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. 

You’re the one for me, fatty

It’s been a week of grim news, and as I keenly scanned the BBC website for an uplifting tale, instead I can across this depressing headline: ‘calorie counts on menus prompt healthy choices’.

This research comes from across the pond, where calorific information has been displayed on New York menus since 2008. The results of this survey do seem patchy, with the headline being just one conclusion from a scattered set of data points. Subway, for example, showed an increase in calorific intake by customers once the calorie information was displayed on menus. This is likely to be due to the fact that people have decided to eat twice the portion of a ‘healthy’ option that contains only 75% of the calories. The Yanks have few faults, but maths is clearly one of them, at least amongst Subway customers. UK restaurants have now begun to ape this trend of putting calorific information alongside food options, from the lowly (KFC and McDonald’s) to the Michelin starred emporium of Alexis Gaultier in Soho. We ignore much of what is best about the US (cheap fuel, good service) and yet copy some of the worst (American gladiators); this is another fad that we would have done well to leave alone.

I am all for education regarding diet and healthy living, but this should come from parents and in Schools. It is important that children are made aware of what is meant by a healthy diet (to my mind there are no such things as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food items, seeing as no one food can supply all the nutrition that we need); it is important that we are aware of portion control (something which the Americans have lost sight of); it is important that we are aware of seasonality and its impact on lowering food miles; it is important that children are encouraged to eat a varied diet; it is important that they are able to cook.

Placing calorie information on menus seems to ignore the education side of food (as above), and instead looks to the strategy of trying to catch the horse’s tail in the stable door. Healthy eating is not all about calories anyway; avocados are very calorific, and yet most people would say they are a ‘healthy’ option. Iceberg lettuce has virtually no calories, and yet it has no nutritional value either, and therefore can hardly be defined as being healthy. Education via calories might teach people how to become thin, but that’s not the same thing as a good diet. Also, whatever Kate Moss thinks, some food really does taste far better than skinny feels (I’m looking at you, foie gras).

I don’t think that calorie information works at either end of the gastronomic spectrum. Take Gaultier Soho, a fine dining restaurant (tasting menu £68 pp). How often are you likely to go to this restaurant, or any restaurant like it? Once a month, if that? This is an occasion restaurant for a partner’s birthday, or a significant anniversary. This restaurant represents the opportunity to be decadent and hedonistic, to start a meal with champage and finish with a cognac over coffee. It’s certainly not your everyday meal. Surely the last thing you want to do is to make meal choices based on calorie content? If anything, let’s live like it’s the last days of Rome, be perverse and have the most calorific choices on the menu. Part of the pleasure of fine dining is that it’s totally out of the ordinary, a one-off treat, and one about which you shouldn’t feel guilty. On another note, if you’re eating at a place like this and you can’t tell that the grilled fish is less likely to clog those arteries than the foie gras on brioche, you probably wasting your money as you’re someone who eats only to live.

At the other end of the spectrum we have KFC and McDonalds. I’m sure that some people think the food here is great, but these people are mostly 12 or under, and as we’ve already discussed, it really is the parent’s responsibility to educate children about food. For most of the rest of us, the output of McDonald’s or KFC are pre-football food, hangover food, bored at the airport food; some don’t touch them out of principle, but fast food provides an important option when needs must. I don’t think anyone would argue that a standard meal of fried chicken/burger and chips is not brilliantly healthy, and it’s not good to eat them too often; I hope I’m not overestimating the intelligence of the average Brit, but I think this should be a given. Placing the calorie information next to a Big Mac, informing us that it’s got a lot of calories, shouldn’t be a surprise, and neither should it put us off buying one. The introduction of the McGrapes and McCarrotsticks about ten years ago was truly bizarre; surely people go to McDonald’s for only one thing: some greasy cheap food. If you wanted some grapes, just go and buy some from the nearest supermarket, though maybe I’m underestimating how ubiquitous McDonald’s really is.

Food shouldn’t really be complicated; people need only a few clear guidlines, and they can make their own choices from these. The ‘5 a day’ for fruit and vegetables has passed into common parlance, though there’s no real reason why it should have been 5, and not 4 or 6. If kids are given a varied and balanced diet, and taught how to cook a few simple dishes, people should be fine to make their own decisions. I’m glad that the research (despite the headline) showed no distinct pattern, and certainly didn’t seem to support the need to expance the calorie information to all sorts of other menus. As with many things, it’s the education, the pro-active strategy that tends to work, and as soon as one adopts the reactionary approach, we run the risk of having to deal with a nation of fatties, rather than ensuring that we don’t produce these big units in the first place.

Cheltenham Average

I read an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday, entitled ‘Chav: the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain’. Quite a dramatic title. The article received a huge amount of praise on twitter, presumably from middle-class Guardian readers who are far too right-on to use the word themselves, especially bearing in mind that its very use has led to Britain becoming ‘fractured’; this can’t be a good thing. I suspect that these folk subscribe to the Orwellian paradox in that they harbour a great respect for the working class, so long as they don’t have to spend any time with them in day to day life. To quote ‘Yes, Minister’, they are similar to Radio 3: no-one actually listens, but it’s vital to know that it’s there.

As with so much that is trotted out by ‘columnists’, it’s a complete non-story. Incidentally, the rise of columnists seems to have occurred simply because we’re all so busy that we don’t have time to read the news and formulate an opinion ourselves; it’s far better not to have to read the news, but to have a columnist that we like and trust to do the reading for us, before wrapping it up in a mass of neat soundbites for us to quote and pass off as our own. It’s a dangerous development, this translation of news by the chosen few, and the lapping up of ‘opinion as fact’ by a public whose mind is elsewhere; certainly far more dangerous than using the word ‘chav’ occasionally.

The problem with the word chav is two-fold. Firstly, it’s a relatively new word, in that I don’t believe that anyone was using it 15 years ago. As Toynbee points out, the words ‘oik’ and ‘prole’ have fallen into abeyance, and the word ‘chav’ is simply a reinvention of this term. The second is a question of definition. If you asked 100 people, family fortunes-style, to define the word ‘chav’, would you be confident that any two people would give the same answer? I’m pretty sure that the etymology of the word is not ‘Cheltenham Average’, as a former colleague of mine claimed, insisting that the girls at Cheltenham Ladies College had invented the term to describe the local females (he also insisted that the word was pronounced ‘sharve’, thus discrediting himelf further). Toynbee defines the word purely in class terms, in the same way that oik and prole were used in yesteryear; it is a word used by the prejudiced upper classes to describe those in the lower classes (at one point she even describes these lower classes as Wills and Harry’s ‘subjects’). She then goes on to define ‘class’ purely in terms of luck and money. In the age of social mobility and widening access for university entry, it’s surprising that people like Toynbee seem desperate to keep the class divide intact. We all have to earn a living.

I’m pretty sure that most people don’t see it this way. The word chav is synonymous with bad and antisocial behaviour, not with the working class. The word chav tends to be used to describe groups people playing ringtones loudly on the bus, or drinking and swearing on the tube, not groups of builders sat drinking tea on the site, or people chopping lettuce in McDonalds. The ‘posh chavs’ who colonise Polzeath each summer are hardly traditional working class, and yet the word neatly describes their behaviour, which fails to take the feeling of others into account.

Until one is satisfied with the definition of a word, there’s very little point entering an argument on whether the use of the term has led to Britain becoming fractured. I can’t imagine wanting to debate the atheist v agnostic viewpoint without being sure that the person with whom I was having the discussion was of the same mind as me regarding definitions.

I’m still left with a real ‘so what?’ feeling having re-read the article. By the luck and money argument, Wayne Rooney should be calling me a chav. He’s got far more money than I have, and he’s been far luckier than me, bearing in mind that his major talent is far more widely recognised than any of mine.

I was far more shocked and revolted by the article in the Guardian weekender magazine where the young children of the columnists were invited to take over their columns for the week. Cue much middle-class smug hilarity from the mini-Petrides and Hugheses. If there’s anything likely to start a class war, that was it.