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.

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

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

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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