Food *AND* drink

Another post about food I’m afraid, so if you’re one of those people who eats in order to live, you might want to look away now.

One of the main things that makes food (and by this I really mean restaurant dining) so interesting is the perpetual need for reinvention.  Lots of restaurants tend to look at bit old-hat after they’ve been open a few years and unless you’re serving uber-traditional fare (which can itself be rather daring) the chances are that you’ll be next year’s fish and chip paper.  Restaurants come and go; many go because they are not very good, or they are unlucky, or they’re a poor business model, or people simply get bored of them,  There’s certainly no shortage of people with an idea (nay, a concept) willing to take their place.

Korean food seems to be big at the moment, but it was Peruvian last year, small plates the year before, pop-ups the year before that, all the way back to when extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar in little china bowls on the table seemed rather high-class.

But it’s the new-ish concept of ultra-limited menus that surprises me, both in terms of concept and popularity.  It’s barely a concept – making your menu smaller and smaller until you end up with just two things on the menu seems to obviate the point of a restaurant.  When I go to a restaurant I expect choice and sometimes I don’t know what I want until I get there.  I’m not suggesting that I’m the sort of person who will go to McDonald’s for a hangover burger and once there will change my mind and have a McGrape or a McCarrot but I like to feel when spending more money that I’m at least going to have a choice.  Otherwise it’s rather like dining at home.  When cooking at home I make one meal and the absence of choice is accepted as one of the inevitable drawbacks of eating in.

London restaurateurs have managed to make people believe that offering a far less extensive menu is a guaranteed sign that what is on offer will be great.  There’s partial logic in this – if the restaurant has fewer things to concentrate on it might be able to make the small number of things that it makes a little better.  But surely this doesn’t usually work.  Pizza joints, curry houses, chicken shops – these are the traditional homes of the ‘one product’ restaurant and they’re the sort of places that provide grisly mixtures of protein, bread and sauce rather than high-end cuisine.

The opening in London of Tramshed, Burger and Lobster and Bubbledogs all in the last year or so herald the new breed of ultra-limited menu joints.  Tramshed only serves chicken and steak.  Burger and Lobster has only two dishes on the menu (though there’s a fair few in between posh crustacean and fast-food meat-between-bread).  

Surely the most ridiculous idea is that of bubbledogs, a restaurant that serves hot-dogs and champagne.  That’s right, the ‘barely-meat’ staple of the monstrously fat American red-neck and the world’s most expensive sparkling wine.  Champagne got all tarnished when footballers decided that Cristal (with its nasty orange plastic wrapper) was the drink for them, but surely the generally accepted advice that champagne can be drunk with anything is being pushed a little by pairing it with that pink offal-tube usually to be found swimming in it’s own bile at the base of a cart in Central Park.  The converts will inevitably say that these are not your common or garden hot-dogs, these hot-dogs are made with properly sourced meat, with lovingly crafted toppings.  But it’s still a hot-dog.  These things, like burgers, we not supposed to be restaurant food.  That’s why they have a piece of bread on either side, so that you can pick them up and eat them on the go.

What’s next?  I will not be satisfied until the first branch of ‘Salt and Pepper’ opens, a restaurant dealing only in seasoning, where pink Himalayan sea-salt flakes are complemented by ‘Grains of Paradise’ peppercorns.  Trust me, some dick-head would go. 

In pursuit of happiness part 1

I’m currently experiencing the first few days of ‘nothing’ that comes with an ‘all or nothing’ job. The ‘all’ is term time, and the ‘nothing’ is the holidays. This is a job like no other; I reckon that I probably work the same number of hours per year as someone in a comparable Monday to Friday job, and I’m certainly not trying to suggest (as many teachers would) that I work any harder over the course of an average year. However, I cram my working year into about 35 weeks, as opposed to the 48 that is the norm. This isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. I have lots more days off, some that I cherish, others that bore me rigid. It’s irritating that in order to attend a wedding on a saturday, I need someone to cover my lessons for me; when I go on holiday, it’s always expensive flight time. On the flip side, I spent yesterday afternoon in Chelsea barracks, looking enviously at art that I’ll never be able to afford and drinking free Ruinart champagne. My official next day of work is 1st September, so there are definitely perks too.

I’m always amazed at how many teachers spend term-time weeks wishing their life away, raising eyebrows in the common room towards the end of term as they wearily state ‘just ten more days’, as if the job they do is some kind of pergutaory before the joy of long holidays stretch out before you, brimming with exciting possibility. These are often the same people that when you speak with them at awkward staff drinks at the start of the next academic year (very probably the only time you’ll talk that year) describe their summer activities as having been spent ‘just pottering about’.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. Most ‘normal’ people work very hard from Monday to Friday, and are delighted at the arrival of the weekend – Friday night drinks, saturday lie-in with Adam and Joe, sport in the afternoon, Ant or Dec in the evening. Sunday papers, late gastropub lunch with friends, sunday night work panic; it’s got a nice sense of familiarity. This doesn’t happen in my world. It’s seven day a week boarding School life, then acres of holiday time. Monday is the same as Friday is the same as Sunday, in the holidays as well as at work. At work, my life is structured to the nth degree, and every minute tends to be planned out. The holidays hit, and my life-framework is pulled apart, and suddenly I have decisions to make. ‘The Wright stuff’ of Jeremy Kyle? It’s not a life-or-death one, but the very fact that either have become possibilities makes it imperative to get out of the house as often as possible.

But how does one turn from a frankly boring one-conversationed teacher to exciting holiday-type fun-seeker? It soon becomes patently obvious that most people don’t have the time for long lunches, and if they do, they have to go back to work at some point in the afternoon. Going on holiday is one thing, and being away from home (actually on holiday in the traditional sense) makes it easy to put work behind you. Reading is another pleasure that is curtailed for 35 weeks a year, and my rate of getting through books during term-time is embarrassingly low. I’m piling through ‘One Day’ at the moment, and that’s the part 2 of the happiness theme. County cricket (one place where it’s de rigeur to look like a lonely man) is another saviour of the summer.

One of the things that makes me feel that I’m in the right job is that I probably enjoy term-time as much as the holidays. If I were to live for the holidays, I’d consider that too much of my life (the work part) was being wished away. If I felt at a total loose end for 9 weeks every summer, that would be wholly depressing. Life’s full of specks of happiness, and I probably get as many of them during work periods. The fun rarely lasts so long, and is far less hedonistic, but it’s also the sneaky snatched nature of it that makes it such fun in the first place. Holiday fun can be far more more exuberant and showy, but when you’ve no contstraints of time or money, it’s always going to feel a little more hollow. Score draw all round I say; after all, Gatsby never seemed all that pleased by the time his ‘pulpless halves’ went out on a Monday morning….