When did cooking become a spectator sport? I can just remember the days when chefs had reputations for being sweary, pot-swivelling hot-heads who were best kept behind the closed doors of the kitchen. In my youth, I had ventured beyond those doors into my dad’s restaurant kitchens a few times… they were hot, sweaty, generally loud, and usually frenetically paced. To the uninitiated, they were chaotic, but my dad assured me that there was always a rhythm in amongst the noise. Times have changed since those days. I’m sure that many chefs are still as hot-headed but the doors have been flung open and not only do people want to taste their food, people want to see the chefs cooking it too. How many restaurants have we all been to where the kitchens are visible from the dining room? How many times have you not so subtly rejoiced in that discovery?
Perhaps not as many times as me but admit it, you enjoy being a beady-eyed kitchen watcher as much as the next person because the inner workings of a professional kitchen can be fascinating. More and more restaurants are being designed with these ringside kitchen seats in mind, while others are choosing to let a select few be up close and personal at the chef’s tables they put inside their kitchens. Then there are restaurants like Kitchen Table who really take it to the extreme – one kitchen, one u-shaped bar wrapped around it, twenty chairs – that’s it. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is a bum on every seat, every night the restaurant is open and diners willing to pay a not so insignificant amount for the pleasure of sitting there, especially when you throw caution to the wind and opt for the wine pairing too.
Having a reputation can be a bit of an inconvenience, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. In fact, having now mulled over the perils of both, I am starting to think it’s better to have a bad one and just roll with it. Sure, people will smear your name but if you operate on the policy of not giving a toss, it’s actually much easier to manage than a good one. Having one of those requires far more effort… most people will want to maintain it, and in order to do so, you must live up to the expectations that pesky aforementioned reputations creates.
I’ve come across many restaurants with big reputations for being any number of things – overpriced, undervalued, one for the suits, suitable for the fanatics, and the list goes on, but rarely do I come across one that’s just very good. Picture, in both Fitzrovia and Marylebone, is a shining example of this rarity… everyone, no really, everyone I mention it to simply raves about just how good it is. So much so that I used to get embarrassed when I had to admit that I hadn’t yet been and got greeted by a look of surprise and pity in response. Yours truly has a bit of a reputation to uphold too, apparently.
Did you ever watch the show Fear Factor? It involved highly charged, competitive types enduring all sort of challenges to ‘test their fear’ but really to make cringingly entertaining viewing. Among the dangling from heights or the coming face to face with creepy crawlies, there was always a segment where the contestants had to eat some weird animal parts (offal or genitals) or insects. This memory leapt into my mind while I was looking through the menu at Archipelago.
I’d guess that most people would describe this restaurant as quirky, something for the adventurous eater who’s game to try something out of the box. I say this because ordering the chicken would be considered beyond boring alongside the alpaca, kangaroo or python. Archipelago describes its menu as truly global and exotic, this is evident from the flavour combinations in the menu and the jumbled mess of the dining room. It might appeal to some but personally, the hodgepodge of trinkets adorning almost every inch of the wall or floor space was just distracting.