The Emperors New Burger



I’ve never had a bad McDonalds. I know some people who think all McDonalds are bad so let me clarify my point. I’ve never had a McDonalds that disappointed me or failed to deliver to on what was promised. I’ve had Big Macs in Manchester, quarter pounders in London and double cheeseburgers in New York, and all of them have been exactly what I expected and exactly what I wanted. They’ve never let me down.

I have, however had some terrible burgers, like the one that barely made it past a mouthful at the first and only football match I ever (accidentally) attended. Back in the bad old days of the 1990s, before the ‘The Five Gourmet Byron Burger Guys’ had arrived, I went to a burger based restaurant that shall remain nameless. I’ll just say that it was festooned with music memorabilia to look at whilst you awaited your food and leave it at that. It felt like such a let down, and if anything the Hendrix guitars and Beatle posters threw the seeming mediocrity of the overpriced food into stark relief. Expectation is what matters here. I’d never expected that a burger from a greasy looking clapped-out van at a friendly between Tottenham and Welwyn Garden (don’t ask) would be any good, so I wasn’t disappointed. But having to pay massively over the odds at a themed restaurant for the ‘experience’ made me genuinely angry about the food. I felt like I’d paid far more for it than it was worth.

I love a fine dining experience as much as the next metropolitan elite art world hanger-on, but by God, as the price goes up so does my expectation.

Take for example the YBAs’ favourite nose to tail dining emporium – St John, in Smithfield. Famous for serving everything but the oink, including perennial menu classic roast bone marrow, St John is a perfect example of expectation management. You may look at the menu and think that fried ox heart is somewhat basic for nearly twenty quid, but when the then head chef Chris Gillard served it to me I had to call him over just to let him know that I’d never put anything in my mouth that tasted so good. Up until that point I’d always thought that when overly flowery restaurant critics spouted off about being moved to tears by a morsel of this or a daub of that were exaggerating for the sake of drama, but, eating at St. John, I did feel genuinely emotional.

The skill of the cooking did the talking and for that silver-tongued devil of a dish I’d have happily handed over my pin number and given them free reign over my overdraft. 

Since then I’ve tried following the recipes from the St. John cook book but I’ve never come close to recreating the textures and flavours handed to me on plates with the minimum of fuss in that fantastically minimalist dining room. 

All I want when buying food is for the agreement between me and who ever is serving me to be honoured. McDonalds and St John both fulfil their side of the bargain and leave me satisfied. The worst thing a restaurant or a burger joint can do is over promise and under deliver – see also psuedo-gastro pubs filling their menu’s with talk of local, organic, artisanal provenance then plating up sub-Harvester fare. I know a frozen chip when I see one and no amount of handwritten blackboards, slate serving platters or jam jar cocktails is going to pull the wool over my eyes. The food just has to be authentic to itself and then I’ll be happy. High-end cuisine or cheap fast food, I don’t mind, as long as it is what it says it is. It is possible for a scotch egg to be worth five pounds but woe betide the pub that serves up one hard-boiled and wrapped in indeterminate grey meat. I can visit a petrol station if I want one of those.

(Originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 39 – Autumn / Winter 2017)