In this month’s column, entrepreneur Iqbal Wahhab calls on the government to view food as a creative industry rather than where it currently sits – with farming, in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
I couldn’t really imagine James Bond in a London restaurant. He’s more suited to one on the French Riviera – perhaps a smart waterfront place near Nice, where he would speed into the harbour, then chuck the keys of the boat to an attendant. He’d be introduced by the restaurant owner to fellow diners before being seated overlooking the water while a band would sing at his table. Food and wine would come and go seamlessly, making for a greater dining experience.
We seek to strike all the senses when we dine out and that’s why for a while now I have been on a mini-campaign for government to view food as a creative industry rather than where it currently sits – with farming, in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
In the past, attempts have been made to overlay sensory experiences with food, most notably and absurdly in the 1920s by the Futurists. Their leader, Filippo Marinetti, wrote quite the daftest cookery book of all time where each dish came with instructions on how to gain the most pleasure from it – one was to be eaten after lavender was wafted across the room, another by rubbing your left hand over felt and the right on sandpaper. To compound the craziness, they opened a restaurant in Turin to show how it was to be done. Needless to say, it didn’t last long.
Yet lurking around in that failed effort is a case for food being considered a creative industry rather than a side act for agriculture, and innovation is key in our ever-growing fascination with it. We need new approaches to food, not just to keep up with the bearded, check-shirt brigade in London’s trendy Shoreditch but also to tackle wider problems. Take obesity, for example. A group in north London have taken up the challenge of young people’s obsession with fried chicken – by creating a fried-chicken shop, but one using healthy oils and free-range chickens, with as many grilled options as possible. The clever bit in their business model is to serve the product to adults in the evening at standard restaurant prices and use the profits to subsidise the selling of £2 boxes to schoolchildren during the day.
If public health bodies can’t control a problem, there’s probably a food entrepreneur who can. Yet being distanced from our much-lauded tech businesses has hindered the growth of food entrepreneurialism, and for every hundred of these tech investment funds, you’ll be hard pushed to find one looking for the next MEATliquor or Jason Atherton to back. Being in the same room as film-makers, app creators and architects makes such sense, it’s a wonder no one else is talking about this.
When we go around the world promoting UK tourism, we can do more than talk about the British Museum and also talk up the other BM – Borough Market, in London. A few years ago I attended a seminar on the South Bank on the future of culture. On stage were a theatre director, a film-maker and an author. As the discussion was about to start, I put my hand up and asked who it was from the food world who had failed to turn up for the panel. I got the kind of rude looks from the room that I have got used to over the years, but afterwards people came up to me and said maybe my suggestion was not so daft after all.
I had a front-row table at the last Mobo Awards and a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Do you remember me? I’m Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture. We had lunch a while ago and you said we should make food a strand of our creative industries. Where have you got to with that?” I didn’t dare tell him that with an election looming and, potentially, an end to his lot’s stay, I’d wait until the other lot put their person in. But I’m back on it now – after all, food is licensed to thrill.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab