At a vast industrial warehouse in northeast London, light floods in from rows of skylights and cold air rushes through great gaps in the walls. Beside a bookshelf with an illuminated “Dancing” sign ambiguously strapped to its top, a bust of Elvis watches a dozen cooks prep ingredients and stir steaming pots on makeshift counters fashioned from folding tables. Past a pair of sliding steel fire doors, a second enormous room holds another brigade, plating and photographing the finished dishes. A camera crew – producer, boom-mike operator, cameraman – huddles in a clump, filming everything.
The scene could be mistaken for a particularly ambitious pop-up restaurant, or a music-video shoot for the world’s hungriest band. But it’s just another day at the studio that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his team have commandeered to prepare his latest cookbook. Through the commotion, Oliver spots my travelling companion, chef Derek Dammann, and they greet each other like the old friends they are. They’ve known each other since the early days of Oliver’s first restaurant, Fifteen, where Dammann was chef de cuisine. Today, Oliver and Dammann are business partners in Maison Publique, a hip but rustic gastropub in Montreal’s east Plateau that combines British traditions of hospitality with great Canadian ingredients.
Dammann and I, who are writing a cookbook together, have come to England not just to hang out with Oliver, but to gauge the temperature of London’s best gastropubs. The idea of the gastropub (a modernized pub that serves high-quality, local, seasonal food) is important to Oliver not just because of his partnership with Dammann, but also because his earliest restaurant experiences were in such places.
“I grew up in a pub,” he tells me, referring to the Cricketers at Clavering, a 16th-century pub and inn in Essex owned by his father. “I was pulling pints at age 8. I was clearing tables at 10. Thirty-eight years ago my dad was probably one of about five people putting amazing food in an old 14th-century pub. At that time you never had good food in pubs ever. Dad had a proper six-person brigade even then.”
Today, according to Oliver, “The lines between Michelin-starred food, pub grub and street food are now completely broken.” That’s why we are here: to sample the definitive evolution of the English food not in white-tablecloth rooms but in the kind of everyday places where people gather to break bread.
As our first test of this theory, Oliver sends Dammann and me out to Bray, a little town outside London that’s home to two out of four of England’s three-star Michelin restaurants: the Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, a restaurant where Dammann staged (did a culinary internship) back in 2004. But we’re here to visit the village pubs that just happen to serve some of the best food in the country.
We drive west on the M40 through the outskirts of the city, past countless pubs with names like the Griffin, Swan & Bottle and the White Hart. The city gives way to countryside and rolling farmland, but we’re never more than a couple hours’ walk from the nearest tavern.
Ducking under the low door of the Crown, a relatively “new” 16th-century Tudor-style building, we enter a room of unreasonable charm. Low, beamed ceilings and small windows create a crepuscular coziness. A gentle fire burns in the brick hearth as I settle into a corner table with a pint and announce to Dammann that I’m here to stay.
“I know, it’s great,” he responds. “This is where all the staff from the Fat Duck comes to drink.” That might explain why Blumenthal bought the pub back in 2010. Despite my desire to live out the rest of my days at this table, we eventually move on to dinner at Blumenthal’s other pub, the Hind’s Head, a short stroll down the road.