"To eat well in England,” as the writer Somerset Maugham famously observed, “you should eat breakfast three times a day.” The morning meal is regarded as one of Britain’s few culinary triumphs and, particularly now, when our cities are flush with places offering Antipodean-style 'smashed avo’ brunch menus, it is easy to assume that our eggs-cellence in this sphere (sorry!) remains unparalleled.
Alas, no. In my experience (extensive, given I review accommodation and, until recently, casual-dining spots for The Guardian), breakfast is frequently badly executed, both by hotel/restaurant chefs who think such ‘domestic cookery’ beneath them and half-asleep front-of-house teams. Ahead of the breakfast celebrations of British Egg Week (9-15 Oct) and World Porridge Day (10 Oct), here are 10 things to consider:
1. Be bespoke. It is standard to ask guests how they prefer their steak or lamb. Why, then, are we rarely offered a choice of creamy or set scrambled eggs, just-done or crispy bacon? Such distinctions are crucial to the enjoyment of breakfast.
2. Know your eggs. Cooked-to-order is preferable, but if you are pre-cooking, icing and refreshing your eggs, you had better master that art. Many kitchens have not, and a fridge-cold yolk is no joke, chef.
3. Do it yourself. On the basis they literally have bigger fish to fry, too many kitchens buy in breakfast items when a minor effort at making items such as preserves, granola, bread and even smoking their own salmon would radically improve breakfast.
4. Beware the calamitous croissant. Serving only as many dishes and items as you comfortably can at breakfast is wise. The first to go should be those often terrible (stale, dry, overcooked) frozen, par-baked pastries and croissants used to bulk out breakfast buffet tables.
5. It’s called toast for a reason. If you cannot transfer toast to your tables in a timely fashion so that it is served warm, that is a huge fail, as is serving toast that is little more than warmed up bread. And don’t get me started on the extraordinary inability of venues to provide spreadable, room-temperature butter.
6. Get on the sauce. “Would you like any sauces with that?” Better than that, I would like bottles on every table, please. I may want to drown my breakfast in ketchup, without feeling self-conscious, and those tiny ramekins you serve your sauce in are ludicrous.
7. Add value. In many ways, a great breakfast hinges on sound sourcing rather than the ingenuity of chefs (see point below). But they can add value by doing things, such as incredible fried bread; fresh hash browns; slow-cooked, thyme-seasoned oven-roasted tomatoes, which guests would consider a faff at home. And, yes, you should offer trendier brunch dishes (shakshuka, huevos rancheros, etc.), at least as weekend specials.
8. Shop around. The full English is one where sourcing is crucial, whether it be of a gently seasoned, authentic breakfast sausage or high-quality, dry-cured bacon. But wise chefs also acknowledge that there are components of this meal that industrial food manufacturing has perfected (step forward Heinz baked beans). Making your own baked beans is an affectation which, for most guests, will detract from their breakfast experience.
9. Banish the garnish. Eggs Benedict no more needs a watercress, chive or parsley garnish than a horse needs a unicycle. However, it must be served with absorbent English muffins not sourdough, and one muffin per egg too – otherwise the yolk:muffin ratio is all wrong.
10, Breakfast radio is not for you. At 8am, a dining room needs some audio ‘cover’ to put guests at ease. But, please, can we have music rather than the wittering idiocy of Radio 2’s Chris Evans? At that hour, I cannot cope.
This column first appeared in the September issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK’s restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.