Some months ago, Itsu opened in Brighton. Apparently, the opening was a red carpet affair, inviting food writers and local businesses from around town to gorge upon their novel food stuffs and to mingle, network and whatnot. Of most reviews of Itsu I can find, they are mostly reproductions of the menu on offer (which for a fast food store, is undoubtedly impressive) – but other substantive reflections on the venture are noticeably omitted. In fact, the trend of reporting on Itsu borders on the sensational – whether celebrating the entrepreneurship of Julian Metcalfe, CEO and co-founder of the ubiquitous ‘Pret’’ or applauding the array and craft of exotic treats on offer. Itsu has fast become a veritable takeaway Eden in a nexus of otherwise stale, dull and redundant alternatives.
I nipped in to Itsu quite unconsciously a few months back. Not really taking the experience in I ordered a ‘detox miso’ and slurped it whilst jogging on to the next event. I mean, I definitely wasn’t expecting anything too robust, with any kind of live ecology or anything – but I do remember a kind of treasure-hunt glee, digging past my fragrant soggy dumplings into its misty depths to reveal a sparkling wormery of glass noodles and seaweed entrails. Obviously, I didn’t touch the soybeans – that’s like dropping marbles into the gut. But nevertheless, much like Will Self’s first time – I felt soothed and satisfied. Like I’d stumbled on a little food oasis in the middle of dessert-storm.
Afterward, I was determined to do a little reading around Itsu. Despite the mirage of rhetoric around health and complete overkill of the phrase ‘eat beautiful’, I resisted its manicure and allure to remember some politics. Health in the context of chain stores is a complete misnomer after all: whether that’s about individual health, health of the producers that support it, the staff that work it, the animals that stock it or the environment that sustains it.
Armed with a litany of reasons why Itsu was just another corporate monster, set to gobble up the planet, I ventured out once again to sample its Asiatic delights. Doing so, in full knowledge that my resolve could crumble at any moment, faced with what equates to my soul-food: Sushi.
The day had been a testing one by all accounts, so wondering into Itsu off the damp and raucous North Street was disarming – you’re suddenly propelled into a sharp, glassy, neon cube; ‘world music’ spinning in the background and hanging bamboo-style lamps down-light smooth wooden islands, topped with familiar Asian-eatery condiments. Looking around at the clientele, young hipsters with over-sized specs and pale complexions, I felt suddenly transported into a kind of sci-fi sushi shop – living out the strange feeling of reading my own experience in a copy of ‘all tomorrows parties’.
After cruising the brightly lit cooler spanning the left hand wall of the shop, and the array of uniform and very deliberately looking nutritious treats, I went for an ‘Itsu Best’. I approached the counter and the beleaguered looking serving person with my prize, and almost automatically, splurted out: ‘oh, and a detox miso too’. I asked the person on the counter about pasteurization; whether the miso had its proper ecology of bacteria live and present (the sachets of powdered miso on sale at the counter suggested otherwise). They didn’t know – neither did the ‘expert’ chef behind the McDonald’s style servery.
I tried hard to maintain a critical gaze when sat down, eyes scanning suspiciously: an inner snort at Itsu’s ‘raw smoothie’ machine cashing in on the middle class obsession with ‘toxin busting’. But I began to soften. I cracked open the dead(?) ‘miso’ which was a basic clone of my one before it – nothing astray, nothing different. My plate of sushi too, was tasty: surprisingly so. Not a grain of rice out of place: a white and fleshy rainbow manufactured with precision. At under a tenner, the toasted sesame infusion on that rice just shouldn’t be so good. Neither should the tastes be so clean and present, the experience so ready and fresh. The salmon of course was a translucent pink perhaps too feeble to pass Itsu’s own panetone colour test – but dipped in the salty single serving of soy and sharp wasabi, it can be easy not to care.
And that’s the alarming significance of eating at Itsu – the ease at which the entrancing charm of a well styled brand, the infallible (violent?) uniformity and the call to health can fuse to create an impenetrable mirage. Eat now, ask no questions later. But there are questions to be asked of Itsu’s model – it’s cheap (too cheap) and fast paced, but still keeps up an appearance of grace, beauty and the extraordinary. Essentially it’s a metaphor for the food economy at large – bright, booming and plentiful on the surface, but without mention of the vast externalities it creates. Not a hint to the cascade of effects on workers, producers, our health and the environment at large.
To take just one example – Itsu’s salmon is farmed in Scotland. Scotland is the world’s second largest salmon producer, and exports have grown 500% in the past 20 years – making up 40% of Scottish food exports overall. The industry, set to serve the plates of an expanding middle class in China, is to expand 50% by 2020. Itsu imports 9 tonnes of salmon a week – determined in their literature that this makes more ecological sense than depleting wild fish stocks. However, the implications on wild fish stocks and the ocean ecology in general are astounding – wild Atlantic Salmon in particular are facing extinction because of diseases and parasites leached into the ocean from intensive farming operations. Farmed salmon themselves experience dire conditions: infectious diseases, sea lice infestation and mass mortality abound – conditions which are only set to worsen, with sea lice threatening to spiral out of control. It’s like the ocean equivalent of the plague of flesh eating zombies – but everyone would much sooner deny any problem exists. Itsu won’t even declare what these sea creatures eat. Apparently it’s legitimate and safe according to some bureaucrat. I’ve heard that before, haven’t you?
The nature of a business model like Itsu’s is both to expand, and buff up their bottom line – already they are set to conquer the American high-street. Their success will depend on a dictatorial line with producers and staff to ensure peak-performance and output at low-cost – totally out of touch with what human and animal resources, or the environment can afford. Indeed, for all its chiqué exterior and futuristic charm, it’s merely McDonald’s with a wasabi-coating – intent on fluffing the externalitiies of their trade and with a keen and predatory sense of their target audience.
Will Self, in typically acetone style, got the problem of Itsu in just a few lines: ‘that food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience’ – And yes, I’m inclined to agree. But even critically loaded the mirage can be hard to deconstruct. This is about more than better informed consumer choices. Reducing the reliance on convenience means restoring our right to freedom and time – time to re-engage with our personal nourishment and its nuances, from plant to plate. In short, a new way of life for us all.
The question is, do Self’s ‘keyboard riflers’ and quick fix health connoisseurs, in fact any of us, have the appetite for this yet? My view is that it will take a collective interest in a menu for change much more subversive, one that offers potential beyond the lunch hour limits of ‘Itsu’s Best’ before we’re all ready to put our throwaway chopsticks down.