25 | Jul | 16

Hugh Thomas

London Street Foodie

Ah, 2011. Weren’t you a special one.

That year, Café Mor, now a BSF stalwart, blew away Fay Ripley and Anthony Worrall Thompson, thus mopping up three of the five Awards at the final in Suffolk.

It was a good time for street food-ers around the country – things were only looking up. And in many ways that enthusiasm we had then is what has carried the scene to where it is now.

By no coincidence, 2011 had another thing going for it. Victoria Stewart, ex-Evening Standard food editor and all-round good egg, planted her flag and declared London Street Foodie – a blog about where all the capital’s best traders where hiding – was ready to roll.

Now, if LSF speaks, you listen. And you listen good. Which is why we had to ask Victoria about the past and current, good and bad side of London’s street food.

So, are you sitting comfortably?

In 2011 you said street food will eventually take over London. What was the scene like then, and have things exceeded your expectations?

That summer I stood at a party talking to Abiye Cole from Big Apple Hot Dogs, and marvelled at how excited all the guests were about the street food there. Back then, I had also heard of Petra Barran, who had set up Eat.St and, with various other traders, done some late night parties at London Zoo.

Looking at what they were doing, and thinking about how much I wanted to tell my friends about it, was exhilarating. Back then, having street food just seemed such an obvious way of eating and I knew it would do well, but I had no idea of its gigantic potential. It’s gone crazy, hugely helped by the likes of British Street Food Awards, and of course all the brilliant market managers and event organisers. So yes, it’s exceeded my expectations, for sure, but some of it has gone a bit far, and in a few cases the quality has been lost.

You flatterer, you. But speaking of quality and quantity, and the sort of cuisine we’re used to in London – how does all that compare to other places you’ve travelled?

There is an enormous amount of seriously good street food in London. I still maintain that the people who started out early are still some of the very best, but since then there have been new traders doing intriguingly brilliant things.

Madly I’m actually more familiar with street food in other countries than I am in the rest of the UK, and I’d say that it can be hit and miss wherever you go. There are some markets whose standards are consistent, and you know you’re paying for quality, and I return to them often, but generally speaking, in any country I think you have to know where to go. I don’t think you can walk to any old market and be guaranteed excellent food yet.

So what’s the biggest thing London needs, street food-wise?

You could argue that some sort of regulation is needed to maintain food standards, but I think it works like natural selection: people who want the good stuff will seek it out, and it’ll continue to be cooked. People eventually stop going to the crap places.

The only other thing I would very much like to see is that the market managers and bosses who put extreme amounts of pressure on traders to serve hundreds and hundreds of dishes, are held to account. I’ve heard horrible stories of people being pushed out of regular slots because their already high numbers were not high enough. Street food businesses aren’t machines; they have real people running them.

What’s the main thing that gets you interested about what any given trader is doing?

Obviously the food. I don’t want to pay £7, £8, or £9 for something awful. But I’m really interested in the stories of the traders themselves. Why have they decided to do this? What have they given up or risked to get here? Was this always the plan? Where have they been that gave them the idea? You can spot a fake a mile off.

Most street food in other cultures is treated as an everyday meal, but here it’s more of a novelty. Do you think we should move towards the former?

Elsewhere it is treated as an everyday meal because it is the same price, or often cheaper, than buying food to eat at home. That is not the case here, because you could very easily make something to eat for £2.50 at home, while the going rate for street food is £5 plus.

The problem is that – as I understand it – with the cost of their overheads and ingredients, it would be difficult for traders to price it any lower. So it’s a vicious cycle.

The fact is that street food has democratised food here in a way that most people never expected it would. It needs to keep going, and keep opening up to more people, but I’m all for remembering to celebrate what it’s done already.

How do we get the older generation out of this mindset that street food means greasy burgers and bacon rolls?

That’s a tricky one, but I always say that if you can convince someone to leave their usual routine even just once, and they have a good time, they’ll be more likely to tell their peers about it.

To shift people’s mindsets, they need to be in a place where they can try it easily, so I think it’s about getting traders serving in places that aren’t normally connected with ‘street food’. Getting more traders serving in pubs, which BSF has started doing with its Pub Takeover, can certainly help that as they are often the heart of a community and have a mixed audience. Otherwise, could street food begin to trade at events where ordinary old-school caterers would be the food provider of choice?

And finally, always have seats! In my experience, even the most open-minded older person doesn’t enjoy a) queuing up for food or b) not sitting down to eat it.

As you’ve said before, there are a lot of people quitting their desk jobs with an over romanticised idea of what a street food business is like, and the quality of their food suffers. What’s the best way for customers to know what they’re getting?

That doesn’t always happen; there are plenty who have quit their jobs and turned into brilliant traders.

But, as you say, it’s still hard to know whether you’re going to get your money’s worth. I’m loathe to have street food heavily regulated, as so much of the rest of the food industry has red tape all over it.

If I’m about to try something new, I might just look at how they’re working, or ask them a few questions. Or I’ll have a good gander at their website to see how they go about their business, and what they serve, and where they get their ingredients from – that’ll tell you a lot about what you’re going to get.

Victoria’s blog London Street Foodie is online here.