LONDON, United Kingdom ― The food revolution has been going on for two decades in Britain. It has long since passed from radical social change to marketing opportunity, but every once in a while food can become big news again.
That happened recently when Tim Anderson of Racine, Wisc. won “MasterChef” (think Bravo’s “Top Chef,” but for highly competent amateurs). He is the first American to win the title, which is news enough. At 26, he is also the youngest winner ever. But it was his winning menu that has this nation's food lovers talking.
It started with a trio of burgers celebrating cities where Anderson has lived: the L.A. burger (Wagyu beef tartare, smoky lime and jalapeno marmalade, avocado and butter bean mousse), the Tokyo burger (monkfish liver, umeboshi ketchup, jellied ponzu, matcha mayonnaise), and the London burger (curried lamb cheeseburger, apple and ale chutney, raita mayonnaise).
The main course included tastes of three continents in one bowl: Kyushu-style pork ramen with truffled lobster, gyoza and aromatic oils.
For dessert, he served a trio of British favorites: sticky toffee creme brulee with blackcurrant stout sauce, rhubarb crumble with custard, and cheddar cheesecake with whiskey jelly.
It was all prepared within two hours, and he made every condiment and even rolled his own gyoza dough!
Judge Gregg Wallace said of the meal: “Inventive is one thing, but inventive and delicious is nothing short of incredible.”
The menu and the man say a lot about British cuisine two decades after the first edition of “MasterChef” confirmed that something was bubbling under the traditional British view of food. People were no longer content to eat the cliche'd but very real boiled vileness for which this island was famous. The result was a flowering of restaurant and home food culture across the country. London even turned into a restaurant city that in many ways is superior to New York.
But the home-grown wave has crested and international fusion is increasingly the order of the day. Young cooking brains don't come more international than Anderson's. And few start from such unpromising haute cuisine origins as Wisconsin, home to cheese and fried cheese curds, bratwurst, pie, and beer, lots and lots of beer.
Beer is how Tim Anderson made his way to food and beer is still how he earns his living. Despite his new national acclaim, Anderson still goes to his day job managing Euston Tap, a craft beer pub in the old gatehouse to London's Euston Station.
Anderson grew up with beer in Racine although he acknowledges, "There's an awful lot of crap beer and an awful lot of crap cheese in Wisconsin." But, he adds, "there are also tons of good craft beers and cheesemakers working there." Not that he knew much about the artisan food movement while growing up.
Anderson’s food journey began in Japan, his first stop after graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles. Curious about the culture, he signed up to be an English teacher and was sent to Kitakyushu in the south of the country.
Prior to Japan his diet and knowledge of food is what you would expect of an L.A. undergraduate from the Midwest: burgers and Mexican food. The first thing that struck him about Japan was, "the pure bizarreness of the food."
But his interest moved quickly beyond that. Which came first, Japanophilia or foodophilia? "They were simultaneous and inseparable." Inevitably beer played its part because, in his words, so much of Japanese food goes well with it.
He also found that Japanese cuisine frequently does not conform to the cliches. "It's not always refined, a lot of it is quite ugly and rough."
Like his favorite dish, tonkatsu ramen, a noodle soup. "You make a thick broth with pig's trotters and bones, almost like a gravy. There's so much flavor. The other thing I liked about Japanese cooking is there's room for variation. Each location has its own variation on tonkatsu ramen so in every town you get a slightly different set of ingredients."
Besides a love of Japanese food he found a wife in Kitakyushu. Laura is similarly international in origin and outlook. Her parents are Italian and Japanese and she was born in Britain. They moved back to London on her passport.
Once again, Anderson found his life entwined with beer. He was the beer buyer for Whole Foods and repped a Danish beer. But he was not particularly happy in his work.
Like most of Britain's foodies he became addicted to watching “MasterChef.” The contest regularly draws 8 million prime time viewers to BBC 1 ― a huge number in this country of about 62 million. The program is made for the Beeb by independent production company Shine and is enormously profitable ― so profitable that Shine was recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for 415 million pounds ($676 million), although that may also have something to do with the fact that Shine is owned by Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth.
When Tim read about auditions for the next series, he decided to enter. "It was time to shit or get off the pot,” he said. “If I'm not happy being a beer salesman and I'm going to make cooking my career I had to try."
The audition dish that got him onto the program was a Japanese riff on fish and chips. The secret was the batter. "You need really cold, lumpy batter and hot-hot oil. If the batter is not cold enough it will burn the fish."
How did he learn that? Did he spend hours in Japanese restaurants watching chefs do their thing? "Most of my knowledge of Japanese cooking comes from the internet. I read different ideas and play around with them."
Like using monkfish liver as an ingredient. Anderson explains that on “MasterChef” there are three forbidden ingredients: eel (a non-renewable fish stock) and veal and foie gras (because of the controversial ways those foods are produced). Anderson really wanted to cook with foie gras and he claims monkfish liver is close in texture and flavor to it. Apparently in Japan chefs slice the liver out of the fish, roll it tightly in cling film, press it, chill it and then slice it and serve as a foie gras substitute. For his burger, the young chef put Japanese bread crumbs on half of it, then seared it for a minute on each side.
Now Anderson has won the big prize, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to taste his food anytime soon. "Other than the kudos, you don't win anything when you win ‘MasterChef,’" he explained. But he is being modest. Other MasterChef winners have found backers and opened restaurants straight away. Anderson, however, is planning to be an unpaid apprentice to some top chefs around London.
His medium-term game plans is to get into high end catering and "build the Tim Anderson brand." After that a restaurant is a possibility ― perhaps a fusion burger bar.
Meanwhile Laura is the breadwinner. "I'm a kept man," he said, smiling. But not quite yet ― until the end of this month, Britain's “master chef” is still ordering beer from suppliers and figuring out the logistics of the barrel cellar at the Euston Tap.