Book Review: AA Grill on AA Gill
Breakfast at the Wolseley
by AA Gill
Reviewed by AA Grill
I suppose we should feel good about it really: one of Britain’s most lauded food writers has chosen to write a whole book on our repas de choix. It’s a surprise, in fact, for those of us here on this site, those of us who’ve long been celebrating the most important meal of the day, that there are so few books out there on the subject. So it is with relief that we open Mr Gill’s book and read the gleeful proclamation: “Breakfast is everything.” Great, we think. He’s one of us. He gets it.
But I should stop there. There’s a problem with the last paragraph. And it stems from the use of the word “chosen.” For Mr Gill has not “chosen” to write this book… there’s something a little more cynical at work that rather undermines his critical disinterest.
We’ve all done it I’m sure. Started reading a spread in a Sunday supplement only to realise, somewhere in the midst of the third paragraph, that the tone is rather too cloyingly effusive to stand as journalism proper - that there is a singular lack of distance. And then our eyes alight to the top corner of the page: “Advertisement feature”. A cunning attempt at dressing up an advert as journalistic endeavour, surely something that most writers spend their lives trying to avoid, for fear of compromising their art.
Not so AA Gill. However you read this book, you can’t escape the fact that it’s a marketing man’s commission, first and foremost, rather than a passion of Gill’s. You can see the logic in it from the Wolseley’s point of view. Why throw a few grand the way of an advertising exec when you can buy AA Gill and get him to write a book about your estimable eatery? Much less work all round.
I suppose it’s a sign of the times: not long ago, pre-Moby, Coldplay et al, it was considered a bit of a sell-out to allow your music on a TV advert, but now it’s pretty much ubiquitous. And ever since Fay Weldon wrote a novel for Bulgari, it seems that the world of literature is fair game too.
That said, Gill hasn’t taken his commission too seriously here, and “literature” would be an overstatement: Breakfast at the Wolseley runs to barely 35 pages of text by Gill, intermingled, with little consideration for the reader, with some fine recipes from the Wolselely’s kitchens and bound together with some rather outdated book design.
So, what meat is there within these 35 pages? To kick off, Gill refers dutifully to a Wolselely press pack and gives us a brief rundown of its history – well written brochure copy, essentially – its origins as a car showroom (well I never!) and more recent history as a branch of Barclays. He then does a little google-research into the various forms of breakfast matter: Viennoiserie, Eggs, English Breakfast, Fruits and Cereals, and Tea, Coffee and Hot Chocolate. He has also, it seems, spent a morning hanging out in the kitchens to better get a sense of place. And, evidently, spent a little too much time with the Tourier (a specialist patissier, flown in from France, no less) who sends him off down an-ever-so-slightly-too-long cul-de-sac about the origins of French pastry in Vienna.
It is Gill in Sunday Times magazine mode, with his incisors removed.
Once in a while, you see the real Gill trying to break through. When, say, criticising the Wolseley “Full English” for having beans (“de trop”, he exclaims, “and there should be fried bread,”) but it really is only once in a while. In fact, this is literally the only moment I could find in which Gill really breaks free from the shackles of his commission and dares bite the hand that feeds.
He still has time for some great writing – let’s not forget, he really does know how to write - particularly about the English breakfast, delightfully referring to the “piggy unctuous brilliance of a British banger”. And I particularly like the phrase “Double-Benny” for a double Eggs Benedict.
But then, just as Gill embarks on a rather enjoyable paragraph in which we learn the origins of bacon (actually invented in Britain, we discover - which is, again, all a little too google-researched for my liking), we reach its end only to be reminded of the real purpose of the book: “The Wolseley will serve 15,000 rashers of bacon a month,” Gill declaims. Woop-di-do, Adrian. Woop-di-do.
Whichever way you look at it, Gill’s heart really isn’t in it. Which is a real pity. I’d have quite happily ingested his Breakfast-related musings without added Wolseley flavouring – but the overpowering taint of commercialism leaves such a bitter taste. His writing can be as dependable as a Full English. As his says early on, breakfast is “the most personal and idiosyncratic construction… the most intimate of meals, a euphemism, a glance and a sly smile.” The same could be said of Gill at his best. When on form, he can serve the literary equivalent of a perfect “Double Benny”, but here, I’m sorry to say, he’s barely rustled up a runny serving of scrambled eggs.
Breakfast at the Wolseley is published by Quadrille with an RRP of £12.99 (or £6.49 from Amazon)