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The Young Chefs<br>Redefining British Dining
Photo Phil Lauder

The Young Chefs
Redefining British Dining

FDL traveled to Taste of London to meet some of the young chefs driving a newly emerging dining scene across the city and Britain as a whole.

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I can't seem to avoid bowing my head a little whenever I find myself discussing my home country's food with international journalists, chefs, anyone who isn't also from Britain.

A sort of shared embarrassment that we all seem to have, a slight glance at the ground, a retreat, a culinary thorn in the Empire. We know our food isn't historically great, at a push we'll admit it's fairly simple and certainly nowhere near as rich as some of our European counter parts.

As chef Alyn Williams, a man who has worked in London's fine dining scene since the 80s, told me at this year's Taste of London festival: "If you're pragmatic, you're happy to admit that the British don't actually have a cuisine, there's just lots of regional dishes. Small little pockets that create these one dish wonders. We've never combined it all into one cuisine - we're not the French, not the Italians and we're not the Japanese."

"You got Yorkshire pudding, Lancashire Hot Pot, Beef and Dumplings...a set of dishes, good dishes, but very basic dishes...there's nothing refined about English cooking."  

It's true, the British historically ate for austerity, they fought wars, conquered countries and generally worked to spread an empire. Focus on food was high among the aristocracy but more as a means of showing off wealth, not through - some would call it - a French style pursuit of culinary pleasure.

And it's in this focus away from food that allowed us to fall behind. While countries like Italy, France and Spain defined strong terroir and culinary identity, a dark cloud remained over British dining, a cloud that finally seems to be lifting.

"It's likely that we'll never have the restaurant scene in the classic sense, compared with somewhere like France,"explains Williams,"but what we've done well in Britain, certainly now, is create a generation of people, young people, an entire population of people, who are really into their food and it shows at somewhere like Taste of London.

"We've got this incredible melting pot of cuisines - there's around 145 different cuisines represented in London alone and this is really inspirational. Honestly, I  think this has gone on to inspire lots more young British children to start cooking."

This take up of the cooking profession is evident at Taste of London and across Britain, represented by a gang of young British chefs who are exploring their own identity while working to discover great British ingredients. Jason Atherton, Tom Kitchn, Tom Kerridge, Ashley Palmer Watts, The Young Turks, Simon Rogan, Jamie Oliver training thousands of young British chefs.

A shift that began in the 80s with the emergence of Marco Pierre White, arguably one of the first big British TV chefs, followed closely by his protegee turned enemy Gordon Ramsay.

As Daniel Doherty, the chef from London's first 24-hour fine dining restaurant The Duck and Waffle, put it: "Being a chef is now acceptable, before if you weren't good at school or you didn't know what you wanted to do, then you went and became a chef, now it's actually a well respected industry.

"British food has always had a bit of a bad wrap but I think it's coming back again. Up until now we kind of sold our soul a little, you walk down a street in France or Italy and they're 95% restaurants from that country. What is a quintessentially English restaurant?

"It's the people like Fergus Henderson at St John who have  managed to retain some sort of classic British identity and I think they saved it big time. Then there's the guys at The Clove Club, Neil Rankin at John Salt - there's some really good things going on. It's awesome but sometimes I do wonder if maybe true British restaurants don't exist, that actually we just do really good pubs that serve really great food."

The pubs he talks about are The Hinds Head and The Hand and Flowers, two British pubs that have now gained Michelin star status and that both angle towards British ingredients and cuisine.

There's certainly a strong collective of young British chefs but, as of yet, there's no collective approach, no Rene Redzepi driving a specific cause, just young chefs who are slowly working to help define a new era of British fine dining. An era that chef Jamie Thicket, from The Opera Tavern restaurant, predicts will be led by a fun approach: "Service wide what we're seeing with the new British chefs is this very relaxed, informal approach, staff that are very knowledgeable but relaxed. People like to relax, go out, have fun and enjoy it."

While a quick glance round Taste of London shows that there are thousands of hungry people ready to sample this new wave of British fine dining, speaking with chefs it's evident that there still isn't a unified British cuisine, that there may actually never be one. An influence of different foods, flavors and ingredients is now inherent in British society, if a strong movement was to take shape - surely it would contain such a strong mix of flavor and fusion that it couldn't possibly be labeled British?

Chef Williams remains optimistic about the emergence of a strong British culinary identity but agrees that it would have to develop from a wide mix of ingredients. "We have these young chefs on this great mission to open their eyes to so many flavors, cuisines and styles of cooking.

"They're going abroad and coming back with fresh ideas and it's an incredibly vibrant scene.  I'm not young, but I feel it because I'm surrounded by this great energy.

"I look at what the chefs are doing and think, thank god for that, thank god that we've got these great young British chefs with imaginations so open that they're free to run."

Maybe this mix, this focus on cuisine later in the Nation's development, compared with other countries, has given the British a certain openness that others miss.  Williams certainly thinks so: " Maybe the fact that we don't have this classic British cuisine is now what gives us this open freedom."

"It's similar to what's going on up in Northern Europe, Sweden and Denmark, places like that. What they're finding is all these great ingredients on their doorstep realizing they've got this blank sheet and that they can do whatever they want with it... I think that's what's happening right now in England."

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