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Authentic, natural, artisan … mind your language when talking about food

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/3/2019 Jay Rayner

Getty © Getty Getty Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft. 

A few weeks ago, Gordon Ramsay received championship levels of eye-rolling from people in the online food world for announcing he was to gift London an “authentic Asian eating house” called Lucky Cat. There were reasonable grounds for scepticism. For example, the head chef, Ben Orpwood, comes to this exercise from experience at the glistening, chrome and marble money pit that is Sexy Fish, and before that Zuma. Knocking out plates of raw spicy tuna to plutocrats with botoxed foreheads and Swarovski-clad iPhones is not the same as having spent your whole career deep in the food culture of Osaka. Obviously, I’ve never seen a passing bandwagon I couldn’t leap on; I eye-rolled with the best of them.

Ramsay’s mistake was to use one word: “authentic”. If he’d described it as an Asian “inspired” restaurant he’d probably have been fine. Instead, with his customary bull-headed self-confidence, he dropped the A-bomb. Immediately it was open season. There are a bunch of labels like this in the food and drink world which set off sirens. There are wines described as “natural”, which the wine world thinks I hate on principle. It’s true I have massive problems with the misuse of language. As human beings are a natural occurrence on planet Earth, everything we do is natural, including Pop-Tarts and advocaat. Likewise, I have expressed huge antipathy towards sixth-wave artisanal coffee gurus and their declaration that coffee beans are a fruit which should be lightly roasted, producing an espresso tasting of lemon juice.

© Getty But here’s the thing. In recent months I’ve been into new-wave coffee shops and been served an espresso that didn’t taste of battery acid. What’s more, despite the natural-wine world being dominated by cloudy, unfiltered bottles of foetid fermented grape juice that smells like a pig’s uncleaned bottom, I’ve also had some so-called natural wines I’ve enjoyed very much.

Which has led me to a conclusion: the problem really is those labels around which self-defined tribes in the food and drink world huddle for reassurance and reflected glory. Frankly, I don’t care if you harvest your grapes by the cycles of the moon, or according to the direction of the wind on a wet Tuesday in September, or Matt LeBlanc’s rising hormone levels. All that matters is whether the wine tastes nice or not. Similarly, I don’t care about a barista’s ideology or beard-sculpting; all I want is a nice cup of coffee.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11:  Gordon Ramsay attends 'PHENOMS' 2018 Soccer Documentary Mini-Series Launch Event at the FOX Sports House at SXSW on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for 'Phenoms' ) © Getty AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11: Gordon Ramsay attends 'PHENOMS' 2018 Soccer Documentary Mini-Series Launch Event at the FOX Sports House at SXSW on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for 'Phenoms' ) If Ramsay hadn’t described his new project as “authentic” he could have been extended the same benefit of the doubt. I may find him corrosively annoying, but he’s an experienced restaurateur. It would be reasonable to wait until he’s opened Lucky Cat before deciding whether it’s huge fun or a restaurant where hope goes to die. Instead he went for the most tiresome label of all.

And once you use words like that you are stomping inexorably towards accusations of cultural appropriation; of grabbing the totems of cultures other than your own simply to turn a quick buck. Some charges of cultural appropriation are posturing. Others are entirely justified, especially when the dishes are born of poverty. The row over Jamie Oliver’s recently launched “jerk rice”, which didn’t include key jerk spices, was an outrage waiting to happen. That whole argument would have been avoided, if the word jerk had never been used, just as Ramsay could have steered clear of opprobrium by not claiming authenticity. In both cases we’d have been left to decide whether the venture was any good or not. And that’s a much simpler argument to have.

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