Our ‘Love Your Work’ profile series sets out to discover and showcase individuals, organisations and initiatives, all of whom share our commitment to quality.
Previously head chef at The Fat Duck in Bray, and now the Chef Director of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, Ashley Palmer-Watts is one of the most renowned Michelin-starred chefs on the planet.
We travelled over to Dinner to meet Ashley and, amidst the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s best kitchens preparing for its lunch service, we enjoyed a coffee at the Chef’s Table whilst we discussed his upbringing, his journey into the profession, and how relentless passion, focus and innovation keep Dinner at the forefront of the industry.
Did food play an important role in your upbringing?
From a really young age, no. I read a lot of stories about idyllic childhood food, and some of them are probably true, but I reckon a lot of them are pretty embellished, too. I grew up in a village in Dorset and I don’t really remember supermarkets. I remember a Waitrose opening nearby and then a huge Tescos, but we never went. I come from a really normal, working class family, but we had a big, long garden and we grew a lot of vegetables. My grandad also grew some in his garden and in his allotment nearby. It was very well grown produce, it was all very healthy, and that was just normal for me.
I didn’t grow up in a gastronomic family; we ate basic, classic, English staples - lasagne, toad in the hole, stews, barbecues, a roast on Sunday, that kind of thing. Nothing too special. My gran, who lived in the village, was a butcher and had been for fifty years, so we got our meat from the butcher, our bread from the bakery. Without it sounding all romantic, that’s just what everyone in the village did. When I look at it now, I do think “that was quite amazing”.
In which case, how did your journey into the restaurant world begin?
There was a small restaurant in the village called Le Petit Canard, run by a husband and wife team, and I started washing dishes there when I was twelve. It was probably one of the most invaluable turning points in my life and I look at Jeff & Linda, the owners, as parents. When I went through the doors into their little restaurant, it was like entering another world. I started to travel a bit with them -- we went to the Restaurant Show in London, they took me to my first Michelin Star restaurant and they effectively introduced me to the restaurant world and to this incredible way of life (because it’s not a job, it is a way of life).
It was the height of Marco [Pierre White] and chefs were like rock stars -- the way they helped me see that is integral to where I am today.
Which chefs did you really look up to at that time?
A lot! When I left school at sixteen, I started to do a college course one day-a-week whilst I was working at a restaurant. I wasn’t enjoying it so, I wrote to some of the top chefs in Britain at the time -- Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffmann, Michel Roux Jr., John Burton-Race, Sally Clarke and Nico Ladenis, asking them if a college education was really necessary.
They all replied with varying answers and so, in the end, I decided to ditch the college course and just apply myself to working in a restaurant. I actually then nearly joined the army, but I was too young and they told me to come back in three months. Three months later I’d changed my mind and had decided I wanted to become a chef.
Photo: Joe Sarah
Looking back now, it’s fascinating to hear that all those chefs took the replied to your letter. Does this desire to help young chefs break into the industry still exist today?
Oh, definitely. When we were opening Dinner in Melbourne, we had hundreds of applications, but one that really stood out was a letter from a slightly older guy, a successful graphic designer, who wanted to change careers.
Every now and then someone like that comes along and you think “Okay, why not? We’ll give you a chance”. Another good example is Will Torrent, the pastry chef who does a bit of TV and works for Waitrose -- he came to do a ‘stage’ with me at The Fat Duck when he was fifteen. You can’t really do that anymore because of health and safety, and we wouldn’t have done it normally, but he sent a really great letter and we wanted to give him a chance.
Do you think the increase in reality TV cooking shows and competitions provides more of an opportunity for young chefs to gain recognition?
I’ve been involved in the Australian and UK Masterchef series in recent years and I can tell you, the finalists aren’t naive. Whether they go on to win the competition or not, they know how hard it’s going to be to open a restaurant that’s successful and sustainable.
Kenny Tutt, for example, who won Masterchef in the UK this year, is working incredibly hard at the moment because he knows he has a limited period of time when he’s fresh in people’s minds and he wants to make the most of it. He’s doing a lot of small food festivals around the country, because he’s not going to be offered the big ones straight off the bat, and he knows that you really have to work your way up.
It’s not just about your ability to cook; a huge part of it is putting in the time and effort to make a real difference. Anyone who thinks success comes really quickly in this industry is dreaming, it doesn’t work like that, probably even more so now than fifteen years ago. On the one hand, you have an iPhone and social media to help build your profile and showcase your work, but on the other hand, so do millions of other people. It’s not all about that, it’s about what happens in the dining room day in, day out, and the most important thing is the experience you provide at the dining table.
I read an anecdote online about how during the first few months at the Fat Duck, it was such hard work that some chefs said they were going to the toilet, and then would never come back. Was it really that hard?
We were 100% focused and committed, and there was absolutely nothing else in my life at that point other than what was going on in that restaurant. I was pretty junior, but I was working shoulder to shoulder with a guy [Heston Blumenthal] that was one of the most tirelessly driven people I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I think that process taught me so much about who I wanted to become. It was a period of time where he was on such a mission to make it work, whatever way he could, and it’s about having that shared ethos -- which exists here at Dinner now too -- to move something forward and achieve that goal.
Meat Fruit, one of Dinner's signature dishes - chicken liver parfait disguised as a Mandarin. Photo: John Blackwell.
And what is that goal?
We can get bogged down in spreadsheets, P&Ls, percentages and staff costs, but those are just measurements that mechanically have to be in line for the business to work.
The goal, ultimately, and without wanting to sound wanky, is to give people incredible experiences whatever the occasion -- whether it’s a Tuesday lunch and they need somewhere to eat, or whether it’s a group that has travelled thousands of miles to be here. Everything else is very important, but it’s secondary. We work really hard to make sure we don’t lose focus on that.
How do you put a value on that experience?
We must always buy the very, very best produce we can get our hands on and so we work incredibly hard on supplier relationships and sourcing with integrity. Meat has to be ethically farmed, fish has to be sustainably caught, and these things all come at a cost. I can tell you where every piece of meat and fish have come from. We go to every farm, we work with the farmers. Even for stocks and sauces, I know the origin of every single ingredient. What we have to do is deliver value for money, whatever that amount of money is.
The one thing we don’t want to be is expensive. Food at this level and complexity does cost more to produce than food at a simple grill restaurant or brasserie. That’s why it has two Michelin stars and I think it’s a case of making sure you deliver on what you set out to.
You mentioned your two Michelin stars. Are they something you actively set out to achieve, or did they come as a byproduct of the exceptional experience you offer?
These awards and accolades, they’re all a measurement and achievement of what you do. We don’t look at what you need to do to get these awards then follow that, we do what we do and focus on providing the best experience we can.
We don’t rest on our laurels, we don’t let up, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to continually make things better. The first Michelin star here was incredible, especially in the year of opening, and then to get the second star in the second year was just mind blowing. We never thought “Oh, we hope we get two stars this year” -- we were completely taken by surprise. People say Michelin isn’t what it used to be, but to me it’s still the greatest accolade there is.
Photo: Joe Sarah
Where does your inspiration come from for new dishes?
We cook the way we cook because of who we are, what we’ve been through and what we’ve built over the years. We’ve always been a team that’s looking forward and into the future, trying to visualise what’s coming next, but at the same time we have to stay true to who we are and the style we’ve created.
Our style is always evolving, but it always has to feel like ‘us’. If you took our dishes out of the restaurant, I’d like to think that you’d know where they’re from, because of the character and the style of the cooking. So we work really hard to evolve, but at the same times stay true to our ‘thing’.
Do you go to other restaurants to look for ideas?
Not really for ideas. I like going to other restaurants to have the experience that we try to create for our own guests. I like to go out and have that pure enjoyment of going out for dinner, to enjoy great food and great service.
I went to Bubble Dogs the other week with a group of colleagues and we had the most incredible night sitting at the kitchen counter, eating great food and drinking great wines. It was a brilliant experience.
What process does a recipe have to go through to go from ideation to being served at Dinner?
The starting point for a dish might be a historical manuscript or cookbook, or other research documents about important points in time when certain foods were discovered. It starts as one thing and might end as something completely different, but that’s the beauty of the process. We know how to cook and serve a dish, we’re very good at that part, so the really exciting part of recipe development is the middle bit, where you have to be free enough to explore where it’s going. Sometimes it might go round in circles and we might decide as a group to park a recipe until we work out where it needs to go. A few months later one of us might say “I know where that recipe needs to go” and we can pick it up again.
Something that Heston has always been keen to instill in us is not to have a fear of failing. I always used to be very nervous plating up a stage one dish. Because of my position, everyone expects it to be amazing straight away, but that’s not how it works, and so we’re trying to get the younger chefs to understand that you need to be comfortable with the idea that your stage one dish isn’t going to be polished and perfect.
Tipsy cake at Dinner. Photo: John Blackwell.
How did your relationship with Workshop Coffee begin?
It began when we came back from Australia, having set up Dinner in Melbourne, and realised how badly we were doing coffee in our restaurants in the UK. We are just a small part at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel so getting anything done can be really challenging and sometimes a lengthy process, but we finally took them for a tasting and got them onboard.
We could have just changed the bean we were serving, and theoretically that would’ve given us considerably better coffee, but tying it back to our whole approach as a restaurant, we’re not about ‘better’, we’re about ‘the best’. So we asked ourselves, and we asked Workshop, “what is going to give us the most incredible cup of coffee we can possibly serve?”. The answer was to get EK43 grinders, use a doser, and really set ourselves up to make the best cup of coffee possible as consistently as we can.
First of all, we wanted to find ourselves the best roaster out there. Done. Then, we wanted to create a system which allowed us to receive a bean no sooner than four days from roasting and ideally within 10-12 days of roasting. Next, grind that bean to the most consistent grind you can, making it into coffee as quickly as possible from the moment you’ve ground it, and then getting it on the table. I don’t see why we’d try and set ourselves up any differently to that. If that’s the best possible way to do it, why would we opt for second best?
I heard from James Dickson (Workshop Coffee’s founder and CEO) recently that some of our customers have written a letter to Workshop saying “I had your coffee at Dinner and I had to come to one of your coffeebars” -- that is gold. That really doesn’t happen very often and that means a lot to us.
Do you drink coffee at home?
I’ve got a Workshop subscription and really enjoy taking the time to brew it using a V60. I grind by hand with a Comandante hand grinder. I love that you have to ‘work’ for the coffee somewhat.
And what’s your approach to food at home?
We’re trying to educate the kids into trying foods, and one of our principles is ‘let’s just try it’. My daughter, Sofia, was quite fussy when she was 4-6, but now she’s six-and-a-half and she’ll try anything. The really important thing is it’s ok not to like it. And my son, he’s eight, loves trying everything, from dipping his finger in the wine to trying truffle at Christmas. We try and eat quite healthily -- I do a lot of BBQing, some slow cooking on the BBQ, roast chicken on Sundays -- just nice, simple food really.
And between cooking at work and at home, how do you relax?
I like being at home, doing pretty normal things like gardening, cycling, driving -- I love cars. I love eating out, I love wine, I love travelling.
What we do is not a job, and I’ve always believed that. Just because you’re thinking about work, all the mechanical parts of running a restaurant, the more unglamorous side, I can relax by thinking about the more enjoyable stuff. It’s all about balance.
Photo: Joe Sarah
I know you’re a big Formula One fan, do you see similarities between the two ‘high-performance’ worlds of F1 and a professional kitchen?
There are a lot of similarities between kitchens and any high-performance team, whether it’s Formula One, basketball or golf.
It’s about surrounding yourself with amazing people and amazing experiences. Any other high performing team, business, or individual could have an amazing effect on my team here, and they know that things like that can really influence them.
How do you stay focused in such a high pressure environment?
I think it’s easy to stay focused if you have a balanced approach to the way you’re doing things. For me, it’s always 100% effort all the time, but because I really care about what we do here and I really love what we do, it’s easy to stay focused. I’m also surrounded by an incredibly talented and equally focused team, and that really helps you stay on track.
A restaurant is about people. Creativity and a product, that’s one thing, but without a team to execute it, and innovate, and deliver, you’re not going to make it. You can’t overlook any area of running a restaurant so you need a real diversity in skills and personalities.
Do you find your customers have quite set expectations and preconceptions of what the Dinner experience will be like?
With our place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, there comes a huge expectation with that. We’re not a small, tasting menu restaurant, we’re a different format to that [Dinner primarily has an à la Carte menu].
There’s got to be that element of luxury, of ingredients that people don’t eat very often. If you come here then you’re coming for a certain type of experience. We want to challenge what people expect from a restaurant like this. We try and cook pure food, with maximum flavour, executed with precision and skill.
Earl grey tea cured salmon at Dinner. Photo: John Blackwell.
You mentioned opening Dinner in Melbourne. What challenges did you face in translating the Dinner ethos and brand into something that would work in Australia?
The hardest single element was having a restaurant in London that had been open for five years, which was very successful, had great relationships with suppliers, and then starting from absolute scratch in Australia.
Still today, I can only get my hands on thirty ducks a week in Australia that are properly free range. I just cannot get any more. I’m not prepared to buy from the unethical side of our business and pretend it’s okay. It would make my life a lot easier, and I’d have a lot more to sell, but I can’t do it.
Growing those relationships -- with fishermen, growers, veg suppliers, herb growers -- has been the hardest and most important thing. It’s an ongoing challenge, but we’ll get there.
And how does the Australian customer differ to your UK one?
It’s a different market for sure. There are different values, and we obviously we have to stay true to who we are, but it’s about how we communicate that to the Australian market. I spend between 60-90 days per year over in Australia and we work very hard in trying to refine our offering there, and improve everything we’re doing.
Soon after our visit to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a fire broke out at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Thankfully no one was harmed, but the restaurant is currently closed until later this year whilst the extensive damage is repaired.
We wish the team all the best and know first-hand they're using the time to double-down on research and development on every facet of their menu.
Our ‘Love Your Work’ profile series sets out to discover and showcase individuals, organisations and initiatives, all of whom share our commitment to quality.
This month, we sat down with professional track and road cyclist Andy Tennant at our White Collar Factory Coffeebar. A self-confessed coffee lover and longtime friend of Workshop Coffee, Andy’s relationship to ‘quality’ lies not in a product, but in his single-minded dedication to his sport.
How did you get into cycling?
So I guess it all began when I was fourteen years old and a bit of a fat kid. I used to swim relatively competitively but loved the vending machines too much. I eventually quit swimming and a few of my mates were getting into cycling so I thought I’d give that a go. One of them really got into trial biking and doing tricks, but I enjoyed the riding side of it more. In all honesty, I was pretty rubbish as a kid and probably didn’t get good until I was seventeen, when I started to progress and win a few races. Before that I used to do these handicap races where I was given a 6-lap headstart and would still finish 6-laps behind the winner! When I was eighteen, I left school, decided not to go to university and was put straight onto the Great Britian Academy Development Team for 3 years.
What’s your role within your current cycling team, Canyon Eisburg?
I’ve been a professional cyclist for twelve years now so I’m definitely the senior statesman within the team. This means I’ll take on more responsibility and try to act like a bit of a leader for the younger guys, rather than just sitting in the background. My mouth sometimes gets me in trouble, but I like to give my opinion and I’ve been doing this a long time so I’m usually right more times than I’m wrong. I certainly don’t sit around and bark orders at people - at the end of the day, I still want to win bike races so I guess I’m just trying to lead by example.
How do you find the motivation to train when the weather is terrible or you’re feeling exhausted?
I wouldn’t use the word motivation, I’d use the word commitment. Motivation is an emotion so I’d try and steer away from that because you can’t control it - some days you’ll be motivated, some days you won’t. What you can control is commitment. You’ve just got to commit to training whilst keeping an eye on the bigger picture. There are always times when you don’t want to train, but rest is just as important and often the hardest part. Today, for example, I’ve ridden my bike this morning and then popped into town, but I’d probably have been better resting - sitting on my backside watching Netflix all day.
There’s a fine line between living like a monk and being mentally stable and happy. When I was in Italy (where the GB Team has a cycling training base), it was just so mentally unstimulating and I was actually performing worse on the bike because I was miserable. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking at doing a degree soon. It's a chance to switch off from cycling after my training and concentrate on something completely different.
And what about the races themselves? How do you prepare mentally for those?
It depends on who I’m racing for. If it’s a road race for Canyon Eisburg, then I can normally switch on ten minutes before the race and I’m ready to go. When I'm racing for GB on the track, on the other hand, I'm looking at numbers and graphs for days beforehand, discussing turns and strategies, and start to get nervous from about four hours before the race. It’s a four-minute race, where the tiniest error can cost you massively, so there’s a lot more tension.
But I’ve stuck with the track because I’ve enjoyed the success and it’s the success that makes it all worthwhile. When the opposite happens and you don’t succeed, obviously that’s hard, but you try and logically justify it to yourself and work out why it didn’t happen. If you’re continually unsuccessful, that’s when you’re motivation starts to plummet and your commitment levels start to decrease.
Despite being more successful on the track, I enjoy racing on the road more and that's probably because there’s less pressure on me. When you’re riding on the track for GB and it’s the Olympics or the World Championships, they’re such big competitions and there’s a lot of pressure on you to perform. On the road, I don’t get that and there’s more of a family atmosphere amongst the team.
What does your off-season like?
I’ll probably have two or three weeks off, but because I ride on the track as well there isn’t really much of an off-season for me. My road team are looking at doing some racing in China over the winter, which should be fun and then I’ll probably do some of the six-day events [a six-day track cycling event that takes place in cities around the world]. I rode the London six-day last year and spent every day at Workshop, which was great.
Like any sporting careers, the years that can be spent as a professional cyclist are finite. How many seasons do you think you have left?
Probably one or two. It depends on a number of things, but I don’t want to be in the position where I get to the end of my cycling career and I’ve got nothing to move on to. It sounds bad, but I almost want a 9-5 job so that I can have my weekends and do what I want for a while. I’m sure I’ll miss bits of cycling as a career, but I don’t want to leave it that one year too late and find myself miserable the entire time. I’d rather leave the sport on a happy note and keep riding my bike in my own time for the enjoyment and the love of it.
Photo: Grant Worrall
Do you know what you’ll do when you retire from cycling?
I’ve got one idea of doing up a Land Rover Defender, putting a coffee machine in the back of it and going to events. It’s a bit of a pipedream.
I’m also in the process of starting a Sports & Business Management degree soon and planning to do some work experience with a couple of firms, both within sport and in completely different sectors, just trying to better understand what I do and don't enjoy outside of sport.
I feel like I’m eighteen again, which is why I thought it’d be best to get a degree and some experience. There are certain mental attitudes which athletes are quite good at - being proactive, dedicated and a close attention to detail. My attitude is, and always has been, that if I’m not going to do it right, then there’s no point doing it at all. It’s all or nothing and that's certainly how I've approached my cycling career. You miss out on a lot in life and there’s no point in doing that unless you're giving less than 100%.
You make no secret of the fact you're an enormous coffee fan. Do you take it with you when you're travelling for races?
I do, yes, especially when I’m away for longer period times. I’ve started using a Cleverdripper on the road over an AeroPress because it’s less messy, and then I’ll take filter coffee, some scales, a hand grinder and sometimes a kettle - my teammates say my hotel rooms usually look like a scene from Breaking Bad.
When I’m just away for a couple days, I think to myself "is it really worth taking all that stuff?", but every time I don’t take it, I regret it. Hotel coffee is generally so poor I’d rather not drink it. My teammates don't mind going fifteen minutes out of their way to pick me up or drop me off at my house either, because they’re always greeted or sent home with a coffee!
Andy showing off with some impressive latte art at home
And what about at home? How are you brewing?
I’ve got a Slayer espresso machine and an EK43 grinder. I'm just finishing the last of Kirehe Remera Espresso before moving on to Murray Cooper - I get through a lot of coffee at home because there aren’t many great cafes nearby and a lot of my friends and family end up coming over for a brew too.
Does it feature as part of your daily routine?
Definitely. I’ll have at least two coffees before I head out on the bike - usually a flat white first thing with my wife Lauren (because I have to make her one anyway), and a filter coffee as well. I’ve actually got a filtered water tap at home and I like making filter at home so that when I’m on the road, and I’ve got to use bottled water, I know what the coffee I'm making is meant to taste like. I go to Mallorca a lot for training and the water there is so chlorinated that you really have got to use bottled water for brewing.
There's no doubt you love great coffee, but what was it that got you into it in the first palce?
Probably cycling and the GB Academy. We lived in Tuscany, Italy, for three years, at the team base, so I got used to Italians-style coffee. After that, I got my first espresso machine for my twenty-first birthday and it's all escalated from there. I rode for Rapha Condor Sharp for a few years and some of my teammates there were really into their coffee.
Photo: Gareth Winter
Have you got a favourite coffee stop on your local rides?
I usually base a longer route around my coffee stops. In Shrewsbury, where I live, there are two good ones: The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse and Ginger and Co, then there’s a nice one in Worcester called Wayland’s Yard and another in Ironbridge called EightySix’d. When I’m in Manchester I go to Pot Kettle Black and Ancoats quite a lot.
Photo: Hugh McManus
Finally, we can't let you leave without answering one more question: where are your favourite place to ride?
I think Shropshire, where I live, is fantastic for bike riding. The roads are really quiet and you can get into Wales pretty quickly. There’s loads of little lanes and plenty of nice coffee stops. I don’t know what they’re on about with Yorkshire, Shropshire is the real God’s Country if you ask me!
In terms of abroad, I’ve really enjoyed racing in China and America. China because it’s all just so whacky -- it’s amazingly mental. And then America and Australia are cool too, less so for training, but they’ve got good coffee shops and good weather. Without wanting to sound like a BNP party member, I think Britain is probably my favourite place to ride!
August 2018 will see us launching our latest London coffeebar, as we bring the best coffee possible to Paddington.
In an exciting first for us, our new, focused space will be inside The Pilgrm, a boutique hotel located less than 400ft from Paddington Railway Station.
Behind the brass-handled doors and blue ceramic-tiled Victorian frontage, you'll find us nestled in the stunningly restored reception space of the hotel serving the best coffee possible to residents and workers based in the local area, as well as train travellers en route to the South-West of the country and Heathrow Airport.
Our rotating, seasonal range of espresso and filter coffees will be showcased seven days a week from the new bar, with single origin and decaffeinated espressos being run through Mythos 1 Grinders and pulled on a 2-Group La Marzocco Linea PB. This will be supported by freshly brewed, consistently delicious and constantly changing filter coffee, batch brewed and ready to enjoy immediately.
With comfortable seating and a newsstand stocked with magazines and newspapers, guests and regulars will also be able to enjoy loose leaf teas from exceptional, London-based tea purveyors, Postcard Teas, a concise array of baked goods from London’s best bakeries and a range of retail bags of coffee beans and brewing equipment to take home.
We're looking forward to welcoming you and are excited to be bringing what we do to a new area of the city.
We'll keep you updated on our progress.
We're currently accepting applications for Barista and Supervisor positions at Workshop Coffee at The Pilgrm. To apply, send a pdf copy of your CV accompanied by a short covering letter to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch.
Workshop Coffee at The Pilgrm, 25 London Street, London. W2 1HH.
Our ‘Love Your Work’ profile series sets out to discover and showcase individuals, organisations and initiatives, all of whom share our commitment to quality.
For the second piece in the series, we travelled to Bath, Somerset, to chat with Athena Cauley-Yu, owner of Meticulous Ink – a fine stationery and letterpress printing company.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Athena and I run Meticulous Ink - a fine stationery and letterpress printing company located on Walcot St in the centre of Bath.
We do quite a few different things. Firstly, we have the retail stationery side of our business, so we sell our own brand of stationery and paper goods, as well as a curated selection of our favourite stationery things like calligraphy pens, inks etc. We’re also stocked at a number of London department stores - Harrods, Fortnum & Masons, Liberty – and then we offer a bespoke printing service, which is the main part of our business. Our bespoke projects range from business cards, to personal stationery, to wedding invitations. Oh, and I also run calligraphy workshops in Bath and the surrounding area!
How did you get into fine stationery and letterpress printing?
When I finished school, I went straight to university and did Arts & Media. It was a great course if you didn’t really know what you wanted to do because you basically just got put in other peoples’ classes and got to try a whole range of things. In my final year I decided to specialise in Fine Art Printing almost solely because hardly anyone used the print studio – it was empty. There were seventy of us crammed in the art studio, but only about four of us in that print studio.
After university, I did six months of door-to-door charity fundraising (which was really tough) and then I got a job with a stationery company in London’s Sloane Square. I worked there for two years before being poached by another private stationery company in nearby Mayfair. I always knew I wanted to run my own business and my partner at the time wanted to leave London, so I thought this could be a good time to do it. It took me six months to put together the business plan, find a shop and get together enough money (thanks to a business loan, three credit cards and all my life savings!) before opening my first shop in 2010, just down the street from where we are now.
When we first opened, we didn’t do the actual printing in-house - we would do all the design but would then outsource the printing to the shop in London where I used to work. This was fine for a bit, but I realised pretty quickly that I was a lot more meticulous than they were and I just wasn’t happy with the quality or consistency of the printing.
My original business plan had us buying our first big printing press at the three year mark, but I quickly realised that I wanted to be in control of every step of the printing process and so it actually ended up happening after three months. It was a shame to end the relationship with my previous employer, but I soon realised the more we could do ourselves in-house, the better. That way we could have complete control over each stage of production.
That first printing press we bought was initially based in Dorset, which wasn’t ideal and involved a fair amount of travel to oversee production runs. So as soon as we found ourselves a bigger shop [where Meticulous Ink now resides], we moved everything in here.
It’s great to have the machines here because we can show people how the print process works and do quick demonstrations. It just makes a lot more sense to have everything the business does in one building, even if people still come in and ask if we actually use them!
What is it you love so much about letterpress printing?
Without a doubt, it’s the texture. There’s simply no other way you can achieve that in printing. It makes a flat thing 3D, and I love that.
The machines are amazing too. You can tweak absolutely everything about them and, despite their large, lumbering appearance, they’re incredibly precise. For example, you can tweak the speed at which it picks up paper, the thickness of the sheet of paper, the amount of impression the machines gives, the speed of the printing, the amount of ink that goes on the press. Creating something that’s really, really delicate, out of such an old and massive machine is extremely satisfying.
How many of you are here at Meticulous Ink?
There are five of us in total - three full-time and two part-time. We’re a small company so everyone does a bit of everything, but Julia does the majority of our printing, and then the other roles include quality checking, print finishing and packing, client contact, and shipping the online orders.
Do you have plans to open more spaces in the future?
People always ask me if we’re going to open another branch and I definitely don’t feel ready to do that. Because of wanting to keep the quality so high, and wanting to be in control of everything, it doesn’t really make sense to me.
I feel like there’s still a lot we can do here, which isn’t 100% perfect yet, and I’d want to do that first. We can definitely continue growing our online presence, and we’ve got these cool new kits we’re releasing for Christmas which will hopefully help with that. I always try and keep in mind where the business might move next, but as any small business owners knows, it’s very hard to think long-term when you’re trying to keep the everyday stuff ticking along. I recently did a business strategy workshop supported by Bath Council and that was really useful in making me think more long term.
Where did the name Meticulous Ink come from?
It took ages to come up with the name and it was only really after we opened that we realised that from then on, everything we did had to be meticulous and absolutely perfect. So, in order to live up to the name, we quality check (QC) everything that leaves the shop to the highest standard. The greetings cards on the shelves, for example - we’ll check if the board has fluff on it, if it’s slightly over or under inked, if the pressure is slightly different or if there’s a slight tear in the tissue lining. We check all of that. One of the team might be QC’ing and will ask another member of the team “Do you think this is okay”, and the rule of thumb tends to be that if you have to ask, it’s probably not.
This high standard means that we end up with a lot of items which we decide not to sell. The problem is, I’m quite the hoarder and really don’t like throwing things away, so these items end up in various ‘dud’ piles. We have a ‘really dud’ pile, a ‘medium dud’ pile, and then a ‘good dud’ pile, so very occasionally we’ll do a sample sale. It’s a good way to clear out stuff which, to the untrained eye, looks great, but that we’re not 100% happy with.
You’re clearly committed to providing a product of an incredibly high standard, but what does quality mean to you?
For us, quality is something that runs through every stage of the process. For example, if we’re printing one of our own branded products, we’ll be making sure that the initial design process is as cleaned-up and perfect as possible, printing out every stage and making sure it’s all as it should be, and then checking with each other that it’s good enough.
Then, onto the printing stage, we have to make sure the plates are perfect. The plates are the one thing we don’t create ourselves. It took us a while, but we eventually found a company who have just as high standards as we do and their plates are fantastic. Whilst the piece is being printed, we’ll try to filter out any major ‘duds’ straight away and continuously check that the ink quality and texture are consistent.
After that, everything is cut down on our 1990s guillotine, so we make sure the crop marks and the scoring are all perfect. Finally, we do the actual QC checks before packing the item up. So for me, quality is about respecting every single stage of a process.
How exacting can your bespoke clients be?
The majority of the time, people are very picky, and they don’t really realise it until they get into this process. My favourite bespoke projects have always been with people who have a vague idea of what they want, but maybe aren’t creative themselves and therefore they’re happy for us to take the lead. At the other end of the spectrum are the people who have a very specific idea of what they want in their head, but struggle to translate it into words. The challenge for me is to draw what they really mean out of them, and that’s why an initial consultation is so important and why I like meeting people – you can get so much more from being face to face with someone. Wedding invites can be particularly tricky, because there are two people making the decision, but equally it’s usually really fun doing those.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I must admit, I don’t really. Or at least, not that often. If I was doing a logo design for a client then I might do some research on a certain theme, in a Dover Book for example, but I actually try not to look at other people’s work all that much. In a way, it’s because I don’t want to be trendy, I just want to do our thing and do it well.
You mentioned ‘our thing’, do you feel you have a style that’s unique to Meticulous Ink?
I’d like to think so! In terms of our design, because we design specifically for letterpress printing, there are certain restrictions we have to adhere to. Say we’re doing a greeting card, for example, then we know that it can’t have loads of solid areas mixed with loads of thin areas, but then you can do lots of cross-hatching. In a similar way, the number of colours you use means using more plates, and so that makes you layer colours more instead. It’s those limitations, because of the print methods we’re using, that affect the artwork and that, in turn, gives us ‘our look’.
Have you ever had a mentor, or is there someone who has been particularly influential in the development of your work so far?
The letterpress world is extremely friendly because everyone who does it just wants it to keep going and to survive as a medium. So when we first opened, we were befriended by quite a few, what we call, ‘old man printers’ - men in their sixties plus who just love letterpress and wanted to help. There was a gentleman called Simon Smallwood, a hobbyist printer, but a complete expert, whose basement was completely packed with letterpress equipment. He helped us train on our first letterpress machine, a clanky old thing from the 1870s, and then another chap called Richard Lawrence, who now works in Oxford, who helped train us on the bigger machines we have now.
Over the years I’ve befriended quite a few other small business owners which has been really helpful. There’s Carmen, who owns A Yarn Story a few doors down from us - she’s amazing and has a really good business head, and Kate, who owns The Makery. They’ve both been really good to me and for me. So in terms of letterpress and the business side of things, I’ve had a lot of help from some very generous people, but when it comes to design, I prefer to do my own thing.
What do you do to relax?
I’m a Lindy Hop Swing dancer, which is 1920s-50s partner dancing, it’s so fun. Last night I was dancing in Bristol where there’s a big swing dance scene and lots of live music. Pretty much every week there’s some sort of event in Bristol and I go to classes in Bath. My teachers - Graeme & Ann of Hoppin’ Mad - are in their 60s and they’re just so fit and such amazing dancers, and they run four or five social dances a year. I also like knitting and sewing, and generally making with my hands. I think the dancing is so good for me, as it’s really physical and the complete opposite of what I do day-to-day
Being able to brew great coffee wherever and whenever you need it most has always been a key aim of ours. No matter where you are or what equipment you have with you, you should still be able to brew the best cup of coffee possible.
Nowhere is this truer than in the great outdoors, whether that's camping in the wild or hiking up a mountain -- a great cup of coffee is the perfect accompaniment.
Over the recent Summer Solstice weekend, Sheffield-based bikepacking brand, Pannier, set up camp at Stanage Edge in the Peak District and invited tourers to join them for a few days of riding and socialising out in the wild. We roasted a batch of our Rwandan filter, Kirehe Remera, for them to brew up each day.
But brewing in the wild provides some unique challenges and so with practicality in mind, and travelling light a priority, we also put together a few tips to help keep your coffee tasting sweet even with a more lo-fi brewing set-up.
Use a metal filter
You can leave paper ones at home, so the filter holder isn't taking up the space of half a water canteen. Metal filters allow more oils and fine sediment into your cup, and need rinsing and wiping off once you've brewed, thus ensuring the oils don't turn rancid and taint your next cup.
Use a scoop
Every AeroPress comes with a scoop which promptly gets tossed into the "random things" drawer in everyone's kitchen. It's actually pretty decent. The spoon end of a spork (below) also makes for a good alternative.
Grind a touch coarser
You should be using a Porlex when camping; it slots into your AeroPress chamber when packing, is quick, and doesn't require an energy source besides yourself. Rather than trying to squeeze down your AeroPress with a considerable amount of force when you're likely brewing on an uneven tree stump or a mossy woodland floor, go for a coarser grind and longer steep time, with an extended stir to make sure the coffee extracts properly. A coarser grind will also make plunging through a metal filter that little bit easier.
Make sure the rubber bung is securely in place in the brewing chamber and add your ground coffee. Then slowly top up with freshly boiled water to just shy of the brim of the AeroPress a this equates to around 250g of water. Get stirring and leave for a few minutes to steep before placing the filter and cap in place, flipping onto your tin travel mug, and slowly plunging.
Take pre-rinsed filter papers
If you're the kind of person to be doing pour-over brewing in the woods, you sound pretty into your coffee. For single cup brewing, the taste of a filter paper will come through if it's unrinsed, but when camping, water and heat will be in short supply compared to back home. Therefore when packing, spend a minute a few days before you leave rinsing a short stack of filter papers in your pourover cone, letting them dry before popping into your rucksack. That way you can brew straight away without having to boil extra water.
Grind a little finer than normal
This might sound counter-intuitive given the AeroPress brewing advice to grind coarser whilst camping but bear with me. The hard part of pourover brewing without scales is getting an accurate coffee-to-water ratio. We all know the right amount of coffee to water, ground on the correct grind setting gets you a cup of coffee which is well extracted and brewed to the proper strength. What we propose you do in the woods, however, is to purposefully brew a cup that's a bit too strong, but is properly extracted. Then, to dilute the concentrated cup and open up the flavours, add a little hot water to taste.
Aim for a large bloom and higher brew bed throughout
As you won't be packing a gooseneck kettle, pouring carefully, slowly and accurately, in all likelihood, won't be possible. To counteract this, and still get an even extraction, start by pouring quite a lot of water onto the grounds, more than you would at home. Get a spoon in there and make sure that all the grounds are wet in this initial slurry, before continuing to pour. Keep the level of water quite high in your cone, as this will hopefully achieve a higher temperature in the brew slurry. Maintaining a high temperature, combined with a finer grind, means you'll be able to extract all the delicious flavours from your ground coffee, with less water than you would use to pour through the coffee bed at home.
When you feel like you've got a strong cup of coffee under the cone, take it off and taste it. Add a splash more hot water, mix and taste again. Keep doing so until the coffee is at your desired strength then savour and enjoy.
‘The best coffee possible’. A simple statement that sits at the heart of everything we do at Workshop Coffee -- from sourcing green coffee from quality-focussed farmers and producers around the world, roasting it carefully in Bethnal Green and brewing it across our coffeebars. This dedication to quality isn’t unique to us, it exists amongst other industry professionals and home hobbyists alike.
With that in mind, we’ve set out to discover and showcase individuals, organisations and initiatives, all of whom share our commitment to quality.
Kicking off the series is Jake Green, a photographer we have admired for a number of years and, more recently, collaborated with. We sat down with Jake at our White Collar Factory Coffeebar to discuss his life, his work and what the notion of quality means to him.
What’s your background?
“I grew up in London and then spent some time working and studying in Italy as a student. I picked up a camera at the age of 15 and I’ve dabbled with it ever since.”
Did you always know what type of photographer you wanted to be?
“I don’t even know that now to be honest. If I had to say, I’d say portrait, documentary, or observational - it’s what I’ve done a lot of and what I’ve really enjoyed.”
What kind of commercial work do you do?
“All sorts really. A lot of project work for global corporates, helping to bring their brand or product to life in as authentic way as possible. Sometimes I can make it look authentic and real, sometimes I can’t. It can be very frustrating when these things are very contrived. Otherwise, I do a lot of portraits and commercial music jobs, but I don’t tend to shout about that work so much. People think you can use commercial work to build your profile, but I don’t agree. Brands don’t want to see your work for other brands, they just want to see good work. It’s your [personal] project work that will sell you and it’s your project work that makes you better at your commercial work.”
Barista Baptiste Kreyder, former Head Barsita at Workshop and now currently residing in New Zealand.
What got you into coffee as a general theme for your work?
“My interest in coffee began when I moved to Italy as a teenager and started drinking good coffee for the first time. It was about the same time as the new wave of coffee started hitting London and you started to see a real change in the way people perceived it. I was developing ideas for a few personal projects at the time and I came up with this idea of ‘the first coffee of the day’ for the person who then serves coffee all day long. The funny thing is, no one actually drinks that first coffee - you’re dialling in the machine, getting the recipe right, and that’s where the name for the series Dialing In (2012) came from - a series of portraits of 10 or so really influential baristas. There was no real media output for this new coffee movement, but they were keen to spread the message of good coffee and therefore happy for me to document their work and passion. I’ll always remember when one barista said to me, “This work is going to ruin your life. You’ll never be able to drink shit coffee again.” And it’s so true, it’s become an obsession.”
James Bailey, then at Prufrock but now our Head of Quality at Workshop, photographed for ‘Dialing In’, 2012.
How was the project received?
“Overall that project went really well, but most importantly, I enjoyed it and learnt a lot. It also got placed in the FT Weekend which showed that the coffee revolution in the UK was really gaining momentum. The natural progression from there was to look into roasteries, which a lot of the top baristas I had originally met had started to set up. It’s a very tight-knit community and so once I’d photographed one barista or roastery, they would put me in touch with someone else to talk to. I shot roasters in Berlin, Paris & New York, and whenever I was travelling on a commercial assignment, I’d look up a top roaster in the same area and go photograph them.
Whilst working on the roasteries project, I remember one of the roasters saying to me ‘direct trade (of coffee) is a myth, you should go to speak to Nordic Approach’ - an exporter - who sit between the producer and the roaster. And that’s how I got into the agriculture side of the coffee - the final element which I’d never even considered.”
David Nigel Flynn of Belleville Brûlerie in Paris photographed for ‘Roasteries’, 2014.
Where do you see the coffee project moving next?
“My work with Nordic Approach (NA) has definitely piqued my interest in other global trade, so chocolate might be something I look at in the future. But first I definitely want to look at other origins. We’ve already been to Kenya, and NA are keen to document the other regions they work in. The first two projects I did - Dialing In and Roasteries - were about me starting to learn and understand coffee, so I can be in the field with top roasters, and understand what I’m taking pictures of. I want to lean on that experience and make the most of it. I’d love to do some more small bespoke books, like Beber Mi Sudor, for Kenya and Ethiopia, and then eventually do a bigger book which is more of a reference to a range of origins.”
How do you approach a big, daunting project?
“It’s a very conscious thing for me not to define a project before I start it. If you do that, you completely limit the potential of your creative output. That’s what happens with commercial work - you’re told ‘this is what the end result should look like, go and do it’. But that doesn’t make sense, that’s not how the creative process works for me. Every personal project I do is a visual research project. For example, I went to Colombia, but I didn’t know I was going to do a book. I just knew I’d get some pictures which would be useful for Nordic Approach and I’d get something interesting for myself. If I’d said before the trip ‘this is going to be a 100-page book for Phaidon’, I’d have had to had a shot list and thought about the layout of each page, and as a result the work wouldn’t have been so expressive. Something Nick Knight [a famous fashion and portrait photographer] once said was “It’s all about the process, not the end result”, and I live by that completely and utterly.
A street scene from Jake's book with Nordic Approach, sold and launched with Workshop Coffee, ‘Beber Mi Sudor’.
Where do you find inspiration for your projects?
“I think my biggest inspiration comes from reading fiction. It might give me an interesting idea, some sort of historical context or something refreshing that’s not in the mainstream. Picking up a book from the shelf that’s 50 years old is so much more likely to give you a unique perspective than any current media. Reading also lets my mind wander which is great for generating ideas, especially when you’re running around from one job to the next. There’s something to be said for taking a minute to let your mind be idle. Otherwise, I look at a lot of photography and art books and I love going to exhibitions. They’re a bit of shrine for me - there’s no advertising, no people, no screens, and I usually leave an exhibition bubbling with ideas.”
Preacher Samuel from the series ‘The Celestials’, 2015
How do you decide which personal project to prioritise?
“I’m very, very picky about the projects I go into now because I know how much work and commitment they’re going to require. I’ll usually prioritise projects by what interests me the most and what’s achievable sooner rather than later. For example, now I need to decide whether I’m going to go and do another origin project with Nordic Approach (Ethiopia is next), or whether I put that time and effort into doing the Kenya origin book. Or, am I going to work on my Celestials or Jehovah’s Witnesses books which I’ve also got on the go?
I’m going to start work on the Celestials project soon - do the edit, but then make a decision on the final set of images later on. I think it could be something pretty epic so I might want to give the work a couple of years to grow on me and develop. I reckon it’ll be a big, 200-page coffee table book with text and typography so I need to make sure I do it properly. I might even make some proofs of that and go to see a publisher.
The problem with that is when a publisher gets involved the whole vibe of the project can change really quickly. For example, with The Bookmakers’ Studio [Jake’s project that examines some of the world’s leading children’s bookmakers], that started as a small Kickstarter project which got funded and end up being featured on The Guardian with 20,000 shares.
Because of that, Phaidon got in touch with me and asked me to do another book, but with more people, more text, more portraits, and with people from all over the world. At first, this sounded great, but after shooting the first two artists I was done. What had originally started as this completely open-ended visual research project was now a job with a very specific endpoint, and that didn’t appeal to me at all.”
Jake photographing illustrator Jurg Lindenburger in Basel for ‘The Bookmakers’ Studio’, 2014.
You also did a project called ‘Pie & Mash’. Where did the idea for that come from?
“I was doing a series of short films about London with Simon Poon Tip who was doing a project called 32LDN, about the 32 boroughs of London. For some reason we ended up chatting about Pie & Mash shops and were both big fans, so we decided to go around London and shoot every single one. It’s a straight-up photographic documentation of something very unique to London and it picked up a nice bit of momentum online.
It was a very quick Kickstarter to raise money for the book and we doubled the target amount we wanted to raise. The goal is to get all the Pie & Mash shops registered as part of English Heritage but it’s going to be a real challenge with the high streets in the state they are.”
Nathan’s Pies and Eels photographed for Pie & Mash, 2015.
What does ‘quality’ mean to you?
“I think two things really stand out to me. For personal projects, they’re quite selfish, they’re about me projecting internally, not externally. I have to be 110% happy with it - I’m not doing these books because other people love books, I’m doing books because I love books. I want to hold it and enjoy it - and to me, that’s the ultimate mark of quality in what I do. Books to me are an interesting form of self expression - I want someone to look at one of my books and feel the same way I did when I looked at it.
Secondly, it’s all work in progress - that’s super important to me. I look at Beber Mi Sudor, for example, and I want my next book to be as good, different and maybe even better.”
Coffee cherry being loaded into a pulper hopper, from Jake’s latest project, ‘Beber Mi Sudor’.
What’s next for you?
“I want to do the Kenya book with Nordic Approach - we’ve done the trip and the images are looking good but we need some editorial to accompany it. Whereas Colombia is all about the farmers and the small holdings, Kenya is this amazing co-operative story where lots of people with a small amount of beans come together to create amazing coffee. It’s such a colourful and vibrant place and the people are so elegant and beautiful. ‘Drink My Sweat’ is actually a Swahili expression so I’m really keen to continue the series here.
I’ve got a few other personal projects bubbling around though so we’ll see what happens.”
London Coffee Festival is always a mad time of year. In the Old Truman
A pre-requisite of curating a range of tasty coffees is the desire to shift and rotate your roasted offering to reflect what is tasting best at different points in the year. We aim to always offer two single origin espressos (alongside a single origin decaffeinated espresso) as well as between three and five single origin filter options. It's challenging, but we love the variety and fluidity that this offers, rather than artificially creating a diverse offer list through altering our roast style or blending coffees together.
As well as our current coffees we put some other samples on the cupping table to bookmark the range we have available, with some 'no longer fresh' and some 'not quite ready' coffees providing some context for when we use the terms “fresh” and “seasonal”.
The London Coffee Festival is almost upon us once again.
As cafe owners, coffee lovers and roasters from across the country descend on East London, we'll be keeping the shutters at our Roastery in Bethnal Green up a little longer than usual on Friday 13th April from 5:00 p.m..
Providing a welcome break from the franticness of the festival, we'll be putting coffees from our current range down on the cupping table. You'll be able to taste these alongside some past favourites and a preview of some new arrivals as we seek to highlight our commitment to continually move with coffee’s seasonality.
All that, plus a few drinks and a whole host of conversations.
Find us at 29-43 Vyner Street, London, E2 9DQ.
We're looking forward to welcoming you.
We've been supporting London-based cycling team The 5th Floor for five years now and have enjoyed brewing up our coffee at their annual track event for the past three.
This year was no exception. We headed down to the illustrious Herne Hill Velodrome on an uncharacteristically sunny Saturday afternoon to serve up our Gitesi Espresso for riders and supporters.
Below are a few photos we captured on the day.