Our Debut Year... An insight into how it all started
One day back in the spring of 2017, Bryony and I were on a train up to Scotland to visit her family for a long weekend. We'd been talking about my plans to hand in my notice at Vanilla Black and start my own project, but at that point I still didn't know exactly what form this would take. I knew it had to be something different, something personal, and something that would stand out from the crowd amongst the rapidly growing pop-up scene. At the time I was living in Tottenham, sharing a flat with a colleague. My flatmate had told me that he planned on moving in with his girlfriend, which left me with the dilemma of figuring out a new living situation. I'd already spoken with my mum about moving back in for a year, in order to gather the savings to invest in and start my own business. During a discussion on that train, Bryony had a light bulb moment... "If you're moving back home to start your own thing, why don't you make it all about Hackney"... BOOM! The seedling of Eleven98 was sown.
It just made perfect sense. My upbringing in Hackney has always been something I've been immensely proud of, and so what better to be the focus of this new project than something I feel so passionately about. With the borough having become somewhat of a beacon for the creative industries and being so progressive with regards to issues of positive social change and environmental awareness since the regeneration of the east end, I felt like there was literally no better place to be starting up than in my own home town.
From that moment on, everything just seemed to fall into place. I began researching the history of Hackney in my spare time, in order to come up with a name for the project. This lead to my discovery of Haca, the 12th century Danish landowner whose name would eventually give rise to the naming of the borough "Hackney" in the year 1198. I also began researching food and drink producers and artisans in the borough, and was truly amazed to discover just how many there were! This lead to the discovery of John the Poacher, a local forager who's been finding and harvesting wild foods in the borough for decades. I've been out foraging with John a couple of times, and have even bartered for some of his goods in exchange for an invitation to our opening night (he doesn't take cash for produce). But most importantly it lead to the discovery of an organisation called Growing Communities. Not just a veg box scheme, not just a collection of urban allotments with nine growing sites across the borough, not just the organisers of a weekly farmer's market in Stoke Newington.
Growing Communities has truly been the lifeblood of Eleven98's access to Hackney-grown produce. I remember writing an email to Sophie Verhagen; the Head Grower for their Hackney-based "Patchwork Farms" allotments in August of 2017, and asking her if I might be able to buy fruit and veg directly from the source. That was actually the very first communication I had with the outside world in the name of (an actually as yet unnamed) Eleven98, and was sent from my personal gmail account. At that point I had no idea if this kind of arrangement would even be a possibility - I'd read on their website that they only sold directly to a few local cafés, and these were bricks and mortar operations. All the rest of their produce went into their veg box and salad bag schemes. Could I really just rock up on my pushbike and buy produce during the growing season? Would this even be viable in terms of the amount of produce I'd need, and how would it work timing-wise? How would I plan menus without really knowing what was available at any given time?
All of these questions lead to one dawning realisation. I'd have to get smart. Very smart. I'd have to find a way to plan ahead, and be able to formulate menus knowing I had access to certain produce at certain times. It also occurred to me that if I'd really need to make hay while the sun shines. I'd have to buy as much produce as I possibly could while it was around, as I wouldn't have the luxury of switching to using Spanish tomatoes or Dutch cucumbers when the English-grown... excuse me, Hackney-grown... were no longer around. During the spring and summer I'd have to buy absolutely everything I could and find a way to preserve it somehow, in order to ensure I'd have enough produce to get me through the colder months when there's not really much growing. Bryony had bought me the Fäviken book for my birthday that year, and I'd read it cover to cover within a day. I'd been a keen admirer of Magnus Nilsson for some time and was curious as to how on earth he managed to keep his restaurant running through the winter in the middle of the Swedish nowhere when he only used fresh produce that was growing in Jämtland. Reading that book sent me down the proverbial rabbit hole, and opened my eyes to a way of deploying produce that was rapidly looking like the only way I'd be able to make Eleven98 work.
And that's just what I did. I used the Fäviken model - buy as much fresh produce as possible when it's available and preserve it in as many ways as I can. Grow as much as I possibly can myself - this involved a lot of research... reading countless books and attending food-growing classes at Capital Growth. And of course forage. Lots. Foraging means the produce is also free, which is an added bonus. Of course when there's no financial cost in sourcing the food, you have to value your time. Time is also a currency. A very valuable currency.
And so that's how we work. In a way the menus I write are reverse-engineered. It's not so much a case of coming up with an idea and then thinking about where I could get the produce. If only it were that simple! It's actually a very meticulously organised operation in which I keep a record of every single thing I have in the cupboard, fridge and freezer at any time, while constantly updating it as I use things for the menus or add to the list after preserving stuff in some way. Whether that's a granita I made after harvesting some fennel from the garden, some gooseberries I bought from Growing Communities at the Clissold Park allotment and subsequently pickled, or that heritage grain I discovered at one of those hippie organic shops, of which Hackney has many!
And no two menus are ever exactly the same. Even when doing back to back private dining events over the festive period, small adjustments must be made to the menus as there's only a finite amount of produce at any one time. For instance I grew pumpkins over the summer, and they take up a lot of space in relation to the yield they give in fruit (yes all squash are fruits, not vegetables). By the autumn I was ready to harvest, and despite the fact the plant had taken up about a fifth or a sixth of the entire growing space in the garden, I only had 5 pumpkins. I cooked them whole in the oven, scooped out the flesh, threw it in the Thermomix (a fancy, high-tech blender we chefs like to use in restaurants) and made a purée. This was used as part of a secret course for two large private dining events in November - gently warmed and served in a shot glass layered with a pumpkin seed butter, crème fraîche, sage salt and a crispy sage leaf to garnish. Sage is great by the way. Very resistant to the cold. It's been a staple of our herb garden since day one. And that was it, the pumpkin secret course was planned for and used for just those two events, and then it was gone. The definition of transience. Produce comes and goes with the blink of an eye. It's a beautiful way to work... a challenging way I'll give you that, but a beautiful way. It keeps the customers on their toes, and it keeps me on mine.