As cooks go, Phil the wonder chef went

John Ward
John Ward
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WARD’S WORLD: By John Ward

It must be the starting of real winter as even more assorted food cooking and burning shows abound on the flat screen marvel that occupies part of the wall at home – a friend tells me that his flat screen wonder is so large, it saves a roll of wallpaper each time he decorates as he goes round it and I said, what about the border, he said he doesn’t see much of him as he works shifts, it was not the reply I wanted.

I came through the PDS period – Pre-Delia Smith – without a scratch, as I used to be fascinated by the wonders of my time, as in Fanny and Johnny Craddock, the supposed celebrity cooks of their day. They, or rather she, went through assorted recipes and suchlike at breakneck speed, while her hublet, the Johnny part of the duo, looked on and acted as her assistant or, on a bad day, perhaps her butler, in all but name.

They reigned the then telly world of cooking for ages, unlike the dozens of them today, who specialise from basic campfire stuff to how to swear at a cottage pie as it enhances the flavour. Basically they were about the only couple who did the job with a bit of flair – and for enthusiasts, the flair should be at Gas Mark 7 for 20 minutes and then once it has a crust on you can bounce sledgehammers off of, get a friend or three to come round and help you lift it out the oven; will serve eight or 12.

Back to the Craddocks, then. They had such an influence on the public with their, or rather her, cooking skills that they were the by-word for cooking during their period of being in the public eye. Where I was working at the time, it was a small family-owned business and, being so, we the staff were on first-name terms with the owners as opposed to the “us and them” ethos in a lot of places then, and perhaps now I would assume.

On one occasion, Auntie Vi, as in the owner’s wife, popped round one afternoon for a chat about everything and nothing, and pointed out that we were having a new member joining the workforce quite soon. On inquiring about his credentials so to speak, as in his ability, Auntie Vi explained that he drove a little French car, but the more we delved into that, it became clear that when she referred to his “colourful CV” and was nothing to do with the French Citroen 2CV, but rather his list of his abilities and achievements.

If Del and Rodney Trotter had an on-screen mum in the Only Fools & Horses TV series, it could have been Auntie Vi, as she did tend to embellish things slightly, or as her hubby, Ken, put it and quite often: “Now what’s the silly mare been saying?” and we knew this did not relate to anything kept in a stable, as they only had a cat and their pet tortoise that narrowly missed death by ride-on mower.

One of Auntie Vi’s hobbies was her dinner parties where she partly used – it was said – some of her collection of recipe books, plus bits she had “borrowed” from the Craddocks as seen on TV, and once put into the big “melting pot”, she invited assorted folk round of an evening to partake of her offerings. These were basically people whom she assumed were important, or the lot to be having as guests, as they had some perceived sort of social standing and “influence”, so she felt this would rub off on her – poor, deluded soul – although hubby Ken was more to the point: “Damn toffee-nosed scroungers”, giving the game away slightly as to being not quite cut out for any possible missionary work in the foreseeable.

You might say that Ken made the “social divide” appear more like the Grand Canyon, and you would be right, but at least he was down to earth and was much admired for it, although the thoughts of the supposed “toffee-nosed scroungers” were not known.

We move on. Phil joined us on the following Monday and within days, Auntie Vi had found out (surprise, surprise) that as well as not owning a Citroen 2CV but a Ford Granada, as well as his mechanical aptitude in the day job so to speak, he was also – he said – a chef! She then hit on the whiz of having him to one of her “social bashes” to perform as “one’s newly-appointed chef” who would be seen to be doing the biz as the focal point of her social event, that would perhaps make her the envy of all her friend, singular.

One gem she told us while he was “out gathering fresh items for his recipes” was that she thought he used to work in a castle in Scotland as he had a Scottish name there; although we knew him as Phil, up there – she said– his name was Gordon Blue, as this was his name as their chef. Oh dear. Ha, well. One would question sanity at this stage but as it was Auntie Vi, we made allowances.

He came back armed with enough fresh farm or garden produce to feed the Eighth Army, and was duly told he could leave early so as to prepare for the evening ahead. Once Auntie Vi left, Ken dragged us up into the office and asked: “What was he up to?” to which in total unison we admitted we were as much in the picture as he was, but bearing in mind it was his abode our newly-found “wonder kid” was performing at, perhaps he should know more than us.

Next morning we arrived for work, but Phil was not among the ranks. We all looked at one another; we thought a lot of things but never said them. Ken arrived – and went straight into his office. Mid morning, he popped along to see my workmate Bill and myself, to explain how things went, with went being the operative word, as Phil had left.

Bill asked, tactfully, how things had gone having the male equivalent of Fanny Craddock, and Ken said he was less Craddock and more the other, in a manner of speaking, and he could not believe he had been sent out to get the wine, as Phil needed it to cook with, and it turned out he put away nearly three bottles of Chateau le Plonk, with not a drop wasted – or included in the food preparation as Ken had expected, plus in the process the long expensive velvet curtains that used to hang by the French windows were now reduced to ash, due to some spirit or other splashing on an open hot plate that flared up.

Bill said he ought to have fish and chips from the local chippy next time, plus they’d gave you a dollop of crispy batter bits if you asked.

Ken totally agreed.