|The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted,|
Now, voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.
— Walt Whitman
|From its earliest beginnings, the East End has been home to the poorest inhabitants of London. Much of its land was in need of drainage, development was inhibited by the medieval system of copyhold and it was home to noxious industries such as tanning, glue-making and the Bryant and May factory at the centre of the infamous Matchgirls' Strike of 1888. While the political centre of London developed in the west of the city, the east remained a low-wage economy, with slums, sweat shops and low-paid industries based in and around the docks. What Ellis Island was to American immigration, the East End was to British immigration with countless waves of migrants - from oppressed Protestant Huguenots, to Jewish victims of the pogroms, to Muslims fleeing more recent poverty and oppression - all making it their home and turning it into the vibrant multi-cultural centre it is today. I was born in the East End.|
|Now I've returned to seek and find an untold want: great fine dining in the place where I spent my formative years. It's a daunting prospect, as evidenced by this map of Central London:|
Red dots denoting London's 2010 Michelin-starred restaurants flood the West End - an area bounded by Chelsea to the south, Kensington to the west, Marylebone to the north and Holborn to the east. Three can be found just off the map to the southwest and three have dared to wander eastwards into Smithfield, Clerkenwell and to the edges of the City, but the vast majority are happily based in London's safe, trusted, wealthy West End. The East End - an area bounded by the Thames to the south, Shoreditch to the west, south Hackney to the north and the River Lea to the east - has precisely none. The man who gave me my very first cooking certificate and one of my first ever experiences of work in a kitchen, Professor Cyrus Todiwala, earnt well-deserved Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition for his excellent E1-postcoded Café Spice Namasté, but it's not fine dining. To my knowledge, there has never been a Michelin-starred restaurant here... and few if any fine dining establishments. Only the insane, the recklessly brave or a true visionary would open a fine dining restaurant in the East End...
For those who don't know him, let me introduce you to Nuno Mendes. Back in October 2006, just starting my third year at Westminster Kingsway, I read a post on the Food and Drink in London blog about a "molecular gastropub" called Bacchus that had opened in Hoxton, within walking distance of my home in Hackney. Its unique selling point was "fine dining in trainers" - and when I eventually got there almost a year later, it blew me away. What I loved most about Nuno's menu was its fluidity - the extreme opposite of French conservative haute cuisine. Where a top Paris restaurant would insist on perfect replication year on year, Nuno wasn't afraid to develop and improve dishes even in the middle of service. I described his food back then as "combining the precision of classical music with the inventiveness of jazz".
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that night. Nuno encouraged me to train in Spain, extolling the virtues of his mentors at El Bulli and nominating Mugaritz as the place for me to learn my trade. I never worked at either, but during my two years in Spain I trained with two of their great chefs - El Bulli's Carles Abellan at Comerç 24 and Mugaritz's Paco Morales at Ferrero. Returning to London recently, I met up with Nuno and enjoyed a brilliant night cooking with him at his dining club, The Loft:
What I found was a chef who, while I was away in Spain learning the basics of our trade, had been perfecting the skills of chef/restaurateur. A man neither insane nor recklessly brave - but a voyager with a truly sparkling vision for the East End of the future. The Portuguese word for "voyager" is "viajante". And, in the new 5* Town Hall Hotel rising from the ashes of the former Bethnal Green Town Hall, just 300 yards down the road from my old school Raine's Foundation, is Restaurant Viajante.
If ever there was a time for change, this is surely it. The area to the west of Bethnal Green has been transformed by the yuppification of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston. The area to the southeast is London's new financial district of Docklands, emerging strongly from the recent recession. And to the northeast is the site of London's 2012 Olympic Games. Communications in the area have been transformed, with the Docklands Light Railway, a new underground link and the forthcoming Crossrail overground service. Government agencies have made huge efforts to shift the balance of wealth from west to east, with the result that Bethnal Green is unrecognisable as the crime-rife former stomping ground of the Krays. The trainers have gone. It's a great spot for fine dining going forward from 2010.
If the photo above looks a bit odd, that's because it's a still from the Portuguese daily TV current affairs programme 30 Minutos, transmitted recently by national broadcaster RTP. For anyone with a keen eye and a working knowledge of Portuguese, it was rather a give-away. Of course I only have a bit part, but it's pretty obvious that I'm doing a little more than just helping out on a busy Friday night:
I am thrilled to announce that when Viajante opens soon I shall be Chef de Partie, Cold Section - a proud part of a team of chefs from around the world who have descended on the East End, determined to achieve something that has never been done before. I look forward to seeing you there.