Try and Try Again: An Interview with Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson

by Luke Healey

Back in summer I wrote a piece in response to Somerset House’s “retrospective” of elBulli, the restaurant in Roses, Catalonia, which under the stewardship of  Ferran Adrià ranked no. 1 in Restaurant Magazine‘s global top 50 a record 5 times. My concern was with the way in which experimental forms of cooking came wedded to conservative social formations: in short, you had to be very rich to eat Adrià‘s quasi-Brechtian food.

When Tim Anderson came to Manchester to cook four courses of beer-food pairings for a special sit down meal across three nights at this year’s Indy Man Beer Con, I seized the opportunity to chat with him about these issues. London-based Wisconsinite and “Japanophile” Anderson, UK Masterchef champion in 2011, is as well-versed in molecular gastronomy as he is the capital’s burgeoning street food scene, which is making culinary experimentation accessible to a wider public. He is also a singularly articulate writer on 21st-century food, as can be seen at his blog, I am a viking. Our conversation, which took place around Anderson’s prep work at fellow Masterchef contestant and Hungry Gecko founder Jackie Kearney’s house, ended up taking in Yotam Ottolenghi, the problems with food trends, and cider that smells like human shit.

LH: What I was trying to get at in the elBulli article is that there is so much scope for expanding the boundaries of what food/cooking can be, by bringing in things that have never or rarely been used in a gastronomic context; the problem with the is that all the more experimental forms of cooking cling to retrograde social settings…

TA: …you mean they’re high-end, posh, expensive, formal?

Yeah, is there any way around that?

I think that’s all changing, and it has been changing in America for the last five or ten years, and here more recently, the last two or three years. In America it started with people like David Chang, who are taking flavours from all different kinds of places and combining them in any way that works. It’s not fusion food because it’s not like we’re going to take French and Japanese and put them together, it’s about what flavours work together, making a dish out of that. I don’t know about David Chang but I know a few chefs in America who are just calling that kind of food “Modern American”, because when you live in a city like New York you’re surrounded by all kinds of different cultures and influences…

…there is something quite democratic about that isn’t there? If it’s less about “fusion” than about finding ingredients that work together, then anyone can do that, can’t they?

Yeah, and people are doing that here now, if you look in London there’s a chef called Carl Clarke who I think is really great, he does…you would call it American food probably, or maybe British, I don’t know. He does burgers, fried chicken, pulled pork, stuff like that, but he does it creatively, he uses Korean ingredients, Japanese ingredients, he uses seaweed, chillis – anything that works for the flavour he’s trying to get at, he’ll put it in the food. But it’s totally casual, it’s very messy, you know. So yeah, I think that’s changing – people are realising you can be creative without having to dress it up. And I think that’s also because people are more open to trying new flavours, and there are more flavours out there that people are accustomed to now. You can’t really be weird until people are on board with your ideas, and there’s still stuff that people just won’t get, but that’s just a matter of enough people introducing it to them. If it gets on Saturday Kitchen or something, then people will be more keen to try it in any kind of setting.

There’s a kind of critical mass where, say, tamales are given as recipe on BBC Good Food or the Guardian website…

…right, exactly, and then suddenly people are like “oh right, tamales exist”, or [Yotam] Ottolenghi will pick an ingredient that not many people have heard of, and he’ll write about it and show people how to use it and where to get it, and then it becomes part of the cupboard.

I wonder whether Twitter and the like isn’t also effecting this. I follow René Rezepi on Twitter, and I can see all the dishes he’s making at noma; now, I’ll probably never eat at noma…

…right, but you get the idea.

Yeah, and I’m torn between thinking on the one hand that that kind of exposure just emphasises the gulf between knowing about that kind of cooking and actually being able to sample it, and on the other hand that it might be constructive in putting ideas out there into a public setting.

I think that Twitter and the internet have been good for two things, and one is what you just said, exchanging information and ideas. Anybody can have access to any ideas, and any dishes at least visually and in writing, from anywhere in the world. That’s quite democratic. But also there’s an exchange of produce and goods: anywhere you live in the UK you can get pretty much all the staples of Japanese ingredients for example, or Indian ingredients. You don’t have to live by a Chinatown to get your hands on stuff. So that makes cooking dishes that are foreign more accessible. I think ingredients are one of the main stumbling blocks in getting people fluent in certain kinds of cooking, and the internet has been really good for that.

Also, it’s good for feedback, is Twitter. You can get a better idea of what people like and what they don’t like, what they are interested in and what they don’t understand yet…

…it greases the wheels of experimentation, in a sense?

Yeah. I actually once thought about doing a whole menu on Twitter, that would be put together from tweets. You’d basically organise an event with no menu, and then create a hashtag and get people to contribute to the menu. You’d start it off like word-association: like, name an ingredient, and then people would just say anything that comes to mind. It wouldn’t even need to be food, it could be a place, it could be a memory, and then you’d build the menu around those…

…so this is experimentation based on the principle of association, like David Chang and Carl Clarke?

Yeah, definitely. I was just talking to Jackie [Kearney] about this rhubarb pickle I made, it was rhubarb bashed up with salt and chilli powder and then fermented for 4 days, and when I had it I thought it tasted like yuzukosho, which is this japanese yuzu chilli paste, but when I gave it to Angela Malik, who’s a South Asian chef, she thought it tasted like lime pickle. It’s those kind of connections you can make by association…there’s always analogues between different cultures.

That’s what I think is so exciting about things like Korean tacos, which have recently made it over to the UK, it gets your synapses firing when you think about how food cultures which you may have previously thought didn’t or couldn’t share anything actually do…

Absolutely, it’s funny, I think no matter what two cultures you’re talking about i think there’s always more similarities than differences. We’re all humans and we all generally like the same flavours, that’s just how we’re built, you know? I don’t know, there’s still a lot to learn, I guess.

You once wrote a piece for your blog about food trends and how they can be damaging to local restaurants that don’t fit within the image of what’s hip…

…it’s not the trends themselves, it’s people talking about them constantly, and focusing on like five things a year, you know? Over the past few years, it’s been ramen, burgers…

...ramen burgers

[laughs] Yeah, ramen burgers. And fried chicken. And you read about all these openings, people tweet about them and talk about them, people think “oh, you’ve got to try this place”, and when they’re all focused on such a small scope of the food that’s out there, then other restaurants and other types of food suffer. And I think people suffer too, because burgers are great but, you know, if you live in a city like London or Manchester where there are other things to eat that are delicious then you’re not doing yourself any favours by just going for what’s popular at the time. You can’t stop it, people are always going to get excited about things and talk about them, but it’s important to remember to not just go for what everybody’s talking about.

Ramen burger by Keizo Shimamoto. Image:

Ramen burger by Keizo Shimamoto. Image:

It’s maybe also damaging to the foundations for new directions in food, since I guess a lot of the things which people draw on are from less fashionable cuisines, which then get dragged up into the mainstream.

Sometimes what becomes trendy is the stuff that’s using those influences already, the more obscure ones. Not often, but – going back to Carl Clarke, or Neil Rankin, another guy in London who I really like…like, Neil Rankin puts gochujang, a Korean fermented chili and rice paste on his menu, and he’s not doing Korean food, but something called “Creative BBQ”, which is trendy now, and people going there all get to learn about new ingredients. So you either have to cast a wide net with what your experiences are or make sure that you visit the chefs who are playing around with that stuff already, because that’s how you educate yourself I guess. But you’re right, you’ve got to go to places that are unknown to you, and I should probably do that more myself, because there’s quite a lot of foods that I don’t understand.

Like what?

Oh, all kinds of things. China’s still a big question mark to me. I love Chinese food, and I think the quality and diversity of Chinese food that we get in the UK is just the tip of the iceberg. I think that we are not seeing the best and most interesting things that China has to offer. We’re just getting a tiny, tiny fraction of it. And it’s almost silly to talk about Chinese food as if it’s one thing, since there are so many different regions and traditions. So I would love to learn more about that, but then there’s other things that are just completely off the map for me. Like pretty much all of Africa. It’s still the dark continent for me [laughs]. I don’t know anything about Moroccan food, I know a little about Egyptian. Sub-Saharan Africa…maybe a little bit of Sudanese, a little bit of Ethiopian?

What would you have to find in any of these cuisines to start working and playing with them?

I don’t know that it’s something specific but I think what you have to find is one thing that you love, and I guess also you have to have people that love it with you, because you can’t go to restaurants by yourself. Ok maybe you can, but you need somebody to introduce you to it cogently. With Chinese food for me it was Fuschia Dunlop, who just blew the lid off Szechuan food for me when I read her memoirs. You need somebody, maybe an Ottolenghi-type figure, to guide you through it as well, because when you try to teach yourself about things it doesn’t always work and when you go to supermarkets and try to pick out the right ingredients you don’t know what they’re for.

In the previous article I dwelled on this idea that Ferran Adrià’s food is “challenging”, that it breaks down expectations or creates a disconnect between expectation and what’s actually delivered. But then it seems that the “challenge” is just a way of deferring the inevitable delight, it’s just holding off that gratification. Because nobody wants to be properly “challenged” by a plate of food, do they?

That’s where food differs from most other kinds of art. It always has to be delicious. It can be weird and then delicious, but if it doesn’t get to that point…I know a lot of people who have come from elBulli thinking “that was just weird”. Obviously not the majority, but for a lot of people the textures and the flavours and the way they were presented…it was too challenging. A lot of people did enjoy these things, and the element of surprise, but with food you can’t push people too far into something that they’re not used to. They need to have some sort of past experience to get them on board, which isn’t necessarily true of a film. A film can be depressing, upsetting, or a work of art can be challenging and political. Food can be all those things too but it then has to be pleasurable, that’s the thing. Food probably shouldn’t be depressing.

There’s no food equivalent of Béla Tarr

It has to make people happy. That’s the thing. If it makes people confused or sad or disgusted then it’s missed the point. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from my dishes. I did a beans on toast sorbet once, that even I wasn’t sure of, although I did like it. I served it at a breakfast and half the people loved it and half the people thought “what’s this? this is too weird”. [laughs] And I don’t blame them, but I guess it depends on how open-minded you are, what kind of things you’re used to…

…but it’s got to have an underlying element of deliciousness, which goes back to the whole idea about people wanting the same basic flavours no matter where they’re from; the key element has to be deliciousness.

It’s got to have balance, it’s got to hit the right flavours. We’ve only got a certain amount of basic tastes and in general people like those to be in balance. Bitterness – a lot of people don’t like craft beers because they’re too bitter, at least at first, but you can acquire any taste, you know? Maybe savoury sorbet is one of them.

That craft beer point is interesting; I do think maybe there you’re seeing a moving of the goalposts with people learning to live with more bitter or sour flavours…

I was talking to Pete Brown, he’s a beer writer and is coming out with a cider book. He’s been doing a lot of research on cider, and he went to visit this cider maker who gave him a vintage cider and he said it “smelled like human shit” and that he couldn’t drink it. And I just jokingly said “maybe you’re just not used to human shit, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be”….

…like andouillette sausage…

…right. well, Jesus, I have a story about that. Or, some of these Belgian wild beers can smell like cat pee. And that’s considered normal and acceptable and good.

Or the Wild Beer Co. here. At their tasting session at Indy Man Beer Con their brewers were talking about looking for Brettanomyces flavours that are like a wet dog in a phone booth…

Yeah, which is considered a fault in wine, you don’t want that. But it is interesting because maybe in ten years we’ll all be drinking cider that smells like human shit. Because tastes change and people acquire tastes, I don’t know.

What’s the story about andouillette sausage?

Oh, Tom Whittaker did this series of pop-ups called Pork Life, they were these nose-to-tail pork dinners, and at the first one I served an andouillette course which was with a buffalo sauce. And some people liked it but most people were really, really grossed out, and some people said it made them retch, and some people said it put them off the rest of the food. So on the second night we had to change that. People hated it. But, you know, there are people that love it. I love it.

It’s got to be worth trying out because you know there are people who have a stomach for it!

I would agree with that. You can’t change your natural reactions to things, but I think that people write off foods way too quickly because of their natural reactions. I think that acquiring tastes is something that’s amazing to do and that everybody should try. And everybody has an acquired taste, and most of the time it’s something that they love now. For a lot of people it’s olives. For me it’s coffee – I didn’t like coffee as a kid, I don’t think most kids do. As a kid and a teenager I used to drink it with loads of milk and sugar because I didn’t like the bitterness, but now coffee’s a great pleasure of mine. Even sushi. When I first tried it I didn’t like the seaweed. Part of that is because I guess I wasn’t eating great sushi in Wisconsin. But no, people should be open-minded even with things that they’ve already tried, I guess.

Finally then, in what directions can you imagine that people are going to be expanding cooking over the next few years?

I think we’ll see more of the same for the next few years, just more people incorporating foreign flavours and ideas into their home-cooking, and in restaurants we’ll see more of a blurring of the lines until they get to the point of a Carl Clarke or a Neil Rankin, where it’s hard to even pin down what they’re doing. That might become the “New British Cuisine”, I don’t know. It actually goes right to the top of the celebrity chef thing. Like, Jamie Oliver is quite good at introducing new ideas, we’ve mentioned Ottolenghi. But I think that the more people are exposed to this…if you go to a big supermarket now, it’s actually incredible compared to 10-20 years ago in what you can get in terms of foreign food, and I just think we’re going to see more and more of that, and people playing around with those ingredients and flavours in their home kitchens. I think.


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