Changing tastes for the
UK food industry
Now that cafes and restaurants are open, what’s new?
by Lewis Duncan
30th August 2020
Illustration by Grace Han
Salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami are the basic pillars for the many articles out there about learning to cook during lockdown. The now-familiar story feels relatable because it follows a routine of coffee in the morning and then planning for a day mostly consumed by cooking and eating interspersed with work and other commitments. I’ve learned to have the foresight to start early, simmer for hours and enjoy an anticipated meal later in the day. Making chicken stock with leftover bones or vegetable cut-offs, using the five hour cooking time to take stock, and thinking about how eating habits might change as lockdown eases are less uncommon.
Lockdown easing re-introduced different kitchens as I began to visit friends and family and move on from picnics in the park with salmon and cream cheese bagels. I always go heavy on the cracked pepper and soak the salmon in lemon juice, and maybe capers. Dreaming of actual dinners around the table with people other than my family became more real as a way to reconnect with friends and indulge in more food, exercising new culinary skills.
To zoom out and consider a 25% economic contraction in the space of two months, caused a rupture in the food industry where many were forced to grind to a halt. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has been under the thumb devising strategy for the UK during Coronavirus. Decisions to end community testing, and the delayed initial lockdown (to avoid a sense of panic) drew criticism. It’s difficult not to feel frustrated with the small group - which faced further criticism and accusations of government interference and confusion over who is in charge - while people’s livelihoods are at risk.
The SAGE acronym shares names with the herb my neighbours happened to plant in their garden just as lockdown hit, and last week offered me a bunch. Sage fried in fat is a killer combination. I opt for butter over oil. You need to swirl the butter and cook until brown for a nuttier butter flavour, then add the sage leaves and let crisp. The first crispy sage I tried was the starter at a restaurant on Green Lanes, sprinkled over a rich french onion soup to balance the silky sweetness from the onions with a flavoursome crunch. The restaurant has only just reopened, serving kefir (fermented milk) and natural wines alongside seasonal food, and is one of the mid-size businesses most likely to suffer due to the Coronavirus disruptions because they aren’t so small to be able to adapt quickly, nor big enough to survive like large chains.
Aside from cooking, another time-filling rabbit hole is interviews with musicians. In one talk, Nile Rogers suggests politicians having a jam sesh before policy meetings. The chemistry and respect for each other would make working more efficient and relaxed. Maybe working in a kitchen could offer similar benefits. The no-bullshit straight-talking rational practicality when executing tasks, all so at the end of the day guests eat well. Politicians in principle should operate following this mentality. But ‘Yes, Chef!’ works on a different level to ‘Yes, Minister’, which recalls half-witted government officials depicted on the eponymous 1980s sitcom, and reminds me of working as a waiter last year when I served trout crudo, lentil dahl and winter carrots to David Cameron’s Christmas party of twenty or so.
Eating in London almost seems to be business as usual. The government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ fed me well on the first Monday and Tuesday of its operation. 72,000 businesses nationwide are taking part in the scheme. I sought out a Mexican DF Tacos on Brick Lane and TohBang, Korean BBQ in Clerkenwell, where I sipped on Plum Tea and enjoyed Matcha Ice Cream. On the day without the deal, a daily salad special from a vegetarian cafe in Deptford set me back £6.50 plus two flat whites at £2.80 a pop had me reaching deep into my student pocket for just a light breakfast, highlighting the relief of a discounted eating out scheme to boost the industry.
Criticism of the government’s scheme comes in the form of fast-food chains slashing 50% off to lessen their already cheap prices, which only encourages unhealthy habits. Another issue was highlighted to me on Instagram by the restaurant Four Legs (based in Canonbury). ‘All the government has done is create a false economy. Weekend trade had been taken away from restaurants… they have no idea how the hospitality industry works, nor how we the people get by day-to-day.’
Politically, food is hard to gauge; it falls under the economic umbrella but is also a core cultural and social binder. At home, I turned to Instagram and Youtube for inspiration. Politics are often discussed over meals, and some meals have become problematic in themselves - American Thanksgiving for example has a history that should be understood and reconsidered. I only have to open Instagram in order to learn about specific and urgent causes, with many accounts exposing the relevancy in the food industry. Youtube has been far less active in its message, however, a black spot emerged on my usual feed when the ever-entertaining and comforting setting of Condé Nast’s food magazine Bon Appetit test kitchen came under fire; the harmonious illusion of movie magic production shattered when it was revealed that the magazine harboured an unhealthy and toxic work culture which marginalised BAME employees. Pay discrepancy and institutional racism showed the darker side of making good food.
I’ve also been watching Parts Unknown as another lockdown binge. It's easy to be interested in food because Bourdain as host takes viewers across the world to explore issues in different cultures and how day-to-day life revolves around food. Beyond nice meals, as Bourdain discovers over and again, food translates into the economy as property and investment. In Covid times, the smaller sized restaurants are estimated to struggle because borrowing and expanding will fail under Covid insecurity. A form of catering, which may hold strong post-Covid as cities adapt to be quicker and cleaner, could encourage more pop-ups or at least a healthier circulation of humans’ essential fuel. The industry is tricky - restaurants reopening will give people their jobs back, but waitering is also a precarious occupation with many placed on zero-hour contracts and minimum wage. On the other hand, takeaway food or veg-box schemes work for those who can afford the luxury, but the ease of these services can also remove our understanding of the essential workers front-line cooking, packaging, delivering. At least people who have discovered cooking during lockdown can appreciate the industry and the necessary art of a decent meal, and this attitude hopefully ripples into the socio-economic impact of the food industry.
Lewis Duncan is a first BA student and a staff writer for the Courtauldian. After studying sculpture for a year, he wants to write about current artists and art in the city, capturing some of the art scene’s energy for Courtauldian readers. He will also be looking closely at his main interest, architecture. Having lived in London all his life, he knows the built environment can be difficult to navigate, but by sharing experiences, he believes we can unlock the city.