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February 2009

 
Contributors
 

Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

 
Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Food Fuss in London by Robert Appelbaum  

            What’s all the fuss about?  That was my question. To listen to Londoners, in the past twenty years the city had become a world capital of cuisine, its best restaurants on par with the best anywhere, its ethnic restaurants the envy of Europe. Encouraged by the flourishing of farmer’s markets, a new ethic of organic and locally sourced produce and animal products, and an infrastructure of food obsession, featured daily on television, the print media, and the Internet, its food culture was said to be vibrant, innovative, even world-shaking.  The Guide Michelin for restaurants has for the first time devoted a whole volume to it, making it only the fourth city to be so documented, after Paris, New York, and San Francisco, and causing not a few outbursts of superbia among the locals.1 Indeed, I have heard well travelled Londoners say they prefer their home town to Paris, which is too much of a museum to their taste.  There are no new ideas in Paris, the feeling goes, nothing but the tried and true – steak frites and moules frites and, if you’re lucky, a very old cassoulet.  In London, by contrast, just about anywhere you go you are going to be served the next new thing – and very likely by a Frenchman, who has fled his homeland for more fertile kitchens.

            I was sceptical.  I had had some excellent meals in London, but I had had some mediocre and downright awful meals there as well.  I always had a good time visiting the metropolis, and being food obsessed myself, I could think of no better way to ouvrir l’appétit on a cool dark evening than to wander the back streets of the West End, the restaurant capital of the capital, in search of the perfect menu and the empty table.  But I didn’t believe the hype.  I was suspicious of the chauvinism.  And in any case, being something of a social scientist, I needed to see for myself.

            Being something of a social scientist, too, I needed to engage in seeing for myself from an uncommon perspective.  I needed to check out the scene not as a naive consumer, or a food critic giving advice to consumers, but as an informed participant observer.  I needed to do a field study in other words, and observe, with a plausible degree of systematicity and critical self-consciousness, as both an insider and an outsider, the customs of the natives.  The fuss about London food, for or against, accurate or phony, is itself an aspect of a larger phenomenon: the buying and selling, the providing, the eating, the digesting, the reporting, the assessing, and the circulation of information about food in London.  These things are all parts of a single cultural field, and it is to the cultural field that the social scientist will likely turn his or her attention.  How, really, is food culturally organized in and about London?  How was it organized, that is – for this, in my view, is what ‘the cultural’ adds up to – phenomenologically, which is also to say, given the constitution of the phenomenal, symbolically, structurally, materially, and economically?  That is the main question.  And at bottom it involves coming to terms with the situation of food in that postmodern world of which London is one of the main social and economic centres.  Where and how is food located in a city like London?   What material and symbolic values are assigned to it?  How are these values asserted, negotiated, and experienced?  And what then is all the fuss about?

            So there are the research questions, large and small.  Unfortunately, I only had five days in which to perform an initial study of the subject, and, being a social scientist, I didn’t have a lot of money to do it with either.   But that could prove to be a boon.  Under the conditions of scarcity imposed on me by my budget, I could observe myself observing the cuisine of the city in circumstances as most food critics, travel writers, and especially consumers really do experience it – hit or miss, with limited time and resources at their disposal.  I could study it from a vantage point of what Bernard Lahire (2003) calls the ‘sociology of the individual’, or what followers of Michel de Certeau (1998) call the ‘sociology of doing’.  At least playfully, in the spirit of the Menippean Satire as well as in the framework of modern sociology and cultural studies, I could look at the world of food consumption from an emphatically limited, contingent, under-resourced vantage point, and therefore see it as only an individual can see it – for that is what individuals are, limited, contingent and under-resourced, required to pursue individual ends within the terms of a system that is not of their own making.

            Whether I could observe without evaluating was another question.  It is one thing to observe the customs of the natives, however self-aware one is about the limitations of observation: it was another to eat their food; and it was still another to eat their food with or without registering value judgements about it.  In the end, I found that value judgements were inescapable, in large part because no one like me can sample a cuisine, whatever the guidelines of a ‘science’, without also assessing it.  To taste is also to exercise taste, to make discriminations among sensations and processes with a view toward pleasure.  There can be no fully neutral science of food.

            I have seen plenty of studies from social scientists that seem to presume otherwise, to be sure, imagining to extricate themselves and their readers from the subjectivity they are studying, and to assert a disinterested sociology of the group, but the results are unconvincing.  That may be said even about Pierre Bourdieu and his Distinction (1984), a work that is commonly cited as if it were the final word on the matter, held up as definitive proof that the subjective experience of taste is really an objectively determined performance of class – and this in spite of several inconvenient facts that undermine that assessment.  For one thing, at the time of its publication in English, Bourdieu’s study was already dated, describing a France of the past, and especially a working class culture, like similar cultures in Britain and the United States, that was in its death throes.  For another, for all its surveys and tables of results, it actually took the form of a polemic against Kantian aesthetics and the snobbery of post-war Parisian intellectuals.  And for a third, Bourdieu was not actually a cultural relativist and was not arguing that taste was merely determined by class, but arguing instead that taste was a domain of the social struggle for dominance (see Bennett 2005).  Bourdieu was writing with an agenda.  And if the disinterestedness of the sociology of the group is a bit of a phantom in the work of Bourdieu, it is even more so in a recent, British sociology of food that claims that people like me, with cosmopolitan eating habits and interests and lusts, are ‘cultural omnivores’ (Warde 2000: note the use of this loaded term ‘omnivore’ as if it were merely a dispassionately descriptive term) or even worse, that such cultural omnivores are ‘predatory,’ their practices involving a ‘pillage of resources’, a ‘scouring of habitats’, an ‘uprooting and repackaging of the foreign, the novel, the dangerous’ (Bell 2002).2   Mainstream food sociology in Britain is no less located in its assessments of the food practices of modern Brits than the Brits themselves.  Indeed, it is surprisingly biased. 

            So: both the practice of eating and the study of it are located in all kinds of ways; they always have an agenda, and always must.  In my study, in any case, the legitimacy of which can only be assessed by its results, the subject and the sociologist would be one.  The individual and the sociologisation of the individual through systematic observation would be one. Or rather two, since the research would be a team effort, involving an invaluable research associate (Marion Scott Appelbaum), as well as the team leader (me).

            Together we laid our plans carefully.  We would stay in a budget hotel in a residential area, a little off the beaten track but convenient enough to the restaurants and shops we wanted to visit.  To save money, we would do most of our major dining at lunch time, and take advantage of lunch-time specials.  We would visit as many different kinds of places as time allowed, although we were especially interested in the new things and the most popular things among knowing Londoners – for example, that hybrid form of social life known as ‘modern British cuisine’.  We would also visit shops and markets, and study street life.  What, again, was the phenomenological, material and symbolic place of food, the situation of food in modern London?  We took along notebooks, a laptop, and a Dictaphone, along with a Time Out Guide to Dining in London, 2007 edition (the Michelin is much less thorough), and observations culled from various Internet sites, including the on-line Zagat survey and the annual World’s Fifty Best Restaurants featured on the site of the London-based Restaurant magazine.  Knowing how limited our resources were, we knew not only that our findings would be partial, tentative, and somewhat arbitrary, but that our project was following less in the footsteps of Boas, Malinowski, and Lévi-Strauss than in those of the countless journalists for the New York Times going on city breaks and reporting back to well-heeled readers about where to stay, what to see, and where to dine in Prague, or Singapore, or Kansas City.  Only we would not pretend to observe the object of a 36-hour city with timely objectivity, dispensing advice to consumers.

            Even if I am only something of a social scientist, I am officially very much a professional literary critic, and so the fact that I was following in the footsteps of journalists provided an additional incentive.  My trip to London would not only provide a window on the sociology of the individual, but give me a chance to look behind the scenes of what amounts to a literary genre.  Thirty-six Hours in Akron, What’s Doing in Berlin: fun to read, providing you with tips for a future visit if ever you’re lucky enough to go on one, and in any case furnishing you with the vicarious pleasure of pretending to go on a whirlwind trip to some far-off burg, these exercises in travel journalism have a form of their own, a rhetoric of their own, an illusory objectivity all their own.  In fact, after a while, a modern literary critic may well come to find that there is something fictional about them, or even factitious.  They are not only formulaic; they almost always describe an experience that is too good to be true.  I wanted to see what lay behind the exercises, and think about how language and convention mediates between the experience of the writer and the material that is actually written.  So, again, we had two kinds of questions to answer.  What would our five days in London tell us about the culture of eating in London, and what would it tell us about the culture of writing about food?

            We were out on the streets within moments of checking into our hotel.  We were in Kensington, not a ‘typical’ London neighbourhood one might say, but what is ‘typical’, and why?  Kensington is very wealthy and residential; it has its own ‘high street’ with small and large shops.  It is not a major destination for either locals or tourists, although there are a number of hotels (we got an excellent deal, in a comfortably shabby establishment, it being off-season) and there were plenty of tourists on the streets.  It is not a place where one goes out of one’s way to dine, but it is not an area where one cannot dine either.  At the time of my research there, an old department store was being converted into a very large new Whole Foods market, the first outpost in Britain of the American organic-gourmet food chain, and, it has been said in the press, sure to change food retailing in Britain utterly.  Perhaps we were researching a ‘before’, with an ‘after’ to come.  In any case, the sociological model of that which is statistically ‘typical’ in the context of a vast, diverse, cosmopolitan, and always rapidly changing metropolis is almost certainly irrelevant. What is typical about London is its variety. Or not quite: for even if London has lots of variety in its social and cultural life, it has variety in its own way.  It has its own way, one might say, of distributing variety, and what one encounters when one visits the city, is not only what is unique about unique places, institutions, and people, but perhaps even more importantly, and certainly more noticeably, are its systems of what may be called continuity-in-variety.  These are systems inscribed in its architecture, its structures of transportation and communication, its patterns of work and leisure, of production, distribution, and consumption.  The guidebooks direct the tourist to ‘landmarks’ like the Nelson column in Trafalgar Square; the restaurant guides direct the gourmand-tourist to places like Sketch, ‘the most expensive restaurant in London,’ as almost all references to the establishment are quick to mention (Cooke, 2003).  I will have more to say about the idea of the unique in what follows.  Suffice it to say for now, that though the unique is everywhere promoted, it is the ‘everywhere’ itself that really presses upon experience, and continuity-in-variety is what the social scientist is obliged to observe and explain.

            Out on the streets, in Kensington, as social scientists more or less following the route of a tourist-flaneur-gourmand, passing along a route from Kensington Road to Kensington High Street, sensing the continuities of London life – the architecture, the pace of the traffic, the smell of the air – we looked for food.  And at first we didn’t see much.  London has historically been a city of eating behind closed doors, and as for food shops, whatever the situation may have been in the past, by now they have almost entirely been absorbed by a handful of big ‘multiples’, the large corporations like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which have placed almost all the food available for consumption inside big boxes with little outdoor display.  This is the first thing to know about the continuity-in-variety of the culture of food in London.  It is almost entirely hidden from view. You do not encounter vegetable stands on the streets of London, or food stalls, or the smells of cooking, or the sight of people dining (except sometimes through plate-glass windows, especially the floor–to–ceiling windows common to coffee and sandwich shops), though you may well encounter that in many sections of many other large cities in the world.  You can go for miles on the streets of London, in other words, without encountering a tomato.  (The few vaunted outdoor food markets are in fact quite tucked away, the most famous of them, the Borough Market, being hidden under a viaduct in a nondescript neighbourhood.)  What you encounter everywhere are establishments through the doors of which or behind the plate glass windows of which food is to be found.  And not just any establishments: as a corollary to the fact that food is behind closed doors and windows, the second thing to know is that the London food scene is almost entirely dominated by large corporations, with multiple locations – signages, brands, doorways to enter, open doorways sometimes, but doorways all the same, or else glassed-in eating areas that, instead of being terraces open to the city, as in (say) Paris and Rome, are almost always, rather, very much glassed-in.  The largest of corporations have dotted the terrain with McDonald’s and Pizza Huts.  And smaller, local corporations, specializing in all sorts of food, from Japanese to Portuguese to a hybrid called ‘world food’, have bred multiples too: Wagamama (23 locations as of March 2007), Pizza Express (96), Ask (23), Balls Brothers (18), Zizi (16), Yo! Sushi (18), Nando’s (54: a Portuguese chicken shop), Giraffe (11: an establishment where you are promised ‘world food’ but where the main attraction appears to be the English breakfast).  Even restaurants that aspire to fine dining can come in multiples.  There are eight branches of Chez Gerard, five of Bertorelli’s, ten of Fish Works.  One of the most renowned and most expensive restaurants in London, Gordon Ramsay, has developed into a multiple of ten locations in London – each with its own culinary identity, its own menu, head chef, and style, to be sure, but each belonging to a corporate multiple all the same.

            But I hadn’t taken stock of all that yet.  My knowledge was in brackets.  I was attempting to experience the phenomenology of food afresh.

            So we were out on the streets, on a bright but chilly early spring day, looking for a culture of food.  We passed a number of imposing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings, what the English sometimes call ‘mansions’ though they are actually blocks of flats and townhouses, and the imposing facade of a genuinely unique institution, The Milestone Hotel, with a restaurant inside.  The hotel is ‘five star’.  Every reference you find to it in guidebooks or on the web makes that assertion, and comments from customers on web-sites like Trip Adviser consistently confirm that the hotel is ‘perfect’ or nearly so, that it is a ‘true five star’, and so forth.  Certainly, the hotel, composed out of a pair of Victorian ‘mansions’, was handsome; at first, I thought it was a private club, and I imagined it as a place where the Prince of Wales would feel at home.  (And after all, it is just off Prince of Wales Street.)  But it is just a hotel, albeit an idiosyncratic and expensive one, with rooms starting at about £250.  And anyway, we were interested in food.  A very handsome looking plaque indicated a restaurant inside, and displayed a menu.  Called Cheneston, it had items like a starter of ‘Terrine of foie gras with toasted brioche and pear chutney’ for £17.00 and a main course of ‘Pot roast supreme of guinea fowl with celeriac and parsley mash, morel mushroom sauce’ for £24.50; ‘Tournedos of Aberdeen Angus beef, galette potato and burgundy shallot sauce’ for £29.50; and for the vegetarian, a ‘Pea and mint risotto with seared scallops and minted foam’ for £29.50.   Expensive, in other words (American readers, we are talking fifty to sixty dollars for a main course in 2007 dollars), and devoted to a conventional if a little updated British-Continental style of eating, the restaurant already stood for me as a representative of the hazards of triumphant London cuisine.  Heavy and rich food this was; if not unappetizing (some of the dishes seem very promising) it was nevertheless bulky.  Above all, it was mish-mash food, French ingredients, cooking techniques, and terms (galette, tournedos), combined with a few Italian and Spanish tricks (the risotto, the ‘foam’), vying against Asian condiments (chutney, but made from an English fruit), British ingredients (Aberdeen beef), and un-ironic allusions to bland English home cooking (pot roast and mash, rather than daube and purée).  Triumphant London cuisine going back to the days of Carême and the heyday of the Empire has ever been thus, featuring a vocabulary that is hybrid, and a style of eating that is heavy rather than light, organised around the consumption of meats with sauces, starches, and condiments (see Goody, 1982; Mennell, 1985; Colquhoun, 2007).

            We went on, down Kensington Road.  An Indian restaurant nearby boasted a ‘fusion’ cuisine, which on the evidence of the menu mainly meant curried meats – roasted beef, braised lamb, and stir-fried chicken portions, served in sauces made with raisins, garum marsala, and chili.  We next saw a convenience shop, a narrow and shallow emporium where one could buy cigarettes, liquor, newspapers, and urgent foodstuffs, like fruit juice, soft drinks, canned beans, and eggs.  I went in to buy a newspaper, and stood in line at the high checkout counter behind an American woman.  She was nervously studying the display of confections below the cash register – Cadbury’s milk bars, Mars Bars, KitKats, those sorts of things, at least fifty different kinds.  She looked and looked.  A heavy set woman in her forties, she was perturbed, while both I behind her and the clerk in front of her huffed and puffed, waiting for her to make a decision.  Finally, she blurted it out, expressed her desire and befuddlement.  ‘Don’t you have any English toffee?’ she asked.  The clerk, a young man, an immigrant from the east, paused before answering.  Like most Englishmen, I am sure he had never heard of ‘English toffee’.  ‘Only have what’s here’, he said.  The woman tottered away, indignant, and I bought my paper.

            Out on the streets, as we reached the corner of Kensington Road and Kensington High Street, we finally found a row of colourful establishments, One Restaurant, an Iranian establishment, a Prezzo, a Strada, a Café Uno (three similar Italian chain restaurants, specializing in pizza and pasta), a Starbucks, a Giraffe, Utsav, an Indian takeout, Stick and Bowl, a Chinese noodle house, another convenience market, and then further along, off Kensington High Street, two places in an alley that were the first restaurants that attracted this particular ‘cultural omnivore,’ arousing his culinary curiosity, Cuba and Arcadia, the latter a genuinely local, which is to say individually owned and operated Italian restaurant, the former a Cuban theme establishment.  The scene for someone like me – a ‘predatory’ food enthusiast with a taste for picturesque and adventurous eating – was starting to seem hopeful.  But then as I turned back up to Kensington High Street I found that this small strip of restaurants was pretty much the end of it.  Most of the rest of Kensington High Street, and the side streets immediately off it, was devoid of culinary culture.  Big clothing stores predominated, the kind one would find on almost any high street in all of Britain: an Accessorize, a Top Shop, a Gap.  In fact, if you were blindfolded and driven about for a bit, and let down in the middle of Kensington High Street, apart from the Tube station, it would be very hard to know where you were.  It is almost indistinguishable from at least 30 different high streets across the United Kingdom.  And apart from that small strip of colour and promise, the food was not only behind closed doors, but phenomenologically absent.  By the Tube station is a Marks and Spencer with a small separate doorway leading downstairs (I was reminded of Joseph Conrad’s description of the steps down to the  anarchist-pornography shop in The Secret Agent) to the food section, where the speciality is prepared meals in cardboard boxes, supplemented by prepared sandwiches available in plastic containers, and further down is the one genuine supermarket of the area (in advance of the opening of Whole Foods), a Waitrose, which also pushes a lot of prepared meals and sandwiches, along with a cornucopia of bottled mustards, honeys, chutneys, and what the English call cooking sauces, ranging from Tikka Marsala to Bolognese.

            Off the high street, you are in the midst of the old empire.  The architecture is elaborately costly, large and brawny; the residential buildings bespeak not only wealth but patriarchal power.  Marion very inconveniently decided, as we wandered past glorious ‘mansions’ and town homes and even some detached houses, done up in white painted limestone, or in brownstone and parti-coloured brick, that she wouldn’t mind living in these parts.  But the high street itself is unimpressive, and the restaurant scene is small.  Where did the wealthy eat?  Clearly, either at home or in a different neighbourhood.  Clearly, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the wealthy almost always dined at home, from meals cooked by servants.  And the food shops and stalls of the high street were the shops and stalls where servants were the main social actors.  Now the servants were gone, and so were the shops and stalls.  In advance of the opening of a Whole Foods, there was little beside chain restaurants specialising in generic Italian food (or rather, ‘Italian’ food) and a pair of food emporia, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose.

            After our wander through Kensington, it still being too early to eat, we searched for a pub, and we didn’t have far to search.  Just off the High Street, mingled with small service shops, was a handsome old Victorian pub, The Prince of Wales, with wooden floors and panelling and very high ceilings.  We found a seat in the back, partook of a couple of pints, and observed the natives.  The pub encouraged dining.  It had many tables, like ours, suitable for dining, crowded together, and there were menus everywhere.   At 4.30 in the afternoon it was noisy and busy, and as workers from nearby shops filed in after five, it got even busier.  What one mainly observed was that almost everyone was drinking beer, and that the main buzz of the place was the struggle to find a table.  We saw several confrontations over table space.  Meanwhile, we studied the menu.  Apart from fish and chips and scampi and chips, there were potato wedges with cheese, nachos, salmon fish cakes, ‘posh bacon and eggs’, steak and ale pie, Chicken Kiev, chicken tikka, hamburgers, and for the vegetarian, mushroom risotto.  The fact is, food like this (featuring bits and pieces of the cuisines of seven national cultures) is available in pubs all over London and in much of the rest of the UK too, and much of it comes no less pre-made than the take-away meals that dominate the shelves at Marks and Spencer.   It is not being judgmental to say that.

            London food is both centralised and distant’, I wrote in my journal next morning.  ‘Food is something you go to’, I went on. ‘It is never simply at hand.  Organized into zones – zones of circulation, ‘neighbourhoods’, ‘financial districts’, ‘entertainment districts’– this city.  Food is in the entertainment district or else it is hidden from you, and one way or another you have go to it.  So you go. . . . We need to go to Soho.  There is nothing out here in Kensington.  We’re on our way.’

            In fact, our first meal for the trip took us to Chinatown, just down the road from Soho, where I learned an important lesson.  On a pleasant night, we walked the distance from Kensington to the West End; it seemed to take about an hour.  Having decided on Chinese food for our first meal, we then walked the Chinatown walk.  Many of the restaurants are centred around a festive, brilliantly lit plaza, the pedestrianised Gerrard Street.  This is a manufactured Chinatown rather than the real thing.  But it is a fun place, where the kind of Chinese food you don’t get in most of the rest of England is available.  I had had jellyfish salad in a small establishment there once – a mark for me of quality and authenticity.  But where should we go for this taste-testing meal?   A friend had recommended a dive, The Crispy Duck on Wardour Street. (It has since moved to Gerrard Street.)  Time Out had recommended a new Sichuan Place, Bar Shu, a ‘2006 Runner-up Best New Restaurant’: it is not ‘London’s first Sichuan restaurant,’ the guidebook said, ‘but it’s the first to have recreated Sichuan food so successfully’.  We had trouble finding it, though; my research assistant was getting cross; I was getting cross.  And when we finally found it, I for one was unimpressed.  The menu did not seem adventurous or for that matter especially Sichuan, and it was surprisingly expensive, with all the interesting main courses at 20 pounds or more.  It was off our budget.  So I insisted that we walk back to the centre of Chinatown, which made my assistant even more cross.  Where to go?  There were so many.  So many of them seemed alike, with menus on the pavement set on stands in glass and metal cases, offering a dozen kinds of beef, a dozen kinds of pork...  And I didn’t want to try a place I had already eaten at.  We walked about.  I was getting ravenous.  My assistant was losing her patience.  Finally, we made it to the Crispy Duck, a dive with dirty walls and floors, smoked tea duck hanging in the windows, and very low prices: perfect perhaps.  And I was hungry and tired; I could not have walked another block.  But you could smell acrid grease and soapy steam when you walked in.

            We were ushered upstairs, to a small table against a wall with peeling paint; there was a hole in the tablecloth.  The menu was enormous, and the more you looked at the more expensive and complicated it got.  But on the first few pages were set value meals, like one where you could get crispy duck, mixed vegetables, sweet and sour pork, and prawns in black bean sauce for eleven pounds fifty.  I gave up eating sweet and sour pork when I was twenty years-old, but who was I to argue against crispy duck with pancakes, mixed vegetables, and prawns for eleven pounds fifty?  My assistant dissented.  She wanted to try the à la carte.  There were all kinds of things we could try.  ‘No!’ I insisted, thinking about my budget and my hunger, and reduced at this point to the condition of a child ready to throw a tantrum.  The eleven pounds fifty was dancing in my head like characters in a Technicolor cartoon.  Eleven pounds fifty. Crispy duck.  Eleven pounds fifty. Crispy Duck.

            Most of the food, when it arrived, was pretty bad.  (It is not really judgmental to say that, although being able to say it required an exercise in taste: the food was bad the way the weather outside is either good or bad.)  The duck was passable but stale; the vegetables were overcooked, soggy and tasteless; the pork was as unsavoury as one might expect it to be, deep fried meat pieces swimming in artificially coloured, gloppy sweet sauce, cheek by jowl with stray onions and peppers.  Only the prawns were really passable.  Meanwhile, in the table next to us, a pair of posh young Chinese women had ordered à la carte.  The food came on what looked like better dishes.  A handsome pork dish, with the pork slices fanned over a dark and steaming sauce came first, followed by a plate of dark green Chinese broccoli, sprinkled with what looked like flecks of garlic and ginger.  In fact, the women called the waiter over, and got into a heated discussion with him about the broccoli.  Look at this, they were apparently saying, it’s too ... soggy probably.  Eventually, after extensive negotiation, the waiter picked up the plate and took it back to the kitchen.  About five minutes later he returned with another dish of broccoli, which this time indeed looked a bit brighter and crisper.  He also brought the women a plate of fish slices, lightly sauteed and served with a pale, translucent sauce.  The women dug in: the pork, the fish, the greens.  Meanwhile I was getting a bellyache, forcing myself to consume our glop, trying to put on a good show for my assistant, who had only picked at her food, and was finding solace in the crisp white wine we had ordered.

            I had made the most fundamental and common mistake of gastronomic tourism, the kind of mistake no food critic, or for that matter food sociologist, should ever make.  I had ordered the food devised for the tourists.  I had let my hunger and impatience and greed get the better of me.  But I could not have been the first of my kind to make such a mistake.  No, there must be thousand cases like mine: restaurant critics, upon whom so much depends, the prosperity of restaurateurs, the happiness of diners ... ordering the wrong thing.  Only they never tell you that.  No.  They tell you that the restaurant was wrong.  Or else, more likely, they keep silent about the experience entirely.  Never once have I read a restaurant review which includes such details as finding oneself humiliated in front of one’s dinner companions, or annoyed beside the example of true savoir faire expressed by diners at the next table over.  No restaurant critic I know of has ever (by his own account) spilled the wine, bickered with his wife, dropped his fork on the floor, gotten sick and run to the bathroom, or, as I did, forced himself to consume soggy cabbage and deep-fried sugar-candy pork in a desperate attempt to redeem his dignity.  No, the restaurant is always wrong, and the only real thing in question is whether it is a little bit wrong or very wrong indeed.

            Embedded in this critical practice – for a practice in the sociological sense is what it amounts to – is a common misapprehension of the nature of consumption, a misrecognition, actually, that serves the ideological purposes of modern consumerism as such.  According to this model, the customer is always right.  It is only the provider that can get it wrong.  The customer has no responsibility in the transaction with the provider except to pay, behave reasonably well, and quietly exercise the faculty of taste.  Instead of communication, consumerism thus demands disinterested, quasi-Kantian reception – a point that Bourdieu might have made.  Instead of contributing to the experience of consumption, the consumer is only thought to be an uninvolved recipient, with no creative, strategic, or ethical input.  But that is clearly wrong.  Our experience at the Crispy Duck testified to the decisive role of the consumer.  In fact, all of our experiences of dining in London testified to that.  It is the practice of restaurant-reviewing, always at the service of His Majesty the Baby, the helpless consumer, that gets it wrong.3

            We had other meals planned: a posh Sardinian meal; a trendy eco-friendly meal, lunch at a trendy diner called Canteen, in Spitalfields; dinner at a Wagamama, one of the semi-fast-food wonders of modern London.  The best of the meals was enjoyed at the eco-friendly restaurant, a place called Acorn House, in King’s Cross.  At Sardo, on Grafton Way in Fitzrovia, we ate a meal that, however close to a Sardinian experience it really was (probably not that close, though the basic ingredients of the dishes and the approach to cooking seemed authentic enough), would have fit right in to the fashionably funky Italian dining scene in New York or Chicago (in fact, I have since eaten in a place in upper Manhattan just like, except that the patrons had darker hair and higher cheekbones).  Along with a guest we had (collectively) spaghetti bottarga, made with mullet roe, a veal chop with beans, grilled swordfish, asparagus salad, and sauteed mixed vegetables, washed down with a couple of bottles of Vermentio Funtana, a full-bodied but very drinkable Sardinian white.  Everything was well prepared and presented, fresh tasting, and complex, and both the diners and the restaurant staff, all of them doing their jobs, made the experience zesty.  Restaurants like this communicate the message that it is all right to eat and drink, to take one’s time, to indulge, to consume in good cheer.  At Canteen, on the other hand, the winner of a design award, popular among office workers in the East End – so popular that we were told, coldly, that an hour and fifteen minutes after being seated we would have to vacate our table for a party that had reserved it – we got just the opposite message.  The food, service, and ambience were all unpleasant: burnt macaroni-cheese for me, run-of-the-mill fish and chips for Marion, served peremptorily by a harried waiter after we had been ushered in by the hostile host, and eaten on uncomfortable bench seats in a sterile environment that would not have been out of place, except for the high quality and finish of the materials, in the food court of a upscale shopping mall in Minnesota.  (The owners of Canteen have since then opened several other outlets in London.)  At a Wagamama, our meal was pitiful: mushy noodles – overcooked instant noodles, the kind one can buy dry in a styrofoam pot for under a pound – drowning in condiments, prepared by cooks, as Marion put it in her log of the evening, who had seen pictures of Asian noodle dishes but ‘had no idea how they were supposed to taste.’  Certainly there was no resemblance between the thick, chewy, lightly dressed fresh-pulled soba noodles I used to love for lunch in San Francisco’s Japantown and the watery ramen topped with a mixture of undercooked and overcooked vegetables swimming in bottled sauce I received at Wagamama.  (It is not judgmental to say that either.  The food was bad as a cold wet afternoon in November is bad.) Acorn House was an exception, though not in all things.  What was happening at Acorn House, no less, exemplified the London system of continuity-in-variety than any other place we visited. It also exemplified the struggle of the culture of food in the face of the post-industrialist economy.  But I will get back to that.

            The highlight of our experience was intended all along to be Petrus, a Michelin two-starred ‘Modern French’ restaurant, run by a celebrity chef, Marcus Wareing, a protégé of Gordon Ramsay.  All of the guidebooks suggested that this was one of the premier places to eat in London.  We studied pictures of the dining room and were impressed.  Situated in the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge (where single rooms start at £459 per night), it looked comfortable and chic, an art nouveau – art deco establishment with dark wood and velvet-clothed walls, high windows, brass fittings, claret-coloured furnishings, and white linen tablecloths.  It had an enormous wine list, somewhat smugly featuring the red wines of Chateau Petrus (though the food has no connection to the region, the terroir, or the people who work at the chateau), and a complex tasting menu.  It also had a special lunch menu, three courses featuring either a pork or a beef dish, for thirty pounds a person, which was about as much as we could afford.  And as I guessed, correctly, among the most prominent restaurants of London it was one of the easiest to secure a reservation for.  Marion and I nervously phoned in, and requested a time slot we thought would most likely be available, 2 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.  Our request was accepted, though only on condition that we leave a credit card deposit and agree to the restaurant’s dress code, and not wear jeans, or tennis shoes, or other proletarian paraphernalia.

            So we were going to eat in a Michelin two-star in one of the swankiest parts of London, on the ground floor of one of its most expensive hotels, with a suitably snooty clientele, in a dining room overseen by a renowned chef.  For us it would be the culinary equivalent of visiting the Eiffel Tower the first time; only, since it was only a two-star, not a three, and since we were going to order the bargain lunch, it would be like going to see the Eiffel Tower but not taking the lift to the top.  We would stand under the structure, we would have seen it, something auratically unique and famous and impressive, but we would always be left to wonder what we had missed, a third Michelin star.

            The experience in any case, speaking of the auratic, would be akin to the exercise of what John Urry (2002) calls the ‘tourist gaze’.  Going to a site, in this case Petrus, taking pleasure in apprehending something defined by its differentness from our accustomed habitat, and at the same time participating in the construction of its differentness, we were gastronomic tourists in search of aura, who were also, conversely if paradoxically, bringing aura with us.   We were looking for something that couldn’t be found unless it was looked for, since the looking was part of what was being looked at.  You get the idea.  That we were social scientists, however, had a serious impact on the experience.  We were aware of observing ourselves observing and participating in the auratic restaurant scene, as if we were pursuing reality within a hall of mirrors.  But the ‘difference’ in question, the outcome of our visit to Petrus, was a performance of class, privilege, and glamour that, for all its artificiality and pretentiousness, was neither insubstantial nor inconsequential.  What we would experience would be a performance of class, privilege, and glamour in fact, even if we were only, in principle, visitors to the fact.  Though a modest research grant was in part responsible for our tour of the site, what we would enjoy that afternoon was precisely the kind of experience precisely that the pursuit of wealth today is designed to procure, especially in financial capitals like London.  Our site of pleasure was an economic goal, a motive for real economic behaviour, and no doubt therefore a pretext for all sorts of barbarisms and depredations.

            Be that as it may, we were novices; we were uninitiated, and felt it.  Needing to arrive by appointment to an elaborate mid-day dinner, we got a little anxious; we suffered from stage fright.  We spent a lot of time grooming ourselves that morning, picking out our clothes, and, once dressed, worrying whether we were dressed appropriately.  We spent the morning wandering about the streets of London involved in other research, looking at food markets, but with our minds distracted and our hearts in our mouths.  Would we make it on time?  Would our clothes be mussed by the time we got there?  Would we make a good entrance?  Would we, as we partook of our sybaritic pleasures, as it were, remember our lines?  By one o’clock in the afternoon we were nearly frantic with expectation.  The day was nearly wasted because we could think of nothing else and by the time of our arrival – we were five minutes late, since we had turned left rather than right as we neared our destination, ended up in the wrong neighbourhood, and were forced to rush about looking for a cab, which eventually we did find – I was in a sweat.  But we were welcomed, with easy graciousness, by a young woman at the door, who seemed to have had it held it open for us by yet another worker, and then by the maitre d’ standing front and centre, a smiling young Frenchman with slicked back hair, and, at our table, by a relieved and serious and heavy-lidded waiter, all of them greeting us as if we had come home from a hard day in the fields oppressing the natives, and everyone was glad at our safe return.

            The restaurant, it turned out, was excellent, though not I think the best I have ever eaten at.  We were seated at a large square table that stood as if an island within a broad archipelago of table-islands, with the spacious sea of the thick wine-red carpet all about us.  Whatever else I enjoyed that afternoon, I can safely say that, in a public restaurant, I have never been given so much room to eat in before.  Only about ten of about twenty tables were occupied, populated by very well dressed couples and trios, who every now and then raised their eyes from their own tables and gave fellow diners mischievous looks, across the expanse, of guilty self-satisfaction, as if they had been caught dallying with the ladies (and/or the eunuchs) in someone else’s harem.  A private room behind us was occupied by about a dozen young revellers: some kind of guilt-ridden office party, it seemed.  The food was delicious, if not surprising, with only two slight disappointments: an amuse-bouche of salt cod puree (in other words, a brandade de morue, though the restaurant eschews French terms when it can), which was placed on our table as we arrived and that was a bit bland as brandades go; and a tarte tatin (there’s no English equivalent) for two, which was very brown and bubbly but neither particularly sweet, nor succulent, nor sour, nor fruity, nor crusty, nor rich.  But for the rest, all was very fine. In order, this is what we had:

            – A glass of mushroom-shallot soup, topped by truffle foam and resembling a glass of sweet mocha with cream on top, but tasting savoury only.

            – For her, a smoked trout ravioli in a seafood cream, which tasted (she claimed) like sex; for him, a crab bisque served in a small sauce boat and then drizzled over a pyramid of shredded crab meat and ribbons of drizzled sauces in a white soup dish.

            – For her, aged, hung, lovingly reared Angus Aberdeen rump steak, served au jus on a mound of tiny crinkly root vegetables, the medium rare beef so fat and juicy one almost didn’t need to chew it; for him twenty-four hour wine-braised belly pork (Americans would call this a sideloin of pork), also served with its juices and baby vegetables, the meat again very tender and in this case intensively flavoured, as if wine and pork and vegetables had been combined and sublimated together into a new chewy essence.

            – For both, a palate cleanser served in oversized shot glasses, with layers of apple sorbet, sauce anglaise, and apple jelly.

            – For both, a cheese plate, chosen from an impressive cheese board, their selections including an Epoisse and an Ami de Chambertin (both soft, rinded cow’s milk cheeses from Burgundy, to go with our wine) which were unctuous and earthy, one milky tasting and the other one cheesy and salty.

            – For both, but ordered by her, the fatal tarte tatin, served with a boat of clotted cream and a scoop of banana ice cream.

            – For both, coffee and bon-bons, the bon-bons with the sweetness and crackle of cookies from the cookie jar, taken on the sly, but better, and in a great quantity.

            – For both, inebriation and satiety.

            We didn’t get all of this for our thirty pounds each, it must be added.  The cheese course was extra.  And we found ourselves encouraged to drink a bit more than we expected, and more extravagantly, which also added to the cost. 

            As we sat down, while the amuse bouche was being placed on the table, a Champagne trolley was wheeled in front of us, smelling of ice and bubbles.  It was hard to say no when we were asked if we would care for a glass of champagne.  We were given three choices from already open bottles in a silver tub.  We chose the first, without quite understanding what the waiter had said.  Enjoying what turned out to be a good but unexceptional Ayala Brut Majeur, we found out when the menu came that our little acquiescence to bubbles and ice had already cost us an extra twenty-four pounds.  If we had chosen the third Champagne offered, a vintage something or other, it would have cost us seventy pounds.  That’s one hundred and forty dollars for two glasses of sparkling wine.

            As our order was taken, we found ourselves both having fish for a first course and meat for a second, and as we thought it silly, having come this far, and having already been soaked for the Champagne, not to enjoy each course to its full, with proper accoutrements, we decided to take a little splurge on the wine.  (The French call this ‘going all the way’).  So we ordered half a bottle of white Jean-Max Roger 2005 Sancerre for the fish course, and to go with the meat and the rest a full bottle of red burgundy, a 1998 Pernand-Vergelesses, indeed a Premier Cru Laleure-Piot ‘Vergelesses’, which, though I (to my shame) had never heard of either the winemaker or the type of wine before, seemed a bargain at only fifty-nine pounds, since it was the only impressive-sounding wine more than a few years old available at less than seventy quid.  (Unlike Marion, however, who raved about it, I was a bit disappointed by the results, finding the wine to be a little too thin and fruity.  It was still perhaps a little young.)   

            In any case, the total bill came to two hundred and twenty-one pounds, far more than I had ever paid for lunch or dinner before.  I pretended not to be shocked.  I pretended that it was worth it.  Perhaps it was.  I paid the bill and walked out on my own two feet as if I were accustomed to spending two hundred quid for lunch, with smiles and thanks to the servers all around, the fine waiter who supervised our meal and the assistant waiter who brought the main courses and the assistant assistant waiter who brought the secondary items and the assistant assistant assistant waiter who filled our wine and water glasses if someone higher up wasn’t around and who brushed the crumbs off the table cloth, and along with them the sommelier, his side-kick the evil demon tending the champagne trolley, the receptionist at the front who had had the front door opened for us and showed up by the table every now and then, swaying her hips, and above all the slick, smiling, joking, friendly, helpful, and altogether artificial maitre d’.  I walked out with Marion on my arm, out through a bar and an informal, cheaper dining facility, out through the marble-floored hotel lobby, and out into the cool bracing air of a late London afternoon.  Did we hail a taxi to get back to our hotel, which wasn’t that far down the road?  I don’t remember.  But I remember the two of us getting back to the room and collapsing, overwhelmed by the amount of food and drink we had introduced into our bodies, uncomfortable, bloated, exhausted.  We threw our clothes off and went to sleep, dreaming the uncomfortable dreams of the overstuffed, and woke up in the dark, still a bit bibulous and full.  We weren’t able to eat another thing for the next twenty-four hours.

            That’s what one gets, alas, for two Michelin stars in London, though the guide books might not tell you all that.  And as for its meaning – the meaning of the restaurant, or our experience of it, of the class system it betokens, of the Michelin and related rating systems it participates in – a little bit more remains to be said.  The original Michelin system was a very French affair, and in France today it continues to be Gallocentric, and even xenophobic (Mesplède, 2004; Remy, 2004).  For the most part ignoring what in England are called ‘ethnic restaurants’, not to mention fast food joints, and devoted to what Remy unapologetically calls tables bourgeoises, the Michelin system documents its own kind of ‘continuity-in-variety’.  Although regional variations abound throughout France, the Michelin system presumes that they all add up to a single jangling whole, much like the concordia discors of the universe depicted in classical cosmology, and the presumption is not entirely wrong.  From the top of the Michelin rating system to the bottom, and below that to the literally thousands of restaurants and cafe-restaurants and bistros that don’t make it into the Guide, and from Brittany to the Côte d’Azur (and perhaps all the way to Corsica), most of the dining out establishments in France serve what is justifiably thought to be ‘French food’, a single kind of food with regional and qualitative variations.  Alain Ducasse at the Plaza-Athenée serves the same kind of food as the nameless bistro around the corner; it is only much more elaborate, much more finely sourced, exquisitely prepared, obsequiously served, and (one imagines) better tasting.  The Michelin system proposes in fact that the three-star restaurant will serve as a model for the bistro around the corner and all the other dining establishments in France, that it will set fashions, standards, and principles of French cookery for everyone everywhere else.  However well or ill the little bistro around the corner or the little relais in the countryside live up to the model, however humbly, cleverly, mechanically, or unimaginatively, or however idiosyncratically or regionally varied the bistro or the relais may prove to be – so that everywhere in France steak frites inevitably ends up on the menu, along with a regional or traditional plat du jour – the three-star restaurant is supposed to sit astride a hierarchy of emulation to which all non-‘ethnic’ restaurants are understood to belong.

            The same concordia discors, however, simply cannot be found in London or anywhere else in the United Kingdom.  Petrus is already a different kind of restaurant from almost anything to be found elsewhere in the country.  It is French, though with no regional affiliation, and it is luxurious, operating in the tradition of haute cuisine; indeed, it is emulating three-star establishments like Alain Ducasse at the Plaza-Athenée.  And in all these respects it serves a very different kind of food than will be found in almost any other eatery in London or the UK.  The concordia discors of French cuisine in France supposes at once a horizontal and a vertical integration, horizontal by way of the regionality of French food, and vertical by way of the standard-setting role of the most prestigious establishments.  The world of food in modern Britain, however, is integrated neither horizontally nor vertically.  Regional variation is minimal, and vertical integration is impossible.4  Food in modern Britain is segmented. 

            On the streets of London, therefore, though one will find, if one is looking for them, doorways into palaces of haute cuisine rivalling some of the haut-ist cuisine in the world, one will not find lots of little bistros emulating haute cuisine or much of any type of French cookery.  Instead, one finds: Wagamama, Pizza Express, Yo! Sushi, and Nando’s, as well as countless fast food-take out restaurants, from the many large local chains like Pret A Manger (with 120 locations in Greater London) and EAT The Real Food Company (sic; with 61 locations in London) to American-based multinationals like McDonald’s and Subway’s and, especially in the less well-heeled neighbourhoods, countless kebab shops and other takeaways (see Jackson 2006).  The typical lunch of the typical Londoner is not a twenty-four hour braised sideloin of pork washed down with a 1998 Pernand-Vergelesses Premier Cru, but  a ‘stuffed’ sandwich made with square ‘sandwich bread’, slathered with mayonnaise and layered with a few slices of animal protein and vegetable matter, served cut in halves in a triangular plastic box, with the insides of the sandwich halves showing, taken from off the shelves of a refrigeration unit from Pret A Manger (which in spite of the name serves nothing French), EAT, Greggs, Marks and Spencer, Tesco Express, Darwin’s Deli (one location), or even Boots, the ubiquitous British drugstore chain, the sandwich accompanied with a sweet soft drink and a packet of ‘flavoured’ crisps – these last on the shelves of every sandwich purveyor in Britain including crisps flavoured with seasoning powders to resemble such items as pickled onion, roasted lamb with rosemary (I am not making this up), spicy prawns with Thai chili, roast chicken, beefsteak with onions, Mexican-style nachos, and Barbecue ribs – and eaten on the run.

            Because of the segmentation of purveyance (marketing executives call this ‘niching’) modern Londoners can well claim to have available to them an especially varied diet.  Even the potato chips are varied, featuring flavours from the four corners of the world.  As we have seen in the case of the Prince of Wales, that most traditional of British dining options, the pub lunch, can set Chicken Kiev alongside Chicken Tikka and steak and ale pie; or in the case of snooty Cheneston’s, chutney and risotto can be placed cheek-by-jowl with foie gras terrine and pot roast and mash.   But there is no integration.  For that reason, the food scene in London can very aptly be characterized as ‘postmodern’ in the most familiar sense: the food scene lacks a centre, or a framework of hierarchical value.  But for that reason too, the idea of London as a capital of cuisine has to be severely qualified.  The lack of a centre or a governing hierarchy of culinary values makes it easy for Londoners to experience the thrills of novelty and dissonance in the midst of an orderly but bustling cityscape.  That dissonance is one of the most exciting things about London.  It has engaged restaurateurs in a competitive struggle, indeed a somewhat Darwinian struggle for custom that has resulted over the past twenty years in some fuss-worthy achievements of quality.  But it has made London dining a divided and fragmented affair.  The kind of food one eats depends almost entirely on how much one is able, willing, and knowledgeable enough to pay (call this knowledgeableness ‘cultural capital’, if you will) so that the well-to-do and fashionable set in London subsist on an almost completely different diet from the majority of Londoners.  At all price points, and at all the niches of the market, restaurants persist in cultural isolation from one another, and from the general culture of the nation.  The shared community of consumption in modern day Britain, if such a place exists at all, is to be found not in the places where it eats but in the places where it drinks, and even the public house industry (with the spread of chains like Wetherspoon’s at the low end and Bar One at the high) is increasingly segmented.

            Running a restaurant in London, or anywhere else in Britain, therefore presents a unique challenge.  In the midst of the Tower of Babel of food here, it is very difficult for a restaurateur to find his or her own and proper language, not to mention his or her own proper voice or style.  And in the midst of the Darwinian struggle for custom, it is very difficult to find an infrastructure to rely upon.  Go to a restaurant in a seaside town in any of the Latin countries, and you have a very good chance of getting a fine seafood dinner, and that is because the infrastructure is there.  The restaurateur doesn’t have to look far for decent fish, or decently trained servers and cooks; they are already there.  In London, however, the produce, the service, and the cookery all have to be searched out, nurtured, and sustained.  They cannot be taken for granted. The money and effort required to develop and sustain the system is one of the reasons why food, good as it sometimes is, is so expensive in London, and it is one of the reasons why the logic of the multiple has come to dominate the restaurant scene. 

            We discovered a pointed example of this in one of the first places we visited, the celebrated Acorn House.  An outgrowth of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen project, Acorn House is at once a commercial institution and a charitable trust, which trains chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds and serves reduced price meals to agency employees.  Its main mission is both ecological and aesthetic.  It wants to provide food with minimal waste and maximum sustainability, producing the lowest possible carbon footprint, using only locally sourced and seasonal ingredients; and it wants to do all that on the ground floor of an office block at the side of a drab and busy thoroughfare, near King’s Cross, while both providing cheap meals for employees and competing for the custom of fussy Londoners capable of spending thirty quid a head or more for a meal.  It has its own compost heaps and vegetable plot on the roof of the office building, and only the most eco-friendly of equipment, furnishings, and fittings.  It gets its cooking oil from rape seed grown within a hundred miles or so of the centre of London, its pork and artichokes from even closer, its table water (with low energy filtration) from the tap.  Though rather late in the day by international standards, given the examples from way back of  Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Slow Food in Bra, Acorn House is aiming to create a new infrastructure of restaurant service.  The sourcing of ingredients, the developing of the work force, the management of the home economy of the establishment, and even the financial structure are all new and unique.  The cuisine too, though based on traditional Italian principles, is somewhat new.

            Our meal there, taken in a sleek, open and inviting dining room, with light green furnishings along with lots of wood, was all about vegetables.  We ordered from the ‘Menu for March’, the only menu available.  I started with a rich beetroot and cardamon soup, Marion with a watercress and parsley concoction.  I then had grilled sea bream served on a bed of two items from a so-called salad menu, borlotti beans and artichokes, and Marion had roasted guinea fowl au jus served on a bed of three other salad items, celeriac, salsify, and spring cabbage with pancetta.

            The flavours of every item were fresh, assertive but balanced, and every item too was cooked exactly à point – which is to say, at just the right amount of doneness.  The beetroot soup tasted of beets; the guinea fowl roast, which was hot, unctuous and moist all the way through, tasted of fowl, and was slightly gamy.  This was no supermarket chicken.  The salads were stars in their own right.  We especially enjoyed the salsify, a root vegetable we had not had much experience with before, its flavour and texture something between celery, parsnip, and asparagus.  These ‘salad’ items, slightly vinegary and garlicky in taste, added lightness, contrast, and variety to the heavy meat of the guinea fowl and the dense fish flavours of the sea bream.

            But of course they are not really ‘salad’ items, in the Italian sense of the word.  They were not insalate; they were verdure and fagioli.  And though classic Italian cuisine might serve any of them as antipasti, it would never serve them, at room temperature, with an oil and vinegar dressing, as an accompaniment to a large portion of hot animal flesh or fish.  Though everything on the menu (apart from some classically Northern European soups and deserts) was Italian, the dinner itself was something else; it was an innovation, and yet another hybrid affair.

            Not that there is anything wrong with that, as a character on Seinfeld might say.  But the very success of what Acorn House is doing betrays the contradictions inherent in modern London cookery. Here, in a restaurant devoted to local sourcing (and that in the midst of the largest conurbation in Europe), the items themselves were often of foreign provenance – Italian beans, African guinea fowl, not to mention olive oil and charcuterie from Italy and what is openly acknowledged to be dairy products from Norway and France.  Most of the cookery was foreign too.  And yet again, here in a restaurant devoted to Italian principles, the meals themselves were put together in a non-Italian way, an Acorn House way.  (Nor for that matter, were there any Italians on staff, as far as we could tell.)  Acorn House was not only trying to promote not only a new ecology of restaurant management, but a new way of putting meals together, a new way of eating, which mimicked Italian traditions but also violated them in favour of something less conventional and ceremonial.

            And it was doing it, again, by establishing what amounted to a new infrastructure of food.  Acorn House was meant to be not just a restaurant, but an institution with an identity, and it was meant to have an identity that not only branded it, giving it an image attractive to customers, but that also laid down an economy of restauration, from organic rape seed farmers in Essex to compost pits on a rooftop in King’s Cross.  It is all very heroic, and I wish them the best.  But it also amounts to a phenomenon Andrew Ross (1991) once called attention to on the subject of New Age science.  An alternative to establishment science, New Age science is counter-cultural, oppositional, even revolutionary.  But in its attempts to oppose the establishment, it ends up mimicking it.  No practice is more capitalistic, entrepreneurial, and consumerist than New Age science, with its alternative publishing houses, medical facilities, health products, trade shows, and boutiques.  And the same thing could be said about the New Age innovation called Acorn House.  If it is trying to revolutionise the way people eat, though in a counter-cultural spirit, it is in fact doing no more no less than what most successful new ventures in London do.  The fuss about London, over and above the unfortunate facts that most food in London is still not very good, and most Londoners still eat poorly (on which see Blythman, 2006) stems from the un-centred, un-hierarchical energy of the London food scene: every new successful restaurateur in London is trying to reinvent London cookery, trying to bring forth, out of the Darwinian jungle of the London food scene, a new and dominant species.  But the first commandment of London cookery isn’t then to ‘make it good’, but something much more ambitious.  It is biblical, even: ‘Go forth and multiply!’

            Talking to Jay Rayner at the Observer (2007: 63) head chef Arthur Potts made all of this very clear.  ‘We won’t buy from just anyone’, Potts said, speaking of his suppliers of beets and vodka and cheese.  ‘They have to be willing to fit in with what we are doing here.’  But that shouldn’t be difficult, Potts went on to say, in spite of the evidence of the thousands of other restaurants and take-away joints in the vicinity of London.  ‘We should be the way all restaurants are run.’

            I trust I don’t have to underscore the irony of all this.  ‘I’d like there to five Acorn Houses scattered around London,’ added Jamie Grainger-Smith, Pott’s business partner.  ‘Why stop at five?’ Arthur Potts interjected during the interview. ‘I want thirty-two: one in every London borough.’ 


 

Works Cited


Bell, David. 2002. Fragments for a New Urban Culinary Geography. Journal for the Study of Food and Society 6 (1):10-20.

Blythman, Joanna.  2006. Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined Its Appetite.  London: Fourth Estate.

Bennett, Tony. 2005. The Historical Universal: the Role of Cultural Value in the Historical Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. British Journal of Sociology 56 (1):142-64.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by R. Nice. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Certeau, Michel de, Luce Girard, and Pierre Mayol. 1998. The Practice of Everyday Life: Volume 2, Living and Cooking. Translated by T. J. Tomasik. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

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1

 The appearance of the Michelin Guide to London, however, was part of a general expansion of the Michelin imprint, which has since gone on to cover Tokyo and the Main Cities of Europe.

2

Bell claims that Ulf Hannerz (1990) had long since ‘observed’ this about ‘the cosmopolitan’.  But in fact, Hannerz says no such thing.  The overheated if amusing language is entirely Bell’s invention.

3

 Roberts (2002: 151) cites a 1935 account of Caucasian eating in Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles: ‘There are several cafés where you can get excellent dinners – if you know how to order.  If you ask for Chop Suey, they know you for a tenderfoot and treat you accordingly.  Real Chinese food is delicate and rare . . .’

4

 The fundamental idea of the leading food critics in Britain, like Matthew Fort of the Guardian, is that almost all the good food in Britain is to be found in the vicinity of London.  Certainly all the ‘best’ restaurants in Britain are in the South, and, apart from three or four places in Berkshire and Oxfordshire, all within the city of limits of London.  Meanwhile, in spite of a fad for serving ‘local produce’ in all the four corners of Great Britain, virtually every ‘Modern British’ restaurant with ‘local produce’ pretensions is still serving dishes like roast beef with gravy, lamb chops with gravy, mashed potatoes, and platters of steamed mixed vegetables: the ingredients are sourced locally, but they are mainly the same ingredients and virtually the same style of cooking as one finds anywhere else in the country.