At first glance this is a restaurant review, but bear with me: I’ll get to the martial arts point in due course.
I was in London this week on my way home from teaching in Germany, and my kind brother in law David* took me out to lunch to a restaurant run by his kick-boxing coach, if you can imagine such a thing. The restaurant, Popolo in Shoreditch, has a spartan feel when you walk in; a concrete bar with glasses racks made of pipes. Behind the bar where you would expect to see a mirror and a lot of bottles, there’s the cooker. We sat at the bar, were welcomed by the waiter, and handed the menu; it’s printed in black and white on a single page of A4. Some starters, some mains, and that’s about it. No frills, no fuss.
I was way to busy chatting to my brother in law, and eating, to take any pictures, so I’ve snagged a couple off their Instagram feed.
We ordered a selection of dishes, and the food started arriving almost immediately. It was simple, unpretentious ingredients, like aubergine (eggplant, to my American friends), hake, cauliflower. Stuff you would find in any supermarket, though the quality of every ingredient was outstanding.
But Oh. My. God.
I don’t even like aubergine. But the way Jon Lawson does it? Fried in chick-pea tempura, with a molasses thingy, some pistachios, on a bed of a kind of yoghurty stuff? (And I really don’t like yoghurt). Heaven. Seriously. This, to me, is the real test; can a chef take food I don’t usually like and make it glorious? Or take food I think is bland to the point of disgusting, and make it sing?
If you live in London, or are just passing through, go to Popolo and tell me I’m wrong. I think you’ll end up judging your every future restaurant experience by ‘was it as good as Popolo?’
But I’ve had lots of excellent meals since this blog was launched back in 2012, and don’t usually mention them here. So what’s different?
I think the thing that made this meal transcend the ‘delicious, great meal, forgotten in short order’ and enter the realm of actual meaningful life experience is the way that every part of it fit together. The slight tang left over from the labne, fried olives, chickpeas & morita chilli starter complemented the aubergine (which is on the specials, not the regular menu), which in turn set the stage for the hake romana (with the best aioli I’ve ever had— again, I don’t actually like mayonnaise. But this stuff is to mayonnaise what my hand forged JT Pälikkö longsword is to a boffer).
The restaurant was quiet, so Jon had time to chat to us. The moment that sticks with me is when he described how one of his under-chefs is now better than he is at making a particular dish. I know that grin on a teacher’s face; it only happens when a student surpasses you. And it tells me all I need to know about the values that the restaurant is based on.
It occurred to me, as these dishes came out in no particular order, that, unlike every other serious restaurant meal I’ve ever had, you could enjoy these in any order, because the menu isn’t a linear story, it’s a painting. It all fits together. That just blew me away. And made me think about this art in terms of my art.
You can’t base a martial art on complicated techniques. Every good martial art has at its core a few simple actions, strikes, throws, locks, and so on. They must be done really, really well. A perfectly structured mandritto fendente for example. (Forehand descending blow to you non-Italian practitioners). (These are the ingredients.) And every good practitioner can not only do those simple actions very well, they can move between them easily. Every decent longsword fencer can go from out of measure, through blade range, and into grappling measure, segueing from sword blows to pommel strikes and takedowns. (That's the cooking a meal.) Very few can segue back, escaping from the grapple back into sword range, smoothly and cleanly. Almost none can fit their art together into one seamless, beautiful whole, such that it doesn’t matter where the fight starts or where it ends, because there are no areas of weakness.
And that’s what Jon did in his kitchen on Tuesday this week. It may be because he’s a world-class martial artist that he can bring this kind of world-class artistry to the kitchen. Or it may be the other way round. It doesn’t matter. But based on how he cooks, there’s no way in hell I’d want to fight him, with any weapon.
This is what art is, people. The stuff that makes you see the things you already know in a new light, make new connections, expand your consciousness. It could be a painting, like Lorenzetti’s Allegoria that I experienced like a happy punch in the stomach back in 2015. Or the Hazel O’Connor concert I went to a few months ago, and cried pretty much the whole way through.
Or it could be sitting in Jon’s kitchen.
I hope one day a student feels like that in one of my seminars, or a reader feels it with one of my books. One day.
*David Bodanis, author of many good books, though Passionate Minds, about the love affair between the playwright Voltaire and one of the most important scientists of the 18th century, Emilie du Châtelet, is the one that's probably most interesting to my usual readership.