Who hates who in London’s culinary scene? Ed Cumming speaks to the food writers who can't stand the sight of each other.
Over the past few years, food media has become a fractious place. A new generation of writers, and their social media outriders, see the establishment newspaper critics as a cabal of lazy, racist, PR-led hacks, and haven’t been afraid to say so. The traditional newspaper critics disagree with them.
At the heart of the rage is Eater London, the British offshoot of an American digital platform owned by Vox Media. To its supporters, Eater is a vital new space where a diverse group of young contributors, almost all of whom are Corbynite Labour supporters, are given the room to report on news overlooked by traditional outlets. To its detractors, it is a humourless site where writers seek offence, provoke anger and encourage social media pile-ons. In the words of Oisin Rogers, the manager of the Guinea Grill in Mayfair, it’s ‘a clickbaity opinion blog whose business plan is to create generally unpleasant discourse by divisive means.’
Whatever your view, 2018 was a signal year. In June, Ruby Tandoh, the writer and former finalist on The Great British Bake Off, quit her column in the Guardian, citing the ‘toxic’ nature of food writing. She tweeted ‘i’ve quit my guardian recipe column! the circles of food hell are heinous: g*les c*ren [Times restaurant critic, Giles Coren] in the stinking depths, rich people slagging off convenience foods all around, professional fatphobes at every level and not a scruple in sight. i really tried, but i’m out.’ Traditionally, a column in the Guardian would have been a golden sinecure, so Tandoh’s decision was a sign that the ground was shifting.
The following month, a row erupted over Som Saa, a feted Thai restaurant in Shoreditch, which had already attracted attention for being run by a white chef, Andy Oliver. One of his chefs, Shaun Beagley, was sacked after videos and comments he made under the ‘Boring Thai’ alias came to light, in which he spoke in a mock-Asian voice and compared market traders to monkeys living in the jungle, among other unpleasant jokes. Writers who had been following the account fell over themselves to apologise. The row divided observers into two camps: you either saw the videos as yet more proof of the appalling racism in British restaurant culture, or you couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.
The videos were spotted by Soleil Ho, an American writer who is now the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. She alerted Anna Sulan Masing, a writer and academic, and Eater covered the story.
‘When white people run restaurants that dive into the cuisines of people of colour, there’s ample opportunity for the relationship to feel exploitative or extractive,’ Ho says. ‘Som Saa felt like the same old same old.’
‘It’s pretty basic, this idea that people of colour deserve to have a say about their place in food and the world,’ she adds. ‘From my perspective, as an American and the daughter of refugees, all this insane food inequity stems from colonialism, which is y’all’s department in Europe!’
The Som Saa incident was a catalyst: in this country, among the broadsheets, there is a single black reviewer, Jimi Famurewa at the Evening Standard, and only three women, Marina O’Loughlin, Fay Maschler and Grace Dent, who are all white. Of the men, Giles Coren and Jay Rayner are the sons of famous journalists, William Sitwell is minor aristocracy, and Tom Parker Bowles is Prince Charles’ stepson.
‘We don’t really have real criticism around restaurants or food in the UK,’ says Masing. ‘It all gets wrapped up in the idea of praise or joyfulness. The problems are structural. There’s a tendency to keep food siloed away from culture in general, and I think that’s weird. Food is political, and cultural, and I write about it as a way of talking about those other things.’
Three months after the Som Saa incident, Giles Coren reviewed Kaki, a Sichuan Chinese restaurant in King’s Cross. He began the piece:
When I phoned Kaki to see if one needed to book, the guy answered the phone in Chinese.
‘TAKA TAKA TAKA BOKKA TAKKA TAKKA!’ he said.
At around the same time, the Eater contributor Jonathan Nunn posted a series of tweets outlining what he saw as Coren’s history of racism, and exposed a secret pseudonymous Twitter account Coren was using to accuse his critics. Coren pointed out he went on to mock his own English, that he was making a joke about miscommunication, and that he had been championing Chinese food for 25 years.
‘A lot of people thought it was a deliberate strategy to be controversial and annoy people, but it just wasn’t. The Kaki review was an issue for Eater London not because I wanted it to be an issue for Eater London but because numerous East Asian people said it was a massive fucking problem,’ says Eater London editor, Adam Coghlan. ‘The Som Saa and Kaki incidents were pivotal. Giles and his friends thought they could discredit me and [fellow Eater employees] George [Reynolds] and James [Hansen], because we were white men.’
While Coren is the bête noire for the new mob, few major critics have been spared. In July, the Guardian’s critic, Grace Dent, was criticised for referring to ‘shadowy, money-rinsing kiosks called things like The Rainbow Egg Bubble Waffle Shop’ in a piece about Chinatown. In August, Maschler was accused of racism after beginning a review of a pasta restaurant, Tavolino, by comparing Italian food to Eritrean cuisine. The piece was briefly taken down before being reinstated with mild edits. Prior to Maschler’s article, Nunn had written that ‘more pasta restaurants were reviewed in the UK this year than Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese East + West African and Caribbean restaurants combined’. In September, a Vice study found that only two out of 328 restaurants reviewed in the year to January 2020 were owned by black proprietors.
‘The British food media likes to think of itself as diverse and egalitarian whereas it’s actually nothing of the kind,’ says Nunn. ‘It pays lip service to diversity, it’s often classist, fatphobic and reactionary, and if it’s not harbouring actual racists, it’s making unconsciously racist editorial decisions that reflect its biases.’ His most popular pieces for Eater have been his guides to the best-value restaurants in London, lists that eschew more glamorous and well-publicised restaurants in central London for unshowy, often family-run places in the suburbs: tiny Korean spots in New Malden, Pakistani grills in Hounslow, Canto-Malay operations in Barnet. The usual critics’ response is to point out that he is not the first person to leave Zone 2, that Charles Campion made his name doing the same thing 30 years ago.
‘I think this year is the closest the critics have come to solidarity,’ Nunn adds. ‘They all clearly hate each other, but have laid down arms to fight the common enemy: people writing capsule reviews on Eater London.’
For some, this new cohort is just the latest iteration of a rebellious strain in food hackery as old as restaurants themselves. ‘Social media exaggerates everything,’ says the writer Joe Warwick. ‘I’m sure these divisions always took place, but it was just over the dinner table rather than online… we’ve imported a debate from the US, but my point of view in Britain it’s not about race, it’s about class. It’s also a generational thing. Every generation thinks they’re the first to ever care about anything, right? That’s really fucking annoying.’
Earlier this year. Nunn launched Vittles, a newsletter of food essays, interviews and reportage on everything from regional chippy variations to foragers in Burgess Park. Nunn says he sees his work as a continuation and an expansion of humorous British food writing, rather than perpetuating a more po-faced American style. ‘There are tons of things to hate about US food media, from its self-obsessed myopia to extreme earnestness, and a lot of things to love about the British style, in particularly its tradition of humour,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think you can deny [British writing] has calcified terribly – you look at what restaurant writing was like, 20, 30 years ago, and I just don’t think it was in thrall to PR and money in the same way it is today.’
Coren declined to be interviewed, but he sent the following by email.
‘I think I am more useful to them politically and thematically as a dehumanized reactionary bogeyman to be pilloried without real thought or reflection, because we all need an enemy. And the same is true reciprocally – they give me a huge amount of material and a real sense of where I stand in relation to right/left, young/old and new media/old media. It has given added pep to my writing, forced me into a golden period where I’ve never enjoyed my job more, but it works only by keeping my thoughts exclusive to the people who pay to hear them, so that I can enjoy the applauding roar of my own echo chamber, as they do theirs.’
In a recent review of Bellamy’s, in Piccadilly, he used the argot of the neo-foodies to mock his aristocratic pal Tom Parker Bowles, who had credited Nunn’s Vittles in a review of a Suya restaurant in Peckham. ‘You won’t know about any of this, or care,’ Coren wrote, ‘but as the culture wars rage on, with movements such as #metoo, #extinctionrebellion and #blacklivesmatter… a teeny, tiny hard-left fringe has started to emerge in… wait for it … restaurant writing.’
Parker Bowles says he respects the work Nunn has done with Vittles. ‘Giles and Grace and all those people are my friends, and I’m going to defend to the death the charges against them. The debate can get very fraught and too up its own arse. Nobody’s a winner when things degenerate into guerrilla warfare and sniping. I’m sure if Jonathan and Giles sat down, they’d get on. There isn’t an equivalent of the “Nigel Farage food critic”, there just isn’t. Everyone needs to take a step back, and breathe.’
Eater still does its thing, as in its evisceration of ‘Japan Week’ on the Great British Bake Off, which it called ‘orientalist’, pointing out the contestants were asked to ‘steam an originally Chinese bun and fill it with Chinese or Indian ingredients’.
Elsewhere, however, there are signs of a cautious détente. Coren deleted his Twitter account in June, which sort of calmed things. Nunn’s online persona has become less confrontational since the rise of Vittles. In Nigella Lawson’s new series, Cook, Eat, Repeat, she takes the radical step of pointing out she might not be the best chef to teach us about a bhorta.
It’s a sign of how the arguments about culture and authenticity in cooking have permeated the mainstream. A changing of the guard is afoot. What started with spicy beef is ending with a turnover.