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Stratford: How Bamboo Mat is bringing Nikkei cuisine to east London

Second site offers fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cooking plus options for a bottomless brunch

Padron peppers with mango miso at Bamboo Mat, £5.50 – image Matt Grasyon

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

You would not expect a Moldovan teenager to know much about Japanese food. But that is where Denis Gobjila’s story starts.

Well, like all of us, it actually started with him as a baby, but we’ll skip to the food part.

Today the 34-year-old is co-owner of Stratford’s Bamboo Mat, a rare London restaurant serving Nikkei food.

The cuisine brings together the clean simplicity of Japanese cuisine with the fiery exuberance of Peruvian food and has developed organically since the late 1800s, when a wave of east Asian immigrants arrived in South America.

“The first time I tried Nikkei it was sour and then boom, flavours in your mouth,” said Denis.

“It was so fresh and I thought: ‘This is the next level of food’.”

Bamboo Mat’s menu includes Padron peppers drizzled with mango miso, grilled octopus paired with lentil mash, crispy chicken thighs coated in anticucho sauce, yellowtail kingfish dotted with yuzu truffle soy and a smorgasboard of sushi, sashimi and nigiri.

Much like these dishes, the venue was created using a fusion of skill, patience and passion.

But it is literally hundreds of miles from where Denis started.

He grew up in Moldova helping his grandparents tend their small farm and baking with his mum.

“I followed my cousin to culinary school and my starting passion was cakes, but now I can do very little and don’t really like pastry flour,” he said.

Enter Japanese cuisine. After training, he got his first job in 2007 at Sushi Studiya in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and over a period of three years, worked his way up to head chef.

Co-owners Denis Gobjila, left, and Victor Rosca – image Matt Grasyon

On arriving in London he then landed a job as sous chef at Vietnamese restaurant Namo near Victoria Park.

But it was a random interview at a new restaurant opening in Hackney that set his tastebuds ablaze.

“They said Jordan Sclare had created some of the dishes and they were so good I went straight home, googled him and found he was executive chef at Chotto Matte,” said Denis.

“I went there the next day knocking on the door and asking for a job.

“The sushi head chef, Keita Sato, said they didn’t really need anyone but made me an offer for, I think, less than £16,000. I said: ‘No problem’.”

Denis instantly became immersed in the world of Nikkei, learning new skills in cutting fish, cooking rice, preparing vegetables and decoration – all the while refining his techniques in sashimi, sushi and maki.

“They gave me opportunities and I was ordering ingredients all the time and creating dishes,” he said.

It was also here he met his now business partner Victor Rosca who previously worked at Sushisamba, Roka, and Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay.

Denis began creating his own menu in his head, but it would be another five years before he actually got to serve the dishes.

“I got married and, in hospitality, it’s hard to maintain family life, so I left the kitchen for five years and worked in my wife’s accounting company,” he said. 

“But the dream was always in my mind because, for me, an office job is boring. I kept looking for something and finally it happened.”

Bamboo Mat in Stratford – image Matt Grasyon

Fate stepped in when a friend’s seafood restaurant in Leyton collapsed after Covid.

“They were very upset and had some outstanding balance to pay to the landlords, so they were going to take that place from them but I quickly stepped in and took it over,” he said.

“I had been looking for something smaller, like a takeaway concept but, when that opportunity came up, we quickly changed our plans and designed the menu.

“I’d had it in my mind for the past five years, so it didn’t take long.”

The venue opened in May 2022 but what they did struggle with was ingredients.

“The fish was the hardest to get because we were looking at central London suppliers and they had never come East before,” said Denis.

“I used to drive to Heathrow Airport to get the fish every three days until finally we got more sales and convinced them to come out this way.”

In fact, the duo had an explosion of popularity overnight, thanks to a few carefully written paragraphs in the summer of 2022.

“Grace Dent’s review in the Guardian changed our lives because after that, it was crazy, crazy,” said Denis. 

“In a nine table restaurant, we went from doing a few a night to minimum of 60 covers a day. It was a bit of a shock but very good.

“We believed in the restaurant and knew it would be quite successful, but we definitely didn’t expect it that quick.

“Maybe we deserved it, or maybe we were lucky – I don’t know.”

Sushi and vegetarian ceviche at Bamboo Mat – image Matt Grasyon

Keen to capitalize, by August they had found the Stratford venue and this time they got to design it from scratch.

It is a much bigger space, with room for 68 people inside as well as a 10-seater private dining area and 25 seats outside.

“It is the same concept as Leyton, but because it’s bigger, it has more opportunities in the kitchen so we can create more,” said Denis. 

“It’s a good location, green and peaceful and as we are quite young as businesspeople, our budget was not too big because we don’t have any investors.

“We basically made everything here by ourselves or with friends and created it organically with our own hands.”

From the outside, it looks, dare I say it, pleasantly dull.

But inside it is joyous with a neon rope interior created by Peruvian designer Sabastian Salas.

The vivaciously colourful food includes a newly launched bottomless brunch at weekends.

This features signature sushi, seabass ceviche with aji amarillo tiger’s milk, sweet potato, red onion, chancha corn and artichoke tostada with salsa criolla and salsa verde and a brunch special- fluffy pork or nasu (Japanese aubergine) bao buns.

The restaurant opened in December last year with what was supposed to be a soft launch.

“It wasn’t at all soft,” said Denis. “I think we did 250 covers for the first four days. It was really, really hard.

“When you create something, it’s scary because you invest everything and don’t know how people will react – you only know its nice for your own taste.

“When people appreciate the food you feel really positive because people like what you’re doing.

“So it’s enjoyable to get that busy and get crazy shifts, especially because this cuisine is not well know in the industry here.

The restaurant’s interior – image Matt Grasyon

“There aren’t many Nikkei restaurants in London. I think that’s because it’s quite tricky. 

“It’s a bit sour, a bit spicy and different flavours but our menu works because it is a good balance.”

There is, however, one dish which is secretly very traditional for Denis. It pays homage to the person who gave him his love of the freshest ingredients.

“We have one salad on the menu inspired by my grandmother,” he said.

“Moldovan cuisine is very different because it is a poor country, so we cooked what we grew in the garden.

“My grandparents had a small farm and, in the summertime, she used to cook Romano peppers on charcoal and it was just amazing – so smoky.

“At Bamboo Mat, we have a fresh salad with cabbage, carrot and beetroot served with a smoked sauce.”

Family is in fact still the driving force for Denis. Many young chefs seem swallowed up by their success and struggle to have a personal life outside work. But the Romford resident is home most days by 5pm.

“I have two kids, a son aged three and a seven-month old daughter and that’s the priority,” he said.

“If you manage everything properly, and it is under control, you can have the free time. Also, my wife is a very, very good woman, very supportive.

“Sometimes she’s mad at me, but I’m trying to make life better for my family, not just for myself.”

I’d call that perfectly balanced fusion.

Find our more about Bamboo Mat here

Lamb chops in anticucho sauce, £18 – image Matt Grasyon

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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 Blacklock wants its bills to give diners a positive shock on price

Brand is set to open its fifth restaurant at Frobisher Passage overlooking North Dock on May 15, 2023

Dishes are served communally a Blacklock on mismatched crockery

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“When you go to a great restaurant, it can be very expensive,” said Gordon Ker, founder of Blacklock, a small chain of four chophouses that’s set to open its fifth in Canary Wharf this month.

“But we want to give our guests a positive shock when the bill arrives. We want them to be asking: ‘Is that right? What’s been missed off? When can we do this again?’.”

Check Blacklock’s menu and it’s serving up skinny chops for a fiver each, steaks for £18 or less and a burger for £12 with sides on offer for £4 a go.

That’s in contrast to, say, Manhattan Grill – just over the waters of West India North Dock – where sides are £6, steaks start at £32 and a burger is £17.

It’s not like-for-like, of course. One is a restaurant in a five-star hotel serving American beef, while the other takes its inspiration from the workaday chop houses of old.

I suspect, however, that Gordon would be willing to pit the Cornish, grass-fed meats Blacklock serves against anything imported from across the pond.

It’s also his brand’s approach to the produce that, in part, explains the lower prices.

Blacklock founder Gordon Ker

“We’re certainly not buying cheap meat, it’s expensive stuff that we serve,” he said.

“But we try and be sensible about how we source and utilise the animals. 

“The first thing to say is we buy the whole animal, and we use as much of it as we can.

“That way there’s no waste for the farmer so we get a better price.

“A steakhouse might buy prime cuts, but then the farmer has to shift the rest of the meat. 

“Supply and demand means if everyone wants the same cuts, then the price for those goes up further.

“We get a fixed price for the whole animal, which is cheaper, and then we get inventive with the menu – selling cuts people might not be familiar with. 

“For example, we sell a sixth rib eye, which is a little further down from the prime ribs – but that’s £18 in contrast to a typical rib eye for £30.

“Then we do a starter – Pig’s Head On Toast, where we cook down the whole head and then pull the meat apart, braise it, spice it, and serve it on bread with gravy.

The Canary Wharf branch will feature a brand new bar menu

“Our message on sustainability is also that people should be eating better meat less often.

“Our meat comes from Philip Warren in Cornwall and is regeneratively farmed to help improve the soil.

“The animals live a comparatively long and happy life and the farmers aim to keep out of things as much as possible.

“There are no antibiotics or growth additives or negative things like that.

“Our margin on food is less than what standard restaurant economics tell you to make it.

“But that’s part of our commitment to providing exceptional value for money.”

Gordon is not a man afraid to go his own way.

After studying law at UCL, he embarked on a career as a solicitor and found himself an associate at London-based firm Olswang, dealing with hospitality and leisure firms.

But despite the regular income and reliable prospects, he found the law unfulfilling and started formulating plans to escape it. 

Having got to know Hawksmoor founders, Will Beckett and Huw Gott, as clients, when private equity firm Graphite Capital bought a majority stake in their business, he told them he intended to launch his own restaurant.

Describing it as “a terrible idea” they did their best to discourage him.

Diners are encouraged to share dishes, much like they would do at home

They said I had a stable job, that running restaurants was really hard and wondered why I would want to do it given I knew nothing about it,” said Gordon.

“That made a lot of sense at the time, but I was persistent and I think they took pity on me.”

So, when Gordon quit his job, he went first to work at Hawksmoor for 10 months to learn how a restaurant worked while simultaneously scouring the capital for a suitable space to try out his ideas.

While Will and Huw helped him out with some early investors and remain shareholders in Blacklock today, it took Gordon a while to find a landlord willing to take a punt on a business with no track record. 

Nevertheless, against the odds, Gordon opened his first site in a Soho basement formerly used as a brothel.

He and his team overcame water leaks and a lack of both gas and electricity to launch the first restaurant “as cheaply as possible”.

Having grown from those early days to locations in the City, Shoreditch and Covent Garden, the brand retains a charming bootstrap ethos.

Cutlery, with the exception of the knives, is second hand, as is the crockery.

The aim is to create a familial atmosphere, with food doled out at the table – a haven of comfort, not ceremony.

Blacklock’s Canary Wharf branch is located in Frobisher Passage and is expected to open on May 15, 2023, – although reservations are already being taken.

It’s located in a space under the DLR tracks that once served as the estate’s security and pass issue office.

Inside, it’s a cosy space with frosted windows that seems deliberately conceived as a refuge.

There are glossy dark walls, wry signage and plenty of dark wood furniture. 

The glasses, plates, spoons and forks are all second hand at Blacklock, as is much of the furniture

“It’s important for us to be in buildings that have character,” said Gordon.

“We want to transport people to a place that’s full of heritage but also very relaxed, vintage with a natural feel. 

“Everything’s reclaimed – the tables, the chairs, all the wood, the crockery, the forks, the spoons and the glassware. It all has that special, nostalgic feel.

“With the trains going overhead it has a speakeasy, New York vibe – people can enjoy the gentle, comforting rumble.

“We want it to be the kind of place where you come for lunch which, after a few Old Fashioneds, becomes dinner.”

The Canary Wharf branch will also feature a bar menu.

Blacklocks typically offer cocktails from £7.50 and alcohol-free mixed drinks from £4.

Staffing is perhaps the final piece of the jigsaw at Blacklock, with Hawksmoor’s reputation as a great place to work clearly finding resonance in Gordon’s approach to running his own restaurants. 

“The first thing I say to people at their induction is that most restaurants will tell you to put the customers first – to make them happy,” he said.

“Of course they are important, but they are number two in our business because it’s our people who are important. 

“For us, opening new locations is about building careers for people so they can take that next step.

“That creates the opportunity for people to grow within the company and gives people purpose. It’s about culture.

“I passionately think people do great things when they are motivated and invested.

“That’s what we are seeking to create.”

Read more: How WaterAid uses dragon boats to raise money

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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 Dishoom’s latest east London opening is totally narrative-led

Brand co-founder Shamil Thakrar talks financial scandals, fictional characters and 1970s Bombay

Shamil Thakrar says Dishoom’s restaurants are all about stories – image Matt Grayson

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Dishoom is different. Over the course of 18 years in journalism, I’ve asked countless people to tell me about their businesses.

Typically they communicate how they came to start their company, what it does and why.  

However, when asked to tell me about the opening of Dishoom Canary Wharf, which recently arrived at Wood Wharf, the brand’s co-founder Shamil Thakrar simply said: “It’s a story.”

A simple, but completely serious point. This is no marketing flim flam. 

Before the company opens a new restaurant, its founders sit down and develop its back story in detail – a fact that hints at why this is the brand’s first opening in London for five years. 

But why not? After all, isn’t everything, to some extent, stories?

The ones we tell ourselves to understand the things around us, the ones we tell others to explain the world to them and the ones they tell us to illuminate their own impressions.

We grow up being read and reading them and seeing and hearing them on all kinds of platforms. Now we are increasingly encouraged to create our own myths via social media. 

Dishoom’s approach, which sees each individual cafe fleshed out exactly in line with its narrative, has won the brand significant success.

It’s known for patient lines of eager customers outside its venues and has a reputation as a generous employer that looks after its staff. 

You can visit the Canary Wharf branch without knowing any of the back story – nobody will refuse to serve you and the spiced chai will still taste great.

But, so rich is the narrative, that it permeates the whole experience, making it impossible to spend time in the restaurant without feeling its impact, even if that is subconscious.

 Every detail of the interior flows from the back story at Dishoom Canary Wharf
Every detail of the interior flows from the back story at Dishoom Canary Wharf – image Matt Grayson

“The story of the Canary Wharf cafe is a bloke – Nauzer – who has been living as a character in my head for quite a few years,” said Shamil. “Now the right place has come up for him. 

“He’s a really cool young guy, whose father owns an Irani cafe near the Bombay Stock Exchange.

“He sees some of the high rollers coming in and thinks he wants to be like them. He’s quite a canny kid, so eventually learns how to invest and does quite well for himself. 

“Then his family, friends and the local community start asking him to invest on their behalf. He does that and does really well – he makes good money for them and they’re getting wealthier, until one day, he does a bad deal and everything goes south.

“He doesn’t want to tell anyone because he’s so embarrassed and that sense of shame he has, which is an Indian thing, means he can’t face them – so he invents a Ponzi scheme where new investments are used to pay out fake returns to existing investors.

“Everything seems fine, even though it’s built on lies.

“Anyway, he makes the scheme work for a while and, with the winnings, he builds this restaurant – we imagine it’s his, hence the 1970s Bombay feel of the decor.

Dishoom Canary Wharf also sells items such as chai, condiments and cookbooks – image Matt Grayson

“He invests in art and other cool stuff, and his friends are up-and-coming stars. It’s a place for them.

“In the story we join him one day when he’s stressed out. The phone is ringing, he’s sweating and I imagine him in his room, traumatised because a journalist is on to him and that’s who’s calling – that’s where the story begins.”

Read Chapter One of Nauzer’s story here

Dishoom has now published all three instalments of the hapless investor’s tale on its website – but it’s in the restaurant where things really take shape. 

Walk in and you’re immediately hit by the scent of burning incense, the energy of a bustling bar and bright smiles all round as staff guide diners to their tables.

Everywhere there’s activity – it’s not much of a stretch to imagine this as an establishment just over the road from the busy stock exchange in Bombay. 

But there’s more. Look deeper and you’ll find house rules on the wall that outlaw Ponzi schemes, historically accurate ads in the menus, coloured porcelain in the washrooms and modernist 1970s decor.

The bar is called the Permit Room, recalling the legal hoops owners had to jump through to serve booze and there’s also a Family Room – an echo of the only spaces women were allowed to access in Irani cafes of old – complete with vintage photos of the owners’ relatives.

Everywhere there’s detail aimed at placing the visitor snugly inside the narrative. 

The bar serves a “scandalous” trio of miniature Martinis dubbed The Commander, The Lover and The Wife, inspired by a jealous Parsi naval officer who shot the man his other half was seeing illicitly before turning himself in.

There’s a glint in Shamil’s eyes as we talk – it’s just this sort of material that reflects Dishoom’s flair for the dramatic – ultimately all part of the owners’ ambition that visiting the restaurant should be a memorable experience.

“The most important thing, regardless of whether the restaurant is busy or not, is whether the guests are leaving happy and sated,” said Shamil.

“We have to create the conditions that allow diners to have an experience that’s amazing and that they are going to tell all their friends about. 

“The best way to do that is to make sure our team is happy and that’s our job.

The Permit Room bar at Dishoom Canary Wharf – image Matt Grayson

“We have really good people working for us who have an enormous amount of heart and determination in the current economic environment, so the right thing for us to do is look after them.

“Then, collectively we look after our guests and that, hopefully, keeps people coming back.

“We are conscious that sometimes we have a lot of people who stand in line for our food in queues – it’s lovely to have that although sometimes I’m embarrassed by making them wait.

“But we’re providing something people really want, and the key to that is to make sure that our food is really fantastic, our spaces are wonderful and our service is really warm – that is all down to supporting our team.

“That’s something we’ve been thinking about ever since we started the business. Running the company, it’s our responsibility to make sure our staff really love and enjoy the environment they’re working in.

“We like to pay well, but we also make sure we look after the other benefits – the less tangible stuff – so we do regular mental health workshops, for example.

“Then a little while ago, we had the idea for The Bombay Boot Camp where we’d take anyone who stayed with us for five years to the city and show them all the good places.

“We didn’t know whether we would ever take anyone when we started, but this year we’re taking 180 people.

“Some of the places we visit can only fit 15 or 20 people so we don’t quite know how the logistics will work yet, but it’s a trip that money can’t buy because we work really hard to visit places people would never normally go and that everyone who does feels special, welcome and rewarded for the work they do.”

Mini Martinis: The Commander, The Wife and The Lover at Dishoom

For Wharfers who can’t get over to Mumbai itself, Dishoom serves up an expansive menu of flavours to transport diners in spirit.

“We bring guests into the story and give them food and drink,” said Shamil.

“But the dishes and beverages we serve also have their own stories.

“My cousin Kavi and I now run the business and, when we were setting things up, we came across the heritage of the old Irani cafes, set up by Parsi immigrants from Iran. 

“We wanted to pay homage to them, their inclusive ethos and spirit, while at the same time riffing on the stories of Bombay.

“Take Pau Bhaji, for example. It’s mashed up vegetables with buttered Portuguese buns.

“There were colonists from Portugal in Bombay and their influence has become part of the city’s most delicious dish – all those stories are there.

“I think placing food in its cultural context is very important – you come along, eat it with the right music amid the right architecture – I want to give people a real taste of Bombay.

“We, the British, think we know India, and there are a number of cliches – Bollywood, cricket, curry houses, palaces, maharajahs, but I’m not sure that Britain really does know India.

Dishoom Canary Wharf features 1970s-style furniture – image Matt Grayson

“Do we know about the Bombay Stock Exchange, or that there was a great Art Deco movement post independence that signified liberty and modernity, to get rid of the old gothic architecture?

“On the food side, where we think of India as curry, there’s so much more. We don’t serve that much of what we would call curry today because there are so many other things to be said.

“Canary Wharf isn’t exactly a natural fit for us, but we’re excited to be here.

“The architecture in Wood Wharf, especially, is very cool, and I think we can bring a bit of fun and pizazz to this end of town.

“Then we’ve got a couple more good stories that we’re dreaming up for future openings.”

Dishoom Canary Wharf is open from 8am until at least 11pm on weekdays (midnight on Friday and Saturday and from 9am at weekends.

Dishoom co-founder Kavi Thakrar has selected his favourite dishes to order for Wharf Life readers
Dishoom co-founder Kavi Thakrar has selected his favourite dishes to order for Wharf Life readers

KAVI’S MENU PICKS

With so much on the menu, we went straight to the top and asked Dishoom co-founder Kavi Thakrar to pick out a few of his favourite dishes to help Wharfers make their own decisions:

1. First, the Malai Lobster. this is only available at Canary Wharf. It’s a great dish to share with friends as it feels celebratory, but won’t break the bank. Fresh daily from Billingsgate, it transports me to some of my favourite spots in Bombay to eat fresh seafood.

Malai Lobster – Priced by weight at £7.50 per 100g

Malai Lobster, £7.50 per 100g at Dishoom Canary Wharf
Malai Lobster, £7.50 per 100g at Dishoom Canary Wharf

2. Chilli Cheese Toast. We took this off the menu for a while but I’m so happy to see it back. It’s totally delicious with a Dishoom IPA – a sneaky snack when I’m by myself, just like sitting in an Irani Cafe at the end of a long day in south Bombay.

Chilli Cheese Toast – £5.70

Chilli Cheese Toast, £5.70 at Dishoom Canary Wharf
Chilli Cheese Toast, £5.70 at Dishoom Canary Wharf

3. And finally, I really love our Double Bacon And Egg Naan Roll. It is a great match of salty, sweet, a little heat and then the richness from the egg. I love having it with a house chai if I start my day at Dishoom

Double Bacon & Egg Naan Roll – £11.60

Read more: How Clays’ new bar has Canary Wharf in its sights

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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 The Pearson Room’s winter cocktails mix warmth and beauty

The Canada Square venue is offering seasonal flavours and a special offer for PAs and party planners

The Pearson Room’s Theo Damse

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Right now there are two things to tell you about The Pearson Room.

  • The first is that it’s just launched its new cocktail list for winter 2022, with the bar team working hard to come up with 14 drinks to tickle the tastebuds of thirsty Wharfers.

“I would describe it as focused on smoky, spicy and sweet flavours as those are right for this time of year,” said Theo Damse, assistant bar manager at The Pearson Room. 

“We try to make it so we have as little waste as possible behind the bar and we make use of as much of each ingredient as we can.”

That means the venue, which is located above Waitrose overlooking Canada Square, is all set for winter, with a special Christmas drink – Santa’s Little Helper – also in the pipeline for the festive season. 

General manager at The Pearson Room, Emilie Parker-Burrell said: “We like our menu to be original, creative and something you won’t find anywhere else. 

“The team have been amazing, coming up with all these drinks since we first talked about changing the menu in June.”

See below for our six picks from the new list.

  • Also on Wharfers’ radars should be the venue’s loyalty scheme, which applies to PAs, EAs and anyone working at a company who has responsibility for making corporate bookings.

“We’re calling it The Pearson Collective,” said Emilie.

“The way it works is that those on the scheme get points based on the number and size of booking that they make with us.

“Because we are owned by Third Space, those points can be used as credit at the club, Natural Fitness Food and Third Space Spa.

“You’d get one point for a booking for four people, which works out at £5.

“The Pearson Room is very flexible – it can handle small dinners right up to receptions for 350 people.

“If you booked exclusive hire of the whole venue, that would be 40 points, so £200 in credit. We want to reward those who are loyal to us – it makes sense if we give something back.”

Email events@thepearsonroom.co.uk for more information about The Pearson Collective

SIX OF THE BEST – OUR PEARSON ROOM PICKS

1. Cinema Seat – £14

Mezcal Montelobos, Cointreau, popcorn syrup, lime, pineapple juice

This punchy drink comes garnished with a few sweet kernels of popped corn and some sticky syrup to help the medicine go down

2. Fairy Belle – £12.50

Belle De Brillete, Benedictine, pistachio, pear, Prosecco

The ideal welcome drink for a festive bash, this slender, elegant flute comes with a couple of pistachio nuts and a crisp, clean flavour

3. First Frost – £11

Whitley Neill Violet Gin, violette liqueur, lavender

This pale purple drink lies as lightly on the tongue as the first whisper of ice crystals forming from the morning dew. A subtle cocktail in debt to the classic Aviation

4. Winter Drop – £14.50

Rémy Martin 1738 cinnamon, lemon, orange juice, fresh orange segments

This is a proper, grown-up drink served with slices of fun – literally three toasted orange segements dipped in sugar and cinnamon

5. Just Chill – £11

Ocho Tequila, watermelon liqueur, grenadine, watermelon syrup and chilli

This is the partygoer who makes an entrance in a stunning shade before hitting the dance floor to spice things up. Carefully balanced

6. Santa’s Little Helper – £14.50

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte, Mount Gay Rum, Cherry Heering (served hot)

Available from November, this brilliant, potent drink should be a Wharf rite of passage. Heady, smoky and warming for winter

Read more: How Third Space helps Wharfers make the most of their time

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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: Why Market Hall Canary Wharf is set to take the estate by storm

Venue at Cargo off Adams Plaza will feature eight food traders and is set to open on April 7, 2022

Founder and chief executive at Market Halls, Andy Lewis-Pratt
Founder and chief executive at Market Halls, Andy Lewis-Pratt

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Unusually, this is a story that starts with retirement.

At the age of 49, having worked extensively in commercial property and run a big public company, Andy Lewis-Pratt decided he hated what he was doing, resigned and headed to the Algarve with his wife and daughter.  

“I had no intention of doing any kind of work ever again,” he said.

“I burnt all my suits and it was one of the most cathartic moments of my life.”

But after five years of Yoga, tennis and golf, boredom was setting in.

Coupled with a desire to see their daughter educated more effectively than ex-pat life allowed, the family decided to return to the UK.

“Being retired in your 50s in Portugal is great because you find people like yourself – the average age of retirees like me out there was 42 and we had lots of fun,” said Andy.

“But it’s not fine in the UK – I was bored out of my skull, so I started googling some ideas about what I might do before we left.

“Then one of my friends asked if I’d been to this market hall in Lisbon. It was in an old fruit market and it was fantastic.

“There were lots of different restaurants – all kinds of food from all over the world – and communal seating.

“You could get what you wanted, when you wanted it and there were bars too that were full of life. I just loved it.

“Then, about five years ago, I’d travelled to the UK for an ‘old farts’ reunion where I saw an old friend who was CEO of a big property agency and I asked how many market halls there were in London.

“He told me that, while there was street food, there wasn’t anything like the one in Lisbon.”

Market Hall Canary Wharf will be based in the Cargo building
Market Hall Canary Wharf will be based in the Cargo building

From those seeds of an idea, Andy swung into action and put a team together, researching the business in Europe and New York. 

Convinced this was no passing fad, he raised finance and launched Market Halls with its first location in Fulham in the old ticket office next to the station.

“People loved it, we made lots of mistakes of course, but then we opened our second site at Victoria which was in an old ticket hall that had become a nightclub on two floors,” said Andy.

“I was nervous of that because my old retail background said don’t put anything on the first floor. 

“But it had a big roof and so we created a roof terrace and it was an unbelievable success, almost from the moment we opened its doors, it was full all of the time.”

The venue will have two bars and eight food traders
The venue will have two bars and eight food traders

A third site at Oxford Street also proved successful but, at twice the size of Victoria, proved unwieldy and has now been altered to fit the latter’s template. 

The original site in Fulham has also closed, more a recognition that to reach its best, the business is dependent on office workers.

Which brings us to Market Hall Canary Wharf – set to officially open on the ground floor of Cargo, off Adams Plaza, on April 7. 

“If I’m honest I was reluctant to come here,” said Andy. “I was a bit reticent as to how traditional City suit types would take to my cool venture with independent traders. 

“But my colleagues had told me the area had changed. I read up on it and I had to learn that my impression was wrong. 

“I spent time on the Wharf and realised it was ready for Market Halls – that’s why we took the lease on the space four months before lockdown.”

Wharf favourite Black Bear Burger will be returning to the estate
Wharf favourite Black Bear Burger will be returning to the estate

So, having overcome the “interesting journey” to get to the point of opening and with the pandemic receding, what can Wharfers expect from the latest hospitality venue to hit the estate?

“Market Hall Canary Wharf is a slightly more premium offering than our sites at Oxford Street and Victoria, but the concept is the same,” said Andy.

“We have eight independent traders that serve bloody good food and that’s their only job.

“As a business, we do everything else – we provide standardised kitchens – so the cost of entry is very low for them.

“There’s no deposit and they don’t have to worry about paying a quarter’s rent up front – we just take a percentage of their turnover every week.

“We look after the clearing of the tables, the dishwashing, the promotion of the venue and we operate the bars. 

“They just do what they’re good at, which is making great food with all the hassles taken away.

“We have a long list of people who want to be in our venues but they need to show their quality and that they can serve food fast and consistently.

“In Canary Wharf, the lunchtime trade will be big and that’s 45 minutes. If you can’t cook your food in seven minutes, you’re probably not going to have many customers coming back.”

Diners can expect Mexican cuisine from DF Tacos
Diners can expect Mexican cuisine from DF Tacos

Visitors to Market Hall Canary Wharf will be free to order from any of the traders and bars, with buzzers given out so diners know when their food is ready.

The opening line-up of eight restaurants includes Le Bab’s modern gourmet kebabs, Baoziinn’s dim sum and Chinese dishes, Mexican cuisine from DF Tacos, Malaysian roti canai from Gopals, fried chicken from Chick Chick Crew and Italian food from Pasta Evangelists.

There will also be Japanese flavours from Inamo Sukoshi and a welcome return to the Wharf by Black Bear Burger, which used to serve up fine patties at Giant Robot before its closure due to the pandemic.

Andy said: “This is a starting place for some with us and growth ground for others, so I’m particularly excited about opening up here.

“People ask me why I do it. I’m not young any more, but I go to the gym and I feel 30, even when I’m not.

The Canary Wharf venue will have dim sum by Baoziin
The Canary Wharf venue will have dim sum by Baoziin

“I’m not a foodie, but I love seeing people having fun – joy is the word we keep using – I like to see people having a bloody great time, and that’s why I do this.

“I get real enjoyment in seeing people smiling, laughing and having a blast.

“The great thing about Market Halls as a concept is that you can come here by yourself, in pairs, in a group of 10, 15 or 20 – it doesn’t matter.

“You can arrive any time, eat what you want to eat and there’s no grumbling about who’s going to pay the bill because mostly everyone has paid for themselves. 

“You can come and choose what you like, when you like and then just concentrate on enjoying yourself.”

And here’s a little music, appropriate for stepping into the hall of the food court king…

Read more: The Pearson Room reopens with a new team and fresh flavours

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Deptford: Why Bluethroat in Deptford Market Yard wants to make a name for itself

Bar and restaurant run by brothers Ari and Landi Mucaj is keeping its focus on quality drinks

Landi, left, and Ari Mucaj of Bluethroat
Landi, left, and Ari Mucaj of Bluethroat – image James Perrin

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Deptford Market Yard’s arches are typically filled with magic. It might be the ramshackle ephemera of Little Nan’s, the slick seafood of Sharkbait ‘N’ Swim or the wholesome cafe cuisine of Dirty Apron.

All of theses businesses pulse and buzz with the passions of the people behind them. It’s why the area draws ever increasing numbers of people seeking independent places to hang out.

It’s also why Bluethroat’s owners thought their idea could work.

Brothers Landi and Ari Mucaj had been talking about starting a business together since 2013.

“I’ve lived in Deptford since 1997 and I’ve worked in many central London bars,” said Ari.

“I started working as a kitchen porter and then got a job as a chef, which I did for about three years.

“I’d finish work about 10.30pm and then go behind the bar and wash glasses for fun. I fell in love with being behind the bar and that’s what I’ve done ever since.

“I’ve worked mostly in central London in places like the Cuckoo Club and Chinawhite and I ran the bar at Maddox for about six years.

“Every time Landi would come to see me in central London he would always say: ‘We should do this ourselves’.

“That was really my plan all along, at least for the last 10 years, trying to save up and do it.”

In 2018 Ari quit his job and teamed up with Landi, who had been in Deptford himself since 2001, to look for premises.

Guests at Bluethroat in Deptford Market Yard
Guests at Bluethroat in Deptford Market Yard

“We were searching and then we thought, what better place than Deptford?” said Landi.

“We’d seen a lot of changes in the area over the years, so when we saw an opportunity here, we thought it would be the best place to build something.”

The brothers took one of the larger brick arches at Deptford Market Yard, more or less next to the train station itself, and set about doing just that.

“Instead of doing it somewhere else, we thought it’s just around the corner, we can walk home and it’s the perfect place,” said Ari.

“We found this fantastic space here – it was a shell when we got it and we’ve built it from scratch.

“It took about a year to build it – we didn’t know anything about doing that so the fact we have this location and that we’ve created it from scratch is crazy, but it feels amazing.”

Landi added: “I fell in love with it really – the whole experience of setting up a business. It’s had its ups and downs and it probably took us longer to open than most other places, but we learned a lot in the process.”

Landi Mucaj pours a drink
Landi Mucaj pours a drink – image James Perrin

Unfortunately things didn’t go quite to plan. Just days after Bluethroat opened its doors, the first national lockdown came into force and they slammed shut.

Like many hospitality businesses, the brothers have since been riding a rollercoaster of uncertainty, most recently closing at Christmas as the responsible thing to do, despite the lack of official government direction to do so.

With restrictions lifted, however, both Ari and Landi can’t wait to run their cocktail-focused establishment unfettered. 

“This is the first chance we’ve had to run in a normal market, there’s been a lot of opening and closing,” said Landi.

“Our plan remains very much the same and it’s about refining our formula.

“Firstly, we’re really passionate about our drinks, delivered with great service. We’re also a very good restaurant.

“We are a place where people can come and chill out and have some really good cocktails.”

Bluethroat also serves food
Bluethroat also serves food

Walk into Bluethroat  and that focus is unmistakeable. The bar’s shelves are laden with spirits, ready to be whipped into a multitude of alcoholic concoctions.

“This is where my brother’s experience comes in,” said Landi. “We have about 11 drinks on our menu, all of which we’ve created for Bluethroat.

“There are boozy ones and lighter drinks, some that are bitter, fruity, bitter, sweet and sour – something for every taste.

“We are constantly working on the list and evolving it, but we really enjoy asking customers what they like and then building something for them.”

Bluethroat – named for a small member of the thrush family with a distinctive blue collar and a powerful song – also develops seasonal drinks, with two of its four spring specials already in hand.

“Customers will always find something new,” said Landi. “We’re getting ready to launch one made with Haku Vodka from Japan. 

“We just love the taste of this spirit, made completely from rice, and we mix that with a bergamot liqueur and blackcurrant to make a sweet drink with a hint of spiciness. We think people are really going to like it.

“The second cocktail we’ve created for our spring menu is based on whisky with a fig liqueur and mulberry syrup. 

“We make pretty much all our own syrups in the bar using a range of techniques such as sous vide and hot and cold infusion.

“The drink has a creamy taste and we also infuse the whisky with violet leaf to give it a beautiful aroma when you’re drinking it.”

Ari added: “When we opened, I gave Landi a crash course and now he’s a genius behind the bar. One of our challenges since opening has been finding bartenders with experience.

“But I think local bars are taking over in terms of quality – you can find cocktails that are as good here or in places like Hackney, as you will get in Mayfair.

“I worked in central London for 20 years and the quality here is no different. 

“You are seeing people who are going out locally to get this, instead of making the journey in.”

Bluethroat is locate in Deptford Market Yard
Bluethroat is locate in Deptford Market Yard

While its extensive collection of bottles, rich brown hues and speakeasy vibe mark Bluethroat out as a haven for drinkers, the brothers hope that its food offering will be a welcome surprise for those ordering.

“We change the dishes all the time, but we serve Mediterranean and modern European food,” said Landi.

“There’s always something new, but we love seafood. There are a lot of Italian influences because our chefs are from Italy.”

Ari added: “We serve a lot of fish – black cod, king prawns and salmon – and we do specials every week.

“I think people are a bit shocked that the food is as good as it is because of the way the bar looks.

“We started off serving smaller plates, but we’ve extended the menu because people wanted more food.” 

The primary focus remains the liquid though, and, having worked widely on the city’s bar scene, Ari is keen to build the bar’s reputation in the capital.

He said: “Ultimately we want to be known as one of the best cocktail bars in London. That’s our ambition. 

“We’re taking things slowly and we haven’t really promoted ourselves yet. We wanted to grow organically and for people to find out about us that way.”

Bluethroat is open Weds-Sun. Cocktails typically cost between £10 and £11. Small plates are £6-£11 and bigger dishes around £14. 

Read more: New team at The Pearson Room deliver fresh flavours

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Stratford: Haugen opens its doors at The Pavilion in Endeavour Square

D&D London chairman and CEO Des Gunewardena tells us all about the new restaurant, cafe and bar

D&D London chairman and CEO Des Gunewardena
D&D London chairman and CEO Des Gunewardena

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Look at the cranes poking up behind The Pavilion at International Quarter London’s Endeavour Square in Stratford.

They, and the structures emerging from the top of its wooden ripples, herald the concrete arrival of nearby East Bank.  

They mean the BBC, Sadler’s Wells, the V&A, UCL and UAL are all on their way to east London and that’s just one of the reasons that Des Gunewardena sounds so cheerful on the phone.

While I couldn’t see the chairman and CEO of restaurant group D&D London during our chat, his voice held an easy, upbeat tone and no wonder.

The company he runs, which operates more than 40 venues in the capital and overseas, has just opened Haugen.

Spread across all three floors of The Pavilion, it stands on the main path from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to Westfield Stratford City and, crucially, the area’s multiple stations.

That also puts it squarely on the route not only for West Ham’s regular influx of fans, but also the forthcoming footfall for East Bank

It’s a fair bet the inhabitants of its arts and educational establishments will need a decent place to unwind and that’s what Des and his team aim to provide. 

The Pavilion sits in Stratford's Endeavour Square
The Pavilion sits in Stratford’s Endeavour Square

“Firstly, it’s in an amazing building, so hats off to Lendlease – the developer – for building it,” he said. “They approached D&D about doing restaurants in it, because they know we take  on madly big and crazy spaces, so we were perfect for The Pavilion.

“It’s a very bold design – when I first saw it, I thought that it was a real statement and the thing about that is it has to be good, otherwise people will hate it.

“They worked with Acme, who are top-class architects and really know what they are doing. They’ve created a very beautiful building, with all the curved wood and the glass – it is a total eye-catcher.

“When people first saw the building, I don’t think they knew what it was – whether it was  going to be a museum or a gallery?

“It has that central staircase and looks terribly grand for housing restaurants, cafes and bars.

“People asked me if it was going to be a Japanese restaurant, because it looked like a great pavilion from Kyoto.”

Spurred on from the success of its German Gymnasium in King’s Cross, however, D&D had other ideas for the space.

“The reason we’ve created the restaurant we have is because we felt the building looked like a beautiful modern chalet in Switzerland,” said Des.

“We’ve had big success with German Gymnasium so we wanted to do a bit of a variant on that. The food at Haugen is Swiss Alpine so you’ve got your raclettes, your tartiflettes and your fondues – those are the things that are flying out of the kitchen at the moment.

“We wanted to create the feeling of being in a restaurant in a ski resort – imagine coming inside from a windswept Stratford to open fires, wood and warm lighting and cosy furnishings.”

Haugen features a rooftop bar area
Haugen features a rooftop bar area

Haugen, which turns out to be a Norwegian word meaning ‘mound’, boasts a cafe-brasserie on its ground floor and a rooftop bar, sculpted to form an amphitheatre overlooking the square below with a second space open to East Bank and the park beyond. 

The restaurant proper – located on the first floor of the building and accessible by lift for those who don’t fancy climbing the stairs outside, is set to open on November 1.

Prior to that happening, diners can get a feel for things in the brasserie with two courses for £14.50 or three for £18.50 via a set menu that features dishes including truffled potato soup, Tiroler Wurstsalat with pork sausage and Emmental cheese, Alpine meatballs with raclette and Vegan schnitzel club roll with red pepper hummus.

The a la carte menu is heavy on the cheese, sausage and schnitzel options too, with numerous sharing options including a butcher’s platter of pork, chicken, bratwurst, red cabbage and potato dumplings. 

Mains are typically around the £20 mark and there is plenty of cake, gateau, torte and strudel to finish for about £7.

“Haugen is a bit of a guilty pleasure type restaurant in terms of the food,” said Des.

“Most people manage their food on the basis of what they eat the whole week, so occasionally you can go and have a lovely bottle of wine and a good old tartiflette, which is really good value at £12.50.

“I don’t honestly know if Germanic food is having a moment – we don’t really follow trends. We have the German Gymnasium and that’s very successful and we recently opened a restaurant in Bristol called Klosterhaus, which also serves Germanic food and that’s doing pretty well too.

“There are certainly more men and women drinking steins of beer in the places we run. Our main concern is doing things we think will be fun and that are going to work.”

While the longer-term future of Stratford looks bright with the influx of businesses, cultural institutions and housing developments ensuring the area will only become busier, it’s a short term shortage that has delayed Haugen’s full launch.

“As a business we’re struggling with staff,” said Des. “We’re currently employing about 1,700 people across London, but we are desperately short. 

“For Haugen it suited us to open the brasserie and the rooftop bar to get the kitchen and the front-of-house team working so we can fully open in November.

“The problem for us is you can’t take young kids off the street and have them serve customers who are spending £100 a head on dinner. They want people who know what they’re talking about in terms of wine, food and so on.

“The Government’s view is that we should just suck it up, pay everyone a bit more money and they’ll all come – that’s like a Sixth Form economic theory response in practice.

“Right now, for the skilled and semi-skilled jobs, particularly in the kitchen, the staff are not there. It’s not an easy issue to resolve, but provided we have control over immigration, why would we not want to ease up on visas and get more people in to work to help the economy, the NHS and the care sector?

“We are working almost day and night on initiatives to get more people into our industry, our business – those who were working in other sectors or different kinds of restaurants and that’s how we are addressing the problem at least for ourselves.” 

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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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