The LONDON food scene isn’t just fish and chips anymore. The city is becoming synonymous with fine dining, and food connoisseurs are taking note.The Food Network show Chopped features a segment from July 2011 with four British chefs competing to be “Chopped Champion.” But even in a competition of such culinary purity, the first compliment is delivered in a backhanded manner.
“So the great cliché, of course, is that there is no good cooking in England,” host Ted Allen says to the judging panel. “That’s obviously never been true.”
The reality is that British cooking has never had the reputation of its neighbors across the English Channel in France, or, in fact, of a number of other countries. Whatever the reason, Cynthia Ochterbeck, editorial director of the Michelin Travel Partner, says, “London was seen as kind of backwater in the culinary world for a long time.” That has changed dramatically for a number of reasons — the popularity of food shows on TV, celebrity chefs, increased discretionary income, the proliferation of cooking schools. There is an exciting food scene in London right now, and the British food elite are bursting with pride.
“You can come here and eat just about anything from anywhere in the world,” says Camilla Schneideman, managing director at Leiths School of Food and Wine. “That’s why I feel that right now, London is the food capital of the world.”
Here are three ways to get a taste of London’s growing gastronomic arena:
A TRADITION REVIVED
A traditional culinary treat in England is the simple pub lunch — fish and chips, bangers and mash, or Shepherd’s Pie. But Rebecca Burr, editor of the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland, says that over the years, “the quality of the food had become pretty poor.” But as the popularity of cooking increased, high-skilled chefs began buying pubs, and there was marked improvement. “Pubs became important enough for us to put them in a separate Michelin Guide, and we began awarding them stars,” Burr says. “We’ve now had nine editions of the pub guide, and the quality of pub food is getting better each year.”
Founded in 1926, the Palm is one of the most famous American steak houses. The only Palm in Europe is in London, and Palm executives have embraced the culture by hiring a Brit to be head chef. And although chef Spencer Westcott works with the traditional Palm menu, including cooking steaks imported from Nebraska, he adds a few original twists, including some not on the menu. (Hint: Ask for the Lobster Macaroni & Cheese. As the locals say, it’s lovely.)
Celebrity British Chef Heston Blumenthal has one restaurant — The Fat Duck in Bray — that has consistently been rated as one of the best in the world. But if you want to get the best of British cooking, his eatery Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is the place to go. Blumenthal has embraced English history and has dishes that originated as far back as 1390 B.C. “This is a concept based on historic British recipes,” The Fat Duck head chef Jonny Lake says. “And that is very different.”