Restaurant News

Magic happens: Fergus Henderson on restaurant brilliance

Restaurants need room for magic: in a sense of place, in chaos, even in a napkin, writes Fergus Henderson.

There is in London's City a temple to lunch called Sweetings. It is open only for lunch, and it started life as a wet fish shop so the surfaces have a certain tolerance which can cope with the rigours of a good lunch. It is a splendid example of working chaos: you are corralled into a middle room where you sup on tankards of Black Velvet, trying to catch the eye of one of the waiters trapped behind the counter. Once ensconced at a counter, you order your lunch from the trapped waiter who yells your order at a runner, who will reappear with your food, and there is much leaning on your part to get out of the way. They pass your lunch to the waiter who places it behind the bar and then hands it to you as if they'd had it all along. Fantastic crazy chaos, but a brilliant lunch.

We are in the age of the culinary fait accompli. There are two extremes, at one end being fast food, which isn't food but the abuse of ingredients tortured into something that submits to being eaten, affording no pleasure at all. At the other end you are presented with a plate of wonderment where the chef has expressed themselves with skill and wisdom. Your only involvement is to guiltily make a mess of this creation. There is no place for chaos here, but like wearing a tight corset, the experience certainly has its moments.

What one has to remember is that one can't design chaos or it would become trite and boring in an instant. But this magical moment can take place in restaurants twice a day, when you open your door and let in a hungry mix of people who are going to want good food on time, at different times. Then they go again and all is calm. Tables are re-laid and it can start all over again. This is a fertile situation for the sense of place. Don't be tempted by gastronomic crutches such as marble, music and brass rails. One person sitting down to their apéritif is enough to get the ball rolling.

The great steadying element in this world of chaos and magic I've described is your napkin, a reassuring touchstone, a well-laundered square of white linen, which is texturally comforting, covers your lap, and can be used to wipe your chops. The heady moment when place and time collide would almost be impossible to face without your force-field napkin.

Sense of place is a magnificent thing. Take Pétrus, the great Bordeaux: it is a wine made like any other wine, but the grapes grow on a hill which happens to be the perfect hill for grape growing. The result of this is Pétrus. Aahhhh. (Never take wine home from your holiday: what was a chirpy rosé in those relaxed holiday moments suddenly becomes vinegar and has no place at home.)

The military view of restaurants is that they resemble an 18th-century man-of-war, the chef being the captain, everyone's friend, but keeping his distance. Clearing the deck for battle compares with the half hour before service. More in keeping with my hippy-dippy chain of events is the view that you know your farmer, who is practising good husbandry; animals are slaughtered humanely; the chef gets to know the carcass and butchers it with love, which continues to flow during the cooking of it; the chef at the pass is happy to hand it to the chirpy waiter; and as a result the diner is imbued with happiness. Make love not war!

My parting thought: I am in a bottle shop and someone wants a bottle of malt whisky. They declined the finest Islay malt because it didn't have a box and went for an insipid Speyside whisky instead. What have things come to, when the box is more important than the spirit?