London Essays – Issue 5: Food


We think of food and drink in two quite different, even opposing ways, depending on context.

The news pages of our daily media run stories about our growing waistlines, binge drinking and the proliferation of food banks, as well as on the destruction of natural habitats and wild food by farmers around the world. Food has become a symptom of moral failure. The lifestyle pages, by contrast, feature sumptuously photographed recipes and restaurant reviews. Food is a celebration of sensual delights, almost an art form: it is all about pleasure.

London has more than its fair share of food problems and foodie delights. This issue of London Essays covers both, and many essayists make connections between them.

Rosie Boycott, London food tsar, argues that if cities are the cause of many of our food problems, they are also uniquely placed to tackle them. London is leading the way with “food projects bursting from streets, parks, community centres, markets, homes, schools, cafes, restaurants and hospitals”.

Bee Wilson marvels at the diversity and inventiveness of food in the capital, but wishes that rich and poor Londoners shared more food culture in common. Kath Dalmeny contends that great progress has been made across London in decarbonising our food supplies and encouraging healthy eating – and argues that, with public leadership, we could do even more.

Sarah Williams charts the proliferation of community kitchen gardens, urban farms and growing spaces across the capital, and considers what we need to ensure they survive and prosper as pressure on London’s green spaces intensifies. Anna Taylor argues that with concerted political will we could get to grips with our obesity crisis, but that efforts so far have been pretty feeble.

Ben Rogers wonders why there aren’t any food schools on the model of art schools and argues that London should create some – not least because it would raise standards of school food and food teaching. Our profile of Nicole Pisani, who has moved from head chef at Ottolenghi’s West End restaurant Nopi to run a primary school kitchen, suggests how much can be done to improve school food when a skilled chef and a creative headteacher get together.

Lisa Markwell admires the dynamism and creativity of London’s restaurant scene, but worries that the high price of doing business and living in London could be putting its future at risk. And working chef Rachel Karasik warns that an over-restrictive visa regime is choking off the supply of creative talent to the city’s restaurants.

Several of our contributors, led by Henry Dimbleby, are enthusiastic about the rise of street food, which is opening up opportunities for food entrepreneurs, lowering the cost of eating out and enriching the capital’s life. Richard Brown looks at the past and present of London’s great wholesale food markets, like Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate: still integrated into the fabric of the city after nearly 1,000 years, their future far from assured but their resilience astonishing. The restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab notes how much easier it is to set up a cooking business now than it was when he started, and talks infectiously about his enthusiasm for restaurants as social businesses.

Joanna Blythman discusses the role of philanthropy in London’s food system, looking in particular at food banks as a response to the growth in food poverty and arguing for approaches that promote grass roots empowerment and prosperity rather than institutionalising the delivery of low-grade food. Kat Hanna and Jonny Kanagasooriam, two twentysomething Londoners, explore what the popularity of craft gins reveals about food and drink in hipster culture, and the part that eating and drinking plays in the lives of London’s hard-pressed millennials.

Finally, Victoria Albrecht and Nadia El Hadery look at London’s nascent food tech scene and its potential to disrupt all stages of the food system, arguing that food tech has been undervalued and overlooked compared to other sectors; but also that there are good reasons to see tech as the solution to many of the social, environmental and economic problems that beset us currently.

These essays remind us how important food is to almost every facet of London’s wellbeing – to our economy, environment, health and delight. There are big challenges but also big opportunities facing the city and its new Mayor.

We are, as ever, grateful to Capital & Counties Properties PLC for their support.

Ben Rogers, Founding Director, Centre for London

Geraldine Bedell, Editor, London Essays