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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The tales of two inmates

The more time I spend in prisons, the less I feel I have yet to understand what goes on in an inmate’s mind.

Yesterday I spent three hours in a Young Offenders Institute with eight prisoners doing something I wouldn’t have imagined participating in and which you might think a frivolous activity but which was deeply impactful. In groups of two, in a project developed by great organisation called Create, they were making stories for their children.

They then were bringing them to life in art, creating pictorial collages which would then be part of a printed book containing a CD on which they would record their story and present it to their children.

I spent time with each of them watching their tattooed, muscle-ripped arms make dainty cardboard cut-outs of mermaids, work out how to make glitter to make their picture sparkle and read their stories in animated voices.

Fascinatingly, whilst all the stories had very different characters (dinosaurs and lions, I found out, were commonly adopted) they had a very similar message – a big character was separated from their loved ones and in their various tales all eventually returned home with the promise that they would then stay together forever.

A lot of the work I do with prisoners and ex-offenders is around training them for a world of work and indeed each one of the men I met had commercial or career ambitions for when they were released. They need jobs to engage them away from a return to crime. That’s usually us telling them what they need.

What Create brought out of the groups like the one I was with yesterday was miles away from the commercial cases against re-offending. Perhaps articulating their feelings of being separated from their children will help bolster the work of projects like Bounce Back and Switchback who successfully manage to buck the pattern of returning to crime in the absence of any alternative.

If you want to see the meaning of the phrase a picture tells a thousand words, come with me next I visit them.

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Celebrating migration

In a week when a British Bangladeshi girl in hijab is on our front pages probably for the first time in a story un-connected to Isis and instead because she is the favourite to win the Great British Bake Off, in a month when we have seen the horrors of those fleeing Syria and other awful places to up roots and seek a better life for themselves here, the idea that Britain has a permanent Museum of Migration has more appeal than ever.

I met with the creators of the idea recently – Barbara Roche, a former immigration minister and Robert Winder, the author of Bloody Foreigners which is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand what being British really means in all its multi-layered complexities. Ever since the end of the ice age we have been invaded, populated, swamped by peoples from somewhere else. And of course in turn we have gone on to invade, populate, swamp other countries often in equal measure.

Yet we still find it difficult to accept migration as a positive force except when it comes to finding Jamaicans post-war to come and run the NHS, Asians to make curry our national dish, eastern Europeans to fuel our even growing demand for construction workers. Attacks on synagogues and mosques are higher now than they have been for decades so clearly we have yet to learn to celebrate how Britain got to be Great.

Thankfully Barbara and Robert’s plans to rectify this are gaining wide support and hopefully over the next year or so a permanent building will be created in London which chronicles the many highs and sometime lows of how the various bits of Lego weld together. Like with Lego, bits come off and others are added on. It looks like an odd construction but if we understand how the first piece came to be and what happened when the second, third, fifteenth, hundredth all came to add on we will understand the whole more fully than we currently do.

At Roast we have employees from 30 different nationalities serving up a traditional British dining experience. Case made.

 

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Refugees – what businesses can do

The picture that shook the world has galvanised many people into action rather than shouting at their TV sets. The government has albeit reluctantly allowed more in, local councillors are under pressure from their voters for each council to take in 50. Churches, mosques and synagogues are all stepping forward too.

But so far from what I can see as yet businesses aren’t playing their part.

So many times businesses these days are ahead of the social curve – whether it’s on sustainability, on employing ex-offenders or on implementing volunteering programmes. Yet we seem to have slipped up in not keeping up with the national mood and ethic this time.

We have hired refugees before. Like with ex-offenders they have proved loyal and hard-working team members, desperate for economic engagement to get away from their former lives. Businesses that have volunteering programmes could divert some their excellent activities to assist refugees find their way around our communities, how to make the most of housing they are being offered, how to make their way around the areas they now find themselves.

That’s a good start but we could so much more. We can hold fundraising events and activities, we can help them apply for jobs and we can as employers offer them jobs.

It sounds slightly mercenary but in London and other cities there are huge employment shortages – chefs, builders, cleaners. There will no doubt be higher qualified people among those we are now taking in, but we all start somewhere, right? Why not combine their anguish with our commercial needs and see if we can get them working for us where appropriate?

I’m surprised business organisations are not calling for such initiatives. A bit more joined-up thinking could yield big results.

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