View from the stalls: James Neville

Categories: Behind the stalls

The familiar face behind Spice Mountain shares his thoughts on food and life at the Market

1—My route to working at Spice Mountain actually started ay my grandmother’s house. I was living with her while I was unemployed and would sometimes cook. I saw that the spices in her cupboard were really out of date, I think some bottles had been there since the 1980s. I decided, as a token of appreciation, to update her spice cupboard. I found Spice Mountain on the internet, loved the variety they sold and ordered everything I wanted. When they arrived, I was so impressed by the quality of the spices that I emailed Magali, who owns the business, asking if there were any jobs available. It so happened that someone had just left. I got the job. That was about three years ago.

2—I used to be a very experimental cook, much to the disgust of everyone else. There were quite a lot of failures. Since working here, I have become more conservative. Having access to the great ingredients from this stall and around the Market has taught me that less is definitely more. When working with really good produce, you can let the ingredients shine. In a way I have been re-learning how to cook and my food is much better.

3—The best thing about the job is the fact that I am talking to people about something I really like, all day. I have learned so much from Magali about spices and it is great to be able to share that knowledge with people every day when I come to work. It can be tiring at times, but you definitely get energy from the customers.

4—We have such a mix of customers. Because people use some kind of spice whatever their style of eating is, we get all of them coming to the stall. When I started Magali told me that the only thing our customers have in common is an interest in food, from the casual home cook to the professional chef. We get bartenders looking for interesting ingredients for drinks. There are non-cooks buying for their friends and family. We get every level of society here, as well as people from different parts of the world. Places like Paris and Hong Hong have wonderful food cultures, but they’re not as international as London’s, so they come to stock up on spices they can’t get at home.

5—One of the nice things about the shop is that it doesn’t cost much to try something. Many of the things we sell are only a couple of pounds. It means that while at first all the different spices and seasonings may seem a bit intimating, it is all really accessible if you are interested. You can also get something a bit special without breaking the bank.

6—Over the years I’ve developed friendships with regular customers, who always have a chat when they come in. You get to know their tastes and if we get a new product in I think they might like, I point it out to them. Some they like and some they don’t, but overall their spice repertoire does expand and that is nice to see.

7— I have definitely learned to be more adaptable as a person since starting here. There is always so much going on—on a busy day it can take 10 minutes to walk across the shop to fill a gap that has appeared on a shelf, because you keep getting side tracked.

8—Because of the nature of the stall, we get asked a large amount of questions. One of the most memorable was a customer who was making a set of chocolates based on the ancient Greek gods and wanted some advice. That was a challenge.

9—I think celery salt is really underrated. People see this greyish salt with the name of one of the least glamorous vegetables and move on, but I think it is amazing. At the moment it is my favourite thing we sell. It just brings this depth to dishes. When people try it, they are always really surprised at how nice it is.

10—The biggest lesson I have learned about food while working here is to appreciate the subtleties within a type of ingredient. I learned this through discovering the huge variety of chillies there are and their different tastes and uses. When I realised what a difference simply changing the type of chilli could make to a recipe, and that using the right one really lifted the dish, I realised this applied to all ingredients—everything from salts and peppers to different types of lamb should be appreciated for what they are. Understanding that had a real influence on my cooking.