Hello, and welcome to the Real Podcast, produced by Real Kombucha – non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest – and presented by Jon Wilks. This is our second episode (you’ll find the first on our blog or on any of our podcasting channels), and we’re continuing very much in the vein established in our first. Allow me to explain. (Note: You can click on the podcast player below if you’d prefer just to listen.)
First and foremost, our blogs and our podcasts are an attempt to document the adventure we’re on. We launched Real Kombucha in the early autumn of 2017, and it has been a wonderful journey so far. We’ve met some fascinating, passionate people along the way, so we use our digital platforms to help spread their word, too. These people are experts in their field, so it’s a real privilege to spend time with them, learning about what they do.
So, for this podcast I came down to Bristol, and I have to be honest: there were three motives at play. Firstly, it was to find out about the booming vegan and plant-based food scene that has found a home in these parts – so booming, in fact, that articles across the web last week claimed that Bristol had more vegan-related Google searches than anywhere else in the world. Secondly, I wanted to get inside the mind of some of the chefs serving that plant-based scene – to find out how veganism might represent a wonderful form of constrained creativity. And thirdly I wanted to cheekily eat some of their amazing food. Well, wouldn’t you if you had the chance?
Ultimately, what I think I found was a scene and a city that embraces and celebrates open-mindedness. But before we jump to any conclusions, let me introduce the cast. I’ll be chatting to Rob Howell, the Head Chef at Root, a veg-first restaurant in the ultra-hip Whapping Wharf; to Elliott Lidstone and Tessa Lidstone, the Head Chef and co-owner of Box-e, also in Whapping Wharf, and to James Koch, the co-owner at Suncraft and the Gallimaufry on Gloucester Road. (Each of these work with Real Kombucha on their non-alcoholic options.)
It’s at Suncraft that I began, sitting down with James to ask him about those Google results. Some reporters went as far as to say that Bristol was now the recognised vegan capital of the world. Did that surprise him?
James: To a certain extent, yes, because it still feels very young and formative, but I suppose that’s similar all over the world. Bristol itself, I’ve been here for 22 years and the more it gets under your skin, the more you get under its skin, and you realise it is a slightly peculiar place relative to the UK and the rest of the world in its politic, probably. It’s quite a liberal republic society here – very progressive. The sort of things that push people towards an interest in veganism, such as animal welfare, the environment and personal health – they’re all things you see here.
Over at Box-e, Elliot and Tessa Lidstone agree.
Elliott: It certainly feels, since we’ve opened, there’s been more of a trend to vegetarian and vegan eating. Definitely.
Tessa: I think the nice thing about it is that people are very interested in where their food comes from. So, whatever it is that they’re eating – vegetables, meat or fish – we get a lot of customers ask us where we get our produce from… which I like, I have to say. I like that people are a bit more self-aware.
I’m aware, of course, that I’m talking here to people that cook an awful lot of vegan food. I wonder if perhaps their views are skewed, so I head next door to Root, where I find Chef Rob Howell glowing over a freshly cooked sourdough. I wonder if you’d find a keen reception if you were to ask your average Bristolian on the street about being vegan.
Rob: It depends which street you’re walking on! [Laughs] I think so… I really think so. It’s the same here with my diet. I’m not a vegan in any sense. I love my meat and fish, and in the last couple of years I don’t eat a quarter the amount of meat or fish that I used to. [Veganism] is great here for staff food, too. At the moment we have ox tongue, and that’s all the meat we have. Where I used to work, staff food would always be trim or minced meat or some sort of curry you’ve made with trim. Here, all we have is vegetables. It’s nice . You feel better for it. I think that shows in Bristol, in the UK, even. Slowly but surely, people are understanding that we don’t need to have a massive piece of meat with every dish. It makes sense.
As someone who has flirted with vegetarianism and veganism for the past 20 years, it’s clear that there’s been a vast sea-change in the way people think about these things, and one that seems to have become fairly mainstream fairly quickly. Rob himself has seen it firsthand. He tells me that when the restaurant launched only a couple of years ago, he was putting four meat dishes on the menu each day. Two years later, that has fallen to one.
Rob: I felt the need and demand for the meat dishes wasn’t there. We’d have them on and not sell even one a day when we were doing fifty or sixty covers. We went down and down [on the meat dishes], and now I think people come because it’s vegan. We have parties with big tables and they come because there’s vegan options. Especially at Christmas, people would choose us because out of 10 friends, four would be vegan.
And if you’re assuming that it’s an older, traditionally left-leaning crowd that is embracing this move towards a more vegan, plant-based lifestyle, then James Koch has news for you.
James: From early on, we recognised that we wanted to distance ourselves from (and there’s nothing wrong with it at all) “hippy culture” and political veganism, and that this is something that is, if it hasn’t already, going to go into the mainstream for good reason, and there’s no need for us to be hard on the politic about it. So, it’s an option for good, healthy food that happens to be vegan, and certainly it’s a very broad demographic of people that we have in here.
Funnily enough, when we were doing some research on it, we went down to a restaurant in London. One of the things I was really blown away by was the demographic in this place. It looked like it was 14 to 20, and it was just really buzzing. I was talking to the kids in there, and they travel from the other side of London to be there. I was expecting it to be similar here [in Bristol], but it’s very, very broad – from a younger demographic that are interested in their health (and it seems to be the same with younger people: less smoking, drinking, taking drugs, so it stands to reason that diet might be in the mix with those things); from younger teenagers to past retirement.
While James says the “heavy politic” is unnecessary to his business, it’s still clear that it’s a key part of what turns people onto a more plant-based lifestyle. Later on in the conversation he tells me, “I personally will eat vegetarian/vegan, and occasionally I’ll have something that has fish, meat and dairy in it as and when I feel like it, especially if it’s well-sourced and I can trust where it’s come from. And probably that’s what most people, more and more people are behaving. That said, I think people are becoming more and more aware of the reality of the industrial farming complex and it’s uncomfortable. We’re brainwashed, really, to not know what really goes on in these organisations, and it’s difficult to unlearn it once you see the footage that’s very easily available on social media.”
Over at Box-e, Tessa agrees. In fact, it’s a key part of the ethos on which their restaurant thrives – an ideology that you might call ingredient-led rather than chef-led. It feels like a wonderfully ego-less, humble way of cooking, and I have to say, I love it.
Tessa: The cheesemonger that we use, she pretty much exclusively sources cheese from the neighbouring counties. But you think how much amazing cheese is produced in Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire – literally just a stone’s throw from where we are. It’s the same with vegetables. There are so many beautiful vegetables produced really close. There are big fruit farms like New Cross Fruit Farm that grow loads of asparagus. We get quite a lot of customers come in who have allotments and they’ll give us produce that they’ve got too much of. My dad has an allotment as well, and he’s always given us spare produce. People like the fact that we’re a small restaurant and they know that Elliott changes the menu regularly. If something comes in that’s super fresh, or our fishmonger or our veg supplier says, “We’ve got this at the moment and it’s beautiful… do you want some?” we’ll say, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” It’s almost working the other way around. Instead of Elliott saying, “I’m going to have this, regardless of whether it’s ripe or not in season yet”, we kind of do it the other way around. We’ve got a nice relationship with a lot of our suppliers in that sense.
Does she think that expands beyond the glass walls of her shipping container restaurant?
Tessa: There was perhaps a point where people thought, “Oooh, we can get strawberries 12 months of the year. Isn’t that great!” And then they took a step back from it and thought, “Actually, maybe it’s not that great.” It’s kind of like the rise of consumerism saw that possible, and so people did it because it was possible. Now it’s like, “Just because we can get strawberries 12 months of the year doesn’t mean we should.” So, people have kind of reached the boom and then got back from that slightly. And then I think things are enjoyed more. Yorkshire forced rhubarb has just come into season, and it’s like, “Woah!” It’s exciting to have that on the menu, and we’ll have it for as long as we can get it. Asparagus! How lovely to have asparagus for that small period of the year when you can get it. It doesn’t mean that for the rest of the year I’ll buy it from Peru. I kind of savour that moment when you can have something that’s really tasty, grown fairly local to you. You kind of enjoy that more.
So, we’ve talked a lot about how veganism is opening minds and bringing people together, both in Bristol and beyond. Eventually we have to stop talking, though, and start digging in. I see this as the ideal opportunity to get a bit cheeky and ask for a bit of free food. Elliot steps up to the plate, literally, pulls on his apron and talks me through light but luscious dish, the photos of which you can find on the blogpost accompanying this podcast. As he cooks I wonder aloud about how he found his way into the chef life.
Elliott: I’ve always been into food anyway, and I used to do a lot of scouting – I used to go to scout camps, so obviously I used to cook there and for people as well. So I realised that, actually, I quite enjoyed cooking for people, not just cooking in general. And after that I knew that the direction I was going to go in was catering, so I went to catering college and went from there, really. But yeah, from being in the Scouts I think really cemented my idea that I was going to do something with food. What’s secret Scouting flavour combination? Bolognese was standard, but I always used to bring some bits and bobs from home to tart it up a bit. The secret weapon? An Oxo cube!
So, is there a sense of restraint that comes with preparing vegan dishes as a trained and celebrated chef? Rob Howell recalls his apprehension on the day Josh Eggleton, the owner of Root, asked him to think vegetables-first.
Rob: When Josh Eggleton first said about it, I was a little bit unsure. My background is that I’ve worked in three very good fish restaurants, so my background was fish before working at the Pony & Trap for five years. Vegetables wasn’t my forte, as such. It’s been amazing. Starting in the kitchen, equipment-wise, we had nothing. We still do. I said to Josh, “I need a vac pack machine; I need this, that…”, but you don’t need any of it. When you strip it back it’s more exciting to go back to basics. We’ve got a couple of inductions and a chargrill and we do absolutely fine.
Back at Box-e, Elliott muses on the same question.
Elliott: I think it’s being sensible and looking back, and not just concentrating on an ingredient. It’s so easy to put cheese or dairy into something without even thinking, as classically trained you would do. So, whenever I do something vegetarian or vegan, I take the main component of whatever it might be and work back from that and try and make sure that everything harmonises – not having a dairy or meat product as a substitute for something. Every season has its own wonderful vegetable or fruit, so it’s just about taking whatever’s around at the time and really emphasising that.
Once again, it’s about reaching for what’s around you and keeping an open mind. Tessa agrees.
Tessa: Some people have very set ideas of how a vegetable is going to taste, like beetroot. Then they’ll taste it and think, “Oh, there is another way of eating this and it doesn’t have to just be pickled in a jar. Although I love any kind of pickled food, so I’m not going to diss a pickled beetroot!”
Meanwhile, Elliott has finished cooking my lunch, so I ask him to talk me through what he’s put together.
Elliott: I’ve just cooked you a roasted leek with goats curd, capers and some Jerusalem artichoke crisps. Leeks are lovely at the moment, so I really wanted to do something with them – starting off with them. If you steam and then roast them, you get that lovely caramelised flavour. I also wanted something with a bit of tartness, so the goats curd is lovely – you’ve got the creamy, lactic flavour of that. And then the Jerusalem artichoke crisps have got that lovely texture to them, and the leek is soft, you’ve got the texture of that as well as the goats curd. The capers bring another acidity to play as well. It all kind of works together.
In my head I can taste all the bits individually, then think what would work with that texturally. Once you put it on the plate and taste it, you’ll know what might need tweaking – more acidity, less acidity. It’s just experience, I think. It’s like if you make music: if you can play the piano and don’t have to read music, you just know what’s going to work. It’s similar to that, really. It’s what you do every day, in and out. Second nature, I guess.
I’m intrigued by this idea of a chef being able to taste things in their minds. Does Rob have that same culinary clairvoyance?
Rob: Some of the dishes go on without fully sitting down and eating the dish as a whole. You know the elements. Sometimes you’ve just got to go for it. Some of the dishes we’ve created – the hispi cabbage with seaweed butter, pickled shallots and radish was literally a dish from when we first opened and we had nothing. We were really busy one lunch and we’d run out of so many things, I kind of chucked it together without thinking about it. A year later (obviously it has changed through the seasons) it’s still on the menu. Sometimes you just have to run with it, and sometimes you think, let’s taste this because it’s not the straightforward meat and two veg. We do try and… not push the boundaries; we’re not breaking any… not doing anything crazy new. The main thing is actually making food that you wanna eat, that’s actually tasty. Sometimes you have to put away your chefiness, trying to make it look its most beautiful. We’ve got some pakoras on the menu, totally vegan and gluten-free. We serve them with some salted plum and pickled plum, but to eat it’s just reminiscent of going to your local curry house… do you know what I mean? It’s not breaking boundaries, but it’s tasty and we’re busy and people like it, so it’s great.
Now we’re on a roll. I love digging into the way that people access their creativity, so I pepper Rob with more questions. Where does he get his inspiration?
Rob: It’s through not one thing, but many things. Social media has changed everything, cooking-wise. Sharing ideas… you’re seeing hundreds of dishes everyday on Instagram, and I think that obviously some are going to stick with you and you’re definitely going to take inspiration from that. You can’t possibly not. I love to eat out – I don’t eat out as much as I used to – but you definitely draw inspiration from that. It makes a massive difference when you go out and you realise what you like to eat, and then bringing that back into the kitchen.
We went to Ivan Ramen and had a ramen there. It was amazing. We had a cauliflower dish with some koji butter, but it was like a curry sauce. It kind of stuck with me, so I came back and tried to make a really mild curry sauce…. I made a curry sauce but it’s totally vegan. I roasted it with a nut butter instead of using cream and I was really happy with it. You wouldn’t know it’s not like a chicken-based thing. We roasted some celeriac to riff off a curry dish. We were going to do some puffed rice, but we went for tapioca crisps. The salt-baked celeriac is like the chicken element in the curry sauce. We’re working on it now and it should be ready today. I’m really happy with that.
Elliott is much the same, and I find it interesting that he likens the creative process to that of a musician.
Elliott: It’s always at the back of my mind. Something’s ticking away, and I’ll always write things down. Trying to find the time to play with dishes is always the tricky part, so maybe I’ll scrabble bits together and do a prototype dish – maybe get some other people to have a taste of it and then go from there. So it’s always constantly ticking away. It never stops.
As my time in Bristol comes to an end, I’m left pondering the city’s place in the burgeoning Vegan scene. Certainly, the rise in successful vegan Google searches would suggest that there’s plenty here for the growing community. Undoubtedly the city’s natural left-leaning politic has something to do with the ease with which that community feels at home, but there’s also a sense of pride that fans the flames and helps it to flourish. When Jay Rayner came to review Box-E, he spoke of something that he called ‘the defined Bristolian style’. I wonder what that might be, and it’s Tessa who has the final word.
Tessa: I would say a fire for doing something different and being independent and standing up for that. I was pleased to see that that was still here when we opened – that people really celebrate small business here, or creatives or individual artists doing their own thing, and people are very proud to say, “This is Bristol, and they’re mine, actually. These people come from here.”
Our thanks to James Koch of Suncraft and the Gallimaufry, Tessa and Elliot Lidstone at Box-e and Rob Howell at Root. You can grab your Real Kombucha, brewed for open minds, from www.realkombucha.co.uk. Podcast music by Airtone.