As if chefs haven't had enough to deal with of late.
The announcement in the Queen's Speech on Monday that bars and restaurants will soon be forced to display the calorie content of each dish felt, in these quarters at least, like a particularly dismal cherry of shit on tope of a cake that, for the last year and a bit, has been mad almost entirely of cack.
That a Government panicking at the sight of its lardy populace wheezing their way towards costly health treatment has chosen to pick on restaurants is hardly surprising. The hospitality sector has been a favourite punchbag of health campaigners down the years, it's an easy target. And yes, burgers full of saturated fats, bread that is more sugar than flour, chicken which barely qualifies as food, all these are culpable in the steady fattening of our nation. As, too, is our national habit of throwing booze down our necks at reckless levels.
But listing the calories on the menu? Really?
In the interests of full disclosure, I am not an impartial observer here. Anyone chancing across this blog who isn't aware of its patchy and storied history might not know that I am a chef, and that I make my living by persuading the dining public of West Lancashire and environs to come to my rather lovely pub and get some hearty plates of food down their neck. Naturally I'm going to be opposed to this current wheeze. While it is at present limited to companies of over 250 employees, if it becomes the norm, the pressure on the rest of the industry to adopt it will be huge.
The process of precisely measuring the calories in a dish is both costly and time consuming. For a huge chain with the same menu over hundreds of outlets, it's not a problem. For a fresh food place that changes its menus on a daily or weekly basis it's a catastrophe. This is one reason why I think it's a dreadful idea, the self-interested one, the fact that it will make my life harder (in a sector which is fairly hard raft at the best of times).
But even if I didn't have this bias, I'd still be opposed to it. if I were only a diner, I'd think this a terrible idea. The reason being: it completely misses the point of going out for a meal.
The industry has changed a lot since the first bistros started popping up around the markets in Paris. Eating out has, over the years, morphed from being a cheap, everyday practice to an alotgether more expensive affair. Economically, eating out rarely makes sense, so it's now, firmly, a treat.
And when you're treating yourself to a nice meal out, and thanking goodness someone else is doing the cooking and the dishes, do you really want to be reminded of how many calories you're consuming? Doesn't that romantic first date lose something when you are informed, in black and white, that the handsome chap you might be entertaining second date thoughts about is, in cold black and white text, clearly a glutton who's putting 850 calories away in a matter of minutes?
Labelling the calories on a dish sucks all the joy out of the meal. You sit there, unable to enjoy the cote de bouef that the kitchen's so lovingly prepared, a truffle butter sliding off the flank of the perfectly rested beef as your hind-brain is frantically calculating precisely how many hours on the elliptical trainer this is going to cost you.
Counting calories is a terrible way to try to lose weight. There is only one way to live and eat healthily, regardless of what any diet cook-book might tell you. Eat, not too much, mostly veg, move more. Don't booze too much, lay off processed food and sugary drinks. That's literally all there is to it. Starving yourself all day in anticipation of a 1200 calorie Wetherspoons burger and seven pints (another 1260 kcal) later is a very good way to do horrible things to your blood sugar. All things in moderation.
Eat when you're hungry. Don't eat crap. Exercise regularly. That's it.
Trying to make restaurant menus a weapon in the war against obesity is to understand what a restaurant is. It's a place to go and relax, to have a good time, loosen your tie, maybe have a glass of wine too many, catch up with your friends and family, chat shit, make jokes, eat something new or comfort yourself with an old favourite. Restaurants are about pleasure. They are emphatically not about being part of your healthy eating regimen. There's a few reasons our food tastes so good, some of them involve a lot of calories, butter and cream.
This is not to say that you can't eat healthily and go out, all the dishes on my menu are packed full of good stuff, they're proper meals made with proper ingredients, but low calorie they are not. Nor should they be. They're a treat. I want my customers to feel fed. I want them to finish their meal and feel that all's right with the world. I don't want them wondering about diving into the chippy on the way home.
At the risk of getting all libertarian, another question I'm forced to ask is, who eats fish and chips thinking it's low calorie? Nobody, that's who. All you're doing is guilt-tripping the person who really quite fancied fish and chips. Labelling menus takes a degree of agency from the diner, it adds a layer of guilt, an extra seasoning of remorse. It's Puritanism applied to what is supposed to be a pleasurable exercise.
And this, I think is my main objection. I still think of food in romantic terms, as a sensual act, not merely as fuel. Lunch is meant to be lingered over, not be a calorie counted sandwich at your desk. Dinner out is family time, it's jokes and connections, not picking one dish because it means you can have a glass of shit pinot grigio and consume the same amount of calories as the dish you really wanted. Calorie labelling strips away the mystique, commodifies it. It's perfect for giant chains, sending the same food out from pre-packaged meals heated up in combi ovens, but this, to me, is the very antithesis of food; it's portion-controlled, pre-packed misery. Food at the dining out level is a little bit of alchemy, a little bit of magic, and a lot of technique, it's not some underpaid kid in a Deliveroo dark kitchen driving the local kebab place out of business.
Basically, the barbarians are at the gates, and must be resisted, because the next stop will be saying you can't serve lamb pink, you can't serve oysters. Having calorie counted all the pleasure out of eating, the dead-eyed commissars of health will soon be nosing for the next bit of pleasure to destroy. The hospitality industry will be dominated by the wipe-clean, same-same, microwaved ultra-chains. It is already, but this is potentially another nail in the coffin of the indies, of the people who care about what they do, of the people who can actually cook, and the world will get a little less fun.