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Last Friday’s Sun’s exposé, which ‘outed’ Gordon Ramsay’s Clapham prep kitchen – which supplies his three gastropubs and Foxtrot Oscar with many pre-prepared ingredients – has provoked quite a debate.

Or is it just a storm in a teacup? Or part of the 'get Gordon’ campaign which seems to have gripped the national media? Well, just because there’s a get-Gordon campaign going on, it doesn’t therefore follow that the exposé is just a storm in a teacup. For anyone who cares about the future of British dining out, it may, in fact, be the most important debate that’s broken out in the food world for a long time.

As Jay Rayner put it in the Observer, gastropubs lie “at the heart of Britain's fragile restaurant revolution” – “outside the major cities, in what used to be gastronomic wastelands, the best restaurants are now all gastropubs”. We think Jay’s implication is right: kill the gastropub ethos, and the hopes of decent cooking at reasonable prices across the UK are pretty much dead.

Perhaps in reaction to what seems to be a general media get-Gordon campaign, however, more foodies than one might have expected seem to have decided that boiling in the bag is fine – see, for example, the views of various contributors to the debate on egullet.com. The most common defence put forward, however, strikes us as simplistic. It often boils down (ho ho) to: i) pre-prep kitchens can ensure consistency; and ii) the efficiencies of pre-prep kitchens help restaurateurs give customers better value; therefore, a ‘factory-style’ approach to pre-prep must be a Good Thing.

The potential pitfall of this argument, however, is clear: the same pitch could equally well be made on behalf of Café Rouge, or any other unappealing chain you cared to mention. It’s therefore difficult to see what the argument really adds.

Indeed, what catches our attention about the debate is how few of the many obvious concerns about pre-prep have been properly aired. Here are half a dozen that occur to us.

1. Central pre-prep leads almost by definition to very similar dishes across a group, which may in turn create an impression of a lack of inspiration. (We criticised Ramsay’s pubs for precisely that in Harden’s 2009.) This lack of inspiration will, of course, be most obvious to those who ‘follow’ the chef or group concerned.

2. Similarly, pre-prep would seem likely to tend to lead to a menu which does not change or evolve over time. The closer you get to an industrial approach, the further you get from making the best of what’s in the market that day, which is what the best cooking – at all levels – should be about.

3. Pre-prep will tend to concentrate on the most popular dishes, which may militate against menu development: customers are less likely to be offered new tastes, and thereby be given the opportunity to be educated and entertained.

4. Can chefs in a central factory put quite the same passion into their work when the ultimate customer is entirely theoretical, rather than just on the other side of the swing door?

5. Can food have much personality when the chefs who are preparing it for the ultimate customers are doing so to a formula?

6. And how, in such circumstances, can chefs on-site fully understand the food they’re presenting to the customers and the processes that have gone into it, thereby enabling them to evolve their skills?

The proof of the pudding is of course always in the eating. There clearly are efficiencies and savings to be had from central pre-prep, and these can theoretically contribute to customers getting better value at the end of the day. But there are also significant hurdles and pitfalls, particularly for anywhere seeking to offer an experience which rises above the run-of-the-mill.

PS It may be that the above analysis is misplaced, and that prep-kitchens have no discernible causative effect on standards at all. As regular readers may know, Harden’s survey over the years has indicated that there is a broad general correlation between increased scale of operations and reduced quality. Only the larger operations will tend to have prep kitchens, of course. But, as a matter of logic, this doesn’t actually tell us that it is the prep kitchens which are responsible for the generally lower standards in evidence at the larger groups.

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