It was once so (relatively) easy, writes Iain Robertson, when banks loaned like crazy and property prices were lower, for budding restaurateurs to build their reputes, but the ‘crash’ and crooked financiers ruined all of that, which makes it doubly tough for stars of tomorrow.


Food is a personal fascination. I am sure it started in the cradle and it was not helped by ‘food fights’ during the ‘loadsamoney’ period of the mid-1980s (come on…we have all behaved badly at some time in our lives?). Truth is, I love dining out and I have been fortunate enough to inform Gordon Ramsay that his food was not ‘up to scratch’ (I was put up to it and, yes, I did duck), to ask Michel Roux Jr for seconds, to have Rick Stein serve me a dozen scallops, when all others about me starved on three, and to stand tall alongside the diminutive Raymond Blanc (which was easy; I’m 6ft 6in, he is 5ft 8in).


When I was asked by a former editor to become a newspaper’s food critic, I jumped at the chance, created a made-up and disparate family, called myself ‘The Food Monster’ and played the game. The reviews were true…the make-up was pure comic and it became the region’s most popular feature. Yet, I have always insisted on ‘giving something back’. While I am a keen amateur chef, I could never profess to understand the ramifications of working in a kitchen, let alone how to operate a Salamander properly, to cook sous vide, or to master knife skills, despite receiving training from Rick Stein at his fish school, in Padstein…(sorry!)…Padstow, three times!


Phil Cooke2It happens that I met recently a young cook, in Lincoln, keen to improve his little lot. At 28 years of age, Phil Cooke is a time-served, frontline chef. He is not a show-off and has no aspirations to be the next best ‘celabritee’ cook. However, he does love food and his reward is to see delighted diners showing their appreciation of his skills. As with most chefs working in a frequently changing, high temperature, high-pressure environment, job satisfaction is often a criterion. Phil wants stability and needs it with a family in tow. However, catering, at any speciality level, is fraught with emotive issues. While training and work experience are vital, the only way to attain an expressive pinnacle is by going it alone…a direction that Mr Cooke is now pursuing.


We live in a world of electronic communications media, where ‘apps’, on-line reviews and the ‘citizen journalist’ rule supreme. In the world of catering, the ‘Pop-Up Restaurant’ is the great contemporaneous thing. It relies on chums and ‘who’ but nor necessarily ‘what’ you know, although it helps if you have a serious handle on your speciality. Fortunately, Phil does.


On February 12th, at a trendy little cafeteria known as ‘Café Portico’, in the centre of Lincoln, Phil is hosting a ‘Pop-Up Restaurant’. If you can get there, you need to book quickly (check it out on ‘Born to Cooke’, Phil‘s page on Facebook). Service commences at 6.30 for 7.00pm. It is an unique opportunity. Phil knows that a lot rides on it.


Fortunately, I have received a sneak preview of that menu, which, I can tell you, is utterly gorgeous. A starter course of Cured Beetroot, with the lovely, aniseedy addition of fennel and peppery radish, supports a platter of Cured Salmon, served with freshly baked Rosemary Foccacia. What a great start! It is followed by a main course of delicious Crispy Pork Belly, on a Sweetcorn Puree, served with rich Spanish Black Pudding, accompanied by Charred Pickled Onions in a Hereford Cider Jus.


Phil Cooke 1Dessert consists of a Spiced Ginger Cake, served with luscious Poached Plums and a sweetly tart Lemon Verbena. Everything is natural, real and nutritious and will be served with a choice of specially selected red, or white, wines, followed by coffee, or tea.


As a means to generate recognition, I am sure that Phil Cooke will achieve his aims. However, it is tough out there. While celebrity chefs add very little to the fabric of life, they have succeeded in raising the culinary standards on the typical British restaurant table and, in the process, have made them more accessible to all. Phil is not alone in his pursuit but, if we are all to benefit from better quality foods, served in interesting environments, then the ‘Pop-Up’ has a valuable role to play and we should all support it, wherever we can.


Of course, ‘Pop-Ups’ also include a raft of ‘street food’ specialists that are making us more aware of other tastes and food varieties from around the world – Caribbean, Goan, Catalan, Tibetan and, yes, even Australian Outback. The end result is an enriching of our palates and the possibility of giving the next generation a step-up to the culinary bar. Give these people, people like Phil Cooke, from Lincoln, who want to expand our knowledge, your support and enjoy the process, because it is most eminently satisfying.