There are many theories on why British cuisine has been considered subpar. The most consistent involves the two world wars, particularly World War II from 1939-’45, which had an impact on everything from discretionary income to the desire anyone had to cook creatively. “We lost quite a lot of our heritage,” Schneideman says. “I don’t think the war did us any favors. There was rationing for a long time, and I think people forget how long it went. Food was very dull at the time.”
Read columnist Cathy Booth Thomas' take on tea time in London.
Criticism such as Chirac’s, however, is considered dated. In recent years, food preparation has become popular in Britain, with many U.S. food shows also televised on Food Network UK. Celebrity chefs have gained prominence, among them Gordon Ramsay, who is a native of Scotland and has had several shows on U.S. and British television. Another English celebrity chef is Jamie Oliver, who has had programs televised in the U.S. but is more popular in Britain. Oliver has lapped the competition on Twitter with 3.5 million followers. Ramsay has 1.5 million.
The chef who has had perhaps the greatest impact on the image of British cooking, however, is Heston Blumenthal, a 47-year-old self-taught chef who owns The Fat Duck, a restaurant in Bray, 45 minutes west of London. In 2012 and 2013, The Fat Duck was named the second-best restaurant in the world by Elite Traveler and Laurent-Perrier.
In 2011, Blumenthal figuratively thumbed his nose at critics of British cooking by opening Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel in London. Blumenthal worked with historians to research British recipes from centuries ago, and his updated versions of those comprise the menu. A sample meal might start with an appetizer of Frumenty (a recipe dated circa 1390 that consists of grilled octopus, smoked sea broth, pickled seaweed and parsley), a main course of Spiced Pigeon (circa 1780) and a dessert of Brown Bread Ice Cream (circa 1830). Side dishes are nonarchaic staples such as mashed potatoes, French fries, green beans, carrots and mixed-leaf salad.
“That was a real chance to exploit the interest in British cooking,” says Jonny Lake, who works closely with Blumenthal and is head chef at The Fat Duck. “The important thing with that concept is it is not just British ingredients in a French dish. This is a concept based on historic British recipes, which is a bit different.” In 2013, Restaurant magazine named Dinner by Heston Blumenthal the seventh-best restaurant in the world.
Perhaps the best example of how far the culinary scene has advanced is the prestigious 2013 Michelin guide, which awarded coveted stars to 110 more London restaurants than in 2012. And that’s not counting the great British institution of pubs.