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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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Royal Docks: Cyrus Todiwala’s Cafe Spice Namaste set to open at Royal Albert Wharf

Relocation of Prescot Street restaurant after 25 years sees east London welcome chef to quayside

Cyrus and Pervin are set to open Cafe Spice Namaste in August
Cyrus and Pervin are set to open Cafe Spice Namaste in August – image James Perrin

Aldgate’s loss is the Royal Docks’ gain. After more than a quarter of a century operating in Prescot Street, Cafe Spice Namaste – the flagship restaurant in Pervin and Cyrus Todiwala’s family business – has been forced to relocate, after losing its lease to a new landlord with an eye on redeveloping the venerable red brick building it occupied, as offices.

With the pandemic biting and hospitality reeling, the couple initially looked at opening on Commercial Street in nearby Shoreditch before a former employee, living in east London, got in touch.

“She said: ‘Why don’t you come to Royal Albert Wharf? It would be nice for a little cafe’,” said chef patron Cyrus. “So we looked at it and decided in the end to establish a wider business.

“There are lots of plans in my brain, which gradually we will put into action and, fingers crossed, we will succeed.”

At the heart of everything will be a fresh incarnation of Cafe Spice Namaste, set to open in August and located on Lower Dock Walk, less than 10 minutes on foot from Gallions Reach DLR.  

While the setting – overlooking the waters of Royal Albert Dock towards the University Of East London, Excel and London City Airport – provides the backdrop, there’s little doubt that the food will be the most potent draw. 

It would be easy to fill the remaining space on this spread by simply listing Cyrus and Pervin’s many achievements – not least holding a Michelin Bib Gourmand for nearly two decades, which would make the new restaurant the farthest east in the capital (by some distance) to trouble the guide, should it be similarly recognised.

But rather than cover the same ground as a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme – which has already done a great job of distilling and presenting the background to the Todiwalas’ current situation (including their notice to quit their old premises, Cyrus’ successful battle with cancer and the story of Bombay Duck) – we’re going to focus on the future. 

Cyrus intends to start things off with a few informal evenings for those signed up online to his Greedy Pigs Club before opening the venue officially.

He said: “We always had a splash of colour and I think that will come here too. This space is a lot more modern, with big windows, so it will feel different, but we want to bring back as much of the feel of the original Cafe Spice Namaste as we can. The food is a variety of Indian cuisine, not stuck to any one region or area, though we do have an emphasis on my own style of cooking which is Parsee and we do a lot of Goan food because of my background working there for several years. We try to bring in as much of the sub-continent as possible. At the new restaurant, the classics that our regulars will be familiar with will remain – the rest will evolve.

“We will do specials around seasonal British produce and we’re also thinking that, in this area, it may be easier for people to have more shared plates, which will be small plates so we can present a bigger variety and bring more choice to the menu. We’ll also hold supper-club style events once a month that people can register for online.”

Cyrus has many ideas he hopes to develop in Royal Docks
Cyrus has many ideas he hopes to develop in Royal Docks – image James Perrin

Without the goodwill and support of its loyal group of regulars, it’s likely Cafe Spice Namaste wouldn’t be coming to the Royal Docks or anywhere else, for that matter. 

It was hit especially hard by the pandemic because of its location in the City – losing almost all passing trade – and never having focused much on takeaways, so a group of three customers led a funding drive, raising nearly £50,000 to help with the move.

Cyrus said: “That felt really amazing – where else would you have customers willing to put money in and help you relocate and re-establish yourselves? 

“That money gave us a big stepping stone. Hospitality has been decimated and we were certainly not alone in many of the difficulties we faced, but we had other problems and issues as well. We weren’t able to benefit from local sales as the City was deserted.”

His other restaurants, based in Hilton hotels, including Mr Todiwala’s on the Isle Of Dogs and one near Heathrow, remain closed too, victims of business models upset by Covid-19. In the short-term, then, it’s up to Cafe Spice Namaste to be the lead in the charge for recovery. 

During the photoshoot for this piece, a service boat was visiting Royal Docks, loading up on fresh water to supply a recently arrived superyacht in central London. Having not used the craft in a while, its crew were allowing the excess to gush through the system and down into the depths below to Cyrus’ visible discomfort. The spectacle of so much water apparently going to waste was a tough watch for a man from Bombay – a visible sign of one of the key ingredients in his makeup.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Todiwalas were able to find support in the community is that Cyrus has been persistently outward looking, keen to get deeply involved with the creation of the produce he uses and to ensure as light a touch as possible on the planet. 

“I grew up in an area with acute water shortages and no electricity for most of the day,” he said. “I wish I could get more people to see how the culture here is so wasteful – nobody considers what happens to things once they’ve been put in the bin.

“We started recycling bottles in 1992 – nobody had heard of it then and nobody wanted to do it, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of throwing them away.”

He’s also run farms producing pigs and poultry as well as agricultural plantations of pineapples, coconuts, cashews and mangos. More recently, he was the first chef ambassador for the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, presenting Mudchute Park And Farm on the Isle Of Dogs with its approved status in 2017 and in June took over from the late Albert Roux as group chef ambassador with The Clink Charity, which delivers training to inmates in British prisons. He’s also in talks with a farm project in Greenwich to supply Cafe Spice Namaste with seasonal vegetables to minimise food miles.

As part of his latest venture he is also hoping to establish an academy to train young people at Royal Albert Wharf.

“We will start with one-off classes for four hours and it will grow slowly,” said Cyrus. “But some people will want to do a week and, if there’s interest and demand then we’ll build that in.

“As the restaurant opens it will be a stressful time – it’s always difficult to find your feet, but we’ve been at this for many, many years and so we’re prepared, compared to the newer operators.

“I want this to be a place that the community accepts, that draws people to us, supplying their needs at different levels. 

“One gentleman living across the water has already asked us to supply a week’s menu to him every seven days, so we’re doing that, and other people may want the same. If people sign up to our newsletter then they’ll get all the information about what we’re doing, what we’re developing. There are loads of ideas that are brewing and, when we are established, we can start to implement them.

“I’ve had a great life and a good career so far. It’s been hard, but that’s because I take on extra things, thinking about how I can help the community and what I can do for young people. But if I’d done it differently I probably wouldn’t have learned as much as I have.”

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