Saturday, 6 September 2014

Undercover Boss - Carluccio's

I always enjoy Undercover Boss. Its premise is that the managing director of a company goes in disguise on to the shop floor to see the public side of their business which they normally, high up in their ivory tower, never get to see. They are invariably shocked and disappointed and realise just quite how out of the loop they are. I think most of us have some experience of a boss who has no idea what is happening at ground-floor level, which is why the programme is so appealing.

York (always behind on the chain restaurant scene) recently acquired its first Carluccio's as part of the rapid expansion of the business that formed the background to this episode. We haven't actually been, but we have been twice to one of the branches featured on the programme, in the Trinity Centre in Leeds. Our first visit, a midweek lunch during the school holidays, was fairly positive, but the second last weekend was very much less so. The place was too busy to cope, and you could see that the kitchen staff were getting slammed. They had a full row of paper chits hanging above the pass. We had to wait ages for our food, and when it came, my ravioli were raw in the middle. I sent my dish back, only to be served a second that was equally bad, by which point I was so hungry I just ate it. It probably only needed an extra minute in the pan, but it shouldn't have to be my place to point this out. We should have gone to the other Carluccio's on Greek Street, which according to the programme, is absolutely dead on a weekend. Not very good for their business, but maybe better for my tummy.

Properly cooked spinach and ricotta filled pasta, made by me
I have eaten at a few of the original London branches of Carluccio's. Generally, they were excellent, but we are talking about the days when the great Antonio Carluccio still had some sort of hand in the business. He sold up a few years ago. Things have definitely gone downhill since then, despite the illusions about the food that its new managing director Simon Kossoff is under. During our long wait in Leeds, I looked around at what the other customers were eating, barely recognising dishes that I knew I had eaten in the past. A plate of penne with courgette, chilli and deep-fried spinach balls, a truly lovely thing served to me in Kingston-upon-Thames more years ago than I care to remember, looked virtually inedible. The chicken milanese, a staple on their set menu, was burned to a crisp.

And this highlights the trouble with the Undercover Boss programme - do the changes that the boss says he is going to implement really come about? I am not sure when the series was filmed, but by now the promised improvements should be in evidence. Simon Kossoff seems like a decent guy, though I have to say I preferred his goth alter-ego kitchen hand Dan, with his fake tattoo sleeve, who was always tasked with taking the bins out via the most complicated route imaginable. Kossoff is genuinely touched by the dedicated staff that he meets, and at the end offers these few people some nice gifts (books, holidays, cooking lessons with Antonio) for their efforts, but what about the rest of his several hundred restaurant employees, all working long hours on minimum wage for no reward or recognition? Although one of the waitresses in Leeds offered some much longed-for chef training after years of servitude, instantly buggers off to work for someone else. Which a cynic may argue is a good reason for keeping people in their place.

But how can restaurants maintain their high standards across a chain that is so thinly spread? How can there be proper quality control by the powers that be? It's not just Carluccio's - you see this happen time and time again with expanded brands. Gourmet Burger Kitchen, for example, was a great little eatery on Northcote Road in Clapham, but now it has opened branches right across the country. And the last time I ate at the one in York, the fries (cooked in stale oil) were not far short of revolting. Giraffe, where I used to go in Muswell Hill from time to time and which has finally now also come to York, seems to have lost its world-food ethos to American style dining. It's a shame.

I would always much rather support a small local eatery than a global conglomerate, but when you have kids, you do end up relying on chains. This is because you know there will be spaghetti bolognese on the menu, and that they will bring crayons. Thank goodness therefore, for Bishy Road's fabulous family-run Sicilian cafe Trinacria, which may not provide crayons, but is otherwise as child friendly as they come, with its vast array of gelato flavours and biscotti and welcoming staff (and I am not just saying that because one is our next-door neighbour and he has been known to "forget" to charge me for my daughter's ice cream). It has columns of IKEA Antilops and easy-wipe tables. And the food is great. And much cheaper than Carluccio's.

Trinacria also lets me take silly photos

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