Remember Neil Webb? He was a roving midfielder who played for Manchester United and England, but in my mind he’ll always be synonymous with the generation of footballers who retired just before the unfathomable riches of the Premier League rolled in.
Unlike today’s players, these guys had to carve out new careers in their mid-30s, live with the knowledge that younger team-mates would be far richer than them, and not whinge about it for fear of people saying: “first world problems, innit?”. Webb ended up working as a postman. “It’s a job,” he said when the Sun door-stepped him. “What else was I supposed to do?”
Your average chef’s career lasts a little longer than that of a footballer, assuming the booze or the drugs or a frying pan to the back of the head doesn’t see to them first. But there are still plenty suffering from a dose of Neil Webb Syndrome; those in the twilight of their careers, forced to look on as their younger counterparts take a starring role in the newfound cult of the superstar cook.
“Chefs are the new rock stars,” Alex James from Blur once told me. “I saw a chef drive a golf buggy into a lake at three in the morning – it was the most rock ‘n’ roll thing I’ve ever seen.”
Young Turks like Ben Murphy, Lee Westcott and Ollie Dabbous are masters of their craft, but 20 years ago they’d have been quietly impressing locals rather than attracting gourmands from across the globe.
On the flip side, Christian Parra, one of the most lauded and talented chefs of his generation, a bona fide celebrity in Southwest France, died last year without so much as an English-language obituary. He owned the two Michelin star Auberge de la Galupe in Urt for decades before opening a little bistro in the Basque Pyrenees, finally retiring in 2002. He was a big, bearded chap – think a Gallic Brian Blessed – who was doing the beard-to-tail thing at least 20 years before it was cool. Had he remained in the kitchen another decade, he’d be a household name on both sides of the Channel.
But Parra’s legacy endures. He was famous for his boudin noir, a thick, moist black pudding made from blood, fat and brawn. It tastes like the very essence of pig, smashed down to its constituent parts, which is exactly what it is. It’s the uranium of the offal world – simple, heavy and potent. The recipe was canned by high-end food retailer Anne Rozès, but don’t expect to pick it up in Waitrose: there’s a waiting-list. One of the few places you can find it in the UK is Six Portland Road, a new French restaurant on the edge of Holland Park, run by Oli Barker and chef Pascal Weidemann, both alumni of Terroirs (which is the only other place I know of in London where you can buy Parra’s boudin noir).
It’s only 40 covers but it opens onto the street, which makes it feel bigger than it really is. It combines the simplicity and distilled Frenchness of Les Gourmets des Ternes with a dash of Salt & Honey’s local charm. The only other people I saw eating there were a pair of locals who were delighted to have found a Holland Park restaurant they liked while Julie’s is closed (ostensibly for a refurbishment, but it’s been shut for over a year and it’s not due to reopen until 2017, so I can’t imagine what they’re doing with it).
To fully navigate the menu, you’ll need to speak a little French. Asking the waiters is no good because they require translation, too. Something white with croutons arrived with the cryptic message: “In Lyon, zees deesh eez called a seelk worker’s brayn, coz eet eez awl melteed – a bad joke, yes?”
It turned out to be cervelle de canut, a soft cheese with oil and vinegar, which translates as “silk-worker’s brain”. It was very good, and also free. A burgundy sliver of wood pigeon nested on petits pois à la française (with lardons, chicken stock and lettuce). Pork and pistachio terrine, buttery-soft and filled with creamy cubes of fat, came with an intimidatingly-large jar of pickles. Moroccan-style lamb-neck fillet with harissa and couscous felt a tad out of place but was fine in its own right.
Six Portland Road pulls off the trick of being simple to the point of basic but still making you feel like you’ve had a bargain. It’s all sans effort and nonchalant, but in the cool French way rather than the lazy English one.
And then there’s the boudin noir, the most effortless dish of all given it has recently been flopped out of a tin. A thin, crisp outer shell, glossy with a fine sweat of essence d’pig, gave way to a slick, fleshy interior carrying the faint metallic twang of blood. This isn’t like the stuff your gran used to serve for breakfast: it’s divine.
“You weel keep on comin back jus for zees, ah promees yew”, said the waiter with a wink. He’s probably right.