From rationing to Ramsay

30 May 2002 by
From rationing to Ramsay

Raymond Postgate published his first Good Food Guide 50 years ago. War-ruined Britain was teetering towards its destiny with Berni Inn, sirloin steak, prawn cocktail and the ever-so-exotic avocado pear. Silvino Trompetto was about to become the Savoy's first English-born chef. Philip Harben fried omelettes for BBC television audiences for about £400 per year.

Distant? Perhaps. On another planet? Hardly. The Good Food Guide is still going strong. Steak and chips, BSE willing, cross the cultural divide from Bibendum to transport caf‚s on the A1. The Savoy remains an institution - along with TV chefs.

In a high-speed, hi-tech world, cooking totters along tortoise-fashion, conspicuous more for the way it presents itself than for any change of gear. The small cumulative changes, though, add up. Eating out is a routine cultural experience rather than a privilege. Shrivelled Fanny Cradock, the Delia of her day, wouldn't have heard of half the ingredients in Gordon Ramsay's kitchen, let alone known what to do with them.

Evolving standards
Postgate split his recommended restaurants into four groups: good, plain cooking; imaginative local and national cooking (including what we would call ethnic); fine individual cooking "for the man who is a real artist"; and luxury cooking. That was well enough in a country famed for boiled meat and soggy Brussels sprouts, but modern pundits have to reflect evolving standards. A journalist quizzed Kenneth Bell, a leading chef of the 1960s and 1970s, as to why he had lost a Michelin star in the early 1980s. Modestly, he replied: "I've not got worse. The others have got better."

That's the upside of the past five decades. Our best chefs have grown more skilled. They work with ingredients unknown to past generations. They hone techniques. They burn up man hours and money to make a jus or an accompaniment in a way that Escoffier would have understood and admired, but which would have seemed wanton extravagance, even at the post-war Ritz. Then, luxury meant an à la carte menu the size of a tennis court offering 25 kinds of sole all painted with the same velouté sauce.

The downside is that modern restaurant cooking can degenerate into a pretentious style statement: 90% garnish and 10% substance. Showing off isn't new. Romans did it at their orgies. Carême's architectural structures were hardly restrained. Nouvelle cuisine splashed out on Chanel No 5 sorbet. Every generation invents its own edible excesses. Among our current rash of ego-driven chefs, some appear more intent on proving how clever they are than on pleasing customers.

Elizabeth David published French Country Cooking in 1951. Its immediate effect on professional cooking of the 1950s was nil. The concept of food as fashion was alien even to Londoners. Restaurants were admired less for their chefs than for their head waiters. It was the era of the guéridon wheeled to the customer's table, the silver-plated spirit lamp and the flamed pancake.

The 1960s, taking their lead from George Perry-Smith's Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath, saw a rash of anglicised bistros borrowing from Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier's recipes. The more influential development, though, was the chic London trattoria started by Franco Lagatolla and designed by Enzo Apicella. Italian food was suddenly hip. Princess Margaret ate lasagne and every waiter was saving up his tips to open his own "trat".

An editorial in a 1970s AA restaurant guide referred to the cooking of "gifted amateurs". They were the chefs, never formally trained, such as Sonia Stevenson at the Horn of Plenty, Gulworthy, Devon, who were putting down the roots of what became the slightly sober country house hotel cuisine. In the capital, however, Albert and Michel Roux at Le Gavroche or Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire were showing that a gap in skill existed between the enthusiasts and hard-core French professionals.

Through the 1980s they came to be identified with nouvelle cuisine, but the leader of the pack when it came to geometric arrangements on 14in plates covered by silver cloches was Anton Mosimann. Rigour, discipline and attention to detail mattered as never before. At the Dorchester hotel's Terrace Room it seemed a perfect form of refined luxury. Around the country, produced by lesser talents, it was merely overpriced silliness.

The growth of Sir Terence Conran's brasseries, starting with Bibendum, was probably a reaction to the nouvelle failings. They brought dining out down a notch, made it more accessible, cheaper, noisier. It's a baton taken up by the rash of gastropubs, many of which echo the kind of mixed cooking that Franco and Ann Taruschio's Walnut Tree Inn at Llandewi Skerrid, Gwent, began 30 years ago.

Trends and the discovery of new ingredients have gone hand in hand. Chefs have lived through years of sherry, raspberry and balsamic vinegars, of pink peppercorns and pink grapefruit, of star anise, kuzu and kaffir lime leaves, of filo pastry, polenta and couscous, of carnaroli and basmati rice. The list, like a bungee jumper's rubber cord, can stretch as far as it needs to.

Keeping one step ahead of the game is what has earned more than one famous chef his laurels. Here, too, the Roux brothers were pioneers, setting up a company to freight in produce from Rungis market in France that Smithfield and Covent Garden couldn't match in the early 1980s. In the provinces, Abergavenny-based Vin Sullivan acted as a kind of Brake Bros to isolated aspirational restaurants.

Not all the innovation has worked. Ostrich meat isn't as popular as it briefly threatened to be. Farmed wild boar has a loyal but limited following. Gressingham duck has established itself, but Aylesbury duck has become virtually extinct. Farmed salmon provides easy access to fresh fish, but its quality, like other generics such as Cheddar, is uneven. The choice of extra virgin olive oils and their range of prices can be confusing to any but a handful of experts.

The ever-wider choice of vegetables, both locally grown and exotic, has been counterpoised by the uses to which professionals have put them. In the nouvelle era, peas were dotted round the rim of a plate. Mange-tout were presented like fans. Haricots verts were tied in bundles. Nowadays, vegetables too often belong to the edible landscape, details on a plate built around protein.

Easing into the new century, "organic" enjoys the cachet that once belonged to "pure" and "natural". How long before it, too, becomes debased, as chefs realise that its guarantees aren't always what they seem?

Specialities of the house "Basque chicken; fried trout, bacon, nuts, orange and banana; sea broth; banana cheese with chocolate; Dover sole with butter and cheese; curried chicken with orange, banana and mango chutney." Good Food Guide diners at the Hole in the Wall circa 1958 found very different dishes from the classics served in London's West End: the tournedos Rossini from the Mirabelle's charcoal grill, or its chicken roasted on a spit, or the côte de boeuf à la bordelaise from the Coq d'Or.

Everything, though, was about to change. Ratatouille, quiche, duck … l'orange, boeuf bourguignonne and petits pots de chocolat introduced the new middle classes to middle-of-the-road French cuisine. Pizza, cannelloni, lasagne, fettucine and tagliatelle were wooing diners who knew Italian pasta only via macaroni cheese and canned spaghetti. Black Forest gâteau and, tiptoeing into the 1970s, chocolate roulade starred on the omnipresent dessert trolleys.

This was the period when chefs fell in love with their Robot Coupes. Terrines of fish made from fish mousse, mousselines of fish (more fish mousse), quenelles (mousse again), stuffings (from chicken mousse) gave them an easy way to impress the public with feather-light concoctions that a generation later were unfairly blamed for being pappy and like baby food. Koffmann's pied de cochon farci dates from then. Cream was everywhere: in the mousses, of course, in reduction sauces and in the crème brûlée that was the star pudding.

Michel Guérard's Cuisine Minceur is a book that chefs bought without using. Instead, they opted for the fresh tomato soups and sauces of Provençal Roger Vergé, who lavished basil and chervil over his food. Carpaccio of salmon, a first nod towards sushi, supplanted the gravadlax that had been flourishing on the country house hotel circuit. Sorbets, either as an inter-course extra or, in the case of Raymond Blanc's sugar palette and paint brush of fruit sorbets, provided an easy ride for any chef who couldn't afford a pâtissier.

The 1990s has seen a new breed of technically skilled chefs truffling for new ideas. Some have emerged from a better understanding of Italian regional food. Open and closed ravioli as well as risotto are already clichés. More variety has come from the Pacific Rim fusion that Peter Gordon brought with him when he opened the Sugar Club in London. Laksa may not yet be the spaghetti bolognese of Middle England, but fresh ginger, coriander, coconut milk and lime juice are already mainstream.

Celebrity chefs
Before the 1960s restaurant chefs were anonymous, back-room staff. If they invented a new recipe, it was probably a version of another that already existed. At a famous restaurant such as Le Caprice, the favoured customer shook hands with Mario Gallati, the manager.

During the 1960s the Good Food Guide and then Egon Ronay began drawing attention to chefs. Robert Carrier, through a series of colour-supplement features in the Sunday Times, praised the chefs of two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants across the Channel.

The defining moment, if there was one, occurred when Egon Ronay took a team of English chef-patrons - articulate, mainly self-taught - to cook for the French press at Maxim's in Paris in the mid-1970s. From then on being a personality, having a name, mattered.

France, through Henri Gault and Christian Millau, authors of a restaurant guide and food magazine, was already promoting stars such as Paul Bocuse. When the duo linked nouvelle cuisine to the creative chefs carrying out the new style, they made it possible for chefs to leave their stoves and shine in public. Celebrities such as Michel Guérard and Roger Vergé travelled the world to prepare gala dinners for the glitterati. At home, their restaurants became places of gastronomic pilgrimage.

Anton Mosimann was the first chef in the UK to grasp how he could transform himself into a national figure through television. The Roux brothers, less comfortably, followed, and Raymond Blanc, still going strong, also launched his media career.

Since the mid-1980s the small screen has shown an unflagging appetite for men and women in white. For some chefs television is a means to an end: promoting their restaurant; for others it's a lucrative career in its own right. Love it or loathe it, it has publicised the invisible graft that underlies the work in every kitchen, whatever the quality.

Dishes of the decades

1950s Tournedos Rossini
Britain emerges from post-war rationing and "Steak rules, OK" - probably still does.

1960s Lasagne The arrival of Mario and Franco "trats", "spag bol" and pizza.

1970s Crème brûlée
Decade of the "gifted amateur" chefs inspired by Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Margaret Costa - cream, the magic ingredient; sauces, mousses and puddings.

1980s Méli-mélo de fruits de mer aux champignons sauvages Nouvelle cuisine, interpreted by Anton Mosimann and the Roux brothers, runs riot.

1990s Thai green curry
Learning to live with lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves - not so much Thai fusion as an appetite for new ingredients.

2000s Méli-mélo of organic genetically modified carrot alla Rossini? No to agri-business chemicals, BSE, battery farms (fish or fowl) and additives.

Philip Harben, the original TV chef

"TV is a poison you can't get out of your system."

TV's first superchef: "A short man with a big tummy, hauled in like a balloon sail," according to the Independent‘s Michael Bateman, he relied almost exclusively on the Guide Culinaire for inspiration. His parents were actors [sounds familiar] and he worked as a photographer before landing a job, with no prior experience, as a restaurant manager in Hampstead. He filled in as a chef there, spent the Second World War as a catering manager and did his first TV broadcast in 1946. Chefs of the period loathed him for his lack of formal training.

Most criticised dish: smoked haddock bonne femme

Quotable quote: "Free-ranging chickens and compost-grown vegetables. I don't believe in it."

Most influential cookery book

Practical Cookery

Ceserani and Kinton (Edward Arnold, 1962)

It isn't hard to see why this college textbook has outlasted every food fad and fashion of the past 40 years. Its basic premise is that most wannabe cooks start off not knowing how to boil an egg. Victor Ceserani and Ronald Kinton have played Delia to at least four generations of chefs.

There's little gloss and less refinement in their recipes, but what's on the page is trustworthy, easy to follow and accessible. It's a reminder to dreamy-eyed teens who imagine themselves as Jamie or Gordon that they can tackle the high peaks only once they've soiled and shed their nappies on the nursery slopes.

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Check mark icon
Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!

Jacobs Media is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.


Ad Blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an adblocker and – although we support freedom of choice – we would like to ask you to enable ads on our site. They are an important revenue source which supports free access of our website's content, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

trade tracker pixel tracking