A Borough life: formative years

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In an ongoing series, chef, food writer and Borough Market blogger Luke Mackay talks about his life-long relationship with food, cooking and the Market

Words: Luke Mackay
Image: John Holdship

After my first Borough Market visit, I wanted to get paid for doing food—I wanted a stall there or a Michelin star or to be AA Gill. I’d be an Elizabeth David for the noughties, go and work for Marco and indulge in as many drugs, women and stock cubes as I could. I’d probably get Fay’s job at the Standard or cater a royal wedding. Head of food buying at Harrods—how hard could that be? I could be AINSLEY HARRIET. Almost anything was possible.

Please though, don’t mistake any of this for the words of a man with a plan. Or a man blessed with drive and motivation. That’s not me—I am a dreamer and a poet, an idealist and a fool. I wait for life to happen to me instead of moulding it to my will. My food career started with me trying to impress a girl. And some fraud. The girl wanted to go and work on luxury yachts in the Med, so I followed her, told a load of lies on my CV and got a job as the chef on the largest single sloop yacht ever made. LOL.

Utter brass neck
My main food experience at this point had been wandering around a food market in Southwark, looking at things that I couldn’t afford, but my conversations with traders, my reading, my cooking for friends and my utter brass neck meant that I could talk the talk. I cringe now—asking the chief stewardess to pick me up some ‘nam pla’ (not ‘fish sauce’) or asking a cheese man how long his fresh Croatian cheese was aged for. I compared every market I came across to Borough and most of them, especially in Croatia with its variations on cabbage and beetroot, made me long for those wrought iron arches.

Every time I came home for the next couple of years, between cheffing seasons in the Alps and on yachts, I’d head straight for Borough, yearning for its cosy familiarity after stress and debauchery at sea or in the mountains. Nothing for me is a more spiritual, nowhere am I more at peace, than sitting on the kerb outside the Market Porter with a Monmouth filter coffee and a Ginger Pig sausage roll.

Awash with possibilities
I knew that I was done with seasons, I knew that I needed to settle down. Maybe some oysters at Wright Brothers and a plate of jamon at Brindisa while I thought about it. I was 28, life was awash with possibilities—I was a chef (OK, a ‘cook’) now, London had just been awarded the Olympics and England had won the Ashes. What a time to be alive!

But then some bad men tried to rip out London’s heart and soul with their rucksack bombs and their latent inadequacies and suddenly whether or not my olives were authentically Turkish or my scallops were hand-dived didn’t seem quite so important. My London died that day, the naive, safe one. But something stronger rose from the ashes. We woke up and carried on—and we realised that we had to worry about those scallops and those olives and all the other minutiae that make our world go round or they would quite, simply, win.