A Brave new World

First we were dealing with ‘fast foods’ and now the ‘fast foodies’. I feel like my grandfather when I harp back to the ‘good ole days’, so I won’t. I simply note that change is inevitable, however, what is it really that is changing?

It is not only technology and produce that has changed in the restaurant business. It’s also the way that people patronage restaurants. It seems the days of discovering our favourite family haunt and sticking to it is quickly fading. The modern fickle diner is chasing the next best thing. They’re guided by the visits of the grand gourmands seeking their new culinary target and once satisfied, record it on social media and anxiously seek out another hit.

Like everything else, the restaurant industry is getting faster and rings familiar to what happened to other industries, such as music. No longer do songs stay at number one on the charts for 14 or 15 weeks. A three-week run at the top of the chart is considered a resounding success. There seems a voracious appetite to devour trends like the biblical locust and it’s quite unsettling.

The battle for survival takes place in a land we call London. Culinary counterfeits – known to the industry as ‘multiples’ – backed by money from our own pension funds are saturating the markets, attracting the Pokémon patrons and live under the constant threat of the home critic and even the TripAdvisor terrorists. Dotted between them, ethical food fighters try to prevail amongst the culinary chaos and noise. In order to survive, one needs income generated by proverbial ‘bums on seats’. As there’s a finite number of people in London town at any one given time, you need to rely on repeat or loyal clientele. Rents and rates reach fever pitch, as the landlords squeeze the ‘golden goose’ for every inch of profit inadvertently killing the business in many occasions.

The constant growth sees us all consuming from the same pool of talent slowly but surely creating an inevitable shortage of staff required to cook, prepare and serve your meal. Our industry is not a career that many revere or opt into as they once did. People often argue this with me. When was the last time that someone mentioned that their daughter or son was a waiter without following it with, they are working towards a career in something else? Many positions are filled by European nationals working their way to a better life. British participation seems mostly back of house office support or management and Brexit consequences could see more consequences, we wait patiently.

There is an influx of wannabe celebrity and TV chefs, which oddly now has become an aspiration. People often in interviews tell me that their five year plan is to become a celebrity chef. I’m not sure that I would rate that as an occupation, rather than a label afforded to chef that has successfully translated to television. My mother calls this the ‘Kardashian effect’. People think that enough social media followers can make you famous for doing nothing. Many fail to see that social media at that level can be as technical as an Olympic sport. Sadly sometimes it can indeed simply involve a bare breast or a cute kid repeating ‘Listen Linda’ over and over, oh my, what has become of us?

From someone who has dedicated thirty plus years in the industry, developing and protecting culinary institutions such as Bentley’s – incidentally celebrating a hundred years of trading this year – has become a specialised skill. Keeping our core ethos and shapeshifting to adapt to the market trends. Although their secret weapon, Michelin star Chef Richard Corrigan, devotes his life to traditional practices in the kitchen, he would be just as comfortable behind the editorial desk of a major broadsheet. I remember him trying to get us on board with Twitter, everyone dismissed it initially. The importance of social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, is now unquestionable.

People in the know understand that quality alone will not bring success as many of us talk openly of the Michelin accolades that can make a chef and finish the business. We have entered a new era in hospitality, a coming of age and now, in my opinion it is an ambitious and fickle eighteen year old.

To bring it back to my musical analogy, our industry feels that it is now in its teenage pop years. I believe that everything in life comes full circle and I know that there is a return to slow food, honest cooking and ethical eating. A lot of industry oldies are celebrated as classics and slowly noted on the lucrative hipster dance card. Only time will tell if we can still withstand the test of time in this brave new world.

CODE Quarterly | Issue 8 | Autumn 2016

Published on Sep 19, 2016

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Tara, Jane, Ben & I