Outside the Box
Ferran Adrià understood the new wave of delivery services a decade before they existed. Not me, though. For months I had felt something agitating at the back of my brain, a blank divide between me and the apps staring greenly, guilelessly from my phone screen. It wasn’t just my general leeriness in the face of technology platforms that reduce human beings to a fulfilment vector – it was an uneasy sense that we were losing something fundamental in what looked like a perfectly fair trade of cash for convenience. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
And suddenly there was this bit in Reinventing Food, Colman Andrews’ magisterial sort-of-biography of the elBulli chef, where it all fell into place. Adrià himself is given over to cryptic meditations (“Why do we have coffee and then an egg at breakfast, while at lunch we eat the egg and then have the coffee?”); much of Andrews’ achievement is in taking these weird koans and turning them into something digestible by people who aren’t actual geniuses. And so it proves in one early section outlining Adrià’s impact on our culture – how it transcends Michelin stars and fine dining and gets down to something more elemental:
Do we eat only for physical nourishment? If so, why do we sometimes take such care with the non-nutritional particulars? We know why we eat, but why do we dine? To paraphrase John Ciardi, how does a dinner mean?
That jarring interrogative in the final sentence – how, not what – is all-important to Adrià’s project. It was important to me, too – it was, in fact, the key to the whole thing. If it all seems a bit abstract, it might be easier to understand through the lens of Ciardi’s original essay, which is great, but really boils down to a single sentence: "the language of experience is not the language of classification”.
Dining out is something far better understood in the language of experience, the impressions made on our senses by chairs and tables and a physical menu and cutlery and crockery and rooms and lights and windows. And people – people queueing, people waiting, people eating, people leaving. Cooks and waiters and fellow diners, all variously holding hissed arguments or whispering affectionately or celebrating raucously or braying witlessly or proposing shamelessly or getting fall down drunk on a weeknight. How.
But think in the language of classification, and dining via Deliveroo or UberEats and dining in a restaurant are fairly indistinguishable from one another: both involve food that you order from a menu, and someone cooking and bringing you what you ordered, and a room in which you eat it: what.
Already, the industry is mobilising to make the whats in this equivalence feel as natural as possible, collaborating with platforms to create packaging that keeps food hot and kitchen-fresh; going halvsies on marketing messages (“Your favourite burger in your favourite place”) that suggest a tech-enabled optimisation of the specifics. And why shouldn’t they? Once you’ve got your kitchen installed and restaurant staffed, and assuming you have a vaguely competent ops setup, any incremental transactions you can push through the tills and your cost base are purely good news. As Jay Rayner has argued with his usual lack of pretension, restaurants are businesses. If they can make money selling catering packs of Heinz via Deliveroo, then in purely rational / economic terms, they should.
It’s still weird to see the argument couched like that. By definition – literally, etymologically – there is no hospitality without a guest to host. This feels like a genuine moment for an industry that has always been forcibly connected to these cognates, that has always at least had to pay lip service to the idea that the stuff around the food is an important component of a meaningful experience.
At one end of the market, it’s going to be era-defining, the biggest upheaval for decades. Assuming at least one logistics platform works out a way to stay long-term profitable, you’re going to see a lasting mix shift away from in-house and towards in-home, with a whole heap of innovative workarounds to squeeze every last drop out of the sofabound customer-turned-consumer (already Deliveroo offers me both Jamie’s Italian and Jamie’s Pizza Kitchen – I’ll bet enough money for him to reopen in Cheltenham that they’re coming from the same site). Expect more PE houses circling, as business models have their awkward human-facing features sanded down in favour of optimising to delivery, and succeeding becomes less about turning tables (some places won’t have tables at all) and more about Excel-friendly inventory management.
So-called fine dining will also be, um, fine. There are enough occasions that mean something in life; there are enough people willing to pay for a certain kind of meaning. Adulterers in unfamiliar cities will still need hotel restaurants where they can share a clichéd reimagined molten chocolate pudding; tech millionaires will still need a way to signal their sophistication by spunking 500 quid a head on uni and Bluefin; the food dorks will still need places that they can review in 3,000-word screeds of breathless purple-headed prose. The Michelin-botherers needn’t worry.
But I do fear for the fortunes of the middle ground in a market made so ductile, in which the two extremes are pulling irresistibly ever further from each other. It all comes down to habit. Smartphone-enabled delivery is new, and shiny, but it is also overseen by people who know how to gamify their product to microdose you with dopamine until you become a gurgling junkie. A recent piece on The Ringer, ‘Confessions of a Postmates Addict’, is a fairly lighthearted look at the phenomenon, but the statistics – 705 separate uses of a food delivery platform in 1,254 days of living in Los Angeles, one of the world’s great food cities – hit home with slightly less levity.
Because every one of those uses represents a referendum on something. Maybe it’s cooking at home after a long day when you forgot to go shopping; maybe it’s sitting in a fairly soulless fast casual place. I’d be willing to bet that fairly frequently, though, it’s going someplace nearby where someone has thought about the décor and the menu and the service not as boxes to tick off but as parts of a whole – a small midmarket joint with locals and decent food and OK house wine and an increasingly bleak future.
Few of us are born into fine dining. But many more of us are fortunate enough to visit another, more humble sort of restaurant as we grow up: they introduce us to some of our society’s oldest and oddest rituals; they are a formative influence on how we approach eating and drinking; they provide a context for some of our most cherished memories. And a paradigm shift towards delivery chips away at that, decreases the appetite of future generations for it – diminishes us as it encourages a physically and intellectually sedentary lifestyle. The ability to go to a local restaurant on a whim – to explore your local community, to see it in action, to decode and interrogate and grow to know a room in which someone brings you your food and interacts with you about it – is one of the most modest but best privileges available to us unthinking rich metropolitan Westerners, and we risk throwing it in the bin on a raft of plastic takeout packaging.
Jay Rayner is wrong, and if he stopped to think about his job title – about why the Observer employs a Restaurant Critic but not a Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Critic – he’d realise why. All restaurants are businesses – sure. But some of them mean a lot more than that.