What’s the connection between the independence referendum, pop up cafes and Helsinki? Bear with me.
Restaurants and cafes are rarely seen as centres of radical thought these days. Even though Camille Desmoulins chose the Café de Foy to rouse his countrymen in July 1789 – two days before the fall of the Bastille and the start of the French revolution. In fact, coffee-houses were already information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and ordinary people. In the words of a 17th century London writer and café regular; “So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any. In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny.”
These days though Starbucks rules the roost and facilitates community action about as much as it pays tax. Restaurants appear even less socially conscious. It’s true that some modern chefs have exercised clout– Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fight against dumping fish through discards and Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign spring to mind.
But for the majority of Scots restaurants are a luxury. And for the majority of serious political types an irrelevance. In Scotland, “real politics” focuses on the independence referendum, employment and wages. “Real life” outside work (still) revolves around football. Real food, real local control, real relaxation and real fun figure almost nowhere in our earnest, political plans. And yet we know a poor quality of life produces early mortality, under-performance and passivity. Poor Scotia.
Almost 250 years ago, the wit and bon viveur Samuel Johnson toured the Inner Hebrides with his Scottish companion James Boswell. After just a few days travel he made an observation that cut to the heart of Scottishness. A stern Presbyterian culture with no messing, no fripperies and no time or tolerance for folk fiddling with choice, daintiness or taste;
The Scots have attained the liberal without the manual arts. They have excelled in ornamental knowledge [without] the conveniences of common life. They are more accustomed to endure little wants than to remove them.
Of course poverty explained almost all of that behaviour. But when incomes started to rise the quality of the Scots diet generally didn’t. Quite the opposite. Our feudal and uniquely concentrated system of land ownership made it hard for even farm workers to grow their own food. City workers in casual employment and poverty wages simply fuelled up – disconnected from the land and its bounty. Now that disconnect is a fixed part of our urban culture. What else is the largely mythical Fried Mars Bar and the very real fish supper fixation than a collective two fingers to the Pollyanna types who believe food can be home grown, home-made, affordable, nutritious and fun? Government research shows Scots consume more sweets, soft drinks, pies and processed meats and eat less fruit, veg, fish, milk, yogurt and cheese than folk in any other part of the UK.
If what you eat is what you are, Scots are in bad shape. And what could be more important to change than that?
But how? Three friends in the Finnish capital Helsinki may have stumbled across a novel solution.
The idea came when Antti Tuomola tried to set up a restaurant in the archipelago of Helsinki. Stringent regulations stopped the idea getting off the ground, so Tuomola called upon friends Olli Sirén and Timo Santala for help. They discovered restrictions didn’t apply to “pop-up” restaurants which opened for one day only. Restaurant Day was born.
After a brainstorming session, Facebook page, and social media campaign that captured imaginations 21st May 2011 became the first Restaurant Day with 40 one-day restaurants in towns and cities across Finland. On street corners, in public parks and in private homes, even on the beach, everyday folks set up restaurants, cafes and bars selling everything and anything, from gourmet hamburgers to exotic delicacies. There were no permissions, no requests, no barriers, no asking what is possible or what is allowed. And there was no trouble.
City officials wisely decided not to interfere and the idea spread. Now Restaurant Day is the world’s biggest food carnival and takes place in 55 countries, four times a year for 24 glorious, unregulated hours.
And according to Timo Santala, it really is glorious.
People used attics, basements, boats, wine cellars and unused railways tracks. Streets were filled with people talking to one another. Liquorice herring, mars bar cheesecakes and even grasshoppers were on sale. The creative energy released was amazing. There was a sushi auction where you had to bid to get the food. Blinis in a basket were lowered from a third floor window. One guy took a week off work to catch fish for his pop up restaurant. There was a finger food restaurant for babies, a restaurant for dogs, a hot chocolate moustache café, champagne tasting on a hot air balloon, a Viking menu in a tattoo shop, hangover pizzas complete with painkillers and a traditional Somali dinner served in a Somali home.
As Timo points out there is no better way of meeting new people or integrating into a new place as an immigrant than round a shared dinner table because food brings people together in a way official projects sometimes don’t.
Opening up your own restaurant is a very common shared dream. On Restaurant Day you don’t need to be professional – you don’t even have to know how to cook. Most participants are normal people who don’t take part to make money. Prices are usually just enough to cover costs or donate profits to charity. In Finland one artist accepted old used toys which she used as artwork. The energy is also infectious. One couple strolled around Helsinki’s Restaurant Day and came home at 4pm. Most inspired customers wait until the next Day to get going but they started straight away. They put soup on at 5pm signed in on our website and at 6pm I was one of their first customers. There was glitter make up on the tables and you got a one euro discount if you wore it.
But how did the “official” restaurant trade react?
“Chefs of the two Michelin starred restaurants in Helsinki came to serve hamburgers for free. It was Michelin star hamburgers in a park. One pop up café is now a full-time restaurant – and perhaps the whole thing has challenged restaurants to liven up their thinking. Last Restaurant Day the first North Korean restaurant opened outside N Korea with a Facebook campaign which had the Great leader Kim Jong-il inspecting the restaurant and awarding it four Michelin stars. Beat that for imagination.”
There have also been plaudits not brickbats from officialdom.
According to Jussi Pajunen, the Mayor of Helsinki; “Restaurant Day is exactly the sort of project that will define our future. Restaurant Day has inspired the city’s population to question how things are run and to experiment and put forward new ideas of how daily life might be improved in the future.
After Timo and his fellow organisers were awarded the prestigious Finland Prize in 2011, Johanna Mäkelä, professor of Food Culture at the University of Helsinki said; Restaurant Day is a prime example of how food can give birth to a new type of communality.”
Perhaps that was most vividly demonstrated by the media. Even though the corrosive negativity and cynicism of British tabloids is mercifully absent from most Nordic societies, Restaurant Day organisers still feared the press might pounce on any hint of chaos, disorganisation or mismanagement — and of course ahead of one Restaurant Day there were problems with the website.
“A reporter from the largest newspaper in Finland Helsingin Sanomat was straight on the phone. But they were offering to help and ended up putting all the information about cafes and registration on their website for us, free of charge. It was amazing.”
But has Restaurant Day in Helsinki changed anything permanently?
“True democracy is built through participation and interaction. It asks “what if” and it has the guts to question how things are done. Restaurant Day inspired people to put forward new ideas of how things might be run in the future. It created a feeling that the city belongs to the people. That we have the power to change our living environment and prove something about freedom, trust, participation and change. Restaurant Day offered a concrete example of what could happen if we just trusted people and common sense. When people are given freedom people also assume responsibility.”
So could something that gloriously anarchic, food-worshipping, grassroots and community-building happen here in Scotland this year?
Changes to the everyday routine by everyday people on their own doorsteps can generate powerful feelings of optimism about social and political change. Watching other “special” people excel generally doesn’t. Passivity induced by top-down governance is the enemy of just about everything in Scotland – and the independence referendum is no exception. Somehow the Scottish Government believes that organised razzamatazz and a welter of top-down initiatives will inspire doubters to vote yes on September 18th. Instead, they could let go of the reins and let something genuinely spontaneous take place. Like a Scottish Restaurant Day – if we are up for it.
Of course, some might argue the Finns are a special case Scots cannot hope to copy.
Helsinki is already one of the world’s most popular cities amongst residents – perhaps they feel it’s a society worth fighting for. The city council owns more than three quarters of its land – and has been quietly redeveloping with affordable housing, local architects and excellent public transport links for the last twenty years (all pushed through by a conservative-led council). Ironically though, the Finns highly successful model of urban living may have helped fuel the desire of younger citizens for spontaneous action — everyday life is highly planned, designed and structured. Their equal society means poverty is almost unknown, food is generally high quality and Finns have weekend huts, a regular connection with nature and a knowledge of life beyond the city confines.
So is Finland a case apart?
Thirty years ago, eastern parts of Europe’s most remote nation had a worse diet and a worse heart disease record than Scotland. The Finns still have more smokers, a higher suicide rate and heavier drinkers than the rest of the Nordic region – though their social problems are still not a patch on Scotland’s. So what the Finns can do is not unachievable. Indeed in many ways, the Finns are our most realistic role models.
What about Restaurant Day in Edinburgh – or maybe better in Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games this summer when folk from 70 nations are set to arrive looking for connection, fun and genuine hospitality. Glasgow could be perfect for Scotland’s first Restaurant Day. Nowhere in Scotland has a bigger ethnic mix, greater tradition of hospitality, more robust delight in confounding authority (just think traffic cone) – and nowhere is in greater need of a better diet.
Restaurant Day is a very portable idea. According to organisers the world’s biggest food carnival has witnessed the creation of 8,500 one-day restaurants by 35,000 restaurateurs with an estimated 930,000 customers. One-day restaurants have popped up in 55 different countries including Argentina, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, USA and Uzbekistan.
Restaurant Days in 2014 are 16 February, 17 May, 17 August, 15 November.
Could Scotland be next?