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Publication: British GQ, March 2005

Raw Power: The Gastro Generation and New Foodie Entrepreneurs

Since British men started paying serious attention in the kitchen, epicurean ambition no longer stops at cooking and consuming. The Gastro Generation’s appetite for tracing, sourcing and producing organic food has become a national obsession

You know you’re a ‘Gastro Lad’ when you spend more on legal herbs than illegal ones. Or when you just can’t put too fine a point on your molybdenum & vanadium knives by Global, and there’s more Smeg in your Kitchen than in your expletives. You’re in deep when you aspire not to the BMW 645Ci Coupé but to Gordon Ramsay’s bespoke £67,000 Rorgue Cooker, and your cast-iron Le Creuset cookware has gone off the boil since you invested in tungsten-bonded aluminium pans by SKK. There’s no way back if you find yourself reading Sam & Sam Clark’s Moro Cookbook or Nigel Slater’s Real Food not just in the lavatory but in the supermarket or in bed. And you have to admit things have really changed if the chief considerations of your grocery list aren’t price or brand, but the ‘traceability’ and ‘happiness’ of the free-range organic meat you’re no longer ‘buying’ but ‘sourcing’, alongside powdered bonito, mooli, tamarind paste, umeboshi, purple basil, Argentinian beef, seaweed or Stinking Bishop. You know it’s finally come to something when you find an appreciative audience for your aloo ravioli with coriander and chilli couli, Bacalao fitters, pot au feu or Chermoula lamb in not just your partner, pals and colleagues, but in your mother.

We’ve become a nation of Gastro Lads. Five years after Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef debut, we’re a generation of young, adventurous kitcheneers with a DIY savoir-faire of food sorcery based not on the arcane fancies of Escoffier, but on an instinctive, muscular and rudely sophisticated cookery that the world ‘pukka’ just doesn’t begin to describe. We head into town on weekends to buy shoes, and return laden with cookware. We choose pubs according to the menu chalked on the wall than by the fonts at the bar. We know more about the conductivity of metals from reading Heston Blumenthal’s Guardian Weekend column than we ever learnt in Physics lessons. We understand the difference between a broth and a stew, between galangal and ginger, and between taste and flavour (the former is on the tongue, the latter in the nose – as if you don’t know). We’re just as obsessed as our Atkin’s-nourished sisters with what we put in our mouths, but in an entirely different and considerably healthier way.

Many of us actually do, in Jamie’s lexicon, ‘rip’, ‘tear’ and ‘bash’ ingredients, instead of limply ‘chopping’ them. We’re hungry for experience of a world of food far beyond Tesco’s *Finest range and the local takeaway network. It’s fun. In an age of accelerated cultural transience it’s grounding, and it provides a Teflon guarantee of social kudos. Gastro Lads are a ground force of brilliantly amateur chefs for whom food has lapped cars, clobber, sport and music to pull up second place - after sex, naturally – on the index of our primary concerns, as much a sport as a hobby around which we socialise, shop, debate, dream and plan holidays. Furthermore, a generation are seizing the means of food distributions and production in a blue-aired, hands-on <coup de cuisine> that’s overturning the way we both consume and manufacture food in the UK. The pinnacle of aspiration in the Seventies, Eighties or Nineties may have been to run a fashion boutique, Indie label or design consultancy. In 2004, you stamp your identity on the world by opening a gastro pub, restaurant or an artisanal food brand, alchemising enthusiasm for adventurous food and drink into hard cash with a profoundly rewarding bolt-on lifestyle. Just as Primal Soup’s director Charlie Marshall, among many other new foodie entrepreneurs, is doing.

At 31 Charlie Marshall is a lean, fairhaired foodie evangelist in Converse trainers, shades, slacks and a pale leather jacket, who also happens to be a paradigm of the relationship British men now share with food. He set up his Primal Soup operation neither to fill a gap in the market or as strategic business decision, but as a life choice prompted by disillusionment with the nine-to-five and profound disenchantment with supermarket homogeneity.

While contemporaries may have described their passion as snowboarding, football or cars, Marshall was happy to buttonhole his cranky personal devotion to ‘stews’. His is a Can-Do, but more vitally, Why-Not? approach to the business of producing and selling food that springs principally from a desire to live, eat and earn well that extends far beyond any metrosexual vanity. ‘The reason I’m in this is,’ he insists when we meet for breakfast in Notting Hill, ‘is so that A: I can make some bloody good food; and B: so that I can eat at the end of the day - actually put stuff on the table.’

Primal Soup, an independent, £2million PA enterprise employing 20 staff in its West London kitchen, began on instinct five years ago. Their debut contract was to supply a party for the architect Richard Rogers, and as their distribution has grown through Prêt a Manger, Selfridges and the majority of high-street soup kiosks in London, the company’s range of artisanal soups has diversified far beyond the traditional to encompass gutsy Milanese rib stews, Tuscan roast sausage and Thai Chicken. With no training in business or, indeed, soupmaking, (Marshall worked as a journalist for the Financial Times, before discovering he was ‘no good at it’) he partnered with Sebastiano Petrilli – a former banker with experience in sourcing tuna from Somalia and Costa Rica - to launch the company in 1999.

‘There are no barriers to entry in the food business: everyone’s got an opinion on food, and everyone’s passionate about it,’ Marshall says. ‘It’s empowering that way. The bad thing is that because you don’t have to be trained to do it, it means you’re open to every pitfall. We’ve made every single mistake possible.’

Lessons learnt at choppingboard-level are being applied in business, and what marks Primal Soup company from their big-brand competitors is a maniacal obsession with the quality of organic ingredients, simplicity of preparation and obsessively-researched ‘traceability’ of provenance that consumers increasingly demand: tomatoes are sourced by Petrilli from Naples, organic sausages from Verona, and porcini from the kind of Calabrian hillside where people don’t have phones, let alone Waitrose.

Considering 41 million Europeans claimed they would opt for a brand that was simple and authentic – which Primal Soup undoubtedly is – the strategy is likely to show in end-of-year figures as it already shows in Marshall’s radiantly healthy skin tone. ‘It’s about reducing everything to the basics, hence Primal Soup,’ he says. ‘Jamie Oliver does the same thing – it sounds daft, but he keeps it real. Get some good food and put it in.’

Like the wider gastronome culture that its founders emerged from, Primal Soup tastes, operates and feels adventurous in a way that was uncommon even a decade ago. Marshall ascribes the same broadening and deepening of the famously blunt British palate to the boom in cheap travel. ‘We’re travelling more and more, and you see more artisanal products abroad than in Britain,’ he says. ‘But there increasingly people are remaining true to their countryside roots, and Britain is creating its own cultural identity of food without realising it. We think we’re copying everyone else’s culture - but that is our culture. It make us much more cosmopolitan than countries. In Italy, for instance, they don’t eat curries or cucumber, which is ludicrous.’


On the other side of town, meanwhile, a man who is the direct opposite of the pizza-subsisting culinary neanderthal that advertising creatives and worried mothers like to believe represent a generation of British men is scanning the shelves of Divertimenti, the destination cookware emporium on in Marylebone High Street. He is mulling over a granite pestle & mortar

or the cases of Sabatier and Global knives, and he’s likely to match closely the profile of the person holding the magazine you’re reading right now: educated, stylish, high-earning, travelled and possessed of what the more cogniscent marketers term a ‘positive attitude towards risk.’ His informed, acquisitive lust for high quality utensils is part of the reason the market for kitchen appliances and furniture is estimated to have grown to be worth £1bn in the UK. ‘We notice far more men signing up for classes,’ notes Camilla Schneideman, director of the Divertimenti cookery school, the cookware shop’s the sister operation. ‘The hands-on classes attract a far greater proportion of men than demonstrations, and they’re interested in Asian and Indian cooking, or in breadmaking. Men around 30 are the most common. Plus they’re aware that they have to be hands-on, because more women are working than ever. And, obviously, cooking is a good pulling tool.’

‘We notice that men will also take things a step further,’ Schneideman adds. ‘Women are broadly satisfied to get something right. Men will think, ‘Let’s experiment and stack it up. It’s about adventure and making bold, gutsy food. and it’s all about the main course.’

Gastro Lad’s consumption patterns will display an intricate understanding of the political issues surrounding food – organic, Fair Trade, GM - and the awareness that after scares over BSE, salmonella, non-unleaded salmon and Food Standards Committee warnings over high salt and sugar content in supermarkets produce, food at some point stopped being a commodity you could buy with impunity. He’ll most likely pore over the news at, and these over the growing availability of British local produce while fulminating over the evils of ‘food miles’ (the distance produce travels to provide supermarket consumers with the illusion of the ‘perpetual spring.’

Hence his natural habitat is among Borough Market’s organic stalls on a Saturday morning, with one eye on the recommendations of the Observer’s Food Monthly supplement and the other on the Cornish Yarg stall. And it goes without saying his heroes are chefs or CEOs of organic champion brands such as Green & Blacks and Tyrell’s Crisps. n other words, gastronauts possessed of the presence, instinct and radicalism so profoundly wanting in the average get-me-out-of-here celebrity pop star of today: Gordon Ramsey, ‘biochemical gastronomist’ Heston Blumenthal, Rick Stein, Nigel Slater, Fergus Henderson, with a grudging nod to the brilliant but clumsily yoof-packaged Jamie Oliver.

Tellingly, a highlight of the Divertimenti school’s’ current prospectus is ‘Special Knife Skills Masterclass - repeated due to popular demand.’ But through tempers run over the merits of Global molybdenum & vanadium knives against Henckel’s laser-monitored S Range, the tribe is far less by the ‘gagdeteering’ of car nuts, extreme audiophiles or technology geeks, since because the hunger is for experience rather than objects.

‘I'm sure some knives do zero-to-Sixty slices quicker than the human eye,’ say Simon, a 32-year-old lecturer, ’but I've always loved my well-worn Sabatiers. The best cook I know - namely my grandmother - always used blunt, rusted gear and prepared amazing food everyday.’

True to prevailing demographic thought that argues social groups no longer cluster by wealth, age or geography, but by consistent pattern of thought, Gastro-lads shares common atittudes, principal among which is a devotion to cut-through honesty bordering on the pathological. ‘We once put Grilled lambs bollocks on a menu at I restaurant where I worked,’ says Damien, an executive and former chef. ‘Poached them in milk, sliced them in half and then deep fried. No-one bought them. So we changed the listing to “Grilled Lamb’s Bollocks” – and sold the lot.

You’ll find the same no-frills attitude in his own kitchen. ‘What lot of chefs hold to is to use good quality stuff and treat it well,’ Damien adds. ‘I'd much rather eat less of a good thing than more of a bad thing if it was down to price - supermarket fish, is for example, bloody atrocious. I mean, I actually eat less meat now because I don’t want to shop at Sainsbury’s.

The sense of scholarship is intensely focused, and the nuggets of cookery wisdom are evangelised in the manner of a newly-discovered bootleg of Beatles outtakes. A straw poll reveals, for instance, that removing the wishbone on a chicken before roasting makes it easier to carve (© Heston Blumenthal). And that punching a baked potato after it comes out of the oven makes it the potato really fluffy’ (Nigel Slater). Like, who knew? And it goes without saying that, having read, over and over again, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, few of us will select fish from a menu on a Monday night.

When they aren’t giving spuds a seeing-to, it’s a safe bet Gastro-lad is grappling with down the rarest and trickiest of ingredients from the remotest and unlikeliest of locations. The hunter-gatherer instinct is alive and well, but it’s neither hunting nor gathering in Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s and M&S but in the Indian groceries on Balham High Street, Billingsgate Fish Market, select organic butchers like Moen & Son in Clapham, or online distributions service like Abel & Cole, Farmaround and Alternative Meats, a Shropshire operation that touts African and Australian kangaroo steak, crocodile, lesbok, springbok, imapala and Kudu, and which has watched profits soar for the past three years. ‘We get the majority of our orders from men because they’re far more adventurous,’ says Jeanette Regan, alternative Meat’s company director. ‘Our meat is from the African bush so you can’t get more organic than that.’

It goes without saying that none of this has happened overnight – that the British male and cooking stopped being a combination as unlikely, say, the Italian female and shotputting. ‘It’s taken decades to shake off the effect of rationing,’ argues Michael Belden, the entrepreneur who opened his prototype gastro-pub The Eagle in 1991 with the radical notion of making pub food not only edible but incredible. ‘I recall as a child never going out to eat. Today, men are far more interested in food and it’s no longer left to the matriarch who stays at home to cook the food.’

The Eagle bookended a seismic change in the way men consume food – more casually, cheaply, comfortably, yet to a deliciously high standard. But its true importance was the symbolic dismantling of the wall between the kitchen and dining room – the standard feature of any pub conversion across the UK today – that began to demystify cuisine and lead to a far deeper generational appreciation of food.

‘With the open kitchen, there were always men coming up and asking how dishes were made,’ says 34-year-old Tom Norrington-Davies, head chef at The Eagle’s for 8 years, whose cookbooks - ‘Just Like Mother Used To Make’ and the forthcoming Cupboard Love - reflect the robust, accessible, flannel-free cooking that was The Eagle’s brilliantly conceived USP. ‘The barrier between chef and customer was stripped away, people weren’t intimidated. For a long time to be a cook you needed an O-Level in French and tons of gadgetry, and that’s all been blown away. Today it’s a different kind of person not just in the home person in the job; cheffing has become a sexier, more aspirational job. I mean, I’ve got much younger relatives who’ll have dinner parties these days. They’ll entertain…’

A discipline once considered either esoteric, effeminate or expert, the true foodie revolution for a generation of British men, has been not merely in the belly or in the pub, but in the head; the residual suspicion that cooking isn’t in something men do has finally been consigned to the compost heap. Naturally, we want to do it our way: boisterously, unpretentiously and confidently. ‘People often called up asking what the next trend in food would be,’ adds Norrington-Davies. ‘I always told then I’d like an end to lots of flowery language and long menus. The trend would be the No More Bollocks Trend.’


If Primal Soup was unlikely idea that’s met with runaway success, then Mark Christopher and Gavin & Aaron Cocking’s West Cornwall Pasty Company is even more improbable. The takeaway chain has reinvented the soggy, formless non-entities commonly found skulking in the back chipshop displays into a optimally nutritious lunchtime food package with genuine Anglo heritage. The trio of rum, jocular and suntanned Cornishmen sunk £2,000 into a Reading high street premises they fitted out themselves while sleeping in the basement and subsisting on pasties. Within five years they’d set up almost 40 Branches, and with 5,000,000 pasties selling every year at upwards of £2 a go, West Cornwall are turning over the kind of figures you couldn’t even cook up on Rorgue. ‘Everyone’s used to getting pasties from a machine,’ Aaron Cocking says. ‘We put a lot into the shops. We’d grown up on pasties and it’s very important to us that we have a product that’s as good as you’d get in Cornwall. People.’

The Cockings are by no means alone. Following the lead of organic champion brands like Green & Blacks chocolate, Duchy Originals and Tyrell’s Crisps is an emerging tranche of pro-organic, independent entreperneurial food brands – Ingredient, The Square Pie Company, L’Artisan Du Chocolat, Innocent Smoothies and Eat Natural – all of which share a common thread: they begin with an honest love of food as an experience shared among friends, progress through a distrust of years food industrialisation and supermarket monopolisation, and end up, in many cases, not just rich but extremely healthy.

‘Making food has become aspirational, says Emma Foster of Food In Britain, an agency who provides support for independent food producers. ‘There are more an more of these companies starting everyday - often it’s groups of people who might have high-earning, high stress jobs, who quit to do something both entrepreneurial and healthy.

With forecast turnover for 2004 a cool £17million, Richard Reed’s Innocent Smoothie brand illustrates yet more colourfully how a nose for real food and drink experiences rewarding in more ways than one. You’re sure to have seen them – colourful bottles of volcanically tasty fruit puree so aglow with vitamins you feel 50 per cent healthier by the mere act of buying one. If you’ve tasted them, meanwhile, it’s safe bet you won’t bother tasting the competition. Innocent now employs 43 people, and a visit to their Shepherd’s Bush office, ‘Fruit Towers’ – a friendly, busy and pleasantly fluid space where the walls are lined with fake turf and employees brainstorm new flavours while lolling around on beanbags - makes you wish you’d come up with the blindingly obvious idea of pureeing, bottling and flogging the five pieces of fruit and veg we know we should eat every day, but can rarely be bothered.

Innocent’s conception in 1999 was admirably democratic – 31-year-old Reed and partners Adam Balon and John Wright bought £500 of fruit, then pureed and sold the lot at an open air Jazz festival. They hoisted aloft a banner with the question, ‘Should we give up out jobs to make these smoothies?’, and watched as the bin marked ‘Yes’ filled up with empties, a resoundingly trashy affirmation of their project . The promptly quit the worlds of management consultancy, advertising and marketing, and within six months had taken Innocent smoothies to market.

Today Reed’s gang maintain their commitment to some elementary core ideologies: to make food that is ‘completely natural, tastes good and does you good’; to meet new people; and to not feel permanently but nebulously ill, as the majority of young professionals on burnout trajectory.

‘It was all about when was the last time we had something healthy to eat,’ Reeds recalls. ‘It’s not as if you don’t know – these days we know what we’re supposed to be eating, but modern life almost conspires against you. So we thought, let’s make it easy for people to do themselves some good. What about smoothies?’

It’s hardly hampered their expansion that their business methods were indecently naive. ‘That was one of our core strengths – not understanding the world of finance and economics,’ Reed enlarges. ‘How do you sell them? It was as if you had to get someone’s permission. We thought, maybe you just walk into shops and sell them? And of course that’s exactly what you do… All our decisions are made on the basis that we’re drinking 8 bottle a day, against what’s best for the drink and what tastes the best. It means there’s a genuineness to the company.’

In the end its Reed’s own obsessional interest in the food, rather than the marketing or the business, that shines through in the Innocent portfolio. ‘The industrialisation of food is the big problem,’ Reed argues. ‘It’s about seeing food as number on a spreadsheet. That way madness lies - that’s how you end up feeding bits of cows to other cows. People have to make money, sure, but what you can’t lost sight of is that you’re making food, not cardigans or tables. You’re making things that people ingest and which become part of them, the single most substantial determination of their well-being.’

The news that Jamie Oliver is now outrageously popular in France – a country whose culinary expertise and dietary habits have traditionally been everything ours haven’t – is arguably as shocking as to the outraged guardians of Haute Cuisine since it only illustrates the tectonic shift in Anglo food culture in the past decade. For people like Charlie Marshall, Tom Norrington-Davies and Richard Reed as for the rest of us, a question - what exactly is British cuisine? – is gradually being answered. What’s more, we’re the people doing the answering, every evening in the kitchen, rather than waiting for someone to hand us the solution on a plate. Ours is a pirated, eccentric, cook-your-own amateur cuisine culture that counts gastro pubs and biochemical home gastronomy to one side, and artisanal soups, radical smoothies, and authentic Cornish Pasties that you needn’t to journey to Cornwall to find at the other. For that, we can give ourselves a pat on the back. And then another slice or three of Stinking Bishop.

© Kevin Braddock

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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