The Red Flame Diner vs The Waldorf-Astoria. Like ‘Rocky vs Apollo Creed’.

On our visit to New York last December we had the pleasure of eating at both of these establishments. This was like Rocky Balboa the unfancied challenger climbing into the ring with the the swaggering , classy champ Apollo Creed. We all know how the first one ended but what about this one ?

Round one

The outside of The Red Flame Diner ,down a side street off 6th Avenue near Times Square, is fairly ordinary. A storm porch in clear glass keeps out the freezing temperatures and gives precious protection to the sub zero New York winter. The name is emblazoned on the door and windows. In midtown on Park Avenue sits the imposing and internationally renowned Waldorf Astoria hotel and La Chine restaurant. The challenger takes an early punch and sways a little but holds his own.Round one goes to the champion unanimously.

Round two

Inside The Red Flame Diner are cubicles for groups or families of four or more to sit in comfortable but unfussy seats. The tables have laminated menus listing everything available for breakfast , lunch and dinner and it is quite extensive. At La Chine on the ground floor of The Waldorf  heavy doors open onto supreme elegance and luxury in grey and black and subtle shades of brown. Tables are laid with bone china teacups and heavy silver cutlery. The menu is brought to you by a smartly dressed waiter. This could be all over by the third round, the challenger is in trouble.The champion looks in complete control. Round two to the champion.

Round three

Looking groggy the challenger takes on our breakfast order of scrambled egg , bacon and potato, toast and a coffee. A cup of iced water is brought over to our table before we start.The champion feels confident and takes our order of Imperial afternoon tea and a cocktail. A good and positive fight back from the challenger and the round is drawn.

Round four

Within minutes our breakfast order comes out at The Red Flame and it looks delicious and  there is plenty of it. At La Chine our pot of tea is brought out and also our scones , the first course of the afternoon tea, followed by savoury pastries. At The Red Flame we continue to plough our way through the tasty breakfast while the waiter tops up our coffees for free. At The Waldorf we are then inexplicably left alone for 25 minutes with our tea going colder and nothing to eat apart from the array of  cakes and finger buffet we had before us but have been told not to touch until we had our dim sum.ny dec16 009

The champion is taking a few blows now and looks unsteady on his feet.

We are asked at La Chine if we’d like another glass of water. We do but our waitress disappears never to be seen again. Meanwhile we are still awaiting our dim sum. At that point we are approached by a waitress who asks us if we’d like the cakes and finger buffet bagged up to take home. Through gritted teeth we explain that we are STILL waiting for our dim sum.

The champion is rocking.

At the Red Flame diner the service continues efficiently and effectively. We ask for the bill. And are brought the bill quickly. The cost , 24 dollars. It’s a potential knockout blow.

At La Chine Waldorf we finally get our flabby and fairly tasteless dim sum and eat our cakes. We ask for the bill and it is 200 dollars plus.

It’s a knockout !! For service , food , price and value for money the Red Flame Diner is a clear winner.

The Waldorf Astoria just wasn’t up to the steady tenacity of the contender. I for one know where I would choose to eat next time I visit NYC.

Out walking this morning.

This morning , because I’ve become a little obsessed with doing my 10,000 steps a day, I decided to take myself off for a quick half hour walk.

I set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes and headed off down the main road. This , as you can appreciate is not the most picturesque of walks but what can you do ?

Well , I was about to find out.

After walking for about 5 minutes I saw a small arrow and a pedestrian sign next to a factory that I’ve driven past hundreds of times. This time I followed the path for a walk and what a find it was.

To  my left were the squat , ugly concrete blocks of an industrial estate but to the right was an almost endless view of fields , fern and bracken separated by a gravel pathway.

I felt like the first person ever to walk there , like Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ stumbling into the mysterious children’s party. The walk went on for about a mile and for most of it I was alone. It is hard to believe that amongst the industrial units there is such a beautifully peaceful walk.

Along the way the pathway forked in different directions and I’m looking forward to exploring the area some more.



How to avoid putting on (too much) weight over the festive period

Very soon we’ll be at that time of year when exercise ,diets , calorie counting and being sensible goes out of the window for a few weeks leading to slimming clubs and gyms getting massive surges of members in January as we haul our overweight frames through the doors.

But does it have to be like that ?weight

Of course not.Weight gain over the holidays is normally down to three things ; eating too much , drinking too much and not exercising enough and it’s possible to enjoy the festive season without piling on the pounds and here are a few tips on how to do it.

Have a large glass of water before going out

Drinking water before going out partying will make you feel slightly more full so you won’t be tempted to overindulge on the food.It’s an easy  tip that is based on research. A 2010 study in the journal Obesity found that adults who drank  water before a meal ate less at the meal and lost more weight over 12 weeks than the group who didn’t drink water before eating.

Have dinners on a small plate

By eating off a smaller plate you will still be able to take part in everything with friends just on a smaller scale. Your calorie intake will also be decreased so if you do drink more then the effect won’t be quite so bad on your waistline.

Eat sitting down rather than standing

Sitting down to eat  helps you consume less food and fewer calories, because you eat more slowly and pay attention to what you’re putting into your mouth. A 2007 study of that was published in the “Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics” found that total calorie consumption was lower in those who ate slowly, compared with those who ate more quickly.

Alternate your alcoholic drink with water

Not only will alternating water with alcohol have an impact on your waistline as you’ll be drinking less and so consuming fewer ’empty’ calories it also dilutes the alcohol you drink so you won’t get so drunk and won’t be suffering the next day.

At buffets go for the healthy option

Sounds obvious I know , but if you’re like me you can’t wait to get hold of the cakes.At a lot of parties you’ll find yourself faced with a buffet rather than a formal sit down meal. You don’t need to deny yourself everything but try and fill yourself up on healthier options like vegetables , cooked meats and the like before diving into the cream cakes.

Offer to be the designated driver occasionally

Not only will this go a significant way towards keeping the extra pounds off it will also get you seriously into your friends’ good books.And who knows , you might find that going out on the town and not drinking is quite enjoyable once in a while.

Do your 10,000 steps each day

With so much to do over the festive period one of the first casualties is organised exercise. This gets put on the back burner as there are just too many other things to do.It’s easy to fit your recommended 10,000 steps into a normal day and still do all the other things that need doing like shopping , wrapping , visiting family and so on. Try and chunk your 10k steps into manageable 10 or 15 minute sections so you don’t become too daunted by having to do 10k in one hit. Most iphones now will have a step counter on them as standard , if not then invest in a cheap pedometer for as little as £3.99.

Christmas is a time for fun and family. It’s natural that we let our normal fitness goals slide a little but if you can follow some or all of the tips above there’s no reason why you shouldn’t look forward to returning to your normal routine in the New Year and avoid the dreaded New Year’s Resolution of ‘This year I will lose weight.’


Dude, do you even breathe ?


Breathing is second nature to us , it’s as natural as …well, breathing. But how many of us actually breathe correctly ?

For many of us after years of sitting in offices hunched over desks breathing shallowly into our lungs we have developed dreadful breathing habits and in one of of the most memorable soundbites of recent years Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative coined the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ describing how our sedentary lifestyles have led to increased widespread health problems.

In Eastern martial arts such as karate, kung-fu and tai-chi those who practise are trained to breathe from the diaphragm not the lungs. This type of breathing is based on the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong.

Why the focus on breathing?

Al Lee, co-author of ‘Perfect Breathing’ blames our sedentary lifestyle. From a high-tech engineering background, he developed an interest in the science behind breathing about 20 years ago. He says the body associates the shallow breathing when sitting with the ‘fight or flight ‘response and as a result ‘Blood pressure rises, the blood becomes more acidic and we are more likely to be emotional and emotionally reactive to our situation’.

 Qigong breathing

‘In qigong breathing the emphasis is on abdominal breathing where air is inhaled through the nose slowly and deeply so that the lower abdomen becomes inflated. As the air is exhaled the lower abdomen is contracted slowly so that the lungs may be completely emptied. Breathing should be long , slow and regular.’ ( Gaiam Life , ‘How Qigong Improves Health’) Al Lee recommends the six second breath , 3 seconds to inhale and 3 to exhale , and repeat for 5 minutes for a month. It is the sort of deceptively simple exercise that can be done anywhere , in the car , watching TV,  waiting for a bus , anything.

So what exactly are the benefits of breathing like this ?

Benefits of Qigong breathing

It is common in the West for us to feel warmed up when we are slightly breathless and our muscles are ‘pumped’ through the inflow of oxygen to the blood cells. This makes us feel ready for what is to follow. However, by following the gentle breathing exercises of qigong the muscles are worked quite differently.

Qigong breathing builds effortless power and looseness . The goal should be a feeling of relaxed power when the muscles, rather than straining and fighting just loosen up and allow the energy ‘chi’ to flow through.In the West we have been led to believe that aerobic exercise is necessary to strengthen the heart and lungs.While aerobic exercise undoubtedly does do this then so does qigong. The slow, deep and regular breathing combine to work oxygen deeper into the tissues than regular exercise provided that you stay within 70% of maximum effort and do not overstrain.

Abdominal , slow and measured breathing works to massage and strengthen all the internal organs and to correct blockages or imbalances in the internal energy or ‘chi’ that run through the body and strengthens the immune system , relieves pain and stress and detoxifies the organs.

In addition Qigong breathing can help speed recovery time from injury and illness .The gentle, non-jarring and low-impact movements of qigong can be done immediately following an injury or operation, particularly if the 70 percent rule is adhered to and no strain is applied. This rule is particularly important during healing, as the body is already overstressed.

Applying the rule of no strain helps injuries to heal fully. The 70 percent rule allows recovery to happen gradually and fully. Injuries that are only partially resolved can progressively weaken other parts of the body and set up conditions for major problems in uninjured areas, immediately or over time.

Given that life expectancy in parts of Japan where this practice is commonplace is amongst the highest in the world , is it worth the risk not to give it a try ?


No corkscrew ? No problem. A handy guide on how to open a bottle of wine.


Now before we start let’s get this clear. This handy hack is for CORKED bottles only. I know that screw tops are becoming the rage now and you may not need this , but hey, you never know.

I’ve used this method several times and it doesn’t fail.

It would be super cool if this guide was to show you how to slice the top of a bottle off with a sword  like they do in Spanish sherry cellars but that would mean carrying a sword around with you JUST on the off chance that someone might have forgotten the corkscrew.

I don’t advise it.

Thus method is really simple and may come in handy if you’ve decided on an impromptu picnic for example and it was left to you to pack everything. First of all you go…Damn, I’ve forgotten the corkscrew. What are we going to do ?

Well, here’s what.

Get yourself a tea towel or a cloth of some sort and fold it over to cushion the base of the bottle. Then , hold the towel against a hard surface , a wall or a tree for example. Then, holding the bottle horizontally GENTLY but firmly tap the base of the bottle against the cloth. Continue doing this and you will see that gradually the pressure in the bottle will force the cork out. Wait until the cork is far enough out to grip it and then ease it out with your fingers. The wine has become a bit shaken so wait for it to settle.

Voila. You are welcome.

Probably best not to do this in a restaurant or with really expensive wine , but it’s a good one to keep up your sleeve for emergencies.


Taste wine like a pro

A few years ago I went out for dinner with a friend and was asked if I wanted to taste the wine. I did. And I did the usual thing we all do when we THINK we know what we’re doing but really haven’t got a clue. I raised the glass up , sniffed the wine and tasted a bit and went ‘ Mmm, yes , that’s fine.’ To be honest unless I’d been served cat piss I don’t think I’d know one from another.

I got the p.. taken for my sad efforts and rightly so. That year though , presumably having taken pity on me  , my friend bought me a wine tasting course as a birthday present and I’ll share with you here what I learned because believe me it does make a difference to your enjoyment and it’s the sort of thing that we as 50+ men should be confident in doing. We’ve been around long enough to have found stuff like this out.

Firstly , look at the wine. Hold it up to the light and check the clarity.

Secondly when the waiter has poured a little wine into the glass , swirl the wine around wine-legsgently so it rises up the sides of the glass. This serves two purposes ; one it allows the wine to aerate which improves the aroma and secondly when the wine pours back down the sides of the glass it leaves a trail known as ‘legs’. The legs of the wine are not an indication of quality but alcohol content. The thicker the legs , the higher the alcohol content. So try to avoid those wines that look like a glass of water with two drops of blackcurrant cordial in them.

Thirdly raise the glass to your nose and sniff…hard. That’s not the one that does anything wine-sniffthough. What you do now is sniff again and allow the bouquet to reach the back of your palate and stay there. The longer the bouquet stays on your palate the better the wine.



Then, and only then do you taste. Try and suck the wine through your pursed lips a bit like Hannibal Lechter when he does his ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a fine Chianti’ line. And do this twice. The first one is to prepare your palate and the second is the real taste. You will notice a difference between the two, I promise.

When you’ve gone through this whole palava you can then look at the waiter and go ‘That’s fine thank you.’ Pretty much the same as before but at least this time you look like you know what you’re doing. And when you do get a wine that tastes particularly good it is worth it.

Good luck with it.


Jasper Conran strikes again

Last week I decided to go shopping for some new jeans and made my way into the town centre. I know myself well enough now to know that one of two things will happen – I’ll either find exactly what I want within 10 minutes or I’ll be looking for hours and find nothing.

In a large department store in the centre which has some brilliant concessions in the men’s department ( Rocha John Rocha , Red Herring , Duffer St George , Jeff Banks , Mantaray ) I went downstairs to find some jeans only to be stopped in my tracks by the most amazing mid length coat which is a must-have for a modern gent’s wardrobe.jasper-conran-coat-2


Designed with a lustrous herringbone lining, it is crafted from a premium wool blend for a soft and luxurious feel. Finished in a navy shade it fastens with poppers and a zip. Jasper Conran had struck again. I am already the proud owner of a beautifully cut navy suit by good old JC and this coat was not something I was looking for but boy when I saw it, it was a must have it now moment. The coat will be perfect for walks along the beach or in the country on a chilly winter afternoon.Not cheap but with a 40% discount it had to be. From here on it got even better. I’ll go and have a look at the shoes I thought. Not looking for shoes but I hadn’t reckoned on the persuasive powers of Jasper Conran and his amazing outfits.

In the shoe department I found a stunning pair of chocolate brown men’s suede Chelsea boots. They were on display in my size , it was a sign.A perfect retro-looking smart casual addition boots-jasper-conranto my wardrobe. They will look amazing with  jeans or even a smarter pair of chinos. I did manage to finally get my jeans , not that day though. I was perhaps a bit giddy with excitement and my wallet was suffering from overuse.

But hey , who cares what was suffering. I am a proud owner of some amazing new clothes courtesy of one of my favourite designers , Jasper Conran.


My first September holiday


After teaching for 23 years and running a supply teaching agency for 9 and a half I have always had to suffer that most awful of things…the school holiday and its’ added expense , noise and general inconvenience. Don’t get me wrong , I know teachers have loads of holidays blah blah blah and they should be grateful etc but the point I’m making is that when you’re involved in schools and have children of your own then you HAVE to go away in school holidays.

Except now.

Now I’m in my 50’s , my children are both adults. I have retired from my business and this year I went on holiday in September ! I know. For the first time in my life I holidayed out of the school holidays.

And what a treat it was. I’m going to do it every year from now on. And this is why…

There are no kids running around the place jumping into pools , yelling and screaming.

We chose to go to Greece for the first time and in September it is still hot but it’s not so hot that you can’t bear it. Like a lot of 50 somethings I’m going a bit thin on top and have to slap the factor 50 onto my balding bonce , not this time !

It’s coming towards the end of the season, for the Greeks at least, and they are trying to squeeze every last euro out of the tourist trade before they pull down the shutters and curl up for a nap till next March or April. So , there are some bargains to be had on excursions and the like as there are fewer tourists.

Restaurants , bars and tavernas are not as crowded as they are in the summer. We ate in a different restaurant most nights and didn’t need to book any of them. We did our research and as we enjoy eating good food we found some really lovely places.

The cost of accommodation is A LOT cheaper. We spent less than 300 euros for a whole week in a spotlessly clean self catering apartment. During the summer it is more than double that.

You find the people who go away at that time are very similar to you. They are of a similar age and outlook probably because they’ve all cottoned on to the magic of the September break.

It’s so quiet everywhere and that’s not just because of the lack of children. Even round pools and on the flights you notice a sense of calm and tranquility around you, as if everyone is party to some special secret.

So all in all , I have to say ,for a first time September holidaymaker, I am a convert. I will be back and I will see if my theory holds true for Malta which was booked for a week next September about 2 days after coming home !

Karate…a way of living


Some eight years ago now I nervously entered a local dojo to try out karate. I’d always harboured a desire to do a martial art properly but life, as it often does , got in the way.

I remember my first lesson well and the look on my wife’s face when I got home saturated in sweat. I hadn’t worked so hard for years.

I started karate when I was 48 and now I’m a very proud black belt. But you can ask any karateka if that black belt is the most important thing and I guarantee they’ll all say no.

I’ve practised many sports in my life , most of them to a level of ineptitude in keeping with my ability and all those sports have given me is some memories of games I’ve played and several friends.

Karate is different. Karate impacts on every aspect of your life.

The most obvious is fitness. My level of cardio-vascular fitness is probably better now than when I played rugby at university some 30 years ago. The warm up and basic training , not to mention sparring and fitness drills take it out of you like nothing I’ve ever done before.

Muscle toning. The repeated kicking and punching, warm up and cardio exercises linked to karate have a huge impact on muscle toning and the extra training for conditioning can have a positive effect on bone density and stave of effects of arthritis.

Self confidence has soared. This comes from the knowledge that if something did happen , I could probably look after myself. I don’t mean I walk around with a ‘don’t mess with me ‘ look on my face. I haven’t got the face for that. But what it is I think is a sort of inner confidence that you give off by the way you walk and act around others.

Respect is key in all martial arts. If you are concerned, as I was , that you’d be walking into a dojo a nervous wreck and people will laugh if you get it wrong. Don’t. Martial arts are rooted in respect and if the sensei runs classes properly then there will be a series of bows and thanks at the beginning and end of each lesson. These rituals are followed everywhere that karate is practised and are fundamental to the art.

Breathing. What ? Yes, breathing. We generally don’t breathe properly because we breathe into our lungs which is too shallow for us to get the real health benefits. Karate trains you to breathe deeply into the diaphragm and the benefits are too numerous to mention here. Look it up somewhere. I promise you it’s pretty amazing.

Flexibility. Ok I started when I was 48, I’m never going to be able to flick a kick at anyone’s earlobe but I know something , I’m a LOT more flexible than when I started training. Stretching and flexing are part of the general warm up and warm down in classes and you will see the impact very quickly.

So if you want to try something that will impact on EVERY area of your life , that will benefit your health and mental well being and that has NO upper age limit then give karate a try.

Just think , they practise karate in Okinawa and that island has the highest number of centenarians on the planet. Coincidence ??

To Tip or Not to Tip

Earlier this year we were fortunate enough to spend some time in Las Vegas and we have already been to New York a couple of times. When you’re in the USA things are pretty clean cut , you tip. You tip , it’s expected. Employees at restaurants , bars , hotels and so on are not well paid and it is understood that we , as the consumer , should supplement their income by tipping. We are even given a handy guide in some restaurants suggesting amounts based on varying percentages.Now , what is also understood by the employee it that the tip , whilst it is expected , has to be earned and as a result 90% of the time , certainly from my experiences , you get really good customer service in the USA. They deserve every penny.

That is not the case everywhere however and this is my dilemma.

I refuse to tip simply as a matter of course. To give a couple of examples ; on a recent holiday to Greece we took a day trip to a nearby island. The tour guide was on the boat but not particularly visible. She refused to accompany the group to  visit the chapel from ‘Mamma Mia’ saying that she’d visited it a few times and it was too hot anyway. During our lunch at a local taverna rather than circulate and check how everyone was she opted to sit and chat with her friends for an hour. On the way way back though , as soon as the boat became visible form the shoreline of the upcoming port she, and her friends , suddenly became very animated. Playing music at full volume , encouraging everyone to stand and clap hands to say ‘Look at what a great time we’re having !’ As the boat docked she announced that she would accept tips and promptly held out a large bucket labelled ‘ TIPS’. I am now old enough not to fall for that emotional blackmail and stoically ignored her as I walked past. Earn your tip ! Don’t expect it. You did nothing exceptional and yet you expect us to pay more simply because you ask. NO.

And this brings me to my second example. A group of four of us went to a local pub restaurant for a meal and were greeted by our charming and jolly waitress who enthusiastically talked us through the menu.

‘This is looking good’ I thought ‘ She could be heading for a nice tip by the end of this’. Starters and mains were dispatched and it came to dessert.

Where had she gone ? She was at the other end of the pub clearing tables and try as we might there was no way we could attract her attention.We had to ask someone else to get our desserts. Consequently , any chance she had of a tip disappeared in that moment.

It sounds as if I have made a set of arbitrary rules for the tipping game that only I understand. Not true. All I expect in a restaurant , hotel , shop is to be served politely , helpfully and with some degree of enthusiasm. Recognise that I am not your friend , don’t call me ‘mate’ , as a consumer I expect to be treated with some degree of respect but not the unctuous grovelling from a Dickens novel.

My final example comes from a recent visit to a hotel with a restaurant near London. Our delightful waitress got it absolutely spot on. She was attentive , we didn’t wait for any order to be taken or food to be brought . She was chatty but not too much , telling us about how she’d recently tried the meal we ordered. She was enthusiastic , she clearly knew what she was doing and was keen to tell us about the specials.

Not difficult.In fact , very , very simple. Result ? She was given a big tip and the manager was told what a good job she’d done.

It’s a lesson to be learned. As consumers we have a dilemma about whether we tip or don’t tip. Make our lives easier , please,by doing the job well.