Ahead of his upcoming Demo Kitchen appearance based around the time he spent with six of Borough Market’s stallholders, Luke Mackay pays tribute to the commitment, perfectionism and personality of a diverse group of traders
There is a certain type of chef for whom I have never had much time, and as I get older the feeling persists and concentrates: the kind who have their name across the door and staff who say, “Chef would like me to explain his concept.” They ‘deconstruct’ things to show how clever they are and will never use three ingredients when they can tweezer or pipe on 15.
Thankfully a tiny minority fall into this camp—most chefs I know (and I know a lot) keep their heads down, work hard to produce nice plates of food, and don’t earn enough money. Most chefs also know that the produce is more important than they are, that there is only so much cheffy polish you can give a duff carrot or a slightly whiffy bass. Good produce is everything: I could no more work in a restaurant that insisted on buying frozen, poor quality ingredients than I could an actuarial office—and I can barely subtract.
An honour and pleasure
I’ve had the absolute honour and pleasure recently to spend six days, with six different Borough Market traders. ‘Different’ is probably an understatement, to be honest: there’s Giuseppe, the Italian philosopher poet who sources the finest products from his beloved Calabria, and Jock, mighty of stature and broad of brogue, who is happiest with a decent haggis. What about Dawn, mixing sunshine with Jamaican spice and making me blush, or Eduardo, with his drive for fairness and sublime coffee? Then Olivier the baker, passionate and as French as you could possibly imagine, and Lucas, intense and giving an ancient product a new audience.
As eclectic as they are as people, they are all drawn together by a passion bordering on zeal for what they sell on their stalls at Borough Market. After each day with each trader, I walked away into the bowels of London Bridge tube with a spring in my step and a deep sense of pride that I was in some small way connected to their market. After each day on their stalls, I left with a bag of goodies and cooked as soon as my coat was off and my children kissed. There is nothing so motivating for this cook as the kind of perfect, eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head produce that these six work so hard to proffer.
Striving for perfection
They are up early—Jock is prowling around New Covent Market at 2am to find the best fruit—and they listen to their customers: Olivier got feedback that his sourdough was too sour so he changed it. I watched Eduardo remove individual beans from an entire batch because they carried some small blemish. Detail is everything, as it is for any of the successful traders at Borough—food retail is hard when you’re not obsessively striving for perfection, so to make it work when you are, not cutting corners, insisting on the best from your suppliers, is nigh-on impossible.
On Friday, I’m going to cook four recipes that I dedicate to these six and their produce. Each recipe uses at least two of them and I’ve pushed myself to make cogent dishes with eclectic ingredients while keeping it as simple as possible, to let the produce shine. And that I suppose, to my eternal shame, is the ‘chef’s concept’. He hopes you like it.
Join Luke for tips, tastings and recipes on Friday 7th September in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm