The other night I attended an awards bash in LA, the Britannias. It’s where Bafta LA members congratulate each other and give random awards to Robert Downey Jr and Judi Dench.
It was a $500 ticket. They served a starter — dried-up old leaves with a scotch egg on top. Vegetarian version — no Scotch egg. Then there was Beef Wellington. Vegetarian version — a carrot and some mashed potato.
Imagine. There was an uproar as so many size-zero women stared at their meat and wheat and others, aghast, at their mashed potato.
I’ve never seen a whole room have such a reaction to what is on a plate. The room was divided into the people who were ashamed to be British, if they were — how could anyone do that in a town full of people who only eat quinoa and kale? — and the other half of the room who thought it was hilarious and bold to give people their worst nightmare. LA is a one-industry town and that industry demands beauty, by which it means thinness. It’s also a passive-aggressive town. Nobody comes to dinner and says, ‘I’ll have the kale, hold the dressing.’ Nobody says, ‘I’m desperate and insecure and if I can’t fit into my size-zero jeans, I’m going to hike Runyon and do double barre classes back to back.’
Oh no. Not a bit of it. They say, ‘I’m vegan.’ They say, ‘My nutritionist says I have a condition where I can’t eat gluten.’ A catering industry and a social life have been built on it.
I think we all know cake is not so good for us. It’s not going to make us live longer, but it might make us happy.
Every day I wear a necklace with two charms that are important to me. 1) A miniature of Marie Antoinette because she liked cake. 2) A miniature from New Orleans of the woman who supposedly invented the cocktail.
For me, cocktails and cake are where it’s at. I remember years ago when I first came to LA and I ordered a glass of wine at lunchtime. The waiter shuddered. Nothing like that had ever happened to him before. Now it’s like that if I order dessert. Or — God forbid — pasta. As Jennifer Lawrence said, ‘Gluten-free is the new cool eating disorder.’ Except I’m not so sure about the cool bit.
I remember going to a dinner party with my friend, let’s call her Bella. The dinner involved meat, pasta, vegetables, ice-cream. She announced to the host she didn’t eat meat, dairy, mushrooms or zucchini, they were fritti. She could only have the green beans — hold the butter. She said it was doctor’s orders because she was anaemic. ‘No wonder,’ said the host, who asked me never to bring her again.
She had not called ahead of time with her dietary requirements because she was enjoying the attention that the plate of steamed green beans brought her. She thought that people were giving her admiring looks because she was so thin.
There is no doubt that most food and restaurant trends start in LA, head east to New York and then arrive in London.
I remember years ago being horrified in Los Angeles when plates were cleared from the restaurant table as soon as one person had stopped eating rather than when everybody had stopped. I thought that was so impolite in that it made the people still eating feel greedy (usually me). Now it happens all over the place.
That chi-chi cosy little haunt in LA, Craig’s, just next to Cecconi’s in LA, not only serves gluten-free pasta, it serves vegan fried chicken (parmigiana with vegan cheese) and vegan ice-cream. It had to cater to its power crowd. People in the music industry are largely vegan and it needs to compete with the entirely vegan, very trendy Mexican restaurant opposite.
Jackie Collins goes to Craig’s and orders scampi in breadcrumbs off-menu. How the world has reversed. It used to be power ordering was asking for the gluten-free, not the gluten-filled.
Kevin Carr, bon viveur, thrower of dinner parties in London, Los Angeles and New York, tells me, ‘Last year I was told at the last minute the Thanksgiving dinner I was cooking had to be entirely vegan. I think it’s an excuse for people in LA to come to a party and not eat.
‘I’m used to people who don’t want to eat carbs telling me they are gluten-free at the last minute. Who are they trying to fool? Last month I had a party involving grilled steaks and one guest asked me, “Are they grass-fed? I can only eat grass-fed meat.”
‘She’s already seen that they came direct from the supermarket, so this was her excuse not to eat.’
Anna Clutton is fresh from London to LA. She works for high-end by-royal-appointment party throwers Admirable Crichton. She heads up their LA operation.
What’s more difficult, catering for Prince Charles and the royals or the ever-changing demands in the land where carbs are forbidden? She takes a deep breath. ‘We’re very lucky with the royals. They’re simple with their requests. We know what they are. They don’t change their minds.
‘Here we find a lot of people suddenly become vegans if there’s meat they don’t like. Making sure there are options for everyone is the only way for those who decide to be gluten-free for the evening.’
Is LA a minefield of attention-seeking demands? ‘You get private fashion clients that are very menu-conscious. That’s not LA, that’s anywhere. Others want to celebrate.
‘In LA, there are definitely more vegans, but that’s fun for our chef. We have amazing chicken skewers and the other day the client asked for the meat to be breast not thigh, because of the calorie content. Carbs are important at parties when people are drinking. We are making sure all our bases are covered,’ says Clutton diplomatically. Interesting to know Princess Anne is easier to deal with than a fashionista, but I suppose not really a surprise.
In LA, even the pets are health- and diet-conscious. For instance, my cat won’t touch gluten. She has a choice of high-end Californian pet food shops which offer raw food and line-caught fish. If she gets food with grain in it by accident, she is violently sick because she has become allergic to it. I wonder if that will happen to all of us eventually if we become programmed to fear cake.
The Beef Wellington that the Britannias served looked truly disgusting. But how daring and what a triumph of insouciance.