London, GB: Food Is the New Modern Art – Britain’s Hot, Young Talent

By Felicity Spector | Channel 4 News

British food and drink is having a moment: thanks to a bright new generation who are pushing the boundaries of culinary talent and creativity. Now their skills and innovation are being recognised.

Food is the new rock and roll – and that’s official. From cutting edge art, to music, to fashion which mixes street with high end with a quirky twist, there has been no doubting Britain’s ability to lead the world when it comes to creativity. But now you are just as likely to see the most groundbreaking new talent emerging from a kitchen.

Food journalist Chloe Scott says she was inspired by the Young British Artist movement and the Turner prize awards to celebrate Britain’s new found confidence in food. She got together with PR executive Amy Thorne, and cupcake baker Lily Jones to launch the Young British Foodie awards, to promote and reward pioneering talent.

By sheer coincidence, the restaurant guide Zagat chose the same week to declare the winners of London’s first ’30 under 30′ awards, recognising chefs, mixologists and someliers who “represent the future of the English restaurant industry”. It has been a regular feature in the United States, but this week was its first British incarnation.

Hot destinations, cool ideas

Among the winners, the driving forces behind some of the hottest destinations in town, like Pitt Cue, Hawksmoor and Roganic; street food pioneers French and Grace, who sell their innovative wraps and salads at the absurdly popular Eat St collective, and culinary architects Bompass and Parr, who once worked for Heston Blumenthal and now create outrageous feasts and vast constructions made from jelly.

The shortlist for the YBF awards reveals an even wider range of culinary personalities, from sandwich makers to a young butcher who writes a food blog about her craft. It is evidence that the British food scene has evolved beyond recognition.

Chloe Scott says there has been a sea change in attitudes towards food, and the art of making it: “In the seventies and eighties women, like my mother, saw the kitchen as a noose around their neck, somewhere you got stuck. People lost touch with their skills.” Now, though, everything has changed.

Gone is the snobbishness, the establishment rules about what you should eat and how: it is all about democracy: food for the people, by the people: it is about thinking way outside the box and giving things a go.

The North London salmon smoker

Ole Martin-Hansen, a Norwegian who runs his smoked salmon operation out of a tiny brick building in North London, is one of those up for a YBF award. He has been in business for two and a half years, selling his much sought-after fish to restaurants, retailers, and direct to customers at a number of artisan street markets.

He is nothing if not a complete perfectionist: “It is a perpetual fight to improve one single product: that is what I find beautiful, like an artist, you are able to focus on one single thing, and how you can perfect it.”

London, he says, has become a focus for rapid change in food: the recession has brought out a spirit in people who want to do something for themselves, away from what they see as the dubious ethics of supermarket and the homogenisation of modern culture.

Engaging directly with customers, he says, keeps him going. “I do sandwiches which I call my childhood memory. It’s amazing to see people enjoying it and coming back with such appreciation – that’s what makes me keep doing it”. He credits the burgeoning food movement with restoring a sense of popular power, and reviving the local economy. “It all increases the quality of life”.

Many of those driving the new food revolution are self taught: they have eschewed the normal path of academia or a regular office job to start making cheese, devising cocktails, launch a new market, or flip gourmet burgers for a hip young crowd prepared to queue for hours.

Breaking all the rules

None of this is about sticking to the old rules of gastronomy: this new generation is all about breaking rules, and turning the humblest dishes into a gourmet experience. Just look at the two hour queues outside London’s Burger Lobster, which sells exactly what its name suggests, or the hype surrounding the soon-to-be opened Bubbledogs, a hot-dog and champagne bar, helmed by a Michelin star chef.

For Chloe Scott, it is also about reviving Britain’s proudest traditions, and making them special. “It is about the craft, the skill and the quality that goes into these things”, she said. “A sense of – this is where it started, this is how we can improve it. British culinary history is something we can enjoy, and feel proud of, rather than embarassed.”

And being 2012, this is the kind of British tradition which embraces everything from the spicy Vietnamese baguettes at Bahnmi11, to the slow roast lamb with crushed potatoes and pickled cucumber at Street Kitchen’s mobile Airstream van.

The brave new democracy of British food is fuelled by social networking sites like Twitter, which create an instant buzz around a place, as well as draw a crowd. It means food entrepreneurs can create an event out of nowhere, confident that they can spread the word and generate demand. Take God Save the Clam, a four day event held on a rooftop in south London.

Rock the Jubilee

It’s the latest pop up by the boys at Pitt Cue and the chef behind last summer’s cult seafood destination Rock Lobsta – offering a mix of food, cocktails and music throughout the Jubilee weekend. Thanks to a Twitter storm, tickets were quickly sold out: the event is even trending on Google.

The new food scene, though, is about more than mere hedonism: there is a definite social conscience behind the fun. Britain’s young foodies are obsessed with ethics: they buy from sustainable sources, produce using environmentally friendly techniques, trade locally, and small scale. Capital costs are slashed by operating out of vans or market stalls: pop ups mean nobody gets bored.

This, then, is the future of British food: a mix and match of cultures, of high end and low brow, all of it with an ethical beat. And if the art market itself has gone way too commercial, then food can perhaps lay claim to that title of the new modern art. The YBFs may not be quite on the level of the Turner Prize, but it’s a start.

Felicity Spector