2011 sees The Value Engineers celebrate its 25th anniversary. As an homage to the branding world which has been our life for the last quarter of a century, we will be posting a blog on the 25th of every month, discussing everything ’25′.
The year we started The Value Engineers we did a review of the food market for a client. Back then, information on food trends or helpful websites didn’t exist – so we had to find the data for ourselves.
One source was the Good Food Guide. We sampled editions back to the early 1950s, charting the rise of ethnic food, the slow decline of eclectic (and insincere) ‘continental’ restaurants that served anything you could freeze and re-heat, and the painfully slow emergence of regional cuisine.
Looking back now at the 1986 Good Food Guide, I’m struck by what – and particularly who – is not there.
Of the celebrity chefs we now celebrate or sneer at only Raymond Blanc and ‘Richard’ (never Rick) Stein get a mention. No Gordon Ramsay, no Marco Pierre White. Jamie Oliver was only 11 – still five years away from going to catering college – and Heston Blumenthal still had hair, though he started his self-taught progress towards the Fat Duck. Top chefs – including Ken Whitehead of Boulestin – not only endorsed but even cooked with Uncle Ben’s rice. ‘Come off it, old son’ said the Guide.
The Dorchester Hotel – under Anton Mosimann – had the infamous Lymeswold cheese on its menu, because, so they said, the ‘Americans ask for it’.
Italian restaurants went big on ‘chicken Kiev’. Vacuum packed boil in the bag food was a new – and welcome – trend, replacing the frozen entrees and frozen broccoli that dominated the British restaurant trade.
Then the restaurant empires were those of the Roux Brothers and Peter Langan – though the latter’s drunken antics were already beginning to raise eyebrows.
The Guide lamented the level to which prices had risen. Lunch at Le Manoir was £25; getting out of a ‘top end’ restaurant for less than £40 a head was rare – and compared with Chelsea season tickets at £154 or Wimbledon Finals tickets for £18 restaurant prices were exorbitant and ‘arrogant’. Lunch at the Manoir is now around £60; Chelsea season tickets are between £550-1200. Maybe good food is not such a rip-off after all.
The big trend for the future – said the Guide – was ‘Real Food’. Local ingredients, locally sourced. The Hilton Hotel on Park Lane even had a British Harvest restaurant, with regional British cheeses and English wine. However, ethnic restaurants dominated the Guide. They were ‘head and shoulders’ above the European restaurants for value, quality of food and even service. French food was the ‘major area of activity for the processed food industry’ and English food was ‘confused and in search of an identity’.
In 1986 The Value Engineers successfully sold to Tesco – via a tasting – the idea and appeal of English cheeses (including Yarg) but the rest of the supermarket trade would take many years before they caught on. We were, perhaps, ahead of our time.
Elsewhere, the Guide lamented, the British were ‘content to talk about a tomato or a potato as if the strain, where they were grown, how long they have been unearthed matters not a jot’.
All this was to change. Or almost all…
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Le Gavroche were top of the pile then. They still are.
But what is also interesting about the GFG of 1986 is that much of what they were campaigning for 25 years ago is still on the agenda today.
Firstly, their campaign for ‘real food’ (named ingredients, freshly sourced from local resources) can be seen in the trend towards what one could call the ‘uber-real’ movement. Foraging for indigenous ingredients has been on the key success factors in René Redzepi’s acclaimed Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen. The name itself gives away the secret. Short for Nordisk Mad (or Nordic food), Noma is a restaurant bent on re-discovery and reinvention of its Nordic heritage of edible plants, woodland berries and forest riches.
Back in 1986 the Guide was acclaiming the rebirth of Anna’s Place, a one room Nordic restaurant in Stoke Newington. Now a second key trend for the future is the renaissance of supper clubs – food sourced, prepared and cooked for in-the-know small groups by enthusiastic amateurs rather than the big brand professionals.
And my third trend? The rebirth of street food. It’s been an unnoticed and unsung feature of British food for a thousand years or more. And it’s on its way back. We will see a shift away from the mega-restaurants towards the street vans and the pop-up restaurants that will once again celebrate the value of fast, local, community-based food.
When the exotic becomes commonplace courtesy of the big chains it’s time to get local again.