“The English contribution to world cuisine: the chip.”
— Kevin Kline, “A Fish Called Wanda"
LONDON — English cooking has earned a worldwide and well-deserved reputation for being, well, lousy.
The writer Somerset Maugham once caustically observed that to eat well in England, it was best to have breakfast three times a day. The infamous character Sweeney Todd complained that Shepherd’s Pie “didn’t have any shepherd in it,” though there are probably greasy spoons across the United Kingdom where you could have made that argument.
It’s certainly a pretty fair bet you won’t find bubble and squeak or eel pie on the New Orleans Saints or Miami Dolphins’ training tables this week as they prepare for Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium.
“English food got a bad rap completely fairly,” London-born restaurateur Jacob Kenedy said. “We used to have rich food culture. But in postwar years, this country took a real hammering. There was not a lot of food left, and people forgot what food was and how to cook it.”
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While the worldwide British Empire is no more, the world in recent years has come to these merry isles and helped the cuisine approach England’s undisputed levels of history, culture and influence. If Shakespeare were alive today, he might follow up a performance of “Julius Caesar” with a dish of Peruvian halibut cactus.
London is an international melting pot, so it’s not surprising that pot is filled with all kinds of food: Indian, Thai, North African, and probably a place that has a great Viking buffet.
You can even get Himalayan. Kalezo Ra Chyau, anyone?
Not to be left out, and certain not to be outdone, is Cajun food. While a Google Maps search for Cajun restaurants may turn up a Five Guys burger joint — tasty, but in this case gastronomically well off the mark — the real thing is here if you look hard enough.
“Generally, people love it,” said Tom Browne, owner of the traveling pop-up Cajun restaurant Decatur. “My favorites are the expats who come in after they haven’t eaten (Cajun) for awhile.” Browne’s chargrilled oyster plate, infused with imported Crystal hot sauce, was named the best dish in all of London in 2016 by a local entertainment magazine.
In London’s Islington neighborhood is Regent’s Canal, a waterway that will remind you of a slow-moving South Louisiana counterpart. Alongside it, you’ll find Plaquemine Lock, Kenedy’s homage to his Louisiana ties and the state he loves dearly.
“When I say I want to go there and die, I really do,” Kenedy said. “I love the culture and the people. I’ve never been welcomed like that anywhere.”
Already having launched a pair of Italian restaurants in London, Kenedy decided back in April to open a pub with a Cajun flair. Customers can come in for a pint of ale — or a hurricane — while feasting on boudin balls, chicken, shrimp and homemade andouille gumbo or boiled crawfish, caught from English waters where they took over after being introduced decades ago. Shrimp and grits are a local favorite, too.
Louisiana-themed murals, painted by Kenedy’s mother, cover the walls. One is of the steamboat Carrie B. Schwing, a boat named after his great-grandmother, the first craft through the restaurant’s namesake lock in 1909. It looks like a spot that would be at home on the actual Decatur Street in the French Quarter — almost.
“It needs a few years of age and chaos,” Kenedy said. “It’s very new.”
Kenedy’s grandmother, Virginia Campbell, was born in Plaquemine, and deserves a story in her own right. She was an actress on Broadway and in Hollywood before marrying the writer John Becker. They moved to Rome, where Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini attended their lavish parties. It’s said Fellini based two important characters in “La Dolce Vita” on the couple. She died in February 2016 on her 102nd birthday.
Given the locally sourced ingredients, the food at Plaquemine Lock is exceptionally faithful to the Louisiana originals. The same can be said of Browne’s justly praised chargrilled oysters, which don't come from Grand Isle but the English Channel off Exeter.
Raised in Nottingham in central England, Browne didn’t have a natural tie to Louisiana like Kenedy. He fell in love with the state and its culture while touring Louisiana with a band he played drums for back in 2009. He left determined to give his native land a proper taste of ours.
“I came home underwhelmed by the representation of New Orleans food in the U.K.,” Browne said. “I said, ‘We can do better than this.’ ”
Foodies can currently find Browne’s Decatur eatery at a place called Pergola, a woody food-court-like open-air venue near London’s busy Paddington train station.
“Eating New Orleans food takes you to a place in your mind,” Browne said. “In a hard gray city like London, you can take them, but sometimes the cultural references get lost. There are so many similarities between the U.K. and Louisiana, the way we love to eat and hunt.”
Maybe Cajun food will eventually take over here like the American crawfish did.