London: is it the culinary capital of the world?

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Only a couple of decades ago it was a place where you’d struggle to find more than a handful of top class restaurants, where street food meant a doner kebab on the way home from the pub and where ethnic cuisine meant chicken tikka masala or egg fried rice. Now however London’s culinary scene is thriving like never before. The multi-cultural aspect is truly dizzying with cuisines from literally all over the world. London’s street food scene now leads Europe and arguably the world, and the nation’s capital is no longer a wasteland for top end Michelin dining with over 60 Michelin-starred restaurants now gracing its streets...  

Culinary capital

elizabeth_on_food But is it the culinary capital of the world? Some people whose opinions ought to count certainly think so. Elizabeth Auerbach, AKA Elizabeth on Food, is one of the most respected independent food writers and critics in the UK. She says: “To my mind, even Tokyo and New York are outdone by London. In the ‘gastro capital of the world’ stakes, London would get my vote.”   For Elizabeth it is the breadth of choice that makes London number one: “The number of restaurants in London offering high quality food from a broad range of cuisines to their customers is probably unparalleled in the world – French, modern British, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Peruvian, Spanish. So many great domestic and foreign chefs are represented here – Ducasse, Gagnaire, Boulud, Blumenthal, Robuchon, Ramsay, Vongerichten, the Arzaks, Sabrina GhayourLeung – and more are lined up. And I am not only talking fine dining here; try to find another city with so many great places for steaks, burgers, sushi or tapas.” Others agree, many of them chefs cooking ethnic cuisine you couldn’t find in other world capitals. Sabrina Ghayour is an independent chef and supper club host who cooks Persian and Middle Eastern food and was recently nominated one of The Observer Food Monthly’s rising stars of 2014. She says: “Nowhere in the world that I’ve seen can have the diversity and innovation at all levels from street food all the way up to Michelin stars.” Sergio Sanz Blanco is the head chef at Michelin starred Ametsa with Arzak Instruction based in London’s Halkin hotel. Cooking new Basque cuisine and with a direct line to one of the world’s great culinary families, the Arzaks, Sergio is cooking in a culinary tradition which is arguably at the Sergio Sanz Blancovery top of the world, but he sees nothing in Spain or indeed the world to challenge London as a culinary entity. “In London you have more than 60 Michelin star restaurants,” he says. “In Spain no city has more than 20 maximum. In London you have the mix – Spanish Michelin star restaurants, Indian Michelin star restaurants. In Spain most of them are Spanish. The variety of good quality food you have in London is impossible in another city.” Opinions are one thing but nothing beats hard facts. So do the stats stand up? London has 61 Michelin-starred restaurants of which two have three stars, nine have two stars and 50 have one star. Six of the starred restaurants are Indian, eight are Asian and one, Lima, is Peruvian, the first Peruvian restaurant, in fact, to gain a Michelin star in Europe. Comprehensive statistics for the total number of restaurants in London are hard to come by but Tripadvisor’s database lists 16,309 restaurants in total including 410 American 418 Asian, 70 African, 82 Caribbean, 499 Chinese, 32 Eastern European, 558 French 10 German, 99 Greek, 955 Indian, 26 Irish, 1,388 Italian, 350 Japanese, 138 Mexican, 263 Middle Eastern, 125 South American, 233 Spanish, 360 Thai and 99 Vietnamese. 

 

PR capital

But can numbers be deceiving? Respected food critic Andy Hayler thinks so. Andy is reportedly the only person to have eaten in every three-star restaurant in the world, so he knows a thing or two about international food. He says: “I reviewed 86 new London restaurants last year; I only gave the highest score to two. There are half a dozen that I’d happily go back to and the rest you couldn’t drag me there. As a hit rate you’d expect a bit better than half a dozen out of 80-odd.” For Andy the problem is the increasing media hype about the London food scene. “London has a lot of restaurants that are overpriced for what they’re doing,” he says, “and they make up for that by spending a fortune on PR. You can hype up a restaurant even if it’s not very good and fill it for at least a while before people start to notice.” And according to Andy, the PR tricks get even more cynical and even slightly sinister: “You get things like places getting really good ingredients in for the first three months because they know that’s when they’ll get the reviews; then when it’s reasonably well established – that’s when they’ll cut back on portion sizes and start using cheaper suppliers.”   

Tokyo

Andy Hayler - Kalido 4288 x 2848For Andy the title of culinary capital goes to Tokyo: “For me Tokyo is the most rewarding city to eat in because it has everything; it’s got the high end world class three stars; it’s got the one and two star standard and a lot of them; it’s not quite as varied as London maybe but there’s certainly plenty of Korean food, plenty of Chinese and other nationalities. At the cheap and cheerful end the standard is remarkably high – the noodle bars, the pancake houses – the hit rate is much higher than London and the quality is exceptional, better than any other city in the world.” The stats seem to back up Andy’s argument at least as far as Michelin-starred restaurants go. Tokyo has a whopping 243 stars of which 13 are three stars, 55 two stars and 175 one stars; it has 86 Michelin-starred Italian restaurants alone, over four times more than Rome itself. But isn’t it the sheer breadth of London cuisine that makes it the culinary capital of the world? Even here it has a rival and possibly a victor – the Big Apple.   

New York

Karl Goward is the head chef of Bistro Union, Adam Byatt’s neighbourhood restaurant, serving Karl Goward profilehearty British fare in the heart of Clapham. He has worked for several years in both London and New York including stints at Fergus Henderson’s legendary St John in London and Gabrielle Hamilton’s equally legendary Prune in New York. For Karl there is one and only one clear winner when the old and new world capitals lock culinary horns across the Atlantic. “I would say London certainly wasn’t the gastronomic capital of the world,” says Karl. “The range of food in New York from street food to fine dining is unparalleled anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s a melting pot; the mix of ethnicities and cultures is phenomenal.” For Karl, New York’s culinary superiority is highlighted by the way it sets the trends for London. “Just look at the restaurants people love now,” he says, “Pitt Cue Co and so on – they’re only doing the sort of food you can get in America for much less money anywhere. Pulled pork buns – no one in London had eaten one three years ago. They lead, we follow.” Exterior Bistro Union © M Franke smlAnd, like Andy Hayler, he sees London falling fowl of its own media hype: “Restaurants come and go here a lot. There’s too many chains; there’s too many people who have too many restaurants and just put a name on it.” So, do the stats bear this out? Back to Tripadvisor. According to their database New York has a total of 11,322 restaurants, 39 of which are African, 323 Asian, 33 British, 79 Caribbean, 353 Chinese, 20 Eastern European, 341 French, 20 German, 81 Greek, 176 Indian, 93 Irish, 1,002 Italian, 421 Japanese, 311 Mexican, 105 Middle Eastern, 75 South American, 253 Spanish, 175 Thai and 66 Vietnamese. It’s close and obviously these figures aren’t comprehensive but it certainly seems, on numbers alone, that London shades it.   

And the winner is…?

So, after all that, can we answer the original question – is London the culinary capital of the world? In terms of sheer quality, you’d have to say: probably not. That title, it seems, must go to Tokyo. However London outstrips it on international breadth with New York hot on its heels, or, some would say, narrowly beating it. Maybe better to call London a culinary capital rather than the culinary capital. One thing is sure though, it has come a long way in a very short space of time from the culinary desert of the eighties to the booming gastronomic giant of the tweens.  And if it keeps growing at the same rate it will soon eclipse all other contenders.   What do you think? Take our poll on Facebook and nominate what you think is the culinary capital of the world.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th February 2014

London: is it the culinary capital of the world?