Marie-Antoinette had an interesting way of unwinding at the Petit Trianon, the small Palace that was her escape from the ‘pressures’ of Queenship up at the ‘big house’ in Versaille. In the grounds of the Petit Trianon, she ordered the construction of a hameau, a mock French farming village, complete with rabbits, pigs, cows and some fields of wheat and barley which she oversaw. A.U Wertmüller, some-time a resident artist at Versaille depicts, in one of his portraits from the French court, one of Marie-Antoinette’s confidants, Adelaide Auguie, dressed in a mock peasant milk maid’s dress in the Queens Laiterie. Apocryphal or not, the story runs that the Queen herself had elaborate shepherdess and farm-girl costumes made by her royal dressmakers, in which she would play at the peasant-girl, tending to her sheep or milking her cows until, bored, she would retire to the Trianon, most likely for cake.
Why I bother to relay this story is because the same disdain I have for this playing at the peasant is how I am beginning to feel about the current trend for single-dish and short menu restaurants in London. What once started as a desire for simplicity, great ingredients and an unfussy return to ‘real’ food has become a caricature of itself, what the hameau was to a working rural village. Just as the immediate post-recessionary automotive craze for matte-black coating Porsches, BMWs and Range Rover Vogues as well as other high end vehicle, ( low profile, low sheen and therefore permissible luxury ran the simplistic hedge-funder logic) these restaurants the Tramsheds, Bubble Dogs and Burger & Lobsters of the world are now seen as a permissible display of status by way of discernment in this post-recessionary realignment, the after-Lehman L’Atelier Joel Robuchon. Except, the problem is that once they become a covert status game, the food suffers. Once the thing is that it is ‘a thing’ then the food is no longer the thing. The shred of dignity provided by their stripped back approach is becoming stretched to the point of absurdity, with a restaurant specialising in only champagne and hotdog or only burgers and lobsters bearing little resemblance to the honest culinary ethos that may have been the one iota of authentic grit in the oyster when this whole charade began. This rule can be almost uiversally applied to anything with ‘streetfood’ in its subhead.
The ersatz nature of the whole stripped back food vibe becomes apparent when you eat at some of these restaurants- catering to a certain comfortable chattering class background that wants to play at the peasant girl. Meat Liquor’s burgers are over-hyped, over-greasy and made from poor cuts. They remind me of the kind of burger that I would get for a pound from a burger van at the funfairs of my childhood. Yet for those who venerate these establishments, these vans were were verboten, so now in urban 20- and 30- something-hood their sustenance, or a repackaged version of it, becomes fetishised, an exciting sense of what is forbidden, an element of transgression to add to dimensionalise this status.
If you want a burger van burger, go to a windy car-park by a builders merchant in Mitcham. If you want to open one of these restaurant, make the narrative about the food rather than pretending its about the food when actually its about the catchiest menu combination or newest streetfood novelty.
Amongst the shining skyscrapers of Dubai, a city that doesn’t do ersatz modesty, culinarily or otherwise, I visited a place in porta-cabin, the Bu Qtair restaurant with no menu and whose clientele consisted of a pretty even split of expatriates, from both East and West, and South Asian migrant workers. Plastic tables and chairs were strewn outside and there was no menu, just large plastic tubs of masala-seasoned fish bought each morning from the boats ( Dubai actiually has a working fishing fleet… ), fried to order and served out of a side window of the cabin. No show, no fuss, no ‘concept’ other than serving incredible spicy fish and chapatis to anyone who wanted to eat. Happiness should be good food, not a culinary mock-hamlet.
I recently watched an episode of Man vs. Food on one of those nondescript channels that populate the badlands between the post-lad hangover zone of BBC and the less salubrious members of the C4 family and the outer limits of the tragi-comic late night masturbatory purgatory of the Babestations and Rabbit Chats, where dead-eyed women mentally compiling the shopping list for tomorrow’s ASDA run unrhythmical vibrate their spray-tanned buttocks. For those who don’t know Man vs. Food, it is a programme where Adam Richmond takes on ‘big food’ at a variety of local restaurants across the US.
In each programme he meets local chefs who claim to cook the best ribs, the juiciest burger, the spiciest wings. The central set piece of each episode sees Richmond take on an eating challenge at a restaurant in the faceless middle-American town that that episode finds him in. ‘Can Adam defeat the Lamesa, Texas, 25-pound steak challenge?’ ‘Will Adam conquer the Mason Falls, Iowa King Crab Carnivale?’ ‘Is the Sedalia, Missouri Hog-Roast-for-one a Pig too Far?’. Invariably the answer is always ‘yes’ (or no, in the case of the last announcer VO-ed cliffhanger question), this man can conquer this food. At first, I was disgusted by the whole concept, but then I was hooked. We watch spectators watch this man in a restaurant take on a week’s calories in one sitting, transfixed by the site of enough food to feed a family somewhere else for a week is crammed into the gaping pie-hole of one fat American travelling cook. The visceral nature of the whole spectacle, the sense of theatre, the element of dramatic set piece (Will He?- but of course he will) makes the whole thing oddly beautiful, and you find yourself urging him on with every mouthful, despite the victory over food being a foregone conclusion.
But it began to dawn on me that actually was what made it so beautiful is that in many ways it was a renewal of the American Dream, that it was a new covenant that reconnected contemporary America with its pioneer spirit, with its past, with its founding fathers. The sheer wastefulness of the task celebrated the country as a land of plenty, as the ‘big country’, as this vast set of possibilities. The idea that this man was taking in the food represented those who are brave enough to grab that opportunity to take on that surfeit of goodness, of stuff. The ordinariness of the man who is to conquer this food shows how this is available to us all, how we could all make it in America- there is the space the possibility for anybody to become whatever somebody they want to be as Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway says of the embodiment of the same dream gone astray in the mid 2oth century ‘Jay Gatsby…sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.’ Man vs. Food renews the great American possibility of self-creation, re-invention- it represents that blank canvas loaded with opportunity with every oversized steak-knife and giant ersatz-silver salver. In watching this one man over-stuff himself on deep-fried goodness we are seeing a return to everything that once-made America great, a post-MTV rearticulation of ‘The New Colossus’, incribed on the plinth of Liberty, with every bite