For too long I have kept silent, in the hope that I was exaggerating the gravity of the situation. But recent experiences have convinced me something serious is going on and somebody must sound the alarm. That somebody is me. Brace yourselves: British restaurant desserts are in a death spiral right now due to a collapse in skill and chefs’ appetites.
Oh sure, restaurants appear to offer desserts. But where once it would have been a list of tarts and mille-feuille, of savarins and delices, of things requiring proper pastry work, now there are just unstable creamy things on a plate. It’s an endless parade of panna cottas and half-arsed mousses. The kitchen will throw on a bit of granola or a fragment of meringue to make it look like a dessert, but that doesn’t alter the fact. It’s not. It’s a squirt from an udder, set to a wobble courtesy of a boiled down cow’s foot. It’s a failure of ambition.
It’s everywhere. Most recently I’ve seen it at 108 Garage: sesame ice cream with fragments of meringue or chocolate mousse with artichoke ice cream. At The Other Naughty Piglet it was chocolate mousse or creme caramel. At Box-E in Bristol it was chocolate mousse or panna cotta, which is just creme caramel without the caramel.
Dessert is an indulgence that is at risk of being forgotten
Individually, each one of these can be perfectly OK. In recent reviews, I see I’ve lavished praise on various wobbly mounds. But the effect is cumulative. For god’s sake, someone make me a proper dessert and quick. They’re the whole point of restaurants. If you’re hungry you order a main course. That’s a real physical need. But nobody needs dessert. They are an indulgence, which is why we eat out. And it’s an indulgence at risk of being forgotten.
Naturally, I have theories as to why this should be. Until relatively recently young talented cooks were required to serve lengthy apprenticeships before being allowed to open their own places. Now, courtesy of pop-ups, pub residences and the like, ever younger cooks are getting to do so. Hurrah! That’s a good thing. The problem is they haven’t worked the pastry section. All they have is a half-remembered panna cotta recipe and the instructions for the ice-cream machine.
But there’s also a growing attitude problem. Too many professional kitchens don’t take dessert seriously. The meat, fish and sauce stations are where the hardcore action is. Pastry is for wimps. As a result, I suspect a lot of the gifted pastry chefs have quit. Because of course you can still buy great cakes, just not in restaurants. They’re in all those artisanal bakeries that have sprung up in the past five years.
There are exceptions, but the level of excitement those exceptions evoke in me is proof only of their rarity value. The Snickersphere at Jamie Oliver’s new outpost of Barbecoa is a lovely thing; swoon at the rum baba at flashy new Italian Margot. But increasingly these risk being celebrated as much for their exotica as their skill. Meanwhile, the third course melts into an unending river of mildly set cream. Something must be done, before it’s too late.