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Street food stalls and pop-up restaurants – previously mainly found in music festivals and farmers’ markets – are changing. With a low point of entry and running costs, they allow budding restaurateurs to be nimble, adapt to trends and test their concept.
If the BBC’s Million Pound Menu is putting pop-ups in the spotlight, it’s Singaporean chef Hawker Chan winning a Michelin star in 2017 for his soya sauce chicken rice that shows there’s a sophisticated side to street food. It’s a path trodden by some familiar names too, with the likes of Pizza Pilgims, Bao and Patty & Bun all cutting their teeth as pop-up concepts.
This year’s Newcomer Catey winner, Smoke & Salt – based out of the Pop Brixton shipping container formerly inhabited by Kricket before it moved to a permanent Soho site – is the next name to watch. It’s the first restaurant of Remi Williams and Aaron Webster, who met while cooking at the Shed in Notting Hill. It opened in June 2017 with the use of a government start-up loan and the support of friends and family.
The restaurant is part of the Pop Brixton community of restaurants, retailers, artists and social enterprises, based in a 40ft shipping container with a footprint of less than 300 sq ft. The pair opened the site with a two-weeks fit-out time and on a budget of less than £40,000.
Williams, Webster and their restaurant manager, the only other full-time employee, are ever-present for their eight services per week. They even had to shut for the night to collect their Catey award.
Smoke & Salt’s “modern dining/ancient techniques” small plates concept, which aims to offer interesting and innovative fine dining in a casual and affordable manner, has drawn rave reviews. In her first column for The Sunday Times, Marina O’Loughlin praised its “properly exciting” cooking and “nu-British” blend of local ingredients with world flavours and modern techniques, from smoking and salting to pickling, fermenting and brining. “What issues from their minuscule kitchen is little short of bravura,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph’s Keith Miller said the “buccaneers of brine” sit squarely on-trend: “A bit Scandi, a bit Korean, a bit barbecue-y, with the use of preserved ingredients alongside fresh ones lending consistence and rhythm to what might otherwise descend into cross-cultural chaos.”
The Cateys judges were equally impressed, blown away by “two guys with no money behind them, having a go in a shipping container, with a small team, living and breathing it every day”. Few would be surprised if they were to pop-up in a shiny new permanent venue in the West End any time soon.
What the judges said
“Two guys cooking great food in a storage container captures the spirit of this award.”
“The spirit of entrepreneurial enterprise. A great example of how to start a low-cost, relatively lavish business to prove a concept. I look forward to seeing where they go next.”
“An outstanding example of entrepreneurship, innovation, bravery and nicely in tune with today’s trends and direction. An inspirational winner.”
“Great to see that hard work still pays off. These guys do everything from the washing up to cooking exceptional food.”
Michael Caines Lympstone Manor, Lympstone, Devon
Mark Birchall Moor Hall, near Ormskirk, Lancashire
Alan and Angela Harper Palé Hall, Bala, Gwynedd
Aaron Webster and Remi Williams Smoke & Salt, London
Pascal Aussignac Chef-patron, Club Gascon, London
Richard Ball Managing director, Calcot Hotels
William Baxter Chairman, Hospitality Action
John Calton Chef-patron, the Staith House, North Shields
Robin Hutson Chairman and chief executive, Lime Wood Group and Home Grown Hotels
Jane Sunley Chief executive, Purple Cubed
Bill Toner Chief executive, CH&Co
John Williams Executive chef, the Ritz, London