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Like millions of other parents, we’ve long enjoyed Outnumbered. But it now appears to have moved rather too scarily close to home in terms of the family experience. Somewhat exaggerated, for sure, but (whisper it) not that much. What’s worse is that now the kids love watching it too. So when Challenging Middle laugh uproariously at Ben’s antics, you get the feeling he is plucking up the courage to be even more like him. When Budding Teenager smiles knowingly at Jake’s sarcasm, you can see that coming soon enough too. And when they all gang up on poor hapless Hugh Dennis for being a bit rubbish, well, enough said.

My laughter gets more nervous each episode…

Northern stars

An all-too rare trip to Manchester last week (for a Man City fan), which took in a pair of contrasting but excellent eateries.

The first is Smoak in the Malmaison, a much-needed restaurant revamp for the north-western outpost of the original urban-cool hotel chain. It’s big and showy with the oblig open kitchen featuring a Josper grill – you can’t call yourself a proper chef without one now, it seems – but also the sort of friendly open-to-all-comers atmosphere that feeds the stereotype of ‘good northern hospitality’. A positive and fun experience was only marginally marred by the presence of Sir Alex Ferguson. Of course, if Roberto Mancini had graced the joint with a swish of his scarf, then Smoak would have known it had really arrived.

Second destination on the brief gourmet odyssey was Aumbry (along with Mr Zeren Wilson of bittenandwritten fame). This is a tiny restaurant in the rather nondescript north Manchester suburb of Prestwich; essentially someone’s knocked-through front room. The mixed clientele took in business types, retirees and a multi-generation family including newborn, all equally welcomed and seemingly equally relaxed. It’s owned and run by a trio of locals, two of whom used to cook used to work at Heston’s The Fat Duck, are married to each other and combine cooking with looking after their two young children. Unprepossessing in the extreme,  Aumbry also turned out some of the best food I’ve eaten this year.

And as my wife, children and waistline can all attest, I’ve eaten a lot.

Family trip to Camber Sands on Sunday with old friends, stopping at the garage on the way to buy a couple of disposable barbecues.

On arrival, we realise we’ve forgotten the all-important flask of tea so head off on a mission to sample the delights of the seaside caff half a mile down the sand. Cue queuing for six takeaway PG tips for a tenner, followed by delivery back to beach HQ.

Despite inevitable disputes as to the division of labour amongst various siblings, the all-important barbecue “firepits” have been dug, fought over, filled in, repositioned and redug. Boogie boards are requisitioned as makeshift windbreaks, dinghy oars as stanchions. Meanwhile the dinghy itself is somersaulting down the beach in the wind.

Burnt fingers, swearing and obligatory shouting at children ensues while we try to keep the magic touch paper alight in the face of the substantial south-westerly ‘breeze’. Once it’s fired up, we unwrap the premium quality sausages and local butcher’s burgers (one does have standards…). The latter have stuck together, only to fall to pieces when they are prised apart.

Once the bangers are lined up with military precision and the burgers that haven’t fallen through the holes are stuck fast to the grill, we notice that – despite the windbreaks, strict exclusion order around the cooking area for anyone bar the two chefs (male obviously, for this is a barbecue after all) and artfully wielded tongs – every sausage and bit of dismembered burger is instantly coated in the Kent coast’s finest sand.

No matter: 20 minutes later, 11 of us are happily crunching our way through ‘artisan hot dogs’ with equal parts ketchup, carbon and beach. While clad in thick hoodies. What’s more: barely a whiff of complaint emanates from the assembled company – as if sand-filled baguettes are quite the seasonal delicacy in August.

Could we have been any more British if we’d tried?

 

Have a Cau, man

Advance alert for new family-friendly restaurant chain. And by that I don’t mean another Giraffe-style joint where you get free doses of patronising ‘let the kids runs wild, we don’t care’ service with your coffee and crayons, nor the latest doughy Pizza Express clone.

No – this one actually serves fantastic food for grown-ups, too. It’s called CAU (<www.caurestaurants.com>) and it majors in meat (it’s actually the little brother of the posh Argentinean steakhouse chain, Gaucho). But there’s plenty more besides for all to hunker down over: salads, unusually good sausages, open sandwiches, original South American style starters et al.

In fact, it’s not billed as being aimed at the dreaded ‘family market’. It’s just spacious, unpretentious, fun and makes one of the best burgers I’ve EVER had. Given that I was meant to be sampling a selection of the menu, they had to prise the brioche-bun beauty out of my claw-like fingers in order for me to sample the to-do-for shakes and genuinely tasty puds. Suffice to say, they are made fresh on the premises from the off-cuts of the prime steaks on offer.

Granted, CAU currently only exists in Guildford (at the top of the high street), but if you happen to live there or are passing through, it’s certainly worth checking out. And they promise plenty more to come in the more well-to-do towns of what is very broadly termed the south-east: Winchester, Oxford, Chichester, Tunbridge Wells, Cambridge etc. So keep those gluttonous eyes peeled over the coming months.

There’s also an excellent-looking kids menu. But if I was you, I’d get a baby sitter and keep the initial treat all to yourselves…

 

Much excitement in the household at Daddy’s cameo appearance on The Apprentice this week as a so-called ‘restaurant industry expert’. Yes, both wife and bairns laughed too loud at that sobriquet; it seems they can somehow see past the carefully constructed professional persona.

Even Indulged Youngest gets to stay up specially to see Daddy Getting Fat on telly. Inevitably, we don’t manage to watch it live: just like being on time for anything (school, work, life), sitting down at 9pm now appears utterly beyond us. So we ‘live pause’. The result is a ream of texts, tweets, pokes and emails during the show from friends, family and a selection of former colleagues I haven’t spoken to in five years, which are all 15 minutes ahead of us. A mildly disconcerting experience in every sense.

Having had fellow parents and even the head teacher accost me loudly in the playground with cries of “I hear you’re going to be on The Apprentice” for several weeks – my offspring showing an unfortunate early flair for PR – I am merely relieved not to be have been discarded on the cutting room floor. But Challenging Middle tells me off for leaning on a chair “weirdly” and Budding Teenager for having my elbows on the table. Tough crowd.

Suffice to say: the Mexican food really was nigh on inedible. The pies were genuinely good (but not as good as Square Pie’s square pies, of course, <www.squarepie.com>). The Lord was irritable. And Natasha’s side-swipe hair arrangement really is like that.

Still waiting for the anticipated calls from Hollywood agents, though.

Family trip to Chinese restaurant for Budding Teenager’s recent 12th birthday. On a school night.

First, I rush home from work for obligatory but ill-timed birthday cake; we are, after all, about to embark on a multi-course Oriental feast. But it being six o’clock, we pile into slices of the choccy favourite nevertheless. The kids’ lack of ability to pace themselves on the food front comes direct from their patronage – the hypocrisy in their father trying to limit their intake is not lost on them, either, unfortunately.

We round up the troops, shepherding them into the car while refusing pleas from Challenging Middle (9) to  “just get something I’ve forgotten”. Experience tells us that he’ll emerge a full five minutes later with an arsenal of weaponry strapped about his person, wholly inappropriate attire anywhere this side of Helmand province, let alone Tunbridge Wells’ finest Chinese establishment, Honeymoon.

By 7pm we’re attempting to negotiate the menu, which brings with it fresh challenges. In the past, we would likely scan the six-page opus at speed and then reduce the choice to two or three children-friendly options. Now Budding Teenager understandably likes to order for himself. Fine – except we have to explain what everything is, of course, testing our detailed knowledge of Szechuan cuisine to the limit. And then, inevitably Challenging Middle wants to get in on the whole independence act.

The menu is verbally worked through from dim sum to beef in black bean sauce, before he settles on chicken chow mein, of all things (“it’s got noodles!”) Ordering follows at haste, with tension about how late it is already beginning to seep in.

And the food is good: birthday boy and Indulged Youngest (7) tuck in with gusto, their parents with relief/surprise at the quality of the food. Crispy duck pancake techniques are taught, pork balls dipped, wontons tried for the first time. Challenging Middle determines early on that he doesn’t like anything, and is holding out for his fabled chow mein.

Entertainment in the form of the ‘lazy Susan’ (the authentic Chinese term, I believe) in the middle of the table, a charming chef who doubles as an artist, and even the odd bit of semi-civilised conversation sees us pretty much through without further incident.

Then, just as we’re about to leave, the staff discover it is Budding Teenager’s birthday and offer us some free puds. We’re all full, it’s late and the younger siblings are beginning to demonstrate classic ‘over-tired’ symptoms (irritating, over-reactive). But it seems churlish not to. Cue a seemingly interminable wait during which the adults start demonstrating classic ‘over-tired’ symptoms (irritable, over-reactive).

There follows a surreal final scene: the ‘special’ dessert emerges complete with candles, while a recorded version of Happy Birthday is played through the restaurant’s speaker system. But it’s an odd faux Chinese rendition in a squeaky falsetto, which goes on and on and on… and on some more. Each time it pauses, we – and the other diners somehow obliged to sing along at what is pushing 9pm by now – sigh with relief that it’s all over. But then it kicks off again for yet another excruciating round.

The upside is that we all end the experience in fits of giggles.

Why have a relaxed two-course family supper at home when you can have a by turns stressful, tasty, funny, educational, surreal and ultimately hysterical meal at considerable expense elsewhere? Wouldn’t change it for all the noodles in Tunbridge Wells.

Indulged Youngest said it first. “Daddy’s getting fat,” he exclaimed with unconcealed glee as I shaved one morning, unaware that my burgeoning belly was spilling attractively over my towel – not so much a muffin-top as a full-fat jam roly-poly.

Now the triumvirate of sons – Budding Teenager (aged 12), Challenging Middle (9) and aforementioned Indulged seven-year-old – have ganged up to mock my recently rotund form.

It’s not surprising, because I now pretty much eat for a living. But despite that, it somehow still is to me. I’m 39, but in common with everyone else of my era (and possibly ever) I still think I’m 29, or even 19 on occasion. Back then I really could eat as much as I wanted, which was generally a lot, and still remain reasonably svelte.

As a sometime style journalist, I also used to have access to well-tailored Savile Row suits at generous discounts. Now I’m the editor of Restaurant magazine (I can feel those waves of sympathy flooding my way…), so instead of writing about swanky clothes I burst out of them instead in swanky restaurants. The once-sharp tailoring can only hide a multitude of three-course sins for so long. Once you factor in the compulsory 12-course tasting menus – all for professional purposes, you understand – the suits cut for my figure of five years ago, well, just don’t cut it any more.

In between eating and drinking for a living, I play adoring husband and doting/grumpy/silly/shouty father in the badlands of rural Kent. Food – buying it, cooking it, eating it, not eating it, what to eat, where to eat it, how to eat it – seems to play a central role in our family. This blog will chart some of our food-related family challenges, escapades and issues, as well as my personal efforts to do my job without turning into one of those half-tonne human whales that can never actually leave the house because their skin is welded to the bed sheets. There might even be the odd restaurant recommendation thrown in too.

Daddy’s getting fat, but he’s sure going to have fun doing it. Do come join me.

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