Gareth Jones

Rage against the tagine: Capital mistake

London, food centre of the world? Maybe in a parallel universe, says Gareth Jones

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There’s nothing like following a theme: playing it safe, being on-message. Thus, we hear endlessly — from Michelin-starred chefs to their adoring throng — the mantra that ‘London is restaurant capital of the world’. From bitter experience, I disbelieved this the first time I read it — and then I started to think further.

The shocking truth is that everyone chanting this mantra has a stake in the message getting through — from people with a share in restaurants, which are notoriously risky ventures, to those invested in tourism, London 2012 or restaurant guides.

Of course, London has pockets of food excellence, but they are little pockets. Is there good eating everywhere? No, there is not. It’s hard enough to source ingredients for cooking at home without acute inside knowledge.

Too many people confuse London’s ethnic diversity with the place being a restaurant capital. Yes, there are eateries offering every nation’s cooking, but are they all good and true to those countries’ culinary culture? And do they all deliver the authenticity required? We know the honest answer: from tapas to tacos or risotto to a ristretto, the real deal is so rarely to be found. In many ways eating in London was better 25 years ago — far fewer places, but more authenticity and real cooking. Today it has too many flaring tempers and too little flair.

I blame the lazy hacks who take all they are told by PRs as fact, and the restaurant critics who follow through. Those choosing criticism as their métier probably do so because they can’t actually cook. The fact that most of them take until two-thirds of the way into their razor-crafted piece to actually mention the food just about sums it up.

Of course, to afford London eating at all, with a few honourable exceptions, requires luck with the Lotto and your senses fully numbed.

But most London restaurants are eye-wateringly pricey, and for no good reason. So business rates are high — but are they really that much higher than other cities? And staff cost more. Wrong again, because restaurant pay is notoriously low. Even chefs don’t earn that much unless they are merchandised so far that they’re rarely in their kitchens or off the ‘sleb’ circuit. The only reason for these prices I can see is pure greed and what can be got away with, knowing so many of the customers have deep pockets and a desire to be seen in the right places.

Anywhere you wait weeks to secure a table and then only for a few hours of service is absurd. No fine dining establishment I have ever visited outside the UK ever does this. So, London diners, you’ve been duped again. Some places don’t even ask me to book because there’s always a table to be found — and these are too smart to mention here.

Then there’s the sheer sameness of the menus. The chefs only know a small repertoire because so few of them have served an apprenticeship like their counterparts in France, Belgium and Italy and so on across Europe. Six weeks on the grill station, a few months in a gastro pub — or worse, an appearance on the painful MasterChef — don’t make a chef, let alone a master.

So rise up the heroes of the stoves: Koffmann, Aikens, Leigh, Loubet, Roux, Corrigan and a handful of other true masters. And stand down the rest of you, until you relearn your craft from scratch.

I write as a cook, independent observer and blue-collar gastronaut. I mostly eat out at old favourites, fearing too much the disappointment and stress of poorly cooked, uninspiring or downright silly food and surly or sycophantic service. Such a meal is an evening stolen from your life you’ll never get back.

Gareth dreams in blue, white and red at