The food writer and cookbook author discusses game-changing chefs, regional cuisines and the evolving face of the London dining scene.
For anyone who hasn't been across the pond recently, London is in the midst of a restaurant renaissance. London has had grand old chefs of fine dining like Marco Pierre White and the boundary-pushing cuisine of Heston Blumenthal but a new bevy of people in the kitchen are challenging preconceptions about the British food scene and what constitutes "British food" itself. So what changed, what's changing and what does this new London look like?
We asked Tom Parker Bowles, esteemed British food critic and author of The Cookbook: Fortnum & Mason, to tell us what’s been going on over the last few decades—and where you should eat now. The following is excerpted from our interview.
London thrives on its diversity.
“The first thing is that London is obviously an old city, and a city that’s built on immigration. What makes London great is immigration. It’s this great multicultural, multinational city. The Edgware Road—you could be in the Middle East in summer, with the smell of shisha pipes and grilling lamb—and then you go across to New Malden in Southwest London, that’s got a huge Korean community. You go to a place called Southall, in West London, which has got a huge Punjabi community, and South Kensington, where there’s a big French community.
London is a collection of villages, but multinational villages—whether it’s Brixton, with a big Caribbean population, or Peckham, with a big Nigerian population. This is what makes it a great eating city.”
But British food hasn’t always had the best reputation.
“Unlike, say, China or India or France or Italy—which have always had a very strong food culture—Britain sort of lost her food culture, for a variety of reasons. You can go right back to the Inclosure Acts, the Industrial Revolution, where people left the country and came to the cities, the rise of technology and processed foods...all of these things came together to destroy Britain’s native food culture. Hence, over the last 30-40 years, British food is seen as grey and bland, greasy and boring—and in a lot of cases, there’s some justification for that.”
People are rediscovering—and reinventing—British food.
“On the other hand, we’re beginning to—beginning to—understand British and English cooking once more. In this London culinary renaissance, there’s this sort of rediscovery of British ingredients and cuisine. We’ve got a hell of a long way to go, and the revolution has not taken place yet, but we’re on the start of a long road.
What British cooking really is, is intensely seasonal—it would be asparagus in early summer, and sea trout or game in the autumn. Very seasonal, and quite simple as well. It’s all about the quality of the ingredient.
So you’ll find a lot of chefs in London doing this—for instance, Fergus Henderson of St. JOHN. Fergus does nose-to-tail, so it’s pretty much eating every part of the animal—offal and everything. This no nonsense British cuisine is coming back now. We’re not embarrassed, we’re not just looking to the French as we used to do. You have chefs from Heston Blumenthal to Brett Graham at The Ledbury, Mark Hix of Hix restaurants...all these London chefs who are drawing on British heritage.”
Britain has always been a crossroads of culinary development.
“Chicken Tikka Masala (which is a curry that you wouldn’t recognize in India, certainly) is as English as roast beef or fish and chips. And fish and chips—you know how everyone says ‘English as fish and chips’?—well, fried fish was Ashkenazi Jewish. At the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century, you had the Ashkenazi Jewish population coming to London, and they served cold fried fish on the street. And of course, chips are French. So this great 'British' dish is actually French and Jewish, which I find fascinating—you always have these racist thugs who will say ‘British as fish and chips,’ and it’s a joy to be able to tell them otherwise.”
People across Britain are growing, hunting, curing and bottling quality ingredients like never before.
“You know, we have this fantastic produce in Britain, and we’re beginning to understand it, and use it, and be proud. We never would pretend to be one of the superpower culinary countries, but we’ve got his absolutely incredible produce. Especially game—grouse, partridge, pheasant, woodcock. And cheeses! We’ve got this unpasteurized milk cheese world—more local cheeses than France now, and good ones. And incredible charcuterie, and even wine—the Southeast is on the same swathe of chalk as Champagne, so you’ve got these sparkling wines of really, really, really high quality.”
London isn’t the only amazing restaurant town in the UK.
“London is where it starts, but it goes off all over of course—to Edinburgh and Manchester and Bristol. Stephen Harris, at a place called The Sportsman in Seasalter, is a fascinating man—self taught. He went to all the great restaurants of London, Le Gavroche and Chez Nico and Marco Pierre White, and taught himself. The Sportsman is an old run down pub, situated in Kent, near Canterbury—so in the 14th and 15th century, this was all church land. The church was very rich, so [the region] had all this lamb, and herbs, and meat; he’s drawing on a little bit of that history. But he’ll use Japanese influences or French influences—he hasn’t got culinary myopia—and that, for me, sums up the new British.
There’s a guy called Tom Kitchin in Edinburgh who’s doing a similar sort of thing with Scottish food. There’s Sat Bains in Nottingham, doing astonishing modern food, Heston-style, in his own way. Sean Hill at the Walnut Tree [in Wales]. And Bristol, which is a city in the Southwest, has got this fantastic burgeoning food scene with restaurants like Casamia, Adelina Yard, really knocking out some really high end food.”
And people all over the country are starting to think about food in a new way.
“Food is a great uniter—to sit down and break bread together, it unites class, religion, money. It really is the great universal experience, eating. We’re in the beginning; obesity is going up, Type II Diabetes. People are eating more processed foods. So you know, it’s still very much a middle class thing, this food revolution.
[But it’s possible] to be obsessed with food, to grow a tomato plant, or appreciate a sausage, without having to be a billionaire. I think people all over Britain are beginning to appreciate good food. There’s hope for the future, basically, and hopefully this permeates down to everybody.”