A New Stage
This piece was originally submitted for the 2018 YBFs Fresh Voices in Food Writing award, and was shortlisted by Marina O’Loughlin, Fay Maschler, Yotam Ottolenghi and Christine Hayes as one of three finalists.
Tomos Parry is very particular about his turbot. When not at best quality, it won’t be on the menu at his restaurant, BRAT. Given that it is named for the fish — via colloquial old English — his conviction is uncannily self-destructive, as well as winningly sincere. BRAT sits above Ben Chapman’s Smoking Goat, and if there were ever an allegorical dialogue for London restaurant culture 2018, they’d make fine leads. Indebted to fire; fanatical about sourcing; open kitchen; still a bit too masculine; proud guardians of a distant place and time transposed into London’s key: the grills of Getaria on the Basque coast; the late night canteens of Bangkok. Continents stacked on top of each other, the capital’s contemporary culinary energy bound up in a Shoreditch nutshell.
At BRAT, that turbot glistens invitingly with pil pil emulsion, prostrate for picking over its flame-burnished multitudes: gelatinous in places, flaking in others. At Smoking Goat, there’s a fat tendril of Cornish octopus; wild sea bass (presumably of no fixed county) winking from a den of Cornish-Thai herbs; lardo fried rice, a seething pile of jowly heat. It’s ingredient-led, and as servers, diners and Instagram would say, it’s “simple”. It’s also some of the most interesting food in the city.
As complex, forward-looking restaurants have evolved to privilege simplicity, complexity too has changed. The paradigm shift is from legible to illegible, the performativity of artful swooshes and vanishing foams giving way to subtler shows. “Simple” cooking at BRAT and Smoking Goat — as indebted to St. John as to Spain or Thailand — privileges a complexity that lies beneath, imperceptible to the eye but articulate on the tongue. At Smoking Goat, you cannot read their sourcing policy for whole Tamworth pigs in a plate of lardo fried rice; at BRAT, you cannot see the journey of their peas, picked after a cold Basque night for green-sweet innocence. You will, though, be told that they are served with Camarthen Ham. Subtle performance, on a new stage.
That stage is the menu, where words cleave more faithfully to their referents: “beetroot — curd — hazelnut — nasturtium” is no longer an overwrought confrontation with masturbatory technique. We are reading a fragile promise, rather than a tedious riddle. The menu thus becomes more significant and signifying, demanding closer attention to intentionality and meaning, to what’s unsaid as much as what is. It’s a striking shift: to be wowed by provenance ahead of manipulation and compression and tweezered microherbs (s’up, Masterchef?) is, necessarily, to admit that the visibility of chefs’ work has become less interesting, less important. Simple cooking’s trope of ingredients “speaking for themselves” depends on the chef shutting up. Knowing why those ingredients can speak for themselves, though, still depends on chefs speaking; speaking about partnership and collaboration and process. Their plates and menus make them stenographers for farmers, breeders and growers, deferent and reverent rather than deified and revered; this could have innumerable benefits, dispelling the notion that chefs are maverick alchemists immune from muggle critique; helping more women and minorities present their food on equitable terms.
It’s also why certain small choices rankle. Parry’s “langoustine” is as sparse a fragment of menu poetry as they come, but the white space in front is a nagging void in a cartographer’s dream. Why is sea bass wild, but octopus Cornish for Smoking Goat, and why does monkfish receive neither provenance nor wildness? Why, at BRAT, is beef Moorland and lamb Herdwyck while those Marinda tomatoes — one of the rarest and most idiosyncratic varietals in the world — and those Basque peas pass without fanfare?
Rejecting fish and anonymising vegetables feels like grasping for visibility of influence, lurking behind a reprinted menu or an empty grill clamp while illegible on the plate. It feels like control of things unsaid and unserved, betraying an unwillingness to let ingredients and producers speak plainly. It feels less like martyrdom for the nobility of product, and more like posture and performance: the same machismo that smeared itself in purées and clung to collapsing espuma. And it’s a performance we need to be wise to as we explore this germane, excitingly vulnerable mode of culinary expression, lest we too become spoilt brats.