There’s something seriously whack in the world of food. At the risk of sounding like a dolorous, preaching, harbinger of doom proclaiming that we are all going to hell in a handcart; we are in fact all going straight to hell. In a solar-powered handcart.
I’ve done one or two exciting things in my time, but one of the very bestest things I’ve ever done was to work for the late and legendary John Peel.
John was amazing. For a brief and splendid period I was his humble Broadcast Assistant, and was given the honour of compiling the festive fifty and helping out with the phones during his programme. He once heard me rowing down the phone to payroll about the late payment of a freelance colleague, and without giving the matter a second thought, immediately gave him a huge wad of cash to tide him over until payday.
With one eye on the bag of slowly defrosting keski, the distant ringing thrums down the handset, like some sort of Vodaphonic heartbeat. I tilt my head unnaturally to crick it twixt ear and chin.
“Hello?” her voice is small and husky with exhaustion. I hear the days of graft in that hello. The years of ruined eyesight bartered for long nights of dress-making just to raise and educate her brood. I never call as much as I should.
“Maa, it’s me.” I look at the rapidly melting block of tiny, thread-like bodies with their scattered, sequin eyes. They stare back at me, frozen in a piscine twister of animation.
Like cider cocktails, twitter and facial serum; it seems I’m forever doomed to be the last one to the party. Even when that party is on my own face.
And thus it was both generally and indeed, quite literally with Ms Marmite Lover’s Underground Restaurant. Despite leaving my house super early (“be there at 7.30pm sharp!”) and even minus my usual faff to locate keys/rizla/library book, I somehow still managed to make an unfashionably late appearance. As a seasoned Londoner, I’m fully aware that with our fragile and sensitive train lines, the tiniest droplet of water, the slightest hint of a fallen leaf and the anile bowels of our capital shudder to an inexorable halt.
1 Snowden Street, London EC2
When I approach Signore Mazzei for an interview I expect to be offered a rushed half hour between service slots, or a phone call even. Instead he warmly and casually invites me to have lunch with him at his restaurant L’Anima just four days later. This is a bit of a Charlie Bucket moment for me, having never had lunch with a chef before, let alone a proper at-the-top-of-his-game one.
However, Francesco is the antithesis of the clichéd kitchen dragon. Instead he’s down to earth and approachable (and he’s a chef?!). While others were sweating and stressing at the Taste London fest, he was clowning around with his staff and openly having a ball. However, as I was about to discover, talk to him about food and he becomes deadly serious.
When I rock up at his packed restaurant (“credit crunch, what credit crunch?” he breezes) tucked away on a little side street near Liverpool Street, I have no inkling that this is going to be one of those meals you remember for the rest of your life, the kind you tell your grandchildren about and maybe shed a rheumy tear of nostalgia over whilst dribbling reconstituted pap in the old folk’s home. I’ve eaten at the chef’s table at Maze, dined at the Fat Duck, at Le Caprice and at Nobu and yes these were great, but I couldn’t tell you half of what on earth I ate (and yes, I was sober) except that some of them left a faintly dodgy after-taste of money and fear.
Walking into the restaurant I am immediately dazzled by the light, the suits and the white leather sofas (by Claudio Silvestrin no less, designer to Anish Kapoor and Armani). There are beautiful clean lines; it’s all porphyry, limestone and glass. However, it’s far from intimidating and has managed to unite those tricky frenemies of class and welcome with proper, understated taste. I feel strangely at home, perched at the bar sipping deliciously cold Prosecco. The focus on detail is everywhere; even the cocktail sticks I spear my enormous olives with are stylish slivers of carved Perspex. The staff wear genuine smiles and there’s no sense of stress or attitude after what was clearly a manic lunch-time rush. This place is very, very cool.