[This piece was shortlisted for the inaugural Sunday Times AA Gill Award for Emerging Food Critics]
Name of restaurant omitted for reasons that may become obvious.
There is, probably, a German word for the sensation of curiosity and nausea that accompanies an invitation to eat at the place from which one has been sacked six months earlier. Like the overwhelming and misguided desire to pick a scab, even when it’s all that stands between you and bleeding to death on the kitchen floor, I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like from the Other Side.
Last October, I took my Food Hygiene Certificate (Real), my NVQ in Catering (Fake), knife skills (YouTube), raw talent (School of Life) and lingo (Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential) to cook barbecue at a streetfood market. Four weeks later I was promoted to manager, whereupon the entire staff quit.
“I only left you in charge for 5 mins, how did you fuck up so much?” said the owner, by text. I could tell he was impressed.
The place was advertised as a Food Rave, which sounds like a fucking nightmare. And totally incongruous. I’ve been to raves, and rarely are they catered. I once met a guy in rural Cambridgeshire who had lost 5 stone in a year on the Rave Diet, which consisted mainly of Crystal Meth and the occasional trip a Harvester. The whole thing was a terrible idea.
But truth is, I love it.
The work is physical and satisfying. The customers are fun and a bit pissed. Everyone in the kitchens is hard-working and competent. And the food is good. Really good. We cook for each other and share nibbles and freebies stall-to-stall, and it’s treat after treat, night after night. Arepas, sushi, sourdough pizza with carciofi and prosciutto cotto, ruddy smoked ox cheek with hot sauce or gochujang or gravy. The steam blast of the pho pot next door keeps my complexion and sinuses clear, despite all the loaded fries and fritto misto and donuts. The place buzzes with the enthusiasm of 100 young people from around the world, making food, making rent, then making out with each other afterwards.
I am clearly an interloper. I have ten years on everyone else. I’m taught how to wrap a sandwich by a teenager who learnt the art at McDonalds. I’m scared of having to serve someone I know and them blowing my cover, or being snooty about it. The food is made with high-quality ingredients from excellent suppliers and prepared carefully and attentively. But I suspect the kind of people who order it are assholes. In my short time here, I observe a lot of assholery, and my inkling that the streetfood scene is made by and for bastards has been largely confirmed.
There’s a class and wealth gulf between owners and workers. Streetfood has offered a lot of people an entry point to the restaurant world, in that you only have to be filthy rich instead of stinking rich to start up. Sure there are good guys, but I meet a lot of trustafarian cuntrepraneurs, who dress like 11 year-old boys and hold their staff in contempt. The Venture Capitalist owner of my stall watches us on the webcam like a super-villain, sitting in his NYC loft as we weigh the brisket in and out every night, and measure mayonnaise in milligrams on his command.
There also seems to be a toxic cocktail of racial hierarchies and prejudices in the mix. The local South London kids who work here will not get served at other stalls. Asian cooks serving Asian food get treated badly, worst of all the Vietnamese, and worst of all by their old Etonian Hong Kong Chinese boss who gets furious if he is mistaken for one of the staff. African and South American stalls come and go, no matter how good the food, replaced by more £15 dirty burgers and £10 nitrogen ice cream. The owners of the market itself run the place like slum landlords or mob bosses, with heavy-handed security and handsy-handed foremen. The toilets are cleaned by Polish women, but not often and not well. The punters are white and rich and young and good looking. This is all for them.
As a grown-up looking, British-sounding white lady, it is generally assumed that I am moonlighting from a job in advertising or corporate law in preparation for going into The Business myself. My lack of experience, mild incompetence, and hint of a Masters degree mark me out as Management Material. Within a month I am promoted above my less white, less British, more qualified, more dedicated colleagues. They quit, I’m fired, the world turns.
And so it is with apprehension and a friend to hide behind that I accept an invitation and return to the Rave for dinner. The place is unpleasantly but impressively heaving for midweek in April, but we find a cosy perch to observe the rave without having to directly rave in person. We order wine by the glass and charcuterie by the board. It’s great. The server enthusiastically chats us through the biodynamic wine list and we snaffle piggy bits and olives that are so much better than they could be, and certainly far superior than they would be in any high street restaurant. The variety and quality are joyous, a toothsome mouthful of textures and fizzing hits of saltiness.
We move on to a seafood stand whose oysters come from the supplier to the Queen, so who are we to refuse? Even this ostensive fish and chip stall pairs wine, so our fresh oysters come with the iciest Pinot Grigio, and a request that we return our Falconware plate afterwards because they cost a quid each and people keep nicking them. The oysters are amongst the best I’ve ever had, either in fine restaurants or on seafronts, and so surprising and incongruous in this disused warehouse that we immediately order a dozen more. We visit another stall that mixes an Old Fashioned so unsubtle it might have been the Yankee Candle version, but which at 11.30pm is still serving little plates of tortilla and padron peppers like we’re on holiday, so I can’t stay mad.
I bid my friend goodbye and sneak back in to buy a pizza, which I smuggle home in an Uber and is just as good as remember. To my surprise and delight on opening the box at home in bed some hours later, the pizza is shaped like a heart, if a heart was smeared generously with nduja, as mine most likely is.
And so, I’m conflicted. I could - and indeed, did – eat here every day for a month and not get bored, not get food poisoning, and not go broke, which is really all one can ask in life. But these shabby-chic orgies of face-feeding are big business. Back in the early days of the Streetfood Revolution, around the same time as we were all getting excited about Team GB and the Opening Ceremony, streetfood was seen as the great democratiser of dining, both for eaters and restauranteurs. But these megamarkets are not all the spunky start-ups, mom-and-pop shops, and pipe-dream taco-vans of legend. Enterprises like this are just more layers in the Double-Down Burger of privilege and oppression: not so much the height of food culture, but its last hurrah before Brexit means we’re all living on parsnips and sugar-beet and the poor.
But, seeing as it’s not me doing the cooking or the cashing up or the cleaning down after, for now, Rave On.