Old Spitalfields Market in east London has for a long time been a dining destination, serving workers and tourists alike a range of global cuisines. Many of its occupants in recent years have faded its reflection of the capital’s thriving, messy food scene, with a raft of chains and safety-first operations hardening the hallowed hall into a retail shell.
In January 2015, something stirred: Blixen, a reliable all-day spot, opened on the edge of the market in a converted bank. It was followed four months later by Taberna do Mercado, an often thrilling canteen by London's pre-eminent Portuguese chef, Nuno Mendes, that thrived on the back of his success at Viajante in Bethnal Green.
With the recent arrival of The Kitchens, a project curated by Mendes and Stephen Macintosh of ‘hospitality operations consultancy’ Ten Ten, the dining situation has changed — “perhaps ... a natural evolution,” according to Macintosh. Appropriately, ten new operators opened in the market on 13 October, among them middle-eastern Berber & Q, Breddos, Flank — a Brighton-born premium steak outfit — and Happy Endings, who might deliver such a thing with their innovative ice cream sandwiches.
The Kitchens is notable not only for giving new reason to visit Spitalfields, but also because it represents a new model for food business and restaurant operators in the city: a sort of half way house between street food stall and restaurant-proper. It’s a new route to market in a city whose rents have sky-rocketed, where a staff shortage is real, where operating costs can be prohibitive to meaningful success, and where, inevitably, Brexit has begun to exert serious market pressure. It’s significant that Breddos have already committed to a similar site in Hammersmith’s Feast Canteen development, while Flank have chosen their platform as their first — and perhaps only — London site. Even the name — with no connection to the concept of a restaurant — addresses the shifting foundations of the capital’s food scene.
Eater London took a look behind the pass and spoke to Stephen Macintosh about The Kitchens, its operators, and its place in the way Londoners eat day-in, day-out.
Stephen on the value proposition of a development like The Kitchens:
Old Spitalfields Market is an extraordinary location with an amazing heritage and an established audience. We wanted to capture what the location means to people and if anything celebrate it. There are many new benefits to the traders and operators who have always made the place so special particularly considering the level of investment into the workshop spaces and Kitchens that Foster and Parters have developed. We believe it provides an exciting highly commercial opportunity to accelerate great concepts in a more considered way without the risk associated with bricks and mortar.
On the development of the industry, and the kitchen versus delivery dynamic:
For 20 years I’ve always heard doom and gloom stories and yet we continue to see growth. There is no question there is a very difficult road ahead and more so than ever operators will be hit on all sides. My biggest fear with Brexit is resourcing great personnel. Its an industry founded upon people who sincerely care about what they do and who will always find ways to make it work. We just might have to be a little more creative than we’ve ever been.
As for the kichen and delivery question, it depends on the delivery system. I want the time, effort and care to be reflected in the integrity of the dishes I receive at home. I can’t help feeling its counter productive to lose sight of your dishes in transport in the hope their quality is retained. Unfortunately for me personally this is seldom the case which sadly makes me question the integrity of the operator. It is possible to get this process right and as consumers we should be pushing for much higher standards. It is not possible to surpass a direct relationship with a restaurant where you are made to feel something much deeper.
As for the future, Macintosh is more mysterious. When pressed on the next iteration of the project, his answer was wry: “watch this space.”