I’d love to eat out… but…

I have a confession to make. I have fallen out of love with food. It’s a horrible feeling, but I know who to blame, or rather what to blame – New York.

I recently visited New York and viewing it through food loving eyes, I was struck by something that I’d never noticed before. There are/is a ridiculous amount of places to eat. During one bus ride, in the space of just 20 blocks, there were a staggering 40 places to refuel. This wasn’t any specialist food area, it was just a random street – Columbus Ave to be precise, and seemed to be entirely representative of the majority of Manhattan. Everywhere I looked there were places to grab lunch, to chat over a coffee or indulge in a calorific treat.

I realise that New York has a very high population density, and that goes some way to explain its ability to support niche markets – like vegan cupcakes – but not its overall proliferation of food vendors.

You’re thinking , but that’s great! Surely it was ace being there and loving food? It was, but then I started asking questions. If we live on the doorstep of Europe and are influenced so much by American culture, why don’t we have what they share – an eating out culture? Why is it so expensive to eat out in Great Britain?

Immersed in a world of food, I know that the produce in our tiny archipelago is fantastic and that that there are so many producers ensuring the survival of our collective food heritage. But I find it hard reconcile all that information with the reality of handing over £2.90 for a Cornish pasty.

In the last 20 years the baton of fine dining has passed from the previous vice-like grip of the French and has been gratefully accepted by the Spanish and to a lesser extent the English. The result of this influx of Michelin stars is superstar chefs and must-have dining reservations, but not an improvement in where us normal folk can eat. Spain can bask in the glory of El Bulli, knowing that the mass populous are enjoying tapas, prepared from good, honest ingredients, cooked with love, for a modest handful of Euros. Meanwhile, Heston can relax, safe in the knowledge, that whilst he’s measuring his fluid gels into their pipettes, we’re paying a hefty £8.95 for deep fried scampi that arrived at the pub, some weeks ago, in a big van with Brakes written on the side. Never mind care, passion or ingredients – check out that gross profit!

Gordon Ramsey is a giant of British Cuisine. Whether you love or loathe the English raised Scotsman, you cannot deny his presence is an important one. The latest series of his TV show, The F word – whose name, sadly has more to do with his perceived penchant for saying fuck, than any knowing nod to lesbian drama The L Word – is campaigning for local restaurants.

His way of championing local restaurants is by getting two, representative of their cuisine, to go head to head. I’m not sure what it proves or how it makes anyone want to patronise their local eatery? What I do know, is that it does nothing to address the fundamentals. We do not have a culture of eating out. English people associate eating in restaurants as something they do on holiday, when spending money has little consequence.

If he wanted to instigate a shift in the nations eating habits, he should move away from chasing Michelin stars and the intrinsically elite world of fine dining and open an affordable chain of restaurants. One in which the price point could compete for the everyday diner’s socialising budget.

Restaurants are unlike most other businesses, in that the people who use them have everyday knowledge of the costs of the raw materials. Which explains why Jamie can open all the ‘Jamie’s Italians’ he wants, but he’ll never change anyone’s habits charging £9.75 for a plate of spag bol!

We are stuck between two ideas. The first is going out to a restaurant is expensive and secondly that supermarkets offer the best value. Neither of these statements is true or false, but both crystallized nuggets of wisdom are continually reinforced by their subject matter.

There has long been a seemingly telepathic agreement in the restaurant industry to keep GP (gross profit) at around the 60% mark, which explains why your after-dinner coffee cost £3, given that it took under a minute to make and cost just pence in raw materials. The mark-up is grossly exaggerated to reinforce the convention that if it costs a lot, then it is something special. I’m not anti profit, nor do I believe that people shouldn’t be rewarded for their skills or the service they provide, but as an industry it seems a rather short sighted game plan. A glass ceiling on the development of a restaurant culture, held in place by the industry’s greed.

The first thing people do when they want to save money is stop eating out – the supermarkets profits, in times of economic downturn, testify to this. To entice people to swap their ready meals for your dining room, you have admit to defeat in the current model of profits and start again – pricing food at a level that people can afford. It’s no coincidence that the one constant in all towns entertainment arsenal, is the curry house, where, more often than not, you can eat like a king for a tenner a head. Take note, these places make a profit.

I would love to see all the celebrity chefs putting their original love of food, before their newfound love of profits and popularity. Go on, open-up a chain of high quality, low cost eateries, every single one of you – make a difference to people’s lives, not just your own. I dare you.