Never Mind The Bollocks

Never Mind The Bollocks

Who says you get to be the arbiter of what's good?

This was Stephen Harris, at the launch of The Sportsman’s cookbook in Noble Rot, speaking about the influence of Seventies punk – specifically 1976, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and all that – on his cooking. From this starting point, so much of The Sportsman’s offering makes sense: the rickety old building; the bare wooden surfaces; the beaming, wonderful, down-to-earth staff; the simple service- and glasswear. Who says the Best Restaurant in the UK has to have tablecloths? Who says it must offer fawning service? Who says presentation must be gorgeous, painterly, and involve all manner of props and implements? Who says?

Stephen Harris doesn’t, and in 1999 (when The Sportsman opened) this probably felt as thrillingly counter-cultural as the Buzzcocks and Cramps had twenty-odd years previous. The same spirit of “who says?” imbues St John – opened just a few years earlier, and another restaurant where unnecessary adornment is stripped away in a manner no less brutal than the whitewashed walls.

Except to visit both The Sportsman and St John in 2017 is to realise a couple of ironies. In the intervening 20-odd years since the mid-to-late nineties, quite a lot has changed. Both restaurants are now institutions, for one thing: St John obvs; The Sportsman the holder of a shiny Michelin star, garlanded by national publications and awards ceremonies, subject – the true sign you’ve made it? – of an authoritative Phaidon cookbook. Far from being daring young upstarts, these cooks now have followings, and their style of food has found its way into kitchens across the country: Noble Rot is just the most obvious example of a place showcasing Harris’ (direct) influence. Almost every gastropub and seasonal Modern British menu in the country harks back to people like him and Fergus Henderson.

And – when compared to the psycho-locavorism of people like Simon Rogan – the food in these two temples to Modern British cooking doesn’t actually look that Modern or British at all. I’ve long wanted to write a piece called – in a riff on John Birdsall’s astonishing piece about unacknowledged influences in American cuisine – ‘Modern Britain, Your Food Is So French’. Because what else can you say about a restaurant (St John) where one of the most iconic (and best) dishes is a dozen Madeleines, where red Burgundy is fetishised? Or of a restaurant (The Sportsman) where signature dishes include poached oysters with beurre blanc, and crab with hollandaise, and turbot with Vin Jaune, where dinner concludes with a soufflé, whose chef has written at length (in Noble Rot, no less) about the joys of white Burgundy?

This is not to demean two fantastic restaurants, or to class French cuisine as a negative, enervating, unmodern influence. It is simply to observe that “Modern British” has had its time as a label which thrusting young chefs should be putting on their menus to virtue-signal their adherence to everything that is pure and good and new in UK cookery – bar the odd special trip to Seasalter, the “modern” Briton doesn’t really eat like this at all.

A properly modern, British restaurant looks a lot more like The Laughing Heart. The wine list is predominantly natural – Gasp! Scream! Get over it! – and the food is robustly rooted to British produce, but content to use that as a bassline from which to improvise, incorporating influences from all over the world. The hoary Quality Chop House-worthy combo of Dexter beef with peppery leaves, horseradish and potato is wittily reconstrued as a potato “taco” (read “pancake”) topped with very nose-to-tail Dexter “intercostal” and nasturtium; oysters come not with beurre blanc and caviar but a bracing granita of cucumber and yuzu. It’s French when it needs to be French – a winsome mustard-boosted sauce on some Yorkshire partridge with Williams pear – but it’s also willing to fuck with Dave Chang when that’s more interesting (Cumbrae clams with black beans and bacon), or to go full Danny Bowien, as it does with an astonishing Sichuan pepper-infused crème brulée.

This, ultimately, is what progress looks like. Again, not to demean The Sportsman, merely to observe that just as punk was a rupture from something, just as The Sportsman was a reaction to something, so, too, is The Laughing Heart an encapsulation of a shifting mindset, a realisation that in a shrinking world the ideological baggage of Modern British food, the border-wall (but illusory) barriers it constructs between British and French and Italian and Chinese and American and Chinese-American cuisines are kind of pointless, and limiting, and an impediment to what is – surely! – the ultimate goal of all cookery, which is to take something and make it taste as deliciously of itself as possible.

Fashions come and go. The food at the most interesting places in London now – P Franco, The Laughing Heart, not Core – will in time look as dated and naff as Marco Pierre White’s game-changing testosterone-infused nouvelle cuisine captured in White Heat. There is a risk that I will wind up the equivalent of a dusty punk aficionado, yammering to any young person who’ll listen about how they just don’t get it, that these guys changed everything.

Except what is thrilling about the most exciting food in London right now is not that it represents a paradigm shift. Instead it represents something accretive, the stacking together and overlapping of layers until something weird and new and fresh evolves and emerges. It is not a revolution – punk in ’76; The Sportsman in 1999 – so much as it is a culmination of the multifarious influences that have subtly altered London over the decades. It is representative of a Britain that is diverse, and inclusive, and willing to experiment; it is representative of a Britain that we may well be about to lose. For now, it’s actual Modern British, but post-Brexit, who knows? We may find ourselves back to where we started – in a political reality that we detest, that tells us this is what the people want, what is good for the people, waiting for someone to come along and ask: who says?

Nice Dream

Nice Dream

Cacio, Pepe

Cacio, Pepe