Sunday, 14 March 2010

Now, Voyager!

The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.

— Walt Whitman
Viajante, the Portuguese voyager

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:

Michelin-starred restaurants in 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:

Nuno and me at 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.


docsconz said...

Fabulous Trig! Best of luck to you, Chef Nunes and Viajante! I can't wait to get over there to try it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Trig
Good luck - the place looks amazing.. was talking to Joe Gardiner about you and have promised to bring him over for lunch once you open...
Hope all goes well for Nuno and his team.
Peter Chapman

Paulina Mata said...


I'm so happy!

Good luck! To you, to Nuno, to Viajante.

As soon as possible I will certainly go to Viajante.

Please tell Nuno I send him big kiss.

Brian said...

Good work Trig. Glad you found a place to work that will keep you going creatively.

Hope it works out well for all involved.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Really pleased for you - Well done!! What an exciting and brilliant opportunity. He's definitely the person that gets talked about the most among our friends at the moment.

Chennette said...

Good Luck Trig - it's great to have such an opportunity in the place of your birth :-D

Oregano said...


It is great to see that you have taken your Iberian experience back to the UK. Taking it to the East End is fantastic!

Living "out in the sticks" it may be a while before we are in London again but there is a new destination to aim for.

Hope that all goes well for you and Viajante!


Richard said...

I feel a lunch coming on...

Trig said...

John - you'll be able to say to LJ "you may have eaten at Noma, but I've eaten at Viajante!".

Peter - I look forward to seeing you both for lunch. Much later on when everything has settled down I'd like to talk to Nuno about careers visits from local schools (especially my old one up the road), linked with WestKing. A chance to give kids a glimpse of life in a fine dining kitchen.

Paulina - I'll pass on your greetings but I won't kiss him for you.

Brian - I'm hoping this will be more than just somewhere to keep me going. I have high hopes for what can be achieved here.

Amanda - I'm surprised and pleased to hear that people are talking about the place. Bring some friends for lunch.

Oregano - hope to see you here. Our influences will be coming from a bit further afield than Iberia!

Richard - any time you can get down here.

Douglas Blyde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Niamh said...

I am so excited for you and very excited about Viajante opening. I can't wait to eat there!

Look forward to following here.

Fancy a jaunt to the Providores now that you're back? Went to the pop-up at the weekend and it has whet my appetite again.

Trig said...

Douglas - the information you've received is correct. The period until then is soft openings - see the Facebook page.

Niamh - I ate at Providores a month ago, so maybe a break before another visit. Also I don't have a lot of spare time right now. Will be good to see you at Viajante, though.

Amy B. said...

Good luck! Tell us more about it in the future, I'd love to hear from ya

Gary S. Hurd said...

Congratulations and best wishes.

Su-Lin said...

I'm so behind on this - you must have started by now. Congratulations and I hope it's all going well!

Sabrina Ghayour said...

Very much looking forward to eating at Viajante this Friday Aidan. Douglas Blyde tipped me off about your blog. See you Friday, can't wait!

namastenancy said...

I haven't checked out your blog in ages so I was surprised and utterly delighted to read your good news. You go from triumph to triumph and one of these days, when I get to London, I am going to eat at a restaurant where you are the chef! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Trig said...

Amy, Gary - thanks. I'll write something soon.

Su-Lin - We were on soft openings for a long time, but now we're fully in business. Quite a few bloggers have been already, but under the publishing restrictions of soft opening. I hope to see you here soon. If you can get together with others and make a table for four you will be seated in full view of the kitchen.

Sabrina - I look forward to seeing you here tonight. Perhaps you can write something up for UKFBA?

Nancy - that's very kind of you. I can't promise to be in London for ever. To succeed in this business you need to get global experience these days. Now I'm back, I'll certainly be here for a good while, though.

Sabrina Ghayour said...

Hi Aidan! I will definitely be writing something, but it's better to write for Foodepedia. The Gemma (PR) knows I will be in tonight, so hopefully I will get a good view! Look forward to meeting you! x

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