Food in the City

An interview with the food and city writer Jonathan Nunn, best known as the founder of the excellent Substack publication Vittles, about his new book linking the architecture of London to the richly diverse voices and experiences that make up its food culture. Commissioned by Open City, London Feeds Itself is a cornucopia of little wonders that is not only an eye-opener, even for Londoners, but also sets a magnificent example for how to really write about food – and architecture.

Sophie Lovell: What drew you to do a book about food and architecture? What is your connection to both topics?

Jonathan Nunn: My connection to food is maybe too obsessive – I’ve spent the last four years writing about it in London, and many more years thinking about it. But I know nothing about architecture. In fact, I told Open City’s director Phineas Harper this when they approached me about the idea, and they seemed fairly chill about it. Happy even. At first, I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea – I thought about the phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” and got lost in knots thinking about how to write a food book about architecture (or vice versa). And then I remembered the existence of Pina Bausch and calmed down a bit.

London Feeds Itself, edited by Jonathan Nunn, foreword by Nikesh Shukla, available September 2022 from Open City.

Initially, I thought that a food and architecture book might have to look like the food and architecture writing already out there: things like Carolyn Steel’s Sitopia, the V&A’s “FOOD: Bigger than the Plate” exhibition, or the Architectural Review edition on food and design; or it would have to cover restaurant buildings and dining rooms in a very literal interpretation of the brief. Which would have put me woefully out of my depth. But the thing that convinced me was that, by a weird coincidence, I was reading the first Open City book, Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs, at the time and feeling slightly annoyed that he had commissioned an article I’d always wanted to commission myself – a history of different Turkish groups along Green Lane. And then talking to Phineas, they made it clear that what Open City wanted wasn’t a Pevsner-style guide to great buildings, but something about the spaces Londoners interact with every day, that we might not even consider architecturally worthy. Once I heard that, everything clicked into place and I clocked that a lot of what I’m interested in about food and London fits into this Venn diagram of ‘food and architecture’ – how restaurants interact with housing and property development, the proliferation of food on industrial estates, why the food on the North Circular Road is so weird –  and that there might even be an architectural aspect to my own writing I was unaware of. 

I still maintain that I know nothing about architecture though.

London Feeds Itself, design by Studio Christopher Victor, Illustrations by Harry Darby and Anna Hodgson.

The great thing about putting other disciplines in a food context is that it helps the reader appreciate the interconnected systems everything is embedded within: it adds context. Would you agree?

Not only does it give context, I think food is maybe the easiest hook you can have to get people to care about something they previously considered boring. Because everyone experiences it – by necessity – and has an opinion about it. I didn’t want London Feeds Itself to just appeal to architecture people or to food people but to get people thinking about the interconnectedness of these things, and that actually they’re part of the same thing. So with a lot of the essays, food functions like the sex scenes in Game of Thrones – they’re what will get people interested but it’s there to lure people into listening to the real exposition. 

I think food is maybe the easiest hook you can have to get people to care about something they previously considered boring.

The idea behind the themes of the essays was to focus on types of buildings or amenities that people might think are mundane, or not related to food. For example, almost every Londoner I know is interested in Turkish food and the grill restaurants of Kingsland Road, but not many people will know or care that so many of the chefs and founders of these restaurants started off informally cooking in semi-legal garment warehouses, and how these warehouses have changed function over the years to provide a home to a new group of Kurdish immigrants – which is the subject of Melek Erdal’s beautiful essay on The Warehouse. Or, the essay on The Park by Santiago Peluffo – the first essay I knew I wanted for the book – is about the BBQ scene in Burgess Park in south London, which I think shares a lot of DNA with Berlin’s Preußenpark. At its heart, it’s actually an ostensibly boring story about planning and council disputes about park use. But as soon as you get into the food aspect of it, it becomes this extraordinary patchwork of stories about immigration, about how we’re supposed to use and live in the city, about joy, about the possibility of a genuine connection with the people we share the city with. And if that gets people to care about the inner workings of Southwark Council then I’ll be happy.

London Eats Itself: spread from “The Partition” by Ciaran Thapar, photos by Hark1karan.

We are big fans of Vittles! We particularly love the contextual informality of the stories you publish. Vittles and now London Feeds Itself offer a perspective about people and food that is so far removed from the old-school, elitist, banality of food publishing being recipes and restaurant reviews. Yet you have included restaurants in the book. Why? Was it out of concern that people would not read it if you did not? Publisher pressure?

Thank you! It was actually completely my idea and I will take the blame if it falls flat on its face. In fact, I don’t think Open City expected how much I would end up writing about restaurants because I didn’t know myself until I started writing. I was quite adamant that none of the main essays should be about restaurants because I think it is worth arguing for the vitality of food culture outside of restaurants, and that London’s importance as a ‘food city’ doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how good its restaurants are. At the same time, I know that the most popular things I publish on Vittles are functional restaurant guides, and I had this four-year cache of restaurant capsules I’d been sitting on and it made sense to use it. 

London’s importance as a ‘food city’ doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how good its restaurants are.

Initially, I was just going to add a few capsules to the end of each essay but then I took it as a challenge to see if I could write about restaurants more architecturally and they turned into these mini-essays on London restaurants that use the theme of the initial essay as the jumping off point. Some of them are very spatial – Melek’s piece got me thinking about the hilarious mutually assured destruction going on in Green Lanes where every restaurant has to get a glitzier renovation than their neighbour, while Santiago’s talks about the various factions in Burgess Park and made me want to write something about the neighbouring Old Kent Road and its vibe shifts. Some of them are a bit more ambiguous – one is about Catholic food, and the relationship between restaurants and foreign language chaplaincies, and another is about restaurants to visit after saunas.

London Eats Itself: spread from “The Park” by Santiago Pelutto Soneyra, photo by Max Miechowski.

Ultimately the reason why I ended up including restaurants is that I don’t think restaurants are the problem – it’s the way they’re usually written about. The “review” is a very tired format that no longer makes much sense to me. When you look at reviews of restaurants in London, they gird this image of London that is completely unrecognisable to most people who actually live here. Most reviews take place in London but are written for a non-London audience, so the primary tone of the review is satire: sometimes this means taking potshots at stupid restaurants for oligarchs, sometimes this means going to gentrifying neighbourhoods and denigrating them, contributing to that gentrification. I think if you look at who benefits from most restaurant reviews you would have to say it’s estate agents. 

I think if you look at who benefits from most restaurant reviews you would have to says it’s estate agents.

So restaurant writing is important – I say in the book that it’s the most widely consumed form of urban writing in this country – and it’s also important to me that this book can make the argument that restaurant writing can be done in a way that is more considered, that gets people thinking about how they interact with London, about their preconceptions about which restaurants are ‘important’ to the city. And the best way of doing that is by just showing that it’s possible, rather than criticising others.

London Eats Itself: spread from “The Gurdwara” by Amardeep Singh Dhillon, photos by Hark1karan.

I remember the writer and activist Rob Hopkins said that in order to reimagine the future you have to create stories of possible futures that people want to work towards. In other words, instead of berating the reader about what’s wrong with them and the world and how it has to change, it is more productive to celebrate individuals who are implementing positive change through action instead, by seeking out and telling their stories. Do you agree and do you think there has been a shift in how we talk about the systems we need to change?

I think that’s a great statement and is self-evidently true – to work towards the future you want, you have to imagine the possibilities first, else how can you argue for it? I also agree that showing stories about positive change is the most important part of this, whether you’re looking at the past and demonstrating that this is a thing that has happened before and can be done again, as Owen Hatherley did in Red Metropolis, or looking at the present and highlighting those stories. Both things are inspiring and make you believe that positive change is tangible. 

London Eats Itself: spread from “The A-Road” by Ciaran Jonathan Nunn, photos by Peter Arkley Bloxham.

At the same time, I do want to make a case for constructive critique. When I say that ‘I love London’, I want it to go beyond a trite statement on a t-shirt – to love something you have to be acutely aware of its faults, to have a duty of care to make it better. It doesn’t mean to be uncritical – that’s just infatuation. So this book is heavily critical in parts of the things which are making London worse, that make it such a hard place to live sometimes. And it looks critically at food’s role in that too. The title of the book, London Feeds Itself, is making a counterclaim to the idea that London is eating itself, but it has to acknowledge that ‘London eating itself’ is happening too. It celebrates the people and spaces that the writers think are worth celebrating, but they have been chosen precisely because these people and spaces are under threat. You have to be honest about where that threat is coming from and how real it is.

London Eats Itself: spread from “The Baths” by Stephen Buranyi, photos by Malcolm Glover.

You have a broad range of contributors, of voices, in the book. How did you select them and the topic areas?

Some are writers I’ve already worked with at Vittles, some are people I would have never even thought of trying to commission before. The selection process was a real mixture of knowing the subject and finding the right writer or knowing the writer and finding the right subject. Some essay topics are very personal to me – for example, the essay on food in Catholic church halls describes something I grew up with, but adds a perspective about the Filipino relationship with the church that only Carla Montemayor could have brought to it; others, like Melek’s, were revelations to me. What they all share is that I believed they had the capability to write outside of what they might perceive as their comfort zone. I wanted to push food writers to think more architecturally, and architecture writers to think a bit more about food, and I think this lack of comfort has led to some really unique essays and ways of thinking about London – hopefully, people will read it and not feel like it’s the same voices on London covering the same old subjects.

I wanted to push food writers to think more architecturally, and architecture writers to think a bit more about food.

London Eats Itself: spread from “The Gurdwara” by Amardeep Singh Dhillon, photos by Hark1karan.

28 years after leaving my hometown of London for Berlin, when I say where I come from, people amazingly still respond with things like: “Oh London, it rains a lot and the food’s bad”. It is a cliché that is perhaps 80 years old or more. It is also a cliché that does not acknowledge the diversity of people living and cooking there for centuries. Nevertheless, despite (or perhaps because of)  the stark bipolarity of global politics there seems to be a burgeoning celebration of diversity in culture expressed through food right now. Would you agree? Is this the key to one of the few things that are positively special about London?

The strange thing is that food – and maybe transport – is the one thing that has undoubtedly gotten better in London in the last 20/30 years. It’s something that Londoners now believe we are world-class in and there’s a whole industry whose job it is to hype it up. And yet, I don’t think we really celebrate what is unique about London or any of the things that are worth celebrating about it; meanwhile, a lot of the “world-class” London restaurant scene actively or inadvertently makes living here more difficult. I think the image we project of London abroad is our own fault really. I slightly envy the American cities – New York in particular – who are able to so easily mythologise their diversity. Just look at the bodega discourse! Bodega discourse is incredibly annoying, of course, because we have pubs, caffs and corner shops, but it begs the question: instead of making fun of New Yorkers, why don’t we celebrate these things as diverse institutions that are special and worthy of affection?

Ultimately I want people to read this book and come away both knowing something new about the people they share the city with, and feeling like their own experience has been seen.

London Eats Itself; further contributors include Carla Montemayor, Jenny Lau, Mike Wilson, Claudia Roden, Rebecca May Johnson, Owen Hatherley, Aditya Chakrabortty, Yvonne Maxwell, Melek Erdal, Sameh Asami, Barclay Bram, Virginia Hartley, Jess Fagin, Leah Cowan, Ruby Tandoh, Jeremy Corbyn, Dee Woods, Shahed Saleem, Zarina Muhammad, Yemisi Aribisala and photographers Zöe Cave and Sirui Ma.

The writer Riaz Phillips said recently that diversity isn’t so important as much as a diversity of diversity. Celebrating diversity – especially in the face of attacks from the right-wing press about a multiethnic London – is important, but it can’t just be a diversity of Soho restaurants. It has to encompass the whole city as it’s lived in and go beyond some kind of transactional nature that immigrants make our lives better because they cook good food. Ultimately I want people to read this book and come away both knowing something new about the people they share the city with, and feeling like their own experience has been seen. And also be more confident that they’re able to say they love London, not in some flag wavy or patriotic way, but a love born of feeling some kind of duty of care to a place. I think Londoners are generally incredibly uptight about expressing anything as unchic as affection for their city, but I think deep down most of us do actually love living here and would like to make it easier for us and our neighbours to live here too.

Jonathan Nunn is a food and city writer based in London. He is the founder and co-editor of the excellent substack food newsletter Vittles, based in the UK and India. London Feeds Itself is available to order online at Open City, a charity dedicated to making London and its architecture more open, accessible and equitable and hosts of the London Open House Festival.

Sophie Lovell is an author and co-founder of The Common Table.

All images courtesy Open City.

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