Between Brexit and Covid, London’s food scene has become a dog’s dinner – can it be saved?

After Lily Allen tweeted that she’s noticed ‘standards have slipped’ in many of London’s restaurants, people began asking themselves whether she was right. Kate Ng speaks to those on the frontline about what’s gone awry in a city once known for its incredible food

Wednesday 19 July 2023 06:30 BST
<p>‘The talent and the drive is just not there anymore, there are very few talented young chefs around and all the good restaurants are scrapping over them’ </p>

‘The talent and the drive is just not there anymore, there are very few talented young chefs around and all the good restaurants are scrapping over them’

London holds a special place in the hearts of food enthusiasts. In the halcyon days of the UK’s place in the European Union, it could even be said that the capital was one of the best cities in Europe – if not the best – for food. Despite it being beaten out by Paris in the Michelin guide (the French capital boasts 119 Michelin stars compared to London’s 74), the city’s sheer diversity made it stand out, with nearly every cuisine under the sun available somewhere in its streets.

But recently it hasn’t really felt this way, and the people have noticed. Last week, Lily Allen tweeted: “Having been in New York for most of the time since Covid, I’ve spent long enough away to notice how far the standards have slipped in London’s restaurant scene… Delivery food and takeaways are even worse. Dunno if it’s Brexit or ghost kitchens or inflation or whatever, but it’s a terrible shame.” It’s evident from social media posts and online reviews that a lot of patrons feel the same.

The restaurant industry has taken blow after blow in recent years, beginning with the UK’s messy divorce from the EU in 2016. And as it was trying to recover from Brexit, which resulted in increased costs, new bureaucracy and staff shortages, Covid hit. Restaurants were forced to shutter their doors for unknown periods of time, deal with confusing new rules, and magic whole new delivery systems out of thin air. Now, the industry is having to weather the cost of living crisis.

In the face of all this, it might be a little cruel to denounce London’s usually thriving food landscape as “mediocre”. But, as painful as it might be, there is some truth to it. Ben Orpwood, a former contestant on the BBC reality series The Great British Menu, tells me that Allen’s observation, while perhaps a bit strongly worded, wasn’t completely wrong about the state of the industry.

Orpwood, who was previously the executive chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Lucky Cat, has been cooking in some of the world’s finest kitchens for nearly two decades. But he says he’s never seen anything like the state of affairs at his latest opening, 20 Berkeley in Mayfair. “Normally when you first open a restaurant, the drop-off from the opening team [staff] is something like 20 per cent,” he explains. “You lose people who applied for something they’re not really ready for and opening week is very intense – so they go. But after we opened 20 Berkeley in June, apart from my core team, we had 100 per cent turnover. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He says that staff are leaving even with benefits like getting two meals a day, days and nights off, at least £13.50 an hour for employees with no prior experience, and a nice, conducive kitchen environment to work in – a far cry from the shouting and screaming he endured earlier in his career. “I had a pastry chef that left last week who worked 3pm-11pm, five days a week, no double shifts – he didn’t like how much work there was,” Orpwood marvels. “I can’t get my head around that mentality. The talent and the drive is just not there anymore, there are very few talented young chefs around and all the good restaurants are scrapping over them. When you’re going through that as a new restaurant, it makes it so much harder.”

The chef, who has more than two decades of experience under his belt, explains that the aftermath of Brexit and Covid are primarily to blame. Brexit caused an exodus of EU citizens, many of whom questioned whether or not they were welcome in the UK. When Covid hit, more people returned to their home countries and discovered new work opportunities there, opting not to come back to British shores. “Then the government goes, ‘We’ll plug the shortage with young British workers’, except that they introduced needless academic requirements to apprenticeships with a minimum wage that people can’t pay their rent on,” Orpwood adds. The national minimum wage for apprentices aged 21 in their first year is £5.28 an hour, while the average rent for a room in London has rocketed to almost £1k a month.

To say that we’re mediocre, I don’t really think it’s a fair reflection

Ben Mulock

Of course, some industry folk are more optimistic. Ben Mulock, executive chef of Balans, says: “The London food scene for me is still vibrant, it’s still innovative. We still have some great authenticity to it.” However, even the most positive outlook can’t ignore the biggest, most glaring problem restaurants currently face: the skills shortage.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 14, and it’s never been like this throughout my entire career,” Mulock laments. “But we are striving and pushing our standards higher to try and give people the experience of years gone by with this new workforce. So, to say that we’re mediocre, I don’t really think it’s a fair reflection.” He adds that people who live in the capital have “some of the most discerning palates globally” and that feeding a London crowd “isn’t an easy thing to please”. “But when you get it right, it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling,” he says.

Perhaps, for anyone who lives outside of London, the bar has been set at an artificial high. Influencers invited to restaurants that have a marketing budget are more likely to post gushing reviews, complete with mouthwatering visuals as they stuff their gobs. Meanwhile, restaurant critics for broadsheets have been recently criticised for platforming establishments in more affluent areas, or only if they’ve been invited. Given some publications don’t pay for reviewers’ meals, this is unavoidable – but it generates a false economy in which readers believe those are the best places to eat.

In his essay “London Finds Itself”, Vittles editor Jonathan Nunn wrote about the decline of reviews and the rise of simplified maps that pinpoint places to eat, which also manifests itself in lists. It’s why the algorithm adores those “10 stunning places to eat in London” videos, and why publications are desperate to churn out recommendation lists. He wrote: “The review is too discursive, too expensive to produce, written by people who demand to be paid properly. Far better to shop it all out to a freelancer who can google a bunch of stuff and stitch it together without context.” One has to wonder if this, too, has contributed to restaurants falling short of expectations – perhaps no one is looking closely enough.

But Hugh Smithson-Wright, a communications specialist for restaurants, says that the food scene is no more mediocre than it’s ever been; in fact, there have always been plenty of middling eateries around. “Not everyone can be so great,” he says. “Some of my favourite restaurants have been places where food is absolutely fine.” But there’s a distinction to be made here. “Fine is OK if it’s not costing you a lot of money. Expensive is fine if the food is incredible. But now, with everything being so much more expensive for everyone on every income level, the places that are fine are getting more expensive, with smaller portions and cheaper produce, and that’s what we’re not tolerating.”

Smithson-Wright points to the fate of Prezzo as a perfect example of this reduced level of tolerance. In April, the Italian restaurant chain closed 46 of its 143 branches and said it was due to soaring energy and food costs – but Smithson-Wright adds that its uninspired food was also a factor. “Prezzo was only fine – it wasn’t great or innovative, but as those prices go up, OK is not good enough. It’s these types of mid-range restaurants, whether chains or independent, that will find they have nowhere to go. They can’t suddenly make their food luxurious, and equally, they can’t suddenly charge the prices they perhaps need to be charging to keep the lights on.”

Price is a painful topic right now, resulting in a bitter stand-off between some patrons and restaurateurs. But Britons have historically been averse to paying more for their food, lulled into a false sense of security by the cut-throat price war between supermarkets. Or a sense of: if I can spend less than £5 on a Sainsbury’s ready meal, why are restaurants charging three, four, or five times that for a main course? But, as Smithson-Wright points out, the “bravest thing a restaurant can do is charge what they need to” without fear of empty seats. “In some ways, restaurants punish themselves by not charging what they should and now they’re stuck in a mediocrity trap,” he says. “And they’re not helped by the psychological barrier people have over what they will pay for things.”

So what does this mean for the future of food in London? The restaurant industry, as a whole, isn’t about to die any time soon. As Orpwood says, this is a resilient industry and will “just get on with it” until it comes out the other side with hopefully greener grass. Smithson-Wright adds that the current situation sounds a death knell for mid-level restaurants, many of which will not survive this period. But Mullock tries to offer a sunnier disposition. “The London food scene is alive and it’s doing some really good things. Everyone’s just pursuing deliciousness.”

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