JOANNA BLYTHMAN reveals what really happens behind restaurant kitchen doors

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Earlier this year, I was dining at a nationwide chain where I’m sure they served me beef in a dish that was billed as lamb on the menu.

I have investigated the food industry for more than 30 years, and reviewed restaurants weekly over that period, so I’m sure my hunch was correct. 

Lamb has a different grain from beef, and a distinctive aroma; it also commands a higher price.

When I asked the manageress to check if there had been a mix-up in the kitchen, she came back saying the chef was adamant that the meat on my plate was lamb. 

Because I was visiting the restaurant as an anonymous reviewer, I didn’t want to blow my cover and reveal my credentials for recognising ingredients. And, besides, I couldn’t prove it.

After all, I do not carry a DNA testing kit — the only way to have confirmed the truth about the meat in question.

There is no way of knowing how commonly restaurants mislead customers, but if the recent court case involving the Ask Italian chain is anything to go by, it could be happening more often than we think.

A routine check by Swansea Council’s Trading Standards department discovered that Ask’s £14.95 Aragosta e Gamberoni (lobster and king prawns) dish contained an ultra-processed mixture of lobster, white fish and other ingredients, formed to look like whole, natural lobster meat.

The judge fined Ask £40,000 for the misleading description, which to my mind, is a light penalty.

But the truth is that, in the catering business, opportunities for misrepresentation and downright dishonesty are endless, and the chances of being caught are slim.

As Professor Chris Elliott, the leading UK authority on food fraud warns: ‘There’s probably quite a lot of this type of thing going on in food service because of a lack of inspections and lack of testing due to budget constraints.’

There are now just three local authority food law enforcement staff in post for every 1,000 food establishments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Fish and seafood — particularly expensive scampi, prawns, crab and scallops — are the easiest for restaurants to misrepresent.

If your fish is filleted or served as breaded goujons, would you be able to tell the difference between prime sole and a cheaper species such as catfish?

In 2016, when scientists used DNA testing to screen samples of white-fleshed fish used for ready-made sushi in England, they found that ten per cent of it was not correctly described on the menu.

Lamb, as I discovered first-hand, seems to represent a perpetual invitation to defraud.

In 2018, the owner of Concord Pizza in Sheffield was fined more than £1,000 after being found guilty of selling ‘lamb’ kebabs actually made from less expensive beef.

It is only one of several takeaways to have been prosecuted for selling beef instead of lamb.

The 2017 Food Fraud Report from insurer NFU Mutual found that 42 per cent of people felt that takeaways were the least trustworthy catering outlets. But similar cons take place in swanky restaurants, too.

The most extensive investigation into restaurant fraud in modern British history was carried out by Lancashire Trading Standards officers in 2010. Of the 41 randomly chosen premises they visited, 32 were making misleading claims on their menus.

The team identified 14 restaurant lies, including ‘free-range’ eggs that were nothing of the sort, ‘fresh’ mussels that came from the freezer, ‘Goosnargh duck’ that wasn’t the prestigious bird, ‘Bowland beef’ from suppliers in Merseyside rather than the premium product from the family-run farm in Lancashire, ‘local’ samphire imported from Israel, and ‘wild’ mush- rooms that were actually farmed.

Of course, menus are prone to flowery exaggeration. Usually descriptions are left vague to allow for different interpretations. 

For instance, seeing the dish ‘Truffle Risotto’, typically priced at about £15, we might conclude that its alluring aroma is due to notoriously expensive fresh truffle, a delicacy dug from the ground by specially trained pigs and dogs.

Actually, the dish is more likely to contain synthetic truffle oil, which owes its alluring aroma to added chemical flavouring.

Food fraud apart, the practice I most abhor is those restaurants, pubs, and cafes that give customers the impression that they cook more than they actually do.

There’s a flourishing — and perfectly legal — wholesale trade in the UK that sells what you might call ‘shortcuts’ to chefs and restaurateurs who want to reduce their wages bill by buying in ready-made meals and pre-prepared ingredients.

They just plate up dishes that have been prepared in factories and delivered to the kitchen door, along with a few fresh add-ons. How many of us would spot that?

For instance, if you saw ‘Slow-cooked Shin of Beef’ on a menu, you’d probably believe that with its wholesome name, it was cooked from fresh. Not necessarily.

Brakes, one of the leading suppliers to the catering trade, sells just such a product to restaurants, describing it as follows: ‘Slow-cooked for the ultimate tender texture and individually portioned in convenient pouches, suitable for microwaving from defrost or boiling in the bag from frozen. 

‘Ideal for saving on time and labour, minimising wastage and delivering consistently sized, mouth- watering results.’

Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

Plated up with a few vegetables, who would bat an eyelid at a price tag of £15 or so? You might not feel the same if you knew the restaurant had simply reheated it and paid just £4.20 per portion.

Likewise ‘Duck Confit with Orange Sauce’ sounds posh, a dish that could easily be put on a menu at £16 or more.

But would you find it quite so tempting if you knew your restaurant had bought it in at £4.10 a portion from The Pub Food Company, with the following cooking guidance: ‘Once reheated in the bag we recommend that the duck leg is flashed under a hot grill or oven to ‘crisp up’ the skin, the sauce [pre-made in a plastic pouch] can then be added.’

It’s well-known in the catering trade that vegan menu options are a licence to print money. That is why Sat Bains, a two Michelin-starred chef in Nottingham, refuses to serve it.

‘Vegan food is the biggest rip-off,’ he recently wrote online. ‘The ingredients are so cheap. I want to give people value for money.’

But less-revered chefs, under pressure to cut costs and up the profit they make on ingredients, can take full advantage of the vegan premium.

Brakes, for example, supplies a gluten-free ‘Vegan Cottage Pie’ at £1.67 a serving. With salad leaves on the side, most kitchens could easily price it at £9.99.

And what busy chef, plating up Sunday roasts, wouldn’t be tempted to buy rather than make Yorkshire puddings, when they cost only 26p each, and can be served from frozen in minutes?

Who hasn’t visited a restaurant and tried one of those hot chocolate fondant puddings, where you sink the spoon into the crust to release oozing, runny sauce? Served with a couple of berries and a scoop of ice cream, these sell at £7 a pop.

But did a skilled pastry chef make them from scratch or were they bought in for £1.44 each from a catalogue that describes them as: ‘An authentic Italian, rich, dark chocolate pudding with a soft and gooey chocolate centre. Microwaves from frozen in 30 seconds! 

‘Individually portioned and cooks quickly from frozen for convenience’ ?

Sadly, restaurant trickery, both legal and illegal, is a hazard of eating out. But after three decades studying the restaurant, pub and cafe trade, I’d say that the chances of misrepresentation and downright fraud occurring are much higher in establishments where both kitchen and front-of-house staff come and go with frequency.

It’s just too easy for the people responsible to claim they weren’t aware of discrepancies.

On the other hand, restaurateurs who live and breathe their own small businesses put their personal reputations on the line daily, and have everything to lose if they were ever exposed as food crooks.

When it comes to eating out, as in other areas of life, small tends to be beautiful — which is why I favour the modest independently run places to the giant tricksters such as Ask.

 

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