Can we do better? Being respectful of "Other People's Food"
We cook food from all over the world, for people from all over the world. Could we be doing it better?
Chermoula spiced bream, tomato spinach and saffron potatoes, with a grilled courgette, mint, pomegranate and broad bean salad with halloumi croutons. Part of this week's Moroccan menu.
At Just Hospitality we’re big fans of podcast The Sporkful, and we especially love its slogan - "It’s not for foodies. It’s for eaters." Its unpretentious glee when it comes to good food and how people eat it is something we relate to - as workplace caterers our job is to make food everyone can enjoy. And after catching up on The Sporkful’s short series Other People’s Food, we had some other things to think about too.
This series asked some big questions about how you can cook food from different parts of the world while respecting people’s cultures and the food they love.
This is a really important question to us. We cook a brand new menu every day and 50-60 different dishes every week, and that means cooking food from cuisines from just about everywhere, frequently from countries that none of our chefs hail from. Just this week we offered a Moroccan themed menu on Tuesday and a Colombian one on Thursday.
So are we doing this respectfully? How should you approach different cuisines? We wouldn’t claim to offer the definitive version of any dish. We research the food as much as we can and then try and create a menu that is true to the cuisine and that will also give all of our diners something they’ll enjoy, and continue to improve the dish every time we cook it.
But one comment in episode five of Other People’s Food stuck with us. This came from Dan Pashman, presenter of The Sporkful:
“In the first episode of our series I talked to Nick Cho, who’s a Korean American listener who was upset with me putting my own spin on a Korean dish, and one of the things I came to understand only after I talked to him (was)... if people want to mess around in their own home with their own ingredients go for it. If you want to eat, go for it. It’s when you’re putting yourself forward as an authority or a spokesperson...
What I didn’t understand was that I perceive myself as a guy messing around in my kitchen but I have a food podcast - I’m on Cooking Channel. It’s not how other people see me.”
That’s a great take home for us. Our chefs are highly skilled, but naturally they can’t know everything - they’re guided by curiosity as much as expertise. Sometimes we might adapt a dish to be a salad or soup, depending on the needs of a particular day - but do all of our customers know that?
Do we have that same problem - that we perceive ourselves as food lovers who just want to share that love, but our customers feel we present every dish on the menu as the “right” way to cook it? If that dish means a lot to them, if it’s something they’ve eaten at home for years and the taste of it conjures up fond memories, it could be frustrating to see us cook a version that feels all wrong. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve with our food.
So we want to say - all of our food is a permanent work in progress. We change our menus every day, and we're a fairly small company whose main aim is to make people happy. They say you can't please all the people all the time, but it happens to be our job to at least try. In the past that's meant, for example, making a dish a little less spicy than the traditional version and putting the hot sauce on the side. But we also want to make sure that the people who are really attached to a particular dish can enjoy it the way they like it, and that our menus are respectful tributes to the cuisines we take recipes from.
Tell us what you think
Our goal is always to get it right without anyone having to ask us, but if you ever eat one of our dishes and think “this doesn’t seem right”, you can tell us. We’ve adjusted recipes before because customers have said they don’t taste authentic. We’re always open to hearing feedback and suggestions, and we always want to talk to you about how we work and our approach to food. Tweet us, chat to our staff, send us an email. We’re all ears.
Spreading the love
Here’s something else we’ll get into the habit of doing. Our themed menus are really a small snippet, a preview of a cuisine. They’re not the last word. And luckily, London is a city absolutely teeming with people who have lived their lives completely immersed in all kinds of ways of cooking. So when we shout about the dishes we cook, we’ll get online to highlight the places in London you could go to learn more, the blogs you could read, and where the specialists are doing really amazing work.
Meet the experts
We’ll also continue to do something we’ve always done, which is, where we can, to invite those specialists to our sites, to serve our customers directly and talk to them about the amazing food they create. They’re the best people to do it, after all.
Okay, this is a complicated topic! If you have any thoughts or ideas (or feedback about a recent dish) we’d love to hear them. Tweet us @JustHospitality or comment away.