08 | Jan | 12

Richard Johnson

Saturday (Street) Kitchen

Saturday Kitchen Talking Street Food ….

Cooking in a restaurant? Hard. Cooking on the street? Harder. Just ask high-end chef (and the winner of Best Main Dish at the British Street Food Awards) Jun Tanaka. “If you’re working in a professional kitchen, the only limitation is you” says Jun. “And your creativity. In a truck you’re limited by everything else. In Pearl, my restaurant, if I’m trying out a new dish I don’t think ‘Well, I’ve only got a certain number of chefs and they won’t be able to cope with anything too complicated’. Or ‘I don’t have the right equipment to make this dish work’. But when I’m working on the street, I just have to do the best I can.”

Jun, and his partner Mark Jankel, launched their Street Kitchen during the 2010 London Restaurant Festival. It was high concept. “We were very clear about our ethos from the start – it was all about sourcing everything from great farms within the UK. But because we wanted the food to be accessible to everyone, we had in our mind a price point that we couldn’t go over. We had seen people in London prepared to pay £6 for a burrito or a gourmet burger. So we decided to set our top price at £6.50. That seemed fair.”

On a “research” trip to New York, Jun did the round of the city’s famous food trucks. His favourite was Schnitzel & Things, where the queues regularly snake round the block. He thought their lightly breaded cutlets of chicken, pork and cod were fried to golden perfection, but awkward to eat. “I got a big platter, a knife and fork and a huge deep-fried schnitzel, and I needed a table to put it on. I just grabbed mine in my hand and ate it like a sandwich. Street food should be easy to eat – I think they had forgotten that at Schnitzel & Things.”

With Street Kitchen, Jun wanted people to be able to hold their bowl in one hand – and their cutlery in the other. He didn’t want the food to feel too cheffy. “At Pearl, people come to eat my style of cuisine. They’re already foodies, and they’re coming to experience what I want to put on the plate. But street food is different. It’s all about catering to absolutely everybody. If someone come up and see a fancy-sounding dish on the menu, and it doesn’t connect with them immediately, you’ve lost their custom forever.”

To see how service should work, Jun visited Daddy Donkey Kick Ass Mexican Grill in London. The business has gone from a rickety wooden barrow to a big, bright burro-mobile by serving 500 people in a lunchtime. The staff of eight have to work, flat-out, in a production line. “It’s the most efficient way to do it” says Jun. “The customers follow the food. They order at one end, follow it along, and they pay for it at the other. The staff don’t move. That’s one thing we learnt very quickly. The staff have to stay in a line.”

He learnt how to manage his queue from Roland at Flaming Cactus, one of the founding fathers of the British street food movement. “He taught us that people love to see a queue” says Jun. “Whether it’s in front of a nightclub or a food truck. If there’s a queue, people think you must be okay, so maintain your queue. When you don’t have a lot of people, you slow it down a bit, and when do you have a lot of people you serve them as quickly as possible. But I’ve been in a restaurant kitchen for 20 years – I found it quite difficult learning to make people wait.” He had better get used to it….