I’ve recently been thinking about food culture and ‘hipsterism’: how has it evolved?
As food has become cooler, less of a middle-aged interest , the hipster – young, cool, affluent – has become a key demographic to restaurants and bars, especially as the fine-dining model of eating out has lost ground to a more casual approach. As the clientele in fashionable London restaurants has grown younger and more bearded, so bare tables, louder music, and tattooed bar staff have diffused into the wider world. In emulating the trappings of success, though, restaurateurs are missing what it is that makes these places so popular in the first place.
The key thing here, I think, and a key to much of what I can only call hipsterism, is a sense of cultural context. When American alt-folk became popular (Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, Joanna Newsom), it wasn’t enough to just listen to the music – you had to don a checked shirt, grow a beard, and generally act like a North Country backwoodsman; the disco revival, for some, has to go hand in hand with a revival of ludicrous ’70s fashion. It is this desire for context that fuels a lot of retro culture.
Restaurants are just as guilty of this, if not more so. What places like Pitt Cue and Polpo sell is not just food and drink but a whole second-hand culture, or an idealised version of one. You don’t just go to Pitt Cue for the pulled pork, however good it is; you go there for the music, the bourbon, the cheap American beer, the general sense that you are stepping into a different, better time and place, for the price of a meal. When confined to music and fashion, this urge can be seen as an extension of that teenage tribalism, the urge to belong that unites gangs of outsiders everywhere. When applied to restaurants, though, where you can be in an American diner one day, a Lebanese street-food joint the next, this kind of magpie cultural dilettantism starts to look a little odd. Russell Norman’s Polpo group is a case in point. Although the original restaurant sprung from his clearly heartfelt love for the backstreet bars of Venice, his other projects have tried on different outfits – New York Jewish diner, Italian-American speakeasy, proper English boozer – with varying degrees of success.
What is being borrowed is not just a few dishes – it is a depth and an idea of authenticity that comes from a food culture established over hundreds or thousands of years, that speaks of waves of history, currents of immigration and empire and progress and time. While the removal of these from their proper context, and commodification into the latest Soho eatery, is not necessarily a bad thing, it is often done in a way that is patronising and exploitative. To take one example – the London-based Italian restaurant Paesan, which takes its cues very much from Polpo, prides itself on purveying cucina povera, the ever-popular peasant cuisine, in other words, the subject of much romanticism. When the peasant in question is not a butter-fed child of Normandy but a product of the Italian south, beaten down by the Mafia and the harsh Sicilian sun, it seems a little odd to blithely celebrate his cuisine, to take the products of absolute starved necessity and sell them, in overpriced iterations, to jaded urban hipsters in search of authenticity. Why is the poor, the rural, the old, more authentic than the aspirational, the urban, the new?
Of course, the appropriation of a cuisine rarely involves the exploitation or commodification of an individual in this way, and in any case it is usually done with much more affection and respect than in the above example. The question remains, though, as to why people feel this urge, this need to immerse themselves in these simulacra of authenticity. I can see the ‘what-I-did-on-my-holidays’ mentality that drives people to open these restaurants, but why do we flock to them? (I am not excluding myself, by the way – I love Pitt Cue and Polpo and many similar places). Are we so uncomfortable in our own skins, is our own culture such a blank, that we need to dress up in others in order to feel that sense of tribal belonging? Go to France, to Spain, to Italy or Turkey, and you will find not just a long-established and deeply rooted cuisine, but young, creative restaurants that actively engage with that cuisine, using outside influences not as a template but as a spur to re-investigate some aspect of their own culture. When considering Britain’s long history as an immigrant nation, I would not want some meat-and-potatoes little England idea of British food.
You can look at Sicily, for example, for a cuisine that has assimilated wave after wave of immigration, adding to and enriching its food and culture, while maintaining a sense of itself. Even the few modern British restaurants that occupy the same sort of hipster market – St John, Quo Vadis – have to exist in a sort of romanticised ideal Britain of eels and crumpets and deviled kidneys that is as real as Polpo’s rose-tinted Venice.
There are, of course, exceptions, restaurants which seek a real engagement with place and history in their food, but they exist, mainly, at the top end of the market (L’Enclume, say), or in places that are slightly beyond fashion, whether by location or inclination (The Sportsman in Kent, for example). Besides, the incredible variety of food cultures available in Britain might seem ample compensation for the decline of our own. But it seems sad that in mainstream fashion and culture we have, by shame or neglect, lost the thread of our own tradition, and with it the disparate strands of history and memory that inform our everyday lives.