SO Resi Canning Town

Royal Docks: How Breadmeister grinds hard to produce its selection of baked goods

Based at The Factory, the firm makes sourdough loaves and sweet pastries beside Tate & Lyle

Jon Wong, owner and baker at Breadmeister – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Near the end of our interview, Jon Wong throws me a curveball.

I’ve been enjoying the wholesome tale of how he rose to become Royal Dock’s premier bread maker.

A former fine-dining chef, he turned to sourdough during lockdown, making it from his microbakery using bags of pesticide-free flour, a heap of culinary talent and a pinch of his Chinese heritage.

He sells his bread in person from The Factory – a scheme by Projekt to regenerate a disused Tate & Lyle warehouse in Royal Docks.

It all sounds very hearty. But then I ask why he named the business Breadmeister?

“It came from American Pie’s Stifmeister,” said Jon. “He’s sort of awful, but I wanted something playful, and it kind of matches me because I like to try new things and push the envelope.”

Jon is referring to the fact that alongside traditional loaves he also sells a range of sourdough croissants, pastries and Hong Kong buns inspired by his childhood. 

Unlike the business’ brash and flippant namesake, everything Jon does is the result of hours of care and hard graft.

“If there’s one word to describe what I do it’s ‘different’ because it’s all from scratch,” he said.

“Making stuff good enough to sell takes a lot of time and effort. 

“You can push the starter all the way to be really tangy and sour or hold back for a more delicate flavour.

“Everything comes with fine tuning – you won’t find this on the supermarket shelf.”

All this takes an exorbitant amount of energy, with Jon up at dawn, baking until 10am and then starting the next day’s batch.

“The dough has to be done a day before, sometimes even more, and it is quite intense,” he said.

“If I just made bread it might be easier, but as good as your loaves might be, you can only sell them for maybe £5 each. 

“So for the business to work I have to have the pastries as well and they do take a lot of extra time and care.

“Now in the new premises, I have started doing simple lunches like toasties. It all adds up.”

Jon now offers simple lunches – image Matt Grayson

He moved the business from The Silver Building to The Factory Project last year and his bakery is open Friday 8am to 5pm and Saturday 7.30am to noon with customers able to pre-order items for collection. 

He also has a stall at the street food market near the Good Hotel in Royal Victoria Docks every Saturday and has recently launched on Deliveroo on Saturdays from 7.30am to 11.30am.

He turned his oven off over Christmas but not to rest. Instead, he took a part-time job stacking shelves to support his income and is considering outside help to keep things going.

“I have invested all my savings and sacrificed my small salary for the last 18 months to bring Breadmeister to life,” he said.

“Hopefully I will be able to gain some support via crowdfunding to help the business move to the next level.”

So why choose sourdough if it is such a slog? It sort of happened by accident.

Growing up in Hong Kong, Jon loved cooking but became an English teacher.

When he got fed up with that, he moved to the UK in his 20s to make a change.

“When I came over it felt like I didn’t have the same burden,” said the 35-year-old. “You can be anyone here and no-one is going to say: ‘Jon you are not allowed’. 

“No-one is will judge you, so you can decide who the person you want to be is and what you want to look like.

“Everything is open, which is quite different from where I grew up.

“There you had to do things in certain ways because of the Asian expectation thing. People prioritise white-collar jobs.”

He was free to fully embrace his love of cooking, landing a job in French fine dining restaurant Les 110 de Taillevent in Cavendish Square, learning top techniques and having his first taste of sourdough.

“I remember the holes,” he said. “Supermarket bread is always uniform, but sourdough is like a weird sponge.

“When you bite into it, it has more of a chew and is somehow more flavourful. I felt it was almost otherworldly.”

Ready for the oven at The Factory Project – image Matt Grayson

He started baking bread to save money – with an eye on making it for his own restaurant someday. 

But when lockdown hit, along with many others in the hospitality industry, he found himself suddenly unemployed and looking to earn a living from home.

“I started selling bread out of a bit of desperation and boredom,” said the Canning Town resident.

“I had tried to start a food business, but it didn’t go very far because I realised I couldn’t afford to get a pitch, which was a bit depressing. I felt a bit helpless.

“I noticed other people starting to sell food from home and knew I could do that. 

“I put some ideas online but it was only when I put some bread on that I got loads of responses.

“I realised it was something people actually needed and there wasn’t anything similar nearby.”

Sales went quickly beyond his expectations and he was working six days a week, which gave him a massive lift. 

But working from his shared flat was a problem and made it difficult to get a food hygiene rating and insurance.

Then he found The Silver Building – Projekt’s first foray into Royal Docks. Opened in 2017, it saw the former Carlsberg Tetley HQ temporarily reimagined as a series of creative workspaces and now houses the likes of fashion designer Craig Green, photography studio Silverspace and tailor Jake’s Of London.

Jon has added sweet pastries to his menu – image Matt Grayson

“The director was really interested in my idea, so I brought him some samples and he offered me a little shared kitchen space,” said Jon.

“I happily took it on and it took off from there.

“At first I was still delivering, but I soon realised my time could be better used to make more products and attract people in because that area has a lot of apartments.

“In a way, that beginning was the easy part because it was spontaneous and there wasn’t any pressure to make my living out of it.

“I made bread because it just tasted nice and felt good. Then it progressed naturally.

“That’s the whole sourdough thing – you let things grow naturally and then see how they go.”

A year later Projekt offered him a more permanent space at The Factory’s reception area next to the bar and cafe.

“That was amazing for me and for them because they have funding from the GLA, so need to have community value to what they do,” said Jon.

Since then he has hired an apprentice who works for him six hours a day, but it is still a hard slog with Jon working from 5am to 7pm.

He said: “It still feels tight with the things that need to be done, but that’s part of the game I guess.”

He sells his sourdough loaves for £5, croissants for £2.50 plain or £3.50 filled and other items such as Nutella pastries, rosemary twists and tomato and olive focaccia.

His real speciality is Hong Kong buns costing £1.70-£2.30, which he describes as “soft, fluffy and a little bit sweet with a sugar cookie crust.”

In order to make them, he has had to contend with the rising cost of electricity and ingredients, with the butter he uses almost doubling in price during the autumn.

He has also switched to a more expensive brand of flour to try and preserve the unique flavour of his bread.

Jon bakes his bread and pastries in Royal Docks – image Matt Grayson

Jon now buys from Wildfarmed – a network of farmers who produce flour while trying to protect the planet.

“I used to order organic flour from a major brand, but the flavour seemed to have become blander,” said Jon.

“What’s special about Wildfarmed is it has a regenerative ethos about how they work the land with minimal disturbance and no artificial fertiliser or pesticides.

“It costs more but, if you are making sourdough, it is worth it because it really affects the quality of the end product.”

He has fired up his oven again for the start of 2023 and is hoping after a difficult few months Breadmeister will continue to grow and prove to be the right choice.

“As a chef, I would work set hours for a set amount and then go to sleep and forget about it,” he said.

“But then you don’t get to question why you are doing this and that – even if you think you can do things better.

“With this, the money might not be as predictable and you might not have the choice of only working six hours a day – but with this risk I’ve taken, the satisfying thing is when people come to get your stuff instead of going somewhere more convenient.

“It makes me feel it’s worth it.”

Read more: Discover Bread And Macaroon at Wapping Docklands Market

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Royal Docks: How Dido’s Bar will immerse audiences in stories at The Factory’s Unit F

Director Josephine Burton talks about the epic retelling of The Aeneid set in the Royal Docks

Dido's Bar director Josephine Burton - image Ali Wright
Dido’s Bar director Josephine Burton – image Ali Wright

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Refugees have to leave everything they know – not just places and people, but communities, careers, sights and sounds they have found comfort in their whole lives.

They arrive in a new world and are expected to assimilate. But how do they do this when everything around them is unknown?

This is the struggle Dash Arts seeks to capture with its new production Dido’s Bar, an immersive retelling of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, set in Royal Docks.

“I’m Jewish and British, English and a Londoner and have always felt I’m many things – on the edge of so much,” said director Josephine Burton.

“I’ve enjoyed being in that liminal place between different communities. It’s how I see the world, so I’m interested in seeing other people’s otherness too.”

The story of migration and love will be told through the eyes of refugees today and unfold in a real life bar built in part of a former Tate & Lyle warehouse.

Audiences will, we are told, be immersed in a strange world when they arrive, where they are unsure what motivates the people around them.

They will mingle with the cast as the story of Trojan refugee Aeneas unfolds around them.

But instead of being set in ancient Italy, the production has been transported to a jazz bar with a line-up of live musicians.

It’s set to run at The Factory from September 23 to October 15, 2022.

“The audience will walk into the venue, with a house band warming up in the corner and they’ll grab a drink from the bar,” said Josephine.

“Then the drama of this amazingly powerful love story between Aeneas and Dido and the great battle between Aeneas, the foreigner, and Turnus, the local boy, will creep up around them.”

Josephine is co-founder and artistic director of Dash Arts, which is based in Whitechapel.

For the last 15 years it has worked with 9,000 artists to create work that bridges divides across art forms, cultures, languages and communities.

“We go on a bit of a journey and spend a lot of time listening, understanding, meeting and researching artists and eventually creating work with them,” said the 45-year-old.

“It’s like opening up a Pandora’s box with this extraordinary wealth to explore, understand and then share with audiences.”

Dido’s Bar has been two years in the making and was first inspired back in 2017 when Josephine met Kurdish Iranian refugee Marouf Majidi in Finland.

“I had been on an exploration of what it means to be European which had emerged out of the Brexit referendum,” said Josephine.

“I met Marouf in Finland in 2017 on my way back to the airport over a coffee and he told me his story of traveling to Europe. 

“He fled Iran as a refugee and was relocated to Finland, where he settled and eventually studied at the Sibelius Music Academy in Helsinki, where he now teaches. 

“He’s been on an extraordinary journey from the music conservatoire in Tehran where he studied Persian classical music, to teaching Finnish folk music.

“He found it very hard at first to establish himself musically and connect with the musicians he was playing with in Finland.

“Eventually something shifted for him and he found his place, but he was no longer ‘in tune’ with musicians from central Asia.

“It was such a short meeting, but that thing he said about feeling out of tune lived with me.

“I picked up the phone three months later and said I really wanted to tell his story and wanted him to be at the heart of it.”

Marouf Majidi - image Ali Wright
Marouf Majidi – image Ali Wright

He agreed, but at first Josephine struggled to find the right way to bring his story to the stage.

“I wanted to tell Marouf’s story and find a way of understanding what it is to be European through the experiences of refugees who travel here,” she said.

“It’s perhaps the people who move here and go through such a transformation, musically and emotionally, to insert themselves and settle in a new place, that can help tell us who we are. They can be that mirror for us.

“But I didn’t want to just tell a personal story, I also didn’t want to create a super band of musicians. I wanted to do something theatrical and dramatic.”

Her lightbulb moment came when she remembered a text she had studied 20 years ago as a classics student.

“I was chatting to someone about how the Aeneid is the story of our time, of the refugee and the struggle to find a place to belong,” she said.

“Aeneas flees Troy in the war-torn East and travels across the Mediterranean to seek sanctuary and build a new home in Europe

“It’s the story of both the experience of fleeing and having to assimilate and discover that, once you’ve arrived, it’s only the beginning of the story.

“Suddenly I realised it was the perfect way to tell Marouf’s story and to understand the role of Aeneas in a contemporary setting.

“The original epic poem is pages and pages long in Latin, involves mass battles and love affairs and is very involved and beautiful.

“We’ve taken that story and mapped it on top of Marouf’s.”

She developed the idea during a series of residencies with playwright Hattie Naylor and Marouf, who has composed the music alongside Riku Kantola.

Research and development in Scotland in February 2020 was followed by a residency in Finland – a few days together as part of Royal Docks Originals – and a residency in Cornwall.

Marouf then moved to London this summer to finish developing the show.

The cast of 10 is a mix of nationalities - image Ali Wright
The cast of 10 is a mix of nationalities – image Ali Wright

“I remember the two of us bent over on the floor in Scotland in the rain with copies of the Aeneid in English, Latin and Arabic ,” said Josephine. 

“We spent hours trying to work out what the story was and finessed it to the point where we would challenge each other to tell it in less than a minute, then 30 seconds, then 10. 

“Then we did a lot of jigsawing and planning and brought in Hattie who had adapted the Aeneid for Radio 3 as a drama.

“She’d go off and write and then we’d write a song together. It really was a collaborative process.”

The result is a show where the epic warriors of the original story are now musicians trying to make it into the spotlight and the goddesses are sisters who own two bars – one on the edge of town and one in the centre.

It draws on the backgrounds of its international cast who hail from Morocco, Madagascar, Germany, Finland, and Eritrea, and uses their native languages to enrich the performance.

Josephine said: “The show now is about how to understand an old myth written 2,000 years ago that feels so resonant and timeless.”

It will be staged in Unit F of The Factory, disused sugar warehouses that have recently been transformed into a series of new venues and workspaces. 

“It could never be in a black box theatre,” said Josephine.

“I wanted the audience to feel that they were somewhere impromptu and exciting and slightly makeshift. We spent quite a lot of time trying to find a place and saw some extraordinary places across the Docks. 

“Then, last May, I visited The Factory when it was in quite an early stage of development. 

“Projekt, our partners for the show, had just got Unit F from Tate&Lyle and, when we walked in, there were pigeons in the rafters and sugar all over the floor.

“It was sticky and black underfoot and it felt very powerful as a venue – I just knew it would amazing.”

Dash Arts has built the bar from scratch and it will serve up beverages from nearby Husk Brewing using local staff.

Newham artists will take to the stage each night and the show will be complemented by a programme of gigs, talks, food events and workshops to engage the local community, which has been shaped through the area’s history of immigration and dockers.

“It’s a perfect marriage for us of place and story because the audience is really going to feel that they’re coming to somewhere incredibly exciting and diverse,” said Josephine.

“Newham is one of the most linguistically diverse boroughs in London – there are hundreds of languages spoken there – and it has always been a first port of call for people.

“So to tell this timeless epic story today in Newham’s docks is really thrilling and right.”

The project has been co-produced with the Royal Docks Team and Jospehine said they have worked hard over the last year to embed it into the community, meeting local groups and running music workshops.

“There is a real sense of culture and community building happening there and I got very excited about that,” she said. “I had this real instinct that there wasn’t anywhere else to put Dido’s Bar.

She hopes the audience will embrace the world they have created.

“I really want them to have a wonderful night and love the music because it’s extraordinary,” she said.

“I want them to feel as I felt, that this old ancient story has such resonance today, to feel moved by the protagonists and the journey they have taken. 

“I hope they feel we have done justice to some of the biggest questions of our time, about how to assimilate into our communities.”

THE FACTORY – A NEW VENUE FOR ROYAL DOCKS

Once used by Tate & Lyle for sugar production, this 5.2 acre site on Factory Road is now a series of work and event spaces run by meantime use specialist Projekt (also behind the Silver Building)

It landed the first grant from the Royal Docks Good Growth Fund for a year-long refurbishment and opened the 100,000sq ft space in June. 

Organisations that have made The Factory their home include Community Food Enterprises, Links Event Solutions and The Beams – a new venue by Broadwick Live.

Unit A is home to a cafe run by The Breadmeister, Unit D is a set of workspaces and Unit F is a refurbished warehouse that will be hired out for film and TV productions.

Projekt said the venue provides new work and event spaces that will “safeguard and grow the already burgeoning artistic and cultural community around the Royal Docks, as well as providing a significant amount of affordable workspace.”

Read more: Discover Pouya Ehsaei’s Parasang at Woolwich Works

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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