Ben Mervis on new food magazine FARE
We talk to Ben Mervis, editor of new food magazine FARE, about taking an in-depth look at the world's cities and their food
Cities, much like armies or millipedes, march on their stomachs. Think about your fondest memories or your favourite locations in your city of choice, and chances are there’s food and drink tied in there somewhere. Part of what makes city life so exciting is digging out those favourite places, finding that cafe that suits you best, embracing a food trend that might never make it outside of your neighbourhood. Well, it turns out it’s not just you doing this – everyone, in every other city, is at it as well.
FARE is a brand-new Glasgow-based magazine which takes a deep dive into food culture, moving one city at a time, with the goal of distilling some of that city’s essence into a lovely print artefact. Issue one takes a 200-page dive into Istanbul, a city on the border of Asia and Europe that's seen more than its share of column inches in recent years (attempted military coups and government crackdowns on dissent do tend to attract a bit of media heat). The issue takes a look at the places locals eat, the people who provide the spark to get things going, the dishes that keep the city moving – with nary a large museum or snappy list of Old Man History monuments in sight.
At its helm is Ben Mervis, formerly of world-leading Copenhagen restaurant Noma, and a contributor to Netflix’s spellbindingly interesting food documentary series Chef’s Table. After studying Medieval History in Glasgow, Mervis moved to Copenhagen – “within 24 hours of my first visit, I knew I wanted to live there… I didn’t have an apartment, or know anyone, or know any Danish.” From there, he’d go on to work at Noma alongside esteemed head chef Rene Redzepi.
Following that experience, and with a background in journalism from his Glasgow days, Mervis decided that – as our collective food knowledge continues to build – it was time to create a project to provide an in-depth approach to food writing. “As the world becomes more globalised,” he says, “we have a more nuanced understanding of cultures.” He cites Chinese food as a classic example – start talking about the unique properties of Sichuan cuisine and you’re likely to get into a conversation that you might not have a few years back. “These are real people [and cultures], so we should give them the respect they deserve.”
FARE’s goal of covering specific foodie situations in extreme close-up makes it something of a spiritual successor to Lucky Peach, the cult food magazine which sadly closed earlier this year after publishing in-depth, exciting and hilarious issues on topics such as eggs, ramen, breakfast and street food. As for FARE’s central conceit of covering one city – and only one city – at a time, it’s all about applying a focus to the end result.
“You’re putting blinders on,” Mervis says, “but in creative professions, putting blinders on helps you to really focus. You know exactly what’s going to be going down… and what could you really say about a whole country in 200 pages? [Stick to] one city, you can really reflect that place.”
Much like a reflection, FARE isn’t designed to be a totally objective representation of what it's showing. The debut issue is not intended, Mervis says, to be a guide or directory for Istanbul, any more than an Edinburgh street map can tell you everything you need to know about the delights of the Scottish capital. Instead it’s all about capturing “some of the essence of what it’s like to experience the city through its food.”
And why Istanbul? “It’s familiar and unfamiliar; turn down one street, and you’re in another world. There’s this beautiful and profound chaos; you think ‘how are more people not interested?’” FARE’s debut issue takes in the city’s market traders, its tea vendors, its recipes and some of its idiosyncrasies, but while still presenting an honest assessment of what is currently a troubled city. “We didn’t want to present a vision of the city that says ‘everything’s perfect.’”
With issue one in the books FARE’s future, Mervis tells us, lies in what he terms the ‘B-list’ cities. Not your Londons and New Yorks, where the sheer weight of people and production makes them difficult to assess, but those that can still wear their character on their sleeves without being overburdened with expectation and other people’s baggage. “Everyone wants Lisbon,” he tells us, following a reader poll in the wake of issue one’s release. “It’s the ‘It’ city.” A host of other possibilities then spring up in conversation, with Mervis stating that, eventually, an in-depth look at Glasgow’s food culture and history is a dream.
But ultimately, FARE could run and run, as our metaphorical appetite for insider knowledge and literal appetite for delicious things mean the idea is only as finite as the number of cities that exist. And cities and their food cultures, Mervis points out, are all unique in one way or another. “You can only ever call two cities similar if you’re not really looking at them. It’s like saying two people are ‘similar.’” Of course, that all breaks down once you get to know someone, and if they’re anything like us, then food tends to be as good a place as any to get started.
FARE issue one is out now, £12, faremag.com