Our ‘Love Your Work’ profile series sets out to discover and showcase individuals, organisations and initiatives, all of whom share our commitment to quality.
To kick off 2019, we made the short trip from our Roastery in Bethnal Green up to the railway arches of Hackney Downs, East London, to visit award-winning soda company Square Root Soda. After a tour of the soda works and a brief introduction to the brewing process, we nipped across the street to the Pembury Tavern (owned by Five Points Brewing Company), to sit down with Square Root co-founder, Robyn Simms.
Along with her partner, Ed Taylor, Robyn founded Square Root in 2012 having spotted a gap in the market for an interesting non-alcoholic drink bursting with flavour. Their backgrounds in breweries and bars provided the perfect launch pad and over the last six years the brand's sodas have grown in popularity, both across London and further afield.Take us back to the beginning, where did the idea for Square Root Soda come from?
So you have to think back to early 2012, before there were hundreds of craft breweries in London. Ed was working at one of the first twenty or so breweries - Redemption - and I was working at a beer bar called The Euston Tap. The Five Points and Pressure Drop Breweries had also just opened, and we were very much getting involved in this fast growing brewing scene. Ed then moved to Howling Hops, which was a bar as well as a brewery, and because of that it became a bit of an unofficial meeting point most weekdays for everyone who worked at the three breweries. I’d head there too, after my shifts, and it was really interesting to talk to people who were starting something and making a physical product.
Ed and I were already making drinks at home, so we started to think about doing our own thing and what that might be. I looked at what we offered at the Euston Tap to try and work out what would be a bit different - there were twenty keg beers, eight kasks, a hundred different beers in the fridge, and then coke and diet coke. That was the extent of the non-alcoholic offering. It occurred to us that no one was really doing soft drinks in an interesting way and we thought there was a real opportunity there.
Around the same time, we were running a market stall on the weekends in Haringey where we sold a whole load of different things we’d made. I tried my hand at being a baker, but I was terrible at it - the cakes and sweets I made were never very popular, but our ginger beer would always sell out. Market stalls are a really great, low-key way of trying things out, but they can also be quite brutal - if someone is unhappy with the thing they’ve bought, they’ll tell you!And that eventually brought you to Hackney Downs?
Yes, but we’re actually moving to a much bigger space in Walthamstow in a few months time. We desperately need more space - right now, for example, we’ve got five huge pallets of fruit outside the arches which we need to squeeze inside tonight. This means shifting everything around inside the warehouse just so we can fit them in. It’s not ideal.
Square Root’s core range of Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Root Beer and Cola.How have you divided up your and Ed’s roles within the company?
We do quite different, but complementary things. I do a lot of work with people, both in terms of creating the team we have and the atmosphere within it. It’s definitely something I’ve had to learn to enjoy doing. What I did was to think back to past jobs I’ve had in bars and restaurants, and then tried to take the positive aspects from those and apply them to Square Root.
One of the things I took from my time working in restaurants was that at some point in between service, everyone would stop and sit down to eat a meal together. It’s a really great way to get to know other people on the team who you might not be working with directly during the day. So, from day one at Square Root, we’ve always sat down and had lunch together as a team. One member of the team will cook it during the morning and then at lunchtime the bottling line is switched off and we all share a meal together.
I also do a lot of the future planning. The way we often describe it is, I raise the roof, and Ed fills it up. He does all the technical stuff; our design work, the maintenance of our production equipment - that kind of thing.And what does a typical day look like for you, if there is such a thing?
You’re right, we don’t really have a ‘typical’ day, but our weeks tend to work on the same sort of schedule. Monday is probably the most interesting day, and a lot of the time our staff don’t really know what to expect when they arrive at the arches first thing. Yesterday [a Monday], for example, everyone got there and there were two tonnes of Sicilian citrus fruit, which had arrived overnight.
Production-wise, most days we’ll have six members of the team running the bottling line, and then two more creating the next day’s drink. We want everything to taste as fresh as it can, so we make the drink one day, leave it overnight to chill down to the right temperature, and then carbonate and bottle it the next day. This way we’re capturing the freshest flavours we can.
A lot of other soft drinks companies out there don’t actually make their own product. What they really do is compile a recipe, so they’ll have lemon juice sent to them by one company, sugar syrup sent to them from another company, and then they’ll mix it all together and bottle it up. We’re completely different in that we create all of our drinks from scratch. In our opinion, it makes for a far superior tasting drink, and we think that’s the only way to do it.
A member of the Square Root team working on the bottling line. When the business moves to new premises later this year, they plan to install an automated bottling line which will not only speed the bottling process up, but increase the quality of the finished product.Could you describe the process a recipe goes through, from initial inspiration to entering production?
I’d say our main source of inspiration comes from growers. A lot of the time we’ll randomly come across, or be introduced to, someone who grows something which we think will taste interesting. And other times, it’s from having really good relationships with the farmers we’re already working with. Last year, for example, we found out that our pear farmer also had a small grove of quince trees. They weren’t doing anything with them so we took them and we made a drink for Little Duck, a small brand which makes shrub and vinegar-based drinks, and that just came about from a conversation with the farmer after he’d delivered some fruit at six o’clock in the morning.
Largely, the drinks ideas either come from finding an interesting ingredient, or, rather selfishly, from wanting to fulfill a personal need. I stopped drinking last January and I spent the year really missing drinks which have more of an adult, or bitter, flavour. So for Christmas we created a range of non-alcoholic cocktails which were my answer to craving those flavours, especially around Christmas time. At least that was my aim when I started the project. In the end, I became too busy to work on it myself, so I left it with the team and they did an amazing job.
The team are great at coming up with ideas and suggesting drinks we might do. Every year we do a special project as a bit of fun and as a Christmas gift for our customers - each team member gets to invent their own flavour of soda and bring it through to a finished product. We packaged them up as our ‘Twelve Sodas of Christmas’, shipped them out, and asked people to send us feedback, voting for their favourite.
We had some really strange flavours last year. I tried to go traditional and did mince pie, but one of our team, Jake, went for the most out there drink he could think of: fried egg sandwich.
To be fair to him, he absolutely nailed the concept, it tasted exactly like a fried egg sandwich. I wouldn’t say it was a nice drink though.It certainly sounds interesting, if not particularly delicious. And how about the process itself? Can you run us through how you actually produce your sodas?
Sure. The easiest one to go through is probably our lemonade because it has the least ingredients.
It all starts with the lemons, which come from a small family farm in Sicily, and once they’re picked they’re shipped to us and arrive three days later. As soon as they arrive, our team will start to rind them [removing the peel] and then we put all of that rind in sugar syrup and cook it at a really low temperature to get all the natural oils out of the rind. Because the lemons are completely untreated, it’s safe to use the whole fruit and they’re the most incredible lemons, so it would be a shame not to use every part.
Next, we’ll juice the lemons and send off what’s left - the pith - for composting. We then sieve out the rind from the sugar syrup and add in the lemon juice. It’s then just a case of adding the right amount of water according to the recipe.
The lemonade then gets put in a big tank overnight to be chilled down to the right temperature. The next morning, we switch on the bottling line and the soda gets carbonated, filled, capped, pasteurised and labelled. Because we’re based in London, we don’t have a huge stock holding, so we try and schedule orders so that they leave us in the same week they’re bottled. This means that you could buy our lemonade and the fruit might’ve been picked as early as eight days ago.
A bottle of Square Root's lemonade makes its way along the bottling line. Square Root's sodas can go from fruit on a tree to being sipped by a customer in as little as eight days.What’s the hardest thing you’ve found about running your own business?
That’s a very good question. I think the hardest thing is learning to switch off. I’m in a fairly unique position in that I run a business with my partner, who I also live with, so it’s really difficult to find time where we’re not talking about what we’re doing tomorrow or what the next big project should be.But, conversely, does working with your partner also have some advantages?
Without a doubt, the main one being the support they can offer. Because we know each other so well, it’s awesome to know that you can say anything, do anything, and they’ll have your back. Also, because we spend so much time talking about work, we’re in the same mind frame. One of us might say “How about we try this?” and the other person will go “I was just thinking the same thing!”Hackney seems to be a real hotbed for both small and established food and drink businesses. How important has it been to be surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs and business owners?
Really important. I’d say our first five customers were within a mile away of where we’re sat now, and those five businesses are still our customers seven years later. Hackney is such an incredible place to meet people, share ideas and build really good relationships with those around you.
The collaborations we’ve done with other brands are primarily thanks to that proximity and those long-standing relationships. Because Ed and I have a background in beer, where there are so many collaborations going on, we thought "why shouldn’t we get involved, too?". We’re a small enough business that I can think up a crazy idea one night, and start work on it the next morning.
The first people we collaborated with were Pressure Drop Brewery, who used to be very close to here. The idea came from trying one of their beers and saying “This beer is really nice, what if we added some ginger and lime to it?”. We were both small enough businesses at the time that we could just go ahead and try it. Qe had nothing to lose.
The original beer was a 6.9% West Coast IPA - super citrusy and hoppy, and interestingly we actually added more hops, and then loads of Meyer lemons, which are a West Coast variety of lemon. It was essentially like blending it with lemonade and it made for a delicious 0.5% shandy.
Lemons at dawn. Square Root's lemons come from a small family farm in Sicily. To ensure the freshest flavour, the lemons are picked and arrive in London just three days later.And from here, how would you like to see Square Root grow in the years to come?
Our main aim is to grow the business without compromising on any of the things which we think make our sodas a really special product. We’ll be moving to a much larger space later this year and at the same time investing in an automated bottling line. This will allow us to not only speed up that area of production considerably, but also to make improvements to the quality of the product which we wouldn’t have been able to get doing it manually. In terms of making the actual drinks, we’re going to be doing that exactly the same way, so at five o’clock on a Monday we’re still going to be covered head to toe in lemon pulp.Those things that make your sodas special - what do you think they are?
The two key elements for us are direct sourcing and freshness. This means buying directly from farmers so that we know we’re getting really fresh fruit, and then processing that fruit as quickly as possible, so that all the juices going into the soda are as fresh as they can be. It’s as simple as that really and those are two things we won’t compromise on.Which other London brands or businesses do you admire, or look to for inspiration?
I absolutely adore Lillie who runs London Borough of Jam. She was doing jam way before we were doing soda and she has a really amazing approach to seasonality and quality. She's definitely part of our inspiration for making a product which doesn’t conform to what people expect it to be. She doesn’t make hard set jams and won’t use loads of pectin or sugar to make them solid. They’re soft and runny and taste intensely of the fruit they’re made from.
I’m also forever in love with E5 Bakehouse. The more they do, the more impressed I am with their capacity to take the whole process of bread making in-house. They grow their own grain and they even have their own mill now. They’re really in control of the whole process.
I'd love to one day to have a little farm where we could grow some experimental produce. I don’t think we could ever grow enough to supply the quantities we’d need, but something small scale would be fantastic. I don’t have the best track record with growing plants though. A few years ago I put together a little herb box to try and grow some stuff for the team to eat at lunchtime, but two days later someone had overturned it and spilled the soil out onto the street, so I gave up.
With thanks to Robyn for her time and the entire Square Root team for welcoming us to their soda works. Square Root’s sodas are served in cafés, bars and restaurants across London (including our own coffeebars), the UK and they’re also available to purchase directly from their website.
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 December instalment, we met up with Pump Street Bakery and Chocolate co-founder Joanna Brennan at our Roastery in Bethnal Green. Along with her father, Chris, Joanna opened Pump Street Bakery in the Suffolk coastal town of Orford in 2010, and since then they’ve also added a Chocolate arm to the business.
We discuss how a family interest in trying out new types of bread, and then chocolate, has grown from its remote Suffolk beginnings into a brand with an international presence, what values the Bakery and Chocolate businesses share, and why starting the business in the quiet town of Orford had a whole host of advantages.
Where did it all begin for Pump Street Bakery and Chocolate?
So the bakery came first, and it all really began with better bread being more available. As a family, we were trying bread we hadn’t had access to before – whether it was going to Paris and eating excellent baguettes, or to London and trying the sourdough from St. John Bakery. That really piqued my father and I’s interest – mine from an eating perspective, and his from a making perspective, and so he set out to try and make some of this bread. I was fairly sceptical because I thought this was something you could only do in a professional bakery, but he really set his mind to it and was soon upgrading our home oven and mixer so that he could make better and better bread. Eventually, he got really good at it, and was making far too much bread - more than we could eat ourselves, and even more than we could give away to friends and family.
So my mum encouraged him to sell it at our local country market, which is in Orford on Saturday mornings. He would bake all through the night on Friday and then go to the market the next day with whatever loaf he had decided to make that week, often trying out new recipes. He always sold out, and eventually people were even queuing to get into the town hall before it opened so they could make sure they got their bread. We were watching this going on both in disbelief and excitement, and that was when we thought this could actually become something. So we set about coming up with a plan, whereby I would leave my job as a speech therapist, and my dad would be the baker, and when we found this space in Orford village square, that was when it all solidified and we had to make a decision. It took a long time to renovate the space and build a commercial bakery with all the proper equipment and we opened in November 2010 as a bakery and café. As it is now, but a lot quieter!
The now iconic pink facade and logo of Pump Street Bakery in Orford, Suffolk.
For the first few years we were trying out lots of different things, slowly adding new products to the range, and my dad was hiring a team of bakers so that he could take a step back from the actual baking to work on new product development. At the same, as we’d done with bread previously, we’d started eating better chocolate as a family, finding all sorts of bars wherever we could and learning about the origins and flavour profiles. There was hardly anyone making quality chocolate in the UK at the time and it was very much inline with what we were doing with our bread. We were using a lot of chocolate in our baking, but we weren’t happy with the quality of it, so we thought ‘let’s make our own’, and my dad set about researching how we could go about setting up the chocolate business.
He’s clearly been integral to the founding and ongoing success of Pump Street, but what’s it like working with your father?
It’s great – I’m so glad we did it and I’ve learnt so much from him over the years. He really immersed himself in learning how to bake, mostly through reading, and he approaches things from a very scientific angle, keen to understand how things work so that he can control all the variables and then play with them accordingly.
That’s been really inspiring to witness and it’s a very different approach to mine, so I think we complement each other nicely. I also understand him so much better now than I did before. Knowing someone as a parent is so different to knowing them as a colleague, and it’s a nice side of him to have seen.
A loaf of Pump Street Bakery’s sourdough bread at the bakery in Orford.
We’ve been lucky enough to have worked closely with the Pump Street Chocolate team for the last few years, but for anyone that’s yet to come across you, what do you think makes you different?
I think there are three things about us that are most unique or different to other chocolate makers. The first is that we’re single farm, so similar to Workshop Coffee, our chocolate is always made with beans from one single farm. We never blend beans from different farms because we want the chocolate we make to be representative of its origin and for the flavour and taste to highlight where it came from.
Secondly, we always buy our chocolate directly from the farmers, which is a growing trend within the craft chocolate industry, but it’s still fairly uncommon. Chocolate doesn’t have the many years of established importing and exporting systems behind it that, say, coffee does, so it’s much easier to work directly with the farmers. Companies like us, buying at the (small) scale that we do, haven’t existed for very long at all, so it’s kind of new territory and this allows us to forge these direct relationships. In the past, many farmers would have sold their chocolate to their national cocoa board, and so often we’re only the second or third customer they’ve ever had a direct relationship with.
Cacao beans arrive at the Pump Street Chocolate factory in Rendlesham, Suffolk.
These relationships are so central to us making better chocolate. After all, the chocolate depends on the beans, and the beans come from the farm, so the more we can help the farmer to grow the best beans possible, the better the end product will be. As I know Workshop Coffee do with the farmers they source their beans from, we have this ongoing feedback loop with our farmers whereby we’re able to feedback to them with a view to improving the final product.
The final thing that makes us different is the heritage of our bakery. Most of our bestselling chocolate bars are our bakery bars – our sourdough and sea salt bar, for example – and we couldn’t create that type of bar without the knowledge and experience we’ve gleaned from years of running a bakery. It works the other way around too, as we use our chocolate in our baked goods. It’s a natural fit; pastry, bread and chocolate, they taste amazing together. It also means we’re closing the loop of usage of our products in that if we have leftover bread in our bakery, we can make it into breadcrumbs and put it in our chocolate, and so that eliminates waste which is always good.
A Melanger grinding and conching the cocoa nibs into liquid chocolate at the Pump Street Chocolate factory.
You mentioned that your bakery bars are some of your most popular, do you feel like you’ve created your own chocolate sub-genre there?
There are some other chocolate makers doing that with chocolate, but the main difference is they’re not bakeries themselves. Because we’re doing everything, making both the bread and chocolate elements, we’re a closed loop and we’re in complete control of the whole process.
The panettone bar, which we’ve just launched this Christmas, is a great example of the two sides of the business working together. We didn’t just put a panettone into the chocolate, we actually had to bake the panettone without the orange and raisins in the bread, so we had just the crumb and the flavour from the crumb, and then we put that into the chocolate. We then added the orange separately, and finally, added the almonds and sugar crystals to the top of the bar. We wanted to recreate the panettone in the bar which we think works far better than taking the straight forward approach. It’s great when the two businesses can work together on projects like that.
What does ‘quality’ mean to you?
For us, quality means being as close to the best as we can. That’s what we’re always aiming for, not just to be within the good quality range, but to be up there with the best. And that means quality of flavour, but also quality of interaction and quality of service. For example, if you come to the bakery in Orford, you should feel like you’re buying the best sourdough you possibly can, but you should also get enjoyment out of the whole experience and the interaction with our staff and the brand.
A nice example of what quality means to us is that all of our bread each day is baked in the same batch, whether it’s for our bakery or our wholesale customers, and we only deliver within a fifteen mile radius. We could theoretically deliver to London, but the quality of service wouldn’t be as good and it’s just not sustainable to be transporting bread a hundred miles. We deliver bread to places where we’re the local bakery, and if it’s too far away, then we want there to be other local bakeries like us.
Bars of Pump Street Chocolate ready for packaging.
And how do you set that level of expectation amongst your growing team?Primarily, by example.
A lot of the time we’ll reject things, both with our bread and chocolate. As a whole pastry team, we’ll look at the pastries each morning and decide if any aren’t good enough, and if they’re not, they won’t go to the bakery or to our wholesale customers. It’s not the way most businesses work, and it can be really hard to tell our wholesale customers that they’re not going to get any almond croissants today because we’re not totally happy with them. Initially, that wasn’t something they were used to and they were obviously disappointed, but now I think they understand that we have to do that so that when they do receive them (which is the majority of the time), they’re the best they can possibly be.
Another thing which I think is really important for the culture of the business is that criticism or analysis of what we’re doing musn’t be seen as a negative thing, but as a necessity if we’re to do the best we can.
You recently opened a pop-up shop on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch for a week. Was that born out of necessity, a presence in a big city being a requirement for a growing brand?
I wouldn’t say it’s necessary as such, and you can definitely do a lot without a physical space in a city, but it’s been incredibly useful and a great learning experience for both me and for us as a company. It’s nice to be able to offer an experience to customers who know of us, and have perhaps visited the bakery once, but who can’t make it out to Suffolk on a regular basis.
Above all, it’s a great way to stay in touch with your customers, to actually meet them and chat with them, and to get feedback on your products. It also helps me to measure where we are now, and where we might want to go in the future.
Baked goods and chocolate side-by-side at Pump Street’s pop-up on Redchurch Street, London this November.
Conversely, do you think there have been any benefits to starting what is now a global business in a relatively remote, Suffolk coastal town?
Definitely, and more than I’m probably aware of.
One of the main benefits is having the support of a local community and I think that would be much harder to achieve in a large city. It took a bit of time to gain that trust, but once people realised what we were trying to do they really got behind us. I’m always amazed when people send me photos of our chocolate bars on sale in far flung places. To me, it seems like they’re proud and happy to see us doing well, and that’s fantastic.
Secondly, we’re creating opportunities in an area where job creation obviously isn’t what it is in London. That works both ways though - on the one hand, it’s amazing to be able to offer a whole new set of jobs in an area that previously didn’t have that kind of business, but on the other hand Orford is very remote, and that creates logistical challenges.
Starting the business in Suffolk also gave us the time to take things slowly. I think in London, such are the overheads and the pace of things, that your business needs to be standing on its own two feet within three months, whereas we were able to move at our own pace and I think that’s only been to our benefit.
Which other businesses or industries do you look to for inspiration and ideas
Coffee has been a great role model for us actually. The specialist coffee movement, with its smaller scale roasteries and sourcing more directly from origin, is years ahead of where chocolate is, but there are definitely comparisons to be drawn there. Looking at different business models and learning how certain companies expanded has been really useful.
Otherwise, I think we take a lot of inspiration from art and design. My husband is an interior designer so I talk to him about his work and we talk a lot about the bakery. He works mainly in the luxury market so that gives us an understanding of what’s happening there. It’s all useful.
I think as a small business owner there are lessons to be learned everywhere, you’ve just got to keep your eyes open.
Where would you like to see the Pump Street brand ten years from now?
I’d love us to have a wider range of products. It’s something we’re constantly working on, but it takes a huge amount of time and energy to develop and then launch new products. One thing we’re working on at the moment is to make it easier for people to try our whole range of chocolate. We currently sell a ‘Library of Bars’, but at £60 it’s quite an investment and we’d like to lower that threshold. That’s all I can really say about it for now...
It would be great to do more fun, seasonal things, too. People want to buy chocolate for a special event and we don’t currently offer many products like that.
I also just want us to still be doing what we’re doing now, and not to have changed too much.
And finally, first there was the bakery, then the chocolate, what’s next for Pump Street?
Aha! I don’t think there will be another Pump Street category. We really love doing collaborations with other like-minded producers, like we did with Workshop and the Coffee and Chocolate Bar, so we’ll definitely do more of those. With those collaborations, obviously flavour is of primary importance, but we also want to work with people who have a similar approach to us in some way, and shed light on an industry or origin that’s interesting for people to learn about.
Our third collaborative Coffee and Chocolate bar brings together coffee and cacao both from Ecuador. Together, they create a chocolate that’s perfectly balanced, offering complementary flavours of toasted nuts, brown butter and ginger cake with subtle hints of white grape.
You can view more of our Pump Street Chocolate range here.
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 met up with ultrarunner James Poole at our White Collar Factory Coffeebar on Old St roundabout – the same location he and his running community, Advent Running, meet at each Friday morning. Over a couple of cups of filter coffee, we discussed how James accidentally founded one of London’s largest running communities, what motivates him to run 100-mile races through some of the world’s most remote areas and why running should be a pleasure, not a punishment.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I worked in asset management in the city for fifteen years and, whilst I was doing it, I was passionate about it. It was the late 1990s, there were lots of jobs and it was a good place to be. But then the financial crisis of 2008 turned the world upside down and the city became the worst place to be. Risk aversion crippled firms both in terms of investment and in terms of actually doing anything interesting.
I was living vicariously at the weekends, on the basis that I worked five days doing something I hated, and then two days doing something I loved. After a while, the imbalance between the two became clear. Even though I was earning good money, I hated the week so much that not even that mattered.
So I handed my notice in.
I had a few things going on in the running space which presented opportunities, although not necessarily financial ones, so I decided to try and make that work.
So is that when you set up your running community, Advent Running?
I had already launched Advent Running the year before. It was never meant to be a running community, it was just supposed to be twenty five days of running in December – the idea being that if you can do thirty minutes of exercise every day, in the busiest month of the year, when the days are short and the weather is miserable, then you can start to build a routine and it’ll help you carry it on into January and February.
It was only meant to be fifty or sixty friends, but then Kate Carter at The Guardian asked me to write a short piece about it, and all of a sudden the Facebook page received thousands of likes.
At the end of the twenty-five days, people were emailing me asking if we could do something in January. We ran a lot of events during December and I was still doing my day job, so it was a lot of hard work. But we decided to continue it by doing a couple of runs each week – a track run on Tuesdays, a bagel run on Thursdays [this involves starting and finishing said run at a bagel shop in Shoreditch], and some runs on the weekend.
It was all about trying to teach people that running doesn’t need to be a form of punishment. So much of the wording by big running brands are things like “smash it”, “leave it on the road” and “killing it”. The reality is that because running is physically hard on your body, most of the time you’re actually doing the opposite of that – you run fairly slowly and you pace yourself. But I guess a slogan like that wouldn’t sell many t-shirts.
I really wanted to show people that running could be so much more than an organised event with a medal and a free t-shirt. You could run for beer or run for bagels and coffee – what’s not to like?
James and the Advent Runners.
So that was a good three or four years ago. Where’s Advent Running at now?
It’s become a bit of a beast now to be honest.
We’ve got an online community of 4,500 people and I probably see around 250 of those each week at our various runs. We do runs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sunday and I try to lead all of them.
Everything we do is free to take part in (apart from the track night, where you have to pay for entry) and I’m a firm believer that, wherever possible, running should be free. After all, it’s such a simple sport. I could be making a lot more money by charging a monthly subscription, but I sleep better knowing that it’s free and therefore accessible and completely inclusive. It also makes life a lot easier for me because as soon as people pay for something, they have a completely different set of expectations.
Members of the Advent Running community enjoy a well-earned coffee at Workshop Coffee at the White Collar Factory after their Friday morning run.
What’s your day job now?
After leaving the city, I eventually found a role at Running Sport Heroes Group – a digital media platform. The business launched in 2014 it’s all about encouraging people to be more active. The app - Running Heroes - connects to all the major running apps and fitness trackers, and we reward people for being active. It’s like air miles for running; you earn points which you can spend on discounts and free stuff.
In terms of my interests and passions, it’s come full circle and I’m very lucky that now all my income comes from running in one form or another. It’s by no means the career financially that I had, but I’m lucky that I don’t consider a lot of what I do now as work.
Given the fact that running is such an enormous part of your life inside and out of work, has that changed your relationship with it?
That was definitely a big fear – that when running became work I’d start to hate it, but equally maybe that’s just because we have these preconceived ideas that work is meant to be something we don’t enjoy.
Like anyone, there are still parts of my job I enjoy less than others, but that’s probably mostly admin and it only takes up an hour or so of my day.
Let’s jump back slightly – why running? Was there a particular reason?
I ran as a kid and I was half good at it. When I was older I started to cycle a lot and then did some Ironman triathlons. Eventually I thought “what if I don’t do the swimming and the cycling parts?”, and fell in love with running and then ultramarathons. Another factor was living in London, where I find running is so much more efficient compared to cycling. I really enjoy running to the office – it’s quick, easy and it doesn’t matter how bad the traffic is.
People sometimes say to me “If you didn’t do the ‘run for beer’ or ‘run for pizza’, you’d be a faster runner”. They’re right, but then I’d probably be pretty miserable as well. I probably could be faster than I am, but that’s not that important to me. Having a great experience, and doing okay is much more important to me then being the fastest.
Would I have a marathon PB better than 2:44 if I lived like a monk? Probably, but then I’d be doing something in a way I didn’t enjoy or love. Our motto at Advent Running is “Fall in love with running” and you can do that in anyway you like. For some people that means beasting themselves everyday to get a better time, but that’s not for me.
James running in the hills around Tengchong, China as he prepares for The Gaoligong by UTMB® race. Photo by David Gonthier.
You’ve since moved well beyond marathons and into the world of ultrarunning. What is it about running 100 miles or more that you find so special?
Ultrarunning has allowed me to see things on this planet that so few people will have seen, as the only way to see those things is on foot. I’ve been lucky enough to have these experiences and have met amazing groups of people through doing it, from Surrey to The Alps, Greece to China.
It really pushes me physically and mentally as well, and it makes you realise what you’re capable of. It really is just relentless forward motion – you run until you can’t run anymore, then you walk until you can’t walk anymore. Sometimes that’s not easy, but most of it’s in your head. What I love about ultrarunning is that it removes all your usual societal constraints and routine. Most days, you get up, go to work, eat, drink and sleep. When you’re running one of these long events, that all disappears. You run, you sleep when you’re tired, you eat when you’re hungry. That’s it. You just keep moving forward.
A lot of ultrarunning for me is just keeping going, and a huge part of that is mental strength and keeping your head in the game. If you’re not happy, you’ll stop. One race I did, I stopped at a petrol station at two in the morning and had a beer. It was what I needed at the time to stay happy and motivated. The loneliness of it is a strange one for me. I love running in big part because of the social aspect of it. I run to run with people and have a chat. And yet I also enjoy running these huge ultramarathons on my own. I guess in a way I’m a series of contradictions, but I’m comfortable with that.
What advice would you give to others who might be interested in dipping their toes into ultrarunning?
A hundred miles seems to be the iconic distance in ultrarunning and I honestly believe that anyone can run that distance. But, like anything in life worth having, it takes sacrifice, and the amount you’re willing to sacrifice will affect how quickly you can be ready for an ultramarathon. You could run one in a fairly short period of time if you gave up your job, your friends and your family. Or, you could take a bit longer, sacrifice a lot less, and still get to that point.
Usually, when I make a training program for someone, one of the first things I ask is “What are you going to stop doing?”, because if you think you can just add something extra into your already-busy life, that’s not going to happen.
My advice would be to have a plan and work out where you are today and where you want to be at a certain point in the future. Then, put in the work and milestones needed to get between those two points and start running right away. Frequency trumps distance every time.
Really importantly, work out what’s realistic when combined with your family and work lives – it’s all about balance. But most importantly, enjoy it. Don’t focus too much on the end goal. If you go out and enjoy every training run, or almost every run, then it becomes more about the process, and not the result. On race day, a myriad of things could happen that are out of your control. But, if you’ve enjoyed the process, it will matter less if something does go wrong.
James tackles a steep section of the course during The Gaoligong by UTMB® race in Tengchong, China. Photo by David Gonthier.
What do you think about whilst running?
Everything and nothing to be honest.
I like to think I have a million good ideas when I’m out running, but I’ve yet to come up with a way of actually recording them and then I’ve forgotten them by the end of the run! I find running can be very therapeutic – a bit like sleeping on something. Otherwise, I might think about ideas for work, or ideas for Advent Running.
This differs for races when I’m more likely to be thinking about the route and the next checkpoint. I’ll often break a long race down into more manageable chunks and reward myself for reaching a certain point – “when I get to the next aid station I’m going to have a sausage roll”, for example, or, close to the end of a race, “I can’t wait for a cold beer.”
We know you often take coffee with you on these runs. Why is that?
The main reason? Life’s too short for shit coffee. But also, there’s something about the process of making a cup of coffee that I love. The way that changing the grind or the brew method can really affect the taste of a particular coffee is fascinating. I ran around Ibiza over Easter and took a bag of Workshop Coffee and a V60 with me. I took a mini-stove and would stop at the side of the trail to make coffee. When you wake up in a tent in the middle of nowhere, you know you’re going to start the day on the right foot if you can brew a proper cup of coffee.
And where did your love of coffee come from?
Before running, I did mountain bike racing, then cycling, then triathlon. I’m a bit of gear geek, I love cycling culture and that’s where my love of coffee came from. I’m a real supporter of the ‘do one thing well’ philosophy and of spending more money on less things. I can’t stand ‘stuff’, so I only buy things I really want and need. I bought a Rocket espresso machine (the perks of a city salary) and became really fascinated by the process of making good coffee. It was half science, half art, and that really appealed to my geekiness.
Have you ever fallen out of love with running?
This year I’ve committed to more business stuff and done less running and, to be honest, I’ve lost my mojo a little bit, rather than fallen out of love. Whereas last year I would never have found an excuse not to run, this year I’ve definitely felt a bit more “I can’t be bothered”. No real reason. It just happens. I find these things ebb and flow and, again, it’s about balance. You can’t do everything, and something has to give.
Where’s the best place you’ve ever run?
I’ve run in too many places to say which is the best, but a run I did in Sri Lanka a few years back really stands out. It was just an evening run, not a race, through these amazing tea plantations in the mountains and I went through all of these villages in amongst the plantations and people were continually coming out to cheer me on. It made me grin for hours.
The 100-mile race I did in China in March of this year has to be up there, too. It was in a place called Tengchong on the border with Myanmar on the old Silk Road. There’s obviously still a lot of poverty in China, but the growing middle class is really interesting – there will be more middle class people in China by the mid-2020s than the population of Europe. Running didn’t exist there five years ago, so to see something so new was fascinating. There’s no running history in China – no Roger Bannister, no Steve Jones – it’s ground zero, and that also means there’s no preconceptions as to what running should or shouldn’t be, no belief that running is a punishment.
James at the end of the 400km Ultra Gobi race. Photo by Lloyd Belcher.
What’s next for you?
I've just got back from my second trip to China this year - a 409km race in the Gobi Desert - and I'm deep in the planning mode for 2019. Running has provided me with many opportunities to see far flung places and experience amazing things, so I'm keen to share this with others. I've been organising trips to the Alps with Advent Running for the last three or four years and I plan to build on that next year with some new destinations and different challenges. And of course, in just a few weeks time, it's a return to where it all began, Advent Running and this year's challenge. I haven't quite got all the details nailed down yet, but it promises to be bigger and better than ever.
James and the Advent Running community run from Workshop Coffee at White Collar Factory every Friday morning. Convening at 7:00 a.m. and departing at 7:10 a.m., they return from their session at 8:00 a.m. for a well-earned coffee. All are welcome and you can find out more here.
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 headed down to Peckham in South East London to meet husband and wife Tom and Lucy Wilson of Kanpai, London’s first and only craft sake brewery. What began as an adventurous homebrew project in 2015 quickly became an obsession, and this year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the couple opened their new microbrewery and taproom in London.
Whilst being plied with delicious, freshly brewed sake, we discussed where their fascination with Japan came from, how they learnt to brew some of the best sake outside of Japan and why working with your partner can be the best, and sometimes hardest, thing in the world.
So when and where did your fascination with Japan begin?
Tom: My parents moved to New York when I was a teenager so I was at university in Nottingham and then travelling over to see them in the holidays - it was pretty cool. This is fifteen or so years ago and New York, at the time, was leagues ahead of London in terms of Japanese food, and attached to that was sake. Over the many years I spent there I really got a taste for Japanese cuisine, and high end Japanese cuisine especially. After I finished university, I lived and worked in New York for a year and that’s when I really got my first taste of quality sake.
When I then moved back to London and started hunting for good sake here, I could only find a handful of places that sold recognisable Japanese sake. I then met Lucy and introduced her to it, along with a few of my friends who were into it too. We did a few sake parties, sushi dinners -- that sort of thing -- and then we travelled to Japan together. That was the real mind-blowing, epiphany moment. We travelled to really small, old school, craft sake breweries, where they make what’s called Ji-sake, a sort of local variant of the drink. It’s a bit like what the French refer to as terroir -- a taste of place. The first time we went out there was Autumn, so the brewing season was underway [the sake brewing season always starts on 1st October], and so the first sakes of that season were coming out. We were enjoying fresh, unpasteurised Nama Sake and you’ve never tasted anything like it.
That was a real eye opener for me, but also for Lucy, who wasn’t really into sake at that point.
Lucy: I think it’s also worth saying that we didn’t go to Japan to hunt down sake specifically, we went to Japan to explore a place we were fascinated by and obsessed with. We half planned the sake part and half stumbled across the breweries. If we go to Tuscany we visit vineyards, if we go to Bruges we visit beer breweries and it was the same for us with Japan and sake. It was just part of the whole experience of seeing as much of the culture as possible.
We fell in love with Japan as a whole, and sake was a part of that. The other side of it was this underground party world in which we experienced sake, and I’d say that had almost as much to do with how we ended up here. It was such a different experience. Everyone let their guards down in these tiny little bars that you could hardly fit five people in and the barman would just keep pouring sakes all night long.
And when exactly did the idea of trying to brew sake yourselves come about?
T: We’d brought a lot of sake back with us, and it was around the point when we were starting to run out that we thought we should try and make our own.
The really fresh stuff, which we were drinking out there, you just couldn’t find here in London, so we thought we’d have a crack ourselves. I was already brewing beer at home and the majority of the kit you need is very similar. To simplify it somewhat, sake is basically a beer. A Junmai sake -- everything we make is Junmai sake, which means it has no distilled spirit added -- is naturally fermented and it’s all made from the grain [rice].
It became this homebrew project which started off as a bit of fun and quickly became an obsession. First, it took over our spare room, then the kitchen, the lounge, the bathroom -- it was mad. We weren’t selling any, this was purely in the pursuit of making the best sake we could, for ourselves.
L: We both have quite obsessive personalities, so if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it properly. Every night I came home Tom had ordered a new bit of kit from somewhere.
T: It reached a point where we thought ‘this has become a bit nuts, do we scale this back, or do we find a garage or lock-up somewhere and move the equipment there?’ At this point, it still wasn’t a commercial thing, we were making some fairly high quality, fresh sake and it was just a cool project that we enjoyed.
It took us about six months to find somewhere to rent -- a really small unit so narrow you could only just squeeze past either side of the fermenter tanks.
L: It was about that time that I thought we should give it a name and see if people were interested in the idea. It took us all of two seconds to come up with the name Kanpai, which means ‘Cheers’ in Japanese and is a word we heard and used hundreds of times whilst we were out there.
So we started a Twitter & Instagram account and a very basic website just to see what would happen. What we didn’t predict was that Selfridges would spot us almost immediately and ask to stock us. That was when it became a ‘thing’.
Tom working the rice at a brewery in Northern Japan.
Were you looking into the potential market for the drink over here in the UK at the same time?
We often say that, yes, we were first to the party, but the party is a small one and we have to be realistic. Sake is still a niche drink.
It's always a great surprise how many people do know about sake though and it definitely feels like more and more people are becoming aware of it. There are stats that show exports from Japan are growing and we’re seeing first-hand that there’s a real movement now.
People are curious, they want to drink quality over quantity, and I think sake, as something new, really fits into that. That’s a big reason why we created our sparkling sake. Sparkling drinks are that bit more familiar and people can relate to it as they would a prosecco or champagne.
T: What we’ve found is that the sake’s that are being exported from Japan are usually at one end of the spectrum or the other. You’ve either got mass produced table sake, which is cut with distilled spirit and tastes okay but is limited with its food pairings. And then at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got extremely expensive sake that’s quite often competition grade. So a more accessible sake seems to be missing from the market.
What we’re trying to do is open peoples’ eyes and minds to what sake really is, especially naturally fermented sake.
L: When we tried to find decent sakes in the past, they were often tucked away in high end Japanese restaurants and came with a price tag totally inaccessible to most people. Our drive is to make sake at a price where people can just give it a go, and that’s also why we do half-sized bottles so that people will, on a whim, pick it up and try it.
Sake shouldn’t be elitist -- it certainly isn’t in Japan -- so the point of us doing this locally is that people can get it fresh and at a realistic price.
As you say, sake is still a relatively niche drink so can you give us a ‘dummies guide’ to how it’s brewed?
T: Whereas wine undergoes a single-step fermentation process and beer a two-step process, sake is completely unique in that it’s a multi-parallel fermentation process. So rather than throwing all the ingredients in together at once - rice, koji, water & yeast - you build them up gradually, over time. Koji is a mold spore - it’s bright green and it’s the same thing used to make soy sauce & miso. What we do is we propagate the koji throughout a portion of the rice, probably around 20%, in an environment where the temperature and humidity are really tightly controlled.
The koji breaks down the starch in the rice and then the yeast turns that glucose into alcohol, with the koji and yeast work symbiotically throughout the process. That takes time -- around three months in total to make a batch. We don’t want to rush the fermentation process because we’re bringing out all these different flavours and aromas in order to create a real depth to the final drink.
It’s amazing the crazy, fruity aromas you can get just from rice. This special process and sake yeast also creates a higher alcohol content than, say, beer or wine - a typical sake is between 14-15%, but you can ferment naturally up to about 21% - and that’s with no added sugar and no added alcohol.
Kanpai’s three flagship sakes - Kumo, Fizu & Sumi.
Aside from Fizu, what other sake products are you brewing?
L: We also have Sumi, which means ‘clear’ in Japanese. That’s our flagship, award-winning sakes and it’s clear, crisp and dry with notes of melon & nuts. This is the kind of sake you’d have with your main dish as it goes really well with meat, fish and even fattier foods like cheese, smoked meats & oysters. At home we tend to serve it in a white wine glass and drink it exactly the same as you would a wine.
And then there’s Kumo. This is our cloudy sake [Kumo is Japanese for ‘cloud’], with a very fine amount of rice sediment added into it to create the final product, and you get a bit more of a rich flavour as a result -- think banana, spice and star anise. This one can stand up to fuller flavours like barbecues and spicy foods.
T: Now that we’re in a bigger premises and have different types of rice arriving, we’ll always have our core range but we’re also going to be doing more seasonal and limited runs. For me, it’s about staying true to our roots -- self taught, experimental, and taking everything we’ve learnt from our trips to Japan -- and then creating these seasonal ones as more fun, playful sakes. If one of them ended up being particularly popular then maybe it could migrate into the core range, but we’re in no rush to do that. We just want to have fun with it and, really importantly, see what people in London want to drink. We don’t want to constrain ourselves at all.
Two new steamers, double the size of the previous ones, ready to be put to work in Kanpai’s new brewery in Peckham.
With an experimental, somewhat self-taught approach, how do you both ensure you’re making the best sake you can?
T: We’re always striving for perfection, but that in itself is an unattainable. I’ve spoken to a number of experienced Toji about this and the opinion in Japan amongst the master brewing community is that if you’re not adapting, not changing, not trying to make it better, then you should retire.
The job’s never done and it’s never perfect -- the end result can always be better. Our goal is to make something great that people enjoy, but we’re always trying to improve everything we do behind the scenes. There are so many stages, elements and factors in sake production that you can always be trimming the edges, making it better, more rounded, improving every single step.
L: All of that said, quality ingredients are also really important and that’s why we go back to Japan every year to build relationships with suppliers.
T: Precisely. We only source the best ingredients out there and you can see around you here in the brewery that there’s no automated equipment. Everything is done by hand.
Kanpai's sake rice, along with the koji and yeast they use, are imported from Japan.
As a way of introducing Kanpai to more people, you’ve both been involved in broader Japanese supper clubs and events. Have you organised these yourselves or paired up with others?
T: A bit of both to be honest, but the bigger, more successful ones tend to be when we’ve paired up with a food-focused outfits. Amongst the best are Gaijin who host a Japanese supper club in Hackney Wick. The quality of what they do is just mind blowing. They do three nights of supper clubs about once a quarter and historically we’ve come in on one of those nights to offer a sake pairing for each course.
L: We’ve also got a thirty-seater table upstairs in the new brewery and we’d love to get them down here. Peckham really needs some decent Japanese food!
T: We’ve done these pairing events with Japanese supper clubs & restaurants, but for us it’s not just about Japanese food, it’s about opening people’s minds to what you can pair sake with. We’ve done some great pairings with Spanish food, French food & American barbecue. Pairing sake with barbecued food is just spot on -- it’s probably my favourite type of food to pair sake with.
Kanpai teaming up with Gaijin supperclub to offer a sake pairing with each exquisite course.
What advice would you give to someone else with an idea for a niche product?
T: If you’ve got the passion, go for it. But you really need that passion. First and foremost, you need to love it, because it’s going to be such hard work.
L: For us, this all kind of happened by accident. We never thought about being a startup, which is exactly what we are now. Without realising it we've done the textbook thing of getting the product out there and having a go, without it being perfect from the beginning. Our first bottles and brand looked so different to what we have now, but we weren’t going to wait until that was all perfect.
T: A lot of people hide themselves away for a couple of years, spend a lot of money on a branding agency, and then they launch this polished product which no one has ever heard of before. To me, that’s not real. If you’ve got an idea, get out there and do it because you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to have to adapt. That’s the beauty of it.
Finally, what’s it like working with your partner?
L: I think it’s really important doing it with someone else, although I’m not quite sure I’d necessarily recommend that person being your husband or wife…!
But honestly, it is incredible. Most people don’t know what their partner is like at work. You spend most of your time at work and they’ll tell you some stories, but you never really know what their work life is like. It’s really impressive to see it first hand, to see your partner grafting and thriving.
T: It’s amazing and terrible at the same time. Without a doubt we’ve come through the other side of this and have more amazing moments now than terrible ones. But there was a time where it was 50:50 -- things would be great, things would be bad.
You obviously need a strong relationship and you can’t blame each other for things. You’ve just got to find solutions and crack on. Working with someone you’re so close to can be dangerous because you’re so much more honest with them than you would be with a regular colleague. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to share this experience with anyone else on the planet other than Lucy. It’s crazy what we’ve done, and if I was doing this on my own, no one would know what I’d been through -- they just wouldn’t believe it. But the two of us totally get everything that’s going on.
We’re in this tricky situation right now where we’re working crazy hours, the likes of which we’ve never worked before, but because we have such a love for it and are meeting such amazing people and doing such cool thing, it keeps us going. You’re knackered on the one hand but it’s your lifeblood on the other.
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.
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!
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
‘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.”