When A. A. Gill trashed Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York restaurant 66 in Vanity Fair, the London Times food critic, famous in Britain, got famous in the United States as well. “How clever are shrimp–and–foie gras dumplings with grapefruit dipping sauce?” he wrote. “What if we called them fishy liver-filled condoms? They were properly vile, with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital.”
CHOW talked to Gill about the business of reviewing restaurants, organics as a style statement, and the dark evil of Starbucks.
Where do you think the most interesting things are happening right now in food? What city?
I’m always happy to be in Singapore. Singapore is one of the great, great eating cities, and nobody says it enough. It’s got a fantastic natural cuisine but also this great mixture of Indian, Malay, English, Arab.
The place that I thought was really exciting the last time I was there was Bombay. Fantastic place to eat! There used to be, obviously, lots of good Indian food in India. What it’s now got is a restaurant scene that isn’t for tourists. There’s an indigenous restaurant scene that is for middle-class Mumbaians. It’s very lively, very sexy and upwardly mobile. It’s a bit Dallas, a bit 1980s, and a bit conspicuous, and I just think it’s fab.
What are your main criteria for a satisfying restaurant experience?
The main criterion is everything. It’s like getting into a car and saying, “Which bit of the safety equipment can you do without?” None of it. One of the great differences between restaurateurs and customers is the priorities. Restaurants are obsessive about cleanliness, and quite right. But it’s not the priority for people who eat in restaurants. They have a base bottom-line assumption that there isn’t somebody out back licking their lemons.
I think most restaurateurs would say that the primary reason that people go to restaurants is the food, and they’re wrong. What people go out to restaurants for is a good time —not because they are hungry. And that’s a big difference between what restaurants think they are doing and what people think restaurants are doing. An awful lot of what people like about restaurants is about service, and what restaurateurs think is good service is efficient service, but what customers think is good service is friendly service.
What are the worst mistakes you’ve seen recently?
Everything I don’t want is absolutely embedded in everything about Starbucks. I think the whole deal is cynical and unpleasant. It’s positioning itself as being the comestible equivalent of Friends. It’s slightly green, people friendly, grown up, sensitive. It’s a franchise that’s built in stock exchanges and not in kitchens. Starbucks is everything that I despise and dislike about chains. The product is vile; the marketing is terrible. There has been far more energy put into the matter and the means of actually selling you something and making something to sell you. The service is slow, unforgettable; the whole place is nasty, the layout looks ugly, and everything about it is against all the things I like about hospitality and about eating out.
What about avant-garde food?
It’s like music —you need to have an appreciation.
If you go out once a year for your wife’s birthday, you’ll think you’ve been had at the Fat Duck; but if you understand it, brilliant. The “chemistry” is a red herring. If Heston [Blumenthal] had called it something else, no one would be questioning it. All cooking is chemistry. It’s a mixture of craft and science. The French will say it’s all art, but it’s science and craft.
The only bad food is the food that actually poisons you—and even that can occasionally be quite good—like fugu fish. I just think that the implication that cutting-edge food is more difficult food or somehow worth more than any other food diminishes all of eating. Eating is something that we all—everyone on the planet—have to do three times a day. There is room for snobbery and fashion in food, but there is room for everything else as well. I’ll always say that food is everything from a bowl of potato chips on a bar to the body and blood of Christ and everything in between. It’s all there. To try and limit it is the great sin against eating and hospitality.
Are food prices out of control?
I think they are in parts of Africa. ... But the point is not the intrinsic value, whether you can afford it, if the question implies there is a level above which no hamburger is worth. Or … that to ever pay more than X dollars for a dinner would be implicitly immoral or wrong or a ripoff. I actually think one of the huge problems with food in the West is that it is far, far too cheap.
You can buy a ready-cooked half a chicken in Britain for under a pound —about $2. You have to consider everything that went into making that chicken. It had to be born, it had to be an egg, it had to be hatched, it had to grow up, then had to be sorted, gutted, plucked. It had to be killed, it had to be refrigerated, it had to be driven somewhere in a truck, it had to be cooked, and then it has to be presented, wrapped up, and stored in a shop, which has to pay rent and employ a server to take our money and all those other things. Out of all that, what intrinsically is that bird worth?
Food is no longer in the West an indicator of poverty. It’s taken for granted that nobody will starve to death. Poverty is now measured on things like whether we have a washing machine. I would like to see an awful lot more food costing an awful lot more.
What trends do you feel are good/bad?
I’ll tell you two things off the top of my head that particularly annoy me. One is organic. You go to the supermarket and you now see “organic” written over a whole section of produce—fruit and vegetables—that basically has the same high-yield, tasteless things that were made with fertilizer and chemicals. It makes precious little difference if you’re just going to make a bad tomato more expensive.
What I mind about organics is that it’s become a label used to make as much money as possible out of the process. The whole process has been hijacked and laced with guilt. You have people who can and will eat organic, but it’s not because they’re leading healthier or better lives —it’s a style statement about the people they are.
Much more important than organics is processed food. You get hooked on some ready-made [frozen] meal that says “organic ingredients,” and you think it’s somehow better for you. What you ought to be doing is buying raw ingredients and cooking [them]. It’s just the idea that somehow stamping “organic” on the package and charging you another couple of dollars lets you off the hook and makes it a good thing for you.
The other thing I mind about restaurants is [that] we have this chimera of choice, but in fact we have less and less choice. So that the same dishes come up again and again across restaurants and these chefs get menu envy. They look at other people’s menus, and you get a thing that will be this season’s smart dish, it will be Nobu’s blackened cod. The problem with things like fusion food and jabberwocky food, as I used to call it, [is] that these dishes now travel across menus. ... It’s actually reducing choice.
What should we be looking out for; what do you think the next wave will be?
I have no idea; every time I choose something, I’m wrong. I’ve been saying for years and years that I thought it was time for South African food. Cape Malay food I think is one of the great, undiscovered cuisines of the world.
How did you feel about the reaction to your slam of Jean-Georges’s 66?
There is an enormous difference in the press and the expression of criticism between Britain and America. The press in America is much less opinionated—you take your choice, and you say, well, maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s not. I’m a first-person writer, and I would find it much, much more difficult to write in America regularly because there just isn’t that much first-person journalism. And if you write on behalf of the paper, then the paper is giving its opinion, and that’s very different. If I’m giving my opinion, then it’s no water off the paper’s back one way or the other—it’s just me.
I think it’s a shame, and in the end you don’t serve your customers who are the readers. Restaurateurs come to me and say, “Why can’t you say something positive?” It’s not my job to come round and tell you what’s wrong with your restaurant. It’s my job to sell newspapers and to entertain and perhaps inform my readers: The last person who should be reading a restaurant review is the person that it’s about —they should already know.
If you could have any chef cook for you, who would it be?
Thankfully, it changes every day. That thing: What do you want to eat tonight? I never, ever get fed up with that question. If you said, there is a guy whose name I don’t know but he has an incredible stall in Bombay, and he just cooks all night, and he does kebabs and amazing things in skillets, and he’s got huge queues around his stall all night, and very rich Bombayans turn up in huge cars and come and eat his street food, and it’s just absolutely fantastic —I’m always excited about what I’m going to eat tonight.