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The Writer Changing How London Thinks About Its Food

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On a recent, gray, nothing sort of day, I met Jonathan Nunn, a tall, bearded man in a charcoal-gray cape-like overcoat outside a snooker hall in Edmonton, a suburb of North London that was previously known to me for its reservoirs, its fast roads out of town, and a serviceable branch of IKEA. Facing us, across the street, was the Yayla Food Centre, a grocer and halal butcher, offering “Turkish, Polish, Bulgarian, Eastern Europe, African and Etc. Products.” Nunn, who is thirty-three, is the founding editor of Vittles, an influential three-year-old newsletter of British food writing, which he started publishing during the pandemic. Until recently, he was also the star contributor at Eater London, an outlet of the Vox Media-owned family of Web sites. Nunn’s specialty there was mapping zones four, five, and six—the most distant rings of the city’s transport network—London’s equivalent of the outer boroughs. “People think I have a Sherlock Holmes-style mental map of every restaurant in London,” Nunn told the Guardian last year. “Which I do, to some extent.”

Nunn is becoming to London what Jonathan Gold was to Los Angeles or Robert Sietsema and Jim Leff have been to New York—an urgent and exuberant champion of the best and most far-flung places to get Gujarati egg snacks or vegan Rastafari pasta. For reasons to do with race, class, and the structure of the British newspaper industry, it is arguable that no one has ever really done this before—and certainly not with such impact or in such a short period of time. “He is a phenomenon,” Adam Coghlan, Nunn’s former editor at Eater London, told me. Not everyone likes Nunn. He acknowledges the size of his ego, which can make him dismissive, especially of mainstream restaurant critics. But no one doubts his knowledge or his stamina for walking and eating his way through the city’s under-explored culinary neighborhoods. Nunn told me that people who come out and eat with him for the first time are often disappointed. “This is the thing of the job,” he said, about an hour into our traipse through Edmonton, Ponders End, and Enfield Wash. “The amount of mediocre food I eat is immense.”

Our first stop was Lincoln’s Patisserie, a Caribbean bakery on the ground floor of a low-rise housing project not far from the North Circular, an expressway that often features, to somewhat melancholic effect, in Nunn’s writing. (He grew up in Bounds Green, another North London suburb, about five miles to the west, which he describes as “slightly nowhere.”) Lincoln’s is an Edmonton institution. It has been around for more than thirty years and specializes in sweets and cakes and bright turmeric-colored, crumbly Jamaican patties. Nunn ordered a beef and a salt-fish patty and some carrot cake to go. I did not tell him I had made the mistake of eating breakfast. As an eating companion, Nunn was solicitous but firm. “We’ll swap in a bit,” he said in the street, handing me the beef patty and warning me not to bite into it immediately. “Sometimes it microwaves in your throat.”

Nunn published the first entry on Vittles on March 22, 2020—the day before Britain entered lockdown—for reasons that included “concern, boredom, and spite,” he said. Restaurants, and the tea shop where he worked, were closed. “I want to platform a new type of food writing in the U.K.,” he wrote. As a critic, Nunn has focussed overwhelmingly on the cooking of diaspora communities—he has a special love for Cantonese food—normally in the suburbs. “The reason London is a great food city, in my opinion, has nothing to do with what’s going on in central London,” Nunn told me. “Well, it’s a part of it. But it’s not what I value.” Nunn also kicks against what he sees as the insular, calcified world of British newspaper restaurant writing. At Vittles, he has made a point of commissioning new and diverse writers. “I feel like, as food has become a bigger and bigger cultural thing, the media has kind of shrunk,” he said, once our patties had cooled.

Three years after its launch, Vittles has some forty thousand subscribers (Nunn did not disclose how many of them pay five pounds a month for its paywalled content),employs two editors—Sharanya Deepak and Rebecca May Johnson—and publishes twice a week. The newsletter mixes thoughtful, sincere food essays, often with a leftist bent—“Indian Biscuits: 1947-2022,” “The Hyper-Regional Chippy Traditions of Britain and Ireland,” “The State of British Restaurant Criticism: Part 1”—with actionable information for your lunch hour or weekend, including the literally life-changing “99 Great Value Places To Eat Lunch Near Oxford Circus Which Aren’t Pret.” There are also restaurant recommendations from chefs, sommeliers, and Nigella Lawson. (Visitors to the city might enjoy Vittles’s “Newcomers Guide to London Food.”) Nunn tends to publish the more discursive material on Mondays and straighter restaurant writing on Fridays. “Vittles makes its subscriptions through the Friday slot, but I feel that what Vittles is is actually the Monday slot,” he said.

On a good week, people want both—and especially whatever Nunn has been eating recently. “His writing makes a huge tangible, day-to-day improvement to people’s lives. He’s also a really gifted prose writer,” Ned Beauman, a novelist and a close follower of the London restaurant scene, said. “Like, how many writers are there on the planet who combine those two things? Almost nobody. That’s a big reason why he’s become such a cult figure.” Lawson is friends with Nunn and was an early supporter of Vittles, although she confessed that she was too lazy to follow many of his recommendations. “I mean, I do want to go,” she told me. Lawson observed that Nunn’s work—and, by extension, Vittles—is as much about places and belonging as it is about restaurants or chefs. “Essentially, he’s writing about communities, as are the writers he commissions, and it just happens to be through food,” Lawson said. “The scope is so warmly peopled, which is actually what food is about.”

Nunn was keen for me to try kokoreç—a type of bulging Turkish sausage, cooked on a long spit over glowing coals. “It’s, like, intestines stuffed with minced offal,” he said. “The outside is really crispy.” We reached an industrial estate where Nunn knew a place, but the kokoreç takeout counter was inaccessible, sealed behind metal screens next to a truck from the Metropolitan Police dog unit. “That looks like it’s gone,” Nunn said.

He finds a lot of places on Google Maps—stray pins, advertising specific dishes—and seeks to add them to his personal atlas of the city. As a child, Nunn thought he might become an astronomer. “I have a mind that, like, accumulates things,” he said. He found it easy to memorize the world’s capital cities and national flags. A couple of years ago, he was eating at an ostensibly Mexican joint in Brixton when he noticed a Honduran flag on the wall. “It was, literally, like a Columbo moment: there’s something going on here,” he said. “And then it turns out they have a whole secret Honduran menu.” Recently, Nunn’s preferred way to share what he eats has been in the form of Instagram stories, which are ephemeral. (He photographs food deliberately badly.) He is increasingly careful about what he discloses to whom. In January, 2020, Nunn and Feroz Gajia, a friend, chef, and fellow food writer, celebrated La Chingada, a tiny Mexican taco restaurant in Surrey Quays, which was only a few weeks old, in Eater London, only to find it suddenly exposed to mainstream newspaper reviews and lines of expectant Londoners. “Not everything needs to be for everyone,” Nunn said. “I guess the best restaurant writing should maybe move the people who get it and understand it.” Like other explorers, he doesn’t want the journey to become too comfortable for everybody else.

Last year, Nunn edited “London Feeds Itself,” a book of twenty-five essays about food and eating, each based around a particular urban element—“The Park,” “The Market,” “The Club.” (“The Allotment” takes the form of a Q. & A. with Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour Party leader.) Each chapter was bookended by a handful of restaurant suggestions. Nunn described “London Feeds Itself” as the most fully realized version of what he is trying to achieve with Vittles. (The book is now sold out.) After it was published, however, he found himself feeling low.

His friend Gajia suggested that he take a trip to Los Angeles. Nunn told me that, on his first few days there, in February, he was annoyed at how good and inventive the food was. He had some fries at a Guatemalan night market that were better than any he had eaten in London recently. “Why can’t we get these small things?” he wondered. He met other food critics, such as Tejal Rao, from the Times, and pored over the entries at L.A. Taco. He considered the post-Gold void and kept a note on his phone of every dish that he ate. By the end of the visit, Nunn had got his bounce back. Inspired by L.A.’s tacos—their infinite variety and cultural promiscuity—he was going to investigate a possible London analogue: the biryani, whose many inflections span high and low, from Mauritian to Bangladeshi. “It can be ceremonial, or it can be completely everyday,” Nunn said. “It can be, like, three pounds fifty, or a supper club invites you and you’re sat next to Paul Rudd.”

Source : The New Yorker

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