Recently while at a Vietnamese restaurant, I ordered noodles instead of rice with the dish that I wanted. The weird thing about this is that I didn’t know that I was ordering the wrong thing. The menu gave me no guidance. And in a restaurant which I often go they have the same dish and there I have ordered noodles and never been corrected. But when I was in this restaurant the waitresses gave me a look that told me I was crazy – it’s a look I’ve experienced before. And she suggested that I tried the rice with it because it would go much better. I continued with my order for two reasons. First because I’ve never been a massive fan of rice and second because I’ve had the combo of this dish and noodles before and I’ve very much enjoyed it.
But I could tell that in this particular case which my misbehavior had been truly revealed. I had clearly been a snob and not taken the food advice that I was given which is something I rarely do. My favorite thing is to go into a restaurant and ask them what they would recommend. And usually it is fantastic. So why different. It is because I had become used to what I wanted. But the same could be leveled at the person telling me off.
I was trying to think during the meal of the local cultural equivalent of what I had done and I can only imagine it is like ordering roast beef and bread, or something of that ilk. Maybe ordering Chicken and Yorkshire pudding although it’s becoming more acceptable these days. Something that would be so outrageous that the waitress in a country pub would tell me off.
But it led me to a thought which I think is one of the most interesting things in British cooking (although there are many things which are terrible) the most important good thing is that chefs here seem to be more willing to experiment against the grain – against the combinations that people have become comfortable with – than in most other countries. And perhaps this is because they have had no national reputation for so long that they have been forced into cooking a wide variety of imports. But the creative spark of cooking genius which does appear in Britain seems to take these bits and pieces and turn them to their advantage. And perhaps it is the way in which Britain has been accused of having no style that it really excels because what fantastic British food seems to me to be about is an ability to embrace the best of everything and put it next to something you wouldn’t expect would be fantastic but is. Because British chefs have more room than most to be able to say, “I’ve tried this, and you know what? It actually worked”.