I have to confess that over the past 12 months I have, most gratefully, enjoyed more memorable meals than anyone is entitled to and, as a result, come across more, and not necessarily young, individuals passionate about their profession and determined to improve what and how they serve to their customers.
But it was a year that got off to a slow and painful start. A shattered disc in my neck that was finally removed in early February meant that my initial outings were limited to one brief but sunny trip to Naples where the highlights were lunch at the tiny, inexpensive and homely Osteria da Tonino and a late evening walk back to our hotel round the bay en famille with the most delicious ice creams from Chalet Ciro.
Although good home food then played a vital part in my recovery, so too did a drink of fresh ginger steeped in hot water with lime juice and honey recommended by an Indian masseuse who restored my upper body to a functioning unit. This inadvertently prepared me for the year’s most melancholy dinner.
This took place at Nahm in London’s Halkin Hotel and was organised by the Spanish Commercial Office after Ferran Adria of El Bulli’s first workshop in the UK. Although David Thompson’s Thai food was as exciting as ever, the timing of the dinner on the night of the Madrid bombing could not have been more poignant.
But sitting next to Adria proved an unforgettable experience, particularly when, during a pause in my questions, he turned interlocutor. “Nick,” he asked, “who do you think has been the most important political figure in cooking over the last 50 years?” Frankly, I had no idea but fortunately Adria’s mind whirls so fast that he promptly answered “Mao Tse Tung” before drinking some wine and continuing. “Everyone wants to know which country is producing the best food today. Some say Spain, others France, Italy or California. But these places are only competing for the top spot because Mao destroyed the pre-eminence of Chinese cooking by sending China’s chefs to work in the fields and factories. If he hadn’t done this all the other countries and all the other chefs, myself included, would still be chasing the Chinese dragon.”
That a Spanish chef is so highly regarded so widely is symptomatic of the frenetic cross-cultural and cross-boundary influences currently at play in the restaurant world. The food on offer at Spice Market in Manhattan, created by French-born Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kuntz who grew up in Asia, epitomises this, as does the news that their second restaurant is scheduled to be in a Taj hotel in India.
London saw the opening of Roka, a really fun Japanese restaurant that was put together by German chef Rainer Becker after several years in Tokyo and financed by an Indian businessman while Alan Yau, born in the New Territories but a schoolboy in Kings Lynn, East Anglia, where his father had a Chinese restaurant, opened yauatcha for dim sum lovers. Yau’s next opening will be Hakkasan in Hong Kong, spread over 20,000 sq ft on two floors in the Central District overlooking the harbour and scheduled to open late 2005.
But for one particular restaurateur, Costas Spiliades of Mylos restaurants in Montreal, New York and, finally this year, Athens the importance of overseas success ensured eventual and long overdue recognition in his home country.
Normally, I would not even want to take the liberty of speaking on behalf of the world’s food and restaurant correspondents but I would be happy to take a bet that for most of them sent to cover the Athens scene before the Olympics the biggest surprise and delight of the year was discovering and enjoying the renaissance of the food and cooking of Greece. A long, sunny fish lunch at Kollias where we joined by a fisherman delivering his catch followed the next evening by dinner at Milos, where the highlight was a slow-cooked wild goat from Crete were truly memorable, as was Spiliades’ eloquent ambition ‘ just to follow what our grandmothers cooked’ - so much more eloquent than ‘back to basics.’
There were more equally committed individuals. In Seattle, Armandino Batali seems now totally consumed by his ambition to create salamis that equal if not better those he used to eat on his trips around Italy while working for Boeing. In San Francisco Judy Rogers’s Zuni Café continues to delight because it has stuck to its culinary principles for more than 20 years, a landmark recently matched by Sally Clarke of Clarke’s I London W8. And a Saturday lunch at Allard in Paris with friends at the beginning of what was for one of them, a week-long seventieth birthday celebration, showed that creature comfort, noise levels, design, lighting are all pretty irrelevant if the relatively simple food and wine are served with generosity, style and a sense of fun.
Conversely, it proved fascinating to learn from Arnold Chan of Isometrix just how in modern bars and restaurants lighting can change the way we look and feel and how during the course of an evening a restaurant has to be transformed from an open stage to, eventually, a far more intimate setting. And it was dining in such a setting at Vau in Berlin that I watched chef/proprietor Kolya Kleeberg take on the role of waiter and where I began to appreciate just how much more still has to be done by restaurateurs to break down the still hierarchical structure that exists on their side to match more accurately the increasingly democratic, relaxed and knowledgeable profile of their customers. I do hope that 2005 brings as many insights.
I also hope that the same opportunity as presented itself earlier this year arises, to work with Crisis, the charity for the homeless, who were looking to transform a part of their building into a café that they would run themselves. Thanks to more tangible and physical contributions from Sainsbury’s and Pret a Manger, their Skylight Café is now taking over £250 a day and has transformed the nature of their organisation. As their ever-upbeat Chief Executive Shaks Ghosh explained, “For the first time in our history we are no longer an inward-looking, defensive charity. We are engaging with the real world rather than hiding ourselves and our clients. It is so good for our brand and what we say about homelessness.” And the coffee and sandwiches are pretty good, too.
Editor's note: Nick spent yesterday, and will spend Boxing Day, with Crisis at the infamous Dome in Greenwich where hundreds of homeless people are being lodged over Christmas in an attempt to help them towards a fresh start. He spent three hours chopping onions, four hours washing up and then came back to cook a delicious dinner for the household. Is this man, recently diagnosed with arthitis in at least one foot, human?
Osteria da Tonino, Via Santa Teresa a Chaia 47, Naples (no bookings)
Nahm, London 020-7333 1234,
Spice Market, New York 212-675 2322,
Roka, London 020-7580 6464,
yauatcha, London 020-7494 8888,
Salumi, Seattle 206-621 8772
Zuni Café, San Francisco 415-552 2522
Clarke’s, London 020-7221 9225,
Allard, Paris 01.43.26.48.23
Kollias, Piraeus, 210.4629.620,
Milos in the Athens Hilton, 210.7244.416,
Vau, Berlin 030.20.29.73-0.
Skylight Café, 66 Commercial Street, LondonE1