The BFG Interview with British Food Critic and Author William Sitwell
William Sitwell meant for his book “The Restaurant: A 2000-Year History of Dining Out“, to be a breezy celebration of one of humanity’s most enduring institutions. The book contains delightful discussions into the life of medieval gastronome Ibn Battuta, the vagaries of dining out in Victorian England, and the invention of the sushi conveyor belt, among other treats. He wrote it during the glorious height of global dining culture. Then COVID-19 appeared, and it all went to hell. Restaurants, as we once knew them, no longer exist.
We interviewed Sitwell, food critic and TV presenter, about what we’ve lost, about what’s next for the restaurant, and about how he’s eating in quarantine.
You end your book with a chapter on “The Future Of Eating Out”, but that obviously meant something very different in 2019 than it does today. Or does it? How has our current crisis, in your best estimate, affected the future of eating out? Will restaurants recover? What will they be like?
Well I still stand by the thoughts I had at the end of the book. Indeed, the very last paragraph has even greater prescience now. So if you can forgive me for quoting from it: “There will always be a place for the simple establishment, [that] little place with a small kitchen, a modest, seasonally changing menu, a functional wine list, cheerful staff, and the buzz of conversation and laughter. I’ll take a table for two in that one, please.”
So–aside from fast food, and let’s not get side-tracked into that monster–I think the genuine restaurant (not a place funded by lunatics and run by food faddists), run by people who have a passion to feed people and a belief in the principles of hospitality, has a firm place in the future of dining out. But if social distancing becomes a new norm, this will really affect the restaurant business. I mean, who wants to eat out at a place staffed by people in face masks, with lines on the floor indicating the correct distance to sit, where you’re discouraged from socializing with strangers or queuing at the busy bar for drinks. So until we find a vaccine, or until we just get fed up and think what the hell, the restaurant and bar as we know it will not exist.
You’ve made your living for many years by eating in, critiquing, and studying restaurants. As weird as it is for people like me to not have restaurants around, it must be 10 times weirder for you. What is a world without restaurants like for you? How are your compatriots in the industry doing?
It is weird. My daily life is about trying new places, meeting chefs, and analyzing the fruits of our amazing hospitality industry. I’m also a travel writer and I run events. Three quarters of my life has evaporated. But thank God my book, The Restaurant, is a respite from that, a vicarious vision of what we until recently so loved and took for granted. My fellow critics, like me, are trying to cling on to their columns, reinventing themselves. I’m doing my Biting Talk chat show every Tuesday and Wednesday evening at 6PM. I host the biggest names in the world of food and drink and we meet up-and-coming talent, so that’s a way of keeping my hand in and my brain functioning. But I now dream of trying to catch the eye of a waitress to get the check.
While many chapters in your book describe restaurant-going during boom times and happy times, there are definitely discussions of eating out during a world in crisis. What are some notable examples of that? How did restaurants adapt to previous situations of world turmoil, and does that give us reason for hope?
Restaurants don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re creatures of the age. They form as part of our culture, for good or ill, as a part of (or in spite of) the political landscape or the economic scene. Restaurants grew in number in Paris during the bloody French Revolution because the highly-trained staff in the houses of the aristocracy found themselves out of jobs after their bosses found themselves without heads. Madame Guillotine inadvertently gave the green light for French fine dining in the late 18th and early 19thcentury in cities like Paris.
Alice Waters created Chez Panisse partly because she wanted to cook food for friends in the way she had eaten in during an impressionable trip to France. But it was also an establishment that grew as part of the 1960s counterculture of the States. The people who dined there in the early days were the journalists, the writers, the filmmakers who came together to talk in the wake of their opposition to the Vietnam war. It was also a reaction to the growing fast food industry. Alice Waters put her arms around small producers, she nurtured them at a time big food companies were interested in nothing but fries and cheap beef. And they still need her, now maybe even more than ever.
British restaurants created in the wake of the Second World War were a uniform type of feeding centre that made a virtue of rationing. More people ate out during the Second World than ever before and the health of the nation was never better, before or since. So we adapt well. The food world is run by crazy, creative people who always find a way.
Will there be even more emphasis on fresh, local ingredients when the smoke clears from all this? Will fine dining thrive or deteriorate? What about fast casual? Do you think there will be more or fewer chains? Will we be eating different sorts of foods?
I hope so, but big business has a habit of crushing these fine ideas, especially if the President is their pal and flag waver. But there will always be a place for fine dining. The world will still have wealthy people and those who save for special occasions. The top end of gastronomy will always find customers.
Where are you currently riding out the COVID-19 crisis? What is the restaurant situation like there? Are you ordering takeout or mostly eating at home?
I’m in the South West of England in a county called Somerset. My wife Emily, myself and our 17-month-old boy are staying with Sarah, my mother-in-law. We eat well, out food is from local farm shops, we have local meat delivered to the door as well as veg boxes. I sit at my computer bashing out words before my 4 PM hour’s cycle ride. There are no restaurants or pubs open, so we crack open a nice bottle of white wine or rosé in the evening and watch a lot of good, rubbish telly. We don’t order any takeout, every meal is freshly made. Don’t tell anyone, but we’re happy and healthy and rather enjoying lockdown.
What’s the first restaurant you’re going to dine at when you finally venture back into the world?
It could be sushi–I really miss that–but it also needs to be Indian. The best Japanese in London is Umu, which serves the most exquisite kaiseki-style fish. And I’m hoping for a great plate of dal and some spicy tandoor-cooked lamb chops at Kanishka, run by the wonderful Atul Kochhar. And I’ll go feasting at both my London clubs, the louche and laid-back Chelsea Arts Club, which is full of artists, and White’s, my beloved old-school gents club in Mayfair, where suits and ties are compulsory, as is great beef and gallons of fine claret.