Back then, dude food in the UK was just on the rise. Jamie Oliver was new to the scene and the younger generation was standing up to take notice. London already had much better food than its reputation had led me to expect, but they excelled in classic food and nice restaurants. If you wanted the brilliant, informal experiences I had grown up with, where you could just go to a place with no table cloths (or even cutlery for that matter) and just roll your sleeves up and tuck in, you were going to be out of luck.
The places you could find didn’t have the specific identity of one of the themes mentioned above, they just had the all-encompassing ‘American’ theme. It was essentially the Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood type of offer, and it wasn’t done well. They would serve processed burgers on stale, over sweetened buns, ribs that pulled off the bone with a sound of tearing paper, coleslaw drowning in mayonnaise, seafood that was only offered breaded or battered, milk shakes without ice cream, and virtually no Cajun food at all, unless they burnt it and decided to call it the blackened version of the intended dish.
The absence of Cajun food hasn’t really changed much, though a few dishes are starting to make their way over and with the invasion of the American crayfish in British waterways, I am only waiting for the trend to take off. However, I am very glad to see that the other problems have been completely addressed. Brave street food vendors have taken… err, to the streets, and have led the way for restaurants to remove all of the pomp and ceremony, strip off the table cloths and just focus on the quality of the food and service.
However, is it all going the right way? I’m going to sound like a hypocrite here, because I love ‘dude food’ and anyone that’s ever been over to my house will know that I’m a bit obsessed with it, but I was so disappointed at Taste of London last year after seeing my 10th menu with either a “posh” hot dog, pulled pork or a burger. Even though I love those things, do we really need every restaurant to jump on the band wagon? And it’s not just restaurants; you’d be amazed how much the fine dining element in meeting rooms across London has died down, being replaced by “posh” burgers, steaks and chips served on wooden planks and drift wood or in buckets and pales. Sometimes, when everyone else is running in one direction, it is refreshing to see those few brave souls that stand their ground or even go the opposite way. It’s nice to see some restaurants just stick to their guns and carry on doing what they’ve always done well, ignoring what everyone else is doing and trying out something truly unique.
There’s another problem with ‘dude food’ as well. Okay, I know I’m no poster boy for healthy eating, but the rather repressed health nut in me has started to get louder and louder. There is a reason that 75% of the population in the US is considered overweight or obese. Dude food is lovely, but it doesn’t create lovely people. I’m pretty sure that the old “be all you can be” motto wasn’t referring to girth. As much as I love seeing good examples out there, and our company is doing some great stuff, it’s all getting a bit too much.
I love the ethos behind it all, as it started with trying to make cheap food more tasty or bulk out expensive food to make them more accessible, but there’s no denying that the vast majority of it is not good for you.
Don’t think I’m going to eschew a taco from Breddos Tacos, a rib from the Smokestak, a burger from Mother Flipper or fried chicken from Lockhart; I wouldn’t be able to live without them. But they have to be treats and part of a much broader, balanced diet. The Grain Store, Nopi, Maple & FITZ and Bel Air are just as enjoyable, some non-Texans would argue they’re even better, and they won’t hit your waistline.
It’s great to see that our executive chef, Pete Redman, has maintained a real focus on vegetables, simple food, provenance and seasonality. Even though he’s as nerdy as I am when developing the perfect barbecue sauce or fried chicken coating, that’s only a small percentage of what he does. Raw food, completely vegetarian menus, seasonal cooking, pulses and grains, healthy fats and balanced diets are all part of his vision, and we all share it. Less meat, but the use of higher caliber and more sustainable sources, is certainly the right way to go.
Read his latest blog http://www.bartlettmitchell.org.uk/foodie-blog/i-think-there-is-something-wrong-with-me/ to see what I mean.