Neil Rankin is sick of the ‘Instagram chef wank' and hopes for more restaurant innovation in 2020
At the beginning of 2019 the ‘foodie' scene was in full swing. Hottest this, coolest that, top 50, top 100, best this, worst that. Thousands of influencers sharing their views, to which only a handful are worth listening. Most don't look like they actually eat.
Then there are the restaurants and chefs themselves, spitting out new dish after new dish, or new offer after new offer; trying to be noticed among a jam-packed crowd of lifeless, over-filtered, Instagrammable chef wank that absolutely nobody asked for.
On top of this there are the PR companies, of which only a few are choosy enough not to promote any old bollocks, and you get this new age of freebie funding and a whole pantomime of disappointment. It leaves most people with very little idea of the value or the sincerity of anything posted anywhere, least of all the review sites that are now overrun with joyless, wannabe food critics trying to blackmail restaurants for a free meal.
Is there anyone left I can insult to alienate myself further?
Don't get me wrong, none of this is terrible by itself. There was a time I used to love reading all of this, but it's not the quality or the medium – it's the volume. It's so overwhelming these days I've gone numb; I've become desensitised to the excitement of it all.
It's too much input and too much of the same story to give any real love to anything without attaching a real valid experience first. As with all media, we just don't have enough empathetic bandwidth to care about this much stuff – it all becomes a delicious but forgettable white noise.
There are still genuinely great restaurants smashing the market, but no one is coming up with anything new – it's just a regurgitation of someone else's cuisine or the classics. For every new restaurant that opens doing anything challenging or interesting, it's only a matter of time before they'll be doing chef collaborations or a hot new take on a brunch offer to attract more press.
We could just say stick to what you know – stick to the classics and what everybody loves – but we still need restaurants to innovate, otherwise we stagnate. We need creatives and we need to look at new ways of operating, but that innovation is a massive evolutionary jump that is just not happening.
People want more. They want an experience and that's not found in a clever potato dish or a chef that's picked herbs for a well-known three-star for three months. We need to look at the way the market is moving and forget the transient markets and the soft launch bottomfeeders that care little about our product past week two.
We need to look at the growing tourist markets or, even better, the older market that has more cash and less Instagram awareness. We need to stop serving flogged horse tartare for clicks. If we don't, we're making the same mistake the retail market made: sticking our heads in the sand and hoping everything will just turn out fine… It won't.
Is the future of restaurants even restaurants? Is it just over-saturated or has it lost its way and become overly reliant on chefs rather than restaurateurs, who focus more on what a customer wants, not the next ego project the chef wants to give them?
I don't know, but what I have learned from 2019 is this: the classics still work, hospitality is still key; experience is key; we don't trust chains; my gym is packed; chefs have gone; people still need jobs; veganism is not a ‘trend'; meat isn't going anywhere; Dishoom is God; and nobody really wants to eat in Stratford... yet.
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