Let me tell you about fine dining in the 22nd Century. I was taken on a pastry chef at XL-Eat-Elite in Purley Way back in 2078 (when, as few now remember, it was called Cosmo-XL). Tomorrow I turn 85 and so am legally permitted to retire. I am going to kill myself. I harbour an odd nostalgia for this restaurant. It is now considered the finest All-You-Quadruple-Can restaurant in Croydon. It is certainly the hugest. I’m not sure whether I can say I feel ‘proud’; ‘responsible’ would be claiming far too much; maybe just ‘involved’. Is there a better word, for describing how a decent – yet replaceable – cog should feel about their role in a mammoth machine? I have been, at least, involved.
So perhaps it is fitting that tomorrow my flesh, blood and bones will be variously diced, stewed, curried, souped and sashimied for the delectation of our top-end, low-budg buffet clientele.
I am not joking. They will eat me. And I have nothing but a profound ambivalence towards this fact.
I am standing behind my counter in the Pastry Plaza. I am performing three illusions simultaneously for our punters: The Illusion of Caring About the Customer ; The Illusion of Home-Madedness; and – my favourite – The Illusion of Pride. A rotund little boy waddles past my hot caramel profiteroles uninterested, but then he notices me smiling gingerly at him (what a sweet old man!) and so he stops, pretends to find the profiteroles appetising, and scoops a dozen or so onto his plate. These are pity profiteroles; as soon as he sits down he’ll discard them into his table’s waste slot. He just felt sorry for me. He mistook the Pastry Plaza for something other than a loading bay.
I reminisce briefly on how I learnt how to cook pastry, when I was a young boy. I did it because my mother did it, and I wanted to spend time with her. She was a frugal lady, who wanted to use every last bit in the pantry. Waste not, want not, she’d say – although I’m still not entirely sure what this means.
The profiteroles boy is, being young, presumably on the All-You-Can-Eat-Classic, in other words he’s a guzzler (red place mat). He has a greater variety of food available to him now, in this room, than was available to whole societies of human beings only a few centuries ago. I look at where he goes next. He hits the crab claws hard. The claws of 7 or so crabs. Just like that. He sits down. He politely rams my profiteroles forward, down the waste slot.
Some people guzzle out of greed; some just as a hobby. Here are a couple of plate-cruisers with their EaTelemetry pads out, which record their every bite, informing them of their nutritional intake in real time. They scan the code of my filo mango croustade and decide against it: the kcal-per-minute is just too low. I catch a glimpse of one pad, which displays a calorie-against-time graph, and I see he’s going for a standard Double Peak, Double Dip strategy. You get all sorts: your maximisers, your optimisers, and your aficionados who’ve found a new celebrity intake profile on the web that they just must try out.
But most of the guzzlers just guzzle. We’re only animals, after all.
An entirely different sort of feeder is the All-You-Can-Gourmet, or picky (purple place mat). Technically they can gourmet and guzzle, so this is a popular choice. In front of me, there’s a dapper pair of pickies eyeing up my Cajun chicken pastry pie. Now they’re reading my gourmet repertoire. I am contractually obliged to provide them with anything they order that falls within these parameters. If I cannot fulfil their desires, a call is put out to freelance consultants across the whole Greater Croydon area and we do everything we can to Satisfy That Appetite™. I see one of the pickies going for old Stuey Harsanyi’s Food For Africa Whole-Lobster Fermidor. This dish actually costs an extra 20 pence, which goes to a feed Africa charity. Considerate of her. All she gets is a lobster, cooked by arguably the best lobster chef in Croydon.
The All-You-Can’t-Eats (green place mats) don’t usually venture near my pastries. But sometimes they come to gawk and giggle, recreationally, as if laughing at the price tags on the handbags in Harrods. They are each on a diet which restricts them to selecting only from certain dishes out of the 1400 on offer. I can see a can’t-eat on a Jedward Diet (recently endorsed) which restricts them to eating only citrus fruits and deep fried meats. Their scanner would beep wildly if they came anywhere near my honey puff palmiers.
Oh, there’s one of my sons. Both of my sons work here now. They’re plate people. They clear away people’s plates. There is Simon, clearing away a few plates. You would’ve thought they’d have robots to do this by now. But people are suckers for the human touch.
Anyway. The can’t-eats pay less, depending on the diet, and it’s gaining in popularity. I would’ve thought that more people would’ve been turned onto this by the Eating Aware warnings and photos of morbidly obese twenty-somethings undergoing open heart surgery, but the guzzling population is pretty resilient. Besides, Eat-Elite-Corps reassures us that only a tiny proportion of them genuinely have a terminal eating addiction.
A picky is just now ordering my pate sucrée tarte tatin. I tell him it’ll be right to his table, and toy around a little with some shiny cooking utensils before sending the order to the backroom. Just another thing on their list. There are 7 guys back there, with plenty of gadgets, working up quite a sweat. I’m just for show.
The final tine of the All-You-Quadruple-Can is the All-You-Should-Eat (blue place mat). We call them the masochists, or just freaks. They leave their autonomy at the front desk: they agree beforehand on what their exact nutritional requirements are and then a Feed Manager devises a regime which we ruthlessly enforce. All intake is monitored, with punitive measures taken if they eat over-spec. They say these days it’s harder and harder to diet, and that this is the only reliable way to watch your waistline. It’s a strange world, where you can’t trust yourself but you can trust the staff at the biggest All-You-Can-Eat in Europe.
Who else will consume my dead body? Well, we shouldn’t forget the cheap seats. Someone in the company had the bright idea of selling on the waste slot food-matter at a discount price. £2 per 100g of assorted discard. It’s pretty popular. There’s a daily queuing frenzy after the bars close.
Then there are the homeless. They eat the out of date processed food-matter (the Ood). Seems like so long ago when Legal managed to reclassify out of date content so that it could be passed onto the city’s least fortunate. This led to gains in both corporate social responsibility and waste management efficiency. Of course, some think it’s immoral to just pass the Ood onto the needy (after all, what incentive does this leave those people to find work?). Then there’s Ood for Africa. So who knows how far and wide my meat will be dispersed?
Why do we do it? Why, for decades, has there been a secret pact amongst chefs that our remains will be spread out, imperceptibly, throughout the dishes of our All-You-Can-Eat restaurants? It is now just a ritual, which we are all aware of, but which nobody would openly discuss. Is it the element of challenge required to get it past Hygiene? Is it a bizarre manifestation of a dirty, guilty pride we have for what we have spent our lives doing? Is it some sort of rolling testament to futility? I don’t think any of us really knows, and I don’t think we ever will.
Tomorrow I will be sculpted into all manner of irresistible morsels by the finest culinary artisans of our generation. I will be the meatball, I will be the chow mein, I will be the tofu, the sushi, and the sausage. I will be the starter, the main, and the pud. Maybe I’ll make it into one of my own Gruyère lattice pasties. I will nourish. I will become smiles and laughter. None of them will notice and none of them will care. Then they’ll eat some marshmallows, they’ll waddle home, and they’ll return next Friday.
Waste not, want not, as my mother always said.