Food can be a banal, everyday necessity. Yet it can also inspire and bring people together. Food can spark conversations, encourage new ideas, the sharing of knowledge and, in its own way, make us feel connected. For many, little spells happiness more than gathering around a table, passing dishes around, talking, laughing, eating and swapping stories with friends old and new.
It's fitting, then, that a creative platform dedicated to both exploring and celebrating British food culture should be called At The Table. Through print, online, film and its live event, Voices At The Table, the initiative unites people from different industries and backgrounds - chefs, producers, writers, historians, scientists, artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs - as they each offering a deliciously fresh perspective on food.
There's little emphasis on the celebrity, no trend items, no recipes. Instead, pages and stages are filled with memoirs, poetry, art and photography. At The Table focuses on the stories around food and the way this intersects with other forms of culture. In many ways, food is merely a conduit for wider discussions.
At The Table serves a literary salon, except somewhat more mouthwatering. It's an event as much about good literature as it is about good grub; as much for fans of Elena Ferrante as those of Nigel Slater.
SUITCASE pulled up a seat with At The Table founder Miranda York, writer Rebecca May Johnson and poet Anna Sulan Masing to find out how they are putting "art" back into the culinary arts.
How did the idea for At The Table come about?
Miranda: In 2012, a chance conversation with a friend led to our first event. The street-food scene was starting to really buzz in London, but we craved a space where we could delve behind what we ate. So in 2013 we founded TOAST Festival, a two-day event featuring 40 speakers across 15 events, as well as a pop-up shop, bespoke coffee bar and art exhibition, creating space for people to discuss food culture. Since then, we've held events all over London, from debates on the future of meat and the role of women in the food industry, to dinners showcasing British produce, workshops, brunches, wine talks and dessert parties. But we wanted to create something more permanent, where food could be discussed in an intelligent, creative way, so we founded an annual food magazine. Last year we rebranded from TOAST to At the Table to reflect how the company has evolved over the last few years.
Why is the focus on British food culture in particular?
Miranda: British food is often underrated, especially by British people. Our food culture is deep-rooted, eclectic and ever-evolving. We embrace and absorb influences from around the world, yet still enjoy the simplicity of good ingredients. Plus, we have great puddings.
Poetry about food doesn't often get much traction. Why does it play such a central role in At The Table?
Anna: Food is visceral, personal and emotional, which is why I think poetry is a perfect form to talk about food; it can de-intellectualise it. Poetry is not something you need to understand word for word, you can let sentences wash over you. Food is sight, smell, touch and taste, and as I write for performance I am already thinking about the senses, how things sound and how they make people feel, as performance is so responsive.
… and what about Voices At The Table? What impact do you hope it will have?
Rebecca: I'm hoping to make a space that causes pause for thought about what food writing is, and what it can be. You don't have to be a "foodie" to read about food - in fact, quite the opposite. For me, Voices At The Table is about representing, exploring and challenging the intersection of life and eating through words, brilliant words.
As three women, how do you feel about sexism within the food industry?
Rebecca: I'm not really in a position to comment on the industry as a whole, other than to say that it's a reflection of the racist, neoliberal, patriarchal society in which we live. But people in hospitality and food are often on low-paid, zero hours contracts that make their lives precarious and difficult. In terms of the media, the food books that get published, while representing a good number of women, remain very white. The writers we invited to speak at Voices at the Table, many of whom were women (with a few men reading women's writing too) give an indication of what we seek to represent.
Anna: The more varied stories around food and what the industry means that are told, the more diverse the industry becomes. Stories are powerful tools of change, they provide inspiration and identity. At The Table provides a platform for these stories and hopefully will change perceptions.
What's the next big thing when it comes to food?
Miranda: The future of food - essentially the challenge of sustainably, healthily and equitably feeding a growing global population - should be something everyone is talking about.
Anna: A recent study showed that Londoners ate two-thirds less meat in 2016 than in 2015. There is a real push to understand what you're eating, where it came from, and to value the impact on environment.
What are your favourite restaurants in London?
Anna: For overall deliciousness and comfort it's go to be The Quality Chop House; great wine list, great service, great food. Rebecca: I love to go for lunch at Italia Uno on Charlotte Street and have a plate of hot parmigiana di melanzane with a little basket of bread and extra parmesan. Felice, who runs the place with his family, makes fresh ciabatta sandwiches everyday with an unrelenting care for detail. Heaps of pink Italian newspapers are piled up, TVs showing different Italian channels blare all day and his children play in the café like it's their home. Once, a long time ago I watched a football match in the basement with a beer, a parma-ham sandwich and 30 or so chain-smoking Italians. The room was chokingly thick with smoke and loud shouts of "vaffanculo" at the ref - it was utterly exhilarating.
Miranda: I live in Bermondsey and am spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants. There's José for tapas, Padella for pasta, Casse-Croute for classic French fare and 40 Maltby Street for perfect pared-down cooking with interesting wine. You can't beat the warmth you feel when you enter a local and the owners greet you with a knowing smile.
For upcoming events and more, visit atthetable.co.uk.