Food & the City, with Richard G. Smith

Inspired by his research into the effect of globalisation on city life, we caught up with Dr Richard Smith of Swansea University at TedX London. His talk at the event posed the question — what is the future of London in a post-Brexit world? Throughout his career he’s been a thought leader on the relationship between city and state. He argued that rather than viewing global politics as a system defined by nations and their governments, we’re already seeing the world evolve into a transnational urban network. Richard spoke to us about about the future of our city — one of the most culturally diverse in the world — and the role of food in our urban lives.

At Co-Created, we’re firm believers in the power of food to bring people together. What role has food played in your life?

As a geographer I am very curious about the world and I travel a lot. I have been lucky enough to have visited more than 100 countries, and one of the most memorable parts of all those trips has been finding and trying new foods, of experiencing the seemingly countless diversity of food cultures that are available if you are willing to travel with an open mind and a desire to seek out the new.

Your TEDx talk is about London After Brexit. What are the biggest problems and opportunities the city and its people are facing?

Food has a key role in bringing people together. London is the most cosmopolitan and leading global city in the world. London is the sixth largest French city, and the second largest Hungarian city, over 300 languages are spoken in London, and over a third of the population are foreign born. The incredible diversity of London is one of the city’s strengths, not least in making London the world’s most diverse and exciting food centre. London’s reputation and success as a foodies paradise is a consequence of both its population’s willingness to try new foods and cuisines, and a product of its ‘openness’ to the world. The most obvious challenge that Brexit will bring to many firms in the hospitality industry will probably revolve around the hiring and retaining of staff. But whether that will be anything like as significant a problem as the cost of living in London is unlikely. Ultimately, Brexit is a psychological or existential challenge to London rather than a starting gun for London going into economic reverse. Londoners voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, to be open to the world. The spirit of London is to engage with the world and that is why London’s food scene will continue to thrive, with restaurant tourism to London continuing to rise it will become more, not less, difficult to keep up with up with the ever shifting landscape of London’s hospitality industries after Brexit.

Have you seen the disappearance or emergence of cultures through global capitalism? What role does food have / could it have in preserving or celebrating it?

The sheer size, diversity and ‘global-connectedness’ of London means that London produces 32 per cent of the UK’s GDP. With such a concentration of wealth, of wealthy customers, it is no accident that London has an array of award winning restaurants, celebrity chefs, food entrepreneurs, and ‘pop-ups’. London has become a global gourmet destination because its people and the food industry as a whole have worked together to bring the cuisines of the world to the city, to raise the profile of British cooking, to cater to a significant portion of the wealthiest people on the planet. With globalization the cultures of cities are always changing, interconnectedness means that the food cultures of major cities are always evolving. In many ways London is the future of global cuisine, London is the most connected city in the world and the diversity and quality of its cuisine celebrates that fact.

Our cities are changing, and with this so is the way we live. How do you see the role of food in the city of the future?

I think what is new at the moment is how food has become even more a part of ‘conspicuous consumption’, a kind of democratic way to increase ‘prestige’ among friends because, let’s face it, even eating in a Michelin star restaurant is a lot cheaper than owning a private jet! Food is more tied up with status than ever before. There are a lot of people who almost seem more interested in photographing and sharing pictures of the food they are buying, than actually eating it! That said. I think the sharing of photographs of food is important, because what it really shows is how people’s individual networks, and so ultimately the networks of any city, are not just local (within the city), or even national, but global. Every day the food served in London is seen across the world.

And lastly, what’s your favourite home cooked meal and why?

My favourite home cooked meal is Sauerbraten or ‘sour roast’ with red cabbage and potato dumplings. What I like about the dish is that it is very ‘slow eating’. We buy a shin of beef from my local butcher on the Gower peninsula on Monday, marinate, and eat the dish on Sunday. The marinating needs at least 5 days, but your patience is more than rewarded. Sauerbraten is not only for special occasions! Indeed I think that German cuisine is underrated, just like British food used to be.

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