Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Home cooking with Ferran Adrià, Google UK HQ
On Tuesday 27th September Ferran Adrià will be in London to promote his new book, The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià. In celebration of this, we would love to invite you to join a family meal at the Google Building from 12.00pm to 14.00pm with Ferran who will be dishing the meal up, followed by a talk from him to discuss the importance of a family meal.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I realise my own relationship with Adrià's work is slightly more complicated than some, but only a fool would dismiss the massive impact - for better or for worse - El Bulli has had on the way people eat in restaurants. And having tried the best - and worst - of the experimental chef's product in Spain (and only just lived to tell the tale), I was genuinely interested to see what he could do for more humble dishes. True, I'm no hard-boiled Ferran Adrià fanboy, but I like a Caesar salad as much as the next man, and trotted off to Victoria with high hopes. What could go wrong?
The answer, in case you're wondering, was more or less everything. Firstly, it turns out there are two 'Google Buildings', a fact we (that is, myself and the small gang of food writers and bloggers invited along that day) were only alerted to once we had cleared security and been given sticky name tags at the wrong one. Once we'd trooped 100 yards up the road to the correct building, cleared security for a second time, been given a different plastic badge and herded into a glass lift to the 1st floor for yet another security routine then the 3rd (no sign of any stairs), it was all starting to get a bit stressful.
I realised I was losing my appetite (shocking, I know) and couldn't at first quite put my finger on why; then it struck me. The whole experience, the visitors' pass, the unfamiliar strip-lit corridors, the awkward procession past office workers queuing hungrily for lunch while you tried to avoid eye contact, it was like waiting for an interview. I'm sure the original idea of having Adria's food served in an office canteen made vague utilitarian sense, but the reality of it was unpleasant and oppressive - nobody eats at an office canteen out of choice, they all have to be there. This is not a comfortable, restaurant environment. This is high school.
Shown to a reserved table right under the noses of queuing Google staff, we were told food would start arriving in five minutes, and patiently waited. A good twenty minutes later, with no sign of anything happening, one of our party got up to see if he could find anyone in charge, and after disappearing over the far end of the canteen came back with news that Adrià along with various other far more important (I don't mean that to sound too cynical - I'm quite aware of food bloggers' position in the grand pecking order) top-flight PR people and journalists were having their own private Adrià-time, and we had essentially been forgotten. Not long before I decided to give the whole thing up and sulk off home, someone eventually appeared with the news that, in fact, we needed to queue up for food after all, and after rather embarrassingly herding us towards the front of the lunch line (the people behind us were either used to this kind of thing happening or hid their frustration very well), we started loading our greasy plastic trays with salads and charcuterie.
Objectively, I think the food was quite nice. It's probably not the greatest compliment in the world to say it's the best work canteen lunch I've ever had, but I should, in all fairness, give them that much. The lamb kebabs were moist but under seasoned, the risotto was diabolical (you could have used it as an industrial sealant) and most of the "hot" food... wasn't, but I liked the Italian ham selection and the breads (neither of which Adria had anything to do with) and there was a very nice fresh lime and guava drink to wash it all down with. But by this stage, the battle had been lost and I found it very hard to ignore the fact that there we were, on the "bloggers table", left to pick up our own lunch well out of sight of where the real action was happening, surrounded by hundreds of Google employees presumably rather nonplussed that a PR company had chosen to feature their lunch break as part of some kind of ironic office-themed book launch.
Now, in many ways, food bloggers have it easy - possibly way too easy. We write what we want, when we want to, we get offered free meals, we (very occasionally) get sent on fancy press trips with goodie bags and kitchen tours and flattered with attention from PRs and restaurants. The downside, such as there is one, is that we do it all for free - just for the sheer nerdy, obsessive love of it, but there are certainly worse ways to spend your free time. And I can understand why anyone reading this would think I have no right to moan about yet another gratis lunch being not quite up to scratch, I mean, who cares? Certainly not Adria, whose (very good in fact) book will no doubt be a huge success, and certainly not anyone too high up at the PR company in question, who accused me of throwing my "toys out of the pram" when frustration got the better of me and I tweeted about what a miserable time I was having.
But the point is, there are better ways of going about these things. I've been to some PR events where proceedings have dissolved into complete shambles from the very first moment but they've still been great fun thanks to just a general sense of graciousness and hospitality. It's not about the fact we had to wait around, it wasn't so much the disappointing food or the sterile (and, if I'm going to be honest, rather culty) atmosphere at Google HQ, it was the feeling that we weren't really needed or fulfilling any kind of noticeable role. And maybe we weren't, but as I say, at least try and pretend we were - or don't bother inviting us in the first place. "We thought you'd be grateful", was the defensive response from one of the PR people when we voiced our annoyance at having been left to our own devices in a staff canteen for the best part of an hour and a half. "I know", I thought.
Anyway, apologies for the protracted rant on issues that affect no more than a handful of people in London, and I promise normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. The happy fact is, most of the PR people I have contact with are enthusiastic, knowledgable and thoroughly competent. For every incident like the above there are hundreds that are a joy to be involved with and whatever you might think about the consequences of bloggers (and journalists for that matter) getting too close to PR companies, when the relationship works, it's to everyone's benefit. And yours, dear reader, too - I picked up a copy of The Family Meal from one of the friendlier PRs today (well of course I did, I may be ungrateful but I'm not stupid), and I shall donate it to someone picked at random from the comments on this post. As ever, agreement, argument, abuse and lunacy all gratefully received.