“Cooking is an art. By art I mean a lot of creativity and some necessary chaos. Food is a natural product and whatever is natural comes with surprising and unruly elements.”
So wrote Jeanette Winterton in Saturday’s Guardian in an article entitled “For the Love of Food.” She continues: “Our culture has endeavoured to make food as artificial and synthetic as possible – then it is predictable and can be controlled.”
This statement is applicable to our entire food culture, including the environment in which it is created. Winterton’s piece was a memorial to Rose Gray, the co-founder of the River Café, London’s most revered Italian restaurant.
Gray passed away last week. Winterson refers to my late aunt, food writer Elizabeth David, as Rose’s chief mentor and explains also how ED’s (as family and friends called her) writing changed British food for the better. This struck a personal chord for me, as Elizabeth David was also my mentor both personally and in my early days as a kitchen designer.
British food was dreadful during late 19th and most of the 20th century, just as British kitchens were anti-social, back rooms that made cooking a drudgery. Could there be a link? Was British food better before the industrial revolution? Elizabeth David felt that it was, and that our best or most ‘real’ cooking was historically done in the nation’s farmhouses, not in restaurants, in a similar manner to how things are done in France.
From local cheeses to cured meats, these farmhouses were the source of regional cooking. It is no coincidence that the most endearing model for the kitchen is the ‘farmhouse kitchen’. It conjures up happy thoughts, ideas of abundance, rough and ready but homely meals being served up on a refectory table, with the the entire family gathered around.
So perhaps Winterson could be describing not just food but British (and American) kitchens too, with the industry making them artificial and predictable so they can be controlled, i.e. turned out efficiently from factories, easy to sell and install.
For years, I have had an aching desire to capture some of the transferable pleasures of eating – the sociability, the feeling of living well – to the place where we eat and cook. I don’t want these spaces to be organised as an expression of commercial ease, but rather to be private expressions of ourselves. So when Winterson goes on to say ‘real cooks only follow a recipe once’, and then they build on it with inventiveness and reinterpret it according to available seasonal ingredients, I would agree.
The same applies to kitchen design. It’s a messy and creative process and no formula exists that works twice. Every house, family, space has its own unique footprint and way of living. I want to offer a big thank you to Jeanette Winterson for her thoughts that allowed me to make the connection. How about a new saying for modernists, that function follows food? Let’s hope real food brings more love to real kitchens in the future.