FOOD AND DRINK / In which we are catered into submission
Saturday 21 May 1994
I went to give a lecture to a group of philosophers gathered for their annual meeting in a fine old house in Niagara on the Lake, a pretty spot, lush and green, on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario. This is the home of the Shaw Theatre (we caught another near-impossibiity there, a badly-
staged performance of Hecht and McArthur's wonderfully-crafted The Front Page), and is visited by no fewer than three million tourists a year - about a quarter of the number who gawk at Niagara Falls, some 20 miles away.
Now, I think it a truism to say that places where tourist traffic is particularly intense (say, the French Channel coast, Monaco, Lourdes or Heathrow) are not likely to attract very good restaurants. Good restaurants rely on steady trade, on those who eat there regularly, not on those who come there accidentally. Nonetheless, in every such place, there is usually an establishment which sets out to distinguish itself by being a great deal more expensive than the other eateries, considerably more pretentious, more crowded (by snobs escaping the hordes), and often much worse.
These restaurants operate under a gastronomic rule of thumb. A retired maitre d' with all his tax- free tips, a chef weary of working in the big city, a Hong Kong entrepreneur seeking to stash his capital somewhere his prospective Chinese overlords can't get at it, an investor idling by on a summer day, will look upon a place with a lot of indifferent restaurants and say, 'What this place needs is a good restaurant.' Encouraged by the locals, such a place will come into being: with high ideals and a devoted chef. And it will work - for a few months a year.
Then it will become like the Garden Gate. This is a cavernous, white-walled Italian restaurant which looks at first glance pretty impeccable. The tablecloths and napkins are clean and starched, the waiters cheerful, the customers numerous. It is also almost as noisy as a rush- hour crowd tramping down one of the long tunnels of the London Underground. But then, lots of restaurants these days are acoustically challenged. The under-forties are deaf from their Walkmen; people no longer converse, they shout. I have given up persuading restaurateurs to take that into account. Bare walls and hard floors are chic; so are big, heavy plates and fat glasses that clatter. Customers apparently like to cluster in their pens like sheep and rub each other's wool, and accountants like to see as many tables as possible per square metre.
That, I wasn't bothered about. I can lapse into silence, eat and stick my nose in my wine. But here there was an uneasy feeling. It started when we consulted the menu - of which the best that could be said was that it was miscellaneous. A bad sign. The longer, the more 'international' the menu, the more haphazard the cooking. We chose Italian. After all, the principal in this establishment was a fat, grey-haired Italian, looking a bit like Peter Ustinov doing an imitation of an Italian, and singing gaily as he served. (The idea that food-vending and training as a tenor go together is, alas, prevalent among a certain class of Italian).
Well, the pasta tasted only of flour, second-hand butter, long- chopped spinach and sage long from its roots. When our host's charming wife was served a dish that looked remarkably like ours (we had ordered pork loin in a mushroom sauce), she (who had ordered veal) pointed out the close resemblance. The waiter looked doubtfully at the three plates. 'No, no,' he said, shaking his head vigorously, 'you have veal.' The question was, how could one tell?
It went on from there. A caterer had been brought in for this select conference. The salads tasted of formaldehyde, washing- up liquid and industrial vinegar; the beef had been used as a croquet ball and then cooked into black, sullen, sodden submission. Our first-class tickets (US Air, BA's American feeder) offered cheese snacks in plastic bags. And when, soaked from the rain belting down and the mist pelting up from the Falls, we sought gastronomic comfort at the Sheraton (spectacular view, though invisible), we found it farinaceous, flavourless and glum.
The explanation of all this is simple: people who cater at conferences despise their customers as much as restaurants that cater to tourists. They consider serving a meal is akin to providing a public convenience: in the one you may spend a penny, in the other many pounds, but utility is all you're offered. These places which people visit en masse have no populations of their own. Help is imported, or young. The eaters are in and out in an hour; their minds are on gawk-and-shop. How does a cook satisfy a troop of Japanese, Germans or Swedes?
I object to none of it (says he who has been dispirited in Blackpool and Margate too); only to my operatic Italian and his claim to being different and better - which he may well have been, once, during the week he opened.
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