February 25, 2021

Before the Black Death struck England in the mid-14th century, drinking was (literally) a home-brewed business, in which anyone who wanted to sell beer from home could do so just by sticking a painted pole over the door.

Then plague hit the working class so brutally that remaining survivors found themselves suddenly in demand. Wages rocketed – and the result was a new class of Englishman with money to spend on beer. At this point,  English drinking culture began to formalise. As Robert Tombs puts it: “Brewing became more commercialised, with taverns and alehouses for drinking and playing games…The English pub was born.”

Pub culture has much evolved since the 1370s. It has gone, over my lifetime from dark, smoke-filled places mostly populated by men and serving food grudgingly if at all, to light, family-friendly establishments leaning often enthusiastically into the “gastro” of “gastropub”. The days of chewy scampi in a plastic basket are long behind us.

This has been part of a massive revolution in how we eat, prompted by the torrent of new foods and culinary influences that flooded Britain along with globalisation. It was a central part of the 1990s bounce in British culture, away from a brown-tinged past into something lighter, louder and more highly seasoned. The Cool Britannia aesthetic that captured the mood of Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 came with a new attitude to eating. Cool Britannia food was cosmopolitan, sociable, bon vivant and hyper-consumerist, always avid for new experiences and new ways to monetise the world’s cultural riches. Trendy artists opened fancy eateries where rockstars hung out.

Cool Britannia gastronomy also brought a new template for foodie superstardom. Wow the chattering classes with your restaurant; get rave reviews in the weekend papers; turn celebrity chef status into a TV programme and bestselling recipe book. Finally, spin off into a lifestyle brand. Think of Jamie Oliver or Michel Roux, who parlayed good food and telegenic media presence into empires of courses, books, designer kitchen installations, pots, pans and of course physical restaurants.

Now the hospitality industry launched by one pandemic nearly 700 years ago may be killed by another in the 21st century. An estimated 10,000 British eating, drinking and entertainment establishments closed their doors permanently in 2020. I’ve watched the pandemic rip through village pub after village pub in my area. Many eating and drinking establishments will never come back, from celebrity-chef establishments such as Roux at Parliament Square to ancient hostelries such as the Lamb and Flag pub in Oxford, founded in 1566 and once a haunt of Tolkien.

But take heart: the internet has a proposal for keeping food culture going despite this devastation…after a fashion. The new watchword is “cloud kitchens”: food preparation sites without waiters, tables or wine list, that cater exclusively to the delivery market. For a cloud kitchen, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a buzzing dining room with a famous food critic lurking in the corner. All you need is a strong online presence, a friendly influencer to help with marketing, and a busy pickup point with a queue of couriers whizzing freshly-prepared meals off to people’s homes.

Without the need to cater for diners in-person, cloud kitchens can make savings on frills such as décor, front of house staff, or expensive premises in the right location. Some cloud kitchen franchises provide ordering software and delivery driver liaison, and even a supply chain, recipes and training.

This approach also allows a food brand owner to turn a kitchen from a crack team of experts into a multi-purpose assembly line. For, unlike a restaurant with a menu and reputation for a particular style of food, a cloud kitchen will often cater simultaneously for multiple brands. They can share cold storage, kitchen space and cooks — a considerable economy of scale. I might order a gourmet cheeseburger from one company on while you order dim sum from another, only for both meals to be prepared by the same worker.

One industry commentator, hailing the “delivery-first future” of food, advises restaurants to forget physical dining as a business model altogether — but to make sure their cloud-kitchen startup includes a social media influencer as co-founder. In other words, unlike a Michael Roux or Jamie Oliver, the new virtualised foodie culture doesn’t even need a celebrity chef — just a celebrity.

In a sense this is another step in the Cool Britannia detachment of food from places, traditions and households. Jamie, Carluccio’s, Ottolenghi and their ilk took homespun, evocative and culturally rich ethnic and domestic foodways and turned them in to lifestyle brands. Only now the pandemic is driving us from the age of globalisation to the age of virtualisation, and we’re embracing Zoom for meetings and swapping the high street for Amazon and Asos. So why not do the same with food, by taking restaurants virtual?

We’d do well to look before we leap. By definition, cooking can’t be completely virtual, so you’d have to apply something like the Uber model. That is, a business structure that separates staff from creative concept and service brokerage, while sucking value from the former to the latter.

And just as Uber poses a threat to self-employed London cabbies, the Uberisation of takeaway poses a threat to artisan cooks, loading the dice in favour of people who work with ideas — at the expense of people who labour in the physical world. Jamie Oliver left school with two GCSEs and worked his way up through restaurant kitchens before getting his TV break. But because the cloud kitchen model separates the creative work of recipe design, and the marketing power of the “influencer”, from the actual cooking done by staff in a kitchen, it’s hard to see it training and launching a new crop of cookery superstars.

There’s all the difference in the world between cooking for family or friends, and commercial catering in a restaurant. Cool Britannia foodie culture was about mining the emotional associations of cooking, to sell commercial catering. By the time Covid brought the hammer down, this ecosystem of TV chefs, chain restaurants and lifestyle spinoffs was on its way to exhaustion: Carluccio’s was struggling even before the pandemic struck, as was Jamie’s Italian. But even as these giants foundered on failing pizza chains and overpriced chopping boards, they never abandoned the social aspect of food.

We might have mocked David Cameron for his “kitchen suppers”, but at least the idea was still people eating together in a physical place. In contrast, the Uberised food culture incubating in the corpse of Cool Britannia seems calculated to foster not conviviality (however smugly Cameroonish its attitude) but loneliness.

The Very Online Right is fond of declaring: “I will not live in the pod. I will not eat bugs”, referring to the semi-ironic myth that The Elite are gaslighting us all into tiny single-occupier dwellings where we will all live on insect protein. I don’t think this is literally true, but taken as a lurid metaphor, the meme describes cloud-kitchen food culture to a T. It’s a culinary and logistical vision optimised for total social atomisation, in which the only food available is made with (quite possibly disgusting) ingredients over which you have zero control.

Boris has promised that restaurants will be allowed to open again sometime in the next few months. When they do, we’ll discover how deep the fear of air- or surface-borne viruses has taken root in our collective mind over the last year of near-total lockdown. It’s possible that Britain’s surviving hostelries will open their doors again, and set their pans sizzling, only for Britain to stay home with Uber Eats and Twitter.

Let’s hope not. The Supreme Court (and taxi companies) are pushing back against Uber, and likewise the Uberisation of food is only inevitable if we allow it to happen. If we’re to resist the siren song of takeaway noodles in front of a screen (with or without a crispy insect garnish) we’ll all need to make a conscious effort to remember the art of eating socially.

I think we’ll manage. Food cultures run deep, and stir strong emotions. Communal eating reflects a deep human need to share, and to be together. I still use recipes my grandmother taught me 25 years ago. And I cannot wait to see the world for lunch again.