Vittles, a newsletter started by writer Jonathan Nunn, takes on Salt Bae, Viennetta, and chilli paneer pizza.
Vittles is a Substack that poses pretty nicely as an erudite and essential indie food zine (with original art!). It appeared one day in March 2020 during the early pandemic fog, and food writing in the UK was forever changed. Hyperbole? Not really. These are facts if you’ve been reading along with the founder, Jonathan Nunn, who writes many of the introductions, and his team of writers and Salt Bae watchers. “Look. I’ve been really, really trying not to write about Salt Bae because what is there to say that couldn’t just be said in a tweet? Yet, here we are.”
Nunn’s writing sets the tone for the London-based Vittles, which is structured like a magazine: issues are replaced with seasons—so far, five have been published. It bobs and weaves between pure service journalism (“a guide to London’s fried chicken styles”), food media oral history, restaurant movements, home cooking via personal essay, and loads of shoe-leather reporting that culminated recently in Nunn’s largest project to date: a sprawling, multi-author “list” of 60 South Asian dishes every Londoner should know. The three-part feature was directly inspired by what I, and many others, consider to be Jonathan Gold’s greatest writing achievement—a 2012 feature on, you guessed it, the 60 Korean dishes every Angeleno should know. The piece deeply inspired my own Korean food reporting, and it’s clear that Nunn has similarly spread the word about his hometown’s greatest cuisine.
So, what is Vittles all about? What are these seasons? What is up with Salt Bae? “When critics try to pan Salt Bae they do not realise that he is a wrestler in a city of boxers.” Nunn’s assessment is rich indeed. I reached out as a fan, and Nunn was gracious enough to Zoom with me in December, a few minutes before heading out for a chilli paneer pizza quest of his own.
What’s up with your new Vittles season dedicated to UK food production?
Vittles is a culture publication masquerading as food writing. Food is kind of the MacGuffin to get you in, when, in actuality, it’s something completely different. It’s almost like building a bridge. You take the food away, and the story can’t actually hold up. This season’s a little bit different because it is a bit difficult to get the angles right and avoid articles that are just explanatory articles. And I think Vittles should always be offering something a little bit different.
We struggle with that all the time at TASTE. Like, you want to know about the heritage pork production in Iowa. That’s good stuff, but to get to the deeper meaning, while wrapping it around food production and the maker—I think you’re right and I agree with you, it’s one of the hardest things to do.
Oh yeah, I mean, the thing is that all these stories are fascinating; I just think that the problem is, for the layperson—and I think a lot of my readers are laypeople, in the sense that they’re not particularly in the food world—but I think even for people that are in the food world who might be more interested in the consumption side of things, making food production interesting to people is a challenge. And it’s a big dilemma. It’s like, if this doesn’t interest you in the first paragraph, or the first two paragraphs, it could be the most correct article in the world, and people aren’t going to read it. It has to be something that kind of grabs the reader and then convinces them that food production is actually a fascinating topic. And it is.
My question is, how do you do that? You’re extracting some of the people out of it, which I think is what you’re referring to with the MacGuffin; you’re talking about the people when you’re talking about foraging in Burgess Park, but with production, it’s not as much people-driven. So how do you get people interested in production? What’s your special sauce?
Well, I think one thing that unfortunately has emerged is that one way you can do it is kind of through the “controversial article.” As in, you zero in on the beef that’s going on in a certain world. You can tell a story of heritage wheat and all these great people doing great things in the field, but as with everything that people get passionate about, there are all these little battles going on within that world. Like, what do you define as heritage? Is it labeled correctly? I think there are a couple of articles I’m working on at the moment that are essentially like, “This a scam.” Like, what is really going on here?
“Vittles is kind of this mediator between what I would call the mainstream and what I would call radical independent publications.”
Yeah, sometimes the lower the stakes, the higher the drama.
I think the other thing is, maybe some people hear “food production” and think just of agricultural production—which is obviously going to be a huge part of the season, but I’m personally really interested in factory and industrial production. One article I really wanted to write this year and just didn’t get around to doing was about the golden age of British ice cream production, and just how something so ubiquitous—and it’s something every British person would know; we just don’t think about the engineering—got put together.
When was the golden age of British ice cream production?
The golden age would have been the ’70s and ’80s—that era when you had these really interesting structural ice creams, like Viennetta and Twister. My thesis was that this all ended with Magnum. “We perfected it; we’re just going to release a thousand iterations on the Magnum. And that’s going to be what we sell from now on.”
We have Viennetta here; we’ve been pitched stories on Viennetta in the States, because it was iconic. We had the most iconic commercials for Viennetta in 1995.
Well, I know Viennetta’s big in the United States; I think Viennetta has a different kind of significance in the UK. It has party connotations; it’s kind of aspirational. I mean, the reason it’s called “Viennetta”—it seemed like this very grand thing to have; very European, and that’s how it was marketed.
Oh! It sounds like Ferrero Rocher a bit.
Yeah, I’d say it’s very similar to the state of Ferrero Rocher here. It’s now being looked back upon with nostalgia, because most people in the UK would have been introduced to it in a KFC Bargain Bucket. And it was kind of like the treat you’d have after your mom got you KFC.
I appreciate the fact that Vittles is done in a seasonal sense. I think you’d call them issues if you were a traditional publication. The editing is rigorous; you’re transparent about your rates; you pay actual fair and honest rates, too—which is good.
The reason why I do that is so people know that I’m not just keeping it all (laughs). But also because the way I see Vittles now is kind of as this mediator between what I would call the mainstream and what I would call radical independent publications. The thing is, in this country, there’s always been great food writing in smaller independent publications. Often, they’re community projects, or they’re small enough that they don’t make money—and that means they’re difficult to grow. Then, on the other hand, you have the mainstream, which I would say would be newspapers, where I don’t see much interesting food writing going on at all. So I think Vittles is slightly in the middle—and possibly a bridge for it.
What most interests you with UK restaurant writing these days?
What British restaurant writing hasn’t taken notice of is that, more and more, going to restaurants isn’t actually a bourgeoisie pursuit. It’s something that is done even within working-class communities in London. When I started writing in 2018, that was immediately what I wanted to write about: places in London, mainly immigrant communities, mainly working-class communities, where people are basically cooking for their own community. That’s the kind of restaurant dining that I knew very well and that I grew up with. All I wanted to do was just write about what I knew, because the image you get from restaurant reviews of London and the reality of London are very different to me.
This is basically the same subtext for when Robert Sietsema started writing his Counter Culture reviews for the Village Voice in 1993, or his “Down the Hatch” newsletter, and then Jonathan Gold as well, in the ’90s, with the LA Times.
When I wrote my first ever thing for Eater, the stuff about Gold and Sietsema actually came up immediately. It came from my editor, advertising it with his first tweet about me. I think I was quite flattered at the comparison. I hadn’t really read Sietsema’s writing; I had read a little of Gold’s writing—not actually a huge amount, and not to the extent that people might assume I’ve read. I think, more and more, I’m trying to define myself away from them. It’s difficult, though, because to try and describe to someone what I do, or the restaurant writing I’m interested in, it’s very easy to say, “It’s kind of like Jonathan Gold’s writing in Los Angeles, but for London.”
But I think there’s two things. I do actually see my writing as being very much in a British restaurant writing tradition. I think there is a satirical and very humor-forward aspect to my writing, which I don’t think is the register for American restaurant writing. So I am influenced by that. The other thing is that I want to slightly get away from the very exploratory aspect of that kind of writing. And often, that kind of writing does look like loads of white guys going to a poorer area of the city, just talking about their consumption. I’m not saying that was the case with Gold and Sietsema, I’m just saying that’s what it can start to look like very quickly.
So, I can do those kind of endurance crawls. To be honest, as soon as I get off this call, I’m off to Harrow to find some chilli paneer pizza. And it’s probably going to turn into one of those nights. But for me, it’s about who the audience is for my writing. I think I will always have an audience of people who are delighted to find a new place and who will follow my writing to find out about something new and kind of exotic to them.
“I think there is a satirical and very humor-forward aspect to my writing, which I don’t think is the register for American restaurant writing.”
Let’s talk about the “60 South Asian Dishes Every Londoner Should Know” project.
Well, here in London, we have this attitude toward American food writing—we read Los Angeles or New York food writing, and we’re like, “Why don’t we have that here?” There’s often not a sense of, “Well, why don’t we just celebrate what we do have here?” So I’ve been thinking, “Well, what is the equivalent to Korean food in Los Angeles?” It’s South Asian food. And I say “South Asian” purposely, because some people will say “Indian.” It’s possibly more Pakistani and Bangladeshi, and certainly Punjabi and Bengali. Those are two very split regions.
But I wanted to look at the cuisines of the whole region and how they manifested in London. I think there’s this idea that London has moved on from the curry house, and we know more now. We know, “Oh, that wasn’t really Indian food.” Yet I don’t think it’s a particularly usual thing for most people to care about where the best vada pav is in London, or where you can get the best nihari. So I see this project as really celebrating what we have rather than looking toward the culture of another city.
Chilli paneer is obviously a big part of Desi-Chinese cuisine—the Chinese cuisine that flourished in Calcutta and spread across to India and became its own hybrid cuisine. You can find chilli paneer in quite a lot of restaurants in London. But there’s this place up in Harrow that was flagged by one of the writers who’s working on this project with me. She tried to eat eight chilli paneers in one day, and she said, “This is the best chilli paneer.” And I noticed that they had a pizza menu—it’s one of these ridiculous restaurants that tries to do everything, so it’s got Desi-Chinese, it’s got South Indian, it’s got a dosa menu, and it’s got a pizza menu. And they’ve put chilli paneer on pizza. And this kind of stuff is exactly my shit.
It sounds ridiculously good. And it’s large-format? Is it pizza-format, too?
I think so, yeah.
I haven’t seen a picture of it yet. But it’s one of those things where, as soon as someone’s put the image of chilli paneer pizza in my head, I don’t care if it’s bad, I’m going to go there and see it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Cafe illustration by Ada Jusic.