Is ‘modern British' dead?

11 May 2006
Is ‘modern British' dead?

If the phrase "modern British cooking" ever meant anything, does it have any meaning in today's professional kitchens? asks Bill Knott

A restaurateur confided in me recently that he planned to change the style of food at one of his restaurants. It would now have a distinctly French theme, he said, because: "Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘God, I could really murder a modern British!'"

Which set me thinking: does the term "modern British" mean anything any more? Did it ever mean anything?

"Modern British", as a term, was supposed to indicate British food cooked and served in a more "contemporary" fashion than traditional British food: prawn cocktail, steak and kidney pie, steamed puddings and the rest. Gary Rhodes's cooking at the Castle hotel and the Greenhouse, with its emphasis on reworking classics of the British kitchen, could have been - and was - called modern British, but his style of cooking was quite different from what followed.

What it became was a catch-all term popular with chefs who wanted the freedom that "fusion" cooking had given them in terms of ingredients and techniques, but didn't want to use the word "fusion" to describe the results.

The term now seems to be at its most debased. "Modern" means - at least, one hopes it means - cooked fairly recently, and "British"… well, it's British because I cooked it in Britain, innit?

The other confusion is with the various parts of Britain. Trendy Glaswegians cook "modern Scottish" food; in Belfast it is "modern Irish"; and I'm sure there is a "modern Welsh" chef somewhere. By this, they mean that they use - with an accompanying sense of national pride - predominantly local ingredients.

Yet, modern British cuisine, invariably cooked in England, seems to take ingredients from all over the globe.

So, would chefs calling their food "modern English" be the answer? If we are looking for local produce on our menus, most of northern France is closer to London than Scotland is. Atholl brose and cullen skink are no more English than quenelles de brochet or tarte tatin.

The major problem with the term "modern British" is that nobody knows what it means any more: it has become the culinary equivalent of World Music, to be stuck in a box, uncategorised, unloved and unnoticed.

Maybe we really should murder modern British.

What does ‘modern British' cooking mean?

Charlie McVeigh, owner, Matilda, Battersea, London
The term has now been subsumed in the mélange that is modern European, even global, cooking, because most chefs now use ingredients from everywhere. With the exception of some restaurants sticking totally to the modern British term, most food now has influences from a wide array of cultural sources. I think the term is dead.

Nigel Haworth, chef-patron, Northcote Manor, Lancashire Modern British is very much up and running and is certainly not dying or dead. All of our restaurants are based on modern English and British food. It's all about regionality - local produce from a county or area. It depends how you market it. There is nothing wrong with saying "English" rather than "British" - "modern English" is more accurate.

Andrew Turner, executive chef, Pennyhill Park, Surrey It's the hardest thing in the world to put British cuisine under a label. I don't think the term "modern British" ever really existed. There are different classifications for food, and whether British food ever had a place in these, I'm not sure. Any good cook knows that food just evolves. We need to have a forum and decide on classifications.

Alastair Storey, chief executive, BaxterStorey It's hard to think of a food or dish that comes under the term. The idea of modern British food is more about the resurgence of interest in cooking good food in Britain, which is great, than about the actual cuisine itself. As a Scot, "modern Scottish" sounds great but I'd struggle to define it! The phrases are too general and don't mean a lot.

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