Archive for August, 2008

On Tips and Tipping Aug 2008

Posted on: August 15th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

What is the origin of the word tip in the context of giving thanks for good service? The short answer is that no-one really knows.

There are two romantic urban myths; the first that a gentleman in the 17th century would ‘tip’ his hat to say thank you and one day this coincided with the handing over of monies.

The second, and considerably more popular romantic conjecture, is that early tea and coffee houses held a box in the corner with the words inscribed “To Insure Prompt Service.” Over time this was abridged to TIPS.

Etymologists tell us that, prior to the start of the 20th Century, there’s no single example of an acronym providing the derivation of a word. One suggested fact often cited is that literature first described a tip in 1706, “Then I, Sir, tips me the verger with half a crown” in George Farquhar play, the Beaux Strategem.

Three hundred years later there’s a lot of confusion, for different reasons, about tips in restaurants. At the turn of the 1990’s the US IRS noticed missing tax dollars from the tipping of croupiers in Casinos. This prompted closer examination of restaurants where the IRS later found an estimated $9bn tax revenue shortfall.

Where the spotlight falls in the US sometime later the spotlight falls in the UK. The UK however is more complicated, not only because it is laden with different old customs and practices but also the legal structure is very different. There’s the minimum wage, PAYE, National Insurance and VAT. Untangling where and when tips qualify as income for each or any is a matter for sophisticated consultants and accountants.

Some clarity has come into view recently with acknowledgement that tips cannot make up the difference in a basic wage that is set below the minimum wage. The minimum wage is the minimum wage and tips go on top.

The most commonly used system for pooling and dividing up tips in the UK is called a tronc – literally meaning trunk, or the French example tronc des pauvres meaning poor box. Here a points system is used to reward members of the front of house and kitchen staff.

The administrator, or troncmaster (sounds grand and slightly Masonic), has the unenviable job of ensuring that all taxes are appropriately avoided and not evaded.

More complexity arises from the UK practice of a 12.5% discretionary charge taken on credit card slips.

The restaurateur has processed this payment and experienced a 2% administration charge from the credit card company. Owners too point to damages and breakages and whether they should be covered as expenses taken from the pool of tips?

In any event – Everyone – The restaurateurs, the waiting staff, the customers and the government would all appreciate clarity and transparency; although achieving this is understandably more difficult than first thought.

New Chefs on the Block (2008)

Posted on: August 7th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we discuss the history of the Which? Good Food Guide and in particular review the brand new (published September 2008) 2009 edition.

The Good Food Guide was first published in 1951 with founding editor Raymond Postgate. It was actually not until the 1960’s that Postgate teamed up with Which? As an organisationWhich? is a consumer focused registered charity that is wholly independent, recognizednationally and strives to improve goods, services and standards for consumers. Yes, Mr Postgate could not have asked for a better partner.

Over the last 57 years, the Guide has been in seven safe pairs of hands. Yes only seven. Elizabeth Carter is in her second year, having taken over from Andrew Turvil. Like editors before her she has stamped her personality on the Guide: There is county navigation, colour photographs, chef interviews, reader’s awards, the Top 40, the ‘also recommended ‘and digestible bite size descriptions of every restaurant entry.

All this while remaining loyal to the legacy of her predecessors: The Guide maintains that indelible stamp of its inherent writing style, including the consistent, concise and accurate restaurant descriptions that reflect the pleasures of dining out so well. The scoring system too has remained untouched. Since 1996 the marks have been awarded out of ten. One might imagine, especially if new to the Which? Good Food Guide, that a mark of 1 out of 10 is in some way a slight or that this is a poor restaurant.

Nothing could be further from the truth; a mark of one puts a restaurant in the top 3% of restaurants in Britain (given the fair assumption that there are around 50,000 restaurants in Britain). As the marks go up, the restaurants get better and better until you reach the best of the best.

So is the Guide elitist? Far from it: At a restaurant scoring as high as 8 out of 10, comfortably in the top twenty restaurants in Britain, the Guide highlights a three course set lunch for £22.50. If anything, over the last few years, top end gastronomy has been applying downward price pressure on local pub food. This could comfortably be argued and discussed, but in another episode.

In the Which? Good Food Guide, how are the marks determined? Is it service, decor, ambiance or fashion? No, none of the above, it is purely the food. As always, the Guide has a pool of independent inspectors that have strict and well thought through criteria to measure the food on a plate: That is the type and quality of ingredients, then the preparation, conception and execution of the dishes.

So is there a theme for the 2009 Guide? The press release focuses on two distinct areas – The “Top 40” chart and “up and coming” chefs. The new chefs on the block. The editors comment is as follows:-

Is the old guard about to be toppled? These are exciting times for the UK restaurant scene with some really talented young chefs emerging who could go all the way to the top

To expand on this statement, five examples from the Top 40 Restaurants Chart are given. The chart in full can be found by following the links on the website to the podcast page. Let’s bring back our top ten feature and adjust it to a top five – here they are, the up and coming top five…the comments given are taken directly from the 2009 Which? Good Food Guide.

At 5 is Michael Wignall at the Latymer, Surrey, a new entry at 27 in the Top 40 who demonstrates “a complex and highly technical modern approach”

At 4 is Adam Simmonds at Danesfield House, Marlow, a new entry at 19 in the top 40 “shows elements of pure genius”

At 3 is Shaun Rankin at Bohemia Jersey, up 12 places to number 17 is “a hugely accomplished talent cooking at the top of his game”

At 2 is Jason Atherton at Maze, London, up 19 places to number 15, demonstrates “confident, pace setting cooking and compelling flavour juxtapositions”

At 1, the top up and coming chef, is Nathan Outlaw of Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Cornwall, up one place to number 11, has been making “discreet but powerful waves by producing incredible food”

That’s it, the up and coming new chefs on the block, top five.

So the 2009 Which? Good Food Guide will sit proudly on the bookshelf – as well thumbed as its predecessors. Whether you are a regular visitor to fine dining restaurants or just someone looking for that new place to visit, then you won’t be disappointed with this Guide.

You can buy the guide by visiting or from any good bookseller.

That concludes Fine Dining in the UK episode 6 – the podcast brought to you by

Until next time. Happy eating!

The Which? Good Food Guide 2009 Top 40 Restaurants

1) The Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire (10/10)
2) Gordon Ramsay, London (9)
3) Petrus, London (8)
4) Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxon (8)
5) Square, London (8)
6) Le Champignon Sauvage, Glos (8)
7) Le Gavroche, London (8)
8) Waterside Inn, Bray, Berks (8)
9) Vineyard at Stockcross, Berks (8)
10) Pied a Terre, London (8)
11) Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Cornwall (8)
12) Tom Aikens, London (8)
13) L’Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria (8)
14) Restaurant Martin Wishart, Ediburgh (8)
15) Maze, London (7)
16) The Capital, London (7)
17) Bohemia, St Helier, Jersey (7)
18) Hibiscus, London (7)
19) Danesfield House, Bucks (7)
20) Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon (7)

21) Restaurant Sat Bains, Notts (7)
22) Anthony’s Leeds, Yorkshire (7)
23) Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Scotland (7)
24) Holbeck Ghyll, Windemere Cumbria (7)
25) Fischers Baslow Hall, Derbyshire (7)
26) Simon Radley at the Grosvenor, Chester (7)
27) Michael Wignall at the Latymer, Surrey (7)
28) Whatley Manor, Wiltshire (7)
29) Hambleton Hall, Leicestershire (7)
30) Tyddyn Llan, Llandrillo, Wales (7)
31) Harry’s Place, Lincolnshire (7)
32) The Creel, Orkney, Scotland (7)
33) Mr Underhill, Ludlow, Shropshire (7
34) Old Vicarage, Ridgeway, Derbyshire (7)
35) Castle Hotel, Taunton, Somerset (6)
36) The Greenhouse, London (6)
37) Club Gascon, London (6)
38) Kitchin, Edinburgh (6)
39) Simpsons, Edgbaston, Birmingham (6)
40) Crown at Whitebrook Gwent (6)


The Emporer of Wine (August 2008)

Posted on: August 1st, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we discuss the history and development of wine, its role in the fine dining experience and the impact of critics on our tastes.

The history and development of wine is unclear – even in Greek Mythology the history of the God of wine, Dionysus, is open to numerous interpretations. Their Roman counterparts called the equivalent God Bacchus or Liber. Contrary to some of the depictions of Bacchus, few of the stories associated with any of these Gods are positive or flattering to wine – intoxication was seen as a bad thing. Period. Ref

It may well hold that several hundred years BC a Roman Emperor was the first to bring wine to Britain, although as a beverage common across the population, Britain remained well behind European counterparts until the latter part of the twentieth century.

Today supermarket shelves are stacked with a great diversity of wines, couple this with access to all manner of specialist outlets (either directly or via the internet) then our choice is immense.

So it is too in fine dining restaurants, where the Sommelier can be considered the Emperor of wine. The etymology of the word Sommelier, according to Wikipedia, is derived from the Middle French for a court official in charge of transportation of supplies. An insulting understatement of the tasks carried out by the modern day counterpart.

The sommelier of a fine dining restaurant has a multi- faceted role. Having an easy manner with customers coupled with a sound knowledge of wine is just the beginning.

There is the cellar to run; meaning sourcing, procuring, budgeting and pricing as well as food and wine matching and typically contributing a solid 50% of annual Gross Profit to the restaurant.

One of the wonderful things about the world’s largest reference library – the internet – is that a few moments of typing uncovers knowledge that would have been painstaking to discover just a few years ago.

“Wonderful” with the proviso that the knowledge is both accurate and worthy. We can now, for example, find the retail price of wines instantaneously. This has removed, to some extent, the mask and cloak of mark-ups from even the most complex of wine lists.

This can only be a good thing. Today, the standard mark-ups made by Sommeliers in fine dining restaurants range between 300% and 400% of retail.

Armed with greater knowledge as consumers, with better and better information, the market forces of economics come into play, and inevitably mark-ups will come down.

The wine list is something to enjoy and not be an intimidating mine field. The adept Sommelier will expertly advise and guide to wines that match and enhance food while adding value to the overall dining experience.

A consumer’s prerogative is to optimise this interaction by assisting with taste and budget, this is easily achieved by pointing to a bottle and saying “I was thinking of this.”

In any event, the fine dining experience is about the intangible pleasure we enjoy. Should a recommended wine tick all the right boxes (and is proportionate to cost) then everyone is happy.

Apart from the Sommelier, who else is there to advise about choices in wine? There are the critics. In the UK these are notably Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, Jilly Goolden and Hugh Johnson – The latter’s World Atlas of Wine adorns over 15 million bookshelves worldwide.

Over a period of decades, all four have been prominent in highlighting the joys of wine and guiding consumers in their appreciation.

However there has been one man who has stood out in his sphere of influence – and that is Robert M Parker Jnr. The unauthorised biography, The Emperor of Wine was published in 2005.

The world famous Parker Points scoring system marks wines out of a 100. The ratings actually start at 50.

The impact of this system on the US market has been immense, with those wines scoring 96, 97, 98, 99 and 100 having their price per case rise exponentially.

Yes, a material difference to both demand and price, but what of supply? It has been argued that the production of wine in Bordeaux has been adjusted to meet the nose of one Robert M Parker Jnr. Extraordinary stuff!

With such power comes responsibility: Moreover, a critic with such unwieldy power can themselves attract the most fearsome of critics. Robert Parker has been sued and separately experienced death threats. At the same time leading lights in Bordeaux have lauded his contribution to their global development.

You just need to type “Emperor of wine” or “Robert M Parker” into Google to get an insight into the polarizing impact of his name.

After nearly thirty years, his regular wine advocate newsletteris still published. In the late 1970’s this was to a local community in Maryland, today it is to the world via

You may be a supporter or detractor or indeed, this may be your introduction to Robert Parker. The more you read the more fascinating this man becomes.