ANALYSIS : Britons do eat better but the food revolution has a downside

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The Independent Online
So it is official: Britons are eating out more than ever before. Soon, if the Market Power report is to be believed, we will eat out as often as we cook our own dinners. To judge by the growth of national chains - Harvester, Pizza Hut, Pizza Express, McDonalds, Burger King - this is probably true.

A concurrent swelling is taking place upmarket: in London, the trend continues for the opening of massive dining rooms such as Belgo and Mezzo, which can take from 400 to 700 customers. Nor is it a London phenomenon. Tomorrow, Rascasse, a new 100-seat brasserie opens in Leeds.

The question that bears asking is: are Britons eating better? The answer has to be "yes": our top chefs, the Alastair Littles, Marco Pierre Whites and Simon Hopkinsons, are world class cooks. On a more basic level, the answer still has to be "yes": it would have been something of a feat to eat worse than the margarine-butter mixes, greasy curries, dry sausages, thawed prawns and salty gammon steaks put on restaurant tables of old.

Today the average British office worker might have an American Hot pizza for lunch, and a Thai fishcake for dinner. However, the downside of the restaurant revolution, in bald terms, is that this makes us a nation of consumers, not producers.

The French are urgently putting cooking classes into school curricula for a reason: as mothers leave kitchens for offices, they are alarmed at the erosion of their world-famous food culture.

Here, the situation is far more grave: our food culture is marginal by comparison, and eroding more quickly. London pubs are just as likely to serve bruschetta as steak and kidney pie. While a woman of 60 will probably be able to make a pie crust in a matter of minutes, her child will spend the same time telling you it is too difficult to contemplate. The mother will have learnt about food on farms, in greengrocers, butchers and dairies. The child will have learnt about it from holding menus, studying labels on over-packaged supermarket stock, or watching food programmes. As food, food production, food handling becomes more of a mystery to us, we are easily spooked out of eating things as simple and classic as (an all too real example) the soft-boiled egg.

Restaurants are very like the alcohol they serve: good in moderation. As any planning officer for Westminster or Camden Council can tell you, the proliferation of restaurants in London's Covent Garden during the Eighties helped destroy the same district as a viable residential neighbourhood. Rents skyrocketed and the noise levels, traffic and rubbish became intolerable.

Nor will the growth of the catering industry necessarily benefit British agriculture. Much of the haddock served in British restaurants comes from African waters, the strawberries from South America, the wines from Australia. As for the workforce, until the Government implements a livable minimum wage, British catering workers will remain in the sector of the population too poor to enjoy the restaurant boom. It is common for a middle to low- ranking restaurant worker to take home pounds 100 for an 80-hour-week.

It is telling that in Italy, a nation of cooks, that "foreign" restaurants are relatively rare. It is equally telling that in Britain, it is just the opposite.

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