Food for thought on the restaurant chains (From Herald Scotland)

IF JEFFREY Steingarten isn’t the best food writer in the world he’s not far off it, yet he has spent a lot of time banging on about the joys of the Snickers bar. If Marco Pierre White is no longer the darling of the glittering Michelin star world he certainly once was. But he must surely have spent a lot of time in McDonald's and Burger King because he’s almost infallible when blind taste testing them.


In theory both these sophisticated palates should raise their noses in horror at mass-produced food. They don’t. Now, I’m not saying I’m on the same food planet as either because I’m not but I did get an email the other day bemoaning the fact that I, a snooty restaurant critic, had reviewed a restaurant chain.


Okay, it wasn’t a very good restaurant but, when so many restaurants struggle to turn out a consistent plate of food from the same kitchen on the same day let alone week, it’s hard not to be fascinated by those that can do it day-in, day-out, over years, and sometimes across continents.


If you ask me, the two- or three-star Michelin kitchens have far more in common with McDonald’s than with the little mid-market place down the road. That’s because McDonald’s and Michelins both design their dishes off site; they both carefully source their ingredients; they both pay a huge amount of attention to what they’re putting on the table; and they must both be utterly consistent from meal to meal. Most importantly, they both generally make money; lots of it.



The down side? McDonald’s fries may be a joy, their ice cream okay but their burgers, with the possible exception of the £1.49 double cheeseburger, are pap. While the path to Michelin restaurant success is so well worn that even though the ingredients change depending on the locality the cooking and preparation techniques are so common and entirely predictable, it's all becoming boring. Okay, so what about Jamie Oliver? A few years ago his monster Italian chain brought the industrial standard kitchens of the McDonald's and the Michelins into the traditional Italian restaurant market and threw different sourcing into the mix. People queued to get in. It’s not doing so well now, but that’s not because the small guys have struck back.


It’s because Oliver’s cherubic face is being challenged by a stampede of imitators. In Glasgow alone Bob’s, Five Guys, Carluccios, Nandos, Thaikhun, Giraffe, Browns and MPWSteak have all opened and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Scottish Michelin chefs are moving in on the remotely controlled action too with their spin-off brasseries such as the Honours and The Scran and Scallie. And the small local restaurants? They’re being eaten alive. Will they be squeezed out entirely? Or will they, like Steingarten and White, realise that, when you dump much of the pretentious nonsense that blights the restaurant industry and look closely at the mass produced and chain-market approach, there’s stuff worth copying. Of course, if they do that successfully will they not just become chains themselves?



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