Andy Lynes
 food journalist and writer



10 November 2007


In 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.

Hereford 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.

The 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.

Imagine 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.

It's 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.

Food 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.

So 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?

I 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.

Food 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.

Well, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Without 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 permanent repeat.

So 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.

Successful 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.

I 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.