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Restaurants embracing story telling trend

Dinner time and story time are becoming increasingly entwined as chefs and restaurateurs weave characters and narratives into their concepts.

Once upon a time, before humans learnt how to write, they told stories, no doubt huddled around a fire in a dark, dank cave. Oral stories were an important way of passing down information from generation to generation and provided a prism for understanding the world. It’s impossible to know when the first story was told. Figures painted on the walls of caves have been found that are thought to date as far back as 15,000 BC, but it wasn’t until 700 BC that the first printed story emerged. Carved onto stone pillars, it told the tale of Sumerian king Gilgamesh.

Every culture throughout history has relied on storytelling; it is one of the facets that makes us human. A good story educates, entertains and enchants its listeners and is, at its heart, a seducer. We crave them both for escapism and the chance to relate to the characters. Restaurants and bars are latching on to the power of storytelling and are weaving both characters and narratives into their concepts. One of cooking’s greatest storytellers, Heston Blumenthal – the man who brought us snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream – revamped his menu at The Fat Duck in Bray this September to sharpen the focus on storytelling.

Heston Blumenthal’s take on the Kellogg’s variety pack

Taking a multi-sensory approach, dishes play on the fact that we derive pleasure through food not only from its taste, but also from the happy memories the flavours in the dishes evoke, as flavour, scent and memory are inextricably linked.

“Every dish at The Fat Duck has always told a story and had a reason for being. I wanted to evolve that into a wider, more personal experience for my guests and combine all my discoveries thus far of story telling, nostalgia and memories,” says Blumenthal.

The result is a new menu that takes the form of a map charting a childhood memory of a day at the beach taking in rock pooling and eating ice cream, which Blumenthal hopes will trigger diners’ own memories of family holidays by the sea.

The bespectacled chef was ahead of the curve in injecting theatre into a meal and delivering a multi-sensory experience. Curious and playful by nature, with his new menu Blumenthal hopes to recreate some of the magic of childhood, taking diners back to a time when they dared to dream and let their imaginations run wild.

Another Michelin-starred chef weaving narratives into his dishes is Tom Sellers, who is so passionate about the idea that he called his London Bridge debut venture Restaurant Story. Sellers’ dishes are both inspired by childhood memories and fairytales. Sadly no longer on the menu, his famous three bears’ porridge dish was inspired by Goldilocks and featured three rustic bowls of porridge: one too salty, one too sweet, and one supposedly ‘just right’ made using salt stock, condensed milk and buttermilk.

Sellers reveals that the perfect porridge was never the favourite, as guests either preferred the umami-rich salty one or the very sweet one. “I came from a working class northern family and ate porridge every day in the winter, so the dish has a lot of meaning to me – that’s how I work, every dish has to mean something,” says Sellers, adding, “I create dishes in my head based around a story – it’s part of the process for me. As a chef you’re creating your own language and the ingredients are the letters.”

Chef Tom Sellers of Restaurant Story

Another theatrical dish at Story is the Dickensian-sounding beef dripping candle. Diners are served what appears to be a lit white church candle in an old fashioned candlestick. As the flame burns the beef dripping ‘wax’ trickles down into the base of the candlestick and can be devoured with hunks of peasant bread. A burnt onion dish meanwhile, is inspired by a childhood visit to the fairground.

“From books to nursery rhymes, everyone loves a good story. Food is one of the most romantic things in the world and storytelling one of the most beautiful – they inspire, motivate and trigger all sorts of emotions – there will always be a place for storytelling,” says Sellers, who, like Heston, believes strongly in the connection between taste and memory. “Whenever you eat something you relate it to an experience. Food evokes a time, a place, a moment, and we can use it to inspire,” he says.

But while chefs are telling stories from their childhood through their dishes, a clutch of creative restaurant and bar owners are going a step further, creating fictional characters around their concepts.

Early in on the trend were Charlie Gilkes and Duncan Stirling of the Inception Group, whose London venues include 80’s-themed club Maggie’s in Cheslea, Battersea pizzeria Bunga Bunga and Cahoots bar in Soho, which channels the Blitz spirit and post war euphoria in a clapped out tube carriage.

The pair’s most ambitious concept to date is Mr Fogg’s in Mayfair and the recently opened Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden, which take Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days hero Phileas Fogg as their inspiration. Stepping inside Mr Fogg’s feels like travelling back in time.

The bar has been designed to resemble Phileas Fogg’s front room, and is filled with trinkets from his travels, from white tiger rugs and birdcages to stag’s heads. “We imagined Philes Fogg as a real person and pictured what his house would look like when he retuned from his travels. Our story starts when he gets home,” reveals Gilkes. For their latest trick, Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden, the pair created the fictional characters of Fogg’s actress aunt Gertrude and her housekeeper Fanny McGee.

Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden is based around the character of former actress Fanny McGee

The story goes that aunt Gertrude bequeathed Fogg a pied-à-terre on St. Martin’s Lane in her will, which he allowed her housekeeper to turn into a tavern, keeping the salon on the first floor to himself. The brilliance of these concepts is that guests are at liberty to immerse themselves in the story, or they can equally sink a few cocktails and leave without connecting with the narrative at all.

“With each visit, people tend to notice something new – the interiors reveal themselves in layers. Some people who haven’t read the book think Phileas Fogg was a real explorer, which is fantastic,” enthuses Gilkes, who is planning a series of Mr Fogg’s spin-offs, including a wine cellar, tearoom and townhouse. “Narratives give concepts context, which makes them more believable, but for the customer to buy into them, they have to be well executed,” he warns.

Seymour’s Parlour an the Zetter Townhouse inspired by the character of “wicked uncle Seymour”

Indian street food chain Dishoom has also created vivid backstories for each of its four London sites. The original Shoreditch restaurant takes its inspiration from the Bombay cafés that were popular in the 1960s, while its newest addition on Carnaby Street plays on the popularity of the location during the swinging sixties via Rolling Stones posters and ‘60s memorabilia. Invitations to the launch party were sent inside 7-inch vinyl records.

Also nifty with a yarn is Mark Sainsbury, co- owner of the Zetter Townhouse, who recently opened a second boutique hotel in Marylebone. Set in a Georgian townhouse, the Clerkenwell original is said to be the abode of “great aunt Wilhelmina”, a character created by Sainsbury to bring the concept to life via Russell Sage interiors that include red velvet sofas, old portrait paintings and terrifying taxidermy.

The sister site across town centres around the character of “wicked uncle Seymour”, a gallivanting gadabout and cad about town who has stuffed the space with treasures from his travels. Sage is said to have based the interiors of the cocktail bar, Seymour’s Parlour, on Sir Joan Soane’s museum in Holborn. Sainsbury created the colourful characters to give guests the impression that they are staying in a private home rather than a hotel. Keen to keep his cocktails in line with the Victorian- inspired interiors, mixologist Tony Conigliaro dipped into the history books for ideas, weaving ingredients that were popular at the time into his drinks, from Dubonnet and Madeira to Old Tom gin.

While a number of venues have created fictional characters for their guests’ benefit, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, pioneers of London’s grand café culture, do things differently. A keen raconteur, prior to the opening of Fischer’s in Marylebone, inspired by turn of the century Viennese cafés, King sent around a six-page memo to staff setting the scene of the site in an imagined backstory based on a black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged couple he found at a flea market in Vienna.

Fischer’s in Marylebone is inspired by fictitious Viennese couple Otto and Maria Fischer

King imagined the pair in the photo to be Otto and Maria Fischer, the former Jewish and the latter Catholic, who had run a successful restaurant in the centre of the city but were forced to flee due to rising anti-Semitism.

Arriving in London in 1927, they set up Fischer’s in Marylebone, filling it with Secession artworks and specialising in dishes from home like schnitzels and strudels. “The story is more for the staff and the designers than the guests. Storytelling only comes into play if the building doesn’t have a history.

A site needs to have a heart and a soul. If the building doesn’t have a history then you need to invent it otherwise restaurants become homogenised,” says King, who, rather than spelling out the story to customers, believes they get a sense of it subliminally when they visit.

“Great design doesn’t scream for attention; it withstands scrutiny and becomes part of the story of the place,” he points out. Another of Corbin and King’s venues with a vivid backstory is Colbert in Sloane Square, set up by fictional Frenchman Pierre, who opened a Parisian-style bar in west London in the 1920s, which proved so successful, he was able to turn it into a bistro. “There’s a portrait of Pierre hanging above the bar. Inventing a character helps the creative process as every picture and design decision can be made with them in mind,” says King.

From The Wolseley in St James’s to Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly, a night at one of Corbin and King’s restaurants can feel like winding back the clock to a more glamourous era, though King insists he doesn’t suffer from ‘golden age syndrome’ (rose tinting the past) and didn’t set out to create a sense of time travel. “I’m realistic enough not to be a nostalgist, but literature and opera are spellbinding and help create the background,” he says.

Supper time and story time are becoming increasingly entwined, feeding a consumer need for fun, all-consuming experiences. It’s not enough to be served three courses and a bottle of wine when you eat out anymore – savvy diners are in search of multi-sensory stimulation and an evening with the same elements of surprise and intrigue as a night at the theatre. “London is the leading city in the world now to eat and drink.

You can get any cuisine here, so it’s more important than ever to offer something different and we do this via creating an atmosphere and offering an experience,” says Gilkes of the Inception Group, who believes the next big culinary trend will be immersive dining experiences, from Breaking Bad bars to Twin Peaks supper clubs, as people seek not only to be entertained, but to become part of the show.

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