What Michael Gove did right

Whilst he wasn’t much cop as Education Secretary and I quite like the fact that he wasn’t much of a plotter because he was better as a doer, Michael Gove leaves big shoes to fill in the Ministry of Justice.

I’m sure his predecessor in that role Chris Grayling had many admirable qualities and great ideas; he just never really shared with us what they were, instead charging defendants court fees and banning books for prisoners. Gove undid all of that and people involved in the criminal justice system let out a collective groan when he went all Brexit and leadership as he was on course to be the best Justice Secretary we had ever seen.

He was all for training prisoners to get into work on release, making prisons themselves more habitable and better placed to provide the skills and training inmates received so they wouldn’t come back. He encouraged businesses to look at prisons as training grounds for their next workforce.

Whilst all of this makes sense and sounds utterly normal and what someone in that position should always do, the sad fact is that no-one in that role previously had, which must be linked to the ridiculous re-offending rates we have.

His replacement Liz Truss will soon find out that prison governors are a big problem – so many just don’t care what happens to inmates on release. They see their role as one of containment rather than one of empowerment and if the same ones keep coming back it makes no difference to them.

There was a brilliant headmaster appointed to a massively failing school in west London a few years ago who turned it around by asking every pupil on their first day: “Right – which university are we going to be preparing you for?” which led to a huge rise in the school’s academic performance. Mrs Truss could do worse than call in all her governors and get them to adapt that practice and be assessed in a league (everyone likes leagues) by their performance in asking every new inmate they receive this: “Right, what job are we going to prepare you for on release?”

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Social messes and wicked problems

I was having lunch yesterday with Adam Leach, head of the charity Y Care International, which has helped me come to the conclusion that businesses held the trump cards in solving the world’s problems more than the third sector. He introduced me to the notion of “wicked problems” which if I have understood correctly (by which I mean I hope the Wikipedia explanation is correct) are ones that are so complex that there is no single way of solving them.  They’re everywhere around us, from Brexit to The Labour Party.

Tackling poverty was though the basis of this discussion and of course if there had been a proven model over centuries of charities and their philanthropist backers would have been able to bottle it and pass it on. There’s a book by Paul Polman called “The Business Solution to Poverty” which talks about how if western businesses viewed what they call “the bottom billions” as their next target market they would be able to capitalise on new ways to drive their bottom lines.

There’s something slightly distasteful about looking at how to make money out of the world’s poorest people as the start point in the accumulation of future sources of our wealth rather than theirs, which takes this discussion into the realms of “super wicked problems”. It’s slightly bizarre to see that people have written books and papers creating and defining these terms but it’s best we don’t let that effort go to waste and instead see how we can use them to provide more focussed  thinking to better guide our well intentioned desires and concerns.

Complex problems are also defined as “social messes” as we become gripped by our inability to tackle them due to the huge obstacles in doing so. But I wonder if a better clue lies in the term itself. If society (us) has created these messes, then we should be able to trace our steps back to see how they can be un-done. I feel a new piece of social meddling coming along. Thank you Adam – though I don’t think you will be thankful back to some of the conclusions I imagine will come to.

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What’s in a restaurant name?

Restaurants tend to bring out the inner snob in many people. The one that’s been most talked about since Chiltern Firehouse began to obsess us is Richard Caring’s Sexy Fish. Apparently he spent £15 million setting it up not just on the huge art pieces, but also on a promotional film featuring Rita Ora dressed as a mermaid.

It’s not though the décor that we talk about, or the service which The Ivy and The Caprice, two of his other restaurants, are rightly celebrated for. It’s certainly not the food – food really isn’t the point of these places.

It’s the diners in there that gets everyone talking.

Virtually on a daily basis I hear from friends and associates how ghastly their fellow diners were when they visited. Whenever I go to a new restaurant, I like to get there before my friends arrive so I can take it all in, un-interrupted. I take in the design, the layout (I’ll have, like most of you, already looked at the menu on the website and decided what I’m eating), the people working there – after 15 years in this game there’s invariably someone you have employed there and it’s a massive memory test to remember them all.

And then I study the people. Do I recognise any of them, can I guess what they do, are they all of a certain type and do all these elements combine to make a cohesive set? The Ivy and its previous owners who went on do The Wolseley effortlessly manage this feeling that you are entering a club of which you are either a member and embraced or a viewer who is politely tolerated.

As everyone keeps telling me and as I indeed I ashamedly admit to having also observed, the people dining at Sexy Fish were indeed ghastly – a mixture of high heels Essex and the shabbiest of the Mayfair overseas dodgy money crowd who know how to buy a “get noticed” table.  How this got to happen is quite simple to explain – it’s the name. Anything that has to call itself sexy isn’t going to be that any more than the Tasty Fried Chicken shops I see around are going to live up to that promise. And anyone who hasn’t got the sense to work that out will want to go there – and let everyone know they’ve been.

The discerning London diner has worked that out about Sexy Fish, gone once and decided in future to shop elsewhere. But said diner also finds it perfectly legitimate to go a step further to become a snob and talk of what New Yorkers call the Bridge and Tunnel crowd and which here might be called the TOWIE Factor. So whilst we would never mock the poor, we quite easily fling mud at the taste-challenged newly rich.

A restaurant name then can not only bring out the most socially undesirable among us but as my very own description shows, it can also bring out the most socially unacceptable ways of viewing people.

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Fat cats and diet books


Firstly, an explanation for recent blog silence. Along with a couple of new ventures you’ll soon be hearing about, I have been writing a short book which will be out this October if the publishers like what I’ve sent over. If you don’t see another post from me for a while it means they have sent it back to be re-written.

Now: Jay Rayner, The Observer restaurant critic. He’s one of the few critics I like, even though he didn’t like The Cinnamon Club or Roast. It’s taken me over a decade to accept it, but his observations on them were valid at the time and helped us get better.  In an article today he takes a swipe against healthy eating, or rather the advocates of healthy eating. He says the diet books of today differ from previous generations of what he considers flawed thinking (Atkins etc) in that the practitioners today claim a moral high ground.

“There is an implication in these titles, written by young people with glossy hair and clear eyes who look like they think their farts smell only of peaches and peppermint, that if you don’t follow their plans you will not merely be fat. You will be bad. You will be a flawed person who through, lack of insight and moral fibre, has failed to reach their full potential in the way the authors have,” he says.

Indeed there are a lot of people bearing that description around at the moment and lest we forget, there are lot of people around at the moment bearing the following description: over-weight, lethargic folk wobbling from pubs to fried chicken shops clogging up their arteries today and clogging up our hospital wards tomorrow. They won’t just be fat. They will be dead at an early age.

I know which I’d rather be and have bought myself a Nutribullet.

“Food does not have a moral aspect. Only the people eating it do,” he goes on. At the risk of gaining a third lashing from him for our next venture, I disagree. The people producing our food have a moral aspect – not just in the shape of organic or sustainable farmers, but also for those who clearly have no moral aspect, purely a code of greed. GM crop producers through to the people highlighted in the film “Cowspiracy” who protect the massive fortunes they make in destroying the planet through their cattle production disrupt Jay’s suggestion because most people don’t have a moral aspect to their food decisions.

Instead, our decisions are largely based on convenience, price and in families, what keeps the kids quiet.

The exploration of healthy eating and the provenance of our ingredients is largely still a middle class affair enthusiastically conducted in farmers markets in smart suburbs. Where I would agree with Jay is that these new food fashionistas are largely conversing with people like them. I’d like to see them come with me to the school in Tower Hamlets we’ve been working with at Roast for a while to not only get school meals have even a semblance of nutritional value but also to get kids interested in cooking healthy meals.

These bourgeois slaps ignore a much bigger fight on our hands.

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Thanks for sparing us, Wetherspoons

Today is a day to rejoice. Of course for our mothers, but also because Wetherspoons pubs are to stop serving Sunday roasts. The newspapers have been full of frenzy that this supposed barometer of the man or woman on the street’s habits indicates the death of another great British institution.

Do we really now just want chicken fried and eaten out of a box rather than roasted on a tray and our beef shredded into a burger rather than carved and served with a Yorkshire pudding? I can assure you the answer isn’t a simple Yes, just because fast food outlets flourish. Every week for the last decade, I’m pleased to report, our Sunday lunch bookings at Roast have grown, so much so that we now start lunch at 11.30 and finish at 6.30 so as not to disappoint the 300+ diners who kindly choose us for their family day.

One of the reasons for creating our Borough Market restaurant was that back then, most people could only get British food in pubs. I was going to say dodgy pubs but it would have been superfluous as in those days, that’s what pubs by and large were. If you write back and name a pub that has always served good food, you will have proved my point by highlighting an exception to the rule. I imagined that with high quality ingredients taken on by professional chefs and managers and served in a beautiful building, we could wash the face of British food.

Food critics thought I was crazy, but that just tells you about food critics because from 120 seats we now serve around 2800 of you lovely folk a week.

I mention this not to be boastful but to point out to Messrs Wetherspoons and Co that if their food offerings were less motivated by price and their perception of profit and more with valuing their customers by sourcing better quality produce, they might not be in the position they now find themselves. They’re not just ditching their Sunday roasts; they now have also started putting loads of their pubs up for sale.

In their heyday, Wetherspoons may have had their finger on the pulse of their target market but with their offloading of sites they increasingly look like a brand that has sadly lost its way.

The nation has been spared. For that, as well as mothers, we have much to be grateful for today.

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The Marmite effect of Brick Lane

There’s a mosque on Brick Lane that was once a Huguenot church, then a synagogue and took its current form when the area became home to Bangladeshis in the 1970s and more recently Somalians. I imagine in its next incarnation it might become a tech start up incubator hub with a street food pop-up café serving artisanal breads with Peruvian/Ghanian fusion food and bespoke matcha tea cocktails ironically served in reclaimed jam jars.

Until such time, which some will see as inevitable in how the capital’s cultural landscape continues to morph itself and which others will claim is the driving out of an already dispossessed community, Brick Lane needs to make a concerted attempt to justify its existence as Banglatown.

Public empathy still appears to be for it to remain as our curry mile. The media goes into a frenzy when a Pret opens there and yesterday I shared the Londonist’s raising of an eyebrow when the Standard claimed the arrival of a Premier Inn there was further proof of gentrification driving out the locals. I would think the opposite – it is most certainly will be a boost to the restaurants in the area as it brings more custom.

The market will of course decide whether Brick Lane changes with the times and Shoreditch takes it over or whether it can raise its game and survive. And the market works on the principle of offering a product in a manner and at a price that customers want in sufficient numbers to justify their existence. And there’s the challenge; the restaurants on that road are largely now more known for their touts than their tandooris. The new generation of restaurateurs in the area could do with broadening their appeal to make their businesses sustainable.

You can’t put a preservation order on the area. I’ve offered my help to make those businesses revive their former glory and make the environment as appealing as it used to be 20 years ago and like all  good selfless offers, mine is selfish too; it’s been ages since I’ve heard anyone say “Shall we go for a Brickie?” and I’d like to bring that refrain back to the London vocabulary.

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A queuing convert

I have been transformed with all the zealotry that only a recent convert can possess from a curmudgeon to a queue-er. I have always moaned about this trend for restaurants not to accept reservations as being more suited to them than their customers. Why would I want to stand in a line when I should be able to go online and reserve a table at the time of my choosing?

Then yesterday a friend who repeatedly told me we had to go to Hoppers in Soho and would even stand in the queue with her boys ahead of me arriving so as to bag a table to minimise my pain broke my thoughts. There was no way I was going to let her do that so I got there at 11.45 (they open at 12) on a wet and sleepy Saturday morning only to find there were already about 30 eager people waiting for the doors to open.

Yet as I stood there a curious sensation struck me. It was rather exciting to stand and chat with strangers about the prospects of getting a table, asking had they been before, with passers by asking us what we were doing. It made me think there may be a new sensory experience we have overlooked in our conventional criteria for appreciating food – alongside the technical tick boxes of sweet, savoury, salt, bitter and the newly discovered umami (which, Iike in the episode of Friends, I imagined was a type of sushi). Smell, look, atmosphere also greatly enhance one’s dining pleasures.

But anticipation is now another for me.

Anticipation is a form of excitement and excitement triggers adrenalin. Is it going to be as good as everyone says? Will we get a table when they open? Why am I straddling an umbrella and a phone tweeting about me queuing? The doors opened and the adrenalin rush began – it looked like the couple in front of us were going to get the last table. They were waiting for two more friends, they told the greeter, who replied that whole parties had be present to get a table. I don’t know who makes up these rules but I love this one as we then got in. This sense of achievement by default made me want to enjoy the food even more.

And of course the food was delicious – everyone agrees on that, perhaps enhanced because of rather than despite the queue.

Ninety minutes later we left and saw the couple we gazumped now joined by their friends – cold and wet, but also happy and about to get happier with a table. When Jean Paul Sartre created the notion of “bad faith” he would have been hard pushed to find a better example of that with me until yesterday.

Now I want to look for a line of people, join them and ask: “Right – what are we queueing for?”

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Fury – you ain’t no role model bruv

I love the Leytonstone hashtag, though it’s pretty rubbish that onlookers would rather capture the idiot on their phones rather than collectively jump the man.

The other weekend idiot was Tyson Fury and I have adapted the hashtag for him. On one thing the boxer is right; he didn’t choose to become a role model. But it’s a by-product of our celebrity culture that he’s become one. There is no Role Model Selection Committee as there is for public appointments. It just got foisted on him.

A boxing champion is what many youngsters aspire to and in the past many, like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno, conducted themselves as gentlemen. Fury’s rants over homosexuality in particular have rightly provoked widespread outrage.

There’s a body called the British Board of Boxing Control that is going to meet on Wednesday to discuss his poisonous message. Wednesday? Do they not realise the damage he is doing to their sport on a daily basis? They appear to be too sleepy a bunch to act in realtime like the rest of us.

Sadly this is also true of the BBC. To have not taken him off the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist suggests they don’t think his comments were harmful.  Now, they could receive 75,000 strong petitions calling for all sorts of bigotry and I don’t think this is a simple numbers issue. He wouldn’t be allowed to get away with saying about homosexuality if he was targeting black people, so why has our public service broadcaster not provided here the service the public deserves?


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How do poor kids become obese?

I remember in the 1980s miners strike when whole towns in the north were being decimated, the unpleasant right wing journalist Auberon Waugh went to visit one of those stricken communities and asked some men: “If you’re so poor, how comes you’re so fat?”

My right wing friends I was at university with at the time found that very amusing. I thought it rather cruel.

The same issue has come back to me recently. I am advising one of the London mayoral candidates  (guess which one?) on a new food vision for London and in my various meetings and reading research there are clearly two major problems facing London’s youngsters in food poverty and obesity.  Nearly a quarter of a million children are now eligible for free school meals in the capital alone, their parents saying they haven’t got enough money to feed them regularly.

Yet obesity rates are soaring in that same age and social category.

So how do you square these parallel trends? A walk down any inner city high street gives you the answer. The proliferation of kebab and fried chicken shops offer meals so implausibly cheap parents who can’t afford to or can’t be bothered to cook a meal for their families will find it easier and perhaps cheaper to send their kids off to those places after school (what do the parents feed themselves, I wonder).

Something like a third of London children go to school without breakfast and so their learning is adversely affected, thereby creating in future ever widening inequalities. There are many impressive projects funded by groups like the Mayor’s Fund for London. I used to be a trustee there and went once to visit a school in Islington where two thirds of the children had no breakfast and we funded a programme to provide food for them instead.

Benefits cuts and low paid jobs are of course crucial factors but according to a GLA member’s report it will cost £58 million to provide free school meals to all primary school children in London.  That’s on top of current provision for children from low income families.  However you look at it, that’s a lot of money.  That’s just term-time costs I imagine – what happens in the holidays?

But if we don’t undertake initiatives like this, the public purse will probably be paying out larger sums down the line, especially in our hospitals and wider health care provision. And we need to make those free school meals healthy and nutritious otherwise we end up making things momentarily better but longer term worse.

I remember being pounced upon by the other visitors to that Islington school when suggesting that by us paying for these kids’ breakfasts we were effectively abrogating the responsibility of their parents to feed their children, surely a fundamental duty.  I said I would prefer to meet the parents and discuss how to make their ends meet better so as to allow them to do that than feel pity for their kids.

I don’t envy Sadiq if/when he becomes Mayor on how to find a solution to this. But find a solution we must.

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Tackling fryer with fryer

Next month in Tottenham, a revolutionary new way of tackling our younger generation’s obsession with fried chicken is being launched. It’s so compelling that you have to wonder, as with so many great discoveries, why no-one has done this before.

And what, you ask, is this great alternative to the fried chicken shop? Why, it’s a fried chicken shop, only Chicken Town will be unlike its high street competitors by being an ethically driven social enterprise, using properly reared chicken and healthier oils which won’t clog up your arteries and then in time clog up our hospital corridors. It’s a project driven to tackle the ever more obvious need to think outside usual boxes to stem the tide of obesity and related diseases young people are inflicting on themselves.

The cleverness of the idea is in engaging adult customers in the evening to come into a restaurant for what most adults I know love to do which is to eat good fried chicken (look at smart restaurants like Lockhart which sells a portion to adoring customers at £12.50) in a restaurant environment with nice drinks. The cleverness is that the profits this part of the business is set to generate then get used to subsidise £2 boxes for schoolkids during the day, alluring them away from their dodgy competitors.

Once again initiatives like this or Jamie Oliver’s sugary drinks tax show that businesses are way ahead of governments in tackling systemically growing health problems.

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