfast’, which had pancakes bolstered by scrambled egg and bacon. We both got a jug of maple syrup to provide flavour to the food and coffees.
We decided that the ultimate complement to our meal would be to recreate a Heston Experience, in a tableau we could call ‘The Sound of the Griddle’.
Gratifyingly, there was the consolation of lollipops, traditionally only presented to those emptying their plates. The Little Chef website promises “Bring your healthy appetite and we’ll make sure you leave ready for your journey,” which, on consideration, is not an idle boast.