Politics encroached upon the British restaurant industry briefly in 1994 when Tony Blair famously met Gordon Brown over dinner at Granita in Islington, north London - although the meeting had limited consequences: the restaurant has closed and Labour’s leadership succession debate remains as murky as ever.
But without wishing for a direct involvement from Government in this thriving sector – the connection between Intourist and indigestion in Soviet Russia and the incredible rudeness of waiters in Mao’s China are not such distant memories – I feel there are now without doubt certain areas in which only correct policies and sensible legislation can lead to a healthy future for the restaurant industry and its customers.
The most important issue, and one that has probably only recently been debated in constituencies with a fishing community and therefore votes involved, is whether there will even be wild fish on British restaurant menus in a decade’s time. This may sound over-dramatic but it is sadly not as the evidence of those who care, most concisely presented by Charles Clover in his book The End of the Line (Ebury Press £7.99) has clearly demonstrated.
The world’s fish belong to all of us, not just those who at considerable risk make a living from catching them, but nowhere near enough is being done in the UK or Europe to manage current stocks to ensure many species survival. A recent visit to Borough Market near London Bridge, for example, revealed a large quantity of wild sea bass for sale caught before they had reached a size when they could reproduce – and sadly this is no isolated example.
Clover’s crusade has developed a following among chefs, many of whom prefer cooking fish to meat as the flavours, textures and varieties are so much more interesting and complex but who also fear that this could be end of the line for this section of their menu too. At the reception for this year’s Andre<aa> Simon Book awards, where Clover’s book was shortlisted alongside Casa Moro by Sam and Sam Clarke?? of London’s Moro restaurant, I introduced the three authors to each other only to hear deep concern on this topic from all sides.
While Clover hopes that the involvement of caring chefs will activate his campaign, the news from the Clarke’s kitchen door was unwelcome. Although they make a point of ordering only the right size of fish from their suppliers (the bigger the fish, the better the yield), they are increasingly finding that when the deliveries actually arrive they include far too many undersize fish. Like many concerned parents, the Clarkes?? would like their children to enjoy the pleasures of eating wild fish but without concerted and committed action at government level this is most regrettably not likely to be possible.
In one other particular aspect of the British restaurant industry it is, I am afraid to report, only too easy to describe the government’s inaction over the past eight years as highly regrettable and that is in its failure to support or pass legislation to ban smoking in all places where food and drink are served.
While those who support the status quo resort to a freedom of choice argument, even this holds little water. Surely the increasing numbers of those who work in Britain’s restaurants, cafes and bars have as great a right to having their health protected as those who already have that right simply because they work in offices?
This inequality in the law aside, an inequality which in the opinion of numerous restaurant managers I have spoken to prevents them from recruiting the very best young staff who, faced between the choice of a career in a non-smoking environment or a series of smoke-filled rooms, not surprisingly choose the former, this failure to act has two other important implications.
The first is that it fails to protect the younger strata of the country’s workforce. Most front line restaurant jobs are physically demanding and tend to be filled by those between 20 and 35, yet these are just those whose health the Government is singularly failing to protect, thereby storing up future problems and financial burdens for the National Health Service.
The second, and I believe irrefutable, factor that must lead to a ban on smoking in restaurants goes right to the heart of why we eat out – such a ban will maximise our pleasure. The British government may have been slow to protect the health of its citizens to date in this respect but it surely cannot ignore the huge benefits legislation in California, New York, Ireland and Italy have and will continue to produce. In New York not one of the many restaurant managers I spoke to in their smoke-free restaurants on a recent visit would deny that the smoking ban has hugely improved the way their food and wine smells and tastes now that they no longer have to fight the fug. Britain today has some wonderful chefs and thoughtfully chosen wine lists. Surely it is time to let them speak for themselves so that we can derive the maximum pleasure from the high prices they invariably command.
Finally, on the question of restaurant bills, concerted action from the Treasury and the Inland Revenue is now long overdue to close the loophole that allows the service charge to be exempt from National Insurance, a situation which leads to the highly anomalous imposition of a tip that is both ‘optional’ and precisely calculated.
From whichever party is elected, British restaurateurs, chefs and customers deserve far better than has been delivered to date.