Together with Jun Tanaka – head chef of Pearl restaurant and familiar face from TV shows such as Saturday Kitchen – Mark has established Street Kitchen, a food van serving restaurant-quality food, with 100 per cent of ingredients bought from within the UK.
Are there any exceptions to the UK rule, I ask? No black pepper, no lemons? “Absolutely not,” replies Mark. “When we say 100 per cent, we mean 100 per cent. Vanilla was a tricky one – it’s hard to make a cheesecake taste delicious without vanilla – but we got there, and we enjoy the challenge.”
Mark’s interest in the environment runs deep, and he has a BSc in Environmental Science from the University of East Anglia to prove it. How did he end up in restaurant kitchens, then? “The degree was the best of its kind and we were taught by the leaders in the field, but I became disillusioned with all the doom and gloom, the idea that there was nothing that could be done,” he explains. After graduating he decided to enrol in the Butlers Wharf Cookery School, following which he worked at various acclaimed restaurants (including Michelin-starred The Square), eventually becoming the executive chef of a group of four restaurants.
Throughout his career as a chef Mark has tried to find out where the produce he is using is from, and how it was produced. He found that, with a little effort, he could buy some items directly from the producers, such as organic ‘wobblers’ (misshapen eggs) from Barrington Park Estate in the Cotswolds, and lamb from Elwy Valley in Wales. Fruit and vegetables seemed to be more of a challenge though, invariably coming via wholesalers at New Covent Garden, often with limited information attached.
Frustrated by this lack of information, and with little or no time to investigate alternative supply chains, Mark decided to work part time as a chef and spend every spare minute travelling around the country to meet potential suppliers. And so The Food Initiative was born. “Our guiding principle is to really get to know the people supplying us and how they produce,” he says. The commitment to environmental sustainability doesn’t stop there – Mark and Jun are also working with an ecological economist to measure the environmental impact of everything that Street Kitchen does, from procuring the raw ingredients to serving the finished dish. “Street Kitchen is the first expression of the Food Initiative ethos,” Mark explains.
The distinctive Street Kitchen van made its debut in Covent Garden and Spitalfields Market during the London Restaurant Festival last October, and will reappear in a new location in May. How has it gone down with the public? “We wanted people to see us first and foremost as proving great value for money, and super-tasty food,” says Mark. “But when we talked about our sourcing policy as we were serving customers, we got a positive response.”
So, is it really possible to make a profit by selling local, largely organic food for little more than a fiver a pop? “The portions are generous, but there’s a lot of veg in there!” he says. “And in the long term, I believe local, organic produce will offer greater price stability, as it doesn’t rely so heavily on fossil fuels.”
What does the future hold for Street Kitchen? The finishing touches are being made to a new production kitchen in Battersea, which will supply the van (as well as lucky local office workers), and boast a roof-top growing space using waste heat from the extraction system. Ultimately, Mark and Jun would like to see between five and ten Street Kitchen vans around the capital. Until then, check http://www.streetkitchen.co.uk/ or follow them on Twitter @Streetkitchen to see where they pop up next.
Pop up Principles?
Barely a week goes by without hearing of yet another intriguing new supper club or pop-up restaurant. But are these unregulated eateries also cutting corners with their food ethics?
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