Who puts the bread on the table? For Ed Wilson – the chef who, alongside his partner Eric Narioo of wine merchants Les Caves de Pyrène, opened the highly successful Terroirs in Charing Cross, Brawn in east London and Soif in Battersea – the question is an important one.
Next week, Wilson will descend into the basement kitchen of his new restaurant Green Man & French Horn, a former pub on St Martin’s Lane in the West End, where he will specialise in the gentle cooking of the Loire Valley – and it will be St John Bakery delivering the loaves.
Wilson has a policy of working, where possible, with local bakers so that his restaurants never become reliant on a single supplier. It was the opening of Brawn that led to a chance encounter with Ben Mackinnon, then a nascent baker, and to the establishment of the latter’s E5 Bakehouse, under a railway arch by London Fields. It has already created more than 20 jobs.
As the bakehouse and café hummed with activity, I talked to Mackinnon over a cappuccino and a still-warm Bakewell tart. Our conversation was interrupted only by a call from a management consultant seeking advice on a career change into baking.
Mackinnon, 33, is the right man to ask. Initial training in aquaculture led to a career as a consultant in sustainable energy (think Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), but Mackinnon now realises that he suffers from a complaint common to many cooks, bakers and coffee baristas. “I just don’t have the ability to sit still,” he explained with a smile, looking around as a man drew up outside on a bicycle with three small children perched in the front pannier.
It was in Fez, Morocco, where he saw bakers preparing flatbread, that he decided bread could be an outlet for his energy. He undertook a week’s course at The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire where he began to appreciate the wonders of sourdough. He started baking, using others’ ovens by night and selling at farmers’ markets by day, and word began to spread that his loaves were good.
But he soon learnt the commercial reality of life as a baker. The first lesson came from the shopkeepers he approached, who said that if he wanted them to stock his bread he had to bake seven days a week. And then, when Wilson began his search for a local baker as Brawn’s opening approached, Mackinnon experienced the very different aspects of working closely with chefs.
The first was quite what a boon this substantial customer was to be for his bakery. “The restaurant buys our bread, cuts it correctly and serves it appealingly and then, best of all, doesn’t charge their customers for the privilege,” Mackinnon said. “This relationship brought our bread to a much wider and more diverse audience than we could ever have hoped for and we got great publicity on the back of Brawn’s success.”
But chefs can also be hard taskmasters, as Mackinnon learnt from his dealings with Oli Barker, Brawn’s manager. “It’s a pleasure to deal with him now but we had to struggle through the stage where he was regularly giving me stick whenever the quality varied. But he has always applied just the right amount of pressure for us to improve each month,” Mackinnon added.
And with such consistent demand from a busy restaurant came the impetus not just to build their own wood-fired oven in the railway arch, but also to establish their own café, which serves working lunches during the week, brunch on a Saturday and pizza on Sundays.
The café is in keeping with the relaxed atmosphere now prevalent in this thriving part of London. A container in the back courtyard, bought on eBay for £400, holds all the paraphernalia for the takeaway business. Ten bakers and cooks weave in and out of the kitchen, preparing today’s lunches and tomorrow’s 12 different, wonderfully chewy loaves, of which my favourite is the Route 66 with its strong rye flavour. And parked outside is the American workcycle that transports kilos of loaves to his restaurant customers – Brawn, The Empress in Victoria Park, and Corner Room, the restaurant in Bethnal Green’s Town Hall hotel.
In keeping with his sustainable ethos, Mackinnon will only deliver to customers within cycling distance. But three who trained under him have already moved on to open their own bakeries in Peckham, York and the Isle of Man.
All this because a chef went looking for a baker.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Arch 395, Mentmore Terrace, E8
020 8525 2890
49 Columbia Road, E2
020 7729 5692
Green Man & French Horn
54 St Martin’s Lane London WC2
020 7836 2645
(Lines open from Monday 17 September)