Wednesday, 10 December 2014

HESTON'S BACON

I purchased some bacon in Waitrose a while ago, a bacon which has been developed by one of the most gifted and well respected British chefs in the world, Heston Blumenthal.

I've loved and respected Heston and his ethos, ever since the days when The Fat Duck still had a domestic gas supply in the kitchen. But I've still not, after all this time, made the pilgrimage to Bray to feast on his Parsnip Cereal and Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet  (only wearers of the emperor's new clothes and tedious restaurant critics mention the S**** P*******).

Julie and I were lucky enough to dine at Dinner by Heston not long after it first opened.

These were the days before the countless aforementioned restaurant critics and food writers started banging on about the Meat Fruit and Pineapple Tipsy Cake. These perfect dishes, through word of mouth, have now established themselves as signature dishes, elbowing their way onto centre stage like James Corden hosting The Brit Awards on dextroamphetamine. Ashley and Heston were planning a menu that changed with the seasons. As far as I'm aware, the Meat Fruit and Pineapple Tipsy Cake are still on the menu 3 years later.

Discovering such heavenly treats yourself, and stumbling upon such edible treasures without having the surprise spoiled by the pink Glenmuir jumper brigade who went to the soft opening, is so much nicer than going in filled with expectations.

Expectations, can really bite you on the bottom.

I'm a bacon junkie and a ham connoisseur, addicted and well versed in all manner of porcine pleasures. I'm the Sal Magluta of salted swine. I grew up in a town that had a Harris Bacon factory for Pete's sake, enough to both educate AND put you off piggy for life. So, when I placed all three permutations of Heston's bacon into my oven, my expectations were pretty high. Surely Heston knows a thing or two about delivering a rarefied rasher.

Growing up in Totnes, Devon, in a town with a handful of good butchers shops (sawdust on the floor and whole pigs were fascinating to me as a boy) and a bacon factory is enough to give anyone the 1000-rasher stare. When I was a nipper, there was a Harris Bacon shop just across the road from the huge red brick Harris Bacon factory, and I have fond memories of my mum taking me in there to stock up on bacon, which the shopkeeper would slice fresh from the cured loins on a big scary slicing machine, not a vac pac in sight.

Mum would also take me to the fishmonger in the Butterwalk to get me my favourite treat of smoked haddock, which as a child I called "Yellow fish". My mum knew the importance and lasting effect of salty foods on a young boy's mind. The salt police still a twinkle in their evil creator's minds.

Until a few years ago, one of my regular go to bacon guys was John Reade. John was the real deal, the sort of ruddy-cheeked, booming-voiced, journeyman/master craftsman of marbled meaty marvels that were once commonplace in every village and town from Trethewey to Thurso.

Since John retired, I lament and crave his skill and bravery with salt. His gammon, whether it was a heafty horseshoe joint, slow-cooked in nothing but a pan of water at Christmas (that's right, just water, sue me you cinnamon stick and star anise-using lemmings!), or thick-cut as a steak and fried in Devon butter with a couple of eggs, is the stuff of my dreams.

John's bacon was the sort I expect you would've been served if you had breakfast with Bilbo Baggins at Bag End. I am a creature of habit, and John's rashers more often than not ended their days in a perfect ternion of dishes. Bacon and Fried Egg Sandwich, Egg and Bacon Pie, and the criminally underrated and long-forgotten Fidget Pie.

My late mother swore by fidget pie, and her version graced our family table on a very, VERY regular basis. I can't imagine life without fidget pie, and I'll carry on making it like mum did, in the very same battered old pie dish she used until my last.

I still get some of my bacon and ham from Riverford Farm Shop,  which is where John used to run the butchery, but since he handed over the reins to the younger chaps, the lipsmacking salinity and intense old-fashioned piggy-ness seems to have been dulled. Maybe the boys are just too bleddy scared to add that extra scoop of salt to the cure. Don't get me wrong, It's still a fine fine bacon, but it just feels tamer. I'm well aware that these proper, old fashioned butcher's bacons and hams aren't to everyones tastes. Generations have been indoctrinated into the world of reformed, cheap pink protein, ersatz pap filled with hygroscopic chemicals and all manner of dodgy additives. Not nice. Even my fellow gourmand and parter in crime Baz struggled with proper piggies. I once got John to cut me some really thick gammon steaks, fresh from his brine tubs,  which I chargrilled over wood in the garden one warm summer evening, served with a roughly chopped fresh pineapple, honey, mint and chilli salad and some buttered pink fir apple spuds. My mate Baz couldn't finish his gammon steak as it was too salty for him. Wimp!

Wherever and whenever I find a proper artisan bacon, I have to try it. I've loaded up my coolbags with rashers from Tywardreath in Cornwall and Darragh O'Shea in Knightsbridge, a delightful old boy at Bath Farmer's Market who's name I can't remember. My friend Giuseppe sells the fattiest, well-peppered pancetta which he travels deep into the hills of Calabria to pick up from a little old Italian farmer, who lives so deep into the mountains, according to Giuseppe, that he doesn't even speak Italian. Each December I stock up on my man Illtud Llyr Dunsford's jaw droppingly lush Welsh collar bacon and Ventreche. Illtud is godlike in his skill and understanding of cured pig.

If I see a bacon that looks like it'll give me the horn, I can't refuse it. You know the hillock of cocaine scene at the end of Scarface, that's me when there's proper bacon on my plate!

I've tried a few of Hest's Waitrose products since he and Delia started getting paid, and I have to say the times I've been bowled over have been few and far between. The Steak Pie with Kombu was ok-ish. The Salted Caramel Popcorn was on a par with the Bobby's foods Toffee Popcorn. Incidentally, I used to run a newsagents in the 90's, and we stocked an impressive selection of Bobby's products, so I know my stuff. I was particularly enamoured with the Bobby's Caramel Break.

I've tried Heston's Prawn Cocktail which is quite nice, unless you hate vanilla with your prawns, and the Royal Wedding Trifle he knocked out for William and Kate was nothing compared to me'Julie's Sherry Trifle. When I spotted his trio of bacons my heart told me to trust good old Heston to deliver me to the saline shores of bacon nirvana, whilst my head told me to either get a grip and walk away, or move my hovering indecisive hand left to the Duchy Streaky, down to the Devon Rose, or right to the Denhay Smoked Back.

I like Heston, so wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was as I reached for the packets that I realised these weren't Heston's take on the traditional, but something altogether more experimental. If you're of a sensitive disposition, do not read the next five words.

Heston's Tomato Ketchup cured Bacon.

I know what Heston was thinking 'cause it was emblazoned all over the packaging. What though, was I thinking? Tomato Ketchup cured Bacon. I should've walked away then and there, but somewhere deep inside of my brain's central bacon cortex lay hope. I also thought I'd try the Vanilla Bacon, and the Syrup and Stout Bacon.

Forgive me, for I know not what I do!

Forgive Heston, for he has sinned!

What would this triumvirate of sliced pig experimentation taste like. Would they be perfectly salted? Would they, could they taste as good as the epiphaneal bacons of my life? Would the fat crisp exponentially faster than the meat like it does with my usual go to rashers? Would it be the best bacon I've ever eaten? All these questions and more went through my mind as I patiently waited for Heston's rashers to come out of my oven.

As I tasted the Tomato Ketchup cured Bacon, I thought to myself "What kind of fresh hell is this?"

To cut to the chase, all three bacons were lacklustre, criminally underseasoned, ill-judged, too lean, and utterly utterly disappointing. If it is possible to reverse engineer the curing process so that every atom and flavour molecule vanishes upon cooking, I reckon H has cracked it. Heston is like Alan Turing when it comes to cracking the code of how to make bacon taste of nothing, 'cause cracked it he certainly has.

What did I expect though?, that maybe Heston had personally reared the most genetically perfect, well fatted uber pig like it was his own child? Sleeping by it's side night and day, giving it an Indian head massage and feeding it acorns every time it stirred from it's pampered slumber. That he'd gone diving off the Cornish coast and hand picked and analysed hundreds of batches of seawater, and then stayed up for 6 weeks with Clockwork Orange-style lidlocks on his eyes to help keep him awake, whilst using a hairdryer to evaporate the seawater into the perfect sized salt crystals with which to cure his piggy slices.

Obviously not, why on Earth would Heston have a hairdryer.

I'm certain there are lots of Waitrosees that swear by the stuff, probably the same people that know Heston from his Channel 4 output. I'm sure that these people wouldn't ever head to one of his outposts in Bray or London. They probably think there is little or no point in driving all the way to The Fat Duck when you can simply open the fridge and tuck into a pot of his Prawn Cocktail, or just pop one of his pies in the oven, "they've got Kombu in them for extra umami don't you know"

They're just as disappointing as his bacon.

I love you Heston, but stop peeing around with the Waitrose development team and make me a bacon Sandwich with some proper bacon. It's not too much to ask is it.

Friday, 12 October 2012

THE WORST MEAL OF MY LIFE - THE DARK SIDE OF FINE DINING


What follows, is a letter I sent to the owner of one of the most highly respected, beloved, and well known fine dining restaurants in the UK, possibly even the world. 

A quick search on The World's 50 Best Restaurants website shows me it currently ranks somewhere between 51 and 100. Apparently it's slipped down the list a little since last year. If I had my way, I'd add a couple of zeros to their rating, before putting the restaurant over my knee to give it a good old fashioned botty tanning. 

I had, up until this year, my 37th to be exact, never felt so utterly compelled and moved to write such a personal, detailed and lengthy letter such as this. I'm normally the sort of chap who doesn't like to make a fuss, unless I feel it is absolutely necessary. What you're about to read, is the letter in all it's twenty-odd page glory. A letter that, for so many reasons, I felt without question was absolutely necessary for me to write.

For various reasons, I've chosen to change the names of some of those involved, as well as the name of the restaurant itself. My justification for this is because I never planned on writing publicly about this awful dining experience on my blog. But with a little hindsight and the passing of time, I feel ready to share this unfortunate experience.

The names have been changed to protect the guilty, and out of respect for Mr Very Famous Chef. As you'll discover in my letter, my problem wasn't actually with Mr Very Famous Chef, but some of the so called professionals he has chosen to look after the front of house. For the record, the most important people in the building that night, the chefs, were all hidden away in the kitchen, all performing their really important, backbreaking and magical parts with utter professionalism.

Depressingly for myself, Julie, and her mum Jean, a large part of the experience, and the delivery of the beautiful food beyond the pass was entrusted to three of the most phlegmatic, over-zealous and apathetic little Hauptsturmführers that I, we, have ever had the misfortune of encountering.


Be warned, this letter is very, very long, and very personal. I felt when writing this, that there was only one way that I could explain, and put in to context why, what happened at the restaurant was so traumatic for me. I hope you'll take this into account when reading.

Thanks for reading.


______________________________


Dear Very Famous Chef


Please find enclosed a letter I have written to you, detailing my recent visit to Very Famous Restaurant on April 19th 2012.

Firstly, and importantly, can I sincerely apologise for the very lengthy nature of this correspondence. I'm sure you are a very very busy chap, and I in no way wish to bother and burden you with unsolicited reading material. However, in order to understand the reason I've composed this letter in the first place, I couldn't think of any other way than to write such a long and expositional epistle.

May I also add that before you read on, the aim of this letter is not to viciously attack those persons included in it, but to simply inform you of my unfortunate experience at Very Famous Restaurant, and how I feel I was treated more than a little badly. I'm afraid that my letter writing skills leave a lot to be desired, but I have nevertheless written this from my heart, so I hope you can at the very least get a good enough picture of the kind of person I am.

I've decided to fillet the letter into two parts. I thought this was a simple device as you can read firstly, the potted history of the traumatic life changing events that have shaped me, and have been the catalyst in creating my all-consuming appreciation and knowledge of the world of food. 
This, I hope, will help you to contextualise the second part of the letter, which details my experience at Very Famous Restaurant.

Yours, most sincerely


Paul Neville Manning
May 2012



PART I.


1991, Not long after we first met.

I left school in 1991. Soon after, I met my partner Julie.

In 1992, I became seriously ill.

Regrettably, the local General Practitioner was at a loss as to what was causing the debilitating and unpleasant symptoms I was experiencing, and after several perfunctory consultations, and a series of totally counter-productive courses of drugs didn't help, my concerned and understandably anxious mother decided to take me to see a specialist consultant at a private clinic in Torquay called Mount Stuart. 
The consultant gastroenterologist at the clinic, Dr Robin Teague, took one look at me and told my mother she had every reason to be so worried. 

He carried out a few basic and preliminary procedures and spoke to my mother and I about my symptoms. Within the hour I was on his ward at Torbay Hospital.

Over the next few weeks I endured a succession of painful and invasive procedures and tests to ascertain what was causing the terrible symptoms I was suffering. My weight had plummeted to under 7 stone, I was severely anaemic, malnourished and dehydrated, and keeping down food and liquids was becoming progressively problematic.

To quote Dr Teague, I was a very very poorly young lad indeed.

It was during this period that Robin diagnosed me with severe Crohns Disease, a chronic, lifelong condition that effects all parts of the gastrointestinal tract. 
At the fairly young age of 17, I could not have wished for a better person to be in charge of my care. Dr Teague's bedside manner was absolutely fantastic. A magnanimous, helpful and extremely comical man, he became something of a hero not only to me, but to Julie, my mum and my close family and friends too.


Mum and I, Simpson Ward, Torbay Hospital 1992.


I stayed under his care for just over six weeks, and by the time I left hospital he had managed to stabilise the disease with a potent cocktail of pills and medicines. Before I left hospital, Robin thoroughly recapitulated the facts about Crohns disease to me. I was well aware that I would have the condition for the rest of my life, but at the carefree age of 17, I was confident and sure it wouldn't get in my way. Over the next few years I carried on pretty much as normal. I stuck to the drugs regime and apart from various unwanted and irritating day to day symptoms, the Crohns didn't hinder me too much.

In 1998, Julie and I took the plunge and bought our own house. We moved into our brand new home, and found ourselves doing all of the exciting things that that entails. We had never been happier.

During the summer however, I started to feel quite poorly again. I went to see Dr Teague.

He was concerned, and arranged for me to have a set of tests to see what was causing the unpleasant symptoms. By now, these were tests I was more than accustomed to, so I duly endured them as I was very keen to get the disease under control again. Unfortunately, the tests revealed that I had developed a significant area of stricturing in my small bowel. This is a commonplace problem for sufferers of Crohns disease. The wall of the gut becomes inflamed, and over time begins to twist and thicken, eventually leading to a bottleneck forming in the intestinal tract. If left untreated, this bottleneck can eventually seal over, with catastrophic consequences.

It was decided that I had to have an operation to remove the strictured area from my gut. I was really very upset that it had come to this. Many Crohns disease sufferers can get lucky, and don't ever have to resort to such drastic measures, but I had sadly drawn the short straw. I met with Mr Rupert Pullan, Torbay Hospital's resident Colorectal Surgeon, and he explained the surgery in more detail with me.

I went into hospital in October 1998 and underwent the massive operation.

Rupert successfully performed the ileo-ceacal resection surgery on my bowel with great success, and after a few weeks of post operative care and recovery on Allerton ward, I returned home under the care of the district nurses. I spent the next week or so recuperating at home, taking things very very slowly, as instructed by Rupert.

Obviously I was still feeling extremely tender, with all the usual post-operative aches and pains hindering my daily routine, but I was very proud to have soldiered through the operation in such a courageous manner. All I had to do now was recover from the surgery and get back to enjoying life. 
Or so I thought.

On October 31st 1998, things took a turn for the worse. I felt absolutely wretched. I was in a tremendous, unearthly amount of pain, and as the day dragged on I became progressively more unwell. That night, I was rushed back to Torbay Hospital in an ambulance. My dear mother had been just around the corner babysitting my niece Mollie, and when my sister and brother-in-law returned home, she left them and came straight around to our house to see how I was. Mum came with me in the ambulance, whilst Julie, totally shaken and more than a little terrified, followed in our car.

Once back at the hospital, I spent the weekend on Allerton ward, but early on the morning of Monday November 2nd things deteriorated very rapidly.

I began to vomit bowl after bowl of fresh blood, my vital signs went haywire, and I began to lose consciousness. The last thing I remember was being wheeled into the Endoscopy suite, to be greeted by the booming, benevolent brogue and familiar, friendly face of my old friend Dr Teague. He had a foreboding look on his face I had not seen before, and instructed the Endoscopy nurses that I was to be seen first. I believe there must have been several day outpatients there awaiting an Endoscopy but Robin, with his usual level of helpfulness and care made me his number one priority.

I awoke a couple of days later in an environment so strange and alien to me, in such a heavily medicated state of mind, that I had absolutely no idea where I was or what was happening. I now found myself in a side room on the Derek Cadle Intensive Care Unit at Torbay Hospital. 
I was by now dangerously unwell, but due to the precarious and fragile post-operative state I was already in, further investigations to pinpoint exactly what was causing this chain of catastrophic events was extremely difficult, and moreover, very dangerous.

My memory of this period consists of very little. Visitors were limited to very close family and friends. My sisters would pop in together, my big brother, who had driven down from Chester to be with me, would sit and hold my hand, and my mum and Julie would comfort me as best they could. 
The look in all of their eyes is something I will never ever be able to forget. They did their very best to reassure me, but I knew in my very core, that something was wrong.

A few days later, things became grave. My body simply could not take any more, and everything began to fail. I was dying.

Julie and my mum, and my sisters Margery and Maria were called, and told to get to the hospital as soon as they could. I was being prepped for life saving surgery, and the surgeons told them to prepare themselves for the worst. 
Mr Pullan, and his team of anaesthetists worked on me for over 12 hours, and thankfully, were able to save my life.

Over the next week I lay in ICU in an induced coma. My eyes were taped shut.

I awoke some time later, to find myself, my mind, and my body, in what I can only describe as a state of total devastation. When Mr Pullan opened me back up to perform the life saving surgery, he discovered to his horror that almost half of my intestines had died. To cut an already long story short, sometime between leaving the hospital and being rushed back in on Halloween, I had unfortunately developed a thrombosis, a blood clot, in my Portal vein.

The Portal vein is responsible for supplying blood and oxygen to most of the gastrointestinal tract, from the stomach to the large bowel. Because the thrombosis lay undiscovered for so long, this is what had caused such significant damage and necrosis in my gut. To ensure my survival Mr Pullan had no choice but to completely remove this damaged portion. 
The continuity of my intestines was now severely compromised, and restoring this continuity was not possible. They attempted to rejoin my gut, but it was so damaged it simply disintegrated in their hands as they attempted to stitch it together. 

My whole system had shut down, and my body failed to function correctly. My lungs failed and I could not breathe, so was connected to a ventilator via a tracheostomy. My liver packed up, and my whole body swelled up with oedema.

I developed pneumonia, and after a particularly big sneeze one day, the delicate laparotomy on my massively distended tummy popped open, leaving the surgeons with no other option but to leave my entire abdominal wall open, covered with a complicated patchwork of sterile surgical wound care dressings and a dangerously toxic cocktail of last resort intravenous antibiotics such as Vancomycin.

Because I no longer had a functioning gastrointestinal system, administering any drugs orally was impossible. The gut that led directly from my stomach terminated abruptly, so a large latex Foley Catheter was attached between my Duodenum and Jejunum with stitches, purse strings, and 15ml inflated water balloon.

The only option for administering all of the fluids, electrolytes, nutrition and drugs I needed to survive, was intravenously. 

I was unable to eat or process anything orally, so a specially formulated regime of TPN was pumped directly into my bloodstream via a triple lumen Hickman line in my neck. Total Parental Nutrition is a carefully balanced lipid solution containing every single element the body needs, and has to be administered under strict aseptic conditions due to it's method of delivery to the central venous system.
 
According to my consultant clinical psychologist Dr Ian "Bushy" Bennun, I ended up staying on the Intensive Care Unit for 71 days. Most patients stay on ICU for a few days to a week or so. Many never make it out. I not only carry the physical scars from those nightmarish times, but the psychological and emotional damage will remain indelibly burned into my heart, soul and mind for the rest of my days. 

When I was considered well enough, I returned to Allerton ward where I remained for the next 9 months. I was told by the surgeons and doctors that it was not possible to rectify the damage in my gut, and as such, they told me it was unlikely that I would ever be able to eat any real food for the rest of my life. I would have to be fed intravenously with TPN, for the rest of my days. Breaking the rules with a sneaky nibble would not of been an option. 

With the mechanics of my gastrointestinal system the way they were, very simply, eating real food would have been fatal.

Now, I ask you..... How would you feel if you were told something like that?

Over the course of the next year, my surgical and medical team tweaked, fiddled, and experimented with all manner of intravenous and enteral nutritional regimes, most of which they had not attempted before. I became something of a gastroenterology Guinea Pig! Over time, my consultant gastroenterologist Dr John Lowes, and my surgeon Mr Rupert Pullan, decided to try and preserve and protect the functionality of the remaining areas of my large and small bowel. 

With the help of the nurses and dieticians, a totally ground-breaking, but somewhat Heath-Robinson nutritional plan was put in place. A carefully balanced mixture of enteral nutritional fluid feeds were delicately pumped through my gut, slowly at first, increasing incrementally over the months. 
This ensured and encouraged the remaining bowel to keep going and not forget how to function. This helped keep my intestines in a fairly healthy state.

At the tail end of 1999, over a year after I had almost died, I travelled to The John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, where Professor Neil Mortensen, a world leading authority on gastrointestinal surgery performed a set of meticulous and miraculous operations on me. He did what was thought impossible, and managed to restore the continuity of my gut. Tentatively, carefully, I began to reintroduce my body, my gut, my mouth, to the simple act of eating real food, something I had been told I would never ever be able to do. 

I was understandably, overjoyed.


Intensive Care, Post op, The John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford 1999.

Since the traumatic tribulations of 1998, and following the successful set of surgeries in 1999, My life has changed dramatically. 
Over the last 13 years, I have had many more major operations to remove further areas of stricturing from my remaining intestines. This is a reoccurring problem that is to be expected under the circumstances, as after all this, I still suffer with the Crohns Disease. I always will.

Throughout every single painful and excruciating moment, Julie has been there to hold my hand and wipe away my tears. We've been together now for over 20 years, and have experienced more pain and worry than most people do in three lifetimes. BUT, we have never, and will never let it beat us. As the years have passed, and with each successive and challenging bout of surgery, the amount of gut I am left with has become more and more whittled down. I now have such a small amount of my intestines left, that lots of new and troublesome problems have manifested themselves.

The years of endless operations have taken their toll, and I now face the unpleasant symptoms of Short Bowel Syndrome. This is as a direct result of having had such a significant amount of my gut surgically removed. 
The myriad complications I now face on a daily basis greatly effects my quality of life. With only a small length of functioning large and small bowel available, my system cannot absorb the requisite amount of electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, salts and other life-giving essentials that the body needs in order to function correctly. To help balance and restore this shortfall, I now have to rely on twice, sometimes thrice-weekly intravenous infusions to top me up with anything I'm deficient in.

I've been reliant on this regime for the last 5 years.

A major problem facing complex patients like me who have spent so much time in hospital is that over time, your vascular system (veins) takes such a battering from the constant barrage of cannulations, blood tests and injections, that finding a healthy undamaged vein is very difficult. 
The answer to this in the past has been to surgically implant various types of venous access devices. I've lost count of the roll call of Hickman lines, central lines and PICC lines I've had criss crossing and protruding from my arms, my chest and my neck over the years.

During my twice weekly visits to the hospital, it was beginning to become nigh on impossible to successfully cannulate my arms and hands. Even the last resort option of using the veins in my feet started to become a headache. 
The poor nurses on the specialist ward were loath to attempt inserting Venflons, for fear of failure, and more importantly because they simply didn't want to have to keep stabbing me with needles in the fruitless attempt at finding a healthy vein. Anaesthetists, Cancer nurses and even trembling young trainee doctors would be called to the ward to have a go, often with little more success than the nurses. Many times it was only possible to get venous access by using Neoflons, which are mainly used on paediatric and neonatal patients.

Visiting the hospital twice a week with the prospect of spending the first hour or two being stabbed in my arms, hands and feet, sometimes up to thirteen times in one sitting, started to take a severe toll on my mental state. I already suffer with PTSD, so summoning up my best "brave" face, was starting to become emotionally draining. In the end, there was no other option but to have another venous access line implanted.

Dr Lowes and my dedicated team of wonderful nurses decided that it would be much more beneficial to fit me with a Portacath, rather than a traditional central venous line.

The Portacath was surgically implanted into my chest in December 2009.

A Portacath consists of a Titanium chamber encased in surgical grade silicone. The top of the chamber is shrouded in a special self sealing silicone septum, and from the chamber runs a large bore silicone venous catheter. The chamber or "Port" sits underneath the skin on my chest. The venous catheter runs from the chamber up into the jugular vein in my neck, and all the way down through the superior vena cava to my heart.

The Port is accessed with a special needle called a Huber, which is pushed through the skin into the silicone septum, ending up in the chamber of the Port. Once in situ, access to the central venous system is very simple. The Portacath can be accessed, or punctured 1000's of times, so it makes for a much more appealing way for long term patients to get the drugs and therapy they require. The main area of medicine that adopts such devices is Cancer care such as Chemotherapy, or similar chronic and long term conditions.

Since having the Portacath implanted my quality of life has improved greatly.


Last year, with support and special funding, my consultant Dr Lowes, and the small group of specialist nurses in charge of my care plan and weekly intravenous therapies agreed that I was considered to be knowledgeable and competent enough to take on my treatment regime myself. My previous experiences of setting up and administering my treatment at home during 1999 stood me in good stead, so they knew I already had a good grasp and understanding of the complicated protocols involved.

I met with the nurses, and was fully trained by them to set up and administer and control the whole thing myself at home. 

As you can imagine, this is not something that many patients would be allowed to do, or indeed would want to do. The responsibility I now have to myself is phenomenal. Having to prep all the equipment, syringes, anaesthetic gels, surgical scrub, injections and sterile flushes, as well as pushing a one inch long needle into my chest to access the port, is all very very complicated. 


I MUST follow the strict aseptic protocol to the letter, as one wrong move or missed step could be life threatening, but this only serves to empower me with a level of self respect and independence that is hugely rewarding. Not having to visit the hospital twice weekly has greatly improved my quality of life too.

I now set up and administer my intravenous infusions twice a week at home, but I still need to visit the hospital once or twice a month for the very potent drug infusions as the nurses need to constantly monitor and check my observations in case of any dangerous reactions to the drugs occur.

At home I have a dedicated medical refrigerator where all of my intravenous fluids/TPN, injections, anti coagulant flushes and drugs are kept. All of these are supplied and delivered by a specialist healthcare company each week.

This is my life. 

I didn't ever expect things would end up this way, but they have. I can count the amount of times I have fallen into the depths of self pity on one hand. I do not feel sorry for myself, I hardly ever complain, and somehow, I have remained largely positive where most people would have broken. 

I have always been a very optimistic kind of chap, and have a hugely compassionate and caring nature. The truth is, and it may sound clichéd but, the suffering I have had to endure has only helped to enlighten me and open my eyes to the really important and beautiful things in life. It has made me an infinitely better person.



PART II.


If you've managed to trawl your way through this somewhat lengthy epistle I salute you. You may have been wondering what exactly the point of this rather personal, detailed account of my life has all been for.

I must say that writing this all down is not something I enjoy at all. Talking about all of this is the last thing I want to be doing. Dozens of times during the composition of this letter I have questioned the point of baring my soul to someone who technically, is a stranger.

Ever since nearly dying in 1998, and nearly losing the ability to eat real food, it has been my life's mission to experience as many wonderful culinary pleasures as is possible. Over the last 13 years my appreciation for, and knowledge of good food, honest cooking, beautiful ingredients and the joys of the table, has become all-consuming.

When my health has allowed, our holidays have mostly been planned and arranged with food as the main event. Wherever we find ourselves we always make sure we know where the best places to eat are. We'll seek out the nearest farm shop or local cheese maker, where to get a proper cup of freshly brewed loose leaf tea, or a fine plate of Fish and Chips, made with the freshest locally-landed fish. 
We also believe in this ethos when it comes to what we eat at home. We think nothing of driving 50 miles to procure an organic rare-breed Chicken from a farmer that only sells his produce at a little table at his farm gate.

Over the years we have eaten in some of the best restaurants in the UK, and every mouthful I've been lucky enough to have eaten has been very special indeed. I cherish the memories of all the wonderful food we've enjoyed, and am always looking forward to the next tasty treat. More than most people, I treasure these culinary experiences and certainly don't take them for granted, with good reason.

Paradoxically, it sometimes feels like we lead something of a double life. Our normal routine is so filled with the ever-present and challenging elements of my illness, that it is a wonderfully therapeutic treat when we can get away for a nice long weekend in one of our favourite destinations such as London or Cornwall. I see these epicurean escapes as my very own self prescribed medicine, as they really do have a beneficial and healing effect on my mind and my soul.

I've lost count of the amount of times Julie and I have been sitting in a beautiful restaurant, gazing into each others eyes across a candlelit table, eating a fine meal and soaking up the atmosphere, and only hours before I've been lying recumbent in the bore of an MRI scanner, or having a particularly potent TNF alpha monoclonal antibody pumped around my body. Even the twice weekly intravenous infusions I set up and administer to myself at home are in complete contrast to these wonderful days out and weekends away. 
Talk about from one extreme to another.

As these tasty experiences have racked up over the years, we have had the pleasure of meeting dozens of like-minded people along the way. We have met and befriended all sorts of people involved in food, from butchers to Cheese makers and old fashioned Cider makers. I am friends with food writers, bloggers, and all sorts of foodie folk. We have befriended chefs, some of whom have become respected faces on Television over the years.

We've been privileged to attend restaurant launch parties, and we know all sorts of heavy hitters in the restaurant industry, many of whom know all about my passion for good food in the face of my ongoing health issues. These chefs are in awe of the way I refuse to let my illness overrule and get in the way of my search for good food and the enjoyment and fulfilment I get from it, and rightly so.

As a small example, during our recent stay in London, Julie and I were to be found in the kitchen of one of the city's Michelin starred restaurants, talking to the chef, whilst he plated up some of his dishes for a renowned food photographer to document and photograph for his forthcoming book of recipes. This was an exciting privilege to say the least.


I can't begin to imagine what would happen if some of our most beloved and well known food heroes and "TV chefs" had to suddenly deal with the specific problems I face.

I know American Chef Grant Achatz has been to hell and back in recent years, and I'm sure he can relate on some level to the threat of having the one thing in his life that drives him snatched away. Michael Caines' terrible car accident in 1994, the immediate aftermath, and the implications it had on him fulfilling his desire to spend his life cooking beautiful food must have been a huge catalyst in him rising above such a traumatic hindrance to achieving his dream. Gary Rhodes losing his sense of taste, another awful bit of bad luck that contextually, can only have strengthened his appreciation of food also.

What would any chef/restaurateur/gourmand of your calibre do, if told they were physically unable to eat for the rest of their lives? That they had to survive solely on a constant 24-hour-a-day intravenous infusion of TPN. And that attempting to eat food would probably lead to death?

Now, imagine living like that for a year, and then miraculously being able to start eating again. Would you not be anything other than overwhelmingly grateful and appreciative of the simple but heavenly gift of eating food. Would your desire and need to explore and uncover every single culinary pleasure not be anything other than obsessive.
 
I'd like to think it would.


To say we were looking forward to our most recent trip to London would be the understatement of the year. As always, we had made reservations at a few destination restaurants, and had a small selection of lunch options to pick and choose from depending on what took our fancy each day. This trip was even more special as Julie's elderly mother Jean was with us as part of a double birthday celebration for my birthday, and hers.

The highlight of our holiday was to be dinner at Very Famous Restaurant, which we had planned for our last night in London.

I have wanted to dine at your legendary restaurant for so very long. During the 9 months I spent in hospital back in 1998/99, I naturally became extremely close to many of the nurses, doctors and surgeons who were caring for me. One of the closest friendships and deepest bonds that was formed, was with my dear friend Melanie.



Mel, my angel, checking up on me following one of my many major operations!












Mel and I, 2011.

Melanie was one of three consultant anaesthetists who worked on the surgical team on that fateful day in November 1998, when I nearly died. We are now very close indeed, and I love her dearly. I spent Christmas 1998 in hospital, and to help cheer Julie and I up, Melanie visited me on the ward on Christmas 
Day with her three young children.

Over the years, Melanie and her husband David, have dined at Very Famous Restaurant many times. Knowing of mine and Julie's passion for good food in the face of adversity, Melanie and David have often told us about their many wonderful meals at your restaurant.
 
This has only added to our excitement at one day visiting and eating at Very Famous Restaurant. With our table booked for 19th April, that excitement and long-anticipated gastronomic ambition was about to be fulfilled and realised. We couldn't wait.

We are now more than accustomed to the pleasures of fine dining, and find the whole experience rather intoxicating. Even though I had not dined at Very Famous Restaurant before, I was more than aware of the restaurant's long legacy and the importance it has played in London's culinary history. I was really looking forward to immersing myself in the whole experience. I was more than happy to embrace the long held traditions of your restaurant, and slipping into my best suit, I felt like a million dollars. So much of my life is spent wearing dodgy hospital gowns, tied up in a pickle of IV lines and medical paraphernalia. 

Getting suited and booted and pampered before heading out to a top restaurant is an utter joy for Julie and I. Like I said earlier, it feels like a double life sometimes, and it makes me feel so full of life and happy to be doing something I was so very nearly denied.

We arrived at Very Famous Restaurant and I excitedly took a photograph of the entrance.

I want to remember and capture these treats, and often take our digital camera with me when we dine out. I have recently started my own food blog, and often use my Facebook page to talk to my foodie friends and share the photographs of all the fantastic meals and culinary adventures.

As we entered, a small group of very happy people were leaving. The elderly gentleman of the group was red faced and in very high spirits after what seemed like an extremely enjoyable evening. 
I opened the door for the gentleman, and we struck up a conversation. I said to him he looked like he had had a very fine meal, grinning like he was. He said jokingly,

"Oh no dear boy, the food here is terrible, I think there's a Kentucky Fried Chicken somewhere down there, don't go in here my lad, awful food, bloody terrible"

We naturally all fell about laughing.

He then told me "No no, bloody marvellous dear boy, you MUST have the Lobster starter, absolutely wonderful it was, have the Lobster"

This was a very relaxed and happy way to arrive at any restaurant, and only added to what was already shaping up to be a truly memorable dining experience. A very charming young lady took us downstairs to the dining room and sat us at a very lovely table indeed.

We were all looking forward to the meal we were about to experience.

A lady then came over to welcome us and explain the menu. I enquired about the menu exceptionnel, but because our table had been booked slightly later, the last orders for this menu had passed, but with so many beautiful dishes on the menu this wasn't a problem.

Ever since first hearing about, and seeing the Soufflé Suissesse in your cookbook, it has been a dish we have longed to try at your restaurant, so without hesitation both Julie and I ordered it. 
Bread was brought to the table, and I chatted to the young waiter about the delicious Normandy butter, as I was very taken with it's beautiful flavour and ambrosial creamy rich mouth feel.

A selection of Amuse-Bouche duly arrived, and we all nibbled and cooed and salivated our way through. We were impressed at the blink-and-you'd-have-missed-it speed at which the waiter brought another dish of perfectly rolled Normandy butter. Julie and I are more than partial to a well buttered hunk of warm yeasty bread, so this instant replenishment was more than welcomed.

Our pair of Soufflés arrived at the table. 
It may seem a little over the top, but I had been looking forward to eating your Soufflé for so long, the anticipation was huge. Even before putting the first cloud of creamy Gruyère-shrouded Soufflé in my mouth, I knew what it would taste like. I knew it would be a moment to savour.

Oh my word, they were all we had ever dreamed of. One of the simplest and best things I have ever had the pleasure to have put in my mouth.

Because it was such a highly anticipated meal, and to really indulge in the occasion, I also ordered for myself the Lobster and Champagne Mousse with Caviar, partly on the recommendation of the jolly old chap we'd met on our arrival, and partly because I wanted to try everything on the menu! 
The Lobster Mousse was utterly sublime. The waiter whisked my spotless plate away, and we sat and chatted, and felt very relaxed and happy. Extremely happy. During the following five or ten minutes, I started to warm up quite a bit. Then a bit more. Feeling hot and faint, I did the first thing my brain and body told me to do.

I removed my suit jacket.


Never in my life has something so seemingly inconsequential, so exiguous and ephemeral, been the catalyst for such an abrupt and ruinous halt in the proceedings. 

At a speed and velocity twice that of the Normandy butter replenishment, the Maître d' seemed to instantly materialize next to me out of thin air, and in a hushed tone asked me to put my jacket back on as it was part of the dress code, and house policy that the gentlemen are required to wear a jacket.

I politely apologised to her that I knew all too well of the dress code, but that due to having various problems with my health, I had become a little too hot for comfort and had removed my jacket to cool down. I was sure this would be more than enough to explain that I was not just nonchalantly ignoring the dress code out of ignorance, impudence or disrespect, but because the temperature was making me feel rather poorly.

She replied that they would gladly turn the air conditioning down for me, but insisted that I must put my jacket back on "straight away".

As I've said, having to tell people I have problems with my health is my Achilles Heel. It's absolutely soul destroying when my condition decides to gatecrash the party, especially when things are going so swimmingly. 
Having already reluctantly informed the Maître d', I again tried to explain that I was feeling hot and faint due to having some fairly complicated health problems, and that turning the air conditioning temperature down would do little to halt the onset of dehydration. 

All of this explanation and exculpation made me feel bullied and uncomfortable given it's context. I didn't want to, and shouldn't have had to explain this most personal and sensitive information about myself. She then told me that she would have to go and get the manager, and walked off.

Throughout the whole exchange between myself and the Maître d', I had not turned to look at Julie, who was sat to my right, but I could feel her reaction burning itself through the back of my head. Julie and I are both very passive people, you could say too passive at times. We are the sort of people that avoid confrontation and unpleasantness at all costs, sometimes to our own detriment. To bury and rectify the situation, I did briefly consider putting my jacket back on. 
I considered it, but obviously this would only have been beneficial to the front of house staff at the restaurant, and I'm only guessing here, any diners with an apathetic and uncompassionate bent. Common sense and good judgement tells me though, that percentage-wise, not many of the patrons of Very Famous Restaurant come anywhere near such categorization.

Talking of common sense and good judgement, this is where the restaurant manager enters the narrative.

Still feeling hot and faint, and now with the addition of a sizeable lump in my throat, an increase in my heart rate, and that awful feeling you'd get when a particularly cruel teacher would shout at you for having bad eyesight, the manager suavely appeared at my side.

Without so much as an introduction, M. Mal Connard Français proceeded to start from scratch, and told me that I must put my jacket back on as the gentlemen are required to follow the dress code of Very Famous Restaurant. 
This not only rubbed Fleur de Sel de Guérande into the wound, but it also made me realise that maybe, just maybe, the Maître d' had not informed him that I had removed my jacket because I was feeling a little hot and faint as a result of my illness, blah, blah, blah.

Having to keep re-writing in this letter about "BEING HOT" and "HAVING HEALTH PROBLEMS" is bad enough, and making me feel less than happy, so you can imagine how I felt to have had to keep repeating myself.

Again I very politely, quietly and discreetly told Monsieur Rigoureux that I totally, 100% understood and very much respected the dress code of Very Famous Restaurant. This should have been painfully obvious from the very moment I entered the building, wearing as I was a very beautiful and expensive suit, polished leather shoes and a very expensive and stylish Merino wool Polo neck jumper.

I told him that I had needed to remove my jacket to cool down. 
Still in polite hushed tones, I explained that I could not afford to get too hot as dehydration was a big problem for me because of various issues concerning my health, and that a drop in the air conditioning temperature would do very little to redress the balance of electrolytes in my body, as well as the growing feeling of nausea I was feeling, but that my medication, a glass of water and the removal of my jacket would.

I was looking deeply into his eyes, waiting for the light to go on, for some little spark of realisation. I was waiting for some small glint of inbuilt humanity and common sense to suddenly kick in and save the day. I was stupidly, naively, hoping and praying for him to say...

"My humble apologies sir, I didn't realise, of course please take your time, are you OK?, can we perhaps bring you a drink of water sir?"

Not a bit of it. What a foolish thing to have hoped for. Le Maître d'ignare repeated the rules regarding the dress code, and told me that this had been policy at Very Famous Restaurant for 45 years. He told me that taking my jacket off would upset the other customers, and until I put my jacket back on they would not serve me any more food. Julie too, repeatedly attempted to politely explain to both the manager and the Maître d' that I was not well, that my condition was serious, abstruse and more complex than they could possibly understand.

By now, I was this far from bursting into tears. A horrible, menacing feeling I had not experienced since the cruel playgrounds of my childhood.

Julie's elderly mother Jean, who is hard of hearing, was sat opposite me, looking shocked and more than a little baffled by what was happening. I turned to look at Julie which didn't help, as she too looked how I felt. I knew that she was numbed, and more than a little upset by the situation and the treatment. She too looked like she was fighting back the tears, after all, she's lived through every terrible moment with me and is more than a little battle-scarred. In her own way, she's suffered a great deal too.

Mr Connard then proceeded to offer a wonderful solution. He casually suggested that I could, and I quote...



"Take off your jumper, and put your jacket back on"

I replied by explaining that there would be many more upset customers in the restaurant if I was to follow this preposterous, unbelievable bit of advice. 
Having Gollum sat in the dining room of Very Famous Restaurant would add very little to its ambiance!

This is where my lack of writing prowess may become apparent, as I really don't think there are any words to describe his reply when I told him that sitting there without my jumper on was a bad idea, being so covered in surgical scarring as I am.

His reply was fleeting, but consisted of raising his eyebrows into the amused surprise position. Upturning the palms of his hands skyward with fingers outstretched, his arms forming a letter W. Bringing his shoulders up, tilting his head slightly, whilst pulling the best Italian American Robert De Niro style Mafioso "Forget about it" face I've seen in quite some time.

The final detail of this fleeting riposte, was a short high-pitched "Mwuoo". 
Very roughly translated into English, "Mwuoo" means something along the lines of...


"NO no, I think this is a really good idea, why don't you try it, maybe you'll find it a quite nice solution, yes?"

I'm laughing about it now. I wasn't at the time. My torso is a road map of massive scars, my abdomen is criss crossed with deep scarring from the dozens of operations I have endured. One side of my chest is shaved around the site of my Portacath implant, which forms a visible bump under the skin. My neck is riddled with pock marks from the numerous central lines I've had protruding from it over the years, as well as a huge horizontal tracheostomy scar across my throat. This scar alone is the reason I wear a lot of high necked pullovers and cardigans. The offer of a shirt from the Very Famous Restaurant's Spring collection, however smart they may be, was pointless for this very reason. I'm holding back on the detail, but trust me, my  body and the scars it carries are not for the faint of heart.

By now I'd had enough, and for once in my all too polite and self sacrificing life, I put my foot down. 
I took a deep breath, and holding back the tears I explained that I have serious health problems, I feel unwell, and I would put my jacket on when I was feeling a little better.

He then told me, that they would then have no choice but to ask us to leave the restaurant, and reconvened on the other side of the dining room with the Maître d', who now seemed to be joined by her identical twin.

We sat at the table shell shocked. 
Julie and I couldn't speak, and Julie's mum was very very unhappy. I tried to lighten the mood by saying...

"It's a good job mum isn't here to witness this, can you imagine what she'd have been like"

My mother sadly passed away in 2007. Julie and I had always talked about taking our mothers to London with us on one of our gastronomic holidays. My dear mum would have loved to have dined with us at one of our favourite London haunts, but we never got the chance. She so would've enjoyed eating at such a fine restaurant as yours. This is one of the reasons we now take Julie's mum Jean away for a treat once a year. I can only imagine how any mother would react to her son being treated with such indifference and unkindness.

I'm just glad that my dear mum wasn't there.

After about fifteen minutes, I had started to feel a smidgen better, so I put my jacket back on. During this period, we all talked about, and gave serious consideration to leaving the restaurant anyway, so spoilt was the magic of the occasion. We had already pre-booked a car back to our apartment, and I was also concerned that our main courses were already hitting the pass, so didn't want to add further complications to the mix.

Our main courses arrived some time later. Julie and Jean chose the Vegetable Tart, and I had the Veal with Morel Sauce. Both dishes were delicious, but by now the enchantment and magic and sense of occasion had been utterly decimated. 
We no longer felt at all welcome, and all we wanted to do was call it a day.

What baffled us even more, was that not far from our table, sat a large gathering of male diners. This rather obnoxious shower of loud, distasteful, parvenu city boys spent the entire duration effing and blinding their way through their meal, punctuating the proceedings every now and then with a rather too loud use of the C word.

The chap who seemed to be the leader of the pack, upon finishing his meal, stretched back in his chair, arms outstretched for maximum theatricality, and with a loud flourish of his napkin exclaimed...

"Well Mr Very Famous Chef, that meal was indeed F***ING EXCEPTIONNEL"

I ask you, why is it that a table of crude, overweening, supercilious, vainglorious and utterly unpleasant fatheads can fill the atmosphere with loud, oafish behaviour and colourful language, and not be asked once to tone it down out of respect for the other customers?

They may have still had their jackets on, but in their inebriated and over-Champagned state, with ties loosened and collars unbuttoned, these red faced, big-sweary, sweaty, nouveau riche nincompoops added not one jot of nourishment or class to the ambiance of the dining room. The term, double standards springs to mind.

I wish I had made it to your hallowed dining room during Amazing Legendary Silver-Haired Italian's tenure as restaurant manager. 


Amazing Legendary Silver-Haired Italian seemed to me, from the things I'd heard and read, and the video on your website etc, to be a wonderful man, and the anecdotes in your cookbook certainly paint a picture of a fascinating and supremely charming fellow. I'd like to think he would've treated me with more than a modicum of sensitivity and respect.

I'm sure that Amazing Legendary Silver-Haired Italian taught Mr Connard well in the fine art of front of house, and the traditions and customs of your restaurant, it's just a shame your current restaurant manager forgot to attend the lessons about basic human rights.

I asked for the bill, as by now, the last thing we wanted was to stay a moment longer for desserts and coffee. I think the Maître d, or her identical twin, I have no idea which, was more than a little bemused as to why I was paying the full bill following what was by now obviously a far from perfect evening. I can't think of many people who would be willing to pay after such a violation, but the way I saw it was, I was paying for the food, not the service. To have quibbled, queried and questioned the final price would have simply prolonged our distress even further. 


I paid in full without even a peep, simply so we could all escape and be liberated from Dr Evil and his Fembots as quickly as possible. If I'd been told that adding a tip would've magically teleported us back to our apartment with absolutely no memory of the evening, I would've paid that too. 

C'est la vie.

However symbiotic the front of house and the kitchen are to one another’s success, I am afraid that the accountability of my/our disappointment, distress and sadness lies squarely in the hands of the front of house team. The kitchen, and the fantastic brigade of chefs at Very Famous Restaurant delivered a flawless meal.

As we got up to leave, the most baffling and unbelievable thing happened.

I'm sure Julie's dear mum Jean won't mind me writing this, but at the fine old age of 78, she suffers from all the usual aches and pains and problems that go hand in hand with such a vintage. She also suffers with a few extra problems that don't help, terrible cramping in her limbs being one such hindrance. Whilst getting up from her seat, Jean was overcome with some terrible cramps in her legs.

Julie and I attempted to help her up.

Out of nowhere, and with the same blink-and-you'd-have-missed-it-speed as before, the identical twins materialized, followed soon after by Mr Connard.

They were very concerned, and asked if they could help. Cool glasses of water and a soft pillow were offered, all very kind, all very helpful. This was in such a stark contrast to the way I had been treated, I did wonder for a brief second whether the identical twins had another sister hiding in the kitchen, and that the restaurant manager had a twin brother who had just replaced him for the end of his shift.

Julie's mother couldn't have gotten better attention, but it was all too much too late.

Julie and I helped Jean hobble her way up the stairs to the bar, we said our goodbyes to the lovely girl at reception, and made our way down the front steps to our awaiting car, which we'd booked earlier in the evening.

Maybe if I had gone to Kentucky Fried Chicken as joked about with the nice chap we met on our arrival, I'd have gotten more respect, and a better level of human rights protocol from a sulky, huffy "whatever" teenage sales assistant on work experience. Arriving back at our apartment, we obviously were all more than a little deflated. Not the way anyone should feel at the end of such an evening. By now, my stiff upper lip had given way to tears.

We had a nice cup of Tea and chatted.

Julie and her mum both agreed it felt almost as though, because Jean is obviously an elderly lady, and because the discomfort of her terrible cramps were manifesting themselves in such a salient and obvious manner, that this was in some way a sort of unspoken rule of thumb, a kind of visual affidavit of sorts. Proof positive that this person is definitely not well because she is OLD. Because we can clearly see she is quite obviously suffering.

I truly believe that your front of house team were convinced that I was just some young chap throwing his weight around and chucking his toys out of his pram. The visual clues to the numerous side effects and symptoms of my condition, and the more shocking aspects of the years of surgery I've suffered are mostly, and thankfully hidden away and disguised. Thank heavens for expensive and stylish Merino wool polo neck jumpers.

So many aspects of my life are governed by the omnipresent symptoms and debilitating presence of my Crohns disease, as well as the Short Bowel Syndrome and various other complications I have little control over. With this in mind I think it's fair to say that a certain amount of overcompensation on my part, has arisen and developed in the areas of my life that have not been subjugated and beaten into submission by my disease. I now take great pride in my appearance and like to keep myself well groomed and well dressed.

This goes some way to helping me feel better about myself.

I'm sure you've heard the famous idiom, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". This is indeed true, but I do know it is also possible to hide a sow's ear inside a silk purse! 
In other words, it isn't overly apparent to the layman that I have such a dearth of problems and disabilities, hidden as they are underneath a pleasant façade of my own making.

Just one example being the muscles of my Abdomen. These muscles have been breached so many times, as well as being left opened and separated for twelve months during 1998/99, that they are no longer properly joined and connected, but protected and supported by a surgically implanted collagen matrix that helps shield and strengthen the huge break in my abdominal wall.

This is a fantastic improvement on the silicone mesh that preceded it, but nevertheless it is far from perfect with regard to my mobility and ease of movement. In simple terms, I do not have proper use of my tummy muscles, which greatly impedes my day to day life.

This one single example if you'll pardon the expression, is a great big pain the the backside. One of the reasons it is bothersome, is that it is an "invisible" disability. My heart sinks whenever elderly people ask me to reach up high to help them lift down a heavy bit of luggage. Even when we're out shopping for groceries, Julie is the one who has to lift the cumbersome shrink wrapped mineral waters, or heavy sack of potatoes. People must think I'm a right old lazy bones. If only they knew.

I am far from unique though. There are hundreds, thousands of people out there who have all manner of disabilities and ailments and illnesses and conditions that affect them in many many ways, but that are not necessarily visible. It should be inbuilt and hard-wired into peoples brains that not all wounds are visible. Sadly, not everybody thinks this way.

Lamentably, it seems to me there are a huge percentage of ignoramuses out there, who just don't seem to possess one shred of compassion, common sense, thoughtfulness, good nature or desire to do good. This apathetic and languid attitude is I'm afraid, a sad indictment of our times.

Just because someone looks OK, it doesn't mean they are.

The following day, our last before returning home to sleepy Devon, we had a table booked for lunch at Quo Vadis in Dean Street. I had booked the table purely on the strength of the new boy in the kitchen, the sublime and incomparably gifted Jeremy Lee. Julie and I were big fans of Jeremy's perfectly executed and delicious food during his many years at The Blueprint Café down at Shad Thames.

We had also had the pleasure of spending a little time chatting and laughing with Jeremy at the launch of the St John Hotel last April, which consequently was on the same day as my 36th birthday
.


Jeremy and I at the opening of St. John Hotel, April 2011.
We arrived at Quo Vadis, and within minutes I was being given a wonderful bear hug and kiss on the cheek by Jeremy. As fine a welcome as I could've wished for. We sat and perused the menu, and Eddie bought a complimentary dish of Baked Asparagus and Parmesan to our table for us to try, compliments of Jeremy.
Asparagus Baked in Parmesan.


The meal ended up being totally paradisical  This may seem something of an over-the-top choice of words, but it isn't.

The lunchtime service had by now finished and Jeremy came out from the kitchen to chat to some friends who were also enjoying a good lunch. These friends, who had been sat at the tables next to, and directly behind ours, included none other than Fay Maschler, and Giles Coren.

Julie, only half-jokingly suggested I tell this brilliant gathering of like minded people about what had happened the night before at Very Famous Restaurant, if only to see if they thought that perhaps I had been treated more than a little unfairly. It would've indeed been enlightening to have known what Fay in particular, thought of the situation. Fay's credentials, erudition and savvy speaks volumes, and I would have been fascinated to hear what she thought.

Alas, I'm afraid that my own hard-wired good manners and common sense, politeness and above all, shyness took charge, and prevented me from rudely interrupting Fay, Jeremy and Giles and their companions with such an out of the blue and unsolicited anecdote.



Jean, thoroughly enjoyed the meal a Quo Vadis.

Jeremy then came to join us at our table for a chat. We heaped praise on the meal we had just enjoyed. Jeremy seemed genuinely over the moon that we had enjoyed his food so very much. I gushed with glee to Jeremy about the Smoked Eel and Horseradish Sandwich, and we both extolled the virtues of the natural nose-clearing punch and heat of the freshly grated Horseradish used in the Sandwich.



Smoked Eel and Horseradish Sandwich.

Then, Julie suggested I ask Jeremy what he thought about my treatment the previous evening. 
I didn't really feel comfortable or want to, as I'm a very quiet and private chap, and pride myself on my level of discretion. I'm afraid to say that under the circumstances, I did want to know what someone with a knowledge of the restaurant world thought, and so I told Jeremy.




He was naturally shocked and couldn't believe, given the context my health problems had on the situation, that I had been treated with such insensitivity and disrespect. We chatted for some time, and said our goodbyes to Jeremy.
What a lovely man, if only there were more people like Jeremy in the world. Not only can he cook the most perfectly executed food, but he is a thoroughly fantastic human being.


Jeremy and I at Quo Vadis. A transcendent man of such rarity and heart, and boy can he cook!

Our lunch at Quo Vadis had a very therapeutic effect on us all. In the space of a couple of hours, the sad and regrettable episode of the previous evening had been superseded and assuaged by the intoxicating effect of some faultlessly pleasurable food, and some utterly wonderful people.

Happiness and euphoria can be attained easily. Good food is nothing without good company and a good atmosphere.

Apart from a few friends and family, and a few of my dear nurses who naturally asked how the gastronomic trip to London went, I have thus far kept tight-lipped about the whole sorry affair. I have a Twitter page where I am followed by a roll call of respected chefs, restaurateurs and friends in the food and hospitality business in both the UK and US, and further afield.

I have not written or "tweeted" a word about this sad situation on Twitter, or Facebook, and none of my online food friends have a clue about what happened, not to mention certain well respected food bloggers etc.

In this world of instant reportage and user created discussion, I thought it only fair that I speak to you first and foremost. I have done this out of a deep respect for you, your family and your restaurant. But, I'm sure you'll agree it's a less than flattering snapshot of Very Famous Restaurant.

You'll be very glad to know that I am nearing the end of this rather over-long and interminable correspondence. I speak from the heart when I say that I apologise for having to write this letter in such a long winded way. As I said earlier, writing about all of this is not something I have enjoyed whatsoever. I so wish I didn't have to, but I somehow felt the need.

I started writing the letter as soon as we arrived home, but the last month has been a bit of a low one with regards to my general level of well-being.

Also, I have been quite busy at the hospital. I was asked to give a talk to help the specialist nurses with their current training in specialist patient care. The nurses felt that I, am a truly inspirational human being, and they should know, as they are the angels that have guided me. This was an honour indeed, but led to me taking a mite longer to write this letter to you.

The training is being overseen by a core team of specialist nurses, many of whom have looked after me over the last 20 years. It ended up being a very emotional couple of hours come the end, with many of the nurses and myself welling up with tears due to the strong bond we have all formed. It went so well in fact, that I have been asked if I would do another talk to the healthcare board, and the directors of the hospital. This is a unbelievably daunting task given my painfully shy nature, but I am also very honoured to have been asked.

This gives you an idea of how much all of this has become such an huge part of my life.

One of the reasons the nurses wanted me to be involved, is because of the way I have not let my disease stop me from enjoying the very thing it threatens to rob from me. The nurses who continue to help me, are in awe of the way I deal with my disease. 


The day WILL COME when I can no longer eat any food whatsoever. 

Until then I plan on making hay while the sun shines. I just hope I don't ever have to bare my soul and justify myself in such a heartbreaking way ever again as I did at your restaurant.

May I also stress that, however distorted and attenuated my memory and experience of what I ate at Very Famous Restaurant has become because of my treatment at the hands of your inexorable excuse of a manager, and 
Maître d' I and/or Maître d' II, I still maintain and believe that the food we were all lucky enough to eat at your restaurant, was absolutely awesome.

The Soufflé lived up to my years of expectation, and was a dish I'll be pulling from my memory bank for the rest of my days. The Lobster Mousse was full of Lobster-y goodness, and the Veal with Morels was absolutely to die for. Your years of tradition, and the legacy of Very Famous Restaurant are huge, and I'm sure you and your family are nothing but extremely proud. And so you should be. But when it comes to situations that reach beyond the walls of your dining room and the world of food, and the traditions surrounding that food, I do think there are more important things to focus on and uphold.

In stark contrast, on the morning of the 19th, we had breakfast at one of our favourite East End “Caffs”, the mighty E Pellicci in Bethnal Green, as it is not far from the apartments where we stay whilst in London.

This humble but legendary establishment has been run by the Pellicci family since 1900, and in their own little way they too have a heritage to be very proud of. E Pellicci may be the absolute antithesis of Very Famous Restaurant, but I feel maybe there's a moral to be found somewhere. Nevio Pellicci Jr and his dear mother Maria have always made us feel so very welcomed.






Mama Maria will always make sure we leave with some complimentary hunks of her beautiful home made still-warm Bread Pudding. Simple, of course, but delivered with a beating heart and a genuine and sincere kindness. The food may be austere, but the cumulative power of the place, the people and the history are worth more than any Michelin Star.

One cannot afford to underestimate the importance of the bigger picture. I do think that certain aspects of fine dining exist in a netherworld of skewed reality and rarefied glamour. There are people out there for whom good food is more than just an aspirational lifestyle choice or something they do because it somehow fits in with their wealthy lifestyle. 
For some of us, good food is a religion and something that makes our lives infinitely better. Good food should be a birth right, not a luxury.

If I may briefly quote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin:

“The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star”
How true.

There is no restaurant in the world that is more important than the food it prepares. No restaurant is more important than the people that eat within it. When something totally nugatory and ancillary to the importance of what comes out of the kitchen, takes precedence over the customers enjoyment of the very thing they are there to worship, the food, you are I'm afraid foreordained to failure.

There is no solution to this sad experience, the psychological damage is done. It's so very sad that I now feel terrified to ever visit Very Famous Restaurant again, so I won't be.


I still have a huge respect for you and your chefs, and wish you well. Maybe one day we'll break bread together.


Yours, most sincerely


Paul Neville Manning.




________________________________


I spoke to Mr Very Famous Chef before sending this letter, to tell him it was on its way, mainly to ensure Mr MCF didn't intercept the letter. Very Famous Chef personally wrote back to me, and was naturally very upset and humbled about the whole sorry affair. He told me he had read my beautiful, heartfelt letter several times, and that no amount of excuses could ever rectify the experience.

I did, and have wondered to myself whether or not this apology was from the heart. I mean, at the end of the day who the hell am I anyway? right. I'll never be returning to Very Famous Restaurant, so what do they care. But, in my heart, I'm sure, knowing how important the world of food, and cooking means to Very Famous Chef, as well as many of the worlds top chefs, that what happened to me would upset almost all of them. 

These fine dining, Michelin rated restaurants are supposed to be the last word in the pleasures of the table and the tummy. For many of the people who choose to eat in these temples of gastronomy, the whole experience is supposed to elicit a feeling a extreme pleasure. Some people save up their hard earned money to treat themselves to a rare birthday treat, or a extra special romantic anniversary meal. There are also those slightly more privileged amongst us who are far more accustomed to the joys of dining out in such restaurants on a regular basis. 

Nigel Slater once said, after a particularly heavy week of dining out in various eateries, that he was totally "restauranted out"

I know exactly the feeling he spoke of. I truly believe that one can have too much of a good thing.

Some people I know, have often said that they wouldn't like eating in such "poncey" restaurants, as Julie and I sometimes do, and I have always defended such places, telling them that they are nothing to be scared of, and that what might seem rarefied and intimidating to the uninitiated, is in fact a thoroughly sensual and pleasing experience. 

Now, I'm not so sure.

Once my awful experience had had time to sink into my brain properly, I had something of an epiphany. Over the last 13 years, Julie and I have delved deeper, and uncovered and immersed ourselves in a world of food. We've been  chasing some kind of culinary dragon, searching for an epicurean El Dorado laden with the most heavenly edible treasures, and all for what?

If I believed that what happened to me at Very Famous Restaurant is an accurate indicator of the values such establishments believe in and uphold, then hand on heart, I'd end my search for food heaven right now. I truly believe in the saying be careful what you wish for. The greater the expectation, the further the fall when that expectation isn't reached. 

One day, something like this might just happen to the wrong person - someone with a bit of clout. I can just imagine it now. 

Most famous chef on the planet suffered a heart attack at Very Famous Restaurant last night. The Ambulance arrived, and the medics rushed into the dining room, where most famous chef on the planet was found collapsed on the floor. The medics ripped off most famous chef on the planet's £3000 suit jacket, so they could attach the heart defibrillator to most famous chef on the planet's chest, but before the medic had time to place the electrode on most famous chef on the planet's left precordium, the restaurant manager intervened, and hurriedly replaced most famous chef on the planet's £3000 suit jacket, and together with two very stern Rosa Klebb impersonators, dragged most famous chef on the planet out of the dining room. Most famous chef on the planet later recovered in a private London clinic.

When asked why he had acted so abhorrently toward most famous chef on the planet, the restaurant manager replied,


"The gentlemen MUST wear their jacket, it is the tradition at Very Famous Restaurant, and he was ignoring 45 years of that tradition. By removing his jacket he was upsetting the other guests. I had no other option than to escort him out of the restaurant".
Thanks for reading. I'm off to make myself some Poached Eggs on Toast!

Paul xxx