The London food scene has changed significantly over the past six or seven years. Restaurants have embraced the innovativeness and energy of the street food movement, prices have come down, interior design is sexier than ever, service is casual and friendly and a new generation of talent in the kitchen means that we are now spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing where to eat: there are just so many good restaurants.
But in addition to the marked shift in the capital’s kitchens, there has been a revolution in the way we read about and discuss our restaurants. Food blogging was once seen as a slightly geeky pastime, the reserve of the nerd, on the trainspotting spectrum, so-to-speak, and often looked down upon by some of our national, printed press restaurant critics. Oh how the tables have turned! I think it could probably be argued that on-line reviewing and blogging has just as much, if not more influence on where we eat as printed reviewing and writing. A by-product of the massive virtual audience for these often-excellent blogs is a foodie community that is savvy, knowledgeable, discerning and influential.
There are some real characters in this community and, conveniently, they tend to subdivide into smaller tribes. I’m going to look at two of these in a little more detail.
1. The Neophile
The neophile is the lover of the new. He or she will be pulling on the leash to be at the front of the queue for the latest restaurant opening, neck-strainingly keen to try the most recent Hackney-railway-arch-pop-up.
Enthusiastic? You don’t know the half of it. A well-known neophile once selflessly endured an all-night bender after a boozy high-profile restaurant opening in order to be first in-line at the Bloody Mary breakfast launch of another new restaurant. I’d call that dedicated. (You, however, might call it liver damage.)
You will usually find him dining solo within minutes of the doors being opened while the waiters and chefs are still putting on aprons and the fresh paint is still drying. He’ll be the one simultaneously over-ordering, note-taking, tweeting, instagramming, photographing and engaging hungrily with the waitress, his combat trousers stained with butter drips and his heavy-framed spectacles smeared with chilli sauce.
He is related to the trainspotter in that both species are motivated by a strong desire to tick another box and claim another “got”. Been there. Done that. Had the signature dish. Time to move on
Quite often, he will never visit the restaurant again. Old restaurants have neither currency nor appeal to the neophile. They are immediately irrelevant and obsolete. There is the next new place to get to and cross off the list. If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Neophiles are young, determined and full of energy.
Most likely to say: “Fried chicken is the new burger.”
Least likely to say: “I think I’ll stay in tonight and have beans on toast instead.”
2. The OCD Chef
I know, I know. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a serious medical and psychological condition that should not be made light of in this way, but I’m just using the common vernacular.
These dudes are hard-core. No leaf is accidentally placed. Esoteric vegetables need to sit on the plate in regimented lines. “FIVE FUCKING SHISO FLOWERS ON THAT PLATE OF HAMACHI!” And woe betide the waiter who places a dish on a table the wrong way round. “Umeboshi at twelve o’clock. UMEBOSHI AT TWELVE O’CLOCK!”
You might (reasonably) argue that this is simply a keen attention-to-detail, right? Wrong. The OCD chef goes beyond “attention-to-detail” and straight into “hysterical control-freakery” faster than you can say “minute steak”.
Character traits? Slightly scary, slightly intense and with a permanent air of martyrdom. They have perfected the withering laser-beam stare of abject disappointment, capable of exterminating a junior sous chef at twenty paces. Although many of them scream and shout at their gamma and delta workmates to intimidate them into submission, some have a far more terrifying, softly-softly approach. “Oh, that’s very disappointing, Carl...”
In terms of appearance, OCD chefs come in both genders, are often tattooed prominently (think cleavers, knives, forks and butchery diagrams), they sport prison-chic haircuts and, inexplicably, they have a predilection for short-sleeved chef jackets. They do inhabit a variety of restaurants but the pedigree specimens are most often found in their own kitchen, as chef-patrons. If their name is above the door, peak OCD is guaranteed.
OCD chefs must possess the latest range of razor-sharp Japanese knives, no expense spared, and absolutely always require tweezers. Yes, tweezers. Essential. How else will those expensive micro herbs make it onto the plate?
Most likely to say: “Am I the only one round here who can do this properly?”
Least likely to say: “I’m quite relaxed about it. What do you think? Let’s have a vote!”
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival