Diffusion of Inspiration
So there’s this theory from the realm of social sciences, and it’s about 55 years old, and it rules your life. If you’ve heard of it, it’s most likely due to Malcolm Gladwell, who took Everett Rogers’ pioneering work in Diffusion of Innovations and fixated on one particular locus, which his book publicised as The Tipping Point. It’s when something new that starts out slowly, garnering attention only among innovators and early adopters, suddenly gains an immense amount of traction – popularity, currency, market share – in an incredibly short time, and “tips” into the mainstream’s consciousness.
The theory is elegant in its simplicity and in the near-universality of its applications; Gladwell himself – in what would come to be signature Gladwellian style – ranges convincingly far and wide to illustrate his point. Back in 2000 though, when the book was first published, “social media” meant reading the Sunday papers with your spouse; even a spod as spoddy as Malcolm couldn’t foresee quite how central the diffusion of innovations would become to an economy filled with business models predicated on gaining a critical mass of users in record time. Clickbaity headlines, addictive user interfaces, anything that screams make me go viral: all are designed to increase the chance of something tipping, to expedite the rate at which it does.
Food has always been at least partly about fashion; fashion – as Gladwell’s case study on Hush Puppies shoes makes clear – is more dependent than most areas on adoption curves. But where they once moved at the pace of continental drift – see: the 80-year hegemony of French haute cuisine in our once-benighted culinary landscape – the explosion of social media has acted as an accelerant, turbo-charging whole cycles of innovation, adoption and obsolescence that can be measured in weeks or months not years or decades.
Look at Thai food. As recently as 2010, when Giles Coren reviewed Nahm at the Halkin – still and surely forever his crowning achievement; in my eyes at least one of the best pieces of restaurant criticism ever written – there were a scant handful of “proper” Thai restaurants widely known in the UK, meaning that Giley could lecture us in terms we might call racist today about how it isn’t all “red and green curries full of gristle and tinned bamboo, tasting of bilge water and dog basket” and, far from being scandalised, we could take it at face value, perhaps even look forward, someday, to getting to taste the alternative, “real” Thai food, for ourselves.
You know what happened next. There was Nahm, of course, a trailblazer whose passing is even more tragic given the airport hotel travesty of New Basque Cuisine now served in its place. There were players behind the scenes, less in the London public eye: Andy Ricker at Pok Pok in the US; The Heron in a grimy corner of Paddington; Luke Farrell’s garden of earthly delights in Dorset. In Peckham there was the Begging Bowl; up North there was Som Saa under the arches; then the central London boom of Smoking Goat, and Som Saa in a bricks and mortar place, and Kiln.
To map the postcodes of these restaurants is to reconfigure the adoption curve into a series of concentric circles: the adventurous early adopters making pilgrimages to out-of-the-way corners of the city, making do with curtailed menus and a limited drinks offering; the curious early majority taking a punt on fishy chicken wings and craft beer at a weird pub-BBQ place on Denmark Street; the leerier late majority taking comfort in the robust roof over their heads and the Zeren Wilson-curated wine list in front of them – each wave fired by Instagrams and tweets and blog posts, a fast-burning, high-smoke-point fuel that never seemed remotely in danger of depletion.
And this is surely the biggest flaw in Rogers’ work, or Gladwell’s appropriation of it: its sheer finality. Declaring something a tipping point marks it as irreversible, a Rubicon, the here from which it’s all downhill. Again, Gladwell couldn’t have predicted the impact social media would have as a vector for virality, or as an accelerant of tipping points in other areas of the culture – so it’s understandable that he didn’t give much thought. But what happens if your fuel doesn’t burn out? What happens if in tipping yourself you add impetus to other movements, charge them, too? For one thing, burgers happen. By rights, they should have died as a thing five years ago. But they haven’t: they’ve evolved, boosted by a series of other mini-tipping-points – high-welfare meat, dirty Americana, clean eating – like a river amplified by its tributaries as it flows out to sea.
There exists an upside to all this, for us as diners. We get the best of all worlds, a swoop of foods high and low and fast and slow. Take Farang, newly opened just round the corner from me, which purports to take its influence from the streets of Thailand but whose own name foregrounds the Western context in which Sebby Holmes is cooking and serving those dishes (indeed, it doesn't get more Western than the guts of an old Italian restaurant, where Farang has made its home). Holmes is ex-Smoking Goat, and so this place represents an interesting new step in the evolution of Thai food in London; the first progeny of the initial wave of transformative openings. Fortunately, we're in very safe hands: a pork belly and lobster lon is heady with coconut, indecently delicious; some yellow bean wontons come with a wanton burnt chilli jaew that echoes Oaxaca as much as Bangkok; mussels arrive in a pool of green curry and with a tangle of Thai basil, shredded kaffir lime leaf, galangal and chilli. The larger plates - a red curry of chicken and prawn; a jungle curry of monkfish; a giant slab of beef cheek cooked just long enough for there still to be cause for a reflexive, reflective chew - are winners too. Plus there is superb buttered roti and a coconut rum punch as sensual as skinny-dipping off Krabi. And all in an old Italian place just up the road from a Greggs! What a time to be alive.
I felt similarly enthused after an intermittently thrilling “AngloThai” dinner cooked on Burns Night by John Chantarasak, a guy I first saw manning the grill at Som Saa Climpson’s Arch. It wasn’t all great – though much of it was – and I’d call the service a car crash if car crashes didn’t typically happen quickly, but it was the potential that it represented that got me excited. His approach is arguably not new-new – Smoking Goat has been putting a Thai spin on Cornish seafood for a while now – but Chantarasak did venture into truly unexplored territory with combinations like raw scallop with horseradish and sweet fish sauce, or coconut-smoked pheasant with sea buckthorn jaew, or – the highlight of the dinner and quite possibly my year in eating, even at this early juncture – a dtom yum soup of mackerel and Yorkshire rhubarb.
In both cases, the food wasn’t “authentic”, and didn’t pretend to be, which to me is the surest proof that a cuisine has passed what Gladwell would recognise as its tipping point, and moved into an altogether more uncharted realm, a realm that arguably didn’t previously exist, a realm I hope we will all be able to explore together. Because once we get beyond the vaguely troubling, borderline-eugenicist virtue-signalling about ethnic purity, the conversations we can have are more interesting, more inclusive: about you, and me, and you and me, not just you, cooking your food, for me. There are many, many ways in which the current right wing phobia of immigration is self-defeating; there are questions of basic human decency that I am not getting into here, but which are of course cause for a much greater sense of sadness. But it remains a minor tragedy that we may deliberately deprive ourselves and future generations of something this excitingly mongrel; that in fear and confusion and ignorance we may cut off a new branch in the family tree that could have borne fresh, strange, delicious fruit.