Sam Herlihy Of The Northwestern Is Our New Food Correspondent
, January 7th, 2010 07:01
Photograph by Barney Britton www.photoinsensitive.com
Greetings ladies and sirs. I play a lot of music. I cook a lot of food for people. I'm not entirely sure which I do better, although my knife skills seem to be criticised less than my vocal abilities. I used to be in a band called Hope of the States; we broke up, I freaked out. I was still writing a pile of songs but wasn't convinced I wanted to do the music/silly bands conundrum again. I considered becoming a chef – but quickly realising that would involve a lot of hard work, I jumped back on the slacker indie rock bus.
Now I get to play fuzzy music and write a fuzzy food column – well at least until the kindly folk at The Quietus kick my gastronomical nonsense to the nearest kerb, there to rest along with the remains of last night’s kebab.
Some people may be born with a taste for good music. I had to force myself to like it. When the noise of my older brother and his mates listening to Incesticide (in some weird mix with ‘I’m the Scatman’ as I recall) started drowning out my Billy Joel ‘We Didn't Start the Fire’ cassette. I was not a happy 12-year-old. I knew that I was supposed to like Nirvana but just didn't get it. Truth to tell, in my opinion Billy Joel was the man and Kurt Cobain was a whiney goon. Unable though to tolerate the withering hauteur of my grungy 15-year-old brother I did what I had to do and faked an enthusiasm for the boys from Seattle, forcing myself to listen to them until eventually it started making sense. Then I got it - Nirvana were awesome, Billy Joel sucked, and ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ got stuffed in a box under the bed not to see the light of day again until it resurfaced a couple of years ago in one of those awful "guilty pleasures" confessions.
Having confronted the musical equivalent of Michel Roux or Heston Blumenthal, however, the path ahead was not straightforward. From feasting at the Michelin starred tables of In Utero I suddenly found large numbers of my fellow diners succumbing to the heady delights of Britpop. What days of possibility they were; Tony Blair and The Naked Chef. Not to mention Jocasta/ Geneva/ The Supernaturals /Thurman /DarkStar /Gene /Smaller /My Life Story /Speedy /Rialto /Strangelove [I like Strangelove! Ed]/David Devant and His Spirit Wife...
Those bands were gastro pubs. It was the early days of the unstoppable rise of the gastro pub Golgotha. Now said beast has trampled all before it. That “Wooooaahh!” chorus. That stadium rock-aping, hospital drama sound-tracking, Joy Division mimicking, landfill indie noise is gastro to the core. And now they are very successful gastro pubs to boot. They are gastro taverns in Sussex and Suffolk. In Alderly Edge. Car parks full of middle management BMWs with Top Gear "indie" compilations in the CD player. Just like kids deciding to abandon Billy Joel and Status Quo in favour of "proper" music to avoid the scorn of their elders, people have learned to love gastro pubs on the grounds that they have a “cool” and a level of quality not attached to establishments lower down the food chain. Actually no better than Billy Joel but perceived through an idiot haze of one-upmanship as some kind of White Album/Merriweather Post Pavillion creative tour de goddamn force.
Whatever there was to eat before “Moroccan-Style Lamb Shanks”, “Handmade Pies With Jus” and “Fusion Broths” arrived (yours for fifteen quid in a beige painted room in a pub) was terrible. Gastro pub goers now know better. Fearless gastronauts, chowing down on “Market-Sourced Seasonal Fare” and sneering (in absentia) at the Harvester dwellers and families on their weekly trip to Ronald’s.
Music snobs are scumbags but food snobs are even worse. I have an idea of what good food is but I like "rubbish" food too. My money says that if you asked a hundred Michelin starred chefs for their Death Row meal request a good number of them would nominate a Big Mac, medium fries and a Coke or their mum's slightly overcooked Sunday roast. I wouldn’t see a single one crying out for "Cajun-Spiced, Pan-Fried Sea Bass Served On A Bed Of Bollocks". (Or whatever else they have on the specials board in that place with the stripped pine tables that used to be a proper pub before the local “restaurateur” - aka wide boy - got hold of it.)
I suppose some gastro pubs aren’t bad. Just like Snow Patrol are a really nice bunch of dudes and White Lies do a cracking single if you like that sort of thing. Others, who can remain nameless, are truly woeful. The middle ground in food is as tedious as the middle ground in music. It just costs a shed load more than the competition and comes with a side dish of smugness which should have most right-thinking individuals dropping vials of e-coli in the soup of the day. (Probably ten quid’s worth of "Spring Vegetable Consomme With A Hint Of Disaster And Suffering".)
I love a McDonalds once in a while. I love a Michelin starred wonder on occasion (particularly if someone else is paying). I grew up and realised I do love ‘We Didn't Start The Fire’ and I love Nirvana too. But I cannot dwell in the middle of the road. This love affair with gastro pubs: if you didn’t light it, let’s try to fight it. One damn lamb shank at a time...