One of London’s genre-defining vegan restaurants sits In a quiet courtyard a few railway arches from London Fields station and around the corner from the throngs on Broadway Market. Cook Daily has walls lined with pictures and descriptions of its 15, internationally influenced bowl dishes. The box seats are covered with t-shirts, scrawled with a slogan: “Vegan No Blood No Bones.” Kojey Radical plays over the speakers.
Run by chef-owner King Cook, Cook Daily’s original site in Shoreditch’s Boxpark opened in 2015, providing the spark to London’s now-booming vegan dining scene. It relocated to London Fields at the end of last year. Cook, who grew up in East Ham, says, “I’m coming home. Right now, it’s about connecting with people about veganism without being preachy.”
According to the Vegan Society, the number of those following a meat and dairy-free lifestyle has grown fourfold in the last four years — restaurants all around London now offer vegan fast food, vegan fine dining, vegan fast casual, and vegan booze. It was a different story in 2015. While Mildred’s and Vanilla Black were paving the way for plant-based food, there was nowhere making vegan food either inclusively cool, or fast-casual, for under a tenner.
“There was no scene,” Cook puts it bluntly. “Cook Daily brought a vegan eating culture. Before there were vegans and there was food but there wasn’t vegan food culture. At a time when it wasn’t popping, of course it was quite daunting. I opened next door to Korean barbecue, Porky’s and Dirty Burger” (Soho House’s burger brand, which somewhat ironically closed for three months earlier this year to accommodate Gizzi Erskine’s vegan burger pop-up, Filth.) “We were there serving, not vegetarian and not plant-based food, we called it ‘vegan, no blood, no bones’.”
Cook originally became vegetarian in 2009, then vegan in 2014, after being burnt out from high-end restaurant kitchens and looking to ethical Buddhism while preparing for parenthood. “I found myself becoming frustrated in the kitchen, quite an angry chef resulting in an angry person. We decided to head back to East London to start a family and I went back to my roots which is Buddhism and started to meditate. I realised that the meditation wasn’t going as well with me knowing that I had dead animals in my stomach.”
With the change in diet, came a shift in his career. “I had to re-set and tap into the things I used to neglect in my previous kitchens. A cauliflower or celeriac are now the main bits of the meal, not just a part,” Cook says. “It was fun. It was a new world for me, which was strange because I’d been in this world for over a decade.”
Cook’s Lao heritage, stint in a Thai pub kitchen, classical French training, and thoroughly London attitude all find their way into Cook Daily’s bowls: “I decided that each dish would tell a story and be connected to me.” He continues, “Take the ‘Le Garden’ — sautéed veggies and greens, minced garlic, herbes de Provence, vegan garlic butter, and white truffle oil served oven brown rice. It’s Asiatic style but the flavours are all French. That’s my homage to French cuisine.”
There’s also ‘chickn’ and mushroom pie (his favourite dish growing up), a nod to Caribbean flavours and London’s Jamaican diaspora in ‘The Jerk,’ and Japanese udon which pairs effortlessly with Cantonese-inspired char siu crumble. Cook makes it all work.
With the restaurant also came what Cook calls “Cook Daily culture,” often referenced in interviews and a regular hashtag on the restaurant’s Instagram posts.
“It’s not just about the food and the restaurant for me. It’s about building this thing called Cook Daily culture,” he says. “When I opened, it was my first project, it was my time. I hung up my apron in my small restaurant so people would know my background but inside the kitchen, I didn’t have a chef’s jacket on. I decided to wear t-shirts, an apron, and a cap.”
Cook continues, “I decided to play the music that I wanted to play. I came from restaurants where we’d play zen music or classical music. But I was in London and wanted to embrace London. So I played grime, I played U.K. artists. I was putting my personality into my own small restaurant.” Ever since it swung open its doors — with no website, no promo, those handwritten logos and a lot of hard work — the restaurant has always marched to the beat of its own drum. Or to be more precise, the grime and hip hop drum, now with added rumblings of Overground trains.
Instagram is another platform outside the physical restaurant where Cook projects his unique brand of veganism. It’s another point of difference to other vegan restaurants’ social media presence which usually feature clean, bright food photography or captions littered with leaf emojis. Both Cook’s personal account and the restaurant’s mostly feature friends and now long-time Cook Daily fans from the music industry like Jme and Giggs (his new album will be on repeat in the restaurant), giving the finger to McDonald’s, new vegan snack drops and throwbacks to Cook’s meat-eating days.
“The reason I post the throwbacks on Instagram is to make a connection and show I’m the same. I’m from the same places,” he says. “That’s how people can connect, especially the younger generation and the inner-city youth. They’ve seen the pictures of what I used to eat. It’s a strong message — me holding dead animals and ducks and fish.”
Cook Daily has undoubtedly impacted the rise of London’s vegan dining scene but, as has happened with the knock-on increase in vegan cookbooks, press and businesses, the mainstream narrative is overwhelmingly white. As Khushbu Shah put it in her essay for Thrillist last year on “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color”, “Mainstream veganism, which advocacy sites like Vegan Voices of Color define as ‘white veganism,’ tends to overlook vegans of color by excluding them from the dominant discourse.”
Cook says, “It’s true that when people think of veganism, they think of white, middle-class and we are changing that. It is what it is and it’s been like that for a long time. I don’t feel that much about it. I’m doing something about it.”
“I don’t have to change to be vegan. I don’t have to start yoga. I don’t have to start juice cleansing. I can just be me and not have dead animals as a snack. I always push the vegan agenda. I’m representing for veganism. The passion now is to be the best and move forward with the movement, not a cult but a culture.”
People come in and out of restaurant, hanging out and greeting Cook. The music cranks up a notch. A phone flashes with likes and views on a recently posted video. He adds with a smile, “We are kids of London and it’s about enjoying the revolution.”
The king has well and truly returned home to his throne.
What to order
‘High Grade’: Cook’s signature inspired by eating Tex Mex Pringles while high. Vegetables are stir-fried with hemp oil in a smoky, sweet barbecue sauce, topped with green herbs and hemp crumble. It’s a stir-fry, smoky sweet and sour barbecue bowl.
‘The Jerk’: A take on the Caribbean classic. The dish is stir-fried with the jerk marinade and topped with a touch of coconut cream to brings it all together. It’s then popped with coleslaw.
‘House Pad Thai’: Flat rice noodles are stir-fried with egg tofu (made in-house) and vegetables, and flavoured with homemade vegan fish sauce, made from blending seaweeds and soy.
Chickn and mushroom pie: A deconstructed version of Cook’s childhood favourite dish. The filling is vegan chickn, made from seitan and soy, potatoes, chickpeas, vegetables and cream of truffle. Topped with vegan puff pastry.
‘Hi grade puffs’: A vegan take on dim sum classic, char siu so (Chinese barbecue pork puff pastries). Crumbled, paprika-spiked meat substitute is enveloped in flaky puff pastry.