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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Waking up to Whisky

Oscar Foulkes August 27, 2015 Uncategorized
A shared bottle of wine – usually red – is a standard feature of our household. Recently, however, we have taken our nightly drinks in a new direction.

It all started in May when I was involved in several gatherings (mini-wakes) following the death of my brother. Single malt was the drink of choice at all of these, leading me to state that coffins float into the hereafter on a river of whisky.

I found that I enjoyed the quiet sipping of whisky, and having ended up with some bottles at home, had a few evenings of replacing wine with whisky. Flavour, taste – call it what you want – has been a daily part of my life for over 20 years, and single malt has more than enough complexity to excite even the most jaded of palates.

I’ve learnt a few more things. Firstly, after a sip of single malt (assuming it’s drunk close to neat), the flavour hangs around the mouth for much longer than the aftertaste of wine. As a result, I find, a drink lasts much longer, which means that an evening can go by with much less alcohol getting consumed.

It’s far too easy, when a delicious bottle of wine is being drunk, to broach the second bottle, which isn’t great for productivity the following day!

The other thing I’ve discovered is that whisky is comparatively better value than wine. Using Johnnie Walker Black Label as the entry-level benchmark, a single tot costs around R9. This is not the same amount of absolute alcohol as a modest glass of wine, but one can stretch it to last the same length of time. It’s probably fairest to regard a double tot as equating to a glass of wine, in which case the cost of a drink is R18.

At current wine prices, that equates to a fairly average bottle of under-R100 red wine.

If you take the whisky up a notch, or two, to the lower tiers of single malt, a single tot/drink can be had for R15 to R20. And, you can have one fabulous drink without having to open an expensive bottle of wine.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this period of renewed interest in whisky has been accompanied by us (i.e. Dish Food & Social) doing a lot of development of dishes to pair with Three Ships whisky. It’s all been very stimulating.

I remain, predominantly, a wine drinker, but I am enjoying making my way through the world of good whisky.

(Similar calculations can be done in other markets, on the basis that a bottle of basic single malt is around five times the cost of a an above-average bottle of wine.)

Single Malt by Alvaro Calix on 500px.com

 

Are Buffets Food Hell?

Oscar Foulkes February 4, 2015 Uncategorized
Floating somewhere in hell, perhaps being roasted over a hellish grill, is the soul of the first person who thought that buffet food service was a good idea. Even if this person is not in hell, the tens of thousands of chefs who rise in the middle of the night to prepare hotel breakfast buffets can’t be in happy space.

Hotel guests who would usually breakfast on just a cup of coffee and slice of toast, or an apple, or perhaps even a chocolate bar, will stuff their bodies with enough calories to feed an Ethiopian family for a week.

No comment on breakfast buffets is complete without mention – no, condemnation in the strongest terms – of the people who raid the buffet to make the sandwiches that will see them through lunch. Just this morning I watched a family pack an entire picnic!

I will concede that breakfast buffets at smart hotels – especially in Asia – can be spectacular, but more in the sense of over-the-top excess than the display of culinary genius.

In my opinion, the sole redeeming feature of a breakfast buffet is that it puts me in control of what I’m eating. I can choose what I want to eat, and in what quantity.

Buffets, of course, are also a mainstay of event catering, where people’s worst gluttonous excesses are in full force. The first few guests will inevitably grab all the good bits out of the salad (i.e. avocado), leaving just the leaves for the rest of the guests. Or, the same person who would normally eat two or three lamb chops at home, piles his plate with six or seven. Most regularly, one sees overloaded plates with fish next to meat next to chicken; a wide assortment of flavours that are not necessarily complementary.

Of course, if people served themselves with some dignity there would be plenty to go around. Rational, well-off people become locusts in the presence of a buffet.

I am sure there are top-class chefs putting on high quality buffets, but that doesn’t change the behaviour of the guests. And, I can’t imagine there are many chefs who have the same love for their buffet menu as they have for their a la carte menu.

Given the queues that we find ourselves in so often, I’m amazed at people’s tolerance of buffet queues. A bank or post office queue is not something with a finite end, like an aircraft departure for instance. One just has to stand in line along with everyone else and suck it up. On the other hand, instead of relaxing at the table, awaiting the dissipation of the queue, people jump up en masse the minute the buffet is declared open.

Dishes intended to be served cold or at room temperature can generally survive the buffet experience. However, hot food is often not quite hot enough, and it suffers from being kept at temperature for too long. It’s just not possible to simultaneously keep meat pink and hot, because it’s going to carry on cooking, ending that deathly shade of grey so often spied on carveries. Fish must finish cooking as it’s being carried to the table; it doesn’t tolerate being kept hot.

Aside from nutrition, the main reason for eating is to rejoice in the deliciousness of the dish, the celebration of great ingredients prepared with love and respect. Buffets are not the ideal space for doing this.

It’s no surprise that Michelin-starred restaurants do not offer buffets (there is a breakfast buffet in the one-star La Cuisine restaurant in the Hotel Le Royal Monceau, but I venture that the star was awarded for their a la carte lunch or dinner service).

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Lost in Translation: All in a Day’s Work

Oscar Foulkes December 5, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
It’s important to be able to laugh during a workday. It’s less likely – if not outright undesirable – during a complex procedure requiring intense concentration. But, at some point in the day, it can be a big stress release to crack a smile, if not descend into an uncontrollable fit of screeching laughter.

One of my favourites, about 20 years ago, occurred when my uber-efficient assistant, Barbara, had written an order requiring a delivery to The Happy Rocking Gardens. Everyone was very confused, because no-one had any knowledge of such an establishment.

Eventually the penny dropped – in the Cape Town suburb, Gardens, there was a restaurant called The Happy Wok.

“This is the Happy Wok in Gardens, please could I place an order?” I can see how the mistake was made. We laughed about it for months afterwards.

So, yesterday I was checking on the baking and delivery of some macaroons for a client by the name of Faeeza. It is also relevant to the story that she works at Kenilworth racecourse, where we operate the Paddock Room (delivery was supposed to go to her office).

My first stop at Dish was in the pastry kitchen, where the pastry chef told me that they had been baked and were in the freezer. Nothing unusual here – macaroons are often baked in advance and frozen.

A bit later I went to the operations manager to check on the delivery. “Yes, no problem”, she said, “the driver is putting them into the freezer at Paddock Room”.

It was at this point that the freezer was featuring too prominently in the story. This was a hint, if not a big red flag, that everything was perhaps not going according to plan. Oh, and while Paddock Room is at Kenilworth racecourse, it’s not quite the same as delivering to Faeeza in person.

Notwithstanding the fact that the order – including client name and delivery address – appeared in black and white on an order sheet, the ‘broken telephone’ was to blame. Clearly, ‘Faeeza’ is phonetically just too close to ‘freezer’!

Fixing the mistake involved an extra trip, as well as someone’s time, but the stress-release of the uncontrolled laughter was worth it.

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Betting on Teenagers

Oscar Foulkes August 2, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Gerry McIlroy, father of the 2014 Open Championship winner, Rory, is looking like a smart bettor. Ten years ago, when his son was just 15, he took a bet that Rory would win the Open before he turned 26.

At 500-1, the odds look generous, but were they really?

Rory was already a prodigy on the golf course, so much so that Gerry worked two jobs to fund his son’s amateur golfing. Barring injury, it was very likely that he would get at least one start in the Open. Let’s say that the odds of him competing at least once would have been around 5-1, perhaps shorter.

An outsider in the Open would be priced at something like 200-1. At the age of 15, he could therefore have been priced at 1000-1 for an Open victory before his 26th birthday (the two odds multiplied). On this basis, Ladbrokes’ 500-1 isn’t exactly generous.

On the other hand, if you take the view that if he’s good enough to get to the Open he’ll do it by the time he’s 20 (top golfers tend to be quite precocious these days). And, if he’s good enough to compete once he’ll manage a few attempts. In that case, the 1000-1 would need to be divided by the number of times he starts. By this reasoning 500-1 looks generous.

Rory played his first Open at the age of 18, which put Gerry on the right side of the value assessment.

Reports indicate that it is not unusual for bookmakers to get approached for similar bets. Amongst others, Ladbrokes laid bets – when Lewis Hamilton was just nine – that he would win an F1 race or would win the F1 championship.

When these bets pay out, the sums are generally large. In order for bookmakers to remain solvent, they need a steady stream of optimistic parents hoping to turn a couple of hundred into hundreds of thousands.

The publicity around Gerry McIlroy’s payday has a monetary value to Ladbrokes far greater than the payout. If nothing else, it will lure hopeful parents into similar bets.

Speaking as a parent, the money is a sideshow. I get emotional just watching my kids at school prize giving ceremonies. Ladbrokes would have been the last thing on his mind when Gerry saw Rory hoist the Claret Jug!

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“You Learn to Make Do”

Oscar Foulkes July 15, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Sometimes things seem so ‘big’ that anything written about them will just seem trite. For example, does the world need another person to declare the power of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics? I thought not.

Perhaps one day I’ll get around to a popular theme, which plays a key part in his songs Reason to Believe and The Promised Land. This is all about the little things that give us hope – the occasionally irrational belief that tomorrow will be better than today.

His references to blue-collar workers are dotted throughout his songs, for example, this line from The River: “for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”. You can see the need for hope of a better life!

During his concert in Cape Town in January 2014, which was a three- or four-hour immersion in a wide selection of his music, I heard Jack of All Trades for the first time.

I’ve never earned money by mowing lawns, mending roofs or cleaning gutters, as he sings in the song. But I know all about the circumstances – and emotions – of a man saying to his anxious wife “honey we’ll be all right”. There may not be any tangible reason to give him that belief, yet regardless of his own insecurity, the situation demands that strength of him.

The line that links everybody, I think, is this one: “So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do.”

Powerful stuff, whether you carry a union card at the age of 19, or your kids attend private schools.

(I couldn’t find an ‘official’ concert video, but this one gives a pretty good introduction.)

Thrust into the Social Media Limelight

Oscar Foulkes July 13, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
We’ve all been in situations where someone hauls out a camera, brings the impending snap to everyone’s attention, calls out “Cheese!” and then presses the button.

When this happened to me a few years ago in China, I thought I’d heard wrong, because the word sounded very similar to cheese. The word they used was “qie zi”, Mandarin for aubergine. What is it with food-related words and social snaps?

It all used to be relatively innocuous. The relatively recent shift from film to digital meant that people were less frugal about how many pics were snapped, and the results could be reviewed (or perhaps even deleted) instantly.

These days, the pics can be on multiple social media in seconds. So far, so good, assuming you’re in agreement that your drunken grin should be all over Facebook or Instagram.

My generation is ‘social media optional’. Large numbers of us are on social media, but many – for a variety of reasons – decided not to sign up. I’m thinking particularly of one couple that shows up quite regularly in my Facebook newsfeed. They aren’t tagged, of course, but there they are, cheerily holding wine glasses aloft as members of a celebratory group.

For the amount of screen time they get, they may as well have their own Facebook accounts.

These are people who chose to not sign up for Facebook accounts. Is it bad form to publish pictures in which non-Facebookers appear, without asking their permission?

Similarly, I have a friend who is on Facebook, but for professional reasons does not post – or appear in – any photos on the site.

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The Meal That Kept On Giving

Oscar Foulkes July 9, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
A couple of years ago I posted a little piece about recycling leftovers, entitled Warm-Ups. I thought of this again last week, when we had a meal that just kept on giving.

It started with chickens that I liberally dressed with herbs, and then roasted on a bed of chopped leeks and carrots. When it came to service, the leeks and carrots were whizzed with some chicken stock to duty as a gloopy sauce. By way of greens we had sautéed courgettes and beans. I believe we also baked some sweet potatoes that we grew at home.

The chicken bones were reserved for making stock, which happened the following morning.

Far from being a culinary afterthought, the meal that appeared two nights later was so enjoyable that it deserves its own title: Roast chicken and caramelised leek & carrot risotto.

I started by chopping an onion, which was the only bit of traditional ‘prep’ that was done. I fried this, and then added the Arborio rice for a brief fry. From the fridge I grabbed a glass of rosé (for the pot). When the alcohol had evaporated I added chicken stock, followed by the remains of the leek and carrot ‘sauce’.

While this was in progress I roughly chopped some roast chicken leftovers, as well as the remains of the sautéed greens. When the rice was just about ready I added the chicken and veg to the pot to warm through.

I should mention that we ate this by the fire, while rain deluged and wind galed.

Delicious!

(Even if I say so myself)

This is how Chef Tiziano Muccitelli rocks a risotto with zucchini/courgettes (image source: 500px)

 

The Road to Tankwa

Oscar Foulkes May 4, 2014 Tags: , , , Festivals No comments
The vehicle stranded by the side of the road was not on its way back from the Burn. For starters, it wasn’t packed to capacity with camping oddments. Secondly, the middle-aged men were dressed for a day at the office. They had a spare wheel, and a jack, but no means of cranking it, hence the reason for them flagging me down.

While the wheel was being changed we made small talk about what each of us was doing on this isolated road. In my best Afrikaans I told them I’d been to a festival, called AfrikaBurn. The lack of comprehension in their eyes told me to stop right there.

Telling them about the Dr Seuss-like scenes would not have helped them anchor the event. I couldn’t possibly have told them about people spending months building huge artworks that would then be burnt as spectacularly as possible. How could they understand adults taking part in fantasy dress-up (or un-dress) for purposes other than a themed 50th birthday party?

Perhaps I could have told them about a litter-free festival area populated for a week by a reported 10 000 people. Or the random acts of giving. Or the total absence of judgement (and its closely related cousin, complete acceptance). I’m sure the scale of community effort would have impressed them.

I don’t have the definitive definition of what AfrikaBurn is, or isn’t. Apart from the fact that I’ve been once only, it’s an experience that will be different for every person who attends. All I know is that the first hour of our drive home was undertaken in complete silence. None of us was ready to head back to ‘real life’, nor did we want to listen to ‘commercial’ music. In time, I’m sure I’ll have a better understanding, but for now I’ll stick to describing my four days of AfrikaBurn as profound.

The noun ‘congregation’ is linked to the verb ‘congregate’, the action of people coming together in some kind of common purpose. I’m not going to suggest that worship or religion form any part of the festival, but I feel as if I have been affected on a deep – dare I say, spiritual – level.

Most of my professional life has been spent trying to get people to buy more of something, to add the marketing sauce that makes products more enticing. By contrast, AfrikaBurn is completely non-commercial: ice is all you can buy there. No branding of any sort is permitted. People ‘gift’ things, whether it’s a fully-fledged theme camp (complete with DJs), or endless cappuccinos, or bicycle repair, or perhaps just a few biscuits.

The thing is this, what makes AfrikaBurn (as several dotted-around signs reminded us) is the people who attend. The festival is a giant exercise in ridiculousness – its remoteness, the “tyre-munching” gravel road, the lack of any

communications contact with the outside world, the extreme aridity of the landscape, the burning of artworks, I could go on. In the way we dress ourselves, or decorate our campsites, we are gifting ridiculousness. In the process we allow the suspension of judgement, which is a good place to visit.

On a superficial level, judgement can be taken to refer to outward appearance, or lifestyle choices. But it can also relate to more fundamental elements of how society functions. Like, should it be the norm that rubbish bins are provided in public spaces, especially when many people don’t use them anyway?

My journey through AfrikaBurn was probably also coloured by the fact that I took my daughter, who was partying with her friends, so I was alone every night. I may have been surrounded by 10 000 people, but I have seldom felt as lonely as I did, moving from one ‘party area’ to the next. I would happily have made a speech in front of those thousands of people, yet I was incapable of engaging or somehow connecting with individual strangers (all of whom were in their own groups). I was desperate for intimacy; perhaps that was just a rawness caused by me being in this zone of suspended reality. Whatever the cause, it was one of the features that contributed to what for me were the powerful emotional effects of being at AfrikaBurn.

One of the big themes of the organisers’ communication is for participants/attendees to get involved, to participate. There is a practical element to this, because the festival can’t function without volunteers. But the real reason is that in order to get the most out of the experience one needs to have skin in the game (yes, some people take the ‘skin’ part literally). Getting invested may involve no more than dressing for the occasion, even if people’s interpretation of “radical self-expression” varies.

You should read AfrikaBurn’s Guiding Principles. They may be basic, old-fashioned common sense, but it’s hard to argue that the world would not be a better place if more people adopted them.

If I had told the gents by the side of the road more about AfrikaBurn they may have had thoughts that involved their version of the pejorative “crank”, denoting some kind of delusional madness. A crank – in the form of a bent shaft that imparts circular motion – is what they needed to get out of a pickle.

In the early days of motoring, car engines were started by means of a crank. Perhaps the world needs more cranks, of every description.

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All images copyright Oscar Foulkes

Let your ‘Social’ Sprout

Oscar Foulkes April 8, 2014 Tags: , , , Uncategorized No comments
I find it interesting that the best tools for using Twitter were developed by other companies. In a way, it makes sense that the job of growing a platform is different to the specialist functions of scheduling messages, paying attention to relevant conversations and tracking all the data that results from these billions of digital footprints.

I’ve used the free version of HootSuite for a few years, largely because the iOS app enables me to manage multiple accounts, as well as posting to linked Facebook profiles. The paid version, at less than $10 per month, enables all that for a larger number of accounts, as well as one free report per month. You can’t argue with the value for money of the free version, but the entry level paid version offers a lot of functionality for the money.

I’m busy with a trial of SproutSocial, which takes all that to another level. For starters, the desktop version is visually much more exciting space than the HootSuite equivalent. Not only is it more attractive, but it’s also been designed in such a way that the advanced features are made intuitively easy.

For starters, the reports display on the dashboard, right off the bat (unlike in HootSuite, where you have to request a report that gets mailed). The reports deliver a load of relevant data. If you do get around to doing a price comparison with the apparently more expensive SproutSocial, bear in mind that HootSuite bills for additional reports, whereas they are basically on-tap in SproutSocial.

I’m particularly impressed with SproutSocial’s CRM features. These keep track of your conversation history with particular contacts, and are also specially designed for teams. So, when someone tweets your company, you can assign that to a team member. Those responses also go into the history. Given the extent to which consumers by-pass conventional customer help channels, keeping track of Twitter conversations is an absolute must.

SproutSocial can be linked to your Feedly account (or any other RSS), which enables you to find relevant content that you then schedule into your Twitter stream.

You can link your Facebook pages to SproutSocial, so that your social media management becomes a one-stop shop.

There is also a very useful ‘Discovery’ function that enables quite sophisticated Boolean searches of Twitter and non-private Facebook posts. What this does is to throw up conversations that you may want to get involved in. Or, perhaps just give you an insight into consumer sentiment around various issues.

You can also set up your social media stream to include mentions of whatever brand keywords you specify. Remember, ‘social’ is a conversation – you need to be listening, too!

Much of this functionality is mirrored in the iOS app.

Yes, social media is ‘free’, but its impact on your business is potentially huge. If you are serious about using social media then the relatively small monthly expense of the tools that enable you to be more effective is money well spent. Social media is now too important a business function for you to be messing around with ‘amateur’ tools.

There is a potentially powerful platform emerging at StreamScience.co (currently in beta). It has great tools for managing content, to a wider variety of social media than just Twitter and Facebook. It has scheduling, as well as team functionality and a bulk upload facility. Its scheduler tracks engagement to optimise the times of day that messages are sent out. One shortcoming is that it doesn’t deliver your message stream. Looking good thus far.

(Disclosure: While I use paid versions of HootSuite and SproutSocial myself, which is the basis for this endorsement, I need to tell you that purchases that follow from clicking in the links above earn me a small referral fee.)

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The SproutSocial Twitter feed

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The SproutSocial reports dashboard

 

Crowd-Sourcing Lecture Notes

Oscar Foulkes March 17, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Twitter sometimes gets accused of being nothing more than gossip. I think chatter is a fairer descriptive, but that line of thinking obscures the huge value that does get delivered by the service.

SXSW introduced me to two great practical applications for Twitter. Firstly, it enabled the posing of questions from the audience, no matter how large. It was a brilliantly efficient way of doing it, especially because it forced the question posers to get to the point. And we didn’t have to wait for them to stand and waffle their way through the question. A major benefit to the organisers is that they could choose the best questions.

The second benefit was crowd-sourced notes during workshops (all presentations, actually). Every session had a designated hash tag. Instead of writing down notes (or, in addition to notes), participants tweeted key points with the hash tag.

During one workshop I was sitting next to someone who was typing up notes on her MacBook Air. She was simultaneously following the Twitter feed for the hash tag, so that she could copy across important points she may not have picked up on first time round. People were also using their smartphones to photograph the presentation slides, which were also tweeted.

But then this was SXSW Interactive. What else would you expect?

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