IN an era of food banks and the cost of living crisis, there might not be that much pride in a Scottish restaurant being voted the best in Britain.

And yet the news that the Andrew Fairlie Restaurant at Gleneagles was voted the best in the UK by diners’ votes in the restaurant guide Harden’s Top 100 poll for 2022, raised a varied flutter of thoughts, feeling and memories in me.

For those who believe golf is a good walk spoiled, Gleneagles may seem the most boring of culinary contexts. Corporate club-swingers spending their egregious bonuses on the finest dining? The protest banner is nearly in my hand.

But haud on. There is a utopia buried deep in foodie culture. It’s a vision of unalienated labour, aimed at sustaining and making others happy. It draws on cosmopolitan traditions – and local resources – to make a plateful of joy.

But you really have to dig that utopia out of the murk. And in the meantime, observe your own contradictions and failings.

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Not irrelevantly, I have eaten at the late Andrew Fairlie’s Gleneagles restaurant. But literally, I sang for that supper (and the titanic cooked breakfast the next morning).

It was somewhere in the depths of 2013, an event where the SNP leadership had decided to (bibulously) engage with the business class. After we’d done our wee musical turn, I remember a large discussion room, where me (and Rab, our sound engineer) demolished exquisite vol-au-vents. We watched Salmond and Sturgeon try – as it turned out, in vain – to persuade the collected panjandrums of the business case for indy.

The chef was already convinced. I worked with Andrew Fairlie on the Yes Scotland board, where he was a calm, quietly confident presence. Indeed, his meritocratic, patriotic life story – his dad an SNP vice-chairman, but Andrew leaving school at 15 to become a trainee chef – was part of the 2014 mythos.

Verily, a drop-out two-star Michelin chef could sit down with Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist Party at a campaign top table – and you couldn’t quite disentangle the wolf from the lamb.

Sigh ... simpler days.

Looking at the Harden’s list, there is a thick swirl of other Scottish restaurants laced through the top 100 (none of which I’ve tried).

I would readily agree that the schtick of these restaurants – fusing techniques from world cuisines with locally sourced produce – is “bourgeois nationalism”, as old lefties would put it, at its peak. (Or call it “creative-class nationalism”, to be more polite).

The prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2022 award (spoiler: we don’t make the list) has Denmark’s Geranium at the top. Taking over from their countrymen at Noma, Geranium’s supplies are taken from local biodynamic farms, and their menus are meat (though not fish) free.

But it’s a “conceptual tasting menu”, costing about £350 a head (without drinks), featuring items like “pear and pear vinegar and lemon verbena, served on a piece of art”.

Is this a target of excellence that Scottish restaurants like Edinburgh’s The Kitchin, or Glasgow’s Cail Bruich, should follow? Is eating concept-driven art-as-food like this the most terrible indulgence?

Well, I went and sought it out, once. And I’ve never had the same attitude to food again.

In the early 2000s, I read a feature about the El Bulli restaurant in Roses, outside Barcelona. It was an eye-popping account of a meal as a multi-sensory, upside-down experience; 25 or so courses that blew people’s minds. The article also said you could email them and win a lottery selection for a table. I tracked their site down, sent off a light pitch, and promptly forgot about it.

Until the terse mail dropped in 2003: “you have secured a table for two, on the date specified”. Boom! Another article set out how to do this on a budget: Easyjet flights booked well in advance, a B&B in Roses village, lunch at the cheap fish restaurant where the restaurant’s team ate ... and then saving up for the €155-a-head price.

I have never spent a better £500 (the total cost) in my life. To look over the El Bulli web archive for that year is to have wild tastes triggered again. Freeze-dried parmesan spaghetti, deep-fried rabbit ears, spherical mango ravioli, frozen white chocolate air...

IN retrospect, we now casually tick off these techniques during any standard episode of BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals. But at the time, it felt like we’d fallen into an episode of Star Trek, on Planet Epicurious. (Truth be told, about halfway through the four gently wobbling columns of foie gras, we nearly went to call on God down the big white telephone. Lightweights!) What do you do with such an experience, for the rest of your life? What Ferran Adria did (El Bulli’s visionary founder) was to shut down his restaurant. Adria turned it into an “innovation foundation”, peddling a creative methodology called Species. I have a taste for this kind of complete and utter think-tankery, but even for me, it’s all excessively fiddly. However, I have read Adria’s June 2022 op-ed in The New York Times.

If I understand it right, he wants a super-awareness about food – what people can access, how sustainably it’s made, how it could potentially taste – to be the basis of a new, creative planetary culture.

I don’t disagree. But there is much struggle along the way to such an endpoint. Some basics need to be addressed first.

As Adria puts it in the NYT, “there is hunger, but there is also obesity. There is malnutrition, and yet tons of food we produce goes to waste.” Our food system is deeply broken – before we even get to gastronomics.

Indeed, what the food critics call the “hyperseasonality” of these world-leading restaurants is a dim signal of a major change coming.

This is the need to relocalise food production as globalised supply chains are wound down due to decarbonisation, geopolitical rivalry, and war.

Yet at the same time, we have digital access to a cornucopia of recipes and knowledge about food. My recent duties, cooking for a vegan household, is one that demands much ingenuity with vegetables. A keyword search on my smartphone easily provides it. And the things I can now do with a cauliflower or a quartered spring cabbage...

IN these columns, I keep coming back to the same “future gap”. We face a world of limits on our material consumption, as the climate crisis worsens. But we also face an unlimited world of networked knowledge – and now artificial intelligence – advancing our routine labours.

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We need some political vision to help people adapt to these implacable forces. If the old compensations (work-to-consume) have to fall over, what parts of our lives do we need to value differently?

One thing we could revalue is our provisioning, preparing and ingenuity around food. If we properly respond to these mega-trends with appropriate policies and regulations – working hours reducing, basic services increasing – we will have time and resources for such a democratic foodie culture.

Why shouldn’t the intricacy, detail and obsession that we pour into our streaming shows, or full-spectrum sports watching, also be devoted to an equally thoughtful and passionate engagement with food? How clever can we be with our local produce? (Mike Small’s Fife Diet comes to mind). With access to it enabled by what some activists are beginning to call a National Food Service?

I’m sure, if he had beaten his infernal cancer, Andrew Fairlie would have enthusiastically thrown himself into that future gap.

Plato’s old question about education comes to mind: how do we want to do what we have to do? Becoming awakened foodies – fully aware of the planetary impact we’re making, as we sprinkle, chop, peel and roast – may be a most pleasurable answer.