The Full English
The Full English: Episode 5

The Full English: Episode 5

The invention of ‘Modern European’ food in England

All paid-subscribers have access to the back catalogue of paywalled articles, including all upcoming episodes of The Full English podcast. Subscription is £5/month or £45/year.

If you wish to receive the newsletter for free weekly please click below.

Vittles and The Full English would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this podcast:

Episode 1 (Breakfast): David Edgerton, Kaori O'Connor, Ben Rogers, Paul Freedman, Rowley Leigh

Episode 2 (Sheep): Pen Vogler, Maia Pal, George Comninel, Susan Rose, Ben Rogers, Matt Chatfield, Jeremy Chan, Rezaul Haque

Episode 3 (Tea and Sugar): Seren Charington-Hollins, Markman Ellis, Mathew Mauger, Mukta Das, Catherine Hall, Padraic Scanlan, David Edgerton

Episode 4 (Factory Foods): Matt Chatfield, Lucy Williamson, David Edgerton, Liz Bowles, Michael Clark, Aaron Bastani, Elena Walden, Tess Kelly, Pen Vogler, Tom Kerridge

Episode 5 (Modern European): Shaun Hill, Fay Maschler, Rowley Leigh, Jonathan Meades, Dan Lepard, Margot Henderson, Anna Tobias, Jeremy Lee, Ben Highmore, Fergus Henderson, Trevor Gulliver

Episode 6 (Fish Finger Bhorta): Ash Sarkar, Jason Edwards, Riaz Phillips, Andrew Wong, Catherine Hall, Adam Ramsay, Sunder Katwala, Mike Kenny


Leave a comment

Episode five: The invention of ‘Modern European’ food in England

Lewis Bassett: So here’s a puzzle. How did food in England and the UK go from this…. 

Advert: Heinz 57! Get together with delicious Heinz Baked Beans!

To this…

Advert (Jamie Oliver): Try before you buy? Are they sun blushed tomatoes? I’ll have a little tub of those. Tell you what would be nice, some of those green olives. A little nob of parmesan darling. Uhm beautiful!  

You just heard an advert for Heinz baked beans from 1955 and an ad for Sainsbury’s from the early 00s featuring Jamie Oliver.

This is the story of the rise of Mediterranean food in England – from pesto to sundried tomatoes, rocket to feta cheese. Things that seem to be fairly normal food items today but which were pretty rare in England 30 plus years ago. Take olive oil. Prior to the 1990s, one of the few ways you could get it in England was in small bottles sold at chemists. 

In this episode, we’ll look at how a movement of cooks and cookery writers helped to challenge the status of elite, classical French cuisine as the gold standard of food in England with provincial French and Mediterranean cooking. It’s also the story of the rise of a new middle class movement whose European tastes not only assumed a central place at our dinner tables but lent politics and culture in England a repertoire of feelings and sentiments that have been mobilised in debates around the EU and inequality in Britain. Welcome to episode five of the Full English Podcast.

The story begins in the 1960s and 70s.

Shaun Hill: The repertoire of the time, in the late 60s, was that of you know, Escoffier. You got the same food for Land's End to John O'Groats, just done better or worse with Tornado Rossini and Chicken Chasseur on the menu, stuff like that. 

This is the chef Shaun Hill, who has over 50 years’ experience in kitchens and is still cooking at the Walnut Tree in Wales. Shaun’s career has been so exceptional that it stands somewhat outside the narrative in this episode. August Escoffier, who Shaun mentions, was a chef whose influence on elite, French cuisine reached its peak in the early 1900s but which continued to dominate the high end of the restaurant scene in Britain for the rest of that century. His influence on British food is so great that it probably deserves its own episode.

SH: Generally speaking, people ate out in hotels, and they ate out to celebrate a birthday, or a wedding, to mark some rite of passage. And the food was incidental. And, and so the food was a sort of imitation French food. Most of the kitchen staff were Italian and few Spanish people and quite a few of the dishes where we're, you know, Frenchified Italian dishes, and probably no worse for that. But people really ate out for the theatre that the maître d does. You know, Luigi, or whoever it was, he gave you a good table made of fuss of you. And then they carved things and set light to stuff. And it's easily to sneer at. But it's what people wanted.

Fay Maschler: It was very polarised in those days. There were gentlemen's clubs, there were hotels and big posh restaurants. And then, you know, some Indian restaurants and not much else, some bogus Trattorias. And that was about it.

I’m Fay Maschler, and I am a food critic, I still am. I was at the Evening Standard for 48 years.

It was a lot less egalitarian in those days. You know, you could say it was kind of divided between the rich and the poor. So there were posh expensive restaurants, and then there were greasy spoons. And Bangladeshi level of Indian food, immigrant food, which was more affordable. There wasn't the kind of anything that the range now.

Jonathan Meades: I very rarely ate in restaurants other than Chinese and Cypriot restaurants.

This is Jonathan Meades, a film maker and essayist who between 1987 and 2000 moonlighted as a food critic for the Times newspaper.

JM: In those days, Camden Town was entirely Cypriot. And there were two particularly good, Cypriot restaurants, Nontas and Karatzas. The food was absolutely great. But there was very little indigenous cookery, whatever indigenous has come to mean. French restaurants at that time were so so. Obviously there were places like Le Gavroche there was Nico, there was Koffmann. These were very sort of high end. There were cheap restaurants, lots of cheap restaurants, but they weren't very good. There, there was places which were fashionable, Langhams obviously, in the 70s and early the 80s. But there wasn't a kind of solid nexus of, of places. And outside London was generally really rather terrible and continued to be terrible.

Rowley Leigh: It's honestly true to say that if you wanted really, really good food you had to eat it in a fairly restricted environment

This is the chef and food writer Rowley Leigh

RL: you know it was expensive and quite formal and you had to obey the rules, you know, dress codes and everything else and ordinary people were rather intimidated by the atmosphere of places like that.

FM: And then it wasn't very good. And certainly no one knew the name of the chef or anything. It was all about front of house and being posh and expensive and silver service.

SH: A lot of that changed, and a lot of that changed for chefs in the 1970s. Quite early on. It changed with the arrival of Nouvelle Cuisine. The repertoire of dishes that were on just about everybody's menu, generally in misspelt and mediocre French were swept aside because it mattered, the chef made a menu. And so all of a sudden it became important to know who the chef was, and if he was any good or not. And so that shifted the focus, if you like on to the kitchen, and the chef and away from the front of house. And that was that was sort of important. As with all the major changes in cookery styles over the years that I've seen, a lot of it was bogus. I mean, the idea of the chef as artist is risible really, and you had people with no artistic taste whatsoever, doing designs on the plate with coloured vegetables and swirls and stuff. Massive plates became the deal. And but the core of it was the food itself should be interesting and good. It certainly wasn't all bad. And it's no worse really than one of the later fashions which was the chef as scientist.

In the 1960s, 70s and early 1980s, England’s restaurant scene was divided.  At the high end were restaurants and hotels serving classic, Escoffier inspired French dishes, the kitchens of which were nevertheless ran by various migrants, often not from France. And while the simple refinement and elegance of Nouvelle Cuisine challenged the food of these places, the trend was short-lived and certainly never upset the elite setting of this food, in fact reinforcing it. At the lower end were cafes and restaurants representing various inventions of national cuisines – including Italian, Indian and Chinese – whose offerings were either intended to meet the demands of English tastes within the constraints of the available produce. But as the year 1987 arrived, something changed in this scene. Located in, and largely limited to London, nevertheless, this change was fundamental.

FM: it was an extraordinary year because you've got River Cafe and Kensington Place and Bibendum. And I suppose it marked a change of attitude and a change of, it kind of gave rise to a whole new sort of restaurant, probably best exemplified by Kensington place. And new architecture. Plate glass windows. It sort of democratised eating out. Which was what, what was needed really.

JM: The order in which they opened was Alistair Little, River Café, Bibendum, Kensington Place. And Kensington Place. I mean when I wrote about it, I remember starting the article by saying this to me is what we've been waiting for. The food was excellent. The service was very good. They had a bar which made extremely good cocktails. I mean, it just got everything right. And it made places like - which it wasn't directly competing with - Nico with Koffman and Gavroche etc – it made them seem rather sort of old fashioned. I don't think there had been much thought previously about doing anything other than following a kind of conventional well furrow.

Picture this: It’s 1987. A general election has seen Margaret Thatcher elected for her third term, as well as Diane Abbot, the first ever black, female MP. Unemployment remains in the millions, but it’s slowly falling. Arsenal win the league cup for their first time in history. And rave culture is about to take off in the north of England. 1987 is also the year I was born, but, of somewhat more relevance, and as Fay Maschler points out, it was the year that Bibendum, Kensington Place and the River Café first opened their doors. Two years previously, Alistair Little had led the way for these three with his eponymous restaurant in Soho. Together, these four restaurants began a big bang in London’s culinary scene; the consequences of which can still be felt today.

I'm just gonna get the sound. Dan can you tell me what you ate for breakfast.

Dan Lepard: What did I have for breakfast? Actually, I had toast I had toast and peanut butter. Four slices. It was very good. … How's that? 

That's good. Yeah, sounds great.

DL: Hi, my name is Dan Lepard. I'm a writer, a chef, a baker, but mostly, you find me connected to bread in some way around the world.

I would eat at Alastair’s. He had this sort of sort of Italian antipasti bar that was downstairs and behind the bar with lots of cookbooks. And I would sit at the bar. And Alastair would come down and chat and I, I was just fascinated by his cooking. There were ingredients on the bar. They'd be red peppers, there would be sort of bowls of basil there would be Amalfi lemons, there would be all sorts of things. That was strange, then people didn't really see food in that way on a bar counter. Alastair just said in passing one day “Why don't you come and cook here?” So I said, yeah, yeah, I'd love to, I'd love to. And he started me on the pastry section, he started me with making bread. That's pretty much where I stayed.

I realise now that when people, when people say this nonsense I hate, when they say well everything's been around forever and that there's no such thing as recipes and there's no such thing is invention: Fuck off this is, this just isn't true. I'd see Alastair doing really shocking things like putting sliced thin raw beef on a plate that he'd had in in Italy or he'd get this this incredibly fragrant green olive oil and pour it all over things in a way that just people didn't do. You didn't drizzle oil on your food people didn't do this! So much of the excitement about Italian food in Britain Absolutely comes from Alastair and the things that are commonplace now, like, like rocket in salads and mozzarella on things, Alastair would say, arguably to middle class Britain, you can do this.

RL: I dropped out of university. And I farmed with my father for a couple years, but I didn’t like that. 

Rowley Leigh again

RL: Then I moved to London, and pretty much pretended to be a writer, but was mostly a waster. And then, when I was about 26, I was struck off the dole. So I got a job at the rock garden flipping hamburgers. I thought, well, if this is what I get to do, I want to do it properly. So I got a job with the Roux brothers. And I worked for them for eight years, including the last three years as head chef for one of their satellite restaurants in the city. And then I got together with some friends and opened a restaurant called Kensington Place in 1987. It was considered quite revolutionary at the time, because it took my skills from the Roux brothers and put them on a much more democratic platform if you like. And we were doing high quality food. Fairly low prices, in a very informal casual atmosphere. With no fine dining, Frou Frou sort of stripped down, fine dining in a very sociable convivial atmosphere. So we really did throw a hand grenade in at that point, I think. 

SH: it was people feeling more comfortable with eating out, that they wanted to actually enjoy the food that they were eating. And so the people who were aiming at that rather than anything that Michelin might offer or you know might get them a round of applause at a catering convention started to do very well indeed. And in fact, the poor devils who'd done the proper, normal route in, through catering colleges, were left behind for quite a while. Which is a shame, because they still, you still get taught all that sort of basic things. But it became a job for people who were interested in food, I mean, a bit like myself, they worked at food from the end product backwards rather than the craft skills forward. If that's not absurd. So you wanted food that tasted good, and that you could feel good about so the that's where sort of stuff like provenance and decent produce started to become more important. As well as that started to come, I think, more media interest in in chefs and cooking.

Margot Henderson: Simon was, I mean, he was, my god. 

This is Margot Henderson. I’m chatting to her on her break as head chef at Rochelle Canteen in East London. Margot is talking about Simon Hopkinson, the chef of Bibendum, one of the restaurants which opened in ‘87.

MH: I mean, I just looked up to him so much. I was desperate to go and work there. But too scared, way too scared. We had gotten a really good review at 192 and they took us to Bibendum. Simon came out and served us a rabbit pie. Beautiful rabbit pie, and in walked Elizabeth David, with Egon Renay. Then Francis Bacon sat down over there. And then to finish it off, Barry Manilow walked across the room. I was like yes, this is the place. Great simple cooking which was cooked with such brilliance. He's beautiful. He's an amazing cook. 

RL: Simon was slightly different. Well we were all slightly different. But Simon, you know, had a proper apprenticeship in a traditional French restaurant, in Normandy, and he was also more provincial in the good way that he was very connected to all the good people, you know, in the country, whereas Alistair and I were more metropolitan. But I think we were all very heavily influenced by a book called The great chefs of France, in the mid 70s. And that introduced us to French cooking, which included nouvelle cuisine. I mean, Michelle Gera was famous for nouvelle cuisine, but he also produced a wonderful book called Cuisine Gourmand. So they were sort of parallel tendencies. And a lot of the simplicity in the the de-institutionalising of French food was something I think we all went along with

David Webb [reading from Simon Hopkinson Roast Chicken and other stories: "Aged 16, I had taken my first holiday job at the Normandie, to decided whether this was to be my chosen career...” “I spoon-fed myself this for the first time while on holiday in Italy. It was high summer and we ate outside in a charming restaurant just outside Florence...” “The rabbits were a sensation. Having first been marinated with a splash of local rose, olive oil, garlic and some herbs, they sizzled and spluttered and really just cooked themselves…” “I tasted it 11 years ago on a first visit to Paris. A Parisian friend, called Hubert, took me there for Sunday Lunch...” 

That was Forest DLG the man behind the music in this show, reading from Simon Hopkinson’s cookbook Roast Chicken and other stories.

JM: You know, these were people in, I suppose their 30s, who had been brought up in middle class families who travelled a lot. I mean they'd seen food in other countries they tasted truffles in Albas or ate cassoulet in Toulouse. 

FM: Mostly when you read these chef's telling you about themselves they've all been inspired by holidays in France, Spain, and Italy, and Europe generally. And, you know, that was a sort of period before Japan came into it say. Now that seems to be, you know, very strong influence, but not then. It was Europe.

What united these four London restaurants was a focus on simplicity, on letting good ingredients, often European ones, become the focus of the meal.

FM: I mean, I remember at the beginning, because they were both amateurs Rose and Ruthie.

Fay Maschler again on Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of the River Café:

FM: I remember they ran out of sea bass and went and bought it at Harrods. Well, you know, that's not how you run a financially successful restaurant!


That was a clip of the River Café’s Ruth Rogers directing a young Jamie Oliver on how to prepare porchetta.

FM: I think these restaurants do form a coherent whole. I think it's partly the people involved travelled and ate abroad and ate in France and Spain and Italy and came back and I suppose invented modern European, you know, where you put maybe slightly unlikely ingredients together and not stick to a rigid cuisine of any particular country.

Just as Indian restaurants in Britain adapted what were many varied styles of cooking from an entire subcontinent – an invention we now refer to as ‘Indian food’ – this was provincial French and Mediterranean approaches to food invented in Britain as something else. The end result was eclectic and entirely novel. 

MH: So our food celebrates the produce that we get, cooked in a simple way. I would say it's British European. We follow the rules of Italian, French cooking and simple food. But we, we turn it into British food. We get our fish from British waters. Our meat comes from small farms. And now some of our vegetables are coming from a small biodynamic farm so yeah, it's exciting. It's exciting the produce actually and we really got a great team and the menu changes – it’s a changing menu.

I’ve come to Café Deco in London to meet its owner and chef Anna Tobias. Anna’s CV includes stints at the River Café and Rochelle Canteen. The head chef at Quo Vadis, Jeremy Lee, is here as well. The pair once worked together at Blueprint Café. 

Anna Tobias: Well, so with Jeremy, I think the most amazing things that I got, specifically from my time at Blueprint was pastry. Jeremy has a sweet tooth. I don't know if you know that. 

JL: Laughs

AT: So it was kind of amazing to work for someone who loved puddings first, because sort of feel like there are some restaurants where you feel like, they don't love pudding. And you can tell that by the how short the pudding menu is, that it's sort of, you know, pannacotta, or chocolate ganache. 

JL: Or a fondant!

AT: Yeah. Whereas, you know, it was a really wonderful thing to learn how to make cakes and tarts and puddings and everything. But also, Jeremy taught me who to read, which I think was, I'm not sure I would have got that from everyone. So you know, I think I remember after working there for a few months, it was Christmas soon after and you got me Julia Child's mastering the art of French cooking Christmas. And so just being kind of given some instruction on which cookery writers to read was really helpful to me.

While Julia Child and eventually Alice Waters led the way for this style of cooking in America, in Britain it was the studies of homely French and Italian food by the cookery writer Elizabeth David that influenced the modern European movement in England, above all.

JL: You factor in that this very small book was published in 1950 called Mediterranean Cooking by Elizabeth David, which was then followed by French Provincial Cooking, and they were very slender volumes. French Provincial Cooking didn't come out until the 1960s and then bang! The world changed. You know, when Robert Carrie, Terence Conran, Elizabeth David all met, I mean, it was Titanic. 

Robert Carrie was a cookery writer and restaurateur. The designer Terence Conran was behind the furniture store Habitat, Bibendum and a string of other restaurants in London, including Blueprint.

JL: And that's what spearheaded this. George Perry Smith: I cook Elizabeth David. Joyce Mollinue: I cook Elizabeth David. It wasn't Escoffier. And then suddenly, they're all going “well, who is this Elizabeth David. We all need to read this”. And she didn't sell much even you know during her lifetime but she was a secret weapon and folk just went “you know this is amazing”, you know, and it was just, a pat of butter and good bread was all you needed to cheer someone up. And the food critics just adored this and went berserk so, by the time the 80s and 90s came along with this produce that had only once upon a time, minutes ago, been available at Boots for a little jar that size of olive oil and you know, you had to buy your garlic under a hood in Soho. Suddenly, this produce was available that we'd never had access to before. And it went berserk.

RL: I think we were children of the Elizabeth David age basically. My mother certainly cooked from Elizabeth David. Whereas you know most chefs have been thrown into a kitchen at 16 and were treated and sort of inferior beings, if you like.

Margot: She was ahead of her time I suppose. I mean, she taught women like Fergus' mother to cook. She taught so many people how to cook through her books in the 60s. She bought French cooking to Britain didn't she. Because I mean Britain, England had had food hadn't they that had cause a great tradition of food, especially if you lived north you'd have tripe and onions and, you know, slow cooked and you're meat in your arga and you went off to the fields, but then we lost it after the war and it was all white sliced bread and fancy food. She brought so. She taught us what an aubergine was. You know what olive oil was. It didn't have to be bought in the chemist. 

By the time we enter the 1990s, the modern European food movement was slowly growing beyond this relatively small clique in the capital to conquer the rest of the UK. Similar trends were also emerging in America, Australia and New Zealand. But as this movement began to gather momentum, another, related culinary explosion occurred in London. This time, it was centred on a single restaurant: St. John

DL: In New York, just towards the end, Anthony Bourdain was opening up this, this Portuguese restaurant called La Tasca. I think it was called. And I did about two months there, and we didn't get paid. And maybe at the end of the two months, these guys in suits came in with these envelopes with about $400 or $500, and I thought, I'm going back.

This is Dan Lepord again. I’m listening to him recount his life and times over a few glass of red at the French House in Soho. 

DL: So I jumped on a plane, went back to Alistair Little’s, because I realised flying back, I had no money, and I didn't have a job. And I was still poor. A constant theme! So I went up to Alistair’s. And one of the sous chefs, Jeremy Lee, at the time, who now is the chef at quo vadis said, “Oh, darling, darling, no work here. Why don't you go down to the French house? I hear they're opening something”. So I said Okay. Right. So I popped down here and I went upstairs and they said “Oh, look the chef's aren't here. Margo and Fergus are opening up this place in Smithfield. But give us your details and your phone number. And we'll let you know”. And by the time I got back they had telephoned to say “yes, why don't you come?” So I went down to Smithfield. And at that time, Smithfield was absolutely a kind of rough part of town in a way that is just hard to imagine - that whole area is changed. There was curb crawling there were, you know, sex in parks. It was it was just kind of a whole different thing. Meat everywhere and loads of taxi drivers - it was just a strange place. Fergus talked about what he wanted to do, that that he wanted to open up a kind of eating place that was very much like the, the eating places that you'd find in Rome, around the abattoir. The meat district. I thought, Yeah. Makes sense to me. 

I wanted to be sous chef. But they said “you can't. We have a sous chef.” And I said, “Well, I'll be head pastry chef”. And Margot said, Margot Henderson said, “Would you make bread?” I said, “Yes, absolutely. Absolutely”. I was still very New York at this point. I sort of came back powered up and kind of kind of electric. So we started making bread right there. 

MH: I'd been to a pop up - they didn't call them pop ups then - that Fergus had done.

This is Margot again, talking about meeting her husband Fergus Henderson, the man credited with St John’s style of cooking.

MH: And I'd heard about this guy and I went there. Everyone was there at this opening. You know, Rose Grey was really impressed with the chef's there. And then on the menu, it had pigeon and peas. And I thought, wow, that is crazy, man. And then on my plate came a whole pigeon and peas and I just, it changed the whole way I thought. I just thought that was the most brilliant thing ever. And it was beautiful. 

Margot and Fergus eventual met each other at the Eagle, a pub in London which lays claim to being the first ever gastro pub – more on those in another episode. Soon after, the pair were cooking together at the French House.

MH: I started boning out the quails and Fergus said, “No, Margo, we're going to leave them whole”. Whoa, that is mental that's so crazy. Now, we wouldn't even think about it. But I would have been taught that a quail is boned down, then it's stuffed and roasted, and then you slice it like that. So food was, as I grew up in Britain, in London, the food was things like a slice of orange on side, a sprig of parsley. I mean, there was Alistair Little and Rowley Leigh really having a great understanding of, I think, classic French cooking and food that women cook at home, which then they were bringing into a more modern way. But I didn't really sort of know it. And then Fergus said, “we're gonna cook a whole you know, shoulder of lamb. I'm gonna going to cook it slowly”. I mean, I was just, it was just the most exciting time in my life to explore this whole new way. It's much more about food that women would cook at home. It's very British in a way. And it's very, you know, you could say, Italian or the, you know, peasant food. I don't like to say peasant, but you know provincial cooking, and which is the most beautiful. It's a food that makes you really happy. It's gentle cooking. I mean, we all love fancy food, too. It's fantastic and fancy restaurants with lots of waiters looking after you. But simple cooking can really blow your mind as well. And it was a really exciting time. I am Fergus' number one fan!

DL: What what Fergus wanted to do was to, from my impression was just to simply preserve what he perceives as the essential characteristics of the ingredients from, from their real state to the plate state, without, without alchemy, there was no attempt to change anything. And in the kindest way, he was very firm about leaving things alone. Not to not to garnish with parsley, but just chuck it down, just plonk it down, just sort of let it fall. Fergus, I think, still talks about it being a kind of bourgeois cooking. But there was also a desire to represent a sort of very simple antipasti. And I absolutely adored, well, both of them, Margot and Fergus, I just adored their approach to food, I still do.

RL: I love Fergus' food. And God he's been, he's been really influential. As influential as any of the three of us you mentioned. He took what we were doing another step You know, even more pared down. Sometimes it's so pared down, to be a complete joke. We ordered - I was with a friend at St. John once -  and we ordered the chestnuts it just said chestnuts as a veg. And just out of curiosity to see what he would do with chestnuts. And of course, he did absolutely nothing. I mean, he gave him a little slash and then put them in the oven and we had to peel them at the table. And my friend said “Sometimes I think Fergus is just putting these things on and then watching from behind the kitchen door to see what we make of him”.

FM: he's been hugely influential. What he did and still does, is wholly admirable, I think, and it's just another way of looking at, you know, that nose to tail thing is another way of looking at cooking. He was in seasonality long before it became a kind of buzzword. He says nature writes the menu for you. It's true, and he follows it.


Given the enormous respect that chefs and restaurant goers have towards Fergus Henderson, I wanted to speak to him. But the only way in that I could think of was that Fergus often had a Guinness at a pub I used to work at. I tried loitering around there on a few occasions. I got pretty drunk and spent lots of money, but it didn’t pay off. Then one day in October last year I received a reply from the generic St John email address. A few weeks later, I find myself sat opposite Fergus Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver, with a bottle of wine, a pie and a plate of thinly sliced mutton between us. 

Fergus Henderson: I’m feeling a bit scatter-brained…

Fergus has Parkinson's disease, which affects his ability to talk. 

FH: Strangely enough, we're 27 years old and still people come in and go let's have the scariest thing on the menu. It’s not scary at all. There's nothing scary on the menu. It's all delicious!

St John has a reputation for serving offal. Fergus tells us that when the restaurant first appeared, newspapers greeted it with reviews containing a slew of puns, saying it was offaly good. The food they were making was presented by parts of the press as strange even sinister, especially as it appeared in the context of the Britain’s BSE crisis. 

NEWS CLIP: A mysterious brain diesces is threaning the country’s cows. Scientists say they don’t know what’s causing it, or where it came from… 

Fergus explains that in this context St. John’s reputation meant customers sometimes came to restaurant in an act of masculine defiance.

FH: People came and ordered bone marrow to show that we'll eat game, we’ll eat we'll eat offal. But it's not sort of a meaty, testosterone bloodlust thing it's - spleen, take a spleen - it swells when you're in love. It's not that I'm an offal hard nut or something. It's wonderful stuff!

Trevor Gulliver: I mean, unfortunately, or depending on your view, it was like that moment where that's just full of couples, some who got married here, which is fine, and then there will be this group of five Japanese businessmen, not that we’ve seen a Japanese businessman for two years, but sort of asking have we come to the wrong, is this a love hotel or something!? But Fergus is right, we were bussier. And our phone went bananas from the press and everything else. We were wondering what we do. But we thought, we don’t understand the science but know the provenience, we know the age of our creatures. So we decided to say absouletly nothing. 

FH: Just to sort of big up tripe and onions for a moment. Tripe and onions is uplifting. You can achieve with tripe and onions something soothing but uplifting. There are very few dishes that actually uplift and sooth at the same time but tripe and onions is wonderful stuff!

And romantic.

FH: And romantic, yes!

MH: I think there was definitely nervousness about meat at that stage. St John went up and down a bit. I remember this year and they didn't have aircon and it was really hot and all the reviews are about offally good. I was like, “Can’t you just put some pasta on the menu Fergus - let's get something on, why this bloody bone marrow!” But then he stuck to his guns of course. And you know, wrote the book. I think the book Nose to Tail Eating helped everyone understand more about what he was on about. It wasn't to be shocking. Fergus doesn't want to be shocking, doesn't want to put meat on to go uhhh. Doesnt want it to be gory and horrible, it's much more looking after the whole beast. But yeah, I think people were frightened for a bit. 

The growth in interest in the providence of food, spurred on by the BSE crisis and the environmental movement in Britain, combined with the rise of restaurants focused on seasonal British produce, is an essential part of St John’s legacy. But what I really want to know is whether Fergus and Trevor saw St. John as part of the European food movement that first appeared in London in the late 1980s. 

FH: Yeah, yes, they spawned us

TG: And our spawn has left us to spawn on.

FH: They've taken taking the spawn and run with it.

JL: From all these wild influences coming together at one time created modern European cooking, I think was the name that was used at the time. 

This is Jeremy Lee again

JL: Of which Alistair Little and Rowleigh Leigh were absolutely at the forefront of. And then from modern European, modern British cooking was born. It is very important that the path is plotted because there's lots of people involved to create the wunderkind, the dazzling presence, that is Fergus

Jonathan Meades’ answer to this question is typically severe:

JM: St. John is really a French restaurant which is finding English names for French dishes. I don't think they're an English restaurant at all. They're too good.

The food critic Jay Rayner has written something similar. In an appraisal of the legacy of St.John, Rayner has wrote that “what’s called a kind of British cooking nevertheless requires a knowledge of French recipes and techniques”. Indeed, there’s something distantly French and Italian about eating tripe and jowls, as well as using fresh, seasonal produce. The wine at St John is exclusively French.


This is the bit in the podcast where I ask you, in the words of Bob Geldof, to give us your ‘effing money. It’s really simple. If you like this show and you want to see more of them made, then give us some support over at Subscribers also get exclusive content including full interviews with some of the guests in this show plus recipes such as tripe alla Romana. Back to the show.

Making this episode, one thing that’s puzzled me is how almost all the chefs and food writers involved in the making of modern European food came from middle class backgrounds. In fact, several of the leading chefs in this movement were educated at Cambridge and Oxford. Yet at the same time, in 1987, one chef from a distinctly working class background had also made his mark on London’s restaurant scene with the opening of Harveys. With his fiercely good looks, Marco Pierre White set in train a distinctly different tradition, reviving the Michelin Guide in the process and spawning a string of elite chefs like Gordon Ramsay, who also hailed from disadvantaged backgrounds. If this had been going on in the world of high cuisine, did that mean modern European food was distinctly middle class – as in, neither fish and chips nor champagne and caviar?

FM: It was, I hate to use the phrase, but it was middle class food, you know. And those guys personified it. They would probably read around the subject a lot, you know, read Elizabeth David, or whatever, you know, they would approach it differently to the way you might approach it if you were in catering college.

RL: We were just three middle class boys who had a fresh perspective. And dare I say a slightly more intellectual approach to what cooking can be and we you know, we didn't feel, we had the confidence if you like, not to be high bound by Escoffier and La Repertoire de la Cuisine. I mean, we could be stigmatised as middle class. But then that's what, that's what was happening, you know, an enjoyment of food was spreading out from a very small, you know, rather wealthy coterie to become a much more democratic experience.

JM: My parents teetered between lower middle class and sort of proper middle class. They wouldn't have exotic holidays but we'd go to Britany where my grandfather had various business contacts and we'd go to Normandy, very occasional trips to Paris and always sort of staying in cheap hotels and so on. And I imagine that is an experience which was shared by many other people of my age and class and you know, you think, why the hell can't we have this, you know, chips this good in Britain. Why can't we have battered, you know, veal escallops, as good as this and so on.

AT: I wrote Jeremy a letter. When I was 20. 

This is Anna Tobias and Jeremy Lee on how the pair first met

AT: I just finished university and I decided I want to try giving cooking ago. So I wrote a letter to Jeremy saying that I didn't have any experience. But I really loved cooking and would he, possibly…

JL: It was the most beautifully written letter. Ravishing!

AT: Yeah, that's how we met.

JL: It was very unusual for middle class kids to go into kitchens then still. Still very odd. I remember, Anna I saying that she wanted to come earlier, but she was studying at Oxford and her parents said you'll get your degree and then you can choose. I thought, god, don't let me meddle with the family! And so it was, it was a remarkable letter to receive with a story unfolding about how this young person, and Anna was very early doors about being one of this ever growing school of people who were turning their back on this road that would normally take you into the City or merchant banking or to law - one of the great professions. There was a growing disenchantment with that role, folk didn't want to go into architecture necessarily, or that there was this growing need to do things with our hands. To make things. And making things pleased far more people and developed one of the great talents of the day!

To say that this movement was led by middle class chefs isn’t meant to be a dig, in the way that food is often talked about in this country – something we briefly discussed at the end of episode four. Instead, it’s to say that the kinds of food cooked by these chefs reflected some of their tastes and life experiences – such as holidays in Europe – that were common among groups of people of a similar means and status. This is the sociologist Ben Highmore: 

BH: The term subculture gets us to talk about modern rockers, of course, and hippies. But actually we could use it to talk about the kind of fine tunings by which a group of people think of themselves as kind of bohemian than another group of people. And it's interesting to me, because a lot of what is seen as absolutely, you know, the highest kind of cultural kind of experience are the import of, you know, peasant cuisines from around the world. People use the term conspicuous thrift, so rather than displaying your wealth you display your austerity, your sense of constraint. 

Ben is noting the way in which groups of people emerged in the 1970s, 80s and 90s who in a sense rejected older markers of class and taste and instead pursued something that in their eyes appeared to be authentic and certainly pleasurable. Essentially, we’re talking about the process through which Italian lardo or the once discarded marrow bone can become a desirable thing to eat at a restaurant.

BH: I think the idea of Mediterranean food as offering something that was authentic, however fabricated it is, that is certainly one element of it. The other element is informality, that you can have a dining experience with that sense of the informality that you might experience if you actually went to Italy. That it wasn't going to be Claridge’s where you'd be absolutely terrified to talk to the waiter, or it wasn't going to be you know, the Berni Inn, which was going to be like a three course, heavy business style kind of experience. 

None of this is to say that eating pasta is actually posh, or middle class. According to recent survey evidence, spag bol is the number one favourite family meal in the UK. Number two was found to be pizza, number 7 pasta and sauces, 12 lasagne and 13 the humble pasta bake. The same research suggests that in the 1970s, the only Italian sounding dish on the list of 20 family favourites is spag bol at number 13. So Italian food, or at least, like Indian food, a British version of it, went mainstream. And the modern European food movement played an important role here, particularly as it helped to spawn this guy:

CLIP From the Naked Chef: So this is spagatini, just get that in there, go on my son…!

AT: I think for a lot of my generation, more so than necessarily like Simon and Alistair and Rowley, I wouldn't underestimate the effect and importance that Jamie Oliver had on my generation. I watched his shows all the time. He is part of the reason I started to enjoy cooking as a young person. 

If this was a democratisation of good food in England, then it was a very English process. There was no revolution. No heads met the blades of guillotines. No republican tri-colour flags. Instead, like the extension of the vote, the movement rolled out gradually, slotting into the mould of the British class system, beginning with the middle class, before eventually arriving to the rest of us in a transformed state. Jamie Oliver, who trained at the River Café, played an important part in popularising this way of eating, creating demand for Italian indigents that were willingly supplied by British supermarkets and popular restaurant chains. We have Jamie to thank for the ubiquity of Italian ingredients sold in shops and served pubs. He progressed the very English eclecticism that the first wave of modern European food had effected upon otherwise highly conservative food traditions. Essentially, in Jamie’s eyes, pineapple is welcome on pizza.

But the legacy of this movement is broader than its impact on our diets. As the the invented modern European cuisine was popularised, it was shaped by our divided society. In this way, European cuisine has often appeared to designate what is or isn’t middle class. But reality is far more complicated. On one level, it’s obviously false to say that only middle class people eat this thing that I’m calling modern European food. Clearly, as we’ve already seen, that’s not the case. Just as almost everyone eats British Indian food, so too does almost everyone today eat some version of pizza and pasta. Yet on a different level, the high end of modern European cuisine can be pretty pricey. Extra virgin olive oil of a good providence or peasant inspired dishes served at a modern European restaurant is for most people in England an infrequent treat, if that. But things get complicated when we factor in that many affluent people in England don’t value spending money on food, while many people who, for example, can’t afford the deposit for a house might reasonably spend their limited disposable income on pleasurable experiences. 

The problem gets even more complex when these culinary markers of class are mapped onto the cultural debates surrounding Brexit. Quiet clearly, the 49 million people who voted in the referendum cannot be neatly divided by class. Yet the modern European food movement has helped to create a pervasive image of the Remainer as a middle class bohemian, who fears the rising cost of olive oil. By contrast, is an image of the leave voter, whose culinary home is a pie and mash shop and who, according to this pervasive idea, is comfortable with importing chlorinated chicken. 

This image of Brexit corresponds in part to the fact that some of the most vocal opponents of leaving the EU share the same social world as the original protagonists of modern European cuisine – including holidays in Europe, political perspectives and economic and educational backgrounds. This means that high end European food items have been elevated as a potent symbol of a social divide, even where they fail to represent who is or isn’t middle class and who supported leave and remain. 

Speaking about Brexit to the chefs and food writers for this episode left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I sympathise with aspects of the catastrophic way in which they view leaving the EU. On the other, I can’t help think that, for better or worse, this might be a culinary movement has run out of road. That leaves me with the question of what next? What might, and what perhaps already has, taken its place? Must it be a nativist movement of kippers and Yorkshire pudding, as conjured up by the media spectacle of leave voters? Might it be Asian, American and Australian foods, as could represent the idea of a so called global Britain? Or… what else?

In the next episode we’ll begin to answer this question by asking first just what is a national cuisine, and second who has the power to make one? 


You’ve been listening to The Full English. This podcast was made by me Lewis Bassett.

You can follow the Full English on Twitter and Instagram @fullengpod.

Music and sound engineering for this show was provided by the very talented Forest DLG. You can find him on Twitter and Insta @ForestDLG.

If you want to support this show, please head over to For less than the cost of a fry up you can gain access to tons of extra content, including full interviews and recipes related to the show.

Leave a comment

The Full English
A podcast by Lewis Bassett and Forrest DLG about food and English national identity.