The Restaurant Show
To celebrate the 20th Restaurant Show this October, we asked 55,000 Harden's Guide readers for their defining moments, most influential people and memorable dishes of the last 20 years and these were just some of the responses we received. Some names and ideas cropped up again and again, others were more personal, some overwhelmingly positive and others memorable for the wrong reasons, but all were without doubt food for thought. One major change mentioned many times was the general shift in attitude towards eating out it is no longer seen as an occasional, celebratory activity but something we do far more frequently, often several times a month or even week.
Various factors have contributed to this: Terence Conran is credited with introducing fine dining to the masses through his "mega-sized" restaurants, whilst the opening of the first gastropub, The Eagle, in 1991 sparked a flurry of places serving high quality food at pub prices. Nouvelle Cuisine gave way to Modern British: seasonal, British produce, carefully cooked and served in portions more acceptable to the average consumer.
Many people also remarked on the increased choice in eating out, particularly in ethnic restaurants such Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese, with sushi (and then good sushi!) becoming widely available. In fact, the quality of ingredients in general is much higher, and given the current trends in ethical and local sourcing of produce this looks set to continue.
The improvement from prawn cocktail, overcooked steak and frozen Black Forest gateau, through balsamic reductions, raspberry coulis and a baffling excess of sun-dried tomatoes to the enormous choice of quality cuisine we have now is, arguably, exponential. Wine lovers have not been overlooked either: thanks to increased education the industry is rapidly shedding its elitist tendencies, and competition from up-and-coming producers in China, Uruguay and Eastern Europe means standards are on the up too.
The last 20 years have seen the rise of many iconic chefs: Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Joel Robuchon, Raymond Blanc et al have made cooking sexy, fashionable and mainstream. "Cuisine" is no longer French by necessity - in the late eighties, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers championed Italian cucina rustica at their Hammersmith restaurant River Café, which is still going and still packed day after day. Meanwhile, even British cooking is finally cool thanks to chefs such as Tom Norrington Davies from Great Queen Street and St John's Fergus Henderson and his 'nose-to-tail' approach to cooking, more relevant than ever in the current climate. Pioneering chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire and The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal brought molecular gastronomy into the public eye with dishes such as snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream, and continue to make new discoveries with their scientific approach to cooking.
So what next for the restaurant industry? The phenomenon of the 'Celebrity Chef' shows no sign of abating despite a critical backlash the cult of the chef means they are now major industry players with serious portfolios of capital, or even as in the case of Jamie Oliver and his school dinner campaigns forces for much-needed national change. Others are predicting the recession will cause a Noah's-Ark style culling of many restaurants. But it's not all bad news increased public awareness and consumer knowledge has led to fierce competition between restaurants, and undoubtedly, raised standards. We've come a long way since the days of identikit steakhouses, dismal service and mediocre food. And that can only be a good thing.
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