The 1990s will go down as the decade in which glamour and cooking – improbably – collided, and food, somehow, became the new sex. Not bad going, considering the Nineties began with a punishing recession during which hundreds of restaurants closed.
In fact, the decade ended in the thrall of a boom that saw even car showrooms and banks transformed into trendy eating houses. The boom reflects the rise in British interest in eating out – an undeniable trend, even if you don't buy the restaurateurs' pitch that we are witnessing nothing less than a seismic cultural shift in British eating habits.
Eating out is about much more than food. You just have to watch the "see-and-be-seen" crowd at gastrodomes such as London's Mezzo to know that. But even when we stay home playing couch potato and eating trash, we seem obsessed with all things culinary, particularly chefs.
Last year, in his best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential, American chef Anthony Bourdain warned restaurant goers never to eat fish on Mondays (because it will never be fresh) and revealed that swordfish can become infested with three-foot parasitic worms, but somehow he still managed to make cooking seem glamorous. British chef Andrew Parkinson has just redressed the balance with his new book Cutting It Fine, which restores to the restaurant kitchen the old staples of drudgery, low wages and afflictions like dermatitis from sheer stress, and "chef's arse" – sores caused by sweat running down the chef's back and into, well, you get the picture.
In Parkinson's book, the kitchen can be a macho hell, where bad-tempered bullying thrives in sizzling heat, and staff slave away for lousy wages. The culture can be as brutal as an army boot camp – which surely must go a little way to explaining why so few women reach senior chef level. "It's not rock'n'roll, with the amazing pressure that you get in a kitchen leading to alcoholism, drug abuse, violent behaviour and divorce," says Parkinson, head chef at Bertorelli's in London, who grasses up greedy chefs who pass off grey mullet as Italian sea-bass and describes how a £4-side of salmon is cut into eight portions and sold to restaurant goers at £12 each.
The question is, will the new British love affair with restaurants prove enduring, particularly in the face of recession? Parkinson says that the industry is jittery about a possible downturn. "Restaurants are still opening," he says, "but you just have to look at the number of special restaurant deals advertised in the newspapers to feel something is about to give."
The truth is that tables at the trendiest joints are once again bookable at short notice, some of the capital's cavernous gastrodomes are reported to be half empty on weekday nights, and restaurant groups are warning shareholders that soon-to-be-announced profits will be disappointing. Oliver Peyton, proprietor of the Atlantic Bar and Grill just off Piccadilly, Isola in Knightsbridge and the Admiralty bar-restaurant at Somerset House, is reluctant to talk about recession.
"It has been a tough year," he says. "Foot-and-mouth lost London a lot of upmarket tourists, just when its restaurants had begun to get good at providing for them." But Peyton insists that even if a recession does transpire, its effects will not be as catastrophic as the last, because eating out is now so established that it cannot be reversed. "People will still eat out, just not at such expensive restaurants," he says.
The former underground club organiser says it is easy to forget that Britain has undergone a culinary revolution. "I went into the restaurant business because I was past the age of clubbing, but I still wanted to go out and have a good time," says Peyton. "But there were only posh restaurants or bargain basements. We were lagging behind Europe and the US." Now he believes that London need not be ashamed of its restaurants any more, even when they are compared to New York's.
Jenny Webster, deputy editor of Caterer and Hotel Keeper magazine, says that restaurants are still opening and customers still seem prepared to pay the asking price. But other industry insiders say that, despite early hints of recession, the industry looks as if it will fall victim to its own greed.
"A growing number of up-scale restaurants are charging even higher prices that they were in 1991 when it all collapsed," says one trade watcher, who prefers not to be named. "Whatever they say about the habit of eating out being ingrained, I think they are going to come a cropper again, because they are reacting too slowly to the downturn. I think some have a cheek to charge what they do." It's a view backed up by last week's Zagat restaurant survey, which praised London as one of the best cities in the world for restaurants, but placed it as the world's second most expensive city for eating out.
That is all too gloomy for Ian McKerracher, chief executive of the Restaurant Association, who believes the British have "embraced food as a way of life". According to him, we used to spend 20p of our food pound on eating out, and now we spend 30p. And though we have a way to go before we reach America's 50 cents in the dollar, McKerracher thinks that is the way we are going. Heallows that there is likely to be "a bit of a recession", but believes the restaurant sector will hold up.
Boom or bust, according to the Transport and General Workers Union, makes little difference to the appalling pay and conditions of kitchen staff. Peyton and McKerracher insist conditions and wages have improved, partly because the boom has led to a shortage of skilled staff. Experienced chefs are particularly in demand. Even so, head chefs in acclaimed restaurants earn less than £50,000, according to insiders. "Rubbish," says Peyton. "Chefs can earn £100,000. I know chefs who drive Aston Martins."
And why, if it's so tough, don't more get out? Andrew Parkinson points out that while the kitchen is hard, it offers working-class boys like him opportunities his old classmates could only dream of. "In cooking you can climb the ladder if you work hard, and you can travel."
He says that being a chef is more about passion than money. "It's great to know that you cooked for people that don't even know you, but that you pleased them enough for them to talk about coming back." He has no desire to own a restaurant – the initial investment is too high, the gamble too great. No wonder, he says, that many restaurants open as part of a group, spreading the risks.
"That there are easier ways to make money is an understatement," says Peyton. "But there is a joy in running a restaurant. It's a complex business. It's like going on stage. And it is very gratifying to see your restaurant full." How full restaurants remain, if a chill wind does blow, will be the definitive test of Britain's new eating-out habit.Reuse content