Sunday, May 17, 2020

The English Restaurant: an Abstract

I've heard it said that you can't make a restaurant without backers. Look about you, in any high street or parade of shops, at premises cloned and duplicated by big business and corporate players throughout the land, and you can be forgiven for thinking this maxim is surely true.

I beg to differ. Kay and I made our restaurant from scratch, without input from investors and bankers and their clipboard-wielding flunkies. Instead we did it all ourselves. Our motivation was a simple passion for good food and wine presented in an elegant and agreeable setting. We collaborated with gifted artisans, craftsmen and technicians to make a characterful bar and restaurant in our own historic Wren-period building, the oldest in Spitalfields, spread over three floors with a fantastic modern kitchen purpose-built in a new basement. We trusted our own instincts, rolled up our sleeves and made something beautiful.

Restaurants evolved from coffee houses and taverns and first appeared in Paris in the eighteenth century in something like the form we now know. Bouillon, or meat broth, was first served there as a restorative (“restaurateur”). Eventually a variety of expertly prepared dishes were offered in elegant rooms supplemented by a fine cellar. The highly fashionable “Café Anglais” near Opéra, was a superlative and long-lived example, renowned as “lieu de rendez-vous pour tout Paris”. These attributes became the sine qua non fundamentals of a good restaurant, just as they are today. Sitting down to break bread together is as old as life itself. We’re privileged to have the opportunity of hosting such hospitality in London.

There is a further desideratum for any good restaurant. It is a meeting place, a hub, a vital aid to community cohesion. Our restaurant stands on a sort of promontory that looks out over one of London’s most iconic urban compositions: Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in its setting of Spitalfields Market. We feel ourselves at the heart of things here. We practise multi-tasking, and have succeeded in making our business attractive to all ranks and types of people. We are open early till late, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between. Our origins as the Market Coffee House, first opening on 10 September 2001 (the day before 9/11, a day etched in all our memories), are still reflected in the high quality coffee and loose leaf teas we serve from our pitch pine-panelled, informal bar area. Likewise our beers are a satisfying departure from the humdrum and everyday. We only stock the finest examples of small independent craft brewers in the UK, in addition to the better quality and more sought-after imports from the Continent sourced by our beer merchant, Cave Direct.

We are especially proud of our wines. With our own import license, we ship (and sometimes go and fetch) up to 10,000 bottles of French wine every year just for this restaurant. We never buy in the UK from any wine merchant. Over half the wine consumed in this country now is bulk wine, mass produced mainly in New World wine regions and shipped in vast containers to be bottled here so as to keep prices low. It is not conducive to an interesting or characterful product. We buy exclusively estate bottled wines from little independent (in the main) family producers who we regularly visit at their wineries. In this manner we know intimately each of our wines, their attributes and vintages, and can vouch for their quality.

Our restaurant has many interesting and attractive spaces (though not so many as the old Café Anglais, with its 22 private rooms and lounges!). Nevertheless, our ground floor dining room, with booths and oak-panelled walls, is supplemented by a large, open-plan dining area on the first floor, which is popular with large groups for both sit-down dining and drinks and canapé receptions. Our jewel in the crown is the private room. Our building is listed for this room’s floor to ceiling, raised and fielded panelling dating from 1670. A George III mahogany table seats 16, and an open fire is sometimes lit in winter. We make no charge to hire this space.

We operate a serious and ambitious kitchen. We proceed on the basis that the traditional British kitchen is justly popular and capable of precise and delicate flavours. Its fall from grace in more modern times is the consequence of a lamentable absence of formerly commonplace skills among professional chefs. It was in the vast, beautiful, legendary kitchens of the great West End hotels, such as the Lanesborough and Westbury, where English chefs once learned the fundamentals of French and English cuisines. These were the academies. They were highly professional and disciplined schools of English cooking, and their alumni went out into the world to found their own restaurants. This is much less true today. Dining is becoming increasingly less formal. "Ils mangent n'importe quoi" is the sad lament of contemporary French restaurateurs. Now energy and creativity alone are deemed sufficient, and to some extent people make it up as they go along. You can be a good dinner party chef and go on to start a restaurant chain. There is also a far greater emphasis on foreign cuisines, as a direct consequence of the democratisation of global travel. This can be good for originality, but only at the cost of intimate knowledge of our own culinary traditions.

There is a renaissance in British cooking underway, and people are beginning to notice. We like grilled and roasted meats supplied from a livestock farmer in Sussex, vegetables in season from the London markets, fresh fish, oysters and seafood delivered daily for specials from our South Coast supplier with his own day boats, English puddings and game. We buy bones for stock, the base for sauces which are fundamental to superior cooking in any serious restaurant.

We have a culture of knowledge, skill and integrity in our kitchen, cooking always and only from fresh ingredients. This is sadly becoming less and less evident in the world today, indeed as much in restaurant kitchens as it is in our homes. Readymeals now occupy perhaps as much or even more shelf space in the average supermarket as fresh meat, fish and vegetables do. Even in France, that wellspring of gastronomy in European culture, ordinary folk appear to have lost the habit of cooking at home. They are mercifully not yet wedded to takeaway quite so much as we are in the anglosphere, yet it seems only a question of time. Even French restaurants have in large measure adopted the practise of heating up mass-produced dishes sourced from large, centralised producers. They have become merely microwave technicians. Thankfully it is still possible to seek out in the regions little "familiale" establishments where the old methods are still practised, and moreover food markets still flourish in spite of the irresistible march of the ubiquitous pizza,

Have people lost the power of discrimination over such matters? Fear not. We have the pleasure of witnessing people's reaction to real food, cooked from fresh in our kitchen. In short: there is no contest.

So there is our restaurant, set forth in a little more than the 500 words my daughter, who is compiling this new (mobile friendly) website, set as a limit. Apologies for my prolixity, but my heart is full in this place, and it takes me some little effort to contain it.

I am writing this at a time of great uncertainty in our industry. Our restaurant is closed by government decree, enforced by law, just like every restaurant in the land, Some restaurants are open, but only in the most perfunctory manner, for takeaway, with customers obliged to space themselves out on the pavement like counters in a game of draughts. Our common destiny is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. We don't know what lies on the other side of this strange and transformative episode in our history, but we are nevertheless confident that, whatever our difficulties, the best days for our restaurant still lie ahead.


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