Margaret Thatcher with a McDonald’s burger at the chain’s head office in East Finchley in 1983. During her visit, she unveiled a £20 million extension to the building and congratulated the brand’s vice president, “You have aimed for higher and higher standards, offer value-for-money food, and added to that you make a profit.”
A few days before we went to press, Byron, a high-end chain of overpriced burger joints, called in a number of its employees for a training session. The meeting transpired to be a trap set by Home Office officials and police officers to grab and deport illegal immigrants working for the chain. It turns out that the illegal workers, most of whom were on minimum wage, had been paying their taxes, while Hutton Group, the venture-capital firm that owns Byron, now stands accused of going offshore to avoid paying taxes. It is a safe bet that many of Byron’s customers – myself included – who pay a premium to consume fancy burgers, find such contradiction hard to swallow. The news was made even more poignant as it arrived in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, which led to a rise in racist attacks and harassment across the UK. The oversupply of food-related allegory is no coincidence. Food, the theme of this issue, is almost never absent from discussions about any topic that includes human beings.
The successful Netflix series Chef’s Table is only the latest in the long history of televised cookery shows. And while an old idea, Chef’s Table nevertheless reflects a new reality. Each episode is set in a different corner of the world and tells the heroic story of a local chef whose personal journey is celebrated and success is explained. The format of the series is fixed; episodes follow a tight narrative formula. The chosen chef – whose place today in the pecking order of the international restaurant business is testified to by food critics and by possession of Michelin stars – is said to have come to cooking almost by accident. He (and in a minority of cases, she) has to have a creed, and be consumed by a sense of mission that explains his point of difference. This is invariably arrived at through a Damascene conversion: the chef is won over by the superior taste of organic tomatoes, or monkfish cheeks, or the methods used by Andean gauchos to grill meat. Of course, the chef suffers a series of setbacks in the manner of an Old Testament prophet – unbelievers refuse to eat at the new, revolutionary restaurant, electrical faults spoil the food, or a family tragedy causes disruption. But fear not, for this being an American series, happy endings arrive as inevitably as Happy Meals at a child’s birthday party. Eventually, there will be the “accidental” visit by a renowned food critic, whose rave review transforms the fortunes of the restaurant. Throughout, the narrative is frequently interrupted with highly fetishised, glossy images of ingredients and finished dishes shot in languorous slow motion.
The elevation of chefs as the new secular priesthood feels akin to the quasi-religious, post-war idea of the artist as hero, genius, creator. The resemblance between today’s chef-hero and the artist-hero of the mid-20th century is thought-provoking. In recent years it has transpired that the icons of abstract expressionism, from Jackson Pollock to Willem de Kooning, were actively promoted worldwide by the CIA as a means of expressing the American values of freedom and individualism against the collectivism and socialism of the Soviets. It is fascinating how everyone from semi-professional, reality-TV cooking contestants to the man selling seafood in my local market, garnishes his or her plates with the flourishes and dribbles of an abstract-expressionist artist, mimicking the haute-cuisine style of “plating”. The much-derided act of photographing these decorated plates before consuming their contents seems to function as a popular ritual – answering a need to mirror the creativity of the chef with one’s own creative intervention, and layered with the contemporary inability to absorb any experience that is not mediated by digital technology.
Food reigns supreme on Pinterest and Instagram, demonstrating an obsession with certain aspects of food (mostly its visual qualities), but it also hints at a deeper level to anxieties about health, wealth and social order. Such concerns are probed in Maria Dimitrova’s exploration of food in film and its connection to ideas of bourgeois comfort. Meanwhile a collection of visceral photographs from the great master Nobuyoshi Araki’s series, Shokuji, taken as his wife died of ovarian cancer gives a sense of the deep psychic drama of food as metaphor for both life and death, nourishment and poison, and the sense of food’s ability to create kinship and connection also runs through Phillip Lim’s hand-drawn recipes.
It is common to observe that while the Right has, since the 1980s, won the economic argument, the Left has won the social one. While the monetarist economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher caught on around the world, their social agendas of Bible-knows-best and Victorian values were roundly rejected. Economic liberalism, it turned out, could not exist without social liberalism. The changes in British cultural and social life ran in the opposite direction of the Lady who famously wasn’t for turning. God knows how she would have felt about a Tory prime minster who admitted that his principal achievement, after a term-and-a-half in office, was the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, his successor Theresa May has declared an industrial strategy that is to the left of all her most recent predecessors, both on the Right and Left. The very idea of an industrial policy would make the Lady turn in her grave. It looks like the Right has finally lost faith in Maggie’s monetary mantra – just as the Left is witnessing a rejection of its progressive social ideas by its core supporters who are more concerned by immigration than socio-economic justice. Brexit is many things, but we who live here know that it is mostly a rejection of all things foreign, fancy and elitist. Left and Right find their versions of internationalism are under attack from various types of localism that accuse both sides of cosmopolitanism. The SNP, Brexit and Donald Trump all share a preference for the local and familiar, despite differing so much in their aims, ambitions and ethics. This rejection may be authentic, but I bet it will be as short-lived as it is short-sighted.
The cosmopolitanisation of Britain, and this is now also true of much of the rest of the world, happened first through changes in its diet. Globalisation arrived on these shores in the shape of curry houses and Chinese takeaways, which sprung up even in the most far-flung and isolated communities. This, of course, preceded the flood of cheap T-shirts and flat-screen TVs. The exotic ingredients and sensations that immigration brought will continue to be ingested with relish. The British became world citizens thanks to what they put in their mouths long before they began considering whether to swallow or spit out the EU. §