How did you get started in cooking?
I originally came over just with a passion for London, I was a real Anglophile and I have been here for nearly 28 years now. I had this dream about directing theatre on the London stage. So, I came fresh out of university [from the United States] and dropped myself off in London and tried to make it as a director. That proved more difficult than I expected and I got quite disillusioned with the whole theatre business early on. And, just completely by accident, I discovered food and cooking for the first time in my life.
I got hired as an artist’s model by an artist called Christiane Kubrick – Stanley Kubrick’s wife. She said to me one day, why don’t you go throw a couple of potatoes in the Aga for us for lunch. I said ok, but I’d never seen an Aga before in my life and I’d never baked a potato in my life. Somehow, I managed to bake that potato and the rest is history because, from that point on I started to take an interest in stuff that was going on in the kitchen. So, I would help out with her entertaining. And, then, eventually, I just took over the kitchen and became their private chef for a number of years. But, they were just really patient with me while I played around in their kitchen and learned, which was a fantastic opportunity.
So, then I went on to work at a shop in Notting Hill called Books for Cooks in the mid-90s. It was the golden age for Books for Cooks because it was before the internet and Books for Cooks was kind of the oracle of the food world. All day long, people were coming in or phoning up with their culinary conundrums or fact-finding missions, we were just spending the entire day using this wonderful resource of cookbooks and reference books about food to help people find information and old recipes and new recipes. It was also a time when food was just starting to became a real zeitgeist in London.
There was also – they still do have this actually – a kitchen in the back of the bookshop where we would cook recipes from the books and I was one of the chefs doing that. They also had a cookery school upstairs, so that is where I first started teaching and demonstrating, and then I started writing my own books.
What’s your connection with Tottenham?
My spiritual home has always been North London. I bought a house in N15 in 2003. It was the first time I had ever considered buying property, and it was a part of London that was actually affordable. That was how I first arrived. And, it was very soon after that that, wandering around the neighbourhood, that I discovered there was an allotment site near where I lived.
I’ve now had it for just over ten years. It’s been a real learning curve but it’s the most wonderful antidote to city life. But also it is really changed the way that I cook and the way that I understand flavour. To be able to taste something literally within hours of harvesting it, it’s a completely different sense of taste, or type of flavour then even anything that’s been sitting around a few days. I now live with my partner Justin, and we just bought a flat two years ago in Tottenham Hale. I had to say to him, ‘love me, love my allotment’.
Is such urban farming is the future, either allotments or on more of a commercial scale?
It has become very fashionable, to grow your own. And, people – allotments used to only be just kind of the preserve of old men in caps, you know, where retired old guys would go to get away from their wives. That’s all changed now. It’s the new rock ‘n’ roll. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for the local people
Tell us about your Green Lanes walking tour.
I spend most of my time running my business called Gastrotours and one of the newest ones that I’m offering is called ‘Turkish Delights’ in Green Lanes. I love Green Lanes. And, the thing I love most about it is the Turkish restaurants and the Turkish food shops like Yassir Halim. But, it’s so interesting, what’s happened, in the last couple of years, now we’ve got Music and Beans shop, the Jam in a Jar bar and the health food shops.
I don’t think that that wave of gentrification, if you want to call it that, is likely to push out the authentic stuff that is down there. I think there is a stronghold of the Turkish community and Cypriot community that will live forever, I’m sure. And that’s what makes it great.
What is the highlight of the gastrotour?
One thing I love to do most on my gastrotours is taking people into the food shops and explaining to them how to use ingredients that they might otherwise have no idea how to cook. So, Yassir Halam, I think is the most fantastic shop. So, that is a lot fun for me to take people in there. And point out, that you can buy a whole jar of artichoke bottoms and that you can then use to stuff and roast.
The other would be a fantastic little business called Cigkoftem, In Turkey, there’s a really typical street food, which is made with raw lamb, that’s spiced up and squeezed into these little meatballs. I am actually vegetarian, so, I wouldn’t particularly be going out of my way to find that delicacy. This particular shop does cigokoftem, but a vegetarian version. It’s made from bulgur wheat and red pepper paste and spices and they just squeeze into these little, meatball things. You can eat in as well, but you can take it away, with lettuce leaves, mint, parsley sprigs and lemon wedge – and a little container of sweet, spicy, chili sauce. And, also pickled chilies – lots of chilies going on. It’s one of the best and cheapest foods imaginable, and I just love it.
What’s next on the horizon?
I’m very happy to say, I’ve just signed a contract with a new publisher for my next book which is going to be called Superveg. And, the subtitle is – ‘the joy and power of the 25 healthiest vegetables on the planet’. So, I’ve selected kind of my favourite 25 vegetables based not only on the nutritional benefits that they deliver but on their versatility and their deliciousness.
Based on those 25 superveg, I’m creating quite a big book. Everything you could possibly do with those vegetables, and then recipes to accompany that. And, that will be out in 2018. So, for the next 6 months, I’ll be, my kitchen is turning into a laboratory. And, on top of running my gastrotours business, I’ll be very busy doing a lot of cooking. And experimenting.
You said you’ve been here nearly 28 years. What you have seen in terms of changes in food and food habits in Britain?
There’s been a renaissance, a total revolution. It was an extraordinary time to arrive, 1989, when I first came, London was not a destination for food in any sense of the word. You could barely get an avocado in the supermarket back then! Things started to change through the 90s and Borough Market represents what happened with food. Our membership to the EU has enhanced the cultural fabric that has been reflected in food, largely. Borough Market for most of the 90s was just a wholesale market which changed into a public market for food of all kinds and from all over the world. But also, British food and British ingredients have become important [and] London is such a true melting pot of cultures which has allowed it to flourish.
Also, I think it’s extraordinary economically and psychologically Britain is a great place to start a business. So, you can have a fairly small amount of capital, and if you have a really good idea, then you can start a business based around food. Like, Tottenham Green Market, those little food stalls where people and taking really innovative food ideas and keeping them pretty simple and making a business out of it. That’s positive to see.
I absolutely love living in Tottenham and I would not want to be living anywhere else. I feel like this is where — I’ll be carried out of here feet-first, that kind of thing. I feel very blessed to have my allotment. I realised once I got the allotment, I wouldn’t be moving. So, I’ll be living in walking distance of my allotment for the rest of eternity. I’m a big enthusiast or the neighbourhood and a very happy resident.
Words: Julie Ann Andreshak