British cuisine’s reputation as some of the worst in the world arguably lingers on. But to reduce English cuisine to this would be to give in too readily to common prejudices. After all, the British have helped to write important chapters in the history of good food. The decisive, decades-long work of Auguste Escoffier, the most important chef for modern kitchen culture, in the London luxury hotels Ritz, Savoy and Ritz-Carlton is one indication of many. But it is also true that the British have always had to bring kitchen expertise into the country from outside. Even fish and chips, a much loved national dish, can be traced back to Sephardic Jews.
Import and export
On the other hand, this openness to new ideas and influences has made London the most exciting city for good food today. Fine dining in the classical sense can be celebrated here from Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Gordon Ramsay in the noblest way imaginable. At the same time, a dazzling new generation of top chefs (Clare Smyth, Angela Hartnett, Hélène Darroze and many others) and cooks ensure one of the highest Michelin star densities in Europe. But the main reason to go to London is to experience how young, relaxed restaurants in the outer boroughs inspire with ravishingly delicious food. It is primarily tiny, unassuming shacks like “Levan” in Peckham, “Black Axe Mangal” in Highbury or “Brat” in Shoreditch, where trends are emerging today that will take years to appear in other countries, if at all. The quality is much higher than in comparable melting-pot metropolises like New York or Singapore, the players' professionalism is breathtaking, and the quality of the local ingredients is arguably only comparable to France.
Added to this is the diversity of ethnic cuisines owed to the colonial heritage that has influenced British food for centuries. Chicken tikka masala may officially be the most popular dish among Britons. Still, the capital's high-end Indian restaurants, from “Gymkhana” to “Amaya” and “Kahani” to the resurrected “Tamarind” in Mayfair, demonstrate with aplomb and in many ways that Indian is one of the most delicious cuisines around. The same goes for Chinese, which Alan Yau has almost single-handedly put on the pedestal it deserves with hotspots like “Hakkasan”, “Yauatcha”, or “Duck and Rice”. However, Heston Blumenthal demonstrates how heavenly delicious genuine British cuisine can taste in his “Dinner”, where he draws exclusively on historical British recipes to inspire excitingly delicious new interpretations. The quintessentially British “St. John” by Fergus Henderson, on the other hand, was not only responsible for the worldwide renaissance of nose-to-tail cuisine, but it also shows 25 years after its founding how unrivalled Scottish wildfowl (grouse! snipe!!) tastes - and how worthwhile it is to realise very simple recipes with real dedication.
And then came Jamie
We haven't even mentioned the invention of the world's most eaten food - the sandwich - nor the unwavering glory of an authentic English breakfast with all the fixtures. And even the globally coveted sauces from Worcester to Piccalilli to Gentleman's Relish, which the British use to load their food with flavour, have to be content with brief mentions. For a standing ovation, someone still has to be brought before the curtain: Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Jamie Oliver! Some of his creations may be alienating because of their adventurous mixing of many flavours. His penchant for touching every meal with his fingers before serving it is also not state of the art. But the fact that he has managed, with enthusiasm, a gift for communication and sheer pleasure in good food to get whole generations of youngsters who were lazy about cooking (including a great many men) to venture back into the kitchen is a real achievement of the century. Although the fact that he recommends roast peaches with roast pork is questionable.