a recent review, Tracey Macleod of the Independent said
that "All restaurant critics love St John. It's
a requirement of the job." Fergus Henderson's style
of stripped back, bare (marrow) bones cooking is becoming
increasingly popular and influential as his acolytes
open their own restaurants around the capital.
Road - the subject of Mcleaod's review - is the latest
in a line that includes 32 Queen's Street and Anchor
and Hope, all of which have been on the receiving end
of near ecstatic write ups.
popularity among critics of this sort of fundamentalist
food can be partly traced to baked-beans-on-toast syndrome.
Anyone who has spent time away from home on business
and been forced to eat in restaurants every night for
a week or two will be familiar with it. After the third
night, all you can think of is eating baked beans on
toast in front of the telly.
then the plight of the national restaurant critic who,
week in week out eats their way through enough foie
gras, red wine jus, foam and jelly to sink a battleship
or two. And because of the sheer frequency of their
dining out, they will have become inured to elaborations
such as un-ordered extra courses and complex presentations
on expensive crockery.
an attitude shared by chefs who are so sick of cooking
fancy cuisine, that it's often bottom of the list when
they go out to eat. "I just don't want to eat that
sort of food anymore" is something I've heard from
more than one chef recently.
fundamentalism isn't just popular with cynical hacks
and off duty chefs; it works from a business point of
view too. London restaurants like Arbutus, Wild Honey,
Canteen and Tom's Kitchen are packing them in with their
own variations on the back to basics approach.
if critics, chefs and customers are all happy eating
food in restaurants they could probably cook at home,
does that mean the end for haute cuisine is nigh?
for one sincerely hope not. Although I'd include many
of the above mentioned restaurants in my current list
of favourites, I still relish the unequalled pleasure
of a truly ambitious, technically challenging meal.
The thrill of walking into a beautiful room and being
greeted by hordes of smartly dressed waiting staff as
you make your way to a smartly laid table has never
worn off for me.
fundamentalists might argue that there's comes a point
when the whole amuse bouche/assiette thing fails to
impress and you become a more mature diner with higher
minded concerns such as the provenance of what you are
about to put in your mouth.
you know what? I've been dining in fancy pants restaurants
on a pretty regular basis for the last 15 years or so
and my mouth is still very much amused by a well conceived
titbit. When I'm eating out, I'm not particularly interested
in auditing the chef's supply chain. I'm content to
trust that he gets his fish from day boats; that his
beef is properly hung and his veg are fresh from the
market. All I'm worried about is how good it tastes,
and I don't need to know the name of the chef's favourite
farmer to decide that.
received wisdom is that, despite the high cost to the
consumer of fine dining, it's a very difficult market
to make money in; staffing costs alone threaten to eat
away profit margins. But it can be done; the right product
in the right location makes a restaurant like The Square
in Mayfair the roaring commercial success that it is.
hospitality industry needs haute cuisine restaurants.
Who else will train young chefs (and front of house
staff) to the highest standards? They may well go on
to open their own fundamentalist restaurants, but they
will do so with a solid technical knowledge, broad understanding
of ingredients and insight into what hospitality really
means that will allow them to run a sound business.
fine dining, we run the risk of cooking and eating only
the familiar, classical and comforting - the culinary
equivalent of the collected works of The Beatles on
let's throw some Captain Beefheart into the mix once
in a while. Bold, innovative, experimental food may
not always work - may sometimes not even be that appetising
- but it keeps the restaurant scene moving forward.
ideas trickle down to the mainstream (Ferran Adria's
multi-course menu of tasting plates re-imagined for
the London market by Jason Atherton at Maze for example)
and keep customers intrigued and coming back for more.
love a plate of rib eye with béarnaise sauce
as much as the next greedy gourmand, but with a world
of gastronomic possibilities to eat my way through,
I won't be converting to food fundamentalism just yet.