Daily Bread: London's Neighbourhood Food Champions

One writer and photographer celebrates London's diverse food culture and heritage by shining a light on chefs, bakers and shop owners personal stories.

This article first appears in Vol. 29: Taste.

First came the 18th-century coffeehouses, in which the ideas of the age were brewed in the company of invigorating beverages. Then it was the turn of the Victorian chop houses, filling the bellies of patrons with hearty servings of meat and two veg. East of Smithfield Market in the early 20th century, London's pie shops filled their pastry cases with eels caught fresh from the River Thames, while later on immigrants settling near the docks established new tastes for baked goods from Eastern Europe, still today's daily bread for many.

Traditions survive, yet London's food culture today is as much a celebration of diversity as it is of heritage - dedicated chefs, bakers and shop owners reveal their personal stories from across the globe. Among the Michelin-starred restaurants and cutting-edge culinary concepts that draw gourmands to the capital, it's these quiet bastions of local flavour that continue to define London's culinary culture. I journeyed across town to visit six such varied establishments, each with unwavering commitment to its craft and to a city founded on hospitality and fed with pride.

J Grodzinski & Daughters

Edgware, Northwest

At J Grodzinski & Daughters bakery, there is no such thing as just a beigel. They come chewy or crusty, soft or stone-baked, seeded or with cinnamon. Nor is there simply a challah bread - loaves are small, medium or large, round or plaited. There are Friday challahs and New Year challahs. Customers scour the shelves for their perfect bake - Grodzinski's is disarmingly particular, each outlet catering to the precise whims and wishes of its customers. Stamford Hill has a penchant for crustier challah, while Edgware prefers fruit cake over Clapton's favoured chocolate.

"That's the beauty of baking on the premises," owner Johnny Grodzinski tells me. "I'm a crust man." Johnny's great- grandparents founded the business in the 1880s, migrating from Belarus to the Jewish community of London's East End. From meagre beginnings - renting an oven from a master Jewish baker on Bell Lane and selling baskets of bilkelekh for the markets of Petticoat Lane - within a few years a permanent bakery was founded at 31 Fieldgate Street. "We have the old, the new and everything in between," laughs Johnny, a genealogist at heart who holds over 10,000 records pertaining to his family history.

Today, traditional bakes from "the haim" (homestead), known to Grodzinski's earliest customers, sit alongside flavours absorbed from new communities, such as apple turnover or Dutch pound cake. Moiara's first job in London landed her in the kitchen at Grodzinski's, now her home of 13 years. She is the doughnut expert, hand-rolling up to 100 a day - even more towards the end of the week, she reveals with a wink. As she works, trays of steaming apple strudel, mountains of traditional rugelach and batches of golden honey cake are turned out by the cheery team.

F Cooke Pie & Mash

Hoxton, East

Joe Cooke is a fourth-generation pie maker. His great-grandfather opened the doors to his first shop in 1862, the first of a handful of family-run outposts across the East End. Today, Hoxton is the only remaining outpost of the business - and while the Victorian penchant for jellied eels may be dwindling, the shop remains a thriving and beloved neighbourhood stalwart.

Mornings are spent at Smithfield Market sourcing flank steak for the pies, which is then boned and ground by Joe in the shop. Everything is made by hand under his watchful eye, whether the meat-pie filling, suet pastry, maris-piper mash or parsley liquor (the traditional sauce made from fresh parsley and fish stock - there's not a drop of gravy in sight). The only exception is the cherry filling for the sweet pies, Joe chuckles, "as we don't have a cherry tree!"

Yet F Cooke's stands for more than a warming plate of pie and mash. Joe's warmth and gentle philosophy light up the shop, in which frequent customers become fast friends as readily as passing tourists. Moreover, the £1 pensioner lunch deal (priced-up from 90p last year to huge furore), is an invaluable part of the routine for many in the community. Pensioners travel as far as Peckham for their meal, and Hoxton local Peggy, 91, is so wholeheartedly ingrained in the fabric of the place that Cooke's had the aisle between tables widened to allow her frame to fit through. "It saves me cooking," Peggy grins as she tucks in with a fork and spoon.

Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar

Highbury, Northeast

Having originally trained as a lawyer, Mandy Yin embarked on a six-year voyage into Malaysian street food, before settling into a permanent space on Holloway Road in the summer of 2018. Now a cherished neighbourhood spot, Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar tells a tale of three cosmopolitan cities - Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Penang - each with particular significance to Mandy. "Growing up in Kuala Lumpur I would have laksa every day," Mandy beams, "so I wanted to share the love."

Fragrant, fiery and umber in colour, the house laksa is rooted in Mandy's affinity with Peranakan nyonya cooking, which stems from the happy union of Malay women and Chinese traders. Unlike many other Malaysian restaurants, Sambal Shiok makes its laksa paste from raw ingredients, the first stage of the laborious process that involves creating stock, soup and noodles. "I wanted to make something of which Malaysians are proud," Mandy exclaims.

Laksa aside, the menu is a vibrant showcase of Malaysian food with novel interpretations of side dishes such as zingy gado- gado salad or shrimp, tamarind and betel-leaf curry, a rarely encountered dish even in Malaysia. It's no coincidence that the restaurant settled across the road from Holloway Road's Chinese supermarket. "We often run in there to pick up missing ingredients," Mandy confides.


Peckham, Southeast

"We are a genre all unto ourselves," confesses Sally Butcher, the owner of Peckham's most genre-defying establishment, Persepolis. Deli, bookshop, café, restaurant: Sally's venture may be elusive in definition, but her mantra is clear. "It's all about cooking simple Iranian food, and hospitality".

Versed in the traditions of Persian cuisine by her mother-in-law, Butcher aims to espouse the culture of Iran, but with one big difference: no meat. The menu is a continually shifting melee of salads, soups and hotpots, such as red-lentil timtimo, berkoukes (an Algerian pasta dish with a "swirl of labneh") and old favourites such as fried halloumi with honey and sesame seeds or pastries with date and cardamom coffee ("the perfect pairing").

Culinary tourists, curious vegetarians and a buzzing cohort of locals assemble in Sally's colourful space, which is packed to the ceiling with cookbooks and Iranian delicacies. "I normally bring my kids, but I decided to just pop in for lunch. There's nothing like this in Clapham," explains Naz, a regular.

Sally works a 90-hour week managing the shop and its stock, the weekly changing menu, the roster of young chefs and the cooking itself. Chante from New Cross has been eyeing up a kitchen job for a while. Her favourite is the dodo - plantain cooked down with butter, harissa paste and spices, finished off with an egg.

Tokunbo's Kitchen

Ickenham, Northwest

Tokunbo, whose name translates as "somebody from over the seas", was born in London and raised in the Nigerian capital of Lagos until the age of nine, before returning to the capital. "Food has always been my way of connecting with people and making friends," she tells me. Resigning her job as a social worker in 2014, Tokunbo has since been on a quest to bring the experience of West African cuisine to the masses, founding the London African Food Week and hosting a continuous flurry of pop-ups, catered events, brunches and food festivals. Her mission is gaining momentum, but is not without its challenges. "When I started there were four or five other people trying to do the same, and now it's just me," she admits.

Informed by her early experiences in Lagos, Tokunbo's southwest Nigerian cuisine is given a "modern spin and tempered spice," she laughs, pointing to a side pot of extra-potent chilli sauce. Scotch bonnet chillies are sourced from north London stores along with her "holy trinity" of ingredients - tomato, onions and peppers - the basis for her triple-cooked beef with green bell peppers.

While kale-and-spinach stews, ground cassava and roasted plantain entertain her loyal following of vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free customers, the poster child for her West African attitude is jollof rice. "A lot of people in London know what paella is, but few know about jollof. I want to change that," she finishes.

Simpson's Tavern

City of London, East

The oldest of London's three historic dining rooms, Simpson's Tavern remains a beloved lunchtime sanctuary for the working folk of the city. Off tabletops gleaned from the old Lloyd's underwriters building, upstairs diners are met with steaming plates of York ham and eggs or a hearty portion of the daily special, served with bubble and squeak or cauliflower cheese. For pudding, it's Simpson's signature stewed cheese: an unassuming proprietary recipe marrying the best of British cheeses for ceremonial scooping onto a slice of white bread.

At street level, communal tables encircle the central counter in the horseshoe-style grill room, presided over by Maureen Thompson and a giant wheel of stilton. Maureen remembers the original open grill, the reason for which the fire brigade seemed constantly on call ("sometimes every half hour!"). Convivial lunchtime chatter is broken only by calls of "would you like a sausage with that?" - for at Simpson's, all meals are customarily served with a 10-inch Cumberland (vegetarians exempt).

The city's culture of long lunches may be dwindling, but this city eatery stays true to form, closing in the evenings in solidarity with traditional banking hours. Come the Friday before Christmas, drinks are shared with descendants of Charles Dickens in Jean's downstairs bar, a ritual that dates back 40 years.

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