From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Jonathan Nunn

A Conversation with Jonathan Nunn

Listen now | Talking to the London-based food writer about list-making, authority, and editing Vittles.

Jonathan Nunn is a wonderful tweeter (he’ll allude to some reasons why in our conversation) and singular writer on the city of London, and he has now emerged as a visionary editor with the newsletter Vittles, which has been a bright spot during the pandemic.

In his own writing, Jonathan questions the role of the restaurant and attempts to transcend the list format and, most recently, gorgeously told the story of one road in London and its various diasporas to envision a “restaurant community” outside the monied and glitzy idea of the “restaurant industry.” At Vittles, he’s been giving seasoned food writers a chance to stretch themselves and new writers an opportunity to share their work without the sterile editorial gaze of more established publications.

Here, we discuss how he came to food writing, shit-posting, the authority of the writer, and his obsessive methodology for list-making. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Thank you so much for coming on and taking the time out.

Jonathan: No, not at all. Thank you so much for having me on. I was telling you earlier, I had an interview with the BBC like a month ago and this is entirely more nerve-wracking. I consider this platform much more important.

Alicia: Oh, well, thank you so much. Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Jonathan: Yeah, so I grew up in a place called Stoke Newington in the borough of Hackney in London. I guess for an American audience, the analog of that would be something like some parts of Brooklyn. I remember when I was in New York, actually, I was walking in Greenpoint, I was like, This is exactly like Stoke Newington High Street—it is kind of uncanny, if you took away all the New York signifiers, it could be the same place.

But Hackney is a very interesting borough. It's been historically and still is, actually, a poor borough, and it has a very big Muslim community, a big Orthodox Jewish community, a very large Black community as well, and it's undergone immense changes over the last 20 years—the story of most cities, but a lot of gentrification. The eastern end is where the London Olympics took place, and so you had a huge amount of regeneration going out there, but then where I grew up, Stoke Newington, because it's had such a strong Orthodox Jewish community and it's always kind of been the Bohemian part of Hackney anyway, I think it's undergone less change than other areas and it's kind of stayed very similar to what I remember. I sort of grew up between there and Manor House, which is not that far away.

But both my mum and my dad grew up in the same estate there, and so we always had both sets of family there. My dad is white Londoner, and my mum emigrated here when she was 15, from Kenya, but my family on my mother's side is originally from Goa, so that kind of informed what I ate growing up, which definitely wasn't all Goan food, but I guess, because Goa has always been a predominantly Catholic state and because I never learned the language—which is spoken Goan, which is Konkani, mainly because there aren't really enough Goans in London; when I was offered the chance to do it as a child, I didn't take it up. It doesn't have a huge amount of context within London—I guess food, then, became the only sort of main way that I could access Goan identity. I couldn't really do it through religion, because most Goans in London aren't Hindu or Muslim; they’re Catholic. And yeah, I can’t speak the language, so I guess food became an important part of my identity that way.

On another note, I think I've always had trouble with sort of just identifying yourself through food. I think that can be a lazy way for first-generation immigrants to talk about their culture, like what actually goes on back in their home countries. There's lots of discussion in America about many Indians not speaking out about the CAA and the situation that was going on in India with the rise of Modi, but sort of like using their using their identity to talk about food when obviously food is just one small aspect of the culture. So I'm always wary of sort of just talking about my Goan-ness or my Indian-ness just in terms of food and yeah, trying to interrogate that sometimes.

Alicia: Well, American media forces a commodification of one's culture through food, I would say. I don't know if you feel that same pressure. 

Jonathan: For me, not so much, I guess because I've never really felt the need to call my identity through food too much; I've not written a huge amount—I've only written one article for Taste which is specifically about about a Goan dish, and I'm writing something about Goan sausage at the moment, but I'm going to try to sort of do the interrogation which I maybe didn't do in the in the Taste article. I'm always wary about that aspect.

And even with Vittles, as well, I don't want—of course, I am platforming more diverse voices and having people talk about their cuisines. I don't want that just to be the endpoint of what writers talk about.

But yeah, I mean, so I grew up in Stoke Newington, and then after that, my family moved to Bounds Green, which is in the north of London. It's kind of like a nothing area where nothing really happens—nowhere near as interesting as Hackney. But there is a big, big Greek Cypriot community there, which was a big part of how I ate but wasn't really covered at all, sort of, in my experience, in the media, and then I went to school sort of right on the border of London—you could hear the 25, which is London's periphery road and kind of like divides London from not-London, from the school. So traveling was a really big thing, so it would be an hour bus journey every day.

I guess kind of my idea of London was maybe a bit more expansive than others, just because I spent so much time traveling in quite a sort of suburban part.

Alicia: And you mentioned Vittles, which is the near-daily newsletter that you run. You started this during the pandemic, I believe, what was the inspiration there?

Jonathan: I think when I started I just told everyone that I was bored and had nothing to do, which was true, but it wasn't something that just came from the pandemic, although that was the impetus to do it. It's been something I'd been thinking about—not that specific project, but the idea of having a space which wasn't owned by a sort of big media conglomerate and the space to talk about issues which weren't being covered within mainstream media and also the idea of being able to own my work as well.

I was talking about the tea shop and one of the writers who's a regular is actually Nigel Slater, and he told me very early on when I was food writing to make sure you own your work and it's great that you're doing all this but make sure to find your own way, as well. And I guess that and some pressure from my boss as well was kind of the impetus to actually do something myself.

And I mean, it's very difficult, I think, if you're a food writer in the UK to have spaces that want to take on your writing; you feel that you have something important to say, especially something political to say as well, and I think if you’re a writer and you kind of have leftist politics—You've got about six or seven papers which publish food writing. Most of them are right-wing or owned by Rupert Murdoch. The only left-leaning one is really The Guardian, but The Guardian has its own issues as well—like really big issues. And then if you want to write outside of that, I guess you have Vice, which again, some people might not want to write for, and then you have Eater London as well. Eater’s a very new thing for the UK; I think it opened 2017. And, although Eater is not a particularly radical publication, I think in the context of the British food writing system, it automatically became the alternative. And I think what that alternative is has actually changed quite a lot over the lifecycle of Eater London so far. I think it’s a much stronger space than when it started, mainly with Adam and James’s editorship. 

This has been something I've been thinking about and, yeah, the pandemic was just like, Well, now I am furloughed. I can’t write about restaurants because there aren't any restaurants open to write about. This is the time to actually start it up.

I've been really taken aback by the reaction to it, actually, because I expected it to be something small and something that would prove a welcome diversion from what was going on and for people to try new things out, if they were chefs who wanted to write or first-time writers who wanted to do something. To be mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday was just a bit astonishing for me, because I didn't expect it to get anywhere near that point. 

I am probably going to go back to work next month; I really have to think about the future of the newsletter, whether it stays a newsletter or becomes something else, but it seems like it would be a huge waste if you've got all this energy and all these amazing writers—either writers who were already writing but wanted to change the direction of their work or people who wanted to get into food writing—it'd be really great for that to continue well after the pandemic.

It seems like I put a huge amount of thought into everything, yet I really don't know what I'm doing. I really don't know what I'm doing. Everything is ad hoc. I mean, I write everything every morning and sometimes don't know what I'm going to send out, but it all seems to kind of come together in the end. But I guess I need to start thinking about actual structures and ways of funding to make it continue.

Alicia: Well, yeah, it doesn't look thrown together and ad hoc, but I do think that the best things that people make are the ones that they just kind of start doing without, you know, without considering all the angles and making spreadsheets and that sort of thing. And I think that it's been something sorely missing from food media, obviously. I mean, we could talk about Bon Appétit all day. But for you, what is a Vittles story—when someone sends a pitch and it lands in your inbox and you read it, what makes you understand that Vittles is the right place for it?

Jonathan: I think that has changed over the lifetime of Vittles, which is still only three months. Like really in the beginning, I accepted everything and it was just really lucky that everything that was pitched was actually really good. It was a mixture of friends or people who followed me on Twitter or people who I had been following and contacted because I thought that they might want to write something, and then as it's gone on, I guess it's found its way outside of that sphere that I was in and who knew that I set it up to like freelancers’ newsletters who had no idea about what Vittles was or why it was set up. 

That was actually a really big learning experience for me, getting proper pitches as if I was a real publication. It was really eye-opening into what freelancers are normally taught to pitch like, which is something I've not really had experience with myself. I had all these pitches from experienced people, yet they were nowhere near as interesting as the pitches I was getting from first-time writers. I think people have become quite used to pitching things which don't grapple with politics or policy, and I had to explain, this is not what I want. Or they seemed quite opportunistic. They weren't coming from places of knowledge; they were just things that I felt that they just thought of and tried to make a story. Whereas the pitches that I was getting from first-time writers were coming from a place of knowledge; they were really engaged. They were personal, but they weren't self-indulgent, which I think can be the worst thing about sort of first-person personal writing. They were using a way of sort of extrapolating their personal experience to a wider experience and to something political. They had something to say, I guess.

I think this is what your newsletter—your newsletter yesterday, actually, right—summed up so much that I've been trying to think about and put into words about the role of food media and what the point is of food writing in the first place. There seems to be such a dearth of people who have something to say in food writing. The great thing about receiving all these pitches is that it turns out there are loads of people who do have something to say and just haven't really been given the opportunity to say it yet.

I guess I set up some sort of structures around the articles I wanted to see to make it easier. So obviously, I have a section for recipe writing, but I want them to be recipes which actually tell a story, or recipes that you wouldn't necessarily find in a broadsheet paper. And I guess in that section the most obvious analog would be something like Taste in the U.S., where that is essentially a recipe site, but they come with something more than that.

Because all the articles so far are with the angle of the pandemic, I had long-term projects, because I know there are people who want to get into things like fermenting or foraging or baking. I really want to write a tea guide one day, when I have the time, to tell you why you should definitely get into tea and get into really good tea.

I've got a section for restaurants, but I really wanted obviously not restaurant reviews but pieces that would be really critical about the restaurant industry. I've got a section for shopping guides or for food shops, because I am fairly well versed in London's restaurants and the different diaspora communities that are spread across London which used them, but because I didn't do a huge amount of cooking before the pandemic started, I wasn't clued up about food shops and shopping, so I wanted writers to sort of use those shops to tell their own story of their life in London and hopefully get more different people shopping and opening their eyes to sort of different ways of living in London.

The last one was essays, which I guess is anything that doesn't fit in, but I guess wanted those pieces to be quite politically engaged and from people who really know their stuff, have done their research, have maybe been working within that industry as well and haven't had a mainstream platform to say something. I know a lot of people have come in from academia and wanted a way of sort of simplifying very complex ideas for a more mainstream audience, or like for some of them, it's come from, for example, the Greggs article, from the experience of working in a really low-paid hospitality job and being able to talk about their experience.

I feel like all of this makes it sound like I thought a lot about what I want a Vittles story to be, but it just feels like that's what I felt was missing from lots of the British food media and it is really just stuff I wanted to read, whether it's the more fun pieces or the serious pieces. I think it's really important to have a mix so you don't become too po-faced but you also don't become just toothless at the same time, I guess.

Alicia: No, it's interesting what you pointed out about the pitches that you were getting and the way people are kind of, I think, beaten down into believing that, you know, the least interesting aspect of a story is the one that'll sell. And just yeah, how we just learned to become marketers for ideas rather than writers. And we don't think and—I think that your newsletter and, as we were talking about before we started recording, the time that we've had to think lately has made this kind of a period of unlearning, I'd say, around what we should be doing and what we should be talking about, which, you know, hopefully has some some resonance even after things start to be a little bit more normal.

Jonathan: I really don't mean to be like, harsh on freelancers. I do think it's true, what you're saying, it’s something that's been learned over time and it that can also very easily be unlearned as well. It's just that so much of the food writing that gets published in this country is like incredibly, incredibly asinine. This is a form of lifestyle, right? And I really, I'm, again, like coming from a place of huge privilege in that I haven't had to rely on writing as my main form of income. I've been really lucky that I've been able to choose what I want to write about, but that is not something a lot of people in the industry have; they have essentially have to live and take on sort of fairly dull commissions and that's not something that I've been used to myself, I think. I think it can be unlearned. It has been really refreshing to have stuff from people who haven't been beaten down like that.

Even if they haven't written before, and they're not stylistically great writers or they're not very efficient writers, I don't think that's anywhere near as important as just having a really interesting perspective with something to say. You can edit that into something that works but you can't edit the other way around. You can't edit something that has nothing to say into something good, no matter how well it’s written.

Alicia: I've talked about this with Layla Schlack. I don't know if we had this conversation when I had her on the newsletter podcast—whatever this is—but we've talked about this before, how it's just laziness on the part of so many editors who have these jobs where they work with the same people over and over again, because they know, you know, they'll turn in good copy or whatever, but it's like, then all we do is read the same stale shit because someone at a big newspaper is just too lazy to really do their job and find new writers and be open to new voices and really working with people's writing, which is so depressing, but that's why it's so nice to have spaces like Vittles where that's actually happening.

You mentioned that you haven't had to rely on on writing as your job, but—I don't know if this is true—but when I was writing the questions, I was like, you're kind of famous, right, for your list of value restaurants and reframing the concept of cheap eats for Eater London. I was wondering if you could give some insight into your methodology for tackling such a massive city and how you have become fluent in so many cuisines, which is certainly something lacking a lot of the time in food writing.

Jonathan: I didn't set out to sort of unpack this, but that is kind of—as the bread and butter of like what Eater London do. I'd always wanted to write; for a long time, I'd been thinking about writing about food and I hadn't written anything before and for years, I would talk about it to people and say like, I really want to write something but I have nothing to show people. I really had no confidence in myself and even when Eater London started, I didn't submit anything; I really had no CV of any sort. My degree was actually in maths; I really hated it and spent the like, the next sort of seven, eight years trying to do something else.

But yeah, I really only got an opportunity to write through luck. One of the writers, George Reynolds, was a fan of some of my more unkind tweets about Jamie Oliver and saw I had gone to Kingsbury, which is this area of London with a big Gujarati community, and I was there to pick up some mangoes and some mithai, and he just DM’d me the same day, “I see you seem to know a bit about food, have you thought about writing for Eater London?” I was kind of trying not to sound too excited, because that was kind of all I really wanted to do. And I think like literally the next day I submitted a capsule review and Adam really liked it and said, “Do you want to write a map?” And so I guess that's how the list started.

From the beginning, I wanted to use the idea of a list to try and do something a bit more than what the format normally allowed, so I guess the first thing I did was a list of restaurants and Green Lanes, which is a street I grew up near and has always been a really big part of my life and is home to really amazing Turkish, Kurdish, and Turkish-Cypriot restaurants. And I was trying to write that through the lens of immigration and immigration waves and how this affected the food.

It really took off and I guess I was really lucky that I had already had a ready-made platform on Twitter—I was generally just shit-posting on left Twitter, but it was also kind of the right audience as well. I really didn't want the food audience; I wanted an audience of politically engaged people who do like food.

With the best value project, that was kind of everything that I really set out to say at the beginning of my career. When I started writing, I wanted to to come up with a kind of canon of restaurants which represented a different vision of London to what was normally projected by the food media.

That image of London is mainly written by affluent white food writers, influenced by affluent white PR mainly representing mainly white but like maybe a purchase of East Asian or Indian restaurant owners, all of which have investment from extremely affluent white investors, all for an audience which is always presumed to be affluent and white as well. None of this has ever tallied or conformed with my experience of London. It seemed to completely sort of ignore and sidestep everything that I found interesting about London as a city, actually.

I do actually say that I see myself actually as much of a city writer as a food writer. I think most of my food writing is just a way for me to talk about London and to talk about different experiences of London. 

There are a huge amount of problems with lists and ranking things, but I think the power of a good canon is to sort of change perceptions of what is important and what should be written about. Although there has been this kind of writing in the UK before, for the last sort of 10 to 15 years, it definitely hasn't existed in the mainstream, so I thought it was important to put out a really well argued and sort of overwhelming list to make the case for these restaurants, that there is such a wealth of different communities and different experiences that are going on, all of which aren't being covered. Best value was kind of a way to smuggle that idea into Eater, although I think Adam knew what I was aiming for right from the beginning. But “cheap eats” has been the place to talk about this kind of stuff and “cheap eats” is a phrase that I hate anyway, although I've been guilty of, I think in the past, talking about cheapness too much.

But it was a way to reflect my experience of London and also to talk about restaurants that have a lot of context within the history of London as well, to talk about immigration patterns, first of all, colonial immigration patterns, which means advocating for the restaurants owned by Caribbean Londoners, by West African and East African Londoners, by not just rich Indians but also Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurateurs, as well, which are nowhere near as closely covered by food media as their Indian counterparts.

It's interesting—I find that the relationship between British food media and American food media is very strange. I do think that we look up to you in a way, and whether it's the younger generation who—I feel like a younger generation of food writers like are probably reading like Soleil [Ho] and Tejal [Rao] and Patricia [Escárcega] and Ligaya Mishan at the New York Times if they want to read restaurant writing, maybe over our own restaurant writers. I think they're probably reading like Mayukh [Sen] and yourself and Tunde [Wey], so there is that feeling that American food media is a lot more advanced.

But even not necessarily a different generation but a different type of food writer, even if they don't think that American food media is that influential on them, I think that the idea of what is important to write about, I think it's definitely informed by American food media [Editor’s note: Jonathan here refers to restaurant writing, specifically]. Obviously within America, you have a huge amount of context for talking about sort of mainland Chinese cuisine and Japanese cuisine and Korean and Mexican. And over here, those have definitely become things which the mainstream media wants to talk about a lot more, but that's kind of been at the expense of restaurants and cuisines which have a huge amount of context within London, but they've never really had people advocating for them that they're important. So part of it was to redress that balance as well. I really didn't want a list that kind of had the same demographics as a list in New York or a list in Los Angeles. They had to be something that was also reflective of London, especially since colonialism has massively shaped these cuisines as well; they’re cuisines with a huge amount of context in British history. But then you also have the newer restaurants reflected by newer waves of immigration, so that was kind what I was writing about with the Old Kent Road piece yesterday, but it was really a way of getting all those ideas underneath the banner of a list that people could enjoy.

And in terms of how I write about those restaurants, I guess it's a mixture of—I think googling and using the internet only takes you so far; that can be a useful tool. I honestly think the two best ways of doing it are one just walking. Before the pandemic, I would spend a weekend just walking through areas of London and just seeing what was there. I think Jonathan Gold talked about going into a fugue state while driving through Los Angeles. There is an element of like obsessiveness to my writing method as well, except it is mainly walking rather than driving. 

But the most important thing is just to keep talking to people. Talk to as many people as you can talk to—to fellow food writers, talk to the chefs, talk to people who have absolutely no connection with the food but will have something useful to say. Honestly, like the amount of recommendations that have just come from—I normally have to take an Addison Lee between work and my warehouse. I don’t know if this exists in the U.S., but it’s a taxi company, and just talking to Addison Lee drivers and talking to them about food, because most of the drivers are recent immigrants and you always seem to get a recommendation for something which you probably never would have found otherwise.

What you're saying about like how I become fluent in these cuisines so quickly? Like, I guess the answer is that I haven’t, and I think writers—we all try and pretend that we're clued up on everything, and I think what there needs to be is more admissions of a lack of knowledge because no one can be an expert on everything. And if you do have a lack of knowledge about a cuisine, I think the best way of remedying that is not pretending that you do or just to read a Wikipedia article, I think it’s to actually platform people through your writings, and this is something that I was about to do. I was scheduled to write a rewrite of the best value project this year. And what I really want to do is, instead of having me as like the all-knowing, authoritarian author is really open up the whole project to other writers and perspectives, especially people from those communities, to talk about what that restaurant means to them. And honestly, I think you get a much more interesting perspective that way.

I've seen it, a little bit of it in British restaurant criticism. I really think like the best, the best restaurant critic review in like the last year was when the musician Stormzy, he edited an edition of the Observer magazine and just took the Observer critic Jay Rayner to a local Caribbean café in South London. It was mainly platforming Stormzy to talk about what the food meant to him and what it meant to his community. I think it's such a richer way of talking about restaurants. I guess it requires you to give up a bit of your power and a bit of your image as an expert.

Alicia: That's such an important point, that we don't let go of authority enough in writing, and I think that's also a product of these weird editorial visions. I just wrote a piece for a big general interest magazine in the States and my editor kept being like, there's not enough of you in here; just make it you. And I'm like, but I'm drawing on, like, so much work, but I have to present it as though it's just coming from my brain. And I'm like, I'm so uncomfortable. It's just so strange. It's like, but I'm citing years and years of thought and then, but it's like, We don't want that. We don't want the thought; we just want, you know, this kind of like bloviating character, but that's the problem with op-eds, I guess. But it's kind of where I'm finding my footing, sadly enough.

You mentioned that in your work lately, you've been focusing on what the restaurant can be and represent beyond being a business. That most recent piece for Eater London you mentioned about the restaurant community versus the restaurant industry of Old Kent road, and how these mainly immigrant-run restaurants have become hubs for their diasporas and more during the pandemic. And yeah, you talk about how industry is a cold word, and the responsibility of writers to see beyond the PR machines.

And yeah, I think this is something a lot of us were thinking about before the pandemic, but now we're kind of allowed to talk about it more openly—which is something I've noticed, which is like if something terrible happens, you're finally allowed to talk about how things actually are. It's something that happened with the hurricane here in Puerto Rico, where it's like writers were allowed to talk about how it's a colony of the United States only after there was a big disaster, and now we're seeing that happen with the pandemic in different ways. But why do you think that this has been kind of a moment of reckoning not just for restaurants, but for food media, and how do you hope to see it continue into a future where, you know, hopefully, we're not just opening up for the sake of the economy, but there's actually a vaccine and we can go out again and feel safe.

Jonathan: A big question. I think the pandemic has been such a—it's horrible that it's had to happen this way. But I think it's been like such a vindication for writers who were trying to talk about this before the pandemic. And I actually wouldn't consider myself, although I was talking about some things, I definitely wouldn't group myself in those writers. I think there's been so many writers, including yourself, who were talking about these structural issues way beforehand. And I think it's been such vindication for them because now that they're writing, they've really put in the work to now be able to talk about these kinds of things with authority and say, this is the stuff that we knew was wrong before the pandemic and these are possible solutions to fix it.

But I think some people's eyes have been opened, but I think it's not been a case of eyes being opened. I think people knew it all along. It's just that now people suddenly have the opportunity to say it without looking like they're kind of pissing on everyone's parade. I, especially in London—London was enjoying such an amazing boom in restaurants ever since sort of the recovery from the 2008 crisis. The industry just kept growing and growing and growing. And I guess the industry said to itself like, as long as we keep growing and growing and more restaurants keep opening and more launch parties and the more money it's making for people—certainly higher up the system rather than lower down the system—the better it is and kind of talking about the London restaurant industry as sort of this world-class product. I think the chefs, certainly, knew that this wasn't the case, from what I know about my experience talking to chefs before the pandemic and also after—they knew that this wasn't sustainable; they knew that the image of the London restaurant industry that was being built up mainly by writers and by PR wasn't true, because none of them were really making money themselves or they weren't able to cook the stuff they really wanted.

So what was really surprising to me when I wrote my first Guardian piece, which was kind of about this whole issue, I was expecting much more of a blowback from people within the industry like basically saying, What do you know? and All you want to do is be critical, and I was really wary about that piece, and I put a lot of work into it and did a lot of rewrites to make sure the tone was correct and make sure it was clear who I was blaming. But the reaction to that was really overwhelmingly positive from people within the industry from not only from chefs. I mean, I criticize PRs quite heavily and a lot of PRs actually came to me afterwards—not the owners of the PR companies, but individual PRs—to say, You're right about the whole industry. 

I think a lot of stuff we're talking about has been an open secret for a while and this is kind of the opportunity to say it. But I guess in terms of my own writing, having restaurants shut has been I guess useful for my own writing. It's really forced me to have a look at what I've missed and what kind of failures and gaps that exist within my own writing. And part of that is because I haven't really had an opportunity since I started writing to really just look at my own writing and think about really what I want to do, but especially because I'm writing for a publication which only covers restaurants. I think since starting the pandemic, I've been thinking, Well, I really privileged restaurants in my writing, but that is just one form of what food can be; it's just one narrow form of what cooking for another person can be, and there's a whole wealth of ways of writing about food, which may involve exchange of capital, but often don't. Whether it's a community kitchen, whether what, in the case of what Ruby [Tandoh] wrote for Vittles, about cooking and care homes. I think that there could be a conversation about food in prison.

And in terms of school food, we had a big national conversation a decade ago, prompted by Jamie Oliver, about what food in school should look like. And of course, it was slightly high-jacked—I think a lot of classism ended up coming into it, which was to its detriment. But one conversation they’re having right now is about free school dinners and the fact that the government weren't going to let the program happen over the summer holidays, and it was it really only through the intervention of a footballer, a young black footballer, Marcus Rashford, to petition the government and now the government's done a complete U-turn on the on the subject and will now implement free school meals over the holidays. But it's still a case of this will happen this summer, but this is really something that should happen all the time. And I guess it's a fear of mine—this is great that we're talking about it, but we really can't just talk about it for the length of the pandemic; this has to be something that just needs to become a permanent part of how we write about not just food, but really anything, to be honest.

I'm trying to be optimistic, but I guess it's ingrained with you if you have any sort of leftist politics that probably the change isn't going to happen, but you kind of keep trying. There was a period after the election where I was like, completely despondent about writing at all and I became very cynical about whether writing can enforce any change at all. And I guess I'm feeling a little bit more optimistic about that now. I think writing can be part of that as long as it's part of a big groundswell. I think that's what's been really great about Vittles, actually; it’s made me feel like it's not just one person. It's not just a few sort of food writers speaking into the ether. It’s really like a whole swathe of people. Vittles has achieved more change in three months than the entirety of my writing in the last two years. It shows you the power of being in a coalition. I think if we want to keep that change happening, I think we will kind of need to be on the same page and kind of pull it in one direction—one direction collectively. I don’t think any of us can do it by ourselves.

Alicia: Absolutely. And for you, is cooking a political act?

Jonathan: Yeah, like it obviously is. It’s not like every time I make an omelette, I’m thinking, This is great praxis.

I was thinking even one thing I wrote about recently was the sort of the conversations that were going on with sourdough bread over here. I don't know if the same conversation was happening in the U.S.—sourdough being this kind of middle-class affectation.

And over here like, obviously you have class issues of your own in America, but the class issues in Britain are kind of like impenetrable unless you grow up in them and even when you grow up in them, you can’t see how absurd they are. It kind of reduces class to a set of signifiers, like your accent or where you shop or buy whatever brand you use. And sourdough has become, I guess, like a symbol of the middle class, but I found these conversations completely baffling that someone could say that someone who wanted to make bread for themselves was kind of like performing, almost becoming a class traitor if they wanted to make a loaf of bread.

But I think the fact that people have had the time to cook again in a way they haven't had before is such a—it's such an obviously positive thing. Like, of course, it's a good thing; people should have the power to be empowered to learn about how to cook and how the food that they consume is made. I hope that restaurants can be a part of not just—I feel like up to now, I guess they've been kind of like gatekeepers or some of them have been like kind of gatekeepers of knowledge. And what I think has been a really obvious positive coming from the pivot is that I think a lot of them have been a lot more open with sharing things, with allowing people to make stuff at home. I know for example my favorite restaurant in London sells their dough for a really cheap price and that kind of removes the big labor people have with making pastries or pies, but it still allows you to do the cooking yourself, which I think is a really positive thing and hopefully people will be a bit less reliant on restaurants to outsource their labor to.

In terms of like every day, obviously everything is an interconnected process, so it's kind of who who grew it, where it comes from, the labor that has gone into it before you start cooking yourself. I think that another positive thing, is people are becoming a bit more—or maybe this is just my sort of middle class foodie bubble—but becoming a bit more aware of the labor that has gone in.

This is something that I've been trying to—I've been doing this for years to get people to talk about tea, to talk about where the tea in our cups comes from; we seem to be having the same conversations about our food, so it's been really great to be able to get produce straight from people who are working with the land properly, who are not just farming a homogenous modified product, that are using, for example, to get flour which is using heritage grains and to get fish which has been caught sustainably, and to be able to have that again is really amazing. 

I just hope that continues afterwards as well. I know we can shorten the supply chains a bit more and have restaurants as a conduit to open these things up to be a bit more transparent. It shouldn't just be praising restaurants, but like the whole interconnected community. Yeah, I don't know what I'm saying. But those are kind of my very unformed thoughts on that. But yeah, obviously it is.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time again, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Oh, no, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, a pleasure to be on and to be invited.

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.