In an interview, a few years ago, 24-Michelin-starred French chef Joël Robuchon called London 'the gastronomic capital of the world' ahead of Tokyo, New York, and puzzlingly so, Paris. Looking at London's restaurant scene today, Robuchon might be right. We are at the centre of the world, and there are a few contributing factors, say, that London is full of foreigners and that Londoners are not reluctant to adopt a new taste.
Foreigners in London come from both a privileged background and not. Many want to live here and call it home. The others are merely passers-by – tourists, students, travelling businessmen, etc. This makes London incredibly culturally disproportionate. As a city it's no longer exclusively British - it has faces and identities beyond chippies and scones. This prompts exchanges not only between the London-based Brits and the non-Brits, but also among other various ethnic groups living in and travelling through.
In most cases, given a broad spectrum of cuisines available, Londoners learn about these other cultures through changes in taste. We may cross neighbourhoods for food – be it Edgware Road for Lebanese, Bayswater for Chinese, or Stoke Newington for Turkish Ocakbasi – or queue up at an outpost of an authentic Japanese ramen chain that has hopped across continents to open its flagship in London's new flashy development. However, from a business point of view, what makes London thrive as a “gastronomic capital" is not just the variety of cuisines that emerge and thrive, it is the fact that Londoners are excitable and changeable. This is our identity.
Evening Standard critic Grace Dent defines London's new “foodie" breed with “blag", “bluster" and “feigning of knowledge". This is very 2015, and while London's food scene evolves at a flicker of a gas hob burner, the change of taste is not always about 'new' food being introduced, but also about what exists being re-packaged and delivered to the curiosity of the mainstream. Taste profiling plays a part in the so-called re-packaging, of course. But, from what I have experienced, the Brits also like to feel they can pigeonhole the food they encounter. They don't want just any noodle in soup, but a Vietnamese Pho, a Japanese Ramen, or a Thai Tom-Yum.
We first identified Thai food with sugar-laced Pad Thai and aromatic but cloying Green Chicken Curry. Now Thai food needs to pack throat-burning punches. Dishes such as Som Tam and Laab have become the new Thai terminologies for London foodies. There is a need for restaurant operators to 'catch up' and acknowledge that their consumers' understanding can change and to be apt to responding to those changes.
When our cultural understanding develops, our taste buds develop as well.
A few have emerged at the top of this Thai taste juggling game. Janetira, a Thai-led operation in Soho, fronted a 'Super Duper Spicy – We Dare You' Southern mackerel curry that sent Jay Rayner's "diaphragm […] into spasm". The heat helped turn around the restaurant that nearly closed its business into a hub for authentic Thai in Central London. Nahm-trained chef Andy Oliver has also recently made headlines at his Som Saa restaurant residency for exploring dishes from Thailand's less-known North and North Eastern regions. At the same time, vinyl-loving, hole-in-a-wall Smoking Goat changes the ways London diners interact with a Thai meal.
In other cases, one food item can succeed in London's restaurant market with multiple names and identities. And this proves that more than one cultural identity can be applied to the same type of food. The recent boom in a savoury Sino-Japanese snack – the Bao – is a good example. Originating from Taiwan, Bao is a petite milk-based pork-filled bun. It is eaten in a manner not dissimilar to a burger. However, London food enthusiasts are more likely to have encountered the Bao, not via Taiwan, but via New York. There, it has been popularised by Momofuku and Ippudo, dubbed either as Hirata Bun or just Bun, and enjoyed a Pan-Asian identity.
In London the Bao slowly kicked off from an NYC-inspired street operator Yum Bun. Not long after, a minimalist, retro-Chinese Bao Bar followed, claiming a direct Taiwanese root. A few years after, Flesh & Buns was opened. It offers the Bao as shareable, DIY food in an upbeat Izakaya-inspired setting. At the same time, Shoryu Ramen outlets upsells their burger sized buns as comfort Japanese food staples. The Bao influences are also felt in the mainstream, as they have become parts of Yo! Sushi nationwide promotional banners and Japanese restaurants in London have opted for a pictorial feature of the Bao on the menu displayed at their entrance. Most recently, Bao Bar has received a financial backing by Trishna Group and has launched a full-scale restaurant in Central London.
As opposed to the quest for real Thai flavours that make Janetira and Som Saa a success, this confused Pan-Asian identity of the Bao means that such a specific food item can be quoted about in the press from many disparate angles. This in itself helps generate enthusiasm in various consumers' groups. This adoption of new food interests is something that never cools down in London, so to speak. It is also not limited to the Asian food sector. Turkish, Spanish and Russian food, too, has been reheated and remarketed.
In other words, to enable this constant change in tastes, cultural hashtagging may play an integral role. The practice is not as shallow as it may sound. Many successful restaurant brands create an identity that conforms and pushes our understanding of as well as our interaction with their food offerings from the perspectives of taste, dining environment and branding experience. When our cultural understanding develops, our taste buds develop as well.