Acclaimed Author and Critic Stephen Bayley Hails the Sophistication of No-Frills Eating
As 2013 kicks off a proliferation of new gastronomic trends, the question is not simply where to dine, but how to dine—and British design critic and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley responds with a personal morsel of culinary philosophy written exclusively for NOWNESS. One of the UK’s most authoritative voices on contemporary aesthetics, Bayley is a Contributing Editor at GQ and has authored more than a dozen books including Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, Sex: A Cultural History, A Dictionary of Idiocy, and his latest release, Ugly: The Aesthetics Of Everything. As a food-and-wine enthusiast he also appears regularly in Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, and The Daily Telegraph. His thoughts on the future of dining are here accompanied by an illustration courtesy of Toronto-based Frank Viva, who regularly drafts covers for The New Yorker:
“Restaurant” is an idea whose time has gone. But it has had a good run since the concept of serving food to complete strangers emerged just after the French Revolution, when chefs dispossessed of their roles in country houses looked for work in Paris. Only people with severe psychological problems nowadays want fawning service by paramilitary regiments of liveried flunkies and all the preposterous cloche-lifting and crumb-sweeping and bowing and scraping that go with it.
The more sophisticated you are, the less likely you are to want the faux-sophistication of a traditional restaurant. You will prefer a dive, a burger stand, a bodega, a bacaro, a cervezeria or a winkle stall. Obviously, no one wants to eat filth, but style and success in the matter of eating out are matters of social competition and cultural modeling, not gastronomy or nutrition.
Thus, Russell Norman’s Polpo formula is exactly right for the tenor of the times. The Beak Street, London, HQ has been roaring since it opened three years ago. The food is cleverly conceived, but, to be honest, a bit erratic in its execution. Service is charming, but hopeless. And I always go back. That Russell Norman came from a family involved in architectural salvage and once taught drama are significant. The Polpo interior is high-concept crud, but achieves an intimate theatricality, which is endlessly attractive. It doesn’t feel like a laboratory. It feels like a party.
And no one except insiders knows who cooks at Polpo. This is exceptionally clever because the suggestion, quite correctly, is that the restaurant as a whole is much more important than the sun-dried ego of the annoying big-head chef. If Polpo’s chef walks, who’s to care? The menu is a reliable formula, which any semi-competent could replicate. It’s the ordinary thing extraordinarily well done.
This is what I want to see more of this year: the higher ordinariness. Less fuss. In food as in all things, simple is not the same as commonplace.
As the novel and biographies tend to decline, so travel and cookbooks are in ascent. There’s a fundamental link between the two genres. At a silly level, people buy books about places they never intend to visit (I recently bought a 50s classic about eastern Afghanistan) and books about food they never intend to cook (I have one example of preposterous French ambition with a recipe calling for five liters of veal stock and two of single cream).
But, more interestingly, food and travel, especially food and travel literature, are about journeys. Real or conceptual, it doesn’t matter. As Picasso said, if it can be imagined, it’s real.
So it is with restaurants. Eating out is an invitation to a voyage. You don’t get fed, you get transported. I only ever eat the cooking of places I want to visit. I only drink wine made in places I want to be. Yes, of course, I know about the excellent wines coming out of New Zealand. But I want to pull the cork on a dark red fantasy about a sun-baked cabanon in the Minervois with Laetitia Casta expected for lunch. I don’t want to unscrew the top and release a Sauvignon Blanc nightmare about sheep-farmers in knee socks, creaking Land Rovers and bungalows.
On the small Soho street where I have my office I can go to a Seville bodega, a US Interstate Diner, a noodle shop resembling the canteen of Nanking Technical University, a New Zealand dive bar and a barbecue pit that would look at home in West Texas. Never mind what you actually eat and drink, these premises are mind-altering substances.
Yes, this sort of architectural fantasy threatens to become kitsch, but if kitsch involves appropriation, collages, quotations, reflections, echoes, pastiche, fakery, charlatanism and ventriloquism, then kitsch is very interesting. In this interpretation, Venice, Paris, London and Rome are kitsch. Turns out, it suits me very well.
The London-based Collective Teams Up with VANDEYK for this Hypnotic Short
A bicycle wheel is transformed into an homage to early op art in this mesmerizing collaboration between United Visual Artists and Stuttgart-based VANDEYK Contemporary Cycles. Inspired by the likes of Bridget Riley, the London-based collective UVA used LED strips and motion control systems to create a hypnotic vortex that momentarily threatens to suck the viewer in. Known for sitting at the intersection of sculpture, architecture, live performance, moving image and digital installation, UVA devised the film's surging soundtrack using audio effects of the bike company’s latest limited-collection release, Purple Blast (a nod to the color of solar flares). The result is a crafty reference to Marcel Duchamp’s early 20th-century notion of the readymade.
STATS FROM ON SET
The dark bunker underneath the UVA studio.
A Canon 5D MKII, to shoot stills.
Hours on set
Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley were obvious influences, but also the phase experiments by Steve Reich and John Cage, linking visual feedback and movement with sound.
During testing the LED strip was installed on one of the director’s bikes. They forgot to take it off and were soon riding around the city looking very bling indeed.
Five Days of Food, Final Part: The Cipriani Legacy Thrives in the Floating City with Cocktails Fit for Hemingway and Capote
Arrigo Cipriani unravels the rich Venetian history and patronage of his father Guiseppe’s fabled Harry’s Bar, in this short from writer, director and NOWNESS regular Alison Chernick. One of the most celebrated restaurants in the world, and home to some of its driest martinis, the locale has been a favorite among Hollywood celebrities and literary notables since opening in 1931. Today the Ciprianis helm a veritable empire of clubs and restaurants across the globe, and the family's original venue was declared a national landmark by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 2001. Yet Harry's Bar may be most widely known as the birthplace of two culinary treasures: beef Carpaccio, and the Bellini cocktail, both named after 15th century Italian painters. Shot one afternoon during the Venice Film Festival last September, Cipriani recalled the many eating—and drinking—habits of luminaires such as Orson Welles, Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway, whose 1948 novel Across The River and Into The Trees contains scenes set in the famed watering hole. Despite the establishment's lofty international appeal, the “Senator’s Table” is always reserved for long-time local patrons, recalling the heyday of European cafe society. “You feel as if you are a special guest in your own home,” says Chernick of the bar’s classic atmosphere. “The history just seeps through it.”
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