Why your dinner does not always need to have had a pulse.
Extracted from the Ten Food Commandments, Published by Penguin Books, 2016.
- Thou shalt not sneer at meat-free cookery
A week day lunchtime and I am standing by my stove again doing something appalling. I have done bad things with food before, of course. I once ate two Pot Noodles for dinner, and didn’t even feel guilty. It was a long time ago, but I did it. I have ordered wings from the very cheapest fried-rat inner city chicken shop and scarfed confectionery that has first been battered and deep fried in a Glasgow chip shop. I have eaten a pizza with 12 mini-cheeseburgers around the crust, at Pizza Hut. All of these things are shameful, but they have a redeeming feature which is that they are in keeping with my flawed character. I am a man of appetites and sometimes those appetites make me do things. You cannot have one part of me without the other.
What I am doing now is not in character. It goes against everything in which I believe. But still I am doing it because, if I’m going to make a convincing argument about what non-meat cookery should and shouldn’t look like, I first have to go to the very darkest of places. I have to stand in another person’s shoes.
And so: I am cooking with Quorn. I am cooking with a meat substitute, made using a fungal growth called mycoprotein, which is meant to have a meaty texture that recalls the muscle mass of something which once had a pulse.
I am doing this properly. By the manufacturer’s own admission Quorn doesn’t taste of much unless introduced to other flavours so first I am making a tomato sauce: chopped onions and garlic cooked down in glugs of olive oil with a tin of good tomatoes, and generous amounts of salt and cracked black pepper. I let it simmer. I treat it as I would any tomato sauce that is going to a good home, even though I suspect this one isn’t. I blitz it, season again, and then cook it out until it starts to separate slightly. In another pan I fry off some cubes of Quorn™ Meat Free Chicken Pieces. The pedant in me fumes quietly at the lack of inverted commas around the reference to chicken, the exclusion of which I regard as bad manners. It is chicken in the same way as I am George Clooney. But no matter. Their product; their rules. I do as I’m told and sauté these eager-to-please little squares until they’ve started to colour, and wonder whether this might be an approximation of the Maillard reaction, the caramelisation of meat which gives it that savouriness carnivores like me crave so desperately. I try a piece. It doesn’t. It is just slightly crunchy over-used mattress filling. It really does need that sauce.
So I give it sauce, a big dollop of the stuff. The remaining sauce in the other pan receives a couple of handfuls of the mince. Or ‘mince’. I turn down the heat to a simmer, and wander off to play the piano, hoping a couple of choruses of something cheerful like ‘Moanin’ or ‘Mean to me’ will soothe the disquiet.
Eventually, despite my willing it otherwise, the cooking is done. The food must be tasted. I stand by the stove and fork them both away, regarding neither as worth dirtying a plate for. I close my lips and press the pieces of mock chicken against the roof of my mouth and stare sadly at the pan.
I could now lurch into hyperbole. I could rant on about this piece of cookery being where both hope and calories go to die; I could describe it as a culinary nightmare of which Freddie Krueger would be proud. I could say I would prefer to have my tongue lacerated by a threshing machine, or spend nine hours in a lift with Donald Trump, or have hot wax painted onto my genitals. But I won’t, because these Quorn dishes are so much worse than that.
They are dull. They are nothing, a tiny belch of mediocrity. No, eating them isn’t a demonstration of the gag-reflex. I’m not scanning the room desperately, looking for someone who might be willing to hold back my hair should the need arise. I am just depressed. These fragments of tortured fungus do have a texture. They bounce and vibrate beneath the teeth, and I suppose if you were sufficiently with the project you might, if the wind were blowing in the right direction, and your hormone levels were set to optimum, recognise a similarity to meat.
But why bother? Really. Why choose to eat something like this? If you don’t want to eat meat why bother trying to eat something which is a sad, inoffensive, bland approximation of a shadow of meat’s distant relative? Why go to all that trouble? What made me most mad about all this, however, wasn’t just the dreary eating experience. It was the damage it did. Because this plateful of tiresome, boring sludge simply gave ammunition to those militant carnivores who would spit and laugh in the face of non-meat cookery. It really was lousy PR for the cause of the vegetable.
And, as we edge ever deeper into the 21st Century, that is something we simply cannot afford.
I have watched animals die. I have stood at the head of the kill line in an abattoir and looked on as the electric shocks were administered, a paddle pressed to each side of the skull, followed by a blade to the throat. I have seen the speed at which the blood bursts from a body, hinged between life and death, and learnt that species changes everything. The death of a beef animal, hung 12 feet from the ceiling by a chain around its leg, is more striking than the death of a sheep, which hangs low and face to face with the slaughter man behind his spattered visor.
Dying pigs do squeal.
When I went to the abattoir a few years ago I interrogated my motives. I was writing a chapter about the environmental impact of meat consumption for a new book, and felt that describing the process by which animals die to feed us would be the most striking way into the subject. But there was something else too. Some people have a problem with the killing of sentient creatures for food. I have always said that I do not. I never have had. As far as I can see these animals only exist in the first place because we brought them into the world to be eaten. This would only be problematical if you viewed animals in some way as our equals and, while some people do hold this view again, I do not. As long as the animal has had both a good life and a good death, all is fine.
While I believe this, I also wondered if it wasn’t a bit glib. It’s all well and good to structure a nice argument. But what if you actually had to watch animals die? What then? Would that change things? I wanted to test my attitudes in the face of brutal realities. In truth I had wanted to go further. I had explored the possibility of doing the killing myself but getting the licences and permissions to do so is, rightly, complicated. There are many jobs in an abattoir; actually slaughtering animals stands right at the top of the hierarchy in terms of status and respect. It was not something I could get to do. Watching close up, again and again and again, was very much the next best thing. By which I mean, the very worst.
And the result? It didn’t change my views one bit.
I left the abattoir holding the same opinions as I did when I arrived, albeit in need of a stiff drink. I have argued piously that all meat eaters ought to be prepared to go inside a slaughterhouse. If you want to eat animals you should be willing to know what that means. And I do think that sort of experience would be hugely beneficial to the conversation we need to keep having about what and how we eat now. Perhaps you could only acquire a carnivore’s license once you had spent a day in an abattoir. That said, I suspect the vast majority of people would come out with their views little changed. Or even if they swore off meat for a while, the vast majority would eventually drift back, probably lured there by the smell of a bacon sandwich, properly made. The eating of meat is simply that ingrained.
Die-hard carnivores like to argue this is because humans have a physiological need for meat. It’s true, as studies have found, that we will declare ourselves sated as a result of eating fewer calories of meat, than say vegetables. It is an exceptionally efficient source of nutrition. There is also much evidence that eating meat many thousands of years ago enabled our ancestors to develop the kind of intellectual capacity that eventually made us human; indeed human enough for some of us to choose to be vegan. Foraged leaves, nuts and berries took too much energy to digest for the brain of pre-historic man to get what it needed. Meat simply allowed us to obtain the volume of protein needed for the human brain to become itself.
That said the anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued convincingly in his book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, that the really important development was not the eating of meat alone, but the use of fire to cook foods generally (including vegetables) making them all easier to digest and so releasing more nutrition. In his book The Diet Myth Tim Spector, Professor of Epidemiology at King’s College London, notes that non-meat eaters can be afflicted by a Vitamin B12 deficiency, which has many impacts including possible neurological dysfunction. During his own personal experiments with veganism Spector became deficient in B12. He tried taking supplements but that didn’t improve his levels so he resorted to intra-muscular injections in his bottom. He eventually concluded it was too radical an approach. ‘This is daft,’ he wrote. ‘I am trying to be fit and healthy yet having injections every month feels neither healthy nor particularly natural.’ He solved the problem by eating steak once or twice a month. His vitamin levels returned to normal. This story will not be appreciated by the vegan community.
Whatever the arguments over whether modern man actually needs meat, eating it certainly remains an ingrained part of the human culture. In his 1992 book Meat: A Natural Symbol, the academic Nick Fiddes quotes anthropological studies of various primitive tribes which found they used different language to describe being hungry for meat as distinct from being simply hungry. Elsewhere he talks about how, in Uganda, a man would trade a volume of plantain that would feed his family for four days, for a scrawny chicken that, by comparison, had very little calorific value. The chicken might be less nutritious but it was still highly prized for what it represented.
Fiddes, ever the structuralist, concludes that eating meat ‘tangibly represents human control of the natural world. Consuming the muscle flesh of other highly evolved animals is a potent statement of our supreme power.’ As he says elsewhere, ‘Taste is not an absolute. It is something we develop while growing up within a culture which has its own general preferences.’ We all know the latter to be true. Some of us like spicy food and some do not. Some of us like oysters slurped raw off the half shell and some do not. So no, meat eating, however efficient a supply of protein it might be for us, may not be an imperative. It is a deep seated cultural choice, which says a lot about our position of power in the world. Certainly the more powerful we become the more we tend to eat it. Numerous studies have shown that the higher up the income ladder we rise the more meat we eat, and not simply because it’s costly stuff (for it becomes affordable at quite a low point on that income ladder). In China the emergence of the middle classes can be measured in meat consumption, from 10kg per person per year in 1975 to 45kg by 2012, with a forecast of 69kg by 2030 (as meat consumption in the US and UK slips down from a peak of around 80kg per year.)
Meat has long been a symbol of power. In William Hogarth’s 1748 painting, originally entitled The Gates of Calais, a huge piece of beef is shown being transported to an English tavern, while undernourished French soldiers look on. The painting, now held by the Tate Gallery in London, became known as O’ The Roast Beef of Old England and took on the role of blunt piece of propaganda, the power of the English represented by their hearty diet of dead cow.
Eventually of course the French caught up and, through the books and teachings of chef Antonin Carême in the 18th Century and Auguste Escoffier in the 19th, created a culinary repertoire that put meat front and centre, literally. Any chef going through a French classical training has long been taught to start with a lump of animal protein in the centre of the plate and build out from there. In the late ‘90s the Israeli-born chef, restaurateur and writer Yotam Ottolenghi arrived in London, and signed up for a six month course at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. ‘It was always about the meat,’ he says now. ‘Everything else on the plate was in service of the meat or fish. I have never cooked as much meat as I did during those six months.’
If ever there were a symbol of that, it is the existence of that Quorn I cooked with so reluctantly. Why would we have desperate meat substitutes were it not for the cultural primacy of the meat they are trying to replace? It is based on the assumption that if a vegetable-led menu is going to succeed it has to ape flesh. And that’s exactly why meat substitutes fail so spectacularly. For non-meat cookery to be successful it has to do so according to its own agenda, not according to one set by that which it is replacing.
Happily, things are changing, albeit by necessity. There is finally an understanding of the environmental impact of raising livestock for consumption, especially when they are fed on crops that could be fed directly to humans rather more efficiently. There are varying figures depending on species, with beef requiring the most and chicken the least, but on average it takes five kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat. With the global population rising from just north of seven billion now, towards ten billion or even more by the end of the century we cannot afford to be stuffing all those crops down the gullets of animals. And then there’s the carbon footprint. One study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation attributed 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions to the livestock industry. This figure has been disputed. Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: a benign extravagance points out that the UNFAO figure attributes literally all deforestation globally to the meat business. And yet significant amounts are down to logging and land development.
He puts the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions at closer to 10%, though he accepts that this is still too much. While some diehard opponents of the meat business argue (and will always argue) that all of it is an unnecessary use of land upon which crops could be grown for human consumption, Fairlie notes that ruminants can eat a lot of bio mass that cannot be consumed by humans but which would otherwise be wasted, and can be grazed on upland fields which could not be used for crops. Once he does all his sums, Fairlie concludes that our meat consumption needs to fall to about half of what it is now. Which it almost certainly will do anyway, because meat prices are going to continue rising alongside demand from the emerging middle classes in Asia. There is a limit to production, not just in terms of desirability, but also in practicality.
Which means one thing. The future of non-meat cookery is not in the hands of those who have sworn off eating animals altogether. It’s in the hands of those of us who are cutting down. Or the Reductarians, as some have called themselves and I never will, because it’s the sort of contrived word which makes me want to punch walls. It also smacks of doctrine and manifesto, a defining feature of the radical meat-free lobby. Suggesting people might like to try cutting down is a different, much gentler approach. It is about good taste and good sense rather than cant.
The abomination that is meat-free sausages and burgers wasn’t created by meat eaters looking for something that wasn’t meat but almost looked like it. They were created by vegetarians who believed this to be the only way to advance their cause and who, in any case, don’t especially like the real thing and so don’t really care that it’s horrid. They are the same people responsible for vegetarian moussakas and cottage pies, dishes which are an apology for themselves. These are dishes which are trying (and failing) to be good in spite of the fact they don’t include meat. A moussaka requires the slaughter of a lamb to be moussaka. A cottage pie requires ground beef. A sausage exists as a way to use up every inch of the pig including its intestines. Something formed out of oats and soya and desperation is not a sausage. It’s a lack of imagination on a plate.
Non-meat cookery needs to be good because of that fact. The best non-meat cookery does not have a meaty twin. It’s not an echo of the real thing, the recipe contrived by substitutions and arch compromise and regret. It is itself. There is, for example, nothing with a pulse which will improve a perfectly made wild mushroom risotto: rice, wine, stock, mushrooms, cheese and the job is done. The entirely meat-free curries of the Gujarat would not be better if only somebody could be fagged to kill a chicken. A tabbouleh, full of the vigour of flat leaf parsley, lemon juice and cracked wheat isn’t begging to be augmented by the addition of roast pork.
Ambitious restaurants in Britain and elsewhere have, in recent years, started filling their menus with these non-meat based dishes, and for the most part the movement has been led by meat-eating multi-starred chefs; the likes of Simon Rogan at L’Enclume and Brett Graham at the Ledbury. The latter has a completely meat-free tasting menu. ‘It’s a good thing that it’s meat eating chefs who have led this rather than the vegetarian hardcore,’ Yotam Ottolenghi says. ‘There’s been a reversal of the ingredient hierarchy and we’ve helped to normalise it. ’ A humble vegetable like the cauliflower which spent the entirety of the 1970s in Britain being tortured in boiling water until it had surrendered both its nutritional value and dignity, has become a centre piece. At Berber & Q, a charcoal grill house in London’s Hackney, it is roasted whole and served with tahini and pomegranate seeds, and holds its own on a menu alongside dishes of slow roasted beef short rib or lamb shawarma. At Palomar, the London outpost of an Israeli restaurant group, it is flamed on the Josper grill with lemon butter, and served with their own labneh – fresh cheese – and toasted almonds. At Ottolenghi’s restaurant Nopi, it comes roasted with saffron, sultanas and crispy capers.
The Middle Eastern influence is obvious, but the movement is far broader than that. Chef Robin Gill spent his early years working for Marco Pierre White, when he was in his multi-Michelin starred, French classical pomp at the Oak Room restaurant of Le Méridien Hotel on London’s Piccadilly. ‘There, it was completely protein led,’ he says. ‘It was all about foie gras, fillet steak and truffles.’ It was the kind of kitchen where they would roast whole chickens, solely to make jus, and then throw the meat away. Gill’s approach was changed by a stint in southern Italy, where he says the beef was terrible but the vegetables brilliant. That was followed by time at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire which, for all its commitment to French classicism, has a vast kitchen garden on site.
Later, Gill opened his own restaurant, the Dairy, in South London, followed by the nearby Manor and then Paradise Garage in East London. At all three the menu walks both sides of the line. Sure, it serves meat. But it’s also about dishes of carrots with roasted barley and sorrel, or salsify with smoked curd and pickled walnuts; it’s about beetroot with fermented apple and pine, or charred leeks with caramelised Comté cheese and wild garlic. These are dish descriptions which make their own case. ‘My mindset has simply changed,’ Gill says. ‘I don’t feel the need for a lump of beef in the middle of the plate.’
And vegetarian sausages? ‘I don’t get them at all. They’re pointless. It’s the kind of stuff that really annoys me. It’s food created by people who can’t cook.’
It’s a rude thing to say. It’s also probably a little unfair. But sod it, I’m not going to argue.
Pot Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2 as a main course, or more as a side dish
Yet another dish elevating the once humble cauliflower. A version of this was shown to me by Rene Redzepi, chef of Noma in Copenhagen, acclaimed for its highly regional Nordic agenda, the menu of which features many non-meat dishes. His version used yoghurt whey for the acidity of the dressing, but that’s not something a lot of us have to hand. This version is simpler and produces more caramelisation.
A whole head of cauliflower
25g unsalted butter
1tbspn white wine vinegar
A sprig of fresh rosemary or, failing that that, a 1tspn dried herbs
- Remove the leaves from the cauliflower, then slice across the bottom to produce a flat base. Now slice it in half vertically.
- Melt the butter in a solid cooking pot with a lid, big enough to take the whole cauliflower. When it’s melted, put the cauliflower flat bottom down on to the bubbling butter. Put the sprig of rosemary on the top or, if you using dried herbs, sprinkle around the base.
- Put the lid on, turn the heat to medium and leave for 20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes, the base should be nicely caramelised. Now turn the cauliflower so the flat sides where you cut it in half vertically can also cook. Put the lid back on and cook for another 15 minutes.
- Remove the cauliflower to a warmed serving bowl, caramelised sides up. Mix the vinegar with the water. Take the pan off the heat and deglaze it with the water-vinegar mixture, scraping at the crusty bits with a wooden spoon.
- Pour the liquor over the cauliflower and season with sea salt.
There are indeed lots of modernist ways to cook with vegetables and lots of exotic influences to be brought to the table. But there is always a place for a simple but graceful old stager like this. The key to this is to make sure the leeks have drained completely.
Serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a Sunday night supper
Three medium sized leeks
200ml vinaigrette (according to instructions, on egg and anchovy recipe at end of commandment one, page x)
One egg, hard boiled
4tbspns of chopped capers and cornichon for garnish, if using.
- Wash the leeks. Trim off the bulb bottoms and the green tops. Reserve for soup because you’re a good person who doesn’t shamelessly waste stuff like that. Slice into three equal lengths. (Note: a lot of recipes suggest keeping the leeks in one piece by slicing down to within a couple of couple of inches of the base. My method is more fiddly because you end up trying to keep the pieces of leek together, but it does end up being less waterlogged and easier to eat.)
- Simmer in boiling water until soft to the tip of a knife, around 10 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.
- Boil an egg to set but not completely hard. (Personally I find bringing to the boil in cold water, and then boiling for three minutes does it). Let egg cool.
- When they’ve cooled enough to handle, carefully slice each piece of leek in half. Put a couple of layers of kitchen paper on a plate and, taking care to keep each piece of leek together, lay them out, cut side down, on the paper to continue draining for another half an hour.
- To serve: still taking care to keep them together, place the leeks in a single layer, cut side down, in a serving dish. Dress with the vinaigrette. Finally, roughly crush the egg with a fork, mixing the crumbled yolk into the white. Sprinkle across the top. Season with a sea salt and ground black pepper.
- Sprinkle with the chopped capers and cornichons, if using.
From the Ten Food Commandments published by Penguin Books, 2016.
For links to all my live shows Including The Ten Food Commandments click here.
ANNOUNCING: a new collection of my scorching reviews of terrible restaurants. Publ October 4 (perfectly timed for Christmas). Price: £5.
‘Jay Rayner isn’t just a trifle irritated. He is eye-gougingly, bone-crunchingly,
teeth-grindingly angry. And admit it – that’s the only reason you’re here, isn’t it?’
I’m delighted and thrilled if not contractually obliged to announce that, on October 4, Guardian Faber will publish Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights, a second collection of 20 of my most negative restaurant reviews. Some might argue that this is a dark and disobliging move, which adds little to the sum of human happiness. I would argue that you’re all horrid people who adore reading the utter shitbaggings much more than anything else, as the success of the first volume, My Dining Hell, proves. I could, of course, have published a collection of my most positive reviews but who among you would have bought that?
This one includes my accounts of dinner at Beast, The Farm Girl Cafe and, of course, Le Cinq in Paris. There’s an introduction which describes the aftermath of the publication of that review of the Parisian Michelin 3 Star, and I look at what happened after each of the other reviews. It is a beautifully crafted volume and you’ll want to buy copies for every member of your family this Christmas. Or I’ll sulk. Look, it’s only a fiver. What have you go to lose?
Incidentally there are 10 tickets left for My Dining Hell, my show about lousy restaurants and why we like reading about them. Crazy Coqs, London, tomorrow night, Sept 5. Tickets HERE.
There are more tickets available for The Ten Food Commandments, also at the Crazy Coqs, on Sept 11. Tickets HERE
All of my other shows, both comedy and jazz, are listed HERE
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SELL WASTED CALORIES AND RUINED NIGHTS?
With both My Dining Hell and The Ten Food Commandments we found that there were a whole bunch of non-traditional retail outlets for books which did very well with these small but perfectly formed volumes which sit beautifully by the till: think delis and cafes, butchers and B&Bs. If you would like to stock this new one please email me at [email protected] and I will put you in touch with the right sales person at Guardian Faber, who will sort you out.
Last time I did this Michael Gove got weirdly cross about it. But then it was just before Christmas, and I think the spirit of the season had got to him. I’m hoping that, now he’s back in government and very important, he’ll be too busy to have a go.
Oi you! Yes you! The one whingeing about the cost of the restaurants I review: READ THIS. (A one-size-fits-all response).
Each week beneath my restaurant review in the Observer, somebody posts a comment complaining about the cost of the meal reviewed. Perhaps this week it was you. It happens literally every week, and every week some of us make an effort to respond. But I’m very bored of doing so. Hence, I have written this one-size-fits-all response to those crass, ignorant, virtue-signalling self-serving comments about price. For anybody who has ever whinged about the cost of meals in restaurants, this is for you.
The comments come in a variety of forms.
1. I could make that at home for a tenth of the price. (Along with ‘I could feed my family for a week on that’ and ‘only an idiot would spend that sort of money on a meal.’)
2. There is something obscene about spending this sort of money in a restaurant when there are people feeding themselves from food banks.
3. I could never afford to spend that in a restaurant. How dare a so-called left-wing newspaper like the Observer give column inches to such things.
I will go through them in turn.
- I could make this at home for a tenth of the price.
Firstly, unless you are a professional chef, you probably couldn’t. And if you actually were a professional chef you wouldn’t begrudge the cost of it. In any case if you made it at home, you wouldn’t have the 20% vat, plus the costs of the building, the utilities, and the staff both to cook it for you and to bring it to you. Presumably, as you care about cost, you want the people who work in restaurants to be paid a reasonable wage for their labour. Presumably you want quality ingredients not the cheapest of the cheap? Despite what cynical people like you think, restaurants are not a license to print money. They are brutally tough businesses, as the number of closures early in 2018 has proved. One of the major problems is British consumers like you who begrudge paying a reasonable amount of money for the experience.
As to being able to do it at home, if you really do feel like that perhaps you could just stay there and shut up while the rest of us get on with leading bigger, more interesting lives.
- There is something obscene about spending this sort of money in a restaurant when there are people feeding themselves from food banks.
No there isn’t. Poverty is a terrible thing. I’ve written about it in detail. I’ve talked to people who use food banks, and their stories are awful. But the fact that some people who are not on the poverty line eat in restaurants does not make the situation worse for those who are. Poverty is a function of an unequal and dysfunctional economic system. That’s what needs to be sorted, not the price of a rib-eye steak in a restaurant. The fact is this. Some people have disposable income. They are entitled to spend it how they wish. I’ve pointed out before that, while people may complain about the cost of tickets to see premier league football teams play, nobody complains about people choosing to pay the price. Spending money to watch sport is somehow seen as authentic and real whereas spending it on dinner is degenerate. What utter bollocks. Some people like to spend their money on the opera or cars or holidays. Why the hell shouldn’t they? Who are you to tell them what they should spend it on?
What’s more some people on low incomes save up so they can afford to treat themselves. It’s their right. How dare you judge them for it.
- I could never afford to spend that amount in a restaurant. How dare a so-called left-wing newspaper give column inches to such things.
I’m sorry you don’t earn enough to visit all the restaurants I write about. I love the thought of hand-made shoes and flying across the Atlantic first class. I don’t earn enough to be able to afford either of those things, but that doesn’t mean I immediately believe they shouldn’t exist. A lot of people can’t afford all the restaurants I write about but they still like reading about them. It provides vicarious pleasure. As to the view that the Observer is betraying its values by reporting on things that aren’t all dirt cheap, again – what utter bollocks. Does that mean we shouldn’t write about cars or holidays, theatre or fashion or new tech? Or is that different?
Let’s be clear. Some restaurants do take the piss money wise. And when they do, I say so. But there is a great difference between price and value. I have paid £400 of my own money for a meal that I thought was worth it. I purchased memories. That may not be the kind of memories you want but they are what I want. But I have also spent £20 on a meal that I thought was a rip off and I have said so. The issue is never the spending of money on food in restaurants. It’s always what that money buys.
Now do us all a favour: stop whingeing and leave the rest of us alone so we can carry on with the pleasurable business of discussing restaurants.
The Jay Rayner Quartet’s first live album is now available for pre-order (with freebie track).
As the headline says, our first live album, A Night of Food and Agony, recorded live at the Crazy Coqs inside London’s Brasserie Zedel, is now available for pre-order. It will be released on September 8, but if you order it now from iTunes you will immediately get our version of the brilliant blues number Black Coffee, by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster. Take its big throaty roar as our declaration of intent.
You can pre-order the download here
But maybe you want to know what you’re getting into before ordering. I get that. So we’ve also made Black Coffee available to stream over on Spotify. You can find it here.
And of course, if you want the actual CD, and a beautiful object it is too, you can pre-order that from Amazon here.
If you want to read a little more about the album, go have a look at the announcement from a week or two back.
And we will be having a major gig to launch the album at London’s Cadogan Hall in November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Tickets for that are here.
If you decide to buy we hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed making it.
Michael Gove asked me to a meeting to share my expertise. I declined. Instead, I’ve given him a piece of my mind.
A few weeks ago, I was approached by an official at the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. She told me the Secretary of State was holding a round table discussion for ‘innovative thinkers’ on July 25 to give him ‘food for thought in the early days of the new job’. He had asked for me to be invited.
The Secretary of State is Michael Gove. I found this peculiar. Just before Christmas, when he was in the political wilderness following his calamitous attempt to secure the Tory leadership post the Brexit vote, he trolled me on Twitter. He accused me of behaving in a dodgy manner by offering to retweet photographs of my book being sold by retailers. He said it was a journalistic conflict of interest, despite the fact that none of them are retailers of the sort I review. He also accused me of failing to offer myself for public service (by implication, as he had). Hilarious: at the time, he was taking a six-figure salary from Rupert Murdoch to write for The Times when he was also employed as an MP.
It was a bizarre episode which you can read about more fully here. (I understand Gove was motivated by my having taken his wife, Sarah Vine, to task for attacking Ed Milliband over his two kitchens. I pointed out that she and Gove bought theirs using more than £7000 of public funds which they then had to return during the expenses scandal.)
And now here he was, as Secretary of State, asking me for advice. Michael Gove, the man who railed against too many experts during the Brexit referendum, was looking for my expertise. (For those wondering why he cared what the bloke from Masterchef thought, in 2013 I published a book about food security and sustainability in the 21st century).
After much hard thought, I have concluded I am just not grown up enough to play the game of British politics and sit in a room with a man of whom I think so little.
Yes, he may have done good by bringing in free school meals while at Education. Yes, he made positive moves while at Justice.
But since then he has disgraced himself. He was one of those who continued the £350 million-a-week EU lie and led us down the disastrous path to the utter folly of Brexit. He has been revealed to be a plotter and a conniver and all-round rather nasty piece of work. No, I cannot sit in a room with him and make talk, small, large or otherwise. Sorry. I’m just not that guy.
But god knows he needs advice, because our whole food supply chain has been imperilled by the Brexit vote. I have therefore decided to put my thoughts into a written submission, which I am also posting here. It should be noted that this was written prior to his announcement on reform to subsidies of today (July 21). His comments chime with what I say below, which itself is a repeat of what I said in an interview for Farming Today, broadcast in March 2017.
Some might regard this as self-aggrandising. Of course, in one sense this is true. Newspaper columnists are by their nature self-aggrandising. We believe what we have to say is worth hearing. Michael Gove can tell you all about that. No surprises there.
But I would add that, if drawing maximum attention to myself were really my aim, I would have tried to get my newspaper to publish a version of this, and earned some dosh along the way. I chose not to do that and am publishing it on my website instead.
And there is a final key point. Michael Gove has never before shown any interest in the important job he has been given. Theresa May only appointed him because she needed his support following the disastrous General Election result and the loss of her majority. He only took the job for political reasons, not because he cares about food or the environment. Politicians in these circumstances are usually found out quickly and I expect this will be the case with Gove. I don’t imagine he’ll last more than a few more months in the job before being shuffled off. Frankly, I didn’t want to waste all this effort on someone who will soon not even be there. His successor will be able to read the report too. And you, if you like.
It should also be said that writing this took a lot more time than sitting in a bloody room with him.
I emailed the document below to Gove’s office just before posting it here.
WRITTEN SUBMISSION FOR MICHAEL GOVE MP, SECRETARY OF STATE AT THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS
By Jay Rayner
In the early 1990s Britain’s self-sufficiency in food reached its highest in modern times. We were producing just over 70% of all the food we were eating. Since then the story has been one only of decline. We now produce 60% of our own food, but because of exports only around 50% of the food we eat is actually produced here. There are a number of reasons for this, but key among them is the dominance of the supermarkets. In the late 80s and early 90s a series of changes to the planning laws allowed for the building of large out-of-town hypermarkets on previously greenfield sites which in turn encouraged the boom in the supermarket sector. That created the food retail landscape we have today in which fewer than a dozen companies control over 90% of the food retail market.
The supermarkets used that dominance to drive prices ever lower, and with drastic impacts. This is no knee-jerk negative response to the concept of supermarkets. They have their positives. They have kept pace with social change, shortening the length of time it takes people to get the shopping done, thus enabling the two-job households required to keep pace with the cost of living. They have been a prime driver of food culture in the UK, providing a ready source of the ingredients consumers have been introduced to via the media. They have enabled huge economies of scale.
However, they have also imperilled whole sectors of agriculture, including the dairy and pig business. Enormous numbers of food producers have either gone bust or simply left the business because it was no longer viable. We are no longer in a position to feed ourselves adequately. And all of this is against a swiftly changing global situation.
THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
In 2006 DEFRA produced a paper on food security which declared it was not an issue for an industrialised developed nation like Britain; that the supermarket sector had the financial heft to buy us out of any problems. It was nicknamed the ‘leave it to Tesco’ report by many in the food policy world.
It was a naïve and short-sighted report which failed to understand changing global demographics. The huge expansion of a vibrant middle class in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere has challenged the conventional wisdom on the flow of produce around the world. For many years the British supermarkets had free range over the produce from the southern hemisphere. However, many of those producers have increasingly chosen to trade with China and India. In 2000 14% of the world’s middle classes were in Asia; by 2050 that will be 68%. We no longer have unfettered access to the global larder. Given the fall in our self-sufficiency, this means we are now at risk from global shocks including exceptional weather events (which, courtesy of climate change, are becoming less exceptional), disease, war and disturbances in the commodity markets. All of this was exemplified by the huge price spikes of 2008 – caused by multiple events, including bio-fuel policies in the US, drought in Australia and typhoons in Bangladesh – which saw many countries banning exports of grains.
The importance of food price rises around the world should not be understated. The Arab Spring of 2010 was, for a long while, described as some spontaneous uprising in pursuit of democracy. In truth it was a response to food price rises and the increasing inability of authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East to subsidise those costs, which had been used as a tool to keep populations in line.
BACK TO THE UK
And so now the UK sits with dwindling self-sufficiency, in a stormy world in which food has become one of the great economic battlegrounds. Added to that is the appalling folly of Brexit, forced through by a cabal of ideologues happy to trot out falsehoods about the sunny uplands of economic joy that leaving the European Union would bring.
Instead it has resulted in a devaluation of the pound, making imports more expensive and the exporting of our food more attractive.
If, as many fear, a bad deal is done for Britain resulting in huge tariffs and penalties on trade, food price inflation is going to be in double digits for years to come. That’s if we can get hold of food at all. The people who will suffer the most, of course, are those who already have the least. For them the buying of food will use up a massive proportion of their expendable income.
There are major implications for the nation’s health and therefore, over the long term, for educational attainment and class division. The state of our food supply post Brexit has within it the great potential to make Britain an even more unequal society than it already is.
I make no apologies for being a Remainer. The implications for this country of leaving the EU are appalling. It is a project which should be abandoned.
IMPROVING PRODUCTIVITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
There is an imperative for Britain to become more self-sufficient, not for reasons of petty nationalism or to fulfil some agrarian fantasy of localism but because, without it, in the current political climate, we risk not being able to keep ourselves fed. There are a number of levers that can be pulled.
The consumer and price
British consumers have become too used to food being sold too cheaply. In an age of austerity when many are struggling it is a tricky argument to make, but the fact remains. We need an agriculture sector in a position to invest in its base to help improve our productivity and therefore our self-sufficiency. The 10% of income (down from 20% in 1970) that we spend on food does not enable that. Many may find this unpalatable but the fact is this: unless we improve our self-sufficiency, we will be at the complete mercies of those international markets. Unless we pay a little more now, we risk paying vastly more later. This is an argument that farmers, retailers and the Government needs to engage with.
It does not conflict with my own belief in the EU that I also believe the current EU farming subsidy regime to be extremely flawed. The same view is held all over Europe, and the CAP was always going to be reformed, regardless of whether we stayed or left. Either way it needs to change.
It is a mystery to me why farmers voted in such number to leave Europe. I assume they believed the false promise that the money based on acreage would just keep rolling in after Brexit. I also assume they hoped it would free them from environmental protection legislation. Certainly, both parts of the regime are flawed.
At present we pay farmers not according to outcomes but based on what they have done. It doesn’t matter if buffer areas around farms haven’t encouraged greater biodiversity; it just matters that farmers have created buffers. A new set of environmental protections are needed in which farmers are paid on outcomes: cleaner water, better soil quality, higher biodiversity. They are custodians of our landscape; more of them need to be encouraged to follow best practice and behave as such. There could be a series of front-loaded grants to pay for work needed to produce the outcome, but what is required is the outcome not the activity.
Included in this should be an encouragement away from monocultures and into as diverse a range of agricultural activity as the landscape will allow. Too many of our calories come from too few a set of crops.
Single Farm Payment
This is the greatest blight on British farming. It has enabled inefficient farms to stagger on and, as a result, blocked a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers from coming into the sector. There is anecdotal evidence that Single Farm Payments based simply on acreage have encouraged the rise of the ‘slipper farmer’, which is to say farmers who put their feet up, slippers on, and simply do not farm but collect the subsidy.
The Single Farm Payment was designed for a post-war Europe that wanted to secure a continuous and stable supply of food as a way to stave off conflict. It was there to even out the risk faced by farming be it through disease, weather issues or price fluctuations.
As risk in agriculture is the issue, resources should be directed at managing that through the sort of state-backed insurance scheme used in North America. Farmers should get the support when they need it, rather than in some chronic manner which embeds poor practises and inefficiencies.
In food policy circles the oft-repeated mantra is the need for ‘sustainable intensification’: the ability to produce more food while having a smaller impact on the environment. It’s an exceedingly tricky bit of calculus. Gains made in one corner can lead to losses elsewhere. Large-scale livestock farms can, for example, have a much smaller carbon footprint per kilo yield than bespoke organic farms, but the impact on the water table can be dire.
So carbon footprinting is a blunt tool, but it still has much to recommend it (when combined with environmental subsidy based on outcome, as per above). Anecdotally, producers have told me that the process of engaging with it, and therefore of trying to enable a smaller carbon footprint, has led to greater efficiencies across the food chain. Examining one element of environmental cost leads to an engagement with all of it. The expertise behind carbon footprinting is now widespread. The Government should introduce a wide and easily accessible set of grants for producers both big and small, wanting to engage with the process. A lot of work has been done on this by the equivalent of DEFRA in the Republic of Ireland – Bord Bia – which has carbon footprinted the entire beef industry. There is much the UK can learn from this.
SUSTAINABILITY AND THE CONSUMER
As ever the agricultural sector will, in the end, be led by the consumer. And for the consumer what matters is knowledge. It is my firm belief that, over time, some form of sustainability rating should be introduced on food. We expect to see energy ratings on white goods like fridges and washing machines; why not on our food, given that we spend so much more on it? Such ratings would need to cover two points: the comparative sustainability of a product within its own category, and against others. You need to know which chicken product is the most sustainable AND that chicken is much more sustainable than beef.
Producers would be incentivised to get as good a rating for their food as possible; part of that would be a reduction in waste, and that has to be a good thing. Extending sustainability ratings to retailers themselves would again be an encouragement to reduce waste. It need not be mandatory, but those who refuse to participate would be telling their own story when it comes to the environment and their commitment to it.
Many in the food world, embracing a committed anti-corporatism, will argue for a food policy which encourages localism. There are arguments in favour of sourcing your food from as nearby as possible. In rural areas it is a way of supporting your local economy and your neighbour’s. It also ensures short supply chains. It provides a strong and engaging narrative.
However, do not be fooled by environmental arguments around localism. What matters most when judging environmental impact of food production is the full life cycle: you need to look at the carbon (and other inputs) not just of the trucks getting produce from field to fork, but in the farm buildings and machinery, the fertilisers and the workforce. It involves a large and complex set of metrics. When you do that the proportion of the carbon footprint caused by transport falls to between 2% and 4%. What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 25% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happen to be closer to you.
(The same arguments extend to both urban farming and ‘grow your own’. They are interesting educationally. Allotments are good for mental wellbeing and general fitness. But the carbon footprint of the food produced tends to be appalling.)
Light-touch regulation has, in effect, allowed a set of huge corporations to become custodians of our food supply chain. Scandals like that involving horsemeat suggest it is one to which they are not suited. In July 2013 I interviewed Philip Clarke, then Chief Executive of Tesco .
He made serious and compelling commitments to openness and to his suppliers, recognising that he was running more than just a business. At the very same time, the public was unaware that a criminal investigation was under way into gaping holes left in Tesco accounts and the way they were dealing with their suppliers. In short, the supermarket sector still has to prove it is up to the job it has been given.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator
In a shameful display of political cringing in the face of large corporations, every political party resisted the introduction of a grocery ombudsman to police the dysfunctional relationship between supermarkets and suppliers. Eventually, in 2013, one was introduced and the incumbent has attempted to do as good a job as possible within the regulations as drawn up. But they were written in an extremely naïve manner which showed little or no understanding of the food supply chain.
By restricting themselves just to the relationship between supermarkets and direct suppliers, they ignored the fact that farmers are often at the mercy of the supermarkets at second or third hand (or more): their produce often becomes the raw ingredients for manufactured products then supplied to the supermarkets by one or two or even more links in the chain. And all of those links can be victims of supermarket pressure on price, which pushes down to the farm gate, exacerbating the crisis in British self-sufficiency. It makes no sense. If we are going to protect farmers from short termism then the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator should be extended to the entire food supply chain: i.e. whoever farmers sell their produce to and upwards from there – not from the supermarkets down.
CONSUMER HEALTH AND FOOD CULTURE
The writer Bea Wilson, writing in the New Yorker, made a compelling argument for the health benefits for the British population as a result of EU membership, and the opening of trade in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Even allowing for the horsemeat scandal (which affected the UK food supply chain more than any other), the EU has provided a strong regulatory system which has ensured safer food and higher animal welfare than is the case elsewhere in the world.
By leaving the EU the UK will be forced to open itself up to food production practices that are far less healthy, palatable or even safe. Likewise we may end up importing much more meat produced at a much lower welfare standard than we are used to. In short, Brexit risks exposing UK consumers to much lower food standards than we have come to expect.
Suggesting EU membership has been responsible for a more vibrant food culture is, to my mind, less relevant. Yes, freedom of movement must have made the UK a more open country but, in an increasingly globalised world, it’s likely this would have happened anyway. Shortly before the referendum vote, a round-robin letter was circulated by the writer Paul Levy, and signed by many big names from the food world, which argued we were imperilling our increasingly cosmopolitan society. Compared to the risks of not being able to feed ourselves adequately, the possibility that we might have less access to well-made focaccia is an irrelevance.
Access to a labour force from elsewhere, however, is not an irrelevance. I refer you to my Observer piece on the challenges of getting the harvest in if the free movement of labour comes to an end.
Industry experts including Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation estimate we will need somewhere in the region of 500,000 worker permits a year if we are to keep our current food production active. However, there is evidence that increasing suspicion of xenophobia in the UK, encouraged by the toxic rhetoric in support of Brexit, is dissuading migrant workers from coming here. Why come to Britain when you could go to Spain, and be paid in euros, a much stronger currency which is only likely to become increasingly so?
One of the arguments for staying in the EU given by many in the niche and aesthetic end of the food world is our ability to remain in the scheme that protects traditional products through designations based on geographical origin or recipe.
While I’m obviously a part of that same food world, in the grander scheme of things, these protections seem to me an irrelevance. I am well aware I am in a minority for holding this view, but any certification which codifies a recipe – say, for a Cornish pasty or a Melton Mowbray pork pie or a particular type of cheese – fails to understand the drift of food history: that there is no such thing as an official recipe for anything; that all recipes change both over time and even within our own kitchens. Likewise, defining a product as coming from a particular area is entirely arbitrary. A brilliant Stilton could just as easily be made in Yeovil as in the precisely delineated area that a Stilton must currently come from.
I can see that these are important issues culturally but this, to my mind, is how they should be regarded: as issues of culture, to be passed out of DEFRA to the DCMS.
I find it extraordinary that, in the correspondence inviting me to the meeting of food experts called by you, your colleague Fiona Gately said that Brexit would not be part of the discussion. She later retracted that verbally; said it was of course something we could discuss. The point I made to her then and I make now is that, where our food supply is concerned, Brexit is the only subject. It is implicated in every single aspect of our food supply chain and risks imperilling the very health of the nation.
A few years ago, when discussing food security in the UK, Lord Cameron of Dillington – a farmer and first head of the Countryside Agency – said Britain was just ‘nine meals from anarchy’. It would take just three days of empty supermarket shelves, just three days of meals missed by hungry children and despairing parents, for the country to descend into massive civil unrest.
When I first heard that statement I regarded it as an interesting and diverting piece of hyperbole. Now it feels to me like a prediction.
Of all the things that were said to me when I was researching my recent an article on the importance of migrant labour to our food supply chain, the one that stayed with me most came from Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation: ‘If you can’t feed a country you haven’t got a country’.
Amen to that.
Please Note: Many of the points above are a summary of those in my 2013 book A Greedy Man In A Hungry World.
BIG NEWS. The Jay Rayner Quartet releases its first live recording.
A Night of Food and Agony will be available from 8 September, 2017.
I’m delighted to announce that, after five years of playing our way around festivals and clubs, everywhere from Bath to Ronnie Scott’s, from Pizza Express Dean Street to Cockermouth in Cumbria, making filthy jokes and getting away with most of them, the Jay Rayner Quartet is to release its first live album (a follow up to a slim EP we’ve been selling at gigs over the summer). You can listen to the first track of the album here courtesy of the page for the EP.
A Night of Food and Agony, recorded at the glorious Crazy Coqs inside London’s Brasserie Zedel, captures the atmosphere of our live gigs as I examine the relationship between jazz and two key themes in my life: food and drink, and growing up with my mother Claire Rayner, the renowned agony aunt and sex advice columnist. After all, the lyrics to so many songs sound like letters to an agony aunt. Accordingly, the stories I tell between songs are sharp, and not entirely clean. Or, as Times Jazz critic Clive Davis said in a review of our show, I am ‘the perfect communicator. Sidling up to his audience with a ragbag of jokes and family anecdotes, not to mention an imaginative repertoire’. Apparently I convey ‘the sheer joy of playing and exploring the music’ I love.
It was in The Times; it must be true.
I’m accompanied on bass by Robert Rickenberg, a brilliantly inventive player who rose to prominence with the Sheena Davis group and who has accompanied jazz greats such as Will Gaines and Mark Murphy, as well as pop diva Kylie Minogue. On sax is the highly-regarded Dave Lewis who has played with the likes of Lamont Dozier, Bryan Ferry and Eric Clapton, and leads his own thrilling jazz groove outfit, 1Up.
But what completes the show is the compelling vocal performance from Pat Gordon-Smith, who gets right inside every lyric. In addition, there’s a chemistry between us which isn’t surprising given we’ve been married to each other for 25 years. This isn’t mere nepotism; it’s good fortune. In short I sleep with the singer. Unless she chucks me out for snoring. Pat has been singing longer than I’ve been playing, and trained with the legendary jazz singer Liane Carroll.
Our set lists switch between jazz classics and hidden gems; tracks include ‘Black Coffee’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ and a jazz arrangement of ‘Food Glorious Food’ from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!
The album will be available both as CD and on all download formats.
See the next announcement on my blog for details of our big album launch gig.
Jay Rayner Quartet announces biggest gig to date.
Join us, and special guests, at Cadogan Hall, London on 17 November 2017
So, we are releasing our first live recording, as announced here. And that demands a bit of a celebration. Ours will be at our biggest gig to date, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, at the glorious Cadogan Hall, close to London’s Sloane Square on 17 November 2017. Like the recording it will be a raucous night of food and agony: of songs from the food and drink repertoire and others that draw on my experiences of growing up with a mother who was an agony aunt and sex-advice columnist – because the lyrics to so many blues tunes sound like letters to a problem page.
We’re also thrilled to announce that we’re supported by the brilliant trumpeter and singer Pete Horsfall, a key figure in the renowned Kansas Smitty’s, and an extra-ordinary performer, with a bitter-sweet voice to lift your heart.
Tickets are on sale now, so please buy early and often. We would love to see as many of you who have followed us to this point there as possible. Until November…
There’s more on the album, released September 8, in the post above this on my blog.
Spot the difference: the food pics supplied to The Observer by Le Cinq in Paris, as against mine.
In this week’s review of the Michelin three star Le Cinq in Paris I describe a 70€ dish of gratinated onions as being ‘mostly black, like nightmares’. Have a look at this picture of the onion dish, which ran with the review. It was supplied by the restaurant.
Weird, isn’t it. That’s not black, or at least not entirely. It’s golden, like amber, and rather beautiful. Now have a look at this picture which I shot during the dinner on an iPhone 7, using their available light.
That looks more like the thing I was describing, doesn’t it.
Here’s the thing. When I review a restaurant I book under a pseudonym. They do not know I’m coming until I’m there and sometimes still don’t clock me. I leave, I write my review, and then we send in a photographer to shoot pictures of all the things I ate. Why don’t I just shoot them on my phone at the time? For two reasons. Firstly it would draw attention to what I’m doing there and secondly, while an iPhone 7 camera is good, it’s not good enough for the needs of a quality newspaper and nor am I. We get a professional to do the job. Occasionally the food the photographer shoots looks slightly different to that which I’m writing about, but it’s never been a major difference. (Step inside these parentheses a moment. It’s worth adding that the Observer’s photographer has no idea whether the review they are illustrating is positive or negative and therefore they have no agenda. Many years ago I used to file my whole review to the picture desk, who would punt it on to the photographers. It transpired that the photographers were being hassled by the restaurant when they turned up to shoot as to what the review was like. The photographers didn’t like this and said they’d prefer not to know so they genuinely couldn’t answer. Now I just send a list of dishes.)
This week, though, really is completely different to that which I ate. Why is that? Because the great Le Cinq refused to let us shoot their food.
Apparently, it was too expensive for them to make these dishes just to be photographed. Instead they offered to send us their own PR shots. We felt we had no choice but to accept this offer. As the review has a number of critical things to say we did not wish to give them the opportunity to suggest that we had set out to show them literally and figuratively in a negative light. But hey, I have this website and it seemed a good place to point up the differences.
For sake of clarity I am in no way suggesting that le Cinq did this to deceive anyone, or to gainsay my review the contents of which they had no prior knowledge of until its publication. (I pity the person who has to translate it.) But I do think the difference between the way they portray their dishes and the one I ate is interesting.
And in case you think I just did a very bad job, here’s my companion’s pic of the same dish, also shot on an iPhone 7.
While we’re here, have a few more pictures.
Finally in case anyone is wondering, the Observer has not suddenly had a massive increase in its budgets. Which is to say, the paper did not pick up the entire 600€ bill.
I was due to be in Paris and had not eaten in one of the city’s full on Gastro-Palaces for almost ten years. I was curious. The suggestion of Le Cinq came from my friend in Paris who had eaten there a few years ago, under a different chef. She paid her own bill. I paid half of mine and the Observer picked up the rest (which is roughly at the top end of what he paper would cover on one of my usual reviews).
As you’re here why not have a look at my live shows page. I perform live – both stand up comedy and jazz – all over the country.
Why Michel Roux Jnr may not quite be the anti-Christ
The picture above is of a grotesquely exploitative institution; a living hell, where serfs labour daily and are fleeced of their wages. The presiding overlord, Michel Roux Jnr, should be dragged through the doors and burned at the stake in nearby Grosvenor Square before a braying mob. For good measure I should be tied up next to him.
That, in summary, is my Twitter feed these passed 12 hours or so after I decided to post something supportive about a man I have known for a while, have worked with and like very much, and who has been criticised over his working practices. The reception was not, shall we say, positive.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Twitter is not a place for nuance. It is about black and white. They’re a saint, he’s a sinner and so on. (If you’re interested in the subject of Internet rage try Jon Ronson’s brilliant book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)
The real world, the one outside Twitter and, dare I say it, newspaper headlines, doesn’t work like that. It’s full of murky, smudgy greys; its not just black and white. And personally I think we’re all smart enough to deal with a few of those. So I’m going to give it a go with this story.
Last month the Guardian reported that some of the kitchen staff at Le Gavroche had been paid less than minimum wage. I was head-in-hands when I read this. The month before I had published a column about this precise issue, pointing out that restaurant goers whinge about the cost of eating out while young cooks get paid criminally low salaries. What’s more I had used Roux as an example of a good employer; one who was actually reducing the working hours of his staff to help retain them and improve working conditions. And now…
Nobody should ever be paid less than the minimum wage. I’d go further and say nobody should be paid the minimum wage, but that’s a bigger battle. Roux put his hand up, admitted it had happened in a very small number of cases and that he was making sure that they would be seen right.
Was Roux in the wrong? Yes.
Was it a valid story for a newspaper to cover? Absolutely.
Was Le Gavroche the right target? I don’t think so.
Which is where the shades of grey kick in. What happened at Le Gavroche, if you take Roux’s word for it (which I do), was small scale and accidental. However in restaurants all over Britain it’s systemic. Head chefs give their cooks contracts for 40 hours then rota them for 68 hours knowing they’ll never be paid for it. My email inbox was full of terrible stories when I wrote that column. Note the massive glaring silence from the rest of the industry. They’re all terrified of being found out. No, that does not excuse what happened at Le Gavroche. At all. But if you make Roux the target you’ll be missing the real story, which is an industry full of much worse practices.
Which gets us to the second story: the news that the service charge on the bill at Le Gavroche does not go direct to the staff. The Twitter response is clear: if it’s a service charge it MUST go to the staff and if it doesn’t it’s theft. I have an awful lot of sympathy with that as I made clear when I wrote this piece calling for all service charges/ tips etc to be wrapped up into the bill, as it is in France, Japan and Australia and where the system functions brilliantly. Then staff can be paid a proper wage.
I’m going to put the next bit in caps because people seem to ignore it, almost wilfully: THIS WILL MEAN THE COST OF DISHES ON MENUS GOING UP SO STAFF ARE PAID THAT PROPER WAGE AND ARE NOT DEPENDENT ON OUR MOOD FOR HOW THEY ARE REWARDED. IT REQUIRES A HUGE CULTURAL CHANGE. Please read the whole tips piece linked to above.
What’s clear is that diners have no idea what the term ‘service charges’ means, and who that money goes to. Roux’s argument is that it’s all revenue from which he pays salaries ie that in the end it DOES go to the staff, that he wasn’t robbing anyone. Indeed he’s now going to change the system so the menus say ‘service included’.
The Twitter mob may not like this explanation. As I’ve said repeatedly the whole damn service charge thing is as clear as mud. Could it have been clearer to diners? Of course. But I also have to say this: while I do not know how much Le Gavroche pays its front of house staff, I do know that they have had many who have worked there literally for decades. In a booming restaurant market there are choices and they’ve chosen to stay there. Which is where those shades of grey kick in again. We know that there are restaurant operators who are much, much worse than Le Gavroche, who are systemically ripping off their employees.
But Le Gavroche, being an extremely expensive restaurant (though the lunch is still one of the best value for money in town), is a very easy target. Everyone can vent their fury in 140 characters at a joint that charges £200 a head and feel a smooth burst of rightful indignation. But that’s not the same as hitting the right target.
As I said in one of my tweets that aroused such indignation, I know Michel Roux Jnr to be a good employer. That doesn’t excuse the cock up over low wages or confusion over service charges. But I really do think there are better targets out there. And I decided to be supportive to a mate, because I know exactly what it’s like when the Twitter mob descends. If you disapprove of me for that, I’ll just have to live with it.
Full disclosure. I have been fed for free twice at Le Gavroche. Once in the early naughties by Michel’s father, Albert, when I was writing a history of the restaurant for the Observer, and once a few years ago at a private party. I have paid for every other meal there.
Give the gift of ME this Christmas. It’s what Jesus would have wanted.
As a biblical prophet I am often asked what to give loved ones for Christmas. Even though I am very much Old Testament and therefore pre-date the whole ‘away-in-a-manger-follow-yonder-star’ business.
I recognise that my position as the voice of an almighty that does note exist, except as vehicle for my jokes, comes with responsibilities. It means I must take this enquiry seriously. Therefore purely in the interests of shedding light in the darkness, and not out of some self-serving desire to get as big an audience as possible for my gigs, I thought I would recommend that you buy tickets to my shows for those you love. There are a bunch shortly after Christmas which will be just the ticket. As long as you buy one. And so, in date order:
On January 20, 2017 I’m bringing 10 Food Commandments to Tonbridge, Kent. Tickets here
On January 22, 2017 It’s songs of Food and agony with Jay Rayner Quartet. Tickets here (scroll down to the date.)
On Feb 2, 2017 It’s 10 Food Commandments at the watermark, Ivybridge not far from Plymouth. Tickets here
On March 9, 2017 I’m back at the Acapella studio, Cardiff for My Dining Hell. Tickets here
On March 30, 2017 It’s 10 Food Commandments, in Bristol. Tickets here
There are a v few seats left for each of the 10 food commandments shows on Dec 9/10 at Brasserie Zedel. Tickets here
Er… that’s it. Go forth my children and make it a very happy Christmas.