October 03 2009
There is no doubt that London is one of the most exciting cities in the world in which to eat. One can, more or less, take one’s pick of cuisines (although a desire to sample the more outré Asian delicacies may be thwarted by the RSPCA). It does, however, sometimes seem as though the restaurant business is simply a branch of the fashion industry. The commonest question I am asked, apart from, “Can you get me a table at The Fat Duck?”, concerns the Next Big Thing.
The last Next Big Thing was tapas: indigestible croquetas and undrinkable sangria reinvented to match the sophistication of Barcelona’s Cal Pep. Brindisa in Borough Market, Barrafina in Soho and El Pirata Detapas in Bayswater are notable examples of a welcome trend. And yet Spain also seems to be where the next, more worrying, trend is coming from.
Some time ago, I revisited a restaurant in La Rioja, anticipating a joyous lunch of milk-fed lamb cooked over vine wood, washed down with one of the local vintages. Instead, the chef had chucked out the old menu in favour of la nueva cocina (linguists with long memories will recall a similar French aberration of the 1970s) and I was now offered various foams and jellies served on peculiar crockery, and costing roughly twice as much as the meal I really wanted. Clearly inspired by the modernist example of El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, the chef had somehow turned a perfectly good restaurant into a mediocre mausoleum.
It is not Adrià’s fault that some of his disciples have only half-digested his philosophy, any more than it is Heston Blumenthal’s fault that chefs are now chucking space dust into everything they serve. Both these chefs learned to walk before they started running: many of their acolytes, however, would be better advised to learn how to make a proper sauce Béarnaise before they start fiddling around with chemistry sets.
The irony is that many of the techniques now trickling down from the heights of gastronomy actually come from industrial food processes: to name but a few, the use of methylcellulose (found, oddly enough, in mass-produced croquetas), freeze-drying (as in instant coffee) and alginates (used for thickening cheap ice cream, as well as for making Adrià’s signature melon caviar).
I do not dispute that The Fat Duck and El Bulli are great restaurants – they may, as is often asserted, even be the best two in the world – but there is a danger that impressionable young chefs may think that this is the only way to cook. Pursuing the fashion analogy, it is as though inferior craftsmen with dodgy materials are running up catwalk creations in a sweatshop. Fashion is one thing; style is quite another.