What is it about East London food? From the bright colours of the salads on Broadway Market to the stone-baked pizza at Crate Brewery on the canal, from the chic dishes of Bistrotheque to the Sri Lankan string hoppers at the Pavilion Café overlooking the lake in Victoria Park.
Is there actually an East London food scene with boundaries and borders? Perhaps nothing so exact. Yet there’s a palpable energy here, a can-do attitude born of the dynamism and diversity of an area that has encouraged both established and would-be chefs to take creative risks while respecting tradition; to find new flavours while honouring local produce and seasonal ingredients.
James Lowe, Founder and Head Chef, Lyle's
To say that chef James Lowe is a stickler for detail in his approach at his modern British restaurant Lyle’s in Shoreditch is an understatement. His focus, and tireless thirst for knowledge and pursuit of the best British ingredients, coupled with the natural charms of business partner and front-of-house manager John Ogier, have meant that in the short time since it opened in May 2014, Lyle’s has topped best restaurant lists across the world, notched up a Michelin star and – more significantly for the Lyle’s team – garnered a following of die-hard denizens.
The restaurant’s location in Shoreditch is important. It’s just around the corner from friend, former Young Turks collaborator and co-chef Isaac McHale’s Clove Club and highlights the eastward shift of culinary excitement. Like Isaac, James is at the forefront of an energetic new generation of British chefs who are changing the game for British gastronomy.
“I was more uncompromising than you should be when looking for a restaurant site,” admits James. “It took years, but I didn’t want to open my restaurant somewhere I didn’t live or like. It had to have decent natural light and the kitchen had to be open. When I first walked into the Tea Building with John my initial thought was, ‘we absolutely cannot lose this site’.” And we’re all very pleased that they didn’t. “I’m one of those people that when I’ve seen something really good, I can’t go back: once you’ve seen something be as good as it can be, there is no other way.”
Tom Harris & Jon Rotheram, Co-head Chefs, The Marksman
The saying ‘too many cooks’ does not apply at The Marksman, the historic Hackney boozer where best friends and co-head chefs Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram have been cooking their hearty, cravable British food together since April 2015. Walk in on the ground floor and you’ll find a timeless pub interior with wooden tables and a long, lively bar serving pints to locals, but up one flight of stairs you’re transported to an intricately designed modern dining room, vivid with hand-painted textiles, where tables can be reserved for lunch and dinner.
Down in the basement Tom and Jon are busy running one of the most exciting kitchens in East London, cooking everything from bar snacks and more refined small plates to full- blown roast dinners, drawing on the history of the setting – which has been a pub since 1865 – to create heritage-inflected dishes like the now-famous steamed beef and barley buns.
For Tom, being able to cook in an area he lives in and loves is a dream come true. “This is our community. Our friends drink here. One of the great things for me and Jon is that we come up from a busy night downstairs and there’s always a few of our friends at the pub. That’s why every chef becomes a chef. You start cooking for your family, you start cooking for your friends. We come out of the kitchen and there are people we like. That makes it all worthwhile, because we work fucking hard. That’s important.”
Nuno Mendes, Chef and Founder, Head Chef Antonio Galapito, Taberna do Mercado
After blazing onto the East London scene with his brilliant but short-lived restaurant Bacchus in Hoxton Square, back in 2006, Nuno Mendes got everyone talking about his influential Loft Project supper club and subsequent Michelin-starred restaurant Viajante in Bethnal Green. When it closed in 2014, Mendes launched the restaurant at the glamorous Chiltern Firehouse hotel in Marylebone, and the softly-spoken, perpetually understated Portuguese chef went from being the name on the lips of the culinary cognoscenti, to being the name on everyone’s lips.
It was somehow surprising then, that he should return to East London with the opening of Taberna do Mercado in 2015: a small, humble, all-day restaurant in Spitalfields Market serving Portuguese custard tarts, house-tinned fish and rustic pork loin sandwiches. But, as the chef tells us, coming back to East London was “a statement of intent”.
“Opening a restaurant in East London felt like coming back home, because East London is my home,” explains the chef. “I wanted Taberna to have that connection to place, and I wanted to do a project about accessibility. It’s in this market in a thriving part of East London, and it’s a place you can come in, at any time of day and have an offering – whether it’s a coffee and a custard tart; a sandwich to take away, or a sit-down dinner. It’s taking me back to street level.”
Lori de Mori, Co-founder, and her daughter, Towpath
It’s rare, even radical, for a restaurant not to have a website these days, but there’s an almost daring simplicity to the Towpath café on the Regent’s Canal, which underpins its charm. From March to the end of November you can sit at its tables and savour something very special. Whether it’s a solitary coffee with eggs and mojo verde on toast for breakfast, or a lunch of whole roasted plaice with buttered new potatoes shared with friends, every element of your meal has been carefully considered by founders Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson.
Created in 2010 by Lori and her then-husband, food photographer Jason Lowe, Towpath started as just one tiny unit, and has since expanded to four. “There was nothing else here when we opened,” says Lori, who at the time was living in a flat across the canal with Lowe, having moved over from the Tuscan hills where she had written four books about Italian food and food culture.
“I was writing but I wasn’t making a life for myself because my kids were grown, and I wasn’t really meeting anybody. I thought, ‘I’d like to do this, because what a good way to meet people.’ I’d just done the Camino de Santiago, a huge, 900km pilgrimage across Spain, where you carry all your stuff on your back and I was very big on what actually makes people happy, and how little you actually need, so I was intrigued about playing with this space. I thought that people would like a place in London with a genuine welcome, that doesn’t have internet or takeaway, where you just have to come, and here it is.”
Uyen Luu, Chef
Uyen Luu must struggle to fill in the tiny boxes on forms that ask for your job title. ‘Culinary creative’ is probably the best catch-all term to describe her effervescent career, which entails her working as a food stylist, writer and photographer, as well as an accidental chef, cooking for a staggeringly successful supper club from her flat in Hackney every weekend.
Luu was born in Saigon just after the war in 1977, and her earliest memories of her motherland revolve around the food there. “After the war people had their businesses taken away by the communists, and one of the ways to make money and survive was to open your house up and sell food,” she says. “My grandmother was a great cook and entrepreneur, and she turned her front room into a restaurant, selling bún bò huế, a spicy, lemongrass-scented beef noodle soup.”
Fleeing the devastation in Vietnam in search of a better life, Luu’s mother Le brought her and her brother to Hackney in the early 80s, where she settled among the Vietnamese diaspora and brought them up single-handedly.
Her supper club, which was one of the first in London, started in 2009 after she realised that she was cooking and hosting so much in her flat, she might as well start charging for it. “I decided to do it because I always held dinner parties anyway,” she says. “This was just another step up from that.”
Over time, Luu’s supper club garnered a reputation as the best place to eat Vietnamese food in London, and with fans including Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc, who both rave about Luu’s cooking, reservations have been coming in thick and fast for years. “I never anticipated the interest the supper club would get,” she says. “It grew out of good word of mouth and luck, and it became a business. You can love feeding people, but doing a supper club on the scale I do has to work as a business. All this has led to me being a professional photographer, stylist and writer. It was a mad dream at the start; in fact, I didn’t even dare to dream it! I just wanted to cook for people.”
Claire Ptak, Founder, Violet
“When you’re a good cook you know what to tweak to make it taste right, and that’s what I apply to baking,” says Claire Ptak, whose tiny, white stucco Violet bakery on Hackney’s Wilton Way has become one of London’s best-loved food haunts. “For me it’s really instinctual: I taste something and I want that satisfaction. I want every bite to be a great experience. It has to be worth it.”
Inside, her flour-kissed bakers work deftly in the open kitchen, rolling out pastry to encase wobbly custards for seasonal quiches, or cream- ing together butter and sugar for her unrivalled sponges. Dappled natural light spills through the window on to the vintage glass cabinet where piles of cookies, brownies and beautiful seasonal fruit tempt from their stands.
Ptak named her bakery after the sweet- smelling wild violets that captivated her as a child growing up in California, where food was always at the centre of family life. She began cooking professionally after studying filmmaking and realising that her heart lay in the baking she was doing before and after class. Landing a job in the pastry section of chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley – one of California’s most iconic and influential restaurants – was the start of a journey that would eventually lead her here, to a quiet street just off London Fields.
“What I want to do is create a symphony of ingredients and have those ingredients shine through. That’s truly the thing I took from Chez Panisse. Alice said she didn’t have a philosophy, but that’s what she wanted to do and that’s what she wanted to teach,” she says.
“Baking deserves just as much attention to detail as cooking does. Not just in the scientific composition of a baked good, where you’re obviously having to balance things to get it to rise and to work, but also that you have to think about balancing flavour and making it delicious.”
Chris Barnes and Paul Webb, Co-founders, Barnes & Webb
On the bright, artfully designed homepage of East London-based nomadic beekeepers Paul Webb’s and Chris Barnes’s website is the confident message ‘Beekeeping, the easy way’, along with their promise to instal and maintain beehives, and share the harvest of delicious local honey ‘without any of the hassle’. Allow- ing green-inclined urbanites the satisfaction of housing beehives in their gardens or on their roofs, along with a steady supply of the honey created with nectar from their locale is a bril- liant idea. But these two former designers would be the first to admit that mastering the mysterious, ingenious ways of the honey bee has been anything but ‘easy’. “It’s impossible not to make mistakes,” says Chris. “A beekeeper that says that they haven’t is either a miracle worker or a liar. We’ve got stung loads; we’ve lost swarms; and I’ve killed a queen. I felt dreadful!”
“I think we’ve been quite lucky overall though,” admits Paul. “The most important thing to us is the welfare of our bees. If that’s compromised in any way then we don’t do it, which can be not so great for business, but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”
Both residents of East London, Paul and Chris met years ago as budding designers working at the same agency, and their fascina- tion with beekeeping began when they embarked on a short course together. This led to more courses, and eventually to Chris moving to Auckland in New Zealand to work a summer season on a bee farm. “I persuaded him to start doing a blog on his experiences while he was there,” says Paul. “It was just fascinating to read, and I was sort of living vicariously through his experiences. So when he came back and said ‘we can do that here’, I didn’t need convincing. We had both worked in design for 15 years, in various different roles, and it’s just a lot of bullshit really! We were sick of it and just wanted to do something that has some kind of meaning toit.”
They set up the company in 2013, running it from their shared house in Homerton, with Paul still running his own design agency on the side (which he’s since shut down) and Chris doing a bit of freelance design to subsidise the slow and unpredictable growth of their venture. While they initially focused on renting out their hives and beekeeping services, now it’s their award-winning small-batch, unpasteurised Post- code Honey that has become the focus.