Presentation is an important part of any dining experience, but can the look of the dish really make or break a meal? STACEY TEO
We’ve all heard the expression “you eat with your eyes”, but how true is it? What importance do aesthetics really have on ones’ enjoyment of a meal? It wasn’t until the advent of nouvelle cuisine that food presentation began to take on the importance it holds today. It was an exhilarating time for the culinary world with never-before-seen creations coming one after another. Plating-up became an industry buzz word and the dish suddenly offered an empty canvas which chefs used to create their own personal form of gastro-art.

In the early days Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard and the Troisgros brothers not only lightened up traditional French cooking, they also paved the way for the kind of sculpted dishes we see today. Presentation was an exciting new tool that allowed chefs to put their signatures on their dishes. But now, fifty years down the line, nouvelle is no longer new and a lot of what we see is either a copy of a copy, extremely overthought or downright silly looking.

Checking out how the food looks is the cook’s last task and the diner’s first. Food that is well-presented makes the diner want to eat it and allows them to identify the ingredients and their quality while poor presentation gives a bad first impression and means you face an uphill struggle to win over the client. The Japanese, as with so many other things, have turned food presentation into a high art. They even have a word, Moritsuke, which applies to seven very specific rules of food arrangement.

Personally I think presentation counts for about 30 per cent of the experience, the other 70 per cent of course is taste, but I have colleagues that would argue for a 50/50 split. To me one of the most important aspects of plate presentation is what it represents. Whether you are dining out or entertaining at home, presentation attests to the artistic nature of the experience, the effort behind the meal and helps set it apart from an everyday experience. This kind of attention to detail indicates that you value your guests enough to go to the trouble to try and achieve something beyond the mundane, it shows you care and that they are important to you.

As long as a dish is presentable then I’m happy with it. Don’t get me wrong, by that I mean it must look clean and simple with fresh, inviting colours and it should never look messy. I also follow the rule that everything on the plate should be there for a reason and that everything should be edible. I think the biggest mistake chefs make is to try too hard to impress with the presentation. It often makes the dish look pretentious and means they are focussing too much of their attention on aesthetics which normally is not something that makes or breaks a meal.

Pierre Gagnaire’s shrimp with gaya and popcorn

Pierre Gagnaire’s shrimp with gaya and popcorn

As a colleague of mine, Michelin-starred chef Marc Fosh says, “Food should look as natural as possible and every element should be there only if it serves to enhance the flavour of the dish. I hate inedible garnishes and towers of food that collapse and then look like a mess when touched by a fork. I know I have it right when the food looks like it was born on the plate. Of course presentation is important, but at the end of the day, it is the flavour that will bring clients back time and again.”

True, no matter how beautiful it looks, if the flavour is wrong nothing else matters. We are not making sculptures only to be admired. Eventually the client is going to taste the food, they always do, and then nothing that came before really matters.

I have been asked many times if I ever studied food design. Many culinary schools teach specialised courses in food presentation but I have always felt that they are nice but unnecessary for a chef. The most important thing is that the ingredients themselves look as good as possible.

To achieve this takes a skilled hand in the kitchen. Cooking temperatures and timing are key. For example when blanching vegetables, the water must be exactly 100 degrees Celsius, you have to add a dash of salt and then immediately run them through ice water. A good chef knows that not following these steps will mean colourless and unappetising vegetables. Likewise, overcooked ingredients not only lose their flavour but also their natural shape and colour too. Once that happens, no matter how you sculpt it, your dish will look as bland and uninteresting as it tastes. So although you may eat with your eyes, it is the cook’s hands that truly make or break the dish. My advice then, perfect your cooking techniques and the food will present itself.

Reading time: 4 min


A green sanctuary at the edge of Thailand’s oldest rainforest offers the eco-conscious a place to feel good about feeling good

With the opening of Thanyamundra Organic Resort, Thailand’s interior just got a little greener. Sitting at the edge of the Khao Sok National Park in the rolling hills of southern Thailand’s, Thanyamundra is a luxurious retreat that not only pampers its guests but the environment as well.

The nine-suite resort is housed in two golden, teak villas each decorated with a collection of Asian antiques. Inside there is a restaurant serving Thai cuisine and a spa offering traditional Thai herbal and aroma oil massages. Outside there is an infinity pool from which the land falls away to the terraces of the organic farm and beyond to a thick green wall of vegetation that announces the beginning of what appears to be an impenetrable forest.

It is the farm that makes Thanyamundra so unique. It is the heart and soul of the resort. On this lush, 25-acre lot, Thanyamundra organically grows 51 different types of fruits, vegetables and spices including everything from mangoes and pak choy to lemongrass, onions, pumpkins, three types of beans and four different types of rice.

When harvested this means that up to 70 percent of the ingredients used in the meals served at Thanyamundra come from the farm. Anything that is not used in the kitchen is sold online through Pura Organic. Furthermore, before any food spoils it is dried or dehydrated and fruits like bananas and mangoes are used for jam or ice cream and sorbets. Any discarded cuttings or waste is added to the compost to produce the natural fertilizers used on the farm. Even the dining menus are written up on large leaves from the garden as a way of saving paper. How’s that for eco-conscious?

The greening of Thanyamundra doesn’t end in the kitchen. The resort has taken numerous steps to reduce its carbon footprint to a bare minimum. Look around your suite and you won’t find any plastics other than the water bottles and even those are recycled once used and all amenities, cleaning products and even the mosquito spray are environmentally friendly.

On the grounds, guests move about in rechargeable electric buggies and the 50-metre lap pool uses an ozonater filtration system that naturally keeps the pool clean and reduces the amount of chlorine used.

Thanyamundra’s eco-efforts have now moved beyond the borders of its property. The resort has just teamed up with naturalist Thom Henley, author of the definitive tome on Khao Sok, Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls to blaze new trails into the heart of the park. Thailand’s biggest national park with forests dating back 160 million years, older than even the Amazon, Khao Sok is home to an incredible range of animals including wild elephants, tigers, leopards, Malayan sun bears, Asiatic black bears, barking deer, long tailed macaques, 46 species of snakes and almost 200 species of birds.


Helping guests take it all in, a series of walks has just been developed by Henley, who, when in residence, will actually conduct guided walking tours himself. According to Thanyamundra General Manager Shaun Dunhofen it is an opportunity to learn about and truly understand a part of Thailand few ever get a chance to visit. “Mr Henley is a walking encyclopaedia on Khao Sok and his passion is infectious,” says Dunhofen. “The trail walks he has developed offer a truly unique experience. I’ve done some of the walks myself and I can say that I’ve never been in a forest that teemed with such a profusion of wildlife.”

When he is not at Thanyamundra, tours will be conducted by park rangers trained by Henley. “As upscale tourism grows, there will be more jobs available for locals, either as guides or related jobs,” says Henley. “I’m very proud of our lead guide and his son, Mr Nit and You Chanyoo. Nit is a key part of the story, for his life encapsulates everything we are trying to do.”

It’s an inspiring story. Before teaming up with Thanyamundra, Nit supported his family by poaching. Like many of the other local farm boys,he poached to supplement his income – even though his mother was always against it. One day while out on a poaching run, he came across a wild elephant mother and baby and something happened. For a reason Nit himself can’t explain, his mother’s words came to him and he just couldn’t pull the trigger. Now he is not only one of the park’s most respected guides but he visits local schools teaching children about conservation. It is the combination of all these efforts that will help ensure the survival of this very special place for another 160 million years.

Reading time: 4 min

Tracy Emin, the wildest young British artist to have shot to fame after the Royal Academy’s Seminal Sensation exhibition 15 years ago, has calmed down and gone home to the seaside town of Margate. Or has she? Caroline Davies caught up with her at the Turner Contemporary

Tracey Emin in Margate

Tracey Emin in Margate

The exhibition includes new and existing drawings, monoprints, sculptures and neons

The exhibition includes new and existing drawings, monoprints, sculptures and neons

On an icy bright British day, a column of deliberately scruffy DFLs – that’s local shorthand for Down From Londoners – marches deliberately out of Margate station along the grey promenade of this faded English seaside resort. It snakes past the empty, half lit amusement arcades, the shell sculpture decorated tea shops, the tanning salons, the bucket and spades and the few Margate locals on the street at midmorning who turn to give each other a knowing glance. The DFLs are not interested in the superannuated charms of Margate: they are heading towards the angular cement modern building sitting on the edge of the sea wall, The Turner Contemporary, to see the works of Britain’s most famous female artistic talent. They are here to see Tracey Emin.

The show is Emin’s first major exhibition in her home town

The show is Emin’s first major exhibition in her home town

A view of the installation, She Lay Down Beneath the Sea

A view of the installation, She Lay Down Beneath the Sea

Emin is waiting in the gallery on the day I visit. Although this is a return to her hometown, in many ways, Emin never really left here. Works inspired by the town pepper her shows and anecdotes about her upbringing slot their way into almost every interview to explain her pieces, her behaviour.

“You can take the girl out of Margate,” Emin once remarked with her infamous grin. “But you can’t take Margate out of the girl.”

When The Turner Contemporary first opened in April 2011, Emin was one of the first on the scene, visibly emotional as she took a turn around the cavernous space, a trail of press at her heels.

“I never imagined such a beautiful building, an art gallery where I grew up,” Emin said at the time. “Margate’s lost 20 years, it’s been quite run down, but I think this will make a big difference. It’s fantastic, it’s beautiful.” Emin’s arrival on the day I visit for the opening of her exhibition ‘She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea’ is greeted with a gentle hush and rapid cannon of turning heads. She needs no announcement; she has everyone’s silent attention. “Welcome to Margate,” she beams. There is something of a swagger about Emin; her confident stride and her asymmetrical smile are surprisingly recognisable. Her voice is light and high, and speaking to Emin, you first are struck by her directness. She knows what she is saying and why she is here. And it isn’t only about the art.

Sex 1

Sex 1

“This is a shift in my work,” she says, looking confident if a little self conscious. “Something has happened in the last year because I am nearly 50. I am looking at art in a new way and trying to understand what it is that made me an artist, what it is that I love about art.”

The show features several images of beds, the first a series of blue painted images of Emin’s bed, her window and her chest of drawers and later a cast bronze branch lying in the centre of a stained mattress. The mattress was Emin’s, put in her studio after three years of use, the stains made without conscious effort.

“I’m not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made,” Emin says. “It wasn’t all on my own, I can assure you. It goes back to that thing of being over. It’s over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it’s gone.”

Emin is particularly clear on this point, stern even.

“The girl is gone, she’s never coming back,” she says adamantly and perhaps a little proactively.

Emin has the habit of speaking quickly and determinedly, particularly when discussing her work. It is as though she is worried someone will criticise her before she is finished, interrupting her explanation. However, as soon as the topic of Margate springs up, Emin’s tone softens.

“You’re seeing Margate at its absolute best,” she says, smiling. “Maybe not at it’s most romantic. It’s most romantic when you have thirty foot waves crashing over the sea wall. That’s quite something.”

“That is why Turner loved being here, not just for the beautiful sunsets, but for the storms and the craziness. I always say to people who want to visit the UK, don’t go to Brighton, go to Margate, it’s really dirty. It has a real edge to it.”

Her passion for her home town seems inalienably twisted with a sense of responsibility.

“I’m always anxious with a show, but more so with thisone,” she says. “I’ve been tearing myself to pieces.”

Turner was designed by Stirling Prize Winner David Chipperfield Architects

Turner was designed by Stirling Prize Winner David Chipperfield Architects

“After my Hayward show last year I thought ‘there’s no way I can do some sort of retrospective or survey show, I have to do something completely new’ for two reasons,” she says. “One I owe it to Margate for all that Margate has given me and the other reason is 92,000 people went to see my show at the Hayward. On days like this, I want the beach to be full, I want people swimming. I want Margate to be celebrated again.”

For Emin is an artist perhaps as misconstrued as her home town. She became a household name after the installation ‘Every Man I Have Ever Slept With’ was shown at the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition in the summer of 1997; yet she is a sublime draughtswoman, as any examination of her drawings will reveal. An old-fashioned artist at heart, from an old-fashioned seaside town?

“There is a possibility that with this show and with this gallery more people will come to visit than ever. Art can change things. There is a lot riding on it, not just for me but for what art can do. I don’t mean it in an ego way, I could be anyone sitting here saying that, but it is an effect that art can have and it should be positive.”

Emin’s exhibition lasted only through the summer; so is one of Britain’s truly gritty seaside towns worth a visit? “Even if people don’t like my work I still think they should use it as an excuse to come down,” says the artist with her off-centre, tight-lipped grin. “Even if you come down and slag me off, I don’t care, just come.”

Reading time: 5 min


Championed by the influential alternative gallery Beijing Commune, Huang Yuxing is one of China’s artistic stars. Here he speaks to LUX about art, life, and everything.

bei1Born in Beijing in 1975, Huang Yuxing graduated from The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in 2000. Brought up during China’s meteoric rise to the world’s largest economy, Yuxing’s work have been described as “highly political” although they do not feature humans. Instead, Yuxing’s pieces contain brightly coloured geometric patterns, originally inspired by everyday structures, deconstructed.

“What you feel from my works is my disturbance about the future,” says Yuxing about his pieces. “In my growing years, many good things around me disappeared, but new ones will appear anyway. The future is difficult to predict but it remains, it is still there even if the whole world was destructed.”

“Yuxing is from a new generation of artists that have been brought up in the period when the country has gradually steered itself from political fever to economic development,” says Lu Jingjing, director of Beijing Commune, the gallery representing Yuxing. “In a sense, they experience the influence of ideology in a much different way from the predecessors.”

“His work first attracted me with the tension he created. I think you feel the power the moment you stand in front of a Huang Yuxing painting.”

Yuxing has produced an extensive body of work with a variety of focuses. His “Diary” series touched upon different issues from internet suicide to a bird’s eye view of Hainan Island, all painted on keyhole shaped boards, intended to make the audience into peeping toms. His 2007 work, “When I need Love” saw the artist paint directly on to Ikea clocks, depicting physical brutality, recreation and loneliness, drawn together by the regular tick of the mechanisms.

“My works, which concern now will be a thing of the past. They are presented to the audiences honestly, with no sense of mystery. For me, the shapes attached with colours and feelings in my works, presented deeply, touch hearts. The mystery you feel is from the incomplete perception of the truth, but it would interest you to get into the truth which makes my works more attractive.”



Yuxing insists that he does not intend to intimidate his audience.

“If you can feel that, it means this quality lives in your heart already,” he says. “My work just brings it out.”

Reading time: 1 min

The final frontier Our columnist is a pioneer, an artist who left New York in 1994 to travel to China and establish himself as an artist, curator and commentator on the burgeoning contemporary art scene. From his unique standpoint, he outlines for LUX his views on Chinese contemporary art and its future directions MATHIEU BOYRSEVICZ

I went to China in 1994 as an artist, to get out of NYC and find some inspiration. I was oblivious to what I might find there. I was enamoured by the spirit of the scene and the intensity of the terrain. Then, there was no support system for the artists, and outright intolerance from the authorities.

There was no market or history of contemporary art, but there was a socio-cultural precedent and an impassioned will. This renegade, almost idealistic approach to art dazzled me and was something I felt artists in NYC seemed to have lost a long time ago.

There were no real venues for contemporary art; you had to seek it out, mainly in the artists’ homes. The direct contact with the work, people and stories gave me tremendous insight. The changes that have happened since then are parallel to those of the country itself. China’s art market is the second largest in the world. In the summer of 1998 there was only the recent, awkward, birth of one gallery in Beijing and one in Shanghai. Now there are tens of thousands of galleries.

The economic aspect is only one side. The change in attitude from the officialdom is astonishing. Now all the major academies train ‘contemporary artists’ and the government has sanctioned places like 798 in Beijing as ‘cultural zones’ and official tourist destinations. There are initiatives across the country, by both public and private sectors, to establish ‘world-class’ art museums. The Ministry of Culture has even established an Experimental Art Committee, served by some of China’s most important avantgarde artists.

Then there is the case of the Chinese artists on the international circuit. In the late 90s and early 2000s most of the [Western] art world politely rolled their eyes and dismissed Chinese art as another perestroika-like phenomenon. Now the most prominent galleries in the world – Gagosian, Pace, and White Cube just to mention a few – all have Chinese artists in their stable. Major Western museums are not only exhibiting contemporary art from China, but are systematically collecting it as well.

Up until the late 1990s, the market for Chinese art was mainly an export one; made in China, consumed in the West. China offered something sexy to Western dealers and curators – the rebel, the revolutionary, working against the system, moreover a communist system.

Chinese contemporary art also evolved with multicultural and post-colonial theory in the West. It made a perfect ‘other’, an Orientalist’s feast. In many people’s minds this export dynamic also impacted the nature of the work.

Westerners established the market. In the early 2000s it finally became apparent to the Chinese government and private sector that contemporary art had serious market value. The Chinese themselves got involved and the ante was raised – prices shot up, galleries and private museums opened and the system blossomed.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching some artists evolve and others sadly retrogress. I recently launched Xu Bing’s new Book from the Ground project in China and watching this artist’s evolution has been nothing short of astounding. Xu’s ability to retain his commitment to and concentration on many multi-faceted, long-term projects simultaneously, along with serving as vice dean to the Central Academy of Fine Arts is truly astonishing.

Liu Wei (the younger) is somebody who I thought in the 1990s was just following trends and would eventually fade away, but over the last few years he has become a firestorm of truly awesome production. Zhang Huan is also someone who has gone through multiple periods of metamorphosis, each one begetting the next.

Yang Fudong never ceases to amaze. Just when you think he’s repeating himself he delves a little deeper, pushes the bar further and dazzles. Ding Yi is interesting for the complete opposite reasonbecause he does nothing but repeat himself like a wise monk murmuring his mantra.

No matter what one thinks of Ai Weiwei’s tactics and the spectacle surrounding him his ability to stand up for his beliefs is truly anomalous in China. He is one of the few citizens, and certainly one of the only artists, to make his revulsion to injustice a brilliant art and effective protest. Xu Bing is another big inspiration. He approaches his artworks as a scientist might approach research. His explorations are almost like a lifelong unthreading of our global cultural spindles.

In terms of new young artists, Gao Weigang came out of nowhere a few years ago with a very mature body of work and has been coming on with full force ever since. Gao is a conceptual artist that oscillates between many different mediums with such ease, confidence and understanding of his materials, while at the same time retaining a consistent language, subdued sense of poetry, humour and temper.

Xu Zhen is the Chinese art world’s jester. Both his early work and reincarnation as ‘Made In Company’ (a collective of which Xu is the director) are not only hyper-imaginative (think the Cookie Monster surfing the internet on acid) and rich with humour but also poignant in their take on global politics.

Ouyang Chun, Lee Kit, Zhao Yao, Liao Guohe, Lu Yang, Zhang Lehua, Lin Zhipeng are all other exciting young artists to look out for. Unlike Western artists who get into art as a way to express themselves – meaning the existential angst of being alive – much contemporary Chinese art has, up to this point, been more focussed on the bigger socio-political picture. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but many artists are now looking at themselves, the personal, psychosomatic terrain of their daily lives.

Chinese contemporary art is a by-product of globalization. The history of contemporary art in China started in the late 1970s when China opened up its economy to the outside world; financial investment, literature, film, art, and culture also poured in.

On the other hand we now see a very homogenized approach to the arts, especially with artists born after 1980. They have had a different socio-economic experience than previous generations; many have studied abroad, are socialmedia crazed, drink Starbucks. Much of their work looks like it could’ve been made anywhere in the world. This, perhaps inevitable, situation evens the playing field but at the same time makes things less diverse. The current debate for artists and the creative industries in China is how to be contemporary while still being Chinese.

The Chinese economy is facing one of the toughest times in recent years but this leaves the 1%, the biggest consumers of art, largely unaffected. Those with money in China don’t have many investment options; the real estate market and stock market are bust. There was a bubble growing; maybe it hasn’t burst completely but it’s deflated. Yesterday I ran into an artist who was recently evicted from his 798 studio and returned to working at home. He said “I feel like we’re going back to early 2000 days… but it’s a good thing!” The cycles help to clean things up a bit, weed out the weaklings, and hopefully reinvigorate the art.

Mathieu Boyrsevicz is a curator and art advisor based in Shanghai and New York. Latterly Director of Shanghai Gallery of Art, he opens his own gallery space in China this autumn.

Reading time: 6 min
Rupert Shrive: Painted Lady, 2012

Rupert Shrive: Painted Lady, 2012

Serena Morton had a unique challenge to curate an art collection for one of London’s landmark historic buildings, now an exclusive members’ club. The twist: she had to complement décor ranging from Georgian grand to Zaha Hadid-designed cool. Caroline Davies discovers how she did it

How do you start curating for a space like Home House?

Before this project the art in Home House was a bit of a mish-mash. Over the years, someone would take a fancy to this or to that and it would go in. The Courtauld Institute was based at Home House from 1932 to 1976. It is a strong thread that holds the house together and we wanted to bring it back with a big statement.

We looked at Home House members. They all have a connection to London, are varied in age and are a pretty sophisticated bunch. We decided that you could make the balance of membership more interesting by really creating a solid art program, which helps draw more of a culture crowd.

Why did you decide to have individual artists in each room?

I have launched, run and directed 3 galleries, two of my own and one for someone else, and curated exhibitions in many different pop-up forms. The one thing I know is that it is much less impactful when you put a bunch of artists together who don’t really have any connections. This is happening a lot at the moment, but the connections are still forming. We don’t really have a current movement so why would you mash them all together? When you just have one thing to look at and the space around it it’s more interesting.

Home House is itself a set of rooms. It was three Georgian town houses which were joined together, each a residence so each room is different and so is the décor. Spreading the art across all the rooms wouldn’t necessarily work, but these ‘mini galleries’ allow the art to flow and creates conversation.

Which artists did you use and why?

They range in age from seventies downwards. You have some really senior artists like Ethel Walker and Simon Edmonson right down to some emergent stars like Jim Threapleton and Robi Walters who recently won the Lexus Telegraph prize.

Rupert Shrive, who has had double page Vogue spreads around the world, a huge piece in the Grand Palais and is now in the Courtauld, is on the staircase. Ethel Walker, one of the leading Scottish colourists has painted some huge panels in the dining room, they take you up to the heavens. Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis is in The Garden Room next to her; I love the scale she uses, which is physically difficult, combined with her feminine take on landscapes. I hope the dining room atmosphere elevates your palette and your senses, rather than getting indigestion because you are looking at something rather pornographic.

Jim Threapleton: 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate IV, 2012

Jim Threapleton: 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate IV, 2012

Piers Jackson’s geometric shapes are in the bar, which is the core, the kernel of the club; everything else starts to morph around that. Theo Mouxigouli, next door, is very different. He is a Georgian painter based in Shoreditch. He lives in squats and travels around with his canvases rolled on his back. His work is mainly of London, representational, all about feeling with a sense of going back to the past. I think you get a kind of mini buzz from each. Simon Edmondson is a huge heavyweight that London forgot. He has a whole installation in one big member’s lounge which is almost going to be like a Rothko chapel. He creates large interior scenes with a muted pallet, sometimes quite sexual. I think he needs to be seen again. Jim Threapleton was a film maker that has been studying at art school. It has taken a long time to work out what he is doing visually and he has not shown; it’s about slowly presenting him without too much over exposure. I loved Robi Walters’ work as soon as I saw it. There is such an intelligence and positivity about it. He is a massive star in the rising and still very young. Chris Moon is in the House lounge. The Hayward described him as a cross between Bacon and Hockney which is a rather large statement. He is a darn good painter.

How did you select the artists?

I tend to go with my gut feeling. I picked people that I hoped would appeal to a range of ages and members. All the pieces are originals, there is no edition work and they are all technical; they don’t look like things that have been made easily, you couldn’t do it yourself. There is a lot of conceptual art around at the moment and it is not that. It is nice to promote the emerging rather than fully blown. There is a gang of artists that everyone knows about in the London scene at the moment and I wanted to present something different. I am working with these people, but I am always working with a huge number of others as well. I think it’s only natural that you would promote people that you believe in.

The Octagon 02 dining room

The Octagon 02 dining room

How did you work with your artists?

All of the artists have been in to see the space. They go away, put together a mock up, come back and we talk. As a curator they trust me to say what I think and to steer the project. At the end of the day, I have chosen the pieces with them. We work together; I’m very artist indulgent.

What do you want to achieve?

I’m not trying to be clever, I’m just trying to present things that are interesting and beautiful and well made. I’m tired of going to art fairs, tired of being presented with over-priced things. I call it the “I could do that” school of art. I feel we are in serious times and we can still put something forward that is hopefully taking this to a more beautiful, hopeful, positive place.

Reading time: 5 min
Hutong, fiery food, fiery views

Hutong, fiery food, fiery views

In which our Editor-in-Chief travels from a neo-Mongolian skyscraping culinary landmark in Hong Kong to a 17th century tithe barn in Hampshire, and points between

Arriving in Hong Kong from London in the early evening, being whisked to my hotel and being checked in in-room, the call of mild has never been more powerful. A thorough room service menu, ranging from Cantonese to club sandwich, the assurance of brisk service and a half-bottle of 2009 Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, a view from the sofa across to Kowloon, and a four-day schedule of meetings starting with no respect to jet-lag at eight the following morning: why would you venture out of your luxury hotel room?

Because… well, just because a friend who owns a tour operator had told me the Star Ferry to Kowloon is the best introductory experience to Hong Kong, and because otherwise the city would be viewed for the first time through the rose-tinted spectacles of dinners, lunches and parties with friends.

And so with pockets jangling with change for the ferry ticket machine, and the hotel doorman’s slightly perplexed ministrations that it would be much more convenient for me to take a taxi to Kowloon, uncomprehending of the fact that the journey was the destination, I headed through the tropical rain, along a latticework of walkways, past hurrying locals and the odd sauntering tourist, and took my place on a seat by the window. The churning journey across the few hundred metres to Kowloon plunges you into a valley of sea between mountain ranges of human endeavour and show, the edifices on either side; and then you are in Kowloon, and ducking into the lobby of an office skyscraper just before the downpour starts again.

Strange for a Westerner to travel to an acclaimed restaurant in the lift of an office building, but exit on the 28th floor and this is the world of Hutong, a sort of Inner Mongolian gastronomic temple (I later learned that it is designed to mimic Ancient Peking) complete with contemporary bar and ravishing guests. I sat at a table by the floor-to-ceiling window and gazed at the jumble of skyscrapers, each bigger than the last, spreading up and across and out, of Central, Hong Kong, obscured sometimes for seconds by drifting low clouds of the storm and then switched on again as the sky cleared. I toasted the view with a half-litre of draft Veltins, one of German’s finest, most aromatic lagers served icecold and surprising at Hutong. The cuisine is a meld of northern Chinese with whatever else they wish to serve, and my beef fillet with Sichuan chillis was edgy, precise and focussed.

The following evening I was taken by a friend to his new(-ish) restaurant, The Principal, in Wan Chai, a formerly sleazy, now rapidly yuppifying, area along the seafront that mixes massage parlours and ultra-cool shops in roughly equal measure. The Principal is unusual for Hong Kong, I was told, in that its entrance is on street level, which makes it very usual for where I come from. You walk through a gleaming bar area and into a restaurant room that is pared back, minimalist contemporary chic. The menu is Australian in its imagination, and quite contemporary London in its simplicity. The signature starter of baby beet, yoghurt, black quinoa and micro herbs was a quadratic equation of flavours with a very complete resolution; saltbush tenderloin of lamb with sweetbreads, aubergine, chickpeas and Moroccan ras-el-hanout was not North African so much as mid-Indian Ocean, and perplexing and delightful. My friend also owns a wine business, so the Wine Atlas, with picks of the most interesting wines from around the world, was very compelling. This sort of laid-back glamour is the new Hong Kong style, apparently, and London could rather do with some of its own.

The Principal, a culinary highlight in Hong Kong’s cool Wan Chai area

The Principal, a culinary highlight in Hong Kong’s cool Wan Chai area

Business finished at lunchtime on the last day in Hong Kong, a Sunday, so a friend who runs an auction house and I wandered down at teatime to the Captain’s Bar, a legendary institution in Central, the heart of town. In a part of the world where high floors and astronomical views are de rigueur for bars, it was arresting to be in a windowless space on a ground floor, an L-shape punctuated by glass tableaux of a chess game, low banquettes, and private jet set businesspeople of no fixed abode muttering deals to each other.

This is one of Asia’s most celebrated cocktail bars, but with a 12-hour flight ahead we weren’t in the mood for cocktails, instead finding solace in the metal tankards of extremely cold, perfectly headed Asahi lager. As the Germans and Belgians – and evidently the Hong Kongers – know, beer benefits from being served correctly as much as any wine appreciates its appropriate Riedel stemware. I had never had lager in a metal tankard before, but after two, we agreed that your own personalised, engraved tankard at the Captain’s Bar was an essential item for any gentleman of the world. My friend had auctioned off two of these for charity a year or two before, but sadly they are no longer available, so I left Hong Kong with a slight sense of yearning.

Frank Gehry-designed fish on the seafront at the Hotel Arts, Barcelona

Frank Gehry-designed fish on the seafront at the Hotel Arts, Barcelona

I have wanted to visit the Hotel Arts in Barcelona for more than a decade, but despite a number of trips to the city, never quite managed to make it. Back in 1998, the world, or Europe in any case, had seen nothing like it: a new build skyscraper devoted to showing off artworks to its guests, more six-star than five. In a city as earthy as Barcelona, it is a strange and rather liberating feeling to be hoisted 20 floors into the sky and survey the scene from above, Asian-style. My room was a paragon of contemporary comfort: silence, a perfectly-sprung bed, a bathroom with the glass walls that are essential parts of a hotel designer’s repertoire now (affording more physical space as well as a feeling of it). And if you tire of Barcelona’s rather impressive (for a big city) public beach on the doorstep, you can view what is probably Spain’s finest overall collection of contemporary art or retire to the hotel’s own pool, stretched out just below the landmark Frank Gehry fish sculpture, which could be said to have kickstarted the whole contemporary design trend in northern Spain. The pool’s architecture is such that it reminded me rather of the Villa d’Este’s pool on Lake Como, famously floating in the lake on its own pontoon, even though the Arts’ pool is very much on dry land.

Without wishing to belittle the hotel’s art offering, which is compelling and makes a stay rather like staying in a contemporary museum, my highlight was art of a different form, in the restaurant Arola. This is food with wit, taste and just enough conception: cod esqueixada with tomato pearls, very particular patatas bravas, sea cucumbers and razor clams with kalix (which reminded me of samphire) were wonderful and not overdone. The artistry of the form of the dishes was matched by their culinary execution; here is another example of modern Catalan cuisine taking its inspiration from Ferran Adrià’s now departed El Bulli but painting with its own palette, so to speak. And one of the most refreshing factors was its informality: Arola is conceived as a modern take on a tapas bar, so the service was swift and down-to-earth, not remote and Michelenic.

Home territory this summer featured a tour of the ancient hillsides of the Cotswolds, and a delve further south. I was struck a few years back when a friend who owns some of the coolest hotels in the world told me he considered Barnsley House as his favoured retreat in the now-ultra-fashionable hillsides and wooded folds between Oxford and Gloucester. England has recently been host to a number of spectacular country hotel openings, and I went expecting a grand super-Cotswold resort, only to be greeted by a bijou little property, all higgledy rooms and hidden staircases, tastefully refreshed in a contemporary style.

Our suite was in a former stable, approached along stepping stones in its own private garden – very St Tropez and perfect for a shy rock star making an escape with the wrong person’s girlfriend, in its seclusion. Inside the palette was light and contemporary, an offset to the building’s history. It was all very refreshing, although the garden and private water area could perhaps have been more organic, more easy on the eye. For those who want country without Country Life, Barnsley House is probably a perfect weekend stop.

As traditional and cosy as Barnsley House is New Gen Chic, Woodstock’s Feathers hasn’t changed much, barring the required investment in keeping everything up to date, since I used to escape there on Sunday evenings with friends while a student at Oxford in the late 1980s. This establishment fixture can accurately claim to be the Gateway to the Cotswolds; it is also on the doorstep of my favourite stately home in the area, Blenheim Palace.

The Feathers has been nurtured lovingly into the modern era, not jolted into it: fabrics and warm and autumnal, grandfather clocks still stand, history is alive, but there is a lack of fust and fuss. There is a feeling of cosiness, enhanced by the enclosed (in the best possible way) nature of its 17th century buildings. Service is friendly and country, not town, and you get the feeling that a gin and tonic, rather than a raspberry Martini, will be the favoured drink here for a century to come – although naturally they will serve you both.

Fifty kilometres is a distance that means nothing in China (unless you’re breaching the border between Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region and China proper). In England, it takes you to a different part of the country, as a foray to Norton Park from the Cotswolds attested. Steep rolling hills are replaced by broad downs and open plains, and Norton Park makes the most of these views and its wonderful and vast 17th century tithe barn. Here is a new-style country hotel of a different perspective; the simple, well-sourced and thoughtfully cooked country cuisine tells the tale of a country whose culinary history has been jolted out of a shameful past in just the last 10 years.

Norton Park’s new building is removed by some ancient woodland from its original manor house, where we found snug ceilings, secret passages, and a lawn leading to a duckpond and an overgrown copse; ancient meeting modern.

Darius Sanai is Editor-in-Chief of Condé Nast Contract Publishing

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