The Silverton

Canary Wharf: Why M restaurant is serving up greens grown by Crate To Plate

Isle Of Dogs’ facility can produce all year round with 95% less water than traditional farming methods

M's Mike Reid and Crate To Plate's Sebastien Sainsbury
M’s Mike Reid and Crate To Plate’s Sebastien Sainsbury – image Matt Grayson

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It turns out there are two farms on the Isle Of Dogs.

Mudchute is filled with rare breeds and is a favourite spot for residents (and the occasional Wharfer) to take a restful stroll among the sheep and llamas.

The other, however, is much less obvious. 

Built inside three shipping containers sat in a brick-walled car park, just off Westferry Road, locals can easily be forgiven for not knowing Crate To Plate is there at all. 

But packed inside its metal boxes are racks of hyrdoponic tech, carefully calibrated to grow crops in nutrient-rich water under LED lights.

The business supplies restaurants in London and also grows produce at sites in Stratford and Elephant And Castle.

Its Isle Of Dogs containers make it, almost certainly, the closest producer of ingredients to Canary Wharf.

That means delivery times and mileage are negligible and Wharfers eating dishes created from its ingredients are consuming some of the freshest products available. 

One restaurant that’s making the most of the facility is recently opened M restaurant – located on the lower floors of Newfoundland tower.

M's Crate To Plate Salad, £7.50
M’s Crate To Plate Salad, £7.50

Owner Martin Williams and executive chef Mike Reid are both big on sustainability and cutting waste. The restaurant proudly works to assess and minimise its impact on the environment. 

The steaks it serves are carbon neutral, thanks to a partnership with charity Not For Sale, which offsets their impact through reforestation projects in the Amazon and helping to protect local people from modern slavery. 

Order M’s Crate To Plate salad as a side and you’ll be dining on leaves grown less than 20 minutes’ walk away, in the mix.

“It’s as fresh as it can be, as close from farm to plate as possible, and that’s so rare – it’s a privilege to have that in Canary Wharf,” said Mike, who did a degree in business and marketing before apprenticing as a chef and going on to work with the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux Jnr.

“Sustainability has become more of a focus for us in the last five years and it’s always been part of my philosophy as a chef.

“You want to cook as sustainably as possible and use as many local ingredients as you can, which has always been a challenge at M because it’s a brand that showcases international food and flavours.

M executive chef Mike Reid in one of the containers
M executive chef Mike Reid in one of the containers – image Matt Grayson

“Now it’s about how we interpret that, about the relationships we have with our suppliers and building partnerships.

“Crate To Plate is probably the perfect example of that. We create dishes with their produce in mind and at other times they grow things speculatively. It’s very much a collaboration.

“I try to visit the farms as much as I can and the last time I was here they had the most beautiful wasabi flowers.

“Normally you’d only get them five weeks a year, but here they grow all year round. 

“It’s one of my favourite flowers to cook with, because the flavour is literally a punch in the face, but in the most subtle and beautiful way, and they’re gorgeous.

“To have that available all year long is incredible.

“You’re not beholden to the seasons, so you can keep dishes on the menu with ingredients that are not impacted by the weather.

Crate To Plate founder and CEO Sebastien Sainsbury
Crate To Plate founder and CEO Sebastien Sainsbury – image Matt Grayson

“From a chef’s point of view, we chase consistency more than perfection and Crate To Plate’s products are phenomenal.

“For me the flavour’s better too – there’s no pesticides, none of the nasties and the lettuce, for example is crispier and the taste fresher.

“It’s vegetables and herbs the way they’re supposed to be – whatever you’re tasting in the supermarket, times it by 10.

“When I first came to visit the farm I wondered if I was in the right place, but this is pure genius.”

Mike’s words will be music to the ears of Crate To Plate founder and CEO Sebastien Sainsbury.

Part of the dynasty that created the supermarket chain, he spent time as a banker with interests in hospitality, before turning to vertical farming in urban environments as a way to help tackle some of the world’s problems.

Crops are started as seedlings and then planted into vertical farms
Crops are started as seedlings and then planted into vertical farms – image Matt Grayson

  “When I was in banking in 2007, I did research on food security and population growth because it really concerned me where our food was going to come from,” said Sebastien. 

“If the number of people in the world kept on rising as predicted, it would mean the end of organic food 

“That remained in the back of my mind and in 2015 I was at Expo 2015 in Milan where I saw a hydroponic farm. 

“It’s not a new idea, it’s been around for thousands of years – think of the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon – and there are people doing it all around the world, but what’s changed is the technology.

“We don’t even use the term hydroponic any more, even since we installed the three farms on the Isle Of Dogs in 2020 – Crate To Plate is really ‘controlled environment agriculture’. 

“Every aspect of each plant’s growth, from the amount of light it gets to the light wavelength recipe, the nutrients in the water, the watering schedule, the ambient temperature, the humidity and even how long the lights are on or off – because plants need rest – is very closely monitored and regulated.

“It’s all automated, bar seeding, transplanting and harvesting and that’s just where we are today.”

The company’s model not only allows it to place farms close to its customers, minimising transportation, its technology means it uses approximately 95% less water than traditional farming methods. 

It hopes to cut that to 99% with newer root-misting systems – crucial in a world where natural resources are destined to become increasingly scarce.

The plants are then grown hydroponically and harvested
The plants are then grown hydroponically and harvested – image Matt Grayson

Crate To Plate can grow produce year-round to order and is unaffected by the weather. Its systems are not immune to problems, but these tend to be ones of maintenance rather than the lottery of droughts and floods.

“Farmers are suffering and they will suffer, but not because of us,” said Sebastien. “It’s because of climate change.

“We consume about 18million heads of lettuce a week in Britain and farmers supply about 90% of that, which means there’s still 1.8million being imported.

“In 2018, for example, we had the longest heatwave for 40 years and crops were all lost. Droughts are just as bad.

“With us, restaurants can give us an estimate of what they’ll need and we grow that for them, planting varieties that create less waste – flatter romaine lettuce, for example, for burgers so restaurants don’t throw out the middle of a baby gem. 

“Our head of farming, John Sticha, spent about four years doing research and development in a container in the US to find the right plants – we tried more than 220 varieties, a dozen Genovese basils and more than 14 different types of lemon basil.”

The company’s drive to improve is relentless, with new tech emerging all the time. Its next project is a plan for a bigger, fully automated farm in Royal Docks

“When I was a banker, I was on the right, but now I’m on the left – I’m all about social responsibility,” said Sebastien. 

“People laugh when I do nothing but talk about lettuce, which I knew nothing about five years ago. Being a vertical farmer is fun and it’s productive. 

“We’re growing stuff that people are loving – sometimes it blows my mind how positive people are about our produce. I’m not a young man any more, but I feel completely regenerated.”

With all that extra energy, who’d bet against a robot vertical farm in east London?

A Crate To Plate lettuce ready for the table
A Crate To Plate lettuce ready for the table – image Matt Grayson

Read more: Discover ceramics with Made By Manos

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How M restaurant takes dining on the estate to another level

Founder of the steak specialist, Martin Williams, on water bikes, St Tropez and carbon-neutral meat

M founder and CEO Martin Williams
M founder and CEO Martin Williams – image Matt Grayson

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Water bikes, duck eggs from the local waterfowl, hydroponically grown salad ingredients from the Isle Of Dogs – oh, and steak, a great deal of steak.

There’s something happening on the lower floors of Newfoundland tower at the eastern edge of Canary Wharf and it promises a completely different experience to anything the estate has seen before.

Open now for summer previews, with an official launch set for September 5, M restaurant has been long in the making.

For the brand’s CEO and founder Martin Williams, to see the doors open is both a thrill and a challenge.

“We signed the deal for the space when the building was just foundations and it went up pretty spectacularly,” he said. 

“But it’s taken a bit longer than everybody planned, with the pandemics and the war, but it’s great that six years on the dream has become a reality.”

That dream is one that builds on the success of M’s first two sites – in the City’s Threadneedle Street and Victoria. 

Cobia tartare at M restuarant
Cobia tartare at M restuarant

Its latest opening, in Canary Wharf, promises to further the spirit and verve of the brand.

It’s a reflection of the complementary dichotomy Martin’s character hints at – a man who is at once laser-focused on the detail of the businesses he runs, balanced by the kind of sense of fun that has seen his restaurants offer wheel of fortune prizes to Christmas revellers and an hour of free wine and cheese to mark the recent spate of Governmental resignations.

The slick operation of the venues is a given, but it doesn’t take much for him to sail away on the romance of the inspiration behind them.

“While there are small moments of self-congratulation in running a business – when everybody’s gone home and you sit there and feel you’ve achieved something – in your mind you’re always thinking what more you can do, how you can make the place super special,” said Martin.

“When you walk into any restaurant, you’re looking at the micro details – when I dine out with my wife, she makes me sit facing the wall.

“And there’s so much detail in our Canary Wharf restaurant – the inspirations are from the Cote d’Azur, the Riviera and Lake Como.

“We want to stay with the water – we’re surrounded by it with 360º glass – and we wanted to play on that with the colours.

“There are lots of net details, metalwork inspired by yachts, portholes, seagulls – real maritime inspiration and that feels very fitting.

Tuna tataki at M restaurant
Tuna tataki at M

“There’s nothing like this on the Isle Of Dogs or in Canary Wharf – it’s a different level in terms of decor, the level of hospitality and the quality of the products.

“When combined with the wow factor of the views, people who visit will very quickly acknowledge this is somewhere special.”

M is set to launch its St Tropez Beach Brunch on August 27 and 28, slightly ahead of its official opening.

Running from noon-3pm on the Saturday and Sunday of the Bank Holiday weekend, £65 buys a two-course meal and 90 minutes of free-flowing Mirabeau wine or  cocktails.

As with other M sites, the venue has a range of facilities that will act as host to a varied programme of events in addition to its core business.

“We’ve tried to create a venue that you can use for a number of different reasons,” said Martin

“On the ground floor we have La Petite M, which is a wine and wagyu bar with wagyu sausage muffins and bacon sandwiches for breakfast – then it goes into wagyu Cuban sandwiches for lunch and, in the evening, charcuterie plates and wine

“The cafe is very much a grab and go concept and with 600 residents above us, we think it will be very popular for breakfast.

“Then, the main venue is our gastro playground, which is reached via a spiral staircase. It’s akin to walking into a hotel lobby, a very sensory environment that we hope will build anticipation.

Martin says M is a gastronomic playground
Martin says M is a gastronomic playground – image Matt Grayson

“Go up and you’ll be confronted with six ageing chambers for our beef – it’s a bit in-your-face.

“Then there’s a cocktail bar, two private dining rooms, a private members’ lounge, a wine tasting area, a terrace and the grill restaurant specialising in Provencal cuisine.

“Throughout, you can enjoy heightened hospitality.

“It’s always our intention to give you an amazing dining experience.

“We’re cooking on wood, coal and smoke and we specialise in beef with the best meat from around the world.

“We have quality wagyu from Japan and cuts of Blackmore wagyu from Australia – exclusive to us, Heston Blumenthal and The Ledbury – so there are some incredible beef offerings

“All of our steaks are carbon neutral – the way we do that is by having partner farms across the globe where we know the farmers very well and we measure their carbon footprint and the methane output of the cattle. 

“Then we measure the transportation impact of bringing all of our foods to the table, and then we mitigate or reduce that at source as much as possible, and we offset it with a charity we have that is concerned with a reforestation programme in the Amazon.

“That means you can dine knowing it’s not having a negative impact on the environment.

“We also offer a lot more besides. About 50% of our diners eat steak and that means half order other dishes – the rest of our menu has been described as Michelin level food with flair. 

Wagyu scotch egg at M

“We’re very casual and accessible, but the quality is up there with the best restaurants in the UK.”

That M’s third site is in Canary Wharf is no coincidence. Martin, left Marske-By-The-Sea near Middlesborough for London aged 18, working in hospitality through his studies before deciding to take restaurants “very seriously” at the age of 24.

His first managerial role was at Gaucho’s Canary Wharf branch, a business he eventually rose to become MD at and that he is once again running alongside M.

“We had a sheltered upbringing with one row of houses between us and the North Sea and a five-minute drive to the North York Moors – Heartbeat country,” he said. 

“When I came to London it was a wonderful shock to the senses, very busy and very diverse.

“You could be anyone you wanted to be. Canary Wharf has changed immeasurably since I first came here – it’s a very different landscape.

“When I launched M in 2014, I was looking at the Wharf and the City, but the Threadneedle Street site had previously been a restaurant so a lot less capital was needed to open.

“This new venue should be the making of M. 

“I love Canary Wharf, the cleanliness and the safety but also the journey it’s been on over the past 15 years to become more than a sterile environment, with real culture and art and the way the waterways are being used in different ways now. 

“We’re hoping to do a competition where businesses and residents can race water bikes along Middle Dock with some great prizes for the winners.

“We want to open with a bang and offer the highly competitive people of Canary Wharf a way to have some fun, get some exercise and enjoy the world’s best beef.”

M’s signature Bakewell Tart

Read more: Go for a dip in the dock in Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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