If Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, represents the top of the food chain — in 2018 it’s No.1 among “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” — then the eating places I’m showing here are somewhere near the bottom.
I mean no disrespect. In fact, I don’t particularly enjoy eating in expensive restaurants. Getting a table is always vexatious, the food often fattening, and there’s a whacking bill at the end of the meal with taxes, tips and surcharges which sometimes leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
A Look at the Stats
There don’t appear to be any reliable statistics about the numbers of restaurants in our major cities. I’ve found references to “24,000 eating establishments in New York” (which seems a bit low) and “160,000 restaurants in Tokyo” (which seems high). Paris is said to have around 40,000 — mostly with uncomfortable chairs like the one below — and London around 22,000. These figures, from various sources, include delis, cafés, and fast-food takeaways.
It’s the fast-food takeaway that feeds the majority of people on low budgets. Students, low-paid office workers (and street photographers saving up for a Leica) will tend to patronise the takeway. It’s a great and commercially successful idea, but the problem is: where do you take it away TO?
The girls in my featured photo (at the top) have decided to park themselves on the kerbside in Covent Garden’s famous square. I like this shot because the subjects look like they’re having fun. They may not be comfortably seated or having a “fine dining” experience, but at least they’re getting in touch with nature. I’ve called the picture “4 Girls, 4 Pigeons,” in recognition of the similarity between the two groups. One pigeon has scored a complete takeaway meal of his own.
In Hong Kong (below) you can find restaurants that provide really minimal facilities for dining outside. Maybe it’s just a shelf on which you can stand a cup of coffee while you tuck into a plate of rice, but at least it’s a step up from the domain of the pigeon.
The steep hills on the main island of Hong Kong pose a challenge for restaurant designers. Parisian-style tables are “out”; Hong Kong-style shelving is “in”. My photo, taken in the ever-changing environment of Peel Street, shows several levels of table which correspond to three levels of privilege: indoor table with a seat; outdoor shelf upper level; and outdoor shelf in the full sun with a crotch-eye view of the other diners.
Back in Bangkok
You could scour the whole of Asia, including China, Japan, Indonesia and the sub-continent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and not find a more highly acclaimed restaurant than Gaggan in Bangkok. Chef Gaggan’s establishment was crowned No.1 in Asia again this year and is now No. 5 in the entire world.
The “Gaggan Experience” (a tasting menu) costs upwards of 4,000 Thai baht (under $120), which I’m sure is good value and about half the cost of similar sessions at other restaurants on the list. For this you can sample the restaurant’s spectacular Indian cuisine, in all its regional variations, served with impeccable presentation.
In particular, Gaggan reveals his passionate love of food, inspired (to quote the restaurant’s website) by “childhood street food memories.”
Maybe it’s time to take a look at children eating street food. Perhaps they’ll grow up to become famous chefs like Gaggan Anand.
Underprivileged? Not in the Least
Here’s one candidate: a girl eating a healthy salad from the top of an ancient set of scales. There’s a large bowl of fish next to her, so I assume her mother sells fish in the market where I took the shot, which is actually a few miles outside Bangkok.
Now, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Some people might feel guilty seeing a child who’s obliged to eat lunch in a makeshift style, next to a pile of fish — especially when there are hundreds of expensive restaurants in the vicinity. But personally I don’t feel that way. The little girl is enjoying an excellent meal right inside one of the world’s most compelling tourist attractions: the Mae Klong Railway Folding Umbrella Market.
Every day, just inches away from the little girl’s “table,” a train passes through the market and into the station further along the line. The stall-holders quickly fold back their sunshades, move their goods from the rail track, and wait for the train to pass. Within seconds of its passage through the market they replace everything exactly as it was before.
Isn’t that enough to lay down a few “childhood street food memories,” like those which inspired Chef Gaggan? I hope so. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain there’s only one way to go — and that’s up.