Carole Cadwalladr 

Alain de Botton: ‘Forcing people to eat together is an effective way to promote tolerance’

The people's philosopher tells Carole Cadwalladr why he'd like to open a restaurant based on Christian mass
  
  

So, it's off to lunch with Alain de Botton, and since he's been given the option of choosing any restaurant anywhere in London, I have high hopes. Will it be the old-school glamour of The Delaunay, I wonder? Or the more cheffy attractions of Jeremy Lee, recently installed at Quo Vadis?

Or, will it be a nondescript chain noodle restaurant just round the corner from where he lives? Well, of course it is. This is Alain de Botton, the philosopher of everyday life who has made a career out of writing about ordinary things – work, travel, Heathrow airport – and his lunch spot, XO, is about as mundane as they come. It's also weirdly out of place.

But then, it's easy to see how De Botton, the Jewish-Swiss-English public school-educated atheist who has just written a book on religion, knows that feeling well. XO looks like it should be in a slick part of central London frequented by office workers, whereas it's in Belsize Park – a posh, slightly bland, slightly international north London suburb (think Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin who, not uncoincidentally, live nearby).

It's a large, open, empty space with a menu that describes itself as "eastern and Oriental" and takes in dim sum, sashimi, Vietnamese salad, Thai curry, black cod with miso, and banoffee pie. ("I think we're in Asia somewhere," says De Botton. "But it's hard to know where. Possibly Singapore airport.")

Still, I'm feeling quite grateful that it's not an M&S ready meal, which he once described as ideal dinner-party food to the horror of the nation's foodies. (Worse, he proposed offering his guests "a bottle of red and a bottle of white". "A bottle?" wrote an outraged Jay Rayner. "One of each? Between eight?") He chose this place, he says, because "it's quiet and at lunchtime it's very empty".

But then, he doesn't like fashionable or popular restaurants: "When a restaurant is too popular it starts to harm the reason you are there. I am not a foodie, thank goodness. I will eat pretty much anything. A lot of my friends are getting incredibly fussy about food and I see it as a bit of an affliction. You know, I say, 'Let's go here.' And they say, 'No, no, it's not up to scratch.'"

And not being fussy has its advantages because, at that moment, our starters arrive. I have the roast pumpkin and spinach gyoza – which is not very eastern, unless it's from east Italy, or possibly Anglia, but it's good, simple and freshly made. His chilli salt squid, on the other hand, looks like something Kerry Katona might advertise. So, why are we so obsessed with food and what is it replacing?

"What bothers me is that there is so much emphasis on food, rather than gathering and meeting – so that there is all this effort in creating the right food, whereas the food is only a small part of whether the encounter is successful or not."

But cooking for someone can be an act of love, I say.

"Absolutely," he agrees, "but I would prefer that the act of love came directly, rather than indirectly, through the food."

We're so used to seeing food as a metaphor, but for De Botton it's just food. And what makes a meal an experience is when it's a meaningful encounter in which either side reveals something of themselves.

"This normally happens after a few bottles of wine," he says. "That's when people start to go, 'It is all shit and my marriage is terrible and I hate my job, I can't bear my parents…' or whatever it is, and suddenly there is a feeling that friendships can be forged out of that darkness. In Britain it normally takes about 15 bottles of wine before that happens. And it would just be good if you could do it without that."

In fairness, De Botton, who was born and spent his early years in Switzerland doesn't need alcohol to open up. He can discuss his difficult relationship with his father – the impressive and scary Gilbert de Botton, a financier who went to work for the Rothschilds before going on to found Global Asset Management – on nothing stronger than jasmine tea. De Botton senior spoke 12 languages, collected modern art and was rabidly atheist. In the introduction to his latest book, Religion for Atheists, De Botton junior writes: "I recall him reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god may dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight years old at the time."

He recounts how, despite his upbringing, he suffered a crisis in his lack of faith; how Bach's cantatas made him falter, momentarily, in his godlessness. And how he believes that there are things that religion simply does better – such as weddings, and death, and community.

His father died some years ago, but it's hard not to think that the book is in some ways a conversation with him that he has been carrying on in his head. And possibly his wife, too. She studied theology at Cambridge and was "appalled that I should tackle religion". And he doesn't just tackle it. He asset strips it, proposing that civil society should steal the things religion does well but leave out all the God stuff.

One of his boldest ideas is for a new kind of restaurant. Christian mass, he writes, was a meal before it was a service, eaten with strangers. In the early church, these were known as "agape (from the Greek for 'love') feasts". In the modern city, he writes, there are any number of places to eat well, but there's "an almost universal lack of venues that help us to transform strangers into friends".

And so he proposes an "agape restaurant". For, "There are few more effective ways to promote tolerance between suspicious neighbours than to force them to eat supper together." And there's a vivid description in the book of how we walk into restaurants alone. And leave alone.

"A city like London is sociable in a sense that there are people gathering in bars and restaurants, concerts and lectures. Yet you can partake of all these experiences and never say hello to anyone new. And one of the things that all religions do is take groups of strangers into a space and say it is OK to talk to each other."

Our mains arrive. I have a pad Thai and De Botton has aubergine and lychee green chicken curry.

"How is it?" I ask.

"Nice."

Actually, it's not unlike hanging out at Wagamama in Terminal 5. Which isn't really an accident. "I'm attracted to that sort of international anonymity," he says. "There's a certain kind of insular, old-fashioned, upper-class Britishness that gives me the spooks. I am sure that comes from a boarding-school trauma. So someone like Cameron I find deeply creepy."

De Botton failed to get into Eton, and ended up at Harrow "where the duffers go" because, he says, his parents didn't know any better. And the school was stuffed with David Camerons.

"He's the guy – you know, the head boy – who'd say things like, 'Why don't you play rugby more?' I ended up in this place which was hell on earth. A place that was obsessed by male machismo and sport and beery thickness. It's insane. That school should be closed." His schooling makes his indifference to food make much more sense.

"For 15 years I ate revolting food. I remember going to university and the people who'd left home for the first time looked at the food and were horrified. Whereas my view was that if it was vaguely edible, then it's fine."

Our lunch, on the other hand, being a meaningful social encounter where De Botton reveals something of himself (in a controlled fashion – he is Swiss, after all) is great. Bring on the agape restaurant.

 

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