A follow-up on my post of "Cook and Share A Pot of Curry on 21 Aug 2011". Nice adaptation of "Vincent". Have a good laugh! :)
Will you be cooking curry today? :) Participate in this meaningful event and spread the importance of intercultural understanding between countries and also between the different races and nationalities within one country!
Tom Yam Curry by yours truly. This was a dish that I had prepared for my family dinner held on Singapore's National Day (9 Aug). Curry is a well-loved dish by most if not all Singaporeans and I sincerely hope that the new migrants to the little red dot will learn to adapt to our way of life.
This is a Facebook Page created by a group of Singaporeans after a report came about that a mainland Chinese family (from China) told a local Indian Family not to eat curry and not to cook curry. The appointed mediator - a certain Madam Giam facilitated the case in such a way that : the Indian family could cook curry only when the mainland Chinese family is not at home. (mediation agreement).
So far, more than 60,000 around the world (mostly Singaporeans!) are joining in. Cook a pot of curry or buy a take-out from a restaurant (if you can't cook or too busy to do so). A meaningful event to spread the importance of interculural understanding between countries and also between the different races and nationalities within one country.
Excerpt from Facebook Page:
http://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC110808-0000102/Number-of-neighbour-disputes-hit-high (this is the link)
and this is the clarification to the case:
and 16th Aug 2011 (The Law Minister's clarification)
How we feel
How could a appointed mediator facilitate the case in such a way that restricts the lifestyle and cooking norms of the Indian family? Or any other local family who practices a cultural lifestyle that we have all made our own? In this case, Curry has always been part of our culture since the 1800s. It can be anything else that you or I hold dear.
There is a native Malay proverb "Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung" ("You should hold up the sky of the land where you live") - ie one should respect the country in which you choose to live in. ( ie blend/ assimilate/ understand/ tolerate / integrate into the community of your chosen choice)
What we wish for
When the new immigrants arrive here, we wish for them to respect / embrace the cultural / lifestyle and linguistic norms of this nation. We wish for all new immigrants and citizens to understand and appreciate the various and diverse cultural aspects of the various ethnic-minority groups we have here.
This is Singapore and we are part of Malayan culture. Our hinterland previously was Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago. Our ancestors came, met and mingled and through an adventurous and open mindset, created something unique and beautiful... (thus our local culture as such- curries/ spices/ a vast melting pot of people and mixed heritages)
* A message to all new citizens: We sincerely hope you integrate into our local culture and make attempts to assimilate and embrace/ appreciate the various multi-ethnic cultures we had built up so painstakingly over the decades. Because at the same time, we are definitely open to taking the best that you have to offer, and to create new and beautiful Singaporean things.
*We Singaporeans are basically nice and tolerant people. We will accept you as new citizens and hope you blend in and integrate with us well.
Upset with CMC
We are mainly upset with the "Community Mediation Centre's" mediation action of actually facilitating such a mediation agreement. It is the inalienable right of the Indian family to cook curry at any time they wish to within the four walls of their home. (having said that, let us all- natives, new citizens or otherwise, embrace the multi-cultural aspects of our nation)
Every Singaporean should just cook a pot of curry and eat it (regardless of race / language / religion). We are Singaporeans and we LOVE our curries - be it chicken curry / fish curry / lamb curry / beef curry / beef rendang / lontong / mee siam/ laksa / Petai sambal belachan / ayam buah keluak etc
Thank You Very Much for supporting "Cook A Pot of Curry" Event!
- from the Admin Group
August 19, 2011 10:07 pm
By George L. Legendre. Photographs by Stefano Graziani
Left: Galletti, use in tomato sauces. Right: Fusilli Lunghi Bucati, eat with meat ragu
The architect Marco Guarnieri and I share a professional address in a quiet lane off Bermondsey Street in south London. On most evenings we mill about the office’s communal table and exchange our impressions of the day’s crop of problems: delayed professional fees, contractual instructions and interim certificates. But first we sit down and eat pasta.
Being Italian, Marco knows all about pasta. It takes him around eight minutes to prepare the simplest of pastasciuttas – a dish of spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino. Sadly, it takes us no more than a few minutes to finish our portions.
During one of these evenings, the concept for a book about pasta emerged. Its premise is simple: to work out the mathematical formulas of pasta and use the results to produce a culinary resource that is both beautiful and useful. My firm uses mathematics to model anything from pedestrian bridges to playground slides, so why not food too?
There is a huge canon of pasta, and often names or forms overlap, or become confused. Many regions in Italy produce lesser-known varieties of pasta, or spawn minor variations of established ones, then give them local names. This all makes classification a difficult task. Inspired by the science of phylogeny (the study of relatedness among groups of natural forms), we pared down the startling variety of pasta to 92 unique types, divided according to their morphological features, with each pasta illustrated by its parametric equations, a 3D diagram and a specially commissioned photograph by Stefano Graziani.
Left: Funghini, good in minestrone. Right: Fagottini, fill with ricotta or fruit
In the examples above, you can see the complexity of galletti, combining a bent longitudinal profile, a hollow cross section, striated surface and smooth edges; fusilli lunghi bucati, a distinctive member of the fusilli clan with a spring-like profile; funghini, with their dainty crenellated edges; and fagottini, pinched into shape from a circle of durum-wheat dough.
Combined, these representations capture the essence of each pasta, and give a concise, elegant and unique expression of a familiar thing. It is a surreal presentation of a wildly popular food, perhaps sometimes overlooked for its aesthetic depth and variety.
And does this scientific approach result in tastier pasta? Absolutely. The topological properties of each shape impacts how it absorbs heat and water, cooks, soaks in liquids, and retains a sauce – a shape may even be designed for a given sauce.
Our next project, to make a pasta derived from periodic equations, pasta ioli, is still a work in progress. But the pasta family, in all its shapes and sizes, is bound to keep growing.
‘Pasta by Design’ by George L. Legendre is published this month by Thames & Hudson, £16.95
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
By Harry Eyres
Published: May 21 2011 00:05 | Last updated: May 21 2011 00:05
On a recent trip to Italy I heard a man order an espresso “un po’ lungo” (a little bit long). I was expecting he would receive the Italian version of a caffè Americano; a strongish coffee but served in a decent-sized cup and long enough to provide a few minutes of meditative sipping. Not a bit of it: when the coffee arrived, it was to my eyes indistinguishable from a normal espresso or even what in London coffee houses is called a ristretto (not a term I have ever heard anyone use in Italy). In other words, it consisted of about a teaspoon and a half of incredibly strong black coffee, concentrated to the point of viscousness, topped with that tawny foam that is the good espresso’s equivalent of the creamy head on a pint of Guinness.
Perhaps it took him 45, rather than 30 seconds, to knock it back. That, for him, was un po’ lungo.
Back in London, I attended the opening of the Southbank Centre’s 60th anniversary celebrations of the Festival of Britain (on which more later). Trying to wake myself up, I had one cup of so-called coffee and then another. Each contained at least five times the liquid volume of the espresso un po’ lungo but nothing of that beverage’s intensity, flavour or drama. Eventually, arriving back home, I had to make myself a proper cup. By this time I had had far too much coffee, yet not enough.
All this prompted wider-ranging reflections on length and shortness, not just as they affect coffee. Although many chains of coffee bars in the UK and in the US claim to be Italian either in origin or inspiration – Caffè Nero promises “the best espresso this side of Milan” – in fact, the coffee experience and philosophy they offer is a pale shadow of the Italian one. The fact is that English and American people, on the whole, cannot and do not want to drink coffee in the way Italians do. For Italians, coffee is something very short, very intense and done standing up – a sort of gastronomic knee-trembler. Even an Italian cappuccino is not much longer than an espresso – it is beautiful, served in a small cup, and designed to be dispatched swiftly. Hardly anyone sits down at a table to drink one; not least because they know they will be charged three times as much.
The success of Starbucks is based on an entirely opposing philosophy. Everything is predicated on size. Even the smallest Starbucks coffee is called “Tall”, and if it consisted of coffee as Italians understand it, it would be enough to send three human beings into orbit. Thank goodness it consists mostly of water, or some watery perversion of milk.
Many Starbucks customers like to sit on their own, often with a computer, less frequently, alas, with a book or notebook, slowly sipping their hot coffee-based beverage while dealing with e-mails. Italians, on the other hand, intensely social creatures, nearly always drink their coffees in company, conversing with someone, a friend, colleague or the barista (who is never called a barista).
Length as opposed to intensity, volume rather than flavour: here we have not just two ways of making coffee but two philosophies of life. Is it better to draw something out as long as possible, or, as the poet Andrew Marvell put it in another, erotic, context, to “roll all [its] strength and all [its] sweetness up into one ball” so that we can “tear our pleasures ... thorough the iron gates of life”?
While these reflections on the length of a cup of coffee were unfolding, I was reading and listening to the news from government statisticians that one in four of today’s under-16s “can expect to live to be 100 years old”. Apart from the fact that extreme longevity sounds like something to appeal more to the Starbucks habitué than the espresso drinker, I wondered about both the claim and the use of “expect” and “expectancy”, which have become normal parlance in discussions of lifespan.
The fact that, statistically, the mean of lifespan is 80 or 82 or 102 does not mean that any individual can expect to live that long, in the way that a Starbucks customer can expect to receive a cup with 12 or 20 fluid ounces of coffee. For a single individual, for all sorts of obvious reasons, there is absolutely no way of knowing how long he or she will live.
Presumably, “life expectancy” depends to some extent on how one chooses to live one’s life. Someone as brave as Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist and documentary-maker killed recently in Misrata in Libya, was less likely to comb grey hair than an employee of the Inland Revenue living in suburbia. But then, as the great cartoon by HM Bateman shows, and as Italian coffee drinkers instinctively know, the roof can fall on the head of the most cautious and risk-averse of human mice.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
LET’S say you have invited four people for dinner on Saturday. It’s now Wednesday morning, and reality is setting in. On the guest list: two pescatarians, a “Top Chef” fanboy and a gluten avoider. Also, spring is in the air; local asparagus, arriving now. The challenge, as always: how to find dishes that are reliable, delicious and gastronomically correct?
The year has brought a rush of new recipe search engines designed to solve such quandaries. In February, Google introduced a tool called Recipe Search that lets you specify ingredients you do or do not want to use. (For example, a general search for “chili” can be refined — by, say, a Texas-chili purist in Austin — to exclude any recipe that calls for beans.) Microsoft’s Bing browser has had its own recipe function for more than a year, and allows you to search within a single source, like a blog.
A few weeks before Google’s new tool was introduced, Foodily went live, with all results integrated with Facebook so that you can see which recipes your friends say they like. A new, photo-heavy site, Cookzillas, the brainchild of a passionate cook in Bucharest, Romania, who happens to be a multimedia programmer, has more global recommendations than the United States-based engines, with English, Australian and Canadian sites in its scope.
With 10 million recipe searches a day on Google alone, the results surely influence what Americans eat. But when you idly type in “cookies” — the most common recipe search, according to Google — do these systems evaluate recipes the way a good cook would, by the clarity of their directions, the helpfulness of their warnings, the tastiness of the results? Probably not, based on extensive test-runs of the new tools.
“Their challenge is to translate ‘yummy’ into digital fingerprints,” said Paul Kennard, an expert in building Web traffic.
Search engines used to rank recipes largely by popularity, according to the number of times they had been clicked and linked to from other sites. The newer models try to evaluate recipes and rank them by quality according to ever-changing, supposedly highly nuanced criteria, including the number of reviews, links and photographs each recipe has, as well as its popularity.
Jack Benzell, a designer of Google’s algorithm, said in an interview that although the company’s search will never be able to decide whether Thomas Keller’s brownies or Ina Garten’s are inherently better, the results are as nuanced and valuable as any others performed by Google, say, for new tires or Florida weather.
But in query after query that I made in Google and in Bing, recipes from large sites like allrecipes.com and foodnetwork.com often occupied all top 10 results slots. Longer recipes with more detailed content, like the ones at popular food blogs like 101 Cookbooks or Chez Pim, rarely appeared on the first page of results. And results that are not found in the first two pages rarely are seen at all, according to experts.
Andrea Cutright of Foodily says that Google and Bing searches give preference to big sites because the algorithms are designed by programmers who are not cooks.
“You need people who understand ingredients, not just keywords and coding,” she said. “Knowing that an aubergine is the same as an eggplant, or that drumsticks equal chicken legs, simply gives better results.”
With my friend the chili purist in mind, I ran a search for bean-free chili through all four engines. Over all, they were only intermittently successful at providing recipes that matched what I was looking for.
At Foodily, the No. 1 recipe from “chili no beans” was a winner — Tex-Mex Chili from Fine Cooking, an excellent recipe that I’ve made many times. But the next two results, one from nomeatathlete.com and the other from allrecipes.com — were packed with beans. On Cookzillas, once I subtracted beans from the search, the engine abandoned beef as well, leaving me with a venison chili, a green chili with pork and a turkey chili as the top three.
At Google Recipe Search, I searched for chili and then unchecked the box for beans, and the No. 1 recipe was for chili powder, not what I’d wanted. The second was a poorly rated recipe from Guy Fieri at foodnetwork.com, and the third was a highly rated one from Bobby Flay at the same site; there was no clue as to why the lower-rated recipe did better in the results.
AT Bing, the No. 1 recipe, “My Chili” by Michelle at allrecipes.com, has 413 enthusiastic reviews, most of them dotted with exclamation points. But it also has ground beef and canned tomato sauce, which would give that chili purist fits. The second and third recipes that popped up were from delish.com, a recipe site owned by Microsoft, Bing’s parent company. They seemed solid enough, but results from delish.com did not turn up in the other search engines, which made me wonder if Bing was weighted in that direction.
Not surprisingly, Web-fluent cooks have come up with their own search strategies.
Soraya Darabi, who is a founder of foodspotting.com and a digital strategist for ABC, said, surprisingly, that she still leans toward recipes from solid, old-media sources like Bon Appétit magazine except when it comes to desserts.
“Niche blogs are the best, because the people who write them really know their stuff,” she said, citing Sugar Plum as a specialist in all-American desserts like shoofly pie.
Adriana Guillen, a therapist in Brooklyn who often rates recipes online, said that she looks for longer recipes. “It doesn’t mean that the recipe takes longer to make,” she said, “it means that the recipe is more helpful.”
A lovely photograph can signal a solid, tested recipe or something else entirely. “If the photo doesn’t match the recipe, or looks like it was done by a food stylist when the recipe clearly is by a home cook, that should be a red flag,” said Michael Chu, a software engineer who also writes about food at Cooking for Engineers.
So what are recipe search results based on? According to Mr. Benzell, search engines love the taste of data: chunks called “rich snippets” that sound like an appetizer but hold information like cooking time, nutrition information, yield and author. So recipes with long headnotes, hilarious prose or detailed instructions may be ignored in favor of recipes with starred ratings, specific cooking times or nutritional information coded in a specific way. Providing such content is a prime element in search-engine optimization, the sometimes shadowy business of trying to loft one’s site to the top of a heap of results.
Duane Forrester, a product manager for Bing, said that it looks at more than recipe formatting. “There are roughly a thousand factors that we look at in any given search,” he said, including how long the average user stays on a recipe page and the number of links it has, where they come from, where they lead to.
The dominance of behemoth cooking sites in search results enrages many food bloggers.
“I think we all believe that there should be something fair and democratic about search,” said Deb Perelman, a blogger whose recipes at Smitten Kitchen — smittenkitchen.com — still turn up fairly often using the new engines. “If a team of developers can push any recipe up top, how good can that recipe search be?”
In a methodical post on her Web site food52.com, the former New York Times writer Amanda Hesser carved up Google’s Recipe Search, saying that many recipes it favored contained information that was coded in ways that boosted them in the rankings, even if that information was obviously inaccurate. (With help from Google, she found a cassoulet recipe that was supposed to weigh in at just 77 calories a serving, although a serving included a lamb shank and one whole sausage. Another cassoulet’s cooking time was given as one minute.)
According to Andrea Cutright of Foodily, the demand for nutrition information as a priority comes from users. Many people use recipe search tools to avoid certain foods — like milk, flour or sugar — for health reasons, she said, not as a path to transcendent cuisine.
The Paris-based food blogger David Lebovitz said that, since the introduction of Recipe Search, traffic to davidlebovitz.com has dropped noticeably. A regular Google search for “dulce de leche brownies” used to bring up his recipe in the first few pages.
In the new Recipe Search, he said, as many as 3,000 other sites come up first, many of which have simply copied his recipe into their own archive: a common practice that, he said, is now rewarded by Google’s programming.
“Everyone is just trying to scramble to the top of the list,” he said. “I write recipes for readers, not for search engines, and I am being penalized for it.”
Meg Hourihan, who was one of the first serious food bloggers, said that she no longer trusts the crowd-sourced recipe ratings that Google and Bing rely on.
Unless she already knows and likes the source of the recipe and the reviews, she keeps scrolling.
“I don’t necessarily even trust my friends to recommend recipes,” she said. “I mean, which friends are we talking about? The ones who order in six nights a week?”
Ultimately, searching for the “best” recipe online is still like Internet dating — you might well stumble upon a great match, but if you do, it won’t be because the search engine knows what you like.
Finally, desperately seeking a great asparagus recipe for my imaginary dinner party, I tried out one last new search engine, this one independent and, in its way, radical. Eat Your Books does not publish any recipes at all. Instead, the founder, Jane Kelly, is indexing the recipes in thousands of cookbooks.
Eat Your Books does charge for this service; $2.50 a month or $25 a year. So far, it has built up around 80,000 searchable titles, with authors from Édouard de Pomiane to Rachael Ray to Heston Blumenthal. I found thousands of recipes for asparagus contained in books I already own, including one for asparagus vinaigrette with tarragon from “The Anatomy of a Dish,” by the chef Diane Forley. I’d made it years ago, loved it, dog-eared it and promptly lost track of it: the book is in my basement.
Google couldn’t find it — but that’s what I would serve on Saturday night.
By Morgen Witzel
Published: April 27 2011 23:08 | Last updated: April 27 2011 23:08
|Mr Vu positioned his brand as part of a Vietnamese tradition
The story. Coffee cultivation in Vietnam began under French colonial rule in the 19th century and soon became a staple industry. By the mid-1990s, the country had become one of the three biggest coffee producers in the world.
Much of it, however, was low quality and sold at cut prices overseas. Vietnamese-American entrepreneur Dang Le Nguyen Vu believed high-quality Vietnamese gourmet coffees could be produced and sold profitably. So, in the mid-1990s, he launched Trung Nguyên, a coffee manufacturer and café chain.
The challenge. Vietnam is an emerging market. In 1995, per capita income was only $250 (the 2010 figure was $1,200). This was one reason why Mr Vu chose to develop a luxury brand that would appeal to both domestic and export markets.
To do so, he would have to persuade the home market that his expensive product offered value, and convince overseas customers that Vietnam could produce gourmet coffee.
The home market. As the owner of a coffee-processing business, Mr Vu could improve the quality but there was no efficient distribution network. The answer was to set up a chain of coffee shops, modelled in part on Starbucks, that would also sell coffee beans for home consumption.
The branding of Trung Nguyên was carefully planned. To counter competition from big multinationals, whether coffee shops or brands such as Nescafé, Mr Vu positioned it as part of a Vietnamese tradition. A Trung Nguyên museum tells the history of coffee-making in the country.
One of Trung Nguyên’s best-known products is kopi luwak or “weasel coffee”, made from coffee berries that have passed through the digestive tract of a civet cat. Marketing this expensive delicacy, which is harvested only in south-east Asia, helps identify Trung Nguyên with Vietnam’s coffee culture.
Combining heritage and modernity is at the heart of the brand, whether in the packaging or the styling of the coffee shops. Straplines such as “Bringing creativity into coffee” suggest innovation.
By pricing the coffee high, Mr Vu appealed to the aspirations of Vietnamese people. An emerging middle class took to the brand and the coffee shops became important social centres. The first Trung Nguyên coffee shop opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 1998, and by 2010 there were more than 1,000 across Vietnam.
Trung Nguyên has also diversified into decaffeinated and instant coffee and tea production.
The overseas market. Export was part of the strategy from the start. Trung Nguyên now markets its coffee in more than 40 countries, including the US and the UK.
Most of the brand’s appeal is to niche markets, to consumers interested in exotic coffees and, especially in the US, to visitors to Vietnam who have seen the brand there. Most of the coffee is sold online through franchisees. Sales volumes are very small compared with those in Vietnam.
Attempts to replicate the domestic coffee shop branding strategy and set up Trung Nguyên outlets overseas have met with mixed success. There are now two stores in Singapore and a few elsewhere in the world. But, generally, in spite of its success in Vietnam, the Trung Nguyên brand is not well-known elsewhere.
Current challenges. Trung Nguyên must expand its export market if the company is to continue to grow. Although rising prosperity in Vietnam means there are opportunities for domestic growth, Trung Nguyên is under pressure from competitors.
Key lessons. Creating a luxury brand in an emerging market might seem contradictory. But the Trung Nguyên case shows how it can be done. By appealing to national culture and values, and creating an aspirational brand with which rising middle classes could identify, it transformed the coffee market in Vietnam.
However, Trung Nguyên has also learnt that extending the brand overseas will take longer, and require more finessing.
The author is honorary senior fellow at the University of Exeter Business School
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
No, you don't have to tell me, because I know what you're about to say: your new product is brilliant. It's a game-changer. Problem is, you need a killer logo. Well, today, designers, inventors, and investors are facing a dilemma similar to the one that writers and artists have struggled with for decades: there's nothing left. Or here's another problem: if you do manage to create a jaw-droppingly clever or memorable image, rather than engendering widespread consumer recall of your brand, your Easter-blue palette risks looking uneasily similar to the Tiffany box, and your little black bull is a transparent rip-off of the one that dangles from the neck of Sangre de Toro red wine.
As far as the logo is concerned, to paraphrase Bill Maher, it's time for New Rules. Today, what counts far more than a puma, a monkey, or a snarling aardvark is the cross-sensory experience your brand offers. I'm talking not only the emotion, beliefs, and desires your brand evokes, but its feel, touch, sound, smell and personality, of which the logo is just one small part. Whether it's a soda can, a car, a doll, a fragrance, a smartphone, or laptop, your brand needs to be smashable, e.g., instantly identifiable via its shape, design, copy, contours, and even navigation. Aside from adolescents, who are always on the lookout for the coolest logos to set them apart from, or help them gain traction with, their peers, today for most consumers the logo comes in near-to-last place to other considerations.
Why? Well, various reasons. The first is, when we see a logo, our defenses go up and stay up. We fear we're being played, or manipulated. Not least, I might also add that subconsciously, a logo reminds us of our complicity with big brands, of our own shot-with-guilt overconsumption that helped drive the world's recent financial downfall.
The term "smashable" dates back to 1915, when the Coca-Cola company asked a designer in Terre Haute, Indiana, to design a bottle that consumers could still recognize as a Coke bottle, even if someone flung it against a brick wall and it shattered into a hundred pieces. Coke is a smashable brand. So are Guinness, Ferrari, Harley-Davidson and, of course, Apple (take a sledgehammer to an iPad and you'll know what I mean). Which suggests that the logo as we once knew and loved it--from Citibank's Scowling Umbrella (I don't know what else to call it), to Nike's Swoosh, to Starbucks's Whoever-The-Heck-She-Is--needs to be re-considered if it's going to play any role in future brand-building.
Let's do a little experiment: Erase the logo from every single one of your brand identifiers--products, stationary, signage. Close your eyes, now reopen them. Is there anything left? Would consumers still recognize those items as belonging to your brand? Look at your packaging, your copy, your colors, your design, your font, your spacing. Do any of them convey your brand's identity? Or without a logo are you adrift and bailing water?
Next let's examine your website. Again, by eliminating the logo, you'll embark on a fun (I promise) and instructive exercise that will relieve you of any stubborn logo-fixations that may still be nagging at you. It's one that will force you into acknowledging the value that every single one of your communication elements plays in defining your brand's identity. Okay, still hiding the brand logo, eyeball your copy, your graphics, whether your pages are spare or dense-looking. Do all these things convey what your brand represents? Does your brand have a personality anymore, or is it standing shyly and stiffly against the wall, hoping no one notices it now looks (I hate to tell you) like every other brand out there?
To wrap up, let's have a look at your navigation. By navigation, I'm talking about everything from the iPod's clicking wheel, to the ritualized twist and snap you hear when you open your favorite soft drink, to Amazon's simple, one-click button you press to buy books or download them onto your Kindle. In my experience, once consumers have used Amazon a few times, they get hooked on the site's simplicity and navigational ease (During a recent round of focus groups, by a long shot Amazon was at the very top of consumers' favorite brands.). Sure, the site stocks every book (and everything else) under the sun, it over-delivers, it undersells iTunes, its data-mining techniques are on the positive side of creepy, but I'm pretty sure that most consumers' loyalty to the company derives in large part from Amazon's incredible and intuitive ease of navigation.
We're creatures of habit. Once we grow accustomed to a certain way of shopping, running, eating, drinking, shaving, brushing our teeth, showering, dressing, or any of 100 other things, our methodology becomes our own. Like the familiar, well-worn route we take to our favorite beach or restaurant, habit becomes personal, automatic, and unconscious. In the same way, navigational rituals are a vital, whispered element of any brand's attraction. Having said this, human beings are supremely adaptable. Basically, we can get used to anything. If you've ever switched cell phones, or made the change from an Apple to a PC, yes, at first it felt obnoxious and foreign and even wrong. But once we became accustomed to that new environment--be it a trackball or a new, melodic suite of start-up and shut-down sounds--nothing else would do the trick.
So reserve a brick wall, cock your arm, aim, and begin smashing your brand. While you're at it, smash your website, to ensure your brand remains consistent via your web pages' navigation, style, ease, and/or special features. Now ask yourself: does my brand "own" this cross-sensory experience, from web to wireless to PDA, right down to the bricks-and-mortar product I'm gripping in my right hand? If not, your carefully crafted logo might as well not even exist.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s “World's 100 Most Influential People” and author of Buyology—Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com .
Read more by Martin Lindstrom: The 10 Most Addictive Sounds in the World 
Top image via Lawrence Whittemore ; small photo via thewhitestdogalive 
In announcing the sale of Pringles on Tuesday, Procter & Gamble concluded what had been a tumultuous, sometimes zany, 50-year experiment in engineered food.
The $2.35 billion deal with Diamond Foods is also a milestone for Procter as it sheds its last food brand after having already sold Jif peanut butter, Folger’s coffee and Crisco shortening.
The company’s expertise in edible oils was used widely by the potato chip industry in the 1950s and 1960s, and shaped the invention of Pringles, the thinly sliced saddle-shaped crisp. Company officials still aren’t sure how the chips got their name, but one theory holds that two Procter advertising employees lived on Pringle Drive in Cincinnati and the name paired well with potato.
The creator of the famous Pringles can was so proud of his invention that he asked that his ashes be buried in one.
Yet Pringles, which is basically dehydrated potato flakes that are rolled and then fried, was not universally loved.
It was such a dud in its early years that some called for Procter to dump the brand. The brand did not take off until the company tweaked the flavor in 1980 and introduced the “Fever for the Flavor of Pringles” advertising campaign.
By the late 1990s, Pringles had become a $1 billion a year brand. On the television series “Ally McBeal,” Ally got into a grocery store skirmish with a woman over a can of Pringles.
“When I was there 30 years ago, it was dead,” said Charles Jarvie, vice president of Procter’s food division in the late 1970s. “It’s a great example where they just didn’t give up.”
Nonetheless, the sale of Pringles was not unexpected, as Procter has refocused its attention on the core businesses of beauty, grooming and household care. “Pringles is an iconic, billion-dollar snack brand with significant global manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure,” said Michael J. Mendes, chief executive of Diamond Foods, in a statement. The $2.35 billion transaction includes $1.5 billion of Diamond stock, which goes to P.& G. shareholders who elect to participate in the deal, and the assumption of $850 million of Pringles debt by the merged company.
The sale will barely make a dent in Procter, with $80 billion in annual sales.
“It really didn’t fit what they are looking to do,” said Jason Gere, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets who tracks the company. “For a long time, this was one of those products that felt more appropriate in someone else’s portfolio.”
Pringles has kept up with some of its rivals in the flavor department, offering salt-and-vinegar, cheddar and pizza versions. While Pringles’ sales had been growing of late, Mr. Gere said that they had not been nearly as robust as many of P.& G.’s other megabrands.
Mr. Jarvie said the company had hoped to replicate the great science breakthroughs it had with laundry detergents, toothpaste and disposable diapers. But, he said, “food is as much an art as it is a science. Procter never got that.”
In the 1950s, roughly 25 percent of the company’s sales were in food, particularly in shortening and other cooking oils.
“We provided most of the oils to the potato chip industry,’ said Greg McCoy, a corporate archivist. “We were already frying up potato chips to test the oils.”
But it lacked a distribution network to ship perishable bags of chips to grocery stores, so it directed its researchers to come up with a longer-lasting chip that could be distributed with P.& G.’s existing distribution network.
“They knew from the get-go that they wanted it to be uniform in size, texture and taste,” Mr. McCoy said. Procter wanted to create a perfect chip to address consumer complaints about broken and stale chips and air in the bags.
The task was assigned to a chemist named Fredric Baur, who from 1956 to 1958 created Pringles’ saddle shape out of fried dough and also its can. But Mr. Baur could not figure out how to make the chips taste good, and he eventually was pulled off the Pringles job to work on another brand. In the mid-1960s, another Procter researcher, Alexander Liepa, dusted off Mr. Baur’s work and set a out to improve on the Pringles taste, which he succeeded in doing.
Another theory for the Pringles’ name comes from Mr. Liepa’s patent, which credits research done in the 1940s by Mark Pringle, Mr. McCoy said.
The chips were test marketed in Evansville, Ind., in 1968 and were an “overnight sensation,” Mr. McCoy said. But when the chips went national in 1971, the taste issue resurfaced. Officially, Pringles are called crisps rather than chips, the result of a long-ago fracas between competitors and regulators over what could be called a potato chip.
In the 1993 book “Soap Opera: the Inside Story of Procter & Gamble,” the author Alecia Swasy writes that Pringles were considered one of the great flops in company history, “the P.& G. Edsel.” Mr. McCoy maintains, however, that Pringles gained traction after a makeover in 1980s, which included a thicker chip and a new focus on the taste, rather than the can.
Mr. Baur never lost his affection for the Pringles’ can, which he invented. When he died in 2008, his children honored his request to bury his ashes in a Pringles can. In an interview with Time, Mr. Baur’s son, Larry, said he and his siblings stopped at a Walgreen’s to pick up a can of Pringles on the way to the funeral home.
“My siblings and I briefly debated what flavor to use,” Mr. Baur said, in the Time interview. “But I said, ‘Look we need to use the original.’ ”
Last August, Mr. Tse, who began blogging in 2004, paired up with fellow blogger Nana Chan (aka Nanamoose) to create a You Tube TV show. Since then, the duo have created more than 10 episodes of “Wok with Nana,” an online travel and cooking show — the most popular episode, about Taiwanese beef noodles, was watched by thousands in Asia.
“These are not amazing figures yet,” says Mr. Tse, who says they set their goal at 10,000 viewers. “But it is definitely more popular than blogs,” adds Ms. Chan. Her most popular blog entries received page views only in the hundreds.
Food video-loggers, or food vloggers, have been around for years in the U.S. — some of them post their shows directly on their blogs; others use You Tube. One of the first video chefs, Brooklyn-based Heather Johnston started vlogging in 2006. Then there’s Dani Spies, a certified health and nutrition counselor in Los Angeles who posts instructional cooking videos. Last summer, the Food Network, a U.S. channel, even used YouTube entries to cast contestants for its show “The Next Food Network Star.”
But Asian foodies are just entering the vlogging world.
On “Wok with Nana,” Ms. Chan usually starts off with a short interview with food experts or chefs – mostly from Hong Kong, where the two live, but also from around Asia — and ends with a cooking demo that she performs. Mr. Tse stays behind the scenes and mans the camera.
It’s a work in progress, but they’re not total amateurs — both have been guests on food and travel televisions shows before, including the DiscoverY Travel & Living programs, Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (Mr. Tse) and Kylie Kwong’s “My China” (Ms. Chan). The experiences made them realize they could do their own show.
“Many of the TV celebrity chefs on Chinese cuisine have never lived in Asia and can’t even speak Chinese,” says Ms. Chan. “Hong Kong, for example, is always a popular place to cover in food and travel shows. We live here, so why not cover it ourselves?
They’re not the only ones in Asia with online food shows. Four months ago, Gregory Lok and Eric Pong, friends in Hong Kong, left their respective jobs — in furniture sourcing and wholesale trading and distribution — to start an online food show on You Tube called “Wine vs. Food.” The gimmick for the show is this: two wine experts compete to find the best wine pairing for an Asian dish – the experts and the featured dish will change with every show. Diners in the restaurant where the shooting takes place (the site will vary, too) decide which pairing is best, and the loser has to finish all the leftover wine. The premier episode of “Wine vs. Food” aired last December (the dish was roasted pigeon) and got nearly 2,000 views; the second episode aired in late January (Indian lamb curry).
Mr. Lok hosts the show; Mr. Pong, along with a crew of five, shoots it on a Canon Eos 7D camera. Mr. Pong already owned all of the equipment — camera, lights and microphones — but he estimates that those starting from scratch would have to spend more than 60,000 dollars Hong Kong (about US$7,700) for professional equipment. Of course, there are cheaper alternatives. “With technology these days, you can do a great job even with an iPhone,” says Mr. Pong.
Getting started may be easy, but how will vloggers monetize their work? “It’s a question we’ve been hoping to ask you,” says Mr. Lok of “Wine vs. Food,” who muses that someday they could offer banner advertisements or have a retail component to their website. Currently, they’ve started to charge for tickets (HK$50) to attend the videotaping. Each show has roughly 25 seats available.
Says Mr. Tse of “Wok with Nana.” “Maybe a TV network will pick us up.”
“My ultimate goal is to start a restaurant of my own,” says Ms. Chan. “And this is a platform to start building customers before the restaurant is even opened.”
Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Inside the kitchen of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, all the orders are called out in French: “canard” is duck; “homard” is lobster.
That’s not surprising — it is a French restaurant, after all. But it isn’t in Paris; it’s in Hong Kong, where most of the staff speak Cantonese and English. In fact, 90% of the employees in the kitchen are Hong Kong Chinese, says L’Atelier chef and native-French speaker Michel del Burgo. Another 5% are Japanese, the remaining 5% are French.
In the L’Atelier kitchen, says Sherman Chan, a chef who worked there for a year in 2008: “You say ‘Oui, chef,’ whether or not you understand [the request], and then turn around to ask for a translation. That’s the way it works.” Ms. Chan is a Hong Kong-native who’s mother tongue is Cantonese. She now works in Caprice, another Hong Kong restaurant. “It’s not very efficient, but eventually you learn to make your way around.”
Language is a new problem in Asian kitchens. In the past, when they were staffed mostly by locals, it wasn’t an issue. But a more integrated and international food world — a growing number of Western celebrity chefs in the region and Chinese restaurants expanding overseas — has changed that. Kitchens now are often staffed by an eclectic mix of nationalities.
Every kitchen in the Fook Lam Moon Group, the Cantonese-cuisine restaurant with seven overseas locations — four in Japan and three in China — is headed by a native-Hong Kong, Cantonese-speaking chef. In Japan, roughly 60% of the staff are Cantonese-speakers from Hong Kong, says Fook Lam Moon managing director Michelle Chui, with the remainder split evenly between Japanese and mainland Chinese, who speak Mandarin. So the kitchens in Japan are trilingual — Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese. In its Hong Kong restaurants, however, all full-time employees speak Mandarin and Cantonese.
“There are no language prerequisites to being hired,” says Ms. Chui. “However, language and cultural differences can be a problem, since we do have instances where there’s misunderstanding amongst staff. Especially in a kitchen, which can have a rather heated atmosphere.”
Of course, some cooking terms transcend language: Classic French sauces, for instance, shouldn’t require a translation.
Says Ms. Chan, “If someone says ‘Béarnaise’ in a French kitchen, the cook needs to know it’s butter, eggs and tarragon…”
But other words are lost in translation. Take “umami,” now commonly known as the “fifth taste,” beyond, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Working chefs today know what umami is — but ask them to define it in their native language, and they may stumble to find the words.
“In a certain sense, food defies languages — the language of food is taste,” says David Thompson, the executive chef of Thai restaurant Nahm in Bangkok, where Thai is spoken frequently in the kitchen. “But how else will you look deeper into a cuisine and understand how to use ingredients unless you are talking to Thais? And when you talk to Thais, you have to speak in Thai.”
Since moving to Thailand in the 1980s, Mr. Thompson has taught himself to read and write in the language. Today, the chef is fluent — “But I write like a 4-year-old,” he says.
Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Mark Frauenfelder at 10:18 AM Monday, Jan 3, 2011
David Edwards teaches at Harvard University in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In this excerpt from his book, The Lab: Creativity and Culture he writes about creating a "food inhaler" that dispenses breathable chocolate.
Thierry Marx was helping transform how we enjoy the purely aesthetic realm of eating. Each year, in the town of Pauillac, north of Bordeaux, within the chateau of Cordeillan-Bages, he created hundreds of new ways to prepare, visualize, and consume familiar foods. By 2007 the reputation of his restaurant drew comparisons with the two top experimental restaurants in the world, Ferran Adrià's El Bulli outside Barcelona and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck north of London.
That same year we had a chance to involve Thierry in an experiment at Le Laboratoire with the colloid physicist Jérôme Bibette. To explore how a chef became an exhibiting artist, we traveled down to his restaurant in July. The conversation swirled that day around wrapping flavor in particularly thin membranes. Having looked into the idea of inhaled aerosols for delivering drugs and vaccines, I brought up the idea of breathing these colloids into your mouth. Later in the fall I shared that notion with students at Harvard University. They would need to make the food particles small enough to get into the air, and large enough to avoid entry into the lungs under all conditions of breathing. We knew this much. But what did inhaling food mean? Would there be pleasure in it? After a semester of reflection, brainstorming, and quite a bit of coughing (even after designing the particles with a size to avoid the lungs, we discovered that, no matter how we breathed through straw-like inhalers, the particles flew to the back of the throat) I put a piece of tape over the paper cylinder my students had prepared to inhale things like carrot powder. The coughing stopped. And here we had the first prototype of the food inhaler we called Le Whif.
The LaboGroup was just then being formed, and José Sanchez decided we could manufacture Le Whif in the Chinese factory where we planned to make the plant filter. Six months after the idea had come up in Thierry's restaurant, we manufactured the first Whifs in China. They arrived in Paris a few days before Thierry and Jérôme's culinary art exhibition at Le Laboratoire, in March 2008. We exhibited our fledgling product over a Whif Bar imagined by Caroline Naphegyi and cosponsored by the Nestlé division Nespresso. Nespresso offered each visitor a free coffee, and we included a little brown object that looked like a tube of lipstick, by which you whiffed chocolate into your mouth.
To be perfectly frank, Le Whif didn't work well. Chocolate powder fell out if you inclined one end above the other, and you almost invariably coughed when you inhaled for the first time. But this was a lab, and we were testing a new idea--a new way of experiencing food! Two Harvard students, Trevor Martin and Larissa Zhou, had flown to Paris for the event. Jonathan Kamler, who had graduated the year before, having led the previous semester's student whiffing project, was also in Paris to work full-time for the LaboGroup. These three kept the chocolate inhalers full of chocolate powder as several hundred opening night guests tried it out.
It turned out to be fortuitous that, just weeks before the exhibition, the French government had outlawed cigarettes in cafés. This had outraged many French café-goers. Le Whif seemed a kind of inventive response. The traditional sip of coffee, bit of chocolate, and smoke that properly ended a French meal became, in this new anti-cigarette era, sipped coffee and smoked chocolate. Our guests had a ball with it. They invariably held Le Whif between their fingers as if it were a cigarette, and kept it long after the tube was empty, chatting, appreciating a novel social experience (which became, in the hands of my three little boys, something of a slightly illicit thrill).
No, this wasn't a commercial product, and nobody pretended it was. Nobody, that is, but the LaboGroup team. Why? Because the team was having fun. The hoped-for outcome of this first experiment had been observed in the public reaction to the exhibition, and now there were more experiments to be done. And, besides, if Le Whif did manage to become a product one day, magical revenues would appear. The team needed to hope for this income stream. The risk of running out of money was too palpable.
True, whiffing was even more far-fetched than filtering the air with plants. However, being far-fetched made the idea plausible as the preoccupation of an art lab, and commended the idea as a valid creative process even as it cast doubt on the eventual outcome of a valuable commercial product.
Clearly there were things to improve. The design needed to prevent all the chocolate from spilling out as you moved Le Whif around after filling it and before inhaling. But the product needed to remain simple; especially, it needed to avoid the unattractive trappings of pharmaceutical products. Le Whif needed to reliably deliver enough chocolate to satisfy taste but not so much as to fill your mouth with dry powder or provoke a spasm of coughing. The LaboGroup launched a second version of Le Whif in the fall of 2008 with the opening of the new LaboShop. The public could come inside and enjoy a whiff of chocolate with a cup of espresso. Whiffed chocolate came in mint chocolate, raspberry chocolate, and pure chocolate flavors. We invited the public to opine on the result and help us design a fully commercial chocolate inhaler that we would launch within the year.
We said that whiffing was a new way of eating, and proposed Le Whif as a kind of inhaled fork or spoon--and we believed it. Until now, nobody had reliably put food in the mouth through breathing. First there were the hands, then chopsticks, then forks and spoons, and now Le Whif. Yes, we were starting with chocolate, but you could inhale many other things, too, as we did during private evenings of experimentation in the FoodLab--with cheese, mushroom, exotic teas.
From the fall of 2008 into the winter of 2009, our local LaboShop clientele included young professionals, kids, and an occasional celebrity, like the French actress Isabelle Adjani, who would sneak in and out, sunglasses donned, enjoying a private pleasure. This eclectic group, probably fewer than a hundred people, returned regularly to the LaboShop, defining for us the commercial potential of Le Whif and rarely leaving before posing the same impatient question: When could they actually buy Le Whif and take it home? The LaboShop team would, when asked this question, point to the upcoming product launch, whose date we kept moving out further into the future as we tried to improve the design of Le Whif, now a third time, and work out a business model in the absence of a huge demand.
The team geared up for the commercial launch over regular late-evening drinks at the neighborhood café. Production costs needed to be lowered, simplicity improved, and more chocolate added, among other things.
With so much happening then at Le Laboratoire--the global financial crisis having fully settled down on us--our product development was spotty and informal. We did the best we could with limited time and resources. After many delays, the date of the launch was set for April 29, 2009. There would be a world tour to bring Le Whif to major cities and accustom people to the notion of breathing chocolate. We put together communication materials and planned a launch that resembled the opening of an art exhibition, which was the only kind of opening we knew. Our message was philosophical. Breathe chocolate and experience food as an artistic act. If chocolate failed, we had other ideas--inhaled spices, inhaled steak, inhaled coffee. Thierry Marx began to think about it all.
Four weeks before the scheduled launch in Paris, something very surprising happened. In his first months working for us, when he was still living in Cambridge, Tom Hadfield helped us put the business plan of LaboGroup in shape. In the midst of this he sent a note in early April saying that he was about to start a buzz campaign by Internet. Distracted by the challenges of the launch, we didn't take special notice. Tom's note probably arrived on a Thursday. The campaign was to begin the next day, he wrote.
On Saturday morning Tom reported that some blogging had started and the traffic on the Internet site had doubled. We received another note from Tom on Sunday. Internet traffic had doubled again. Similar messages came on Monday and Tuesday. By then Internet orders for Le Whif were flooding in. Several major blog sites picked up the story midweek, and on Wednesday the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe wanted to do interviews. "The world has been waiting for breathable chocolate!" Tom wrote ecstatically in one of the many emails now zipping across the ocean. By the end of the week the Today Show, Good Morning America, and CBS Morning News had asked for the product to test. We had waves of orders and media requests from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, South Africa, India, Thailand, Japan, Poland, and other countries.
The world had awakened to the idea that we had a new, surprising commercial product. But we actually didn't. We were unprepared. The day before the April 29 launch I was in Washington, D.C., to give a talk at the National Institutes of Health on work I was doing related to infectious diseases. On my way from the airport I received an email from Jonathan Kamler explaining that Le Whif had arrived, filled with chocolate and properly packaged. But, when he took it out of its packaging to test it, Jonathan discovered it didn't function properly. He couldn't even open it. Out of a hundred Whifs, perhaps thirty worked. In a lightning decision, we decided to hand pick the new product, throw out the defective ones, and launch the next day. Thankfully, the surprise of the product, the suddenness of international public reaction, and the bizarre atmosphere of the FoodLab, with Thierry Marx presiding over lunch, helped everyone ignore that day how unreliable this first product actually was.
The team was invited a few weeks later to the Cannes Film Festival to help animate the beachfront terrace café of the Majestic Hotel. For two weeks young women walked between café tables from noon through mid-afternoon. Shoulder straps held serving trays from which they offered free Whifs, like vendors selling hotdogs at a baseball game. Later that month the team traveled to Chicago for the All Candy Show. This went relatively smoothly, and by the end of the month we ran out of the first faulty stock--15,000 Whifs.
A new shipment arrived in July, and until October 2009 it performed mostly as we wished it to, particularly in the hands of those educated to use it or patient enough to learn how to use it even when it dusted your knees with chocolate, or when the chocolate flew into your mouth in one quick burst, or when the inhaler arrived empty, because of some glitch in the filling, packaging, and transporting process. While we received many disappointed notes from customers who received Le Whif and either did not understand it or experienced a malfunction in one of these ways, we also received notes from at least as many customers delighted by the product, who understood Le Whif even with all its youthful blemishes, and who remained hopeful about ordering more, particularly once we'd figured out the issues of manufacture and supply.
The experiment continued. In October we produced an even more reliable chocolate inhaler that began to sell in Lafayette Gourmet within the flagship Galeries Lafayette store. Helped by a brilliant chocolate expert, we completely changed the packaging and marketing of the product to better signal our commercial intentions while preparing the launch of a fully commercial Whif at the end of January 2010. This final product was launched at Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum, and later that spring in Dylan's Candy Bar in New York City and other locations around the United States, such as the gourmet shop Cardullo's in Harvard Square. That same spring the product launched in England within the House of Fraser in London and in many other cities and towns around the United Kingdom.
Le Whif's commercial appearance mobilized the entire network of artscience labs. LaboGroup ran the business, Le Laboratoire curated the idea through exhibitions, The Laboratory at Harvard introduced the product during its opening in 2009, and the Idea Translation Lab at Cloud Place organized a few high school whiffing parties. Through sales, Le Whif would benefit all the artscience labs eventually; but this was not the reason why Le Whif went on exhibit in Paris or animated parties in the United States. The labs participated in this experiment mostly because Le Whif was a surprising idea, conceived with students at the intersection of aerosol science and culinary art, and, while fun, it also expressed something essential about what each lab did, or wished to do, with students, creators, and the public.
More than a commercial product, Le Whif carried the creative process outside lab borders. We wished the product to be understood in its original art-as-process context. This was signaled by the launch parties in Paris and, later, at the Cannes Film Festival, in Chicago, in Cambridge, and elsewhere. It was signaled by the early silver balloon packaging we used, and by the "airline tickets" we handed out to explain what we had in mind with the "world tour" promotion. Our sales approach reflected a lab sensibility; it did not reflect a reasoned analysis of the market.
Le Whif traversed the entire idea funnel. It started as a catalyst of education, soon became a catalyst of cultural exploration, and went on to be a catalyst of commercial sales revenue that helped keep our labs running. It also inspired new culinary art and science experiments, from whiffed coffee, which launched in the spring of 2010, to whiffed vitamins, scheduled to launch later within the year. And on the horizon was yet another design, Le Whaf, which I conceived with the French designer Marc Bretillot as a new way to "drink by breathing." This was a new form of food--a standing cloud of flavor that falls between a liquid and a gas, just as whiffed food fell somewhere between a solid and a gas.
From The Lab: Creativity and Culture by David Edwards. Copyright © 2010 by David Edwards. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
SAYAMA, Japan — The Kura “revolving sushi” restaurant chain has no Michelin stars, but it has succeeded where many of Japan’s more celebrated eateries fall short: turning a profit in a punishing economy.
Efficiency is paramount at Kura: absent are the traditional sushi chefs and their painstaking attention to detail. In their place are sushi-making robots and an emphasis on efficiency.
Absent, too, are flocks of waiters. They have been largely replaced by conveyors belts that carry sushi to diners and remote managers who monitor Kura’s 262 restaurants from three control centers across Japan. (“We see gaps of over a meter between your sushi plates — please fix,” a manager said recently by telephone to a Kura restaurant 10 miles away.)
Absent, too, are the exorbitant prices of conventional sushi restaurants. At a Kura, a sushi plate goes for 100 yen, or about $1.22.
Such measures are helping Kura stay afloat even though the country’s once-profligate diners have tightened their belts in response to two decades of little economic growth and stagnant wages.
Many other restaurants and dining businesses in Japan have not fared so well. After peaking at 29.7 trillion yen in 1997, the country’s restaurant sector has shrunk almost every year as a weak economy has driven businesses into price wars — or worse, sent them belly-up. In 2009, restaurant revenue, including from fast-food stores, fell 2.3 percent, to 23.9 trillion yen —20 percent below the peak, according to the Foodservice Industry Research Institute, a research firm in Tokyo.
Bankruptcies have been rampant: in 2009, 674 dining businesses with liabilities of over 10 million yen went under, the highest number in the last five years, according to Teikoku Data Bank, a credit research company.
In November 2009, Soho’s Hospitality, the company behind celebrity restaurants like Nobu and Roy’s, filed for bankruptcy. Roy’s is now run by another company, while Nobu’s chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, has opened a new restaurant elsewhere in Tokyo with Robert De Niro.
Along with other low-cost restaurant chains, Kura has bucked the dining-out slump with low prices and a dogged pursuit of efficiency. In the company’s most recent fiscal year, which ended on Oct. 31, net profit jumped 20 percent from the same period a year earlier, to 2.8 billion yen.
In the last two months alone, Kura has added seven stores.
“If you look at the restaurant business, consumers are still holding back because of employment fears and falling incomes, and there’s no signs that will change,” said Kunihiko Tanaka, Kura’s chief executive, who opened Kura’s first sushi restaurant in 1995. “Amid these worsening conditions, our company feels that consumer sentiment matches, or is even a tail wind” to the Kura business, he told shareholders earlier this year.
The travails of Japan’s restaurant industry, and the changes in Japanese dining habits, may be among most visible manifestations of how Japan’s “bubble economy” excesses in the 1980s have given way to frugal times since the bubble burst in 1990.
With wages weak — average annual private sector pay has fallen 12 percent in the last decade, to 4.05 million yen, or about $49,300, in 2009 — the Japanese now spend less on eating out. An average single-person household spent 163,000 yen on dining in 2009, 27 percent less than in 2000, according to detailed budget surveys compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In a survey by Citizen Holdings, the watchmaker, of 400 men in their 20s to 50s, the average time spent at cafes and restaurants plunged from 7 hours and 52 minutes a week in 1990 to 2 hours and 25 minutes in 2010.
An aging population is also depressing restaurant sales. More than one-fifth of Japan’s population is already over 65, and surveys indicate that older people tend to eat out less. The population is also shrinking, reducing the restaurants’ potential customer base.
Meanwhile, Japanese companies have cut back sharply on their entertainment expenses, further hurting restaurant sales. Total corporate spending on dining and entertainment has halved from a peak of 9.5 trillion yen in 1991 to 4.8 trillion yen in 2008, according to data from the National Tax Agency.
“The restaurant industry here is so linked to the state of the economy, and that’s why we’re seeing this decline,” said Munenori Hotta, a food service industry expert at Miyagi University in Japan. “In this climate, even top restaurants are having to moderate their prices to keep attracting customers,” he said.
Japan’s dining-out boom had its roots in the 1970s and 1980s, as incomes grew and rural populations flocked to big cities. So-called family restaurants brought cheap, Western-style food to the masses flourished in that era. So did American fast-food chains, which were considered novel at the time. Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first restaurant here in 1970, followed by McDonald’s in 1971.
At the other end of the price range, a new generation of wealthy Japanese savored imported French wines at lavish restaurants. By 1986, there were 503,088 restaurants across Japan, according to records from the Internal Affairs Ministry. That was nearly double the number from 15 years earlier — and was more restaurants than now operate in the United States, which has more than twice the population of Japan.
After the bubble burst in 1990, new low-cost restaurant chains that offered pizzas for as little as 400 yen, or $4.86, started to spread across Japan, and restaurateurs spoke with alarm of ready-made, convenience-store meals that were siphoning off sales.
In the depths of the slump, in 1995, Mr. Tanaka started a company based on serving quality sushi on the cheap.
His idea of using conveyor belts to offer diners a steady stream of sushi on small plates was not a new one; an Osaka-based entrepreneur invented such a system in the late 1950s. But Mr. Tanaka set out to undercut his rivals with deft automation, an investment in information technology, some creativity and an almost extreme devotion to cost-efficiency. In Japan, where labor costs are high, that meant running his restaurants with as few workers as possible.
Instead of placing supervisors at each restaurant, Kura set up central control centers with video links to the stores. At these centers, a small group of managers watch for everything from wayward tuna slices to outdated posters on restaurant walls.
Each Kura store is also highly automated. Diners use a touch panel to order soup and other side dishes, which are delivered to tables on special express conveyor belts. In the kitchen, a robot busily makes the rice morsels for a server to top with cuts of fish that have been shipped from a central processing plant, where workers are trained to slice tuna and mackerel accurately down to the gram.
Diners are asked to slide finished plates into a tableside bay, where they are automatically counted to calculate the bill, doused in cleaning fluid and flushed back to the kitchen on a stream of water. Matrix codes on the backs of plates keep track of how long a sushi portion has been circulating on conveyor belts; a small robotic arm disposes of any that have been out too long.
Kura spends 10 million yen to fit each new restaurant with the latest automation systems, an investment it says pays off in labor cost savings. In all, just six servers and a minimal kitchen staff can service a restaurant seating 196 people, said a company spokesman, Takeshi Hattori.
“Its not just about efficiency,” Mr. Hattori said. “Diners love it too. For example, women say they like clearing finished plates right away, so others can’t see how much they’ve eaten.”
Traditional sushi chefs have not fared so well, however. While the overall market for belt-conveyor sushi restaurants jumped 42 percent, to 428 billion yen, in 2009 compared with 2003, higher-end sushi restaurants are on the decline, according to Fuji-Keizai, a market research firm.
“It’s such a bargain at 100 yen,” said Toshiyuki Arai, a delivery company worker dining at a Kura restaurant with his sister and her 3-year-old son. “A real sushi restaurant?” he said. “I hardly go anymore.”
IN a private room in a mysterious little restaurant in Chengdu, my fellow diners goaded me to eat the turtle. It was soft-shelled, they said — as if that made it more enticing. They laughed and joked in Chinese, which I do not speak. Eating turtle grows a man’s bank account, my translator said. I didn’t get the meaning at first. Then it sunk in.
I plucked bibs and bobs of turtle from between the top shell and underbelly. It was bitter, spicy in that classically Sichuanese way, and startlingly good. It was paired with a mouth-cooling chaser, a gazpacho of coconut milk and buoyant tapioca balls.
We were at Zi Fi, a restaurant in the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China. Chengdu is one of many Chinese cities little known by the West but exploding with activity nonetheless. And Zi Fi is one of many Chengdu restaurants that are daring in these heady times to experiment with one of China’s most beloved cuisines.
Kung pao chicken, eggplant in hot garlic sauce, shredded pork with chili and soy — Sichuanese food has conquered the world. For many, it has become synonymous with Chinese food itself. My parents ate Sichuanese food as children in Mumbai. I grew up on it in Ohio. My children will probably grow up on it as well.
During a recent trip to Chengdu, though, I found a traditional cuisine broader, stranger and tastier than its facsimiles around the world.
In Chengdu, a crop of restaurants is making the Sichuanese food scene new, one turtle at a time: reviving forgotten recipes, cooking old dishes with new health-conscious techniques, applying familiar spices and styles to new ingredients.
When a country changes things, the diaspora can be the last to know. But in the belly of Sichuan, a culinary revolution is gathering.
My translator, a lecturer at a local university, had merely asked the tycoon, for whom she had once translated, for restaurant recommendations. But in Chengdu, renowned for its hospitality, he took that as license to convene a dinner for us — and two of his friends — at Zi Fi.
And, indeed, Zi Fi is a restaurant designed to make the successful businessman feel at home. At restaurants like this — those favored by wealthy Sichuanese — you don’t order. You sit in a private room and food arrives, course after spicy course, until you are bloated and drained and swear that you will not dine on Chinese tomorrow. (Of course, you still do.)
First, though, you must reserve two days in advance. You then enter a nondescript building and find yourself in a darkened courtyard with no tables in sight. Dining takes place in private rooms, each with its own servers. A vague air of secrecy pervades the place, with all the action taking place behind closed doors.
The food came in Chengdu-banquet style: everything on a lazy susan, with small nibbles followed by a long arc of courses. We began with abalone cooked with slim mushrooms, then the turtle and its coconut antidote, followed by a delicious clear soup graced with an edible flower.
The heat of Sichuanese food is well known. But Sichuan’s is a peculiar spiciness, in part thanks to the native peppercorns, famous for their vaguely anesthetic power. Chengdu restaurants like Zi Fi play a game of scalding you with spice, then cooling you off, then scalding you again.
It can be turtle chased by coconut milk, or pork chased by green-bean juice, or — my favorite — Zi Fi’s magnificent venison. The dish pranced between tradition and modernity, pairing nontraditional venison with the more traditional accompaniments of peppercorns, chilies, scallions and mushrooms — and then serving the dish in a nest of very nontraditional cotton candy, bits of which you eat to cool things off.
The end of the meal caused some confusion. A sweet custard seemed to conclude the meal, but it was followed by a salty sea slug topped with green chilies. Finally, the actual meal-ender: a tender, subtle Chinese snow pear deep-fried in a beignet-like crust. Magic.
With the help of time and intoxicants, the businessman relaxed. Soon we were taking turns declaring what an honor this dinner was. We were transcending acquaintanceship to become part of one another’s guanxi — the wondrous Chinese phrase for one’s web of enduring relationships.
Zi Fi, 27 Kuanxiangzi; (86-28) 8663-3737; zificlub.com. A multicourse meal in a private dining room begins at 400 renminbi (about $61 at 6.52 renminbi to the dollar) per person, and can easily double or triple depending on how extensive you want the feast to be. Reservations must be made two days ahead.
Gingko Fusion Sichuan Cuisine
For those who are not seasoned Chinese businessmen, Gingko offers a more tourist-friendly version of nouveau Sichuanese. The restaurant, which abuts the Nanhe River, is fancy in the Chinese, and not the Western, way: the lights as bright as electrically possible; the dining space a vast, undivided hall; two servers standing at attention about 10 feet away at all times, seeming more like prison guards than waiters.
But the food was tasty and accessible, with no exotic organs offered. Kung pao chicken was spicy but not too, and sweeter than is usual. In another dish, deep-fried bits of dried beef were cooked, in a touch of fusion, with pine nuts. The best was a long piece of eggplant, structurally reminiscent of garlic bread: sliced but not detached from its base, with minced pork wedged into the top.
All in all, I was impressed. But my translator told me I liked it because it catered to my foreign palate. The sugary chicken, pine nuts, elegant eggplant — these were a watering down of Sichuanese food, she said, shameless pandering in a city where eating is not supposed to be easy. I was duly chastened.
Gingko Fusion Sichuan Cuisine, 12 Linjiang Middle Road; (86-28) 8555-5588. A meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 300 renminbi.
Dong Hu Shou Xi
Having digested the rebuke, I returned to the traditional. Dong Hu Shou Xi is set in an old, labyrinthine house, with the curved roof that Buddhists believe wards off evil spirits. It has tables downstairs and private rooms upstairs; we went for the one with ornate gold napkins and a matching tablecloth, with huge windows overlooking a pond.
The old Sichuanese standards were marvelous: steamed pork leg with bok choy; noodles, finger-thick, swimming in a broth made from the bones of pig, chicken and duck. The star, though, was a dish that every respectable Chengdu restaurant attempts: wood ear mushrooms, somehow rendered both soft and crispy, tossed with sesame oil, vinegar and fresh cilantro.
But even here we found fusion: a significant hunk of New Zealand beef, served in a skillet with onions and peppercorns. The meat was soft and mildly sweet, with the usual peppery tingle: Sichuanese steak au poivre.
Dong Hu Shou Xi, 8 Guoxin Road, East Five Section; (86-28) 8453-8888. A meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 300 renminbi.
The hardest thing about Sichuanese cooking, Ms. Dallas told me, is timing. The dishes come together in a blur, with the intense heat of tall flames and short bursts of activity. She often realizes a minute into stir-frying a dish that she has overcooked it by 30 seconds. “It’s hard for someone who’s used to making béchamel sauce,” she said.
So it was no surprise when food arrived moments after we sat down at Yang Yang. Ms. Dallas had ordered just moments earlier what quickly revealed itself to be the best Chinese meal of my life.
Sweet-and-sour pork, bathed in egg batter and cooked with scallions and sugar, was the perfect equilibrium of the two flavors. Tender beef slices came in their own Jacuzzi of chili oil, having been boiled, stir-fried, then soaked in the oil — all within minutes.
But Yang Yang’s greatest victory came in the seemingly pedestrian form of potatoes and eggplant. The former arrived as a shredded heap, cut like hash browns and cooked like French fries. And the latter — well, it was the filet mignon of eggplant: thin slices deep-fried and seasoned with fermented bean paste and many cloves’ worth of garlic. The result was buttery, sweet and savory and gently numbing. It was Sichuanese eating at its finest — and one of the many little-known secrets of a very well-known cuisine.
Yang Yang, 32 Jin Yuan Xiang, Wu Hou Qu; (86-28) 8523-1394. A meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about 150 renminbi.
NOT so long ago, the BBC invited four top British chefs to cook a banquet for 60 - out of rubbish. All the meat, fish, vegetables and fruit they wanted to use had to be foraged from bins.
These weren't actual rubbish bins, of course, but near enough. Some of the chefs dug around the large, green wheelie containers that London councils put in street markets for vendors to throw away produce they can't sell because of blemishes or slight age. Other chefs went to supermarkets, cafes and takeaways for food that was about to be chucked out.
No need to feel sick - all the produce had to be approved by a hygienist who made sure they were not infected by bacteria, and were safe to eat.
The point of the programme, called 'The Great British Waste Menu', was to highlight how offhand and unthinking we have become about surplus. For instance, fish-and-chip shops regularly discard perfectly good fish, offcuts from the standard pieces they need for the fryer.
In one clip, a delicatessen manager was on the point of tossing out two huge joints of beef that were near their use-by age. They were meant for roast beef sandwiches which he was no longer going to put on the week's menu. Has nobody heard of the freezer?
In Britain, such waste amounts to more than £2 billion (S$4 billion) a year in the retail food industry alone. Nobody has started to count yet the figure for homes, but it's easy to guess it will be huge. The BBC's cameras were allowed into the house of a well-dressed but overweight woman, who opened her fridge to reveal shelves crammed with food.
She could hardly remember what she had, let alone what was still edible. The chefs rescued some packs of salmon just beyond their use-by date. These didn't actually get past the beady-eyed food hygienist back in the kitchens.
Obesity is a growing problem in Britain. At the National Health Service, there has been more than a tenfold increase since the year 2000 in the number of people accepting procedures to reduce the size of their stomachs. In 2008, 1,378 gastric bands were fitted on overweight patients while 504 had their stomachs stapled, according to statistics quoted in London's The Sunday Times.
Looking at the frankly fat lady with her over-full fridge, the uncharitable thought came to mind that eating and wasting less would do her figure (and her health) a power of good. With regard to those packs of salmon, the thought clearly never entered her mind to freeze and save them. In Britain, town councils are threatening to weigh people's rubbish so there is less waste and the cost of rubbish disposal can come down.
In Britain, the wide range of consumer goods, once only dreamt of, is now taken for granted. We expect to have salmon and lamb, avocado and rocket, artisanal chocolate puddings or lemon tarts at the snap of our fingers. The supermarkets jump to obey.
There was a time when we believed consumerism was what kept our economies going. Now we know not only that it has its limits - cue the credit crunch - but also that, carried to its logical conclusion, rabid consumerism will decimate forests and empty mines. It is a raging fire that will burn itself out only when we have cut down all the world's wood.
Driving in the north-west of England recently, we stopped at a service station that had not just a Waitrose for the delectation of hungry motorists, but also a Marks and Spencer. Both are well known for the breadth and luxury of their food range.
I will never forget the wall of chilled cabinets in Waitrose for the sandwiches alone, nor the silently staring customers lined up opposite them, paralysed by the 20 different ways you can package slices of white or brown bread with a little something in between - smoked salmon and cream cheese, chicken caesar, roast beef and horseradish, crayfish and rocket, prawn mayonnaise, seafood cocktail, gammon and cheddar, turkey club... You get the picture. Those customers were overwhelmed by the choice, not delighting in it.
Who does eat all these sandwiches? In London, cafes and restaurants do give unsold food to the homeless at the end of the day. But here in countryside west of the Pennines? My guess is it all gets binned.
Food scientists are forever going on about the need for genetically modified food because of shortages globally. However, to develop new strains of food, more money needs to be spent on research and development. It seems wanton not to think first about cutting down on waste and doing something with the resources that are saved. That £2 billion a year could do a lot for irrigation systems in Africa, helping people grow and conserve their own food.
The Great British Waste feast was, by the way, a huge success. The canapes, the starter, the main course, the pudding - from previously discarded courgette, fish, beef, strawberries - were miracles of elegance and taste. Nobody complained and nobody, as far as we know, died of food poisoning.
Start using up what's in your fridge and freezer now.
The writer is a Singaporean based in London.
Tanjong Pagar may have had a sleazy side, complete with scantily dressed women.
But there's a new wholesome crowd in the area, drawn to good ethnic food and K-pop music. Korean? Of course.
Hundreds of locals and Koreans throng the many restaurants and a recently opened family karaoke outlet in the area in the evening, especially on weekends.
They croon to the music of popular Korean boy and girl bands, such as Super Junior and 2NE1, and chat over kimchi and seafood sashimi, often past midnight.
There are at least 10 Korean restaurants in the area - specifically in Tanjong Pagar Road, Tras Street and Peck Seah Street.
Nearly every weekend, Ms H. Kang, 21, hangs out at Tanjong Pagar with her Korean friends, many of whom she first met there.
More recently, they have been going to a family karaoke bar, Viva Korean Family Karaoke in Tras Street, which opened in April.
Ms Kang, who is awaiting admission to a university in Australia, goes to Tanjong Pagar mainly for the food.
'Good food is very important to us. Where there is good Korean food, there are Koreans,' she said.
Another regular, Mr Brian Kin, 39, also goes to the area for the food.
The marketing executive in a Korean multinational firm drives from his workplace at Suntec City to Tanjong Pagar every other day for lunch and dinner with his Korean colleagues.
Among his favourite restaurants are Kko Kko Nara in Tras Street and Hyang-to-gol Korean Restaurant at Amara Hotel in Tanjong Pagar Road.
Kko Kko Nara opened in 2008, while Hyang-to-gol has been at Amara Hotel for five years.
As recently as December last year, another Korean eatery opened for business in Tanjong Pagar.
That month, Korean coffee chain Tom N Toms started its first franchise store here at Icon Village.
Tom N Toms, which has 160 stores in South Korea, is known for its brewed coffee and made-to-order pretzels.
These new eateries add to the area's many Korean outlets, some of which have been doing business there for about a decade.
The old-timers include Han Kook Gwan Korean Restaurant and Manbok Korean Seafood Restaurant, both located at a row of shophouses in Tanjong Pagar Road.
Said Ms Eon Lee, the boss of Kko Kko Nara: 'Here, it's a Little Korea in Singapore.'
Most of her customers are Koreans, many of whom drink past midnight. For this reason, she sometimes keeps her restaurant open till 4am.
Hyang-to-gol keeps long hours as well - until 2am - for its customers, mostly Korean businessmen.
Many of these restaurants are full every evening and on weekends. There is little surprise as to why they are packed.
As of last year, the number of Koreans living in Singapore was about 13,500, South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said. The number represented a jump of more than 80 per cent from the figure in 2006.
In the last two years, some not-for-profit organisations such as the Korean Association (Singapore) and Korean International Trade Association have also moved their offices to Tanjong Pagar.
Mr Moses An, assistant manager at the Korean Association, said many of its members - some 250 companies owned by Koreans and/or which trade in Korean goods - had asked for the relocation.
He said: 'This place is central, and there are a lot of Korean restaurants.'
KOREAN'S HAIR SALON BUSINESS BOOMING
Everybody identifies with a victim. Naturally, the suffering lead actresses of popular Korean dramas like Ajuma and Cruel Temptation are hot topics in offices and coffee shops - even more so in Ms Lee Hyun Jun's hair salon.
Being South Korean, she would explain to her Singaporean clients why equality of the sexes can take a back seat even in modern-day South Korea.
Ms Lee, 42, has run Hairdo Beauty Parlor in Peck Seah Street for five years now.
At first, her customers were mostly South Koreans. But in recent years, more Singaporeans have dropped in as the series of Korean drama broadcast here stirred up a craze for everything 'K' - from food to haircuts.
'Singaporeans ask me a lot about Korean drama,' said Ms Lee, who trained as a hairdresser back home in Kyungki-do, South Korea.
Some clients even ask to be styled like their favourite actresses. The most popular choice: the shoulder-length layered crop sported by Kim Ha Neul, who starred in the latest Korean dramas Road Number One and On Air.
Ms Lee came to Singapore eight years ago with her husband, who was working in a travel agency here.
But three years ago, he moved back to South Korea as he could not adjust to the humidity here. She stayed on because of her two sons, aged 15 and 11, who are studying in local schools.
'In Singapore, they learn English,' she said. 'They have been away from South Korea for so long they may not be able to catch up with the lessons taught in Korean.'
Moreover, Tanjong Pagar is like a second home, having most of the amenities she needs. But on weekends, she goes elsewhere. 'I want to go to other places here and try something new.'
Few restaurant owners get their hands dirty in the business. But Ms Eon Lee does.
The owner-chef of Kko Kko Nara, a Korean restaurant in Tras Street, still makes the sauces and broth that form the base of the eatery's wildly popular spicy stews and the marinade for its fried chicken. And she is not about to give those secrets away.
'I love cooking and those are my secret recipes,' said Ms Lee, a self-taught cook in her 40s.
Many of the dishes on her two-year-old restaurant's menu were inspired by her mother's cooking.
'My mother was a very good cook,' she said.
But Ms Lee did not spend much time in the kitchen of her home in Jun Ra Book Do, South Korea, until after her mother died. That was more than two decades ago.
'I missed her cooking so badly I decided to cook her dishes myself,' she said.
Her culinary experiments turned into a passion - to the extent that she would dig into the rubbish bins of popular fried chicken shops in her home country after they closed, to find out what they used for marinade and batter.
Three years ago, she mastered the art of cooking those tasty, crispy birds. It was also around then that she decided to open a restaurant here.
Why Singapore? Since 1999, she had been coming to visit her niece, who is studying here, and to escape winter in Korea. Singapore is like her second home.
She also found that many Korean restaurants here lacked both variety in their menus and the ambience of street eateries back home. So she decided to introduce her recipes to fellow Koreans living here.
Having run a furniture business in South Korea, she naturally decked her restaurant with imported Korean furniture.
In the last two years, her business has been flourishing.
Her niece, Ms Annabelle Lee, 21, has been roped in to help out at the shop, serving customers and manning the till. The graphic design undergraduate at Raffles Design Institute designed every visual art work at the restaurant, from the menu to the posters and paintings.
In April this year, Ms Eon Lee jointly started a karaoke bar in Tras Street with a friend.
The new business, Viva Korean Family Karaoke, can accommodate more than 100 customers. It has been doing brisk business, she said.
'It's always packed. Eating, drinking and singing karaoke is a daily affair for Koreans.'
By Peter Aspden
Published: October 1 2010 21:54 | Last updated: October 1 2010 21:54
Disappointingly, Sir Michael Caine does not, when we are introduced, look me firmly in the eye and declare: “My name’s Michael Caine.” Nor, during the course of our tea together, does he at any stage say, “Not a lot of people know that”, or – and this admittedly asked too much – “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”. Is there a greater deliverer of catchphrases in the history of cinema than Michael Caine?
He is, at 77, still an impressive figure, standing tall and possessing of a rich baritone with which he fires jokes with deft and natural comic timing. The accent is much-imitated and inimitable. “They’ve got scones and clotted cream here,” he offers, and somehow makes it sound funny. I am not sure about the word “clotted”, I say. It doesn’t have good connotations. “That’s just what I thought,” he replies. “If it had just said ‘cream’ I’d have had it.”
A shared concern for cholesterol levels established, we settle on smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches and cups of tea, English breakfast for him and Earl Grey for me. We are in a suite at the slightly soulless Wyndham hotel in Chelsea Harbour and there is a barrage of helicopter noise outside, as if there is a nationwide search for a runaway spy going on. It is because we are next to the Thames, says Caine knowledgeably (he has a flat just round the corner), the kind of thing Harry Palmer might say to put me off the scent.
Next year he once more reprises his role as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie. He won critical acclaim for last year’s Harry Brown, a hard-nosed vigilante movie shot in his native Elephant and Castle – a tough inner-London district (hence the title of his book). These are high-profile roles, in challenging and/or lucrative films. That is a rare feat for any actor, let alone one in the latter part of his eighth decade. How do you keep getting such great parts, I ask him? “I dunno,” he deadpans. “I sit back and wait for my agent to ring.”
But it wasn’t always like that. The autobiography starts at an awkward moment for Caine. It is the early 1990s, and he is shooting a belated sequel to the Harry Palmer films, Midnight in St Petersburg, in the Russian city. He goes to the toilet. It is, he recalls, “the filthiest toilet I have ever seen in my life. No one had cleaned it out. And I suddenly thought: ‘What am I doing here?’” He makes the existential crisis sound as desolate as Beckett. It sounds like a forlorn experience, I say. “It was just after the communists had gone. When we had lunch on location they gave us Geiger counters, to test the food for radiation. And of course the first thing we did was test the batteries!” He laughs loudly. “You don’t want a duff battery!”
“It was a low moment,” he confesses, turning serious again. “But I was quite philosophical about it.” He saw the incident as a turning point. He was preparing to wind his career down, getting increasingly involved with his restaurant businesses and enjoying the easy life in his new apartment in Miami’s South Beach. And then, wouldn’t you know it, Jack Nicholson called. “He was the catalyst,” says Caine. “I had got to that stage in life when you wouldn’t even send me a good script. I had done a couple of duff ones. And then Jack was doing a movie with Bob Rafelson in Miami, and asked me to come. He said, ‘Get off your ass and just do it.’ And that changed everything. Jack is the nicest and kindest person, it was such a joy working with him.”
The resulting film – the noir thriller Blood and Wine – didn’t change the landscape of motion pictures, but Caine’s appetite was refreshed, his career revivified. Along came Little Voice, The Cider House Rules, The Quiet American, Baftas, Golden Globes and an Oscar. He says one of the aims in writing the book is to inspire readers of a certain age. “As they get older, people think, ‘It’s over.’ But it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be.”
The food arrives. The sandwiches are triple-deckers. “Blimey! They give you a lot don’t they? We will weigh 400lb by the end of this!” He offers to serve the tea but is flummoxed by a designer teapot. “I can never pour these bleedin’ things. Either nothing comes out or it all goes all over the table.” Between us, we crack it. Caine dutifully removes one of the slices of his sandwich and tucks in with relish.
Caine has a habit of saying nice things about everyone. He makes Hollywood parties sound like village green fetes. He doesn’t even have a bad word for Frank Sinatra, for goodness sake. I am suspicious of this. When he first travelled there in the 1960s, was Hollywood not full of predators trying to shaft this presumptuous Limey?
“No, truly not. And you know why? Because I wasn’t their idea of a Limey. I wasn’t posh. I didn’t have this superior English attitude. And I was all for them.” His love affair with things American started during the war. “There were American soldiers parked in the local recreation ground and we used to make their beds in exchange for chewing gum and Coca-Cola. I didn’t actually go there until Alfie.” His maiden voyage happily coincided with an Oscar nomination. “But then I saw Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons and thought, there’s no point in turning up.” (Scofield duly won the award).
Was he an innocent when he went to Hollywood? “I was an innocent by Hollywood standards. What surprised me was the hospitality, how kind people were. Even the lawyers and agents were the nicest people.” I raise an eyebrow. “Remember, I wasn’t really competing with anyone. You weren’t going to lose a part to me if you were Jack Nicholson.” And then, in 2000, there was the knighthood, which helped. “They like a bit of King Arthur.”
Never mind that, this was a town that famously spat people out for its own entertainment, I say. “It can do. But I wasn’t successful until I was 30. And I was a very tough 30, not some giddy little girl.”
The toughening of Michael Caine is the most sobering part of the book. Born Maurice Micklewhite to a working-class family in south-east London “with funny eyes, sticking-out ears and, just to round it all off, rickets”, he was evacuated during the war to a couple who would lock him in the cupboard for the weekend while they went socialising. That’s the kind of thing you read about in the Sunday papers, I say.
He shrugs it off. “A lot of children had a very bad time.” But to be locked in a cupboard for a whole weekend? “They weren’t wicked people. They took in the children for the money, and then didn’t want to look after them. They wanted to go away for the weekend and didn’t want to cart these dirty tykes from London around with them. Of course, when my mother came, she nearly went to prison for assaulting the woman. She beat her up.”
He is unsentimental about the war. “I benefited from it. For a start I ate nothing but organic food for six years. We had no sugar, no biscuits, no fizzy drinks.” He went on to serve in Korea. “It was a nightmare at the time. But I saw the world, and mixed with people from all classes and societies.”
He speaks movingly of his parents, particularly his father, whom he describes as a “hero”, a market porter at Billingsgate, who read voraciously and had an aptitude for technology, building his own radio from scratch. “He was a symptom of this country losing out on talent because of class,” he says. “They never knew they had it, they never knew they lost it. But today computers will compensate for any bad education there is.” He pauses for a second, and free-associates. “I’m a Google freak.”
What do you Google, I ask?
“Everything. It’s a wonderful thing. I had a gardener who didn’t know much about gardening.” (Read this out loud in a Caine voice and it is somehow hilarious.) “Every time I bought a plant I Googled it to find out how to look after it, and gave it to him and said, ‘There you go’.”
It can be a terrible distraction, I add. He evidently agrees. “I was looking for a penthouse once. And so I put in ‘Penthouse’. Oh my God.” I quickly wonder to myself how many people who hit the Penthouse website are actually after a penthouse. “And it’s a funny thing – you can’t switch it off. I had to take it out of the wall. I had to take the battery out.” There is something endearing about this techno-porno nightmare. Perhaps Jack Nicholson should have been around, I almost say.
He says in the book that 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain, the third Harry Palmer film, featured an early version of the internet. “I read that in the paper,” he says. He remembers an adviser on the set trying to explain it to him. “I said, ‘What a load of bollocks. Just tell me which knob to turn.’ I thought it was the most preposterous thing I had ever heard.”
Like many people, I say, I became fully converted to Caine’s acting talents by his performance in Educating Rita, for which he gained weight, looked permanently drunk, and gave a startling portrayal of vulnerability. “I had never been offered parts like that. But it is the proudest piece of acting I have ever done. An English professor in a college – it was the furthest thing from me that you could get. It was the first time I completely disappeared.” Was it hard to let his ego go like that? “I realised that I didn’t have that kind of ego, worrying about looking great. I didn’t care about that.” He reminds me that he was in repertory theatre for nine years before his big movie break. “A different role every week. I love being an actor. And I love not being me.”
Caine spends his time today between his Chelsea flat and his 200-year-old converted barn in Box Hill, Surrey, spending part of the winter in Miami. His days in Hollywood are over (he lived there for eight years, as a vociferous critic of Britain’s tax regime). There is a touching account of a mournful farewell to his press agent on Rodeo Drive. “I went straight to Ermenegildo Zegna [he mangles the name magnificently] and bought a shirt.” Did the retail therapy have the required effect? “I was all right. I got on a plane and went home.”
Home is where his heart is. He is “besotted” with his three grandchildren, a strength of reaction that surprised him, and reveres family life. Both in the book and our conversation, he repeatedly pays tribute to his wife of 37 years Shakira, “the nicest person in the world”, with whom he has a daughter (he also has a daughter with his first wife, the actress Patricia Haines). It is because of his family, he says, that his book is studiedly discreet about all those Hollywood parties. “When you fall in love, that becomes part of your past. Like mumps and measles. I didn’t want to go into all that. Not like Kirk Douglas – he named them all, Marlene Dietrich, bleedin’ Marilyn Monroe, everybody!”
As for the films, he says, touching every piece of wood in the vicinity, they keep rolling in. As well as the next Batman, he is preparing for a part in a version of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, about which he is unexpectedly rapturous. “I have grandchildren now. And I get to fly off on a giant bumblebee. I want them to see that.”
The Wyndham Grand
Chelsea Harbour, London
Traditional Afternoon Tea (all inc.) x 2 £30
Scottish Smoked Salmon w/ Herbed Cream Cheese x 2
Royal English Breakfast Tea
Earl Grey Tea
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.
By Jonathan Guthrie
Published: September 21 2010 23:22 | Last updated: September 21 2010 23:22
|Food for thought: Tony Wouhra and his brothers restored the family fortunes with East End. But Mr Wouhra is also conscious of broader issues surrounding foodstuffs|
Food aromas connect us viscerally with childhood and the comforts of home. It is from the evocative scents of musky cumin, gingery turmeric and herby coriander that Tony Deep Wouhra and his four brothers have built East End Foods, a UK-based Asian food business with sales of more than £100m ($155m) a year.
You get an appetising whack of these fragrances as you enter the huge warehouse and food factory built by the Wouhra clan at West Bromwich in the English Midlands. Mr Wouhra invokes aromas himself over lunch at a nearby restaurant, talking of their importance in Asian cuisine while inhaling luxuriously over a plate of tandoori fish.
“Everyone has something to give,” Mr Wouhra says, discussing how family businesses function. But the comment could equally describe the taste of home that East End gave immigrants when it set up in 1972. Many British Asians had only recently left their mother countries. Traditional English grocers sold “exotic” food in tiny amounts, with spiciness calibrated to the coy tastes of the host population. In contrast, East End’s spices, pulses and rice came in big, fat packets, sold through the proliferating Asian-run cornershops.
Nowadays, curry has the status of a British national dish, East End’s big packets are stocked in some supermarkets and Asian cornershops are in decline. Mr Wouhra, who is 69, is thinking about legacy and succession.
“I don’t have so very long left,” he says matter-of-factly as his Bentley limousine swishes over potholed West Midlands streets, Asian pop trickling from the sound system. His personal assistant Lesley Davies drives while Mr Wouhra fields a call about the £24m headquarters he is planning to build next year on the site of an old HP Sauce factory – the Birmingham landmark was left purposeless after HP owner HJ Heinz moved production abroad.
East End’s new base will boast an exhibition and visitor centre to bring food production alive for city kids who have never seen a farm. Mr Wouhra explains: “We want to show that British people have the guts to take their food legacy forward.”
Pressing his mobile to his ear, Mr Wouhra learns that a key contractor has gone bust. He deals with the crisis calmly, telling a colleague how to extricate East End from the mess. Mr Wouhra’s early experiences have given him broad shoulders. His grandfather was killed during the communal violence of Partition in 1947, when the Muslim state of Pakistan was carved out of Hindu-dominated India. The Wouhra family, which is Sikh, lost its home and wealth, and Mr Wouhra came to the UK as an economic migrant in 1961.
Every morning he would queue for work, often fruitlessly, outside factories in Wolverhampton, a gritty Midlands town. In the evenings he attended secretarial college. Racism was common; he changed his name from Kuldip Singh Wouhra to Tony Deep and stopped wearing a turban. A girl called Barbara Ann he had met at college, and who became his wife, put him in touch with a poultry farmer. He began selling chickens and eggs door-to-door.
Ingredients of curry clan’s success
Tony Deep Wouhra is co-founder and chairman of East End Foods, a UK-based Asian foods company set up by five brothers. This is his advice on building a family-run business:
●Family involvement strengthens a business. “One person can only do so much on his own, even with systems in place and whatnot.”
●Do not be too secretive. “When you are established, be open about what you are doing and help other like-minded people who are finding their feet in business. It pays dividends.”
●To get a project off
the ground, tell a colleague it was their idea. “They will put their heart and soul into making it successful.”
●Listen. “Family members have different talents that steer the ship in the right direction. You may be in charge, but if people say to you ‘Brother, maybe the course you are pursuing is too risky’, listen to them. Take less risk.”
●Establish a niche. “Once you have made a space for yourself, you will have greater staying power.”
The chicken and egg business had given Mr Wouhra “the germ of an idea”. In 1972 he set up East End with his brothers Trilok, Devender, Gurdarshan and Jasbir Wouhra. “I gave them 20 per cent of the shares each, and they still haven’t paid me,” he jokes. “But this is a family business, and without the family effort, nothing gets done.” The brothers started canning chickpeas and kidney beans to sell through independent grocers under the East End brand they had adopted because Eastern Foods was taken.
While working 14 hours a day at his growing business, Mr Wouhra saw the engineering industry that underpinned the Midlands economy begin to crumble. No one seemed to care about quality, he says. If the handle of a British-made car door dropped off in the owner’s hand, too bad.
East End was following a different tack. “Never sell food that you won’t eat yourself,” was the mantra. Mr Wouhra therefore got a nasty shock in 1990 when he visited suppliers in India and found that some were adulterating the products – “grinding in anything, even road sweepings”. East End gradually brought many manufacturing functions – cleaning, milling, grinding and bagging – inhouse. The mighty rice mill that towers up to the lofty ceiling at the West Bromwich facility is the biggest in Europe.
East End has grown steadily by financing investment from cashflow and sometimes from personal savings. For example, in the year to April 30 2009, the directors of the business, all male family members, lent £1.6m to East End. It was a tough year. Sales were £4.3m higher at £114.6m, but pre-tax profits were just £390,000, eroded by food price increases that East End could not pass on to customers. Numbers for the year to April 30 2010, which are yet to be published, should be better, with profits at about £5m on sales of £120m, says Mr Wouhra.
The entrepreneur is as worried by the humanitarian impacts of food shortages as by their effect on his business, which employs 300 people. He believes under-used city land must be pressed into production and he has plans for an urban farm in Birmingham, a city dotted with derelict industrial sites. He spent much of last year persuading Indian suppliers to farm organically.
Day-to-day running of the business, which Mr Wouhra chairs, now falls to his younger brothers Devender and Jasbir – “two kingpins” as he puts it. Mr Wouhra’s sons Paul and Roger are directors of East End but may not automatically step into their uncles’ roles. Over lunch, Mr Wouhra praises the abilities of Jason Wouhra, his nephew and the company secretary, who is leading a push to promote the brand to non-Asian customers.
Asian-owned cornershops, which generate 80 per cent of East End’s sales, have come under relentless pressure from UK supermarkets as they expand aggressively into convenience shopping. In response, East End has been training mini-market owners to run their businesses better. But that can hardly halt the decline.
Supermarkets meanwhile represent trickier customers for East End, in spite of the economies of scale they represent. Mr Wouhra says: “They try to find out what sells best at your cost, then produce the best sellers under their own brand.” East End refuses to produce white-label food for supermarkets, having witnessed that ending in ferocious margin pressure for other private food companies.
Mr Wouhra has a quality rare among entrepreneurs: serenity. He talks elliptically about the business challenges facing East End, generalising them into broader social and environmental issues.
The sense one has leaving his West Bromwich aroma empire is that he feels he has done his bit to restore the family’s fortunes. So he has. Increasingly, East End is a project for the next generation.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.
By Mina Hanbury-Tenison
Published: September 16 2010 23:29 | Last updated: September 16 2010 23:29
At a branch of Xing Hua Lou, a famous traditional bakery chain in Shanghai, the evidence of the upcoming Autumn Moon Festival is visible. Thousands of boxes of mooncakes are stacked high inside the store and the staff can barely move.
Outside the store, meanwhile, touts try to entice customers in with laminated pamphlets offering up to 25 per cent off the listed price.
The Autumn Moon Festival – which this year falls on September 22 – is a traditional Chinese holiday. It is feted by the consumption of mooncakes, the roundness of the sweet pastry symbolising the union of family members.
According to the Shanghai Confectionery Industry Association, 21,000 tonnes of mooncakes were sold in the city in 2009 – worth Rmb1.85bn ($275m). Sales for the whole of China were estimated at Rmb11bn according to China Reports Hall, a market research firm based in Xiamen.
“It’s the time of the year for businesses to show gratitude to their business partners, to the government officials and to their own employees,” says Shaun Rein, the managing director of China Market Research (CMR) Group in Shanghai. “It’s a vital way of building relationships.”
However, in recent years the gifting of mooncakes has taken on a new significance in China, where a show of purchasing power and price-indexed gratitude has become more important. “As people get richer, they need more expensive gifts,” says Mr Rein.
Food retailers have cashed in on this opportunity with zeal. At Xing Hua Lou, single mooncakes, which typically cost about Rmb5 each, are repackaged in gift tins. The lowest price for a basic boxed set of eight goes for Rmb78, while for those seeking luxury there is a Rmb780 version filled with abalone fins.
Western retailers such as Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs have also embraced the seasonal retail opportunity. Häagen-Dazs, whose mooncake vouchers are one of the most circulated in China, offers boxed sets that range in price from Rmb268 to Rmb988 – a steep price tag for many Chinese workers.
Kris Kaminsky, the food and beverage manager at the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, says the hotel expects to sell about 20,000 of its boxes this year. The value is often not in the mooncakes, he says, but in the presentation. “We’ve created a very nice red box that looks like a jewellery box. It’s a box to be kept after the mooncakes are eaten.”
Mooncakes are also the most re-gifted item in China. “Many people give their mooncakes to someone else,” says Shen Hongfei, a well-known food writer. “Not because people don’t want to eat them but because some receive so many gift boxes that they want to offer them as presents. It’s a sign of respect and gives face.”
Byron Kan, the general manager of the Shanghai Centre, which houses the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel, has chosen to give Häagen-Dazs gift certificates this year to his corporate clients.
“[Mooncakes] are indeed vital, must-do corporate gifts,” he says. “But when companies started giving more and more extravagant mooncake gifts, to the point that the packaging and the gifts inside cost more than the mooncakes [themselves], the government decided to step in a few years ago and put a limit on the price.”
Now you can no longer buy a mooncake box with a watch as a gift inside or with solid-gold packaging.”
Many vouchers are returned for cash, allowing touts and middlemen to make a healthy profit margin. But as with any paper asset with an expiration date, the window for such buy and sell activity is limited. “The value of these mooncake vouchers go up and down according to how close one gets to the final date,” says Mr Rein of CMR.
Paul Smith, the president of Costa Coffee China, which expects to sell 8,000 boxes from its 70 outlets this year, offers his own solution. “We honour the vouchers for up to one year after the date,” he says.
“So if they don’t get to collect for this year, they can do it next year.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.