Welcome, dear reader, to this month’s In My Honest Opinion, in which I will come down like a ton of roasted cauliflower, on all things ‘dude food’: dirty, deep- fried and, generally, dripping in bloody meat juices.
But first, may I please issue a disclaimer? Of course, at some level, like you, I love all that stuff – who wouldn’t? I still drool at the memory of the best burger I’ve ever eaten, at Troll’s Pantry in Brighton. Forget roast beef, forget beef stock, forget even Ian Botham. That perfect patty, griddled in beef fat, was the single most beefy thing I’ve ever encountered. It was incredible. As are the burgers at Patty Smith’s in Leeds, where they’re briefly steamed under a cloche until the bun, cheese and burger melt together, into one sweet, slippery, almost slurp-able whole.
I’ve eaten hot dogs, ribs, grilled cheese, buttermilk chicken, chilli fries, and have worn the grease stains down my shirt as a badge of pride. I revelled in the transgressive gluttony of Man v. Food and heralded the street food revolution as a democratic leveller. It seemed like we, the people, were finally forging our own concept of what good food is, rather than obediently accepting what Michelin, middle England or the French gastronomic tradition – with its luxury ingredients and pompous fayn dayning (© Marina O’Loughlin) – told us was the correct, refined way to dine. The USA was our new inspiration, and we were going to eat calorie-packed, artery- clogging junk until our hearts burst. So there. Deal with it, bro.
Stupid as that sounds, the casualisation of eating-out, which dude food helped catalyse, has changed Britain for the good. The rise of no-booking restaurants, the emphasis on affordable pleasure, the pride that chefs now take in perfecting mundane items (such as brioche buns or triple-cooked chips), the spread of wood-fired pizza ovens – these are all terrific things. The culture around British food is now young, urban and energetic where it used to feel staid and middle-aged.
But as I sit here, nursing a large Gaviscon and considering my ever-expanding waistline, I’m left wondering, not at what a wonderful period that was, but rather: what have we done? Because dude food and dude attitude have permeated our food culture to such an extent that, increasingly, it feels stifling, sticky and indigestible.
Quite simply, dude food is everywhere. Now every chain pub and fake hipster diner (indie look, corporate backing), has a limp mop-head of pulled pork on the menu, or serves a burger on a doughnut (bleugh!). Due to the low skill-base required to churn this stuff out and the ready audience for it (we all love fast food, right?), dude food was always going to go mainstream. What’s strange though is that food’s real obsessives, its tastemakers, its street food vendors, its chefs, the media and we ourselves – in the things we like and favourite on social media – have not moved on. We’re all still jumping around like giddy children over ludicrous, gimmicky, usually fried food: ramen burgers; poutine-style piles of junk-on-chips; cronuts, nuclear hot sauces; fried pickles, bacon jam; mac ‘n’ cheese; cornbread with maple syrup and butter.
Me? I’m sick of it. I’m beyond bored with the narrow taste range of dude food, its muffly combination of OTT sugary sweetness, hot fat and meat. After a while, it all seems to settle like a dull smoky fug on the tongue. Right now, and not just because it’s summer, I’m far more excited by the endless possibilities of salads, from pea, feta and broccoli, through panzanella or orange, chorizo and fennel, to all the magnificent things you can do with charred aubergine. Similarly, from Leeds’ Bundobust (bundobust.com) to Oxford’s Oli’s Thai (olisthai.com; see restaurant feature, page 96), the relatively kaleidoscopic colour of highly-spiced Indian and Thai cooking seems so much more vivid and exhilarating than another bucketful of gut-busting, dark brown dude food.
Certainly, outside the pages of Olive, coverage of novelty burgers and portmanteau pastries continues apace. Indeed, it drowns out celebration of that new wave of British chefs, who – rather than simply chucking stuff in deep-fryers and piling it on enamelled tin plates – actually take raw ingredients and, well, cook. That is, they use their technical skill and imaginations to create dishes of deft lightness, depth and complexity of flavour, dishes which, at times, in their earthy, mineral, vegetal or tart way, challenge you to engage with food as an adult should. Perhaps that’s the problem. Either way, the truly exciting things in British food aren’t happening in East London pop-up BBQ joints but in those restaurants – for example, Clapham’s The Dairy, the Ethicurean in Bristol, Edinburgh’s Timberyard – that are cultivating a post-Noma approach to cooking that’s all about seasonal, heritage ingredients and ancient artisan skills allied to new technology.
Such places will not replace dude food; they’re not casual dining venues. These are relatively expensive, inspirational places – but their ethos could trickle down. Look at Leeds’ Grub & Grog Shop, where a street-food mentality of keen pricing and creativity dovetail with a more cerebral approach. Using lots of traditional pickling skills, air-drying, hop oils and foraged ingredients, its team produces food which feels, literally and metaphorically, fresh, and which minimises the use of meat. To me, this tastes like the future.
This feature was published in June 2015
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