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Salt Bae lovingly holding a chopping board topped with a steak, while wearing a suit, tie, and sunglasses

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The Best and Worst Food Moments of 2021

Salt Bae, Salt Bae, and more Salt Bae

Mr Bae.
| Jean Schwarzwalder

It is the tradition at Eater to end the year with a survey of friends, contributors, rovers of the industry, and professional eaters. Even a year like this one. For 2021, the group were asked 13 questions, covering the best meals and the worst tweets alongside 2022 predictions and dining standbys. Their answers will appear throughout this week, with responses related in no particular order; cut and pasted below.

Following the best newcomers, restaurant standbys, and best meals, and restaurant openings to watch in 2022, it’s time for the best and worst food moments of 2021.

Adam Coghlan, Editor, Eater London:

Best: A real toss-up between dining rooms feeling like dining rooms again and Salt Bae bank robbing Knightsbridge with a slab of steak and a mobile phone.

Worst: This, this, and this.

James Hansen, Associate Editor, Eater London

Best: Watching Salt Bae and his infinite meme economy confound and corrupt the restaurant establishment.

Worst: The rancid Ivy Asia ad campaign, and moreso, that it must have passed through so many channels unchecked.

Anna Sulan Masing, food writer and Eater London contributor

Best: Summer. It was a rainy old time in the UK, but it was warm and because restaurants had opened in Spring with outdoor seating only, everyone (restaurants and guests) were prepped for being outdoors. It was just simply joyful to be eating in restaurants; there were tables on pavements, people were getting vaccinated, we understood the landscape much better. There was a cautious buzz and connectivity. It was a #WineGirlSummer, and damn the wine tasted good — along with all the snacks and plates of food at every spot I could get to.

Worst: When a celeb chef advertised a curry night calling a bunch of dishes from across South Asia as “Indian,” then changed it — after being gently corrected — to the “Indian Asian Continent.” Then defended cooking this food because they spent time in South East Asia. Then claimed bullying when people continued to gently (although maybe with a bit of “lol, what?”) educate. (The description was eventually changed to dishes “across Asia,” although the dishes were only South Asian, lol.) And, the thing that none of those (mainly white) people defending said chef didn’t understand, was that no one was offended because the whole thing was just so funny.

Imagine thinking you can cook — and make money off of — food outside of your culture and be so lazy that you don’t even take the time to understand where and what that region of the world is called?! And then not be humbly embarrassed. Wild. HILARIOUS. The absolute audacity. Admirable, really; if only many from that culture aren’t being routinely marginalised and systematically excluded from so many aspects of society, including the food world. (NB: casual racism and homogeneity of culture creates a political climate where dangerous racist policy can happen…)

Jonathan Nunn, food writer and Eater London contributor

Best: Everything that surrounded Salt Bae coming to London and the effortless way he made a fool of every naysayer, every nerd chef complaining about his wagyu, every critic who tried to engage with Nusr-et as a normal restaurant. He created a whole ecosystem of hype, copycats, critics and coverage, and he did it through posting, culminating in him posting 27 consecutive Instagram stories of negative newspaper articles, all without comment.

Worst: The Evening Standard trying to link people eating at Nusr-et to food poverty in London and the cuts to Universal Credit. The Evening Standard was edited by George Osborne.

Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer and Eater London contributor

Best: Writing my book, The Philosophy of Curry, published by the British Library in Spring 2022. It’s about the cultural history of curry, and there’s a chapter in which I give a detailed description of Indian restaurants in London in the early 20th century, including a 1940s chain that was like the equivalent of Dishoom.

Worst: The Elizabeth Haigh plagiarism scandal and the way it was handled — or not handled. It was baffling and sad and has left so many question marks.

Sean Wyer, writer, researcher and Eater London contributor

Best: Going for an evening walk on 12 April, and sitting down outside Andanza for a glass of sweet sherry, in the knowledge that so many people across the country are simultaneously drinking from a glass that is not their own for the first time in the year.

Worst: If by “egregious” you mean “racist,” there are a number of contenders, but The Ivy Asia’s swiftly-deleted promotional video was a particular low point. A depressing glance at 2019’s “Most Egregious” list shows how little has changed in two years. Even before the video, the entire premise of the restaurant chain has always been to profit from reductive stereotypes about East and South East Asia. The continued existence of a market for this kind of restaurant is itself egregious.

Emma Hughes, writer and Eater London contributor

Best: For me, my first capital-L Lunch at Quo Vadis after lockdown.

Worst: Being presented with a truly inedible, mickey-taking plate of deep fried pigeon legs (which may or may not have come from a former resident of Trafalgar Square) at a very hyped new north London pub.

George Reynolds, writer and Eater London contributor:

Best: The day the restaurants reopened for sit-down dining was one of the most purely lovely things I have ever experienced, not (just) from a selfish/personal perspective but because it was abundantly clear how happy everyone was to be back enacting the sort of verbs that for the previous few months had always come with an asterisk attached: cooking, eating, drinking, talking, laughing. We were at Rochelle Canteen, and midway through dinner my somewhat restive toddler got bored and started walking up the staircase that I’d never previously noticed in a corner of the courtyard. When we got to the top, he and I sat there for a bit, looking down at the full dining room and the overspill of contented diners in the garden and the long trestle table at which Margot and Fergus Henderson sat, pounding gin and tonics like they were water. The boy turns three in January; it has been a balm, of sorts, to know he will not remember so much of the past two years. But I hope he remembers that moment, because I always will.

Worst: Daniel Humm taking leave of Davies and Brook because Claridge’s management couldn’t vibe with his vision of a vegan-only tasting menu will, I think, go down as a funny one. I’m not saying it would have been a success — much as I loved the one lunch I enjoyed at D&B, I don’t exactly look at the stuff the (100% vegan) Eleven Madison Park is churning out these days with desire stirring in my loins. But Humm had achieved something pretty remarkable with his first London opening, turning a dining room that had chewed up and spat out Gordon Ramsay and Simon Rogan into not quite a hot ticket, but a byword for the sort of easy luxury EMP and its siblings represent in Manhattan. In this context, not to allow Humm to at least try to go full vegan feels oddly short-sighted: after all, he had already managed to persuade the hotel’s borderline-mythical “core” audience (like, old rich people?) to come to terms with a menu a million miles away from the nursery food they are supposed to like; who knows how much further they would have let him take them? Perhaps management got spooked by the so-so reaction in NYC, especially in a parlous economic climate; perhaps “full vegan” feels like a bridge too far in a country still taking baby steps into flexitarianism. But as the grandes dames of the London hotel scene seek ways to stay relevant in a world of millennians booking AirBnBs on their fucking cellphones — ahem: Cedric Grolet to the Berkeley in the polar opposite of a free transfer — team Claridge’s may have just passed up on a golden opportunity.

Feroz Gajia, restaurateur and Eater London contributor

Best: Salt Bae’s arrival in London and everything surrounded it reset the mood for a moment. Suddenly we were back to 2019 and the mood was lightened ever so slightly. It also got the public vaguely interested in how much food should really cost for about two days before they defaulted back to outrage about overpriced meat.

Worst: The wannabe food influencer who’s wanted by the FBI.

Ed Cumming, writer and restaurant critic

Best: The entire Salt Bae farrago.

Worst: Easy.

Lucas Oakley, food writer and Eater London contributor

Best: “Good soup.”

Worst: The whole Makan situation left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Daisy Meager, food writer and Eater London contributor

Best: Food newsletters and independent magazines launching and existing ones thriving has been really exciting. Some of the best essays from Vittles have landed in my inbox this year. The MSG issue of Pit (complete with baggie), guest edited by MiMi Aye, and the inaugural issue of Cheese were also particular highlights — and very quickly devoured!

Worst: The Makan plagiarism allegations were truly shocking. James’s nuanced writing on the story also captured the wider issues (that run throughout the cookbook world and the restaurant world) of recipe theft by those with a bigger reach/more power and the limitations of how memories/stories “stand in for the complicated thinking, or acknowledgement of how ingredients or methods might change across time, space, and diasporas.”

Angela Hui, food writer and Eater London contributor:

Best: Yeah, yeah. I get it he’s probably a massive dickhead and an actual joke, but it’s Turkish meat slapper Salt Bae’s year innit. Everyone lost their shit when Nusr-Et Steakhouse opened in Knightsbridge. He’s a crook, but a genius and we’re all fools for lapping it up. Beatlemania? More like Baemania. Each and every single one of us are the suckers happily being drip fed £630 steak while he looks on smiling creepily behind his sunglasses. He’s like the sun, you’re not supposed to look, but you just can’t help it. Or, the very wholesome and very well-deserved rise of chef Asma Khan and her restaurant Darjeeling Express gaining superstar international celebdom. Paul Rudd fucking loves a biryani.

Worst: How bad the food/catering at one of the multiple Tory Christmas parties were. Shit pesto and mini mozzarella balls. I’ve been haunted by this cursed tweet and now you have to too.

David Jay Paw, food writer and Eater London contributor:

Best: Any time Jin from BTS trended on Twitter or Weibo because he ate something. High on the Hog on Netflix. The fact someone decided to turn vacant parking lots into dark kitchens to deliver DJ Khaled’s wings was pretty astonishing. And #ESEAEats continued to be one of the most feelgood hashtags and community builders around.

Worst: The Ivy Asia ad, of course.

Hester van Hensbergen, food writer and Eater London contributor:

Worst: The Elizabeth Haigh/Makan plagiarism scandal.

Shekha Vyas, food writer and Eater London contributor:

Best: Watching High on the Hog was pretty joyful; how so much of the hospitality industry has weathered the constant barrage of rubbish thrown at it, still managing to stay innovative and good-humoured in one of the most challenging climates it has had in years. Also, and this is purely subjective, being able to walk more after an injury, and thus being able to eat at more places further afield. Making it all the way to North Acton for masgouf was a personal milestone and a hinge-point for my eating habits of 2021.

Worst: The whole Makan scandal and its aftermath was shocking and made me quite sad. Another being the general ambivalence from those responsible towards giving the restaurant industry any clarity or support lately has been unsurprising — but nevertheless disappointing — especially in light of the toll it has taken on people I care about.

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