Brunch, like communism and the music of Throbbing Gristle is one of those things that’s far better in theory than it can ever be in practice. The romantic visions we have of what the meal could or should be—Central Perk-sized mugs of steaming jet black coffee, the crisp crunch of maple glazed salty, smoky bacon lodging itself your appreciative cavities, the satisfaction of having got pissed by midday without resorting to knocking back a tin of Tyskie in bed—are just that: visions.
More often than not, the reality involves forcing down under-done eggs, attempting to appreciate rapidly greying heaps of gloopy avocado smashed onto brittle, over-priced wedges of sourdough, and having to endure strangers’ conversations about hangovers and house prices while trying to have your own conversation about hangovers and house prices. The Prosecco is flat, Jack Johnson’s on the stereo, and you’re going to walk into the Stoke Newington afternoon 30 quid lighter.
Despite that, brunch is big business. This year sees BrunchCon—a travelling celebration of all things brunch, featuring a bottomless mimosa bar and “Countless Photo Booth Opps”—hitting eight American cities, initiating an endless brunch that will eventually result in a 52nd state formed entirely of French toast and smoked salmon. Here in the UK, even Wetherspoons have swapped the traditional Sunday roast for pancakes and bagels. We are a nation in thrall to an idea.
It is an idea I do not fully understand. So, like any self-respecting journalist, I found myself giving up the year’s first sunny Saturday in order to sit in the dark, deep in the heart of Camden, working out what exactly it is about this edible portmanteau that has captured the heart, wallet, and digestive system of a generation.
As the name suggests, the UKG Brunch brings together UK Garage and brunch. “Get your gun fingers ready for the launch of the rowdiest brunch this side of the Watford Gap,” the promotional bumf reads, immediately dispelling the idea that this is a traditional, boring, bougie brunch. No, you are assured, this is brunch with a difference. This is an authentic brunch. This is a brunch for ravers, a brunch for people who’ve not been to bed yet.
And, to be fair, it is a different brunch experience to any I’ve endured previously. The queue stretches round the back of Camden’s Proud Gallery, the air zingy with fag smoke, expectation, and Issey Miyake.
Sniff closely and I’m sure that the faint scent of deep fat fryers working themselves into a state would have been self-evident, too, because this blur of club and cafe culture is catered by BIRD, the London fried chicken chain that had the bright idea of whacking a few side pieces on a plate and charging five times the price of the Royal Tennessee down the road.
The concept is simple: get a few hundred punters to pay around £30 a head for bottomless glasses of rum punch, follow that with bottomless punnets of fried chicken, and then give them a sort of school disco soundtracked by old UK Garage records. Play a few games, have a laugh, and pack everyone onto the tube at 5 PM. Job done.
Except it isn’t that simple. Nothing is that simple. What UKG Brunch is, unwittingly possibly, is an encapsulation of everything odd and uncomfortable about the idea of "experience," and the notion that to thrive in modernity we must each of us crave and hunt down experiences, without ever pausing to think about what the experiences actually are.
Somewhere along the line, UK Garage went from being an important part of the story of British nightlife to a kitschy punchline. UKG is Champagne, Moschino, and “Sweet Like Chocolate.” It is an affectation that, like most affectations, is used as a method of seeking a kind of authenticity and a link to the cultural past. Just like rave, jungle, or hardcore, it has become trapped in it’s own feedback loop, an Ouroboros feeding on nostalgia.
That sensation of dancing into the oblivion of the past makes sense in a nightclub. It makes sightly less sense when you’re sitting on a big communal table picking at chicken wings, wondering whether ten quid for two Cokes is a price worth paying for an experience to remember.
Even further down the line, someone decided that the best thing to do with the remains of UK Garage—those gloriously glamorous bones! That grown and sexy gristle!—was to drench them in rum and orange juice, garnishing the entrails with a few inflatable microphones and lukewarm chips. It is Butlins meets Bo’ Selecta!. It is confusing and strange and very, very popular.
A note on chicken wings: the wing must always be thought of as a vessel for sauce. Devoid of accompaniment, the naked wing is a regretful thing. Lacking in meat and usually either balefully bland or coated in the kind of damp crumb that tastes of little more than sadness and unidentified spice, they rarely satisfy. In fact, this writer would go so far as to say that unless they’re left sodden by sauce, they never satisfy.
Think about every chicken wing experience you’ve had to date and you will immediately unspool a narrative of various sauces swallowed in various locations under various pretexts. There’s the sugary pink and brown of the post-pub batch of wings doused in burger sauce; here’s the deep reds and burnt oranges of diner-style buffalo wings, wings destined to be dunked into the gleaming white of a blue cheese sauce; imagine, if you will, the pure pleasure that comes from sliding the syrupy sludge of an oaky and gelatinous casing of the barbecue wing off the bone.
We eat wings because society has a disdainful view of anyone who wants to simply suck down a solid pint of sauce. In a better world, this will change. For now, this is the wing’s true purpose.
In the name of both science and the noble art of restaurant reviewing, I ate several of the wings sauceless. My pure poultry control group revealed the flaw in promising an allegedly limitless portion of anything—the actuality of making good on said promise inevitably comes at a cost.
No one could doubt the sheer quantity of wings on show at the UKG Brunch—tables heaved under the weight of wings, and as soon as the wings had found themselves reduced to gristle and bone, more wings would arrive, and the cycle continued over and over. Wings never stopped arriving. It was the most wings I have ever seen in one place in my life, and possibly more wings than the average person sees over the course of an entire calendar year. The bird-body count must have been in the thousands. We were greasy-fingered serial killers, our lips stained with murder, the plentiful supply of serviettes plonked on every table still not enough to wipe away the feeling that we had come together to implicitly celebrate the brutal efficiency of the industrial farm-to-table killing machine.
The quality was a little more debatable. A nude wing is much of a muchness, and these were exactly that. Neither blessed with the tooth-cracking crunch that I have a predilection for, or damned with the wet breadcrumb coating of the truly dismal wing, each bite was an exercise in mediocrity.
Still, having liberally applied the wings in what could have been either hot spiced honey sauce, or Korean sauce, or sticky soy sauce—it was dark and my taste buds are not as sharp as they once were—they became blandly acceptable. Good almost. Satisfying, somehow. Which is probably all they were ever meant to be: protein-heavy ballast for punch and party games.
After 90 solid minutes of eating wing after relentless wing, the various sauces amassing into a congealed unit of sugary salty salty sugar somewhere in the pit of my stomach, I took stock of where I was and what I was doing.
To my left, it looked like Charlie Sloth was skaning with Katie Hopkins. To my right was a woman who introduced herself to me as “the sexiest bin collector you’ll ever see.” The onstage MC was taking the piss out of vegans and offering birthday shout-outs in the same breath. Mums and daughters swayed in their seats as the DJ ran through a set of bumpers, rollers, and bangers so loudly that at one point, I was convinced I was about to find a filling lodged in my wing.
Tables filled and groups merged into gaggles; strangers shared napkins and doubled-dipped into communal pots. Makeshift alliances formed in the name of brunch and UK Garage. It was quite sweet, in a way.
As the heaps of chicken carcasses grew, the queue for the bar grew. It was a wall of outstretched debit cards, loosely attached to hands, which were attached to arms which were themselves attached to mouths left arid after mass chicken consumption. In those mouths were tongues that could only be satisfactorily dampened by the sweet, sweet taste of a £350 bottle of Ciroc served with a complimentary choice of mixers. For those of us on a budget, Jagermeister was a steal at just £150 for the bottle.
This was either exceptionally canny marketing that harked back to the glamorous glory days of UKG as was (a scene that thrived on luxury, remember), or it was a good excuse to get people to shell out West End prices for accompaniments to a chicken dinner. You can be the judge of that.
Bottles on tables, chicken in hand, people danced as they ate. They shuffled, they fired imaginary shots into the thick, dark air, and they rolled their shoulders round and round and round. The flashing iPhones and the relentless kineticism of the brunchers gave the event the air of a performance piece—this had to be, I thought, a comment on consumerism and how anything can be upsold if it comes with a side of cultural cachet?
They were here for an experience. And they were having one. I was eating chicken and thinking about what it means to be in the present. We were both enjoying ourselves.
You sense that the simple fact of being able to say you were at one of the UKG Brunches—and there six more scheduled between now and the end of April—was just as important to the massed throng of attendees as actually being there in the moment. And this is fine, this is the nature of the modern experience: it exists as a means of letting other people know you exist. It does not matter how you felt about the experience, how you experienced it, even. You had an experience. That is enough.
This was perhaps not what the event’s organisers had in mind when they sat down and decided to combine two worlds that had rarely rubbed shoulders, let alone shared pots of buttermilk suace. But you cannot modulate the experience of others, however hard you try.
I had come in search for an answer to the brunch problem. I left with no solution. Because this wasn’t brunch, was it? This was a modern experience. Whatever that means.