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Celebrity chefs are past their sell-by date Cooked up in a cloud kitchen, post-Covid foodie culture relies on a new type of influencer

There will be no more Jamie Olivers. Credit: Ben Pruchnie/Getty

There will be no more Jamie Olivers. Credit: Ben Pruchnie/Getty


February 25, 2021   5 mins

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.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

I predict there will be a massive return to indoor eating and drinking when lockdown restrictions are lifted. Where I live, last summer, the moment restaurants were allowed to restart indoor service at reduced capacity, people flooded back. And the demographics of those people (so far as I could tell by looking in restaurant windows) was quite interesting. They were predominantly old, and I mean old enough to be at heightened risk from the virus. But there they were, unmasked in partially full restaurants gaily chatting away.
I think people are desperate for normality, especially those old folks who we were trying to save from the virus. Many have been condemned to a very lonely existence for the past year and I think they’ve made their own assessment of the risk-benefit ratio when it comes to interacting with real, live human beings.
The professional virtue signalers will, of course, be wearing their masks indefinitely.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Promising signs from Italy. I hear that restaurants just reopened, regardless of regulations, and the diners and staff chucked out the police who tried to close them, pointing out that they paid the cops’ salaries.

Richard Audley
Richard Audley
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

At last, ‘the worm has turned’.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Audley

Indeed. Thumbs up.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

Something similar might be happening in the Netherlands, which has become an authoritarian tyranny in recent months, with curfews and all the rest of it. A lot of the local hospitality associations are saying they will open the terraces again next week, without government permission.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I’m glad to hear it. Despite a few riots, lockdown measures have worked in the Netherlands largely because of freezing cold temperatures. The Dutch have so few nice days weather-wise, that I can’t imagine for one second they’ll endure another summer being cooped inside their homes. Friends over there tell me it’s scary: martial law, curfew fines, deserted streets, and low-flying helicopters – measures haven’t been seen there since the Second World War.

Malcolm dunn
Malcolm dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

I hope that happens here.

Richard Lord
Richard Lord
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm dunn

I wish it would, however I fear we are just too compliant as a nation.

Trishia A
Trishia A
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In Canada and US, we’re still going farther down the rabbit hole, with children masking mandatory and double-masking requirements for adults. As usual, Canada goes ever farther against human rights.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Trishia A

Not everywhere. We have no mask mandate where I live, much less a double one.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Trishia A

Yes, I now have people wearing double-masks and latex gloves telling me that I’m the goofy conspiracy theorist for expressing skepticism over lockdown measures. Clown world.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago

If the lockdowns result in the extinction of the “Celebrity Chefs on Ice” Christmas special on MSM, then society has gained something.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Ingrid Nozahic
Ingrid Nozahic
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Indeed

David J
David J
3 years ago

Pleased to report that The Black Boy pub near me, famed locally for the size of its Yorkshire Puds, is now under offer. No plans have been announced to change its name to some woke-approved nonsense.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

Winchester? Love that pub, fond memories from when I lived down in Hampshire.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

Only a matter of time..they’ll come for the sign you’ll see

Angus J
Angus J
3 years ago

I can’t wait to get out with my mates for a beer and a curry. Conviviality is what life has been completely devoid of for a year – life with others, eating and drinking together.

davidjbrock
davidjbrock
3 years ago
Reply to  Angus J

Do it at home with your friends and a great order from a Cloud Kitchen

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
3 years ago

Cloud kitchens sounds far too nice. They’re also known in the Industry as Dark or Ghost Kitchens. You can imagine who is employed there under what conditions and contracts.

davidjbrock
davidjbrock
3 years ago

Yeah maybe , but if they’re regulated properly and do everything properly ??

Richard Ennis
Richard Ennis
3 years ago

I have recently started my own catering company, after running a travel recruitment business for 8 years, and think this is a thought provoking article. Whilst I was already in transition between the two businesses before the pandemic struck, it did require a re-evaluation on how to approach starting up. The outcome has been a wait and see approach, doing what one, where one, can. Takeaway nights, small private family dinners etc. Whilst it has been a great learning curve, it has also been frustrating as you want to get back to ‘normal’. One thing for sure, though, is that people do want to eat good food. It has been the one thing to look forward to. They also will want to get together, and food & drink is an extremely important part of that social glue. Whether that is in homes, parks or venues remains to be seen, and it will be the agile that adapt to the market trends that survive. I agree with Mary, that you need strong social media/marketing, and when I do hire permanent staff, the 1st and most important position will be a Marketing Manager!

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Ennis

If you hire a marketing manager — been there done that — make sure you have measurable goals, and a way to measure them. ” I.E I want to increase web traffic to my site by X, and increase the percentage of people who visit the site and then place an order. I am trying to earn a living, not provide a nice reading experience for people every day, since I am not getting paid for that.” Your marketing effort must produce revenue somewhere along the line, or else it is not part of your business. It is somebody else’s hobby that you are paying for.
This is often difficult to find out, even in these days of vastly improved website monitoring. The old adage was that only 20% of your marketing efforts had any positive effect on sales, and that you would never be able to tell which 20% it was. At least in terms of web traffic, we are better than that now. But there is still plenty of room for ‘shrug, no clue if that had an effect, maybe …’ conclusions.
But unless you set such goals, measure them, and hold your marketing manager to them, you won’t know when you have an expensive turnip on your hands when it comes to marketing. Trust me, every one of these people is great at marketing themselves, to you, or else they would not (and should not) be in the profession. You need to protect yourself so that you know when to chuck your manager out on his or her ear, either for incompetence, or because you discover that word of mouth is doing so well that you don’t really need it, or something else. You do not want to know how much money I wasted, year after year, before I learned this one!
All the best luck in the world with this Endeavour!
Laura
——-
p.s. any way to tell the new commenting system to stop flagging my British spellings as incorrect? Or preserve my paragraphing?

Last edited 3 years ago by Laura Creighton
Ingrid Nozahic
Ingrid Nozahic
3 years ago

Probably one of the most irritating celeb faces ever !!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Odd that restaurants in the UK are still closed. And now takeaway is bad? What a bleak world the author lives in.

Trishia A
Trishia A
3 years ago

All this crappy delivery will lead to further obesity, further upping the 9000 annual amputations in the UK due to diabetes, and rendering an ever more obese society even more prone to disease and illnesses. Hooray for futurists and the pharmaceutical industry!

davidjbrock
davidjbrock
3 years ago
Reply to  Trishia A

Well that all depends on what you order ….

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

“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.”
Isn’t that eating in most restaurants though? The author seems to be romanticising eating out in the past, and yet most restaurants I know have a thick door blocking access to seeing what is going on in their kitchen for a good reason…

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
davidjbrock
davidjbrock
3 years ago

Yes but if they’re properly regulated and conform to all regulations …. what’s the problem ?? You just choose where you want to order from and read the trust pilot reviews and speak to friends ….

davidjbrock
davidjbrock
3 years ago

Really enjoyed this article – Thanks Mary . Yep of course restaurants are nice and we all love gathering and eating with friends ….. but what’s to stop you doing that at yours or a friends house with an order from a ‘cloud kitchen’ ?? I’ve also heard them called ‘ghost kitchens’ in Spain , where there is a polemic because the cycle & moped riders from deliveroo / Uber eats etc tend to hang out in narrow streets (I live in central Barcelona) clogging them up and annoying the neighbours . There was actually a campaign on Avvaz the other day to get them banned in the city centre .
Personally – I’m all for them …. anything that takes us away from the the Jamie Oliver celeb chef trash culture …..or being absolutely nailed in one of these awful chain restaurants . I think that they’re here to stay and there will be some interesting developments .
It’s like the end of the era of the big name super star DJ …. Paul Oakenfold on ÂŁ75,000 for a 2 hour set . Jamie (the mockney geeza) Hugh (the posh boy from the River Cafe ) & everyone in-between can take their overpriced cook books and kitchen utensils & f**k right off!