GBK, You and I Eat the Same, and global food culture

As one big national chain uses the power of food to annoy and offend, a new book celebrates the ways in which grub can bring us together

Feature by Peter Simpson | 28 Oct 2018
  • Sesame Pastries in Xi'an

The world of food is pretty wild sometimes; one minute you’re enjoying a delicious bowl of jelly without a care in the world, the next thing you know there’s a massive financial scandal erupting in that chain of cake shops that have popped up everywhere. Things move pretty fast, and sometimes it’s nice to slow down and dissect a piece of food industry gubbins and point out its role in a wider cultural malaise. When shall we do that? How about right now?

Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a group of burger restaurants, one of those restaurant chains that exist to mop up city centre overspill or make shopping centres seem slightly less grim and dystopian. No shade to anyone involved – we all have to eat, and nice environments that serve food people enjoy are a good thing – but let’s call GBK what it is, which is a run-of-the-mill yet slightly fancy chain. It’s innocuous, it’s acceptable, it is basically fine. Which makes the next part of this story more than a little odd.

In mid-October, an advert appeared on Twitter from GBK, promoting their new ‘Indian-inspired’ Ruby Murray burger. In this advert, a man (let’s call him ‘this smug fucker’) stands outside a variety of independent Asian restaurants wearing a sandwich board both lauding his new burger and slagging off everyone around him. This smug fucker then starts shouting about how this new lamb burger with a variety of Indian-sounding condiments is a ‘Proper Indian’, trying to discourage potential customers from visiting one of those restaurants from earlier. He then makes a half-hearted attempt at The Robot, before being told to piss off by a disgruntled off-screen adversary. It’s a bit like one of those YouTube ‘prank’ videos only without any real jokes; it is, basically, a load of old shit.

Cut to the predictably swift and entirely deserved response. Marina O’Loughlin from The Sunday Times described GBK as “arses” trying to be “edgy”; author and chef Jack Monroe instructed them to “get in the fucking sea”; Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick said “I really cannot prepare you for how much this ad campaign fucking sucks in every conceivable way.” There weren’t many fans.

And that’s before you get into the colonial overtones of a smart-arse white Englishman shouting through a loudhailer at an Asian restaurateur about the virtues of ‘authenticity’. That’s been picked apart in more detail by Asma Khan for i and Biba Kang in the Independent in two excellent articles which you should absolutely read, but to offer a brief third take for a moment – if an indictment of your behaviour can legitimately include the phrase, “that’s before you get into the colonial overtones," you probably want to rethink a thing or two.

After the backlash comes the apology, the messages about 'getting it wrong', and the removal of the ad from Twitter. Sounds OK in theory, but as Kang writes in that Independent article, this advert was “like an inadvertent public awareness campaign... a perfect illustration of why the appropriation and bastardisation of a minority culture’s cuisine can curtail their economic prospects [in] a country like Britain.” So in this case, an apology isn’t much good if it erases any reference of the teachable mistake you initially made.

This is a common thread in social media marketing – companies act in unfriendly and troubling ways, the public find their behaviour objectionable, those companies make a hand-waving show of being contrite and then delete the offending work. ‘But if they deleted it, what’s the problem?’ Well, imagine someone were to throw a glass of water at you, and you were to become a bit miffed. They apologise, then ask everyone who heard it or made a note of it to scrub it from their memories. Their apology doesn’t change the fact that a) they thought it was alright to chuck stuff at you in the first place or b) THEY ACTUALLY DID DO IT. This is the dark side of when food, politics and business cross paths, with big companies taking whichever cultural artefacts suits their plan for the week, throwing bags of capital at the situation, then offering shitty apologies if the public rebel.

Fortunately, food is – when handled correctly – a hugely positive force for good in the world. Think of the cultures you’ve experienced, however briefly or superficially, through their food; it’s one of the best tools we have to learn about people and places other than our own. Edited by Lucky Peach co-founder Chris Ying, You and I Eat the Same is a new collection of essays that’s an unabashed celebration of what food can do to bring us together.

Grown out of the MAD community project, headed by Noma head chef and all round top food lad René Redzepi, You And I… combines nearly 20 essays looking at food cultures, traditions, restaurants and chefs from across the globe. It sets out to show that food is an example of cultural exchange, travel and trade done right; where we all benefit from people’s ability to go to new places, try new things and pass on their knowledge.

Inside, there’s a chapter on the global ubiquity of putting meat inside flatbreads, a look at the many different ways that culinary cultures use the sesame seed, pieces examining immigration’s role in building our food culture, as well as the occasional big long list of foodstuffs or delightful full-colour photo of a piece of chicken. The point throughout is that food is something to be explored and enjoyed, and that – hold on to your hats here, folks – being unstoppably rude about people while discreetly filming them in order to sell your version of their culinary tradition is *not* the only way to facilitate cultural exchange. Who'd have thought?

The book also features a chapter by Ben Mervis (of office favourite Fare magazine) on Ranjit’s Kitchen, the much-loved Indian restaurant that’s become a massive cult success among the foodies of Glasgow’s Southside and beyond. It’s a story of the positive power of immigration, our changing palates, and it also features some fantastic ideas for what to do with paneer. “Curry,” says Mervis, “is a product and reflection of cultural openness,” citing its role in religious and community gatherings – Ranjit Kaur, head chef at Ranjit's Kitchen, began cooking at Sikh temple upon moving to Glasgow, which eventually led to her now-vaunted restaurant – and its ability to change and adapt to regional ingredients and tastes while retaining its culinary DNA. That's food that can bring us closer together, without a loudspeaker or shouty dickhead in sight.

You and I Eat the Same is out now via Artisan, RRP £14.99