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“Pick a direction and walk”

Jonathan Nunn wants you to get lost in London’s food

Image by TOPIA

In his hugely successful newsletter, Vittles, Jonathan Nunn pays tribute to gluttony and curiosity. TOPIA meets the editor who’s notorious for the sheer volume of food he is able to consume – as part of our BEYOND THE STALE series that celebrates the indie tastemakers fixing food media

Forever hungry until way too full, Jonathan Nunn’s brutally self-deprecating sense of humour and his love of London – and the variety of cuisines offered within it – play a prominent role in much of his work.

Like any good self-respecting Londoner.

The Cantonese food fan and tea-lover founded the Vittles newsletter in the early throes of the pandemic, hence the tagline: ‘A food newsletter for novel times’.

Vittles newsletters have included essays ranging from the hidden food of Essex to Yugonostalgic cuisine and the hyper-regionality of fish and chips of Britain and Ireland: “It’s local history on a polystyrene tray.”

Pre-pandemonium, Nunn was working as a tea expert and a freelance restaurant reviewer. Once the first UK lockdown took place, he saw himself – as well as those within the food industry, from chefs to hospitality workers to writers – without work. He started Vittles as a way to keep himself busy and to give those within the restaurant industry a new means by which to reach audiences whilst everything had shut down.

Nunn has since commissioned hundreds of writers and illustrators from vastly different backgrounds and perspectives, and quickly changed the landscape of British food media.

As Vittles has expanded exponentially to over 21,000 subscribers (and counting), it’s also subverted the industry standard that in order to be commissioned, one must have already been commissioned previously. The Vittles community now spans the globe.

TOPIA reached out to the food media pioneer to ask about the world he’s creating with stories on the fringes and, of course, tea

Hi Jonathan. First off, where are you right now?

I’m at my desk in Camberwell, watching the rain. I’ve been cat sitting so the desk is crowded with lots of Japanese ceramics which I’ve moved here to stop her from jumping on the mantelpiece and knocking them all over, plus around 30 different food magazines I’ve been reading. I find chaos and mess quite productive, and I find tidiness an unbearable state to work in.

How does Vittles go ‘Beyond the Stale’? 

The driving purpose behind Vittles is boredom with a lot of mainstream British food publications, and the desire to pull in a lot of the fascinating work that is going on in the fringes – whether that’s in food writing, food history, academia, policy or subjects which are seemingly unrelated to food – and to have them coalesce in a single publication.

And why a newsletter?

If this was any other time it would be a magazine, but a newsletter is a du jour and low stakes-high reward way of doing things. I am constantly inspired by other people’s writing and different ways of seeing the world. If I’ve learnt anything in the last year and a half, it’s that this thing called food writing is still so young and potentially vast, and it excites me to see no horizons.

Stories from the food fringes | Illustration by Ada Jusic for Vittles

You describe yourself as a city writer first and foremost. Tell us something about London that will rock our worlds.

The most underrated aspect is how green space is embedded into the city, which can be surprising if your image of London is informed by the Victoriana of smog-infested streets. There are cities with technically more green space, but they’re cheating because they count the huge national parks that take up half the city. It is everywhere in little pockets. It is possible to live in a place for years and then stumble across some park or small garden that you’ve never been to before, and feel like you’ve discovered a new country.

Illustration by Heedayah Lockman for Vittles

Why do you think a huge amount of interest in what Vittles is doing has come from America?

Vittles tackles topics from a uniquely British perspective, which is necessarily different from the American one, so American readers have something tonally different to what they’re used to. I feel British food writing, particularly its restaurant writing, has had a slightly subservient relationship with American food writing for the last decade or two. It’s one of the reasons I tend not to publish American food writing, and it seems to work for both of us.

A uniquely British perspective | Illustration by Alex Christian for VIttles

Tell us about three outrageously good writers we should know about. 

First, everyone who is contributing to fiftytwo.in. I thought it had come out of nowhere, but when I mentioned it to my editor at the Guardian he was like, “yeah, Supriya Nair who runs it is basically the most talented writer-editor in India” – which only goes to show how much of an echo chamber the British/American writing world is. Every week it publishes a story (and they really are stories) on a hidden or underwritten part of South Asian culture. They always have strong hooks that draw you in ─ like how a Pepsi commercial led to a boom in babies being given one particular name, or doing an oral history of one song by Panjabi MC. Every time they’ve done something on food I’ve been like, “fuck, I wish I had commissioned this!” The one on biryani in Karachi by Ahmer Naqvi is a stunner. There’s alchemy in the articles, which is down to a marriage of really strong writers and an imaginative editorial team.

Why does biryani mean so much to so many people on the Indian subcontinent? | Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for FiftyTwo

Closer to home, I really love Rebecca May Johnson’s writing. She thinks about food in a very different way than most food writers do. She interrogates the meaning behind why we eat, why we cook, the repetitions and the poetics that other writers would skirt round. I feel like sparks are going off in my brain whenever I read something by her.

And I’m biased on this one, but I also want to recommend Yvonne Maxwell, who wrote her first piece of food writing last year for Vittles on plantain. Yvonne, like me, is also a London writer but her writing constantly forces me to see things ─ sometimes beautiful, sometimes relating to the city’s inequalities ─ that I have missed because of my narrow perspective or experiences. I’m really, really excited that Vittles will be publishing more of her writing.

The food writing world is small and becoming saturated quickly. Where do you see this growing movement going?

Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee for Vittles

The pandemic has allowed everyone to get on with projects which perhaps would have been seen as niche or financially unviable before. People coming into it will have to find their niche, and the onus is on our generation to create platforms for the next. The next step will probably be moving to something more physical, to meeting and talking to people, combining skills and ideas. That possibility excites me right now. It’s important to also see a lot of what has happened in the last year and a half, including Vittles, as simply a growing awareness of something that was already there, and that means giving a lot of credit to all people who have been doing incredible work on food, particularly food policy, producing, and access, for years, if not decades.  

The onus is on our generation to create platforms for the next.

Would you consider Vittles on the margins?

These things are all relative really. On one hand, many of the ideas and writers in it are being co-opted by more mainstream publications and, on the other, Vittles itself mainstreams some of the more marginal writing that has always been going on. The margins can be a powerful position to be in, but it’s very fluid and you kind of have to constantly ask yourself who is benefitting from this relationship? The centre always co-opts because that’s what it does, so when you find your ideas are being co-opted, it’s time to push even further rather than rest on your laurels.

OK now, back to the food. What food do you or would you eat daily if you were able?

There’s that parlour game about ‘what cuisine would you eat if you had to have one for the rest of your life?’. I used to say Chinese food, which is the equivalent of asking for more wishes, but what I actually mean is Cantonese food. Even the most mediocre Cantonese food hits some kind of spot for me, and the best is some of the most refined cooking I’ve ever had. My friend Jessica Wang posts pictures of her mum’s cooking on Instagram and I would be very content if that is what I got to eat every day.

Illustration by Sinjin Li for Vittles

What is a simple ritual that brings you joy daily?

Making tea for myself, or even better, making it for someone else. I’ve gone from making tea for other people 10-20 times a day, to rarely doing so, and I miss it. There’s something humbling about focusing all your skill on making something small for someone else, and being the last part in a chain that stretches back right to the producer. It’s the feeling I guess that other people get from cooking. 

Share a good life hack that helps you live a better life.

In a city, pick a direction and walk. Get lost. 

What does it mean to be “good” in 2022?

After 2020 and 2021 I can only interpret being “good” as being good to yourself for managing to make it through two gruelling years, and learning how to live in the world again. I’m looking forward to seeing more people and adding a physical dimension to many of the ideas and writing that have only really been discussed online. Most of all, I’m looking forward to inviting people round for dinner.

What’s your rallying cry to people who think they can’t do **** to make the world just that bit better?

This used to bother me a lot when I started writing, particularly when I was writing about Elephant and Castle and coming to terms with the fact that ultimately nothing I could write – even if it was published in the most widely read newspaper on Earth – could stop a development from taking place, because the forces pushing it through are simply too irresistible. The Elephant and Castle development may have gone through but Latin Village was saved. That wouldn’t have happened without individuals believing they could make a small difference.

A lot of the small gains that communities have made in the last few years have come from constant resistance and people putting their bodies on the street, even when progress looked attritional.

Writers… do not expect your writing to change anything. However, there is still a lot of worth in documenting things that are soon to be gone, even if you can’t save them. And who knows, maybe someone somewhere will read your writing and it will be a part of shaping their thought, and some kind of change may be implemented through them. That’s all we can really hope for.

Lastly, what’s the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on earth?

Rasputin by Boney M.

Thank you for speaking to TOPIA and being part of our World of Good.

What’s so good about this?

BEYOND THE STALE is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the indie storytellers and tastemakers changing media for the better – whether in food, science or sex – by addressing its blind spots. Thanks to honest blogs, rich podcasts and the rise of the newsletter, these rock ‘n’ roll raconteurs, many of whom have yet to see their identities reflected within wider media, are building communities and creating spaces that don’t have to cater to the masses and mainstream narratives.

Jonathan Nunn is part of a new generation creating fiercely engaging and compelling work that provides a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, histories, neighbourhoods, politics and global perspectives. Subscribe to Vittles here. If you can eat at all 60 of the South Asian guide restaurants, you get a lifetime subscription.

Meet the writer

Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a London-based food and culture writer. The former Clevelander and former New Mexican dance anthropologist is a contributing writer for the travel cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has also been featured in Whetstone Journal, Pit Magazine, Heated by Bitman, Courier Media and Sierra Magazine. Her work focuses on storytelling, identity and communication – whether through dance, food, cultural practices or Instagram Stories. She often wonders how she ended up living on a chilly island, and how late is too late to make the day’s last cuppa without risking the sacrifice of sleep. Follow @AKatzKennedy.

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