TCT: Street Kitchen started off as the pilot project of your project The Food Initiative. What inspired you to launch this project, and why was Street Kitchen your chosen pilot scheme for it?
MJ: I started my career as an environmental scientist and have always looked at food in the context of its impact. After spending the last fifteen years as a chef, running restaurants and buying produce from London wholesalers, I have been constantly frustrated by the lack of information relating to the environmental impact of the produce that I buy, but have never had the time to investigate. My response to this was to step out of my chefs shoes into a pair of Wellington boots to find out the facts. Armed with a deeper understanding and filled with a desire to tackle the issues, I formed The Food Initiative, an organisation that supports sustainable farming practices.
Then in 2011, I collaborated with Chef Jun Tanaka to create Street Kitchen, which was a pilot for the ethos and sustainable business practices I yearned for.
Originally, we planned to open a restaurant but realised that, actually, a street food business is a really good way of testing out our supply chain — testing how we can set up a business using direct produce, as you can have a much smaller menu on a street food stand. We found that it worked really well; people loved it, so we brought a couple of vans as well as doing catering for private events. Then over the three years they have been operating, we were always working towards getting into a permanent site. The mobile airstream meant that we could open the business without any external investment to see if it would work, and we planned to use the profits of the business to eventually open a permanent site — we are so proud to have achieved this in June. We were tweaking and evolving menus, building a brand, galvanising the supply chain and building a fast culture that would be the platform, springboard and foundation for a multiple outlet business.
TCT: How did you and Jun Tanaka embark on the project together, and why do you think it was a suitable partnership?
MJ: We were best mates before the project started and we have very similar taste in food, so it was a pleasure both developing and executing the project with Jun. We loved the idea of taking our restaurant knowledge and ingraining it into the DNA of a more accessible concept.
TCT: Street Kitchen has had great success, and you have expanded the project much wider than the initial project. Were you expecting this result?
MJ: We are ambitious and confident guys, and it was always the plan to grow the business into something that could touch different parts of London and beyond. We think outside the box when it comes to fast food; we are not governed by the standard conventions of the QSR sector. Our customers feel passionate about our food, and we plan to expand so that we give more and more people an exceptional breakfast and lunch. Quality and provenance are ingrained in our DNA; our focus will be to maintain these as we scale.
TCT: You place huge emphasis on your locally and sustainably sourced food. Why is this so important to you? And how do you go about finding your sources and suppliers?
MJ: We want to know how animals are reared and how our vegetables are produced. The multi-layered food supply chain in this country makes it really hard to know what sort of food system you are supporting by making purchasing choices. We wanted to strip away those layers and get back to source so that we can feel comfortable that the meat we use has been reared in a natural and humane way without the intervention of antibiotics and hormones.
TCT: What is your favourite cuisine to eat? And, if different, what is your favourite cuisine to cook?
MJ: I love eating Japanese cuisine; I love the clean flavours, umami, the texture of amazing sushi, the flavour of dashi and miso. But I love to cook Middle Eastern cuisine; I love the spices, simplicity, earthiness, soul, generosity and the sharing philosophy.
TCT: A few years ago you described London in five words as: diversity, culture, progress, energy, contrast. Do you think this is still true, or would you change anything?
MJ: I would add re-frame. I think people are re-framing their lives by following their passions rather than conforming to the rat race. This is really well demonstrated by the number of artisan food producers and street food operators that have emerged in the last few years. People are leaving their boring jobs to follow their passions and London is a better place for it, we no longer have to import ingredients.
TCT: Are you considering any international locations for this project? If so, where and why?
MJ: We are focusing on London at the moment. If we move to other cities we will set up hubs buying local food for each city. We have been approached a few times about international franchise, but we want to build a rock solid business in the UK to give us the resources to consider this kind of diversification.
TCT: What are your tips for aspiring chefs and/or entrepreneurs?
MJ: Make sure the product is amazing and get a great bookkeeper/accountant. It’s all about delivering a great project while making the right margins.
TCT: And finally, how would you describe Street Kitchen in 80 characters or under?
MJ: Skilled chefs committed to quality and provenance for everyone.