Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Whole Foods

Whole Foods on Kensington High Street has, since it’s opening in 2008, become something of a Mecca for anyone in the city with even vaguely gastronomic pretentions. Frequented in equal measure by greedy gluttons, svelte vegans and camera touting tourists, the recycled brown and green bags have become emblematic of our post-millennium drive towards ever-healthier sources of nourishment.

Three floors tall, the former site of Barkers Department Store is vast and houses everything an epicurean could dream of, from the familiar to the completely obscure. The frustratingly long checkout queue left me with time to notice the vastly disparate items in my basket. Japanese pickled ginger lay next to Middle Eastern Harissa, a cheddar cheese sandwich and South African biltong.

Decadent piles of colourful, organic produce fill the halls, laid out upon eye-pleasing timber stands, while knowledgeable staff offer tasters of purple tortilla chips, protein energy bars, tomato salsa or wine. Diversity is certainly not lacking.

In one display a tumbling heap of black skinned avocados sat alongside tubs of freshly made guacamole and it struck me that placing attractive component ingredients alongside their corresponding creation is an extremely effective marketing idea. By doing so, Whole Foods appeal to both the creative cook, glad of a recipe idea, or those happy to take home the shop made version.

There is an elegant temperature controlled cheese room, a handmade chocolate counter, a book store, a fishmonger and butcher, eggs of any bird known to lay, homemade soup, a create-your-own salad bar and my personal favourite, a machine where you can make your own peanut butter. I think Roald Dahl must have had a hand in the creation of the shop or at the least I would bet the designers are fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Upstairs the choice in the restaurant and café is equally overwhelming with a big focus on customer involvement. Many staff line up behind the counters to help you create personalised pizzas, wraps, sandwiches or burritos which arrive in enormous portions with matching price tags.

Breakfast is the best time of day to drop in, when the restaurant is wonderfully free of queues or customers towing their screaming pushchairs. You can calmly build your own yoghurt pot, indulge in crepes, or detox with a super-food smoothie while sinking into an arm chair and gazing through the tall windows at the bustle of Kensington commuters.

I’ve been to Whole Foods many times and tend to leave feeling hurried, as though I’ve just emerged from the northern line (which, by the way, doesn’t touch the just escaped from a war zone sense of relief on leaving Tescos). There are usually too many people milling the spacious aisles, it does take a long time to find anything specific and the sheer range of choice is in itself an assault on the senses. Stopping yourself piling yet more fodder into your trolley is a challenge and I suppose this is what the management bet on, that we as shoppers are both greedy and bereft of will power.

For me, the ostentation of the mammoth displays sparks a bit of guilt at our gluttonous approach to food in the Western world and is enough to stop me splurging or returning too often. Not quite guilty enough though to be able to resist the chocolate brownies on the way out.

This could easily turn into a thesis so suffice it to say you should probably visit to form your own opinion. Their latest launch is a two course evening meal for £10 which sounds like it is well worth trying and was well received by Jasper Gerrard in a recent Telegraph review.

Whole Foods Market, 63-97 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SE

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