Britain's Street Food Revolution - Spear's Magazine

Britain’s Street Food Revolution

William Sitwell hits the road to find out whether street food is the highway to culinary Nirvana or merely a cold, rainswept cul-de-sac without cutlery or tables and chairs

Coq au Vin

William Sitwell hits the road to find out whether street food is the highway to culinary Nirvana or merely a cold, rainswept cul-de-sac without cutlery or tables and chairs

AS SPRING TRIED, and failed miserably, to warm the cockles in early March, I found myself striding up London’s newest street. King’s Boulevard reaches out behind the revamped King’s Cross station and winds its way through large construction sites to its top, where, I’m told, Britain’s most exciting food revolution can be witnessed.
The telling is done by a man called Richard Johnson, a freelance writer and occasional restaurant critic who has decided to throw his weight — and he is rugby-player chunky, thick hands, stubble, brutish almost — behind British street food. So I meet him as he hovers at the top of the street, surrounded by a mere smattering of stalls, the owners of which rub their hands together in an attempt to keep the freezing temperatures at bay.
‘The next Jamie or Heston is now working in a street-food restaurant,’ he declares, welcoming me to this spot. ‘It’s much sexier and for just two or three thousand pounds you can start. Everybody loves a picnic, we can all see the virtue of eating outside, so that’s all that street food is.’
He introduces me around. This lunchtime there are about five pitches, either under a tent, constructed in MDF or attached to a small van.

 

Illustration by Rich Gemmell

There’s Jon Knight, whose Original Fry-Up Material serves up his quality version of the British breakfast. ‘It’s a tribute to the greasy spoon but without the grease,’ he says. He sells French toast, eggs benedict and rich croque monsieurs and, like the other stall-holders, rents his pitch from Kerb, the organisation that manages street-food stalls across London.
Next to him is Dosa Deli, run by Kristian Price, who, with his wife Amy, sells Asian-inspired street food. ‘We tow this behind the car,’ he says of his stall. ‘The wind took us and ripped us into pieces this morning. Business is OK but it’s pretty awful in the winter. Sometimes I wish I was indoors. But what I love is the people: I get to meet the people who eat my food and get their feedback one-to-one as they eat it. You don’t get that in a restaurant.’
The Prices started their street food business when they were made redundant from a media company. ‘We’re making less money,’ he admits, ‘but we’re living and I wouldn’t swap it.’
Next to moan about the weather is Giacomo Bia, whose Gurmetti stall sells Italian sandwiches; focaccia shipped from his family in Italy and filled with the likes of parma ham. ‘The weather is the biggest challenge,’ he says from his bespoke Italian van, ‘but we are building a respectable business.’
As, one hopes, is Emilie Holmes, who quit a job in advertising so she could sell the likes of a cup of rare oolong from her beautiful Good & Proper Tea van. Emilie, who raised funds for the business on the website Kickstarter, drives her 1974 Citroën H to the top of King’s Boulevard every day except Monday and you can tweet your order at her as you step off your train.
‘I started the business in December,’ she says, brewing a cup of Japanese Sencha using filtered water, ‘and buy my teas direct from farmers around the world.’ At least she can take shelter in her van and hover by the grill she uses to heat crumpets on days like this when temperatures are freezing.
Speaking of which, with frostbite attacking my fingers and as I’m unable to take more notes without losing at least one, Johnson suggests we head indoors to talk further.

OVER A PINT at the Parcel Yard pub and some truly revolting deep-fried calamari — we should have dined on the street — Johnson explains how he set up British Street Food to encourage the public to give it a go and to give those judged to be the best annual awards.  
‘Street food gives people who want to open restaurants but don’t have the capital the opportunity to do it,’ he says. ‘You can make a lot of money and you can make huge losses. People who do it are gamblers. You never know what the weather will be like and, with the best will in the world, if it rains you won’t have any customers. But when it works, if you’re someone with a passion for ingredients, if you can do a single thing really well — be it rice or tea — then you can be very successful.’
Johnson believes that the most interesting food trends are emerging from street food. ‘People are looking to it to see the restaurants of tomorrow. And we’re now being approached by railway stations, airports and shopping malls who all want a dose of street food. OK, so that might take street food indoors — something that is frowned on by the purists — but at my age I reckon it’s nice to be in the warm and dry.’


Johnson is also advising food chain Leon as it is consulted by the government on school meals. ‘I think we can help stop kids jumping over the fence to McDonald’s,’ he says. ‘Street food has a swagger, it makes good food cool.’
Johnson’s interest in street food began when he was working as a restaurant critic for The Independent. ‘My meals were often coming to £100 a head and I thought that it was such a ridiculously rarefied life that just didn’t fit with me and my beliefs as a democrat,’ he says earnestly. ‘Food should be fun and affordable. I love restaurants but I also like variety. But now there has been a change in the way we eat. And I think that Cameron’s Big Society is made flesh with street food.
‘The Olympics and the Jubilee have meant we commune much more than we used to. People chat in queues when they are buying street food. And I think now there are a lot of cases where street food is actually better than restaurant food.’
If the sun ever comes out I might give it a go. As long as there’s a nice table to sit at…

Read more from Food Friday

Read more from William Sitwell

The British Street Food app, giving locations of the nearest street food to you and reviews, is out in June

 

 
 

Don't miss out on the best of Spear's articles – sign up to the Spear's weekly newsletter



 

FOLLOW US ON