We looked around the interior of the restaurant and my father uttered some depressing but predictable words: “Oh-oh. This looks too good for the likes of us.”
This happened a few years back while my Dad and I were taking a holiday in Malta. We’d spent the morning wandering around the island’s charming old former capital, Mdina. Having taken in the place’s splendid Norman and Baroque architecture, and admired its medieval fortifications, and experienced its uncanny atmosphere – which made you feel like you’d stepped through a time-warp and arrived a half-dozen centuries back in the past – we were ready for lunch. The restaurant we went into had dungeon-like stone walls, thick white candles burning inside glass globes, and hulking antiquated chairs and tables. It also had a crew of immaculately-clad waiters and several groups of well-heeled customers who, seated stiffly around their tables, clearly knew the correct order with which to lift their cutlery. It may have been our imaginations but both staff and clientele seemed to view our entry with suspicion.
I felt like saying to my Dad that the chic diners present were probably all investment bankers and hedge-fund managers: folk who’d made piles of imaginary money by moving numbers on a computer screen, representing sums of more imaginary money, from one virtual account of yet-more imaginary money, to another virtual account of yet-more-again imaginary money. Whereas my Dad owned a sheep farm in the Scottish Borders that, though it was relatively small, at least had substance. It had acres of ground. It constituted physical wealth. No doubt it was much more valuable than the pretend-wealth commanded by the creeps here.
As for myself – well, I wasn’t rich physically or imaginarily, but I was at least rich in experience. I’d met a few great writers in my time, plus a couple of important diplomats, and politicians, and even the odd lord or two. So socially, I could hold my own at a table alongside some of these pseuds, even if I wasn’t sure which bloody knife, fork or spoon to wield first.
Too good for the likes of us? No way, José.
But confronted by those withering stares and intimidated by that posh ambience, we decided not to risk it. We retreated from the restaurant. Indeed, we retreated from Mdina. We eventually ended up at St Julian’s, where we had a belated feed of fish and chips in some British-themed pub. (I don’t remember its name, but it was probably called something like The Dog’s Bollocks.)
Yes, food is a paradox. It’s a basic human need – at regular intervals, all human beings, whether billionaires or paupers, have to shovel it into their faces, chew it, masticate over it, swallow it, digest it, process it as bodily fuel and eventually crap it out of their rear ends. But, as humans, we’ve managed over the millennia to refine and embellish the eating experience. We’ve devised a vast array of dishes so that our food is served to us in a near-infinite variety of combinations and configurations. We’ve devised a vast parallel inventory of drinks – juices, ales, wines, liquors – with which to wash those dishes down. And we’ve come to understand that the more congenial the surroundings, and the more congenial the company, the better that food goes down too.
And yet, in the age of capitalism, we’ve turned food culture into something else – something elitist, exclusive and joyless. Oh, and extremely costly. Aided and abetted by our sycophantic snake-eating-its-own-tail media, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that you can’t really say you’ve eaten unless you’ve done so in an airlessly-formal and cripplingly-expensive restaurant that’s made the top ten in some Mammon-worshipping glossy society magazine or on some achingly-hip where-to-be-seen website.
In fact, the top restaurants don’t seem like restaurants anymore. They seem more like temples where the worshippers – the paying mugs – come to prostrate themselves whilst the temple-priests weave webs of intimidating ritual around them and then demand exorbitant donations to the temple-funds. Temples that above their entrances bear the arcane and fearsome symbols of the gods, or as they’re called in the food-snob world, Michelin stars. Temples whose high priests did their vocations in the mysterious and mystical schools of TV celebrity chef-dom: Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Antony Worrall Thompson, Marcus Wareing et al. Guys of whom Keith Floyd (the only decent TV celebrity chef in history) once said, “I’d like to napalm the lot of them.”
Maybe I’m uncultured but by far and away the most rewarding dining experiences I’ve had weren’t in places like those. No, I’ve actually had the time of my life devouring cheap, hale-and-hearty Nipponese grub in back-street izaka-yas, ramen-yas and yakitori-yas in Japan; or guzzling kitfo and tebs in the unassuming Ethiopian eateries of Addis Ababa (or more recently, along London’s Caledonian Road); or munching seafood in some ramshackle establishment on the shores of County Suffolk, or the Carthage / La Goulette stretch of the Tunisian coast, or the beach at Unawatuna in southern Sri Lanka; or indeed, just sitting on a pavement and stuffing my face with street-food in India, Thailand or Myanmar.
But I must be wrong. I can’t have eaten properly. Not according to the media hyperbole that surrounds the culinary scene in, say, London – where you can part with a small (or big) fortune in order to sample the grilled fillets of Scottish beef, Cumbrian rose veal and suckling pig available at Le Gavroche in Mayfair (a venue masterminded by ‘the highly adored Roux family’ according to www.therichest.com); or the poached Scottish lobster tail and foie gras at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship joint in Chelsea; or the French haute cuisine at Alain Ducasse in the Dorchester Hotel in Piccadilly, which has a super-pricy Table Lumière where you can dine in front of thousands of dangling, glittering fibre-optics (designed, no doubt, to take your mind off the banality of your fellow-diners’ conversation).
But I have to say, because I have a sick mind, that my favourite-sounding posh restaurant in London is the Coq D’Argent in the Bank area, which was once owned by Terence Conran. Not only is a popular spot for City-of-London high-fliers to eat, but it’s also a popular spot for them to kill themselves. The last time I checked, no fewer than five people had thrown themselves off its seventh-floor terrace since 2007. I’m not sure whether that was before or after they’d seen the bill.
A few weeks ago, the posh-restaurant scene in another great city, New York, was subjected to the forensic stare of British food critic Tanya Gold in an article appearing in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine. Gold described how she went to four of the Big Apple’s most prestigious eateries and found them, well, wanting.
(c) The Times
Now I’m generally not a fan of British food critics. Indeed, my idea of hell would probably be to spend eternity eating in an infernal branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken with A.A. Gill on one side of me and Michael Winner on the other. (Come to think of it, Winner, who passed away in 2013, is probably there just now – barking abuse at the infernal KFC staff-members whilst waiting for me and A.A. Gill to turn up and occupy the two empty seats next to him.) And at its worst, Gold’s writing is bitchy, show-offish and juvenile. For example: “the food is so overtended and overdressed I am amazed it has not developed the ability to scream in your face, walk off by itself, and sulk in its room.” Comparing food-items to spoilt adolescents? That’s a bit… adolescent.
But when she hits the target, which is more often than not, Gold is wonderful. She goes to Per Se at New York’s Columbus Circle and observes that the food “is not designed to be eaten… It is designed to make your business rival claw his eyes out.” The restaurant has “six kinds of table salt and two exquisite lumps of butter, one shaped like a miniature beehive and the other like a quenelle”, and her bill comes to $798.06 – half of which Gold confesses to vomiting up later in her hotel. She visits Eleven Madison Park in the Metropolitan Life North Building and marvels at the pretentious vulgarity of what’s on the menu. “One tiny dish of salmon, black rye and pickled cucumber is, we are told, ‘inspired by immigrants’.” Among other things, there’s a turnip course, and “a golden, inflated pig’s bladder in a dish.” That sets her back $640.02.
In Brooklyn, she goes to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, where “the novelty is the relative poverty of other people and their odd ways: emerge from Chef’s Table and fall over a homeless person.” Inside, she disrupts the sombre atmosphere by trying to negotiate her way around another diner’s legs, cutting herself on a mysterious piece of metal sticking from the wall and screaming in pain. She pays $425.29 for the privilege. Finally, she eats in Masa, next door to Per Se, which is “the most famous sushi bar in New York” but “looks like a shed, or a ghostly corner of Walmart… two tiny rooms with beige walls and pale floors, some foliage, some rocks, a dismal pool.” She and her companion fork out $1706.26.
Gold’s article has not gone down well in the food-loving quarters of New York. One writer on the site www.eater.com lambasted her for “5000 words of baseless complaint, poor personal behaviour blamed on others, and easily avoidable factual errors, all wrapped in words and phrases playing dress-up as jokes. For writing this thoughtless to appear in a magazine of this profile is a tragedy.”
Elsewhere, a comment-poster pointed out that, back in Blighty, Gold once wrote an article calling on Oxford and Cambridge Universities to admit more students who’d been educated at state schools. Well, if she said that, she must be a commie. And as we know, commies hate America. And the American way. And the American dream – which is, if you work hard enough, one day you’ll be rewarded by having enough money to be able to go to a snotty restaurant that insults your intelligence with turnips and pig’s bladders and then fleeces you with a ginormous bill.
However, I believe that there’s one person at least in America who’d sympathise with Gold and might even applaud her demolition of New York’s finest eateries. That person is the ultra-prolific writer Stephen King, who in 1995 penned a short story called Lunch at the Gotham Café. The story, which eventually found its way into the 2002 collection Everything’s Eventual, thumbs its nose at posh restaurants – and in particular at one of the worst features of posh restaurants, the supposedly welcoming but intimidatingly officious maitre d’.
In King’s story, a man facing divorce agrees to have lunch with his soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer at the restaurant of the title. Not only does the lunch go badly because the couple immediately start quarrelling, but also because in the middle of it the maitre d’ turns homicidally insane. He hacks the lawyer to death with a chef’s knife and then pursues the hero and his wife / ex-wife through the restaurant and kitchen. Why the maitre d’ so spectacularly flips his lid isn’t explained – though you get the impression that, working in a place like that, it’s not a surprise that he does.
Stephen King, incidentally, has said of himself: “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” Good old Steve! No literary snob, he. And, I suspect, no food snob either.
(c) The Huffington Post