Spoilt Brats

Credit: Benjamin McMahon

Tomos Parry is very particular about his turbot. At his newly opened grill restaurant BRAT, on Redchurch Street, he will “work closely with four or five different day boats and suppliers to ensure we get the best pick of turbots, mainly from the south west coast.” When the turbot is not available, or not at best quality, it’s not on the menu. Given that the restaurant is named for the fish—albeit its colloquial, old English form, more suited to the four-letter-all-caps-paradigm— it’s uncannily self-destructive, as well as winningly sincere.

BRAT is located above Smoking Goat, and if there was an ever an allegorical dialogue for the London restaurant culture of 2018 (cometh the hour, cometh Tom Stoppard), they’d be fine leads. Ferociously ideological, indebted to fire, fanatical about sourcing, open kitchen, still a bit too masculine, proudly in fealty to a distant place and time transposed into London’s key: they speak as distant twins. One is informed by Getaria, on the Basque coast, and the other by the late-night canteens of Bangkok, and to have them in one building stacked on top of each other is to see London’s culinary energy bound in a nutshell; it also reveals just how much we have started to count ourselves as kings of infinite space.

At BRAT, the steak, tomatoes and smoked potatoes are presented in the manner of an Italian taverna or, presumably, a Getaria grill — on individual plates to assemble as you please, giving the option to luxuriate in oneness or submit to glorious combination. The whole turbot, glistening invitingly with pil pil (garlic, guindilla pepper, olive oil) emulsion, is burnished from its time on the grill, and prostrates itself before you on a dish, ripe for picking over its multitudes: gelatinous in places, flaking in others. At Smoking Goat, Cornish octopus skewer tendrils itself up; Wild Sea Bass, presumably of no fixed county, winks from a den of aromats and Cornish-Thai herbs; lardo fried rice is a seething plethora of jowl and heat and heft.

This iteration of how we eat has developed new ways of seeing complexity. The paradigm shift is from legible to illegible: artful swooshes, vanishing foams, tuiles and flourishes of herb and zest and jus have given way to concealed work, invisible mechanics, #uglydeliciousandmeticulouslysourced. Bill Addison documented one iteration of this shift and called it new romanticism: his wonderful essay casts an experienced, generous eye over the style of plating that pairs freeform whimsy with intentionality, that “channels a more deliberate visual impulse”, that allows for the individuality of the chef-artist but is far less obviously wrought than the swoosh and flourish model. It is everywhere in London, with prominent new romantics including Pidgin, Spring and Lyles.

The “Simple Cooking” paradigm at BRAT and Smoking Goat—itself indebted to the likes of St. John as much as Spain or Thailand, which itself is deeply indebted to, uh, France—iterates once more: it privileges complexity derived from what lies beneath, whether time, sourcing, or work, perhaps imperceptible to the eye but articulate on the tongue. The “work” done by the chefs is even less performed, even less legible: a plate’s virtue signal is seemingly a little harder to detect. You cannot read a plate of lardo fried rice at Smoking Goat and perceive how it intersects with their sourcing policy for Tamworth pigs; you cannot read the backstory of the peas at BRAT, picked after a cold Basque country night for their verdant sweetness now; soon to be grown in Cornwall from specially selected seed. But you will be told, whether you like it or not, that they are served with Camarthen Ham. On the one hand this is a necessity of trademark. On the other it’s a decision about which ingredient gets to speak for itself, and which has more of its story told. It turns out that this paradigm remains deeply performative: it’s just on a different stage.

The new stage is menus and words and typography, which carry more weight. Ingredient-led cooking puts the words on the menu closer to their referents, the food they describe: it’s not a case of beetroot — curd—hazelnut—lemon leading to a confrontation with a series of masturbatory violences done to ingredients in the name of peacocking technique. When Marinda tomatoes, Anglesey salt, and olive oil means exactly that, (or, as at BRAT, it’s just “Tomatoes”) the precision exerts a different kind of pressure on chefs and diners; source is the differentiator, provenance is in the foreground, we are reading a fragile promise rather than a tedious riddle.

The menu is in all senses more significant, and signifying: choices made about wording demand closer attention to intentionality and meaning, to what’s unsaid as much as what is. Why is it more important at Smoking Goat that sea bass is wild, but octopus Cornish? Why does monkfish receive neither provenance nor wildness? Is it okay to conflate actual provenance with inspiration and influence? (Northern Thai Sausage made in Shoreditch…)Why is it more important at BRAT that we know tartar is of Moorland beef and lamb is Herdwyck, but those Marindas — one of the rarest and idiosyncratic tomato varietals in the world—pass without fanfare. “Langoustine” is as sparse a piece of menu poetry as they come, but the white space in front of it is a nagging void.

This is important because, at its most extreme, the move towards elemental, monastic plating and menu design is an endorsement of wilful ignorance: ‘tasting’ the difference is not the same as having it explained to you; being unable to see the groundwork and the source is an endorsement of a very particular philosophy. Being impressed or moved or thrilled by a turbot gently grilled over lumpwood pits two extremes against each other: an oblivious wonderment (how can just a turbot be this good) and an informed wonderment (this is how a turbot can taste this good).

If not explained at point of ingestion, then to be informed is to be possessing a certain kind of privilege that cuts two ways — either utterly unconcerned or already knowing the score. These two wonders are equally thrilling, the first sublime awe, the second an assertion of a state of things that is good and delicious. To know both in one meal is to experience eating in its brilliant, contradictory shades; it’s also to submit to a state of negative capability, which can be as disquieting as it is exciting.

These twin wonders can also leaven malignant cheffyness, amplifying other voices: the trope of ingredients speaking for themselves is dependent on the chef shutting up; the trope of knowing the origin story is dependent on the chef speaking and speaking lots, but speaking about opportunity and partnership and collaboration and process, rather than the steely length they use to chop and butcher. To be no longer wowed by visible work done to ingredients, by manipulation and compression and rocher upon rocher upon purée swoosh garlanded by tweezered microherbs (s’up, Masterchef) is, necessarily, to admit that the visibility of chefs’ work is something we care about less and less.

If Parry, Chapman and others are also reacting against new romanticism, then they probably care even less. Invisibility is privileged, process unspoken rather than shouted; chefs are becoming mouthpieces for farmers and breeders and growers, deferent and reverent rather than deified and revered. Chapman especially is lauded as redefining how restaurants and suppliers can work in real harmony. This could have innumerable positive effects: a reconsideration of the chef’s identity that rejects hedonistic wankery and hard, flinty, meaningless sky poetry; a levelling of the notion that chefs are maverick alchemists and thus not subject to muggle critique; a conversation that ultimately leads to more women and minorities having the chance for their food to speak loud and clear and proud; to show people, powerfully, that being a chef and a cook is, fundamentally, about mastering salt and fat and acid and heat.

To do and subscribe to all this —as BRAT and Smoking Goat clearly do —only to undermine it appears contrived. Which is perhaps why Tomos Parry rejecting turbot rankles a little. It’s the same kind of rankle that wastED left in its flurry of kale trees: the opportunity to do something truly challenging shackled by egoistic detail, even sacrificed to score cultural capital points around difficulty. There was something uncanny and troubling about showcasing a vision for sustainable eating on top of one of the most exclusive department stalls in the world, that looms over a capital whose kitchen windows can so often frame empty fridges, and turning it into an exercise in temporariness and accessibility. More uncanny and troubling than rejecting a turbot, but trawled from a similar line of thought: a line of thought that says performativity is here to stay, even if it won’t be quenelled on to your plate or festooned with nasturtiums. When does rejecting fish stop being an exciting foregrounding of local quality and start signalling another kind of virtue? Doesn’t it fundamentally do both at once? Is “native day boat seafood is delivered daily” just a bit clumsy, or trying one Cornish octopus skewer too hard?

What’s left is a feeling of grasping for the visibility of influence, a reinstatement of being The Chef who makes The Big And Visible Decisions — not legible in something on a plate, instead lurking behind a reprinted menu, an empty grill clamp. Control of things unsaid, unserved, uneaten, betraying an unwillingness to truly let ingredients speak plainly, to truly actualise a philosophy of cooking wherein chefs take a seat at the back. It feels less like martyrdom for the nobility of product and more like privilege and posture, the same machismo that used to smear itself in purées and cling to collapsing espuma. And it’s privilege we need to be wise to as we come round to this germane and vulnerable mode of expression, lest we too become spoilt brats.

Like what you read? Give James Hansen a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.