Fork Talk is constantly monitoring food and drink trends and new restaurant openings, and what is overwhelmingly apparent is that, these days, the general public is more discerning in what they consume. Today’s diner wants to know, from farm to fork, where their food has come from; provenance is absolutely key.
And when it comes to fish and shellfish, as executive chef of Bonnie Gull restaurants Luke Robinson puts it, ‘you should be nervous about it…you have got to eat somewhere where they know what they are doing.’ And that they certainly do.
After a series of successful pop-ups in East London, Bonnie Gull developed their permanent “seafood shack” championing fresh sustainable fish on Foley Street in Fitzrovia in 2012, and will be launching a second Boston crab shack-inspired site in Exmouth Market in April of this year.
Don’t let the name “shack”, with all of its super casual intimations, fool you – their Fitzrovia site is polished and welcoming, with their interiors an imaginative and chic nod to the sea (think walls framed with sea-themed vintage books and large clam shells for holding the bill), and, most importantly, a palpable passion for serving the best seafood possible.
Sourcing all seafood from the UK, and primarily in Cornwall and the south coast due to quality and the least amount of mileage to London, Bonne Gull’s menu changes daily and is entirely dependent on the fish they receive that day. Ordering their fish directly from fishermen or through an auctioneer on the south coast as well as through a broker here in London, Luke is insistent on minimising the chain of consumption, ‘to realistically work towards a sustainable goal, you have to be dealing with the people who have fished for you, otherwise they can tell you it is sustainable when it isn’t really.’
A particular passion of Luke’s and Bonnie Gull’s is crab. An amazing quality shellfish from the south coast, brown crabs are being exported in massive quantities to China, where they are in immensely high demand. One of Luke’s goals is to raise awareness in the UK of great-quality domestic shellfish by placing emphasis on crab on their menus. Though he says the art of eating crab sometimes does not agree with the English sentiment – as one ‘must get involved’ and wade through a messy mix of shell, sauce and meat for their prize.
But it’s not just specialist seafood establishments that wear their badge of sustainability with pride, as eateries dedicated to serving the nation’s favourite takeaway food, you guessed it – fish and chips, are as well.
Tipped to be a top food trend in 2014, the fish and chips industry is booming – Britons eat more than 255 million portions annually, more than any other type of takeaway food, and competition and desire to stand out is ever increasing.
Some might say that “sustainability” has become another marketing buzzword for the food industry, much like the terms “local” or “organic” have become, and that it can be employed as a device to achieve this attention. Pop Newland, founder of Poppies fish and chip restaurants in Spitalfields and in Camden, has no concept of this, and for the past three years has been serving the people of London his classic fish and chips in simply the best way he knows how.
In his diner decked out in second World War-time paraphernalia, everything is an ode to the past, from the vintage jukebox to the “newspaper” with edible ink that the fish and chips are served in. In his distinct East-End timbre, Pop tells me of his beginnings in the world of fish and chips, ‘I worked at Phil’s Fish and Chips on Roman Road when I was 11 years old cutting newspaper – there I learnt to do the fish, the potatoes, to fry and generally how to react to people.’
Named best fish and chip restaurant in the National Fish & Chip Awards 2013, Pop attributes Poppies success to the uncompromising quality of the fish, service and, of course, retro ambiance. The man responsible for the quality control of Poppies’ fish is Salih Sadik – with a relationship with his supplier family that dates back 40 years, Salih receives fresh and sustainable Scottish fish from Billingsgate every morning, which he then checks every single piece of before it makes it into the restaurant. ‘If it’s not good enough, it goes back!’ He chuckles.
Even if covered in batter, in today’s successful seafood establishments there is no hiding the quality and sourcing of the fish. Plus, as Luke of Bonnie Gull says, ‘if we don’t clock on to sustainability now, there soon won’t be much fish to go around.’