Head chef Michael Robins has pivoted his offer to collection only, serving the community during lockdown. Katherine Price hears how keeping true to the globally inspired, ever-changing spirit of the Hackney restaurant has brought the locals flocking
"We ran burgers and tacos through our minds, but we thought that was something people will do at home, because everyone has time to cook now," laughs Michael Robins, head chef at Pidgin in London's Hackney.
Three days after the restaurant closed in mid-March due to the outbreak of Covid-19, Homing Pidgin was launched, a collection-only, £25 three-course set menu available from Thursdays to Sundays.
"They [owners James Ramsden and Samuel Herlihy] were very adamant the whole time that if we didn't feel comfortable at any point, that it's not safe for us mentally or physically, then it doesn't have to happen. But we wanted to do it; we wanted to keep cooking and staying busy and bring a little bit of happiness to some people," says Robins.
The menu remains globally inspired, staying true to the restaurant's ethos to ‘never repeat a dish'. However, this now comes with the extra consideration of ensuring dishes retain their quality after being transported to people's homes and reheated (exact reheating instructions are supplied).
If the team were in any doubt as to whether people are enjoying the service, the speed at which it sells out is proof. One hundred meals are released through the restaurant's weekly newsletter, and then later another 200 on the website. Both sell out within five minutes. After attempts to introduce a password system failed to reduce demand, the team now change the menu every fortnight rather than weekly to give more people the chance to try it.
"We wish we could do more, but we're just a small 25-seat restaurant. We're doing as many as we can," he says.
The team is mindful of the environmental impact of packaging, with desserts transported in compostable vegware and mains in more robust plastic packaging that they hope guests will reuse.
Dishes are mostly vegetable-focused with produce from Wellocks, fish from Fin and Flounder, and meat from HG Walter, as well as ingredients foraged at Hackney Marshes (such as the elderflower used in the elderflower and coconut rice pudding) or from the restaurant's preserve collection.
One particularly popular dish was the banana cream pie. The potted ‘pie' features a crumble made from a mixture of Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate bitters, cornflour, plain flour, icing sugar, vanilla bean, cocoa and butter, which is baked on a low temperature and stirred regularly to dehydrate it.
The custard includes frozen ripe bananas puréed with milk, cream, cornflour, sugar, egg yolks and then cooked down to thicken. Once it's thick and firmly set, a Chantilly vanilla cream is whipped in to loosen it. Fresh, chopped banana is mixed into the custard, and the whole dessert is topped with a chilli and salt peanut crumble. Robins says it takes the team nearly two hours just to box it up: "It is time consuming, but people seem to think it was worth it."
One of Robins' personal favourites is the smacked cucumber salad, a simple Chinese-inspired dish of chopped and smacked cucumbers, black garlic purée, pickled courgettes, spring onions and coriander. This is paired with a spiced vinegar dressing, where aromatics such as cloves, star anise and cardamom are toasted, steeped in water to make a ‘tea', which is then reduced and combined with soy sauce, chillies and black vinegar.
Canadian-born Robins says he takes a lot of inspiration from his time as chef de partie at the St Charles Country Club in Winnipeg under Takashi Murakami, as well as a stage at Dovetail in New York. Leaving his role as executive chef at Sous Sol in Winnipeg to move to the UK in 2018, he was drawn in by Pidgin's constantly changing menu and openness to experimenting with ingredients and techniques.
We wanted to keep cooking and staying busy and bring a little bit of happiness to some people
He works with junior sous chef Ben Ing each week to design the menu and says development is still a priority. The team of four who haven't been furloughed (Robins, Ing, general manager Georgia Gallacher and assistant manager Laura Companys) are working full-time five days a week, "making sure that there's still an establishment to come back to and all the staff have a place to work when this is all done".
When it comes to the future of Homing Pidgin, "We're just kind of rolling with the punches," Robins concludes.
"No one really knows how long this is going to last. For now, it seems like people are quite happy with what we're providing, but that does not mean that we don't want to progress ourselves and develop. That's what draws people to work at Pidgin – the fact that things change and they're always developing and progressing. We plan on continuing."
Pidgin, 52 Wilton Way, Hackney, London E8 1BG
From the menu
- Roasted red peppers, cherry tomato, crispy brown butter-fried chickpeas, burnt tomato and sherry vinaigrette, ricotta, mint
- Roast chicken thigh, miso and sake sauce ‘supreme', asparagus, Jersey royals, wild garlic pesto
- Elderflower and coconut rice pudding, sorrel and rum punch compressed pineapple, jalapeño dulce de leche
*£25 for three courses
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