The day is frigid with the banality of being post-Christmas and pre-New Year. The excitement of one day has passed and the excitement of the other has yet to come. It rains monotonously in a grey, cold drove that depresses the senses and serves as a reminder that the largely universal joviality of the season is nearing an end. Chefs are exempt from the feeling of good will during this time of year. People are far too hungry for that. They eat and eat as if the word ‘excess’ had grown so filthy it was expelled from our language and the very idea of digestion become blasphemous. I no longer like December, not many in this trade do. The month is long, without respite, and the dichotomies between life inside and outside the kitchen pulsate in your head like an egg being boiled. The most noticeable thing is the lack of daylight, how it doesn’t even enter your consciousness, it’s just darkness and the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen. Darkness and heat. The heat never changes. It’s hot enough that the cold doesn’t even feel cold.
That’s why I find myself walking down the rain-slicked pavement of St. Benedicts Street, Norwich. A good place if you like to drink; cocktail bars, gin bars, good bars, inevitably expensive bars, all with large windows that look onto the street and the passers-by. I once worked with a chef who lives on this street, he told me that in the early hours of the morning the street would be populated by heroin addicts, prostitutes and benefit claimants waiting to sign on. “A fuckin’ drugged-up weirdo knocked on my door just to ask if I had a paperclip he could borrow.” Since 2015 the street has played host to a previous Michelin-starred chef. It is also within close proximity of my alma mater and is now an odd concoction between being an upscale gourmandise destination and student bohemia, with all the pessimistic angst and poetry readings to go with it. It’s like the area got halfway through gentrification until it couldn’t work out what to do with all the poor people, addicts and students. Either way, the cheap student labour helps if wealthier people want their food and drink delivered to their table.
Norwich still doesn’t have a Michelin star but I am not on the look out for one. I have been feeding people for too long and feel malnourished in both body and contentedness, so I am out to indulge in a conscious gluttony by visiting a restaurant that came recommended by a colleague. “They’re butcherin’ whole fuckin’ lambs man, guttin’ fish, shit like that,” he said. Not one to pass up eating an animal that was butchered on-site, I tolerate the rain and arrive at a restaurant called Farmyard. It fits the bill of a place located on Benedicts Street; large windows that watch my miserable approach and pink neon lettering above the doorway that contrasts the pallid green frame. I walk in, without a reservation, and as the waitress approaches me, I ask for a table for one. People are always puzzled when you ask to dine alone. There is never a table set-out for just one person; the act of eating, let alone dining out, is so innate with sociability that eating alone disrupts this dynamic and the very conventions of table layout. Superfluous glasses, napkins and cutlery are hurriedly rushed away as if to limit the shame of being alone at a table. When a man dines alone there is a sadness, even pity, to it; a woman dining alone is almost unthinkable and something I have never encountered. I refuse to think like that. To believe that eating alone is a sign of social awkwardness or weakness of character. I enjoy the company of good waiting staff, my own company and most importantly, I am here to eat, not talk.
They use the word ‘bistronomy’ here. French origins with that word of course, like most things culinary, and started by chef Yves Camdeborde back in 1992 when he struck out on his own, leaving the Hôtel de Crillon to start La Régalade. Haute cuisine but with bistro pricing, that is the fundamental idea of bistronomy. Relaxed fine dining without the bullshit pomp and ceremony is what most ambitious restaurants are now becoming in an attempt to democratise good food cooked well. Farmyard has all the aesthetic hallmarks of bistronomy; the modern brutalism of polished concrete flooring and exposed concrete ceiling; Edison bulbs housed in metal, skeleton light shades; a wine rack that improvises as a dividing wall between the bar and restaurant; white brick tiles that frame the open kitchen and provide the restaurant with its theatre; menus are printed on paper, unconcerned with formality and suggesting continuous reinvention, and are reassuringly limited. I am always pleased to see a restrained menu, especially when I am expecting to eat well, as large menus lack focus and almost always mean shortcuts are made in providing so much food. I don’t order for myself. I never feel the need to be confronted with too much choice when eating. If I am invited to a friends to eat I don’t expect to be asked what I want, I expect to be served whatever the host likes to cook and I feel restaurants shouldn’t be so different. I want what the kitchen does best, not what my whims may decide they do best. That is why I enjoy the company of good waiting staff — they ensure a good meal.
I am served by a slender woman with dark features who I imagine to be Spanish, but maybe I only think this because of the way she walks between tables with assured movements like that of a Spanish dancer. She also orders from a reasonably priced set-menu for me with confidence and knowledge, taking into account the bleak weather and my own weathered appearance. First I am brought lamb kebabs predominately spiced with chilli, coriander and cumin served alongside labneh, which is just natural yoghurt that is drained of its excess whey to create a thicker consistency yet retain the sour flavour. The labneh is topped with dukkah, a spice mix made from whole toasted spices including coriander, cumin, sesame seeds and hazelnuts. It is well balanced with the spices not overpowering the lamb and the labneh is cooling in its contrast and the red Merlot that was recommended is strong enough to withstand the spices. To follow I am presented with a chicken breast with celeriac, truffle purée, sprout tops and jus. I am dubious about the purée and, given the pale colour and texture, my guess would be it is actually celeriac purée seasoned with truffle oil but is rich and well made. The sprout tops don’t offer much apart from some greenery and a slight bitterness but the chicken itself is cooked perfectly fine.
I eat contently, guided by the grace of my waitress and the watchful eyes of the chefs as I sit directly in their view. The red wine relaxes me from the stresses of the month and the food comforts my tongue and my hunger. I feel relieved to be out of the kitchen, as if I have been delivered to a site of tranquility, bathed in natural light and sated of my appetite. The competency of the chefs and the spirit of good cooking fills me and I am consumed with the pleasure that food can offer and the knowledge that it can always bring me relief when I need it most.