Fair Trade is a column by Gavin Haynes, exploring the allure and scuzz of various British industries via the one place where their hive mind is exposed: the annual trade fair.
If you’ve been to a restaurant in recent years, you may have noticed they’ve become insufferable places. IKEA tumblers and £7 craft beers jostle with brown paper place-settings typed up in sparse Courier fonts, advertising the eye-watering arithmetic of "small plates" on offer.
Yes, truly, we are fortunate to live in a culture that has discovered gastronomy. And this, here, at the Restaurant Expo, is the headquarters of that intergalactic battlecruiser presently casting its gargantuan shadow across the nation.
The Restaurant Expo is where, across 256 stalls, you can buy everything from restaurant legal services to carbonated green tea. Where a man may wander from earthenware wholesalers to systems that correlate individual credit card transactions with itemised CCTV footage of the transactions taking place.
Eleven years since I last donned an apron, I had come to see what had become of the restaurant trade. I wanted to go deep, right into its storerooms, like Gordon Ramsay hunting for mould-furred ragu on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares USA. I wanted to peer into the twisted psychology of modern catering, like Gordon Ramsay chewing out a mother-daughter duo at a baked potato restaurant in Philadelphia on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares USA. I wanted— I wanted to watch Kitchen Nightmares USA again. But that would have to wait. I was here.
Here, in a scene that could have been scripted by Sofia Coppola, a Japanese businessman in full pedagogical mode was explaining the inherent superiority of Japanese Wagyu beef to puny Western meats, via a series of charts and tables about oleoic fat content. At the other end of the dais, a Japanese woman translated his words into English.
"Once the meat comes into the processing plant, it is graded either A, B or C," the translator intoned. "A grid system is used to determine its classification." She stopped, then the businessman started up again, jabbing his pointing stick against the slides of marbled cow muscle, dead on the slab, autopsied by flashbulb. In front of him, a lively crowd of dull people appeared to be patiently listening.
I felt uncomfortable. l glanced around at the bovine crowd. Surely someone should say something in defence of British beef? It’s had its problems, yeah, no one denies that. There was that cannibalism/madness episode in the 90s. But also, it was the 90s: who didn’t go mad after eating their siblings at the Met Bar with Gavin Rossdale?
WATCH: The Sandwich Show – Max's Fish Sandwich
This coffee was just plain terrible. But it was free. Coffee seems like it would be hard to screw up, right? If I’d started a business and my coffee ended up tasting like liquorice-flavoured cum, I’d probably think of another business idea. Cum-flavoured liquorice, maybe.
167 CATERING SUPPORT REGIMENT
A curious thing kept happening to me as I wandered through Kensington Olympia. Every few minutes, it seemed, I was approached by various pasty over-eager 20-year-olds, who kept encouraging me to come on an away-weekend to find out more about what life was like in the 167 Catering Support Regiment.
I could understand the appeal. The 167 were some of Britain's most hardened chefs. Could you make glossy yet tangy eggs Benedict in the foothills of the Tora Bora? Could you whip up a comforting goulash for five squaddies after an IED obliterated their Foxhound in the perimeter suburbs of Mosul? These are the life and death decisions that war entails – gratin or sautéed? Red pepper or green tomato? Life. Or. Death.
Back at their stand, 167 Catering Support Regiment had various silver baggies of the sorts of imperishable, undying ingredients that they would ideally be putting into the stomachs of British servicemen. I poked at a baggie which promised to contain powdered eggs. "The thing is," a young recruiting sergeant told me, "This is actually the good stuff…"
Back on British military bases, he continued, the catering function has been handed over to a company called Sodexho – an outsourcing specialist along the lines of Serco or Crapita. Set a price-per-meal target by the MoD, their penny-pinching extends to the gram. Since the cuts, it’s only in foreign operations that troops are offered these delicious silver baggies of egg-ish paste whipped up by your friendly 167. And again, this is only because Sodexho employees are too canny to get their fool heads blown off.
I thanked the British Army, but in a moment of weakness I may have put my name down to attend this away-weekend, and they may have already started emailing me about it, and they have promised to pay my train fare up to Grantham, and I can apparently leave at any time, and right now I feel like I'm one bit of psychological karate away from signing my life into the hands of the MoD. Is there an Army equivalent of Tattoo Fixers to bust you out of your impulsive enlistment decisions? I sure hope so.
Ah, faux-books. There’s nothing quite like a few large leather-bound volumes of Horace Walpole's Collected Letters to convince your fellow Premiership footballers that you're a man of taste and distinction. The replicas are for the plebs, though, I guess: proper Prem players could afford to buy real 18th century volumes, then they could afford to burn them in the log fire if they were getting a bit chilly.
For the rest of us, though, there will always be fake books. A bit like those sex shop impulse-buy items, where you can get a highly accurate mould of James Deen's dick or Sasha Grey's pudenda, the Fake Books movement is modelled from real books, bought at auctions, then turned into emblems of taste and distinction at their factory in Cirencester. Sixty quid a metre gets you onto the fake books ladder. The salesman was insistent that the type of book didn’t matter, which was dispiriting.
I bet you're wondering if there's anything hilarious about Purified Air. You know – the people who make the gunk filter above the chip fryer. What if I told you there was? You wouldn't believe me? You'd be right. Very dull stand. Avoid. One star.
SNUFFLE DOG BEER
File under: "Is this the worst idea of all time, or the best?" The ambiguity is thrilling: is this man on the cusp of making a million quid a year? Or did he just pour all of his savings into "Dog Beer"?
Dog beer is chicken stock in a beer bottle, allowing your dog to drink alongside you in the boozer.
Dog beer now comes with Dog Chips: aerated corn starch, no different from the stuff that humans shove into themselves. I ate some. It tasted like the woody bit of a pencil shaving.
Despite his product, the Belgian rep didn’t seem to see much funny in dog beer.
"It is going very well," he said. "We anticipate doubling our order book in the next year." In life, there is always someone out there who will make double your salary by selling dog beer and have almost no sense of humour about that fact. That’s a lesson in humility for us all.
THE JAPANESE KNIFE COMPANY
"Twenty years ago, we'd come here and all the chefs wanted German knives," the Japanese Knife Company owner said. "They’d walk past us. That's completely reversed now."
Yeah, he’d shown those stuck-up pricks.
The more I spoke to the owner – a man of delicate physique who seemed slightly ageless – the more fascinated I became with him. He seemed a wilful enigma, who’d side-mouth details from a life that seemed straight out of a magical realist novel. "It took a long time for the Japanese blacksmiths to share their secrets," he muttered. I couldn’t quite break the sense that he might at any moment produce a Mogwai from beneath the counter and advise me on its feeding patterns.
In the 80s, he said, he sold a children's clothes business to Jasper Conran. Conran had put a clause in there saying he wasn't allowed to start a new business in the sector for three years. So he travelled the world, learning to cook. In Japan, after many months of hanging around soft-soaping, he’d finally convinced one blacksmith to take him on as an apprentice.
The secret: the Japanese use a hard central core of steel, then wrap it in tufty folds of soft steel. So when you sharpen a Japanese knife, you're skimming off micro-layers of the soft stuff, but the hard steel remains, a deep-penetrating core.
To prove it, he produced a tomato and gave me a knife. Rest the blade on top, tickle the skin with the knife and the tomato will bisect itself, defenceless, humiliated. It seemed to defy the laws of physics – the bar you keep in your head of how much force it takes to "cut" is exploded. Here, the atoms dive in opposite directions as the blade heads for them.
Of course, all the hobbyists now investing in these as Christmas presents had its downside. A Japanese knife is also the best way to give yourself a dose of Avocado Hand. The previous Saturday, at a party, I’d watched a girl walk into the room with her thumb in a splint. The cut had been so narrow it hadn't seemed much of a problem for the first few seconds. Until the arterial blood began sluicing out. "Sliced straight through the tendons," she'd explained. "Japanese knife."
Funny, the niches inside which fortunes are made. Here, in a far-flung corner, were some wet wipe salesmen who claimed to make a significant minority of the moist towelettes I had daubed my lips on down the years.
I can honestly say I've never met anyone more enthusiastic about wet wipes than this guy. He was buzzing. I did wonder if he'd been sniffing the lemony-mint essence. Or if I was simply the first person he'd ever met who seemed like he really wanted to know a lot about wet wipes.
Guardpack make all of their wipes in one factory in Chelmsford, Essex – who says British manufacturing is dead? – and re-badge them per customer.
"Oh, you'll definitely have used our product before," he giggled. "We have over 40 different types of wipe. And not just for restaurants. Hospital wipes. Colostomy wipes. All kinds of wipes."
"If I may offer a critique..." I hesitated. "Sometimes I find the lemon scent a little overpowering?"
"That’s our signature scent," he considered. "We like to keep the lemony-mint lemony-minty.”
"And you wouldn't change it?"
"Haha. No." He was in a minty, lemony world of his own, huffing a fragrance bong of citric acid, preservatives and colourants. I’d leave him to it.
BEAVER PEST CONTROL
The Beaver Pest Control stand was an object lesson in what happens when you’re desperate to attract people to an unattractive industry.
For some reason, exterminating vermin isn't enough of an enticement to visit the stand, so they'd staged a "guest the pest" competition. Could you tell which six common pests these six were? I floundered around the "one" mark: a cockroach is a cockroach. "Well," their rep patronised, "that's not the worst score I've seen…"
He explained that the biz was pretty dynamic. Pests were constantly evolving, the rep said. Mice, for example. The bastards had begun to teach each other not to use the bigger, more sanitary crawl-in traps. So now, the older mouse-trap of the Tom 'n' Jerry age was being pressed back into service. Cockroaches, too, were changing. Like the red squirrel / grey squirrel dilemma in miniature, the smaller German cockroach was now outbreeding its larger American cousin because our houses were warmer.
They had a big bowl of sugar mice on their table. I looked at the encased cockroaches. I looked at the sugar mice. I looked at the industrial mousetraps. I looked at the sugar mice. I looked at the jars of fluorescent yellow pest powders.
Thanks, but I'll pass. And with that final amuse bouche of sugar mouse and stuffed rat, I asked for the check, paid the obligatory 12.5 percent service charge, clicked the "no" button when Do You Want To Add A Gratuity? came up on the card machine regardless, and left the restaurant industry. It was a lot more techy than my era, but the basic sense of being physically and emotionally eviscerated by the end of the day still seemed very much in place.