Corona diaries: Intermission

A short intermission this week, partly because doing twelve weeks of these diaries in a row is quite enough to put you all through and partly because I’m superstitious and this would be week thirteen. I once had a city break in Helsinki where I stayed in a converted prison and they put me in Room 13. It was a really lovely room – well, cell – but even so I asked if they could move me: sadly it wasn’t possible. My lovely night’s sleep – and my Facebook friends’ jokes about me being careful not to drop the soap in the shower – did nothing to fix the superstition.

I couldn’t leave you with nothing to read this week, so instead you get a blast from the past – a reprint of the interview I did with Matt Farrall from the Whitley Pump, back in 2017 when I was just starting restaurant reviews again after a post-divorce sabbatical. It was a lovely chat in The Turks, over a beautiful meal cooked by Caucasian Spice Box (as they were known back then). At times it felt more like a rambling conversation than an interview, but amid all of Matt’s brilliant anecdotes and ruminations – I wasn’t entirely sure who was interviewing who at one point – he asked plenty of interesting questions. Some of the questions were supplied by Matt’s friend Donna, who at the time I only knew from Twitter.

Three years on, everything has changed. I have spent the best part of three happy years reviewing restaurants, until the pandemic closed them all. Keti and Zezva left the Turks that summer, and have finally found a permanent home at Geo Café where, for my money, they bake the town’s finest bread. Donna has become a regular guest at my readers’ lunches and if you’re on the same table as Donna and her partner Nige you are guaranteed a brilliant, entertaining time.

Matt sadly died two years ago, but leaves behind a body of brilliant work at the Whitley Pump. And the Whitley Pump itself has announced its closure, as I covered in my diary a while ago. Since the survival of all of the writing on the Whitley Pump is by no means guaranteed, this seemed to be a good moment to rescue this piece. Normal service will resume next week – and I have a belting interview for you next Tuesday – but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this.

– photo by Adam Harrington

For the past four years or so, Edible Reading has been the fearless Keyser Söze of Reading’s food scene, the anonymous blogger and local food chronicler of our times. I not only managed to track ER down to the great Katesgrove boozer The Turks for an 80s-Smash-Hits-style interview, but I also managed to eat an incredible, table-creaking five course Georgian meal from former in-residence food sensation Caucasian Spice Box just before they left the pub for pastures new.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” said Virginia Woolf and, good lord, we had five courses of glory that night. I would recommend you try their food at the Blue Collar street food market on a Wednesday or wherever they set up in future: it doesn’t taste like anything I have eaten before. The meatballs alone are a work of spicy, meaty, dense joy, served with sauce divine and made with love and national pride.

All I can say about ER’s appearance without giving anything away, is that prison tattoos along with bleached permed hair, dark dreadlocked eyebrows and a tank top with tartan Lycra strides have never been so beautifully arrayed. I swore an oath over a picture of Robin Friday and a lardy cake that I would never ever breathe a word of their identity.

What do you think of food photos?
Well, I do it, so I can hardly complain. But I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t reviewing meals.

Can you cook?
No! I can cook about three dishes. I’ve never understood this idea that restaurant reviewers must also be cooks: just because you love music doesn’t mean you can play the guitar.

What would be your death row meal?
Do I get three courses? I’d start with sashimi. I love Japanese food and it’s very light, so it leaves room for the rest. Shamefully, I’d have really good, perfectly crispy southern fried chicken – like KFC used to be before it got grubby. And I’d skip dessert and go for a cheeseboard.

How do you attract a waiter’s attention?
Like everyone else: I meerkat up from my menu hoping that they spot me, and generally they do. I do have a bad habit of sitting with my back to the room and so delegating that job to someone else.

What’s your best wrong food?
I love pork scratchings, but they’re a bit middle class now. For all-time wrong, it has to be a Fray Bentos. It’s the soggy underpastry.

Favourite bar snacks?
The range in the Allied is about right, I think. Bacon and Scampi Fries, peanuts, flamin’ hot Monster Munch. All the food groups.

How many fridge magnets do you own?
I do not own a single fridge magnet.

Where did you learn to write so well?
At school I guess! But I think writing is like other forms of exercise: the more you do it, the better you get.

Have you tried lardy cake?
Yes, as a child. But it’s not my bag as I just don’t like dried fruit.

Do you have any no-go desserts?
Apart from not liking dried fruit I’m not a big fan of hot desserts, all that school dinners stuff. I often wonder if a dessert’s really going to be more fun than going home and having a bar of chocolate.

Name some pretentious foods.
I don’t think there are pretentious foods, just pretentious people. It would be easy to knock foams and veloutés and serving food on slates, but I don’t like clichés. If food is good, it’s good.

What about the rise of street food?
I’ve been critical of street food on Twitter because it never feels that much cheaper than food in restaurants even though they’ve cut out a lot of overheads. But that said, Blue Collar does some great stuff, and it feels like they have the balance about right.

Has Reading’s food improved?
Unquestionably it’s improved. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of good independent restaurants (and cafés and producers) who are starting to work together to build a food culture. We’re also seeing some of the smaller, more interesting chains come here – driven, I expect, by Crossrail.

Do you ever feel guilty about relating the bad food experiences?
I’d feel guiltier if I pulled my punches about a restaurant and readers went there and had a crap meal. I always try to be kind and constructive with small independent places unless they’re really exploitative. It’s different with chains: they can take it, and they should know better.

Do you like music in restaurants?
Not especially. You should be with someone where you don’t notice the music.

Are you a generous tipper?
Yes, and I can’t stand people who aren’t.

Do you split the bill equally?
I’d prefer not to eat with people who don’t share the bill equally (unless someone isn’t drinking). It’s like the rounds system in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but it balances out in the long run.

Where are you from?
Bristol. I moved here when I was eight and, apart from university, I’ve pretty much been here ever since. It’s never been better than it is now.

Where was your first ever review?
Pepe Sale, one of my favourite restaurants. The first places I went to were places people might well know, so they could see if they agreed with me.

I think your ratings list is a massive achievement; is it a labour of love?
I prefer to see it as a body of work.

Where would you go for sustenance if it’s too late for an evening meal?
King’s Grill every time! It’s open until 2am, it’s spotlessly clean, the staff are amazing and it does brilliant chicken kebabs.

What food and other writers do you admire?
I don’t like restaurant reviewers who make it all about themselves. The broadsheet reviewers are more entertaining than informative, but they’re just not my bag. Outside food, I admire Barbara Pym, Anne Tyler, Phillip Larkin and Tove Jansson (who wrote the Moomin books but also wrote beautiful books for adults). I’d give my eye teeth to write like David Sedaris.

Are you happy to be anonymous and unrecognised or would it be nice to get an award or two?
I’ve never given a shit about awards. But I do love that fact that every week someone on Twitter says they’ve eaten at a place I recommended and loved it: that feels like winning the lottery. I’m just glad I’ve done my bit to make Reading a nicer place to live and eat in.

Can average food be OK in a great setting and vice versa?
Absolutely it can. An okay meal can be elevated by great service and atmosphere. A good meal is the result of a complicated blend of factors. I have eaten technically brilliant foods in soulless rooms served by chilly people and thought that I’d rather have been at Caucasian Spice or Bakery House. And if you don’t believe me, think about meals on holiday. They’re often brilliant, even when the food is nothing special.

Have you ever had a quasi-religious feeling of ecstasy from a great dish?
Many times. I think if you love food it’s often because you’ve had an experience like that as a child – frequently abroad – and you’re chasing that dragon for the rest of your life. Counterintuitively, when I really love a dish I shake my head.

Custard, ice cream or cream?
Ice cream every time. I don’t like custard: I don’t trust liquid with a skin.

Do you eat a messy burger with your hands or use cutlery?
I’m not afraid to eat burgers with cutlery. Whatever works, basically. I know some people judge this, but burgers nowadays are so enormous that you have to unhook your jaw to eat them, so what are you supposed to do?

Why are you compelled to write?
I love writing, I love writing about food and I hoped people would enjoy it. I think all needs to have an audience in mind – if not, you may as well keep a diary. It’s not for posterity though: if I wanted to write something timeless it wouldn’t be a review of an Italian restaurant.

What’s your favourite biscuit?
I’m going through a phase of liking a milk chocolate Hob Nob but my all time favourite is Choco Leibniz: it’s basically a Rich Tea having sex with a giant slab of chocolate.

Do you have other interests other than food?
Same as everyone I guess – I like going to the pub and I have a great group of friends who I love dearly. I enjoy travel and am a keen but very amateur photographer.

I have re-discovered lovely loose leaf tea. Where should I go?
Definitely C.U.P. They do the best loose leaf tea in Reading without exception.

What is your madeleine moment; that strong memory brought on by food?
It is a personal story, but I didn’t speak to my mother for several years and when we reconciled she went through a phase of cooking me all my childhood favourites. So for me it’s her stew and dumplings and, perhaps most of all, her steak and mushroom pie.

And where do you go for breakfast in Reading?
Reading’s a bit poor for breakfast, but I do like Côte‘s French breakfast with crumbly sweet boudin noir and, to my surprise, Bluegrass which also does very nice baked eggs. Still haven’t found a decent omelette, mind you. Maybe I need to head to Rafina.

The honesty, wit and precision of the reviews, along with the dissection of evidence and an obvious love of our town, are distinctive traits of ER’s writing.

“In a time of a universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act” can be applied to personal lives, food or any other important cultural or political issue in my view. Edible Reading are a veritable catcher in the rye bread; they are like Orwell’s apocryphal rough men in the night, protecting us against the bad and the mediocre, exposing the complacent established behemoths and extolling the virtuous, without fear or favour.

It is heartening to know they shall not cease this culinary fight, nor shall their knife and fork sleep in their hands. They are doing it for us, with scant regard to their bank balance and waistline, bless them and praise them whoever they are.

Q&A: Joanna Hu, Kungfu Kitchen

Born in China’s Shandong Province, Joanna Hu did her first degree there before moving to Wales to study a BA there as an exchange student. She then did a Masters at Warwick University, where she met her future husband Steven. She spent ten years working in telecoms and then food, progressing from sales executive to head of sales, but never gave up on the dream of running her own business. At the end of 2018, her family moved to Reading to start their adventure, opening Kungfu Kitchen on Christchurch Green offering authentic regional Chinese food.

Eighteen months later, Kungfu Kitchen is a firm favourite in Reading and many of its dishes – salt and pepper tofu, lamb with cumin, fish fragrant pork and sweet and sour aubergines to name but a few – have attained iconic status. Joanna and Steven have kept Kungfu Kitchen trading during lockdown, delivering across Reading, while homeschooling their two children and carrying out improvements to the restaurant: Steven may be Reading’s most recognised (and most knackered!) delivery man.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
I miss people eating in our restaurant. We have such fun together – they become friends and even family for us. I believe eating in a restaurant is about more than food and service, it’s also a meeting of souls. 

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The people! People in Reading are so much friendlier and I love the community they have made. I can one hundred per cent say that I don’t regret giving everything up to move to Reading. There have been some difficult moments, but overall we feel so appreciated and so lucky to have met so many lovely people. The world is so big and life is not forever, so I feel fortunate to have found this place. We love Reading.  

What’s your earliest memory of food?
I come from the seaside, from Rizhao City (it means sunshine) in Shandong Province, and in Rizhao you eat seafood all the time, even for breakfast. When I was a little kid, we ate huge prawns and crabs, just simply boiled or steamed. The natural flavour is just the best. I wish I could take you all to China and to my hometown to see and feel the real China, Chinese culture and Chinese people. 

What’s the one dish on your menu you feel most passionate about?
Hotpot isn’t on our normal menu, but I always wanted to make it more widely eaten. It’s like a fondue. You have a hot pot full of flavoured broth (several of them, actually, spicy or mild) simmering on the table in front of you and you cook raw ingredients in the pot as you go along – whether that’s thinly sliced meat, tofu, seafood or vegetables. You don’t have it with rice or noodles, you eat with with a dipping sauce with plenty of sesame and garlic.

It’s a great way to eat because the meals go on for a long time, with all of you sitting around the pot talking and eating. It’s such a comfortable, sociable, relaxed experience with friends, family or even colleagues. And having lots of different broths and ingredients means it’s very easy for everybody – carnivores, vegetarians and vegans – to eat together.

How do you relax?
Reading books and journals and watching funny programmes online. But when lockdown finishes, I’ll go back to the leisure centre to join the cycling program: it’s my favourite sport.  

What is your favourite smell?
I love all the smells that come out of our restaurant kitchen every day. I’m very lucky – I get to smell it all the time without putting on weight! 

What made you decide to move to Reading and open a restaurant here?
Let’s start with why I wanted to open a restaurant. When I came to the UK in 2003 to study I found out that what people think of as Chinese food isn’t authentic, and that the China in people’s minds is nothing like the real China and real Chinese culture. So I always had a dream of opening my own authentic Chinese restaurant. I’ve always believed that food and love are the same thing – and then I met Steven, my Mr Right, and an English chef. Is that fate or a coincidence? God knows, but I knew I was the luckiest woman in the world for sure. He takes care of me, looks after me and spoils me.

So why Reading? Being head of sales for twelve years I travelled a lot in the UK and I always had my eye on opportunities to start my own business and places where I could open a restaurant. When I identified a site in Reading, Steven and I sat down and had the big conversation – he believes in me more than I believe in myself – and he said that if I was sure about this one, we should go ahead. So I resigned my job in sales and we took on this site and it was settled. I think working in food was my destiny.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was definitely eating fish in a restaurant in my home town. The owner of the restaurant worked on the fishing boats during the day and then cooked it in the evening – a huge, fresh fish cooked simply for a couple of hours. It was just so delicious.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I had to do a big motivational speech to cheer my team up at work, but the thought of doing it made me so nervous that when the time came, I forgot most of the words. It probably wasn’t as motivational as I’d hoped! 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Being honest, although I love Reading I miss the food in Birmingham. They have the most authentic South Asian food: Ladypool Road in particular has many amazing restaurants.

You and Steven make a fantastic team. What’s the secret of your success?
To be fair it helps that we have a really good head chef leading the kitchen! Steven and I manage the rest of it together: he is great at operations and logistics (and paperwork!) I do customer service. We divide the responsibilities between us but also monitor and encourage each other. We had our teething troubles, but I think we’re getting stronger and stronger as a unit. We have the same goal: to provide the most authentic quality Chinese cuisine and the best unique service that we can. And we care about each other, and our customers. We want people to feel at home, like they have family looking after them. Problems are always easier to solve over a really good meal, and strangers are just friends we’re yet to meet.

How did you and Steven meet?
I think I was meant to meet Steven! When I got the offer to do a masters degree at Warwick I told my father I didn’t want any financial support (I’m very proud) and that I would do part time jobs to support myself. Warwick University has one of the biggest conference centres in Europe and they needed hundreds of part-time employees so, along with my Chinese friends, I worked there. 

I usually worked as a PA to management but one day on my lunch break I heard that there was a really handsome chef that all the girls were fighting to work with. I found that hard to believe, but my curiosity got the better of me so I went to have a look. And oh my goodness, he really was that handsome: that’s when I started to believe in love at first sight.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
All our customers, who have found a place for our restaurant in their hearts and given our food a chance.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
It is not a film, it’s a TV series: Friends. I even wanted to name my children after the characters, but Steven vetoed all of them apart from Rachel and then I had two boys. I’ll just have to ask my sons to look for girlfriends called Rachel. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 
Lots of them! There’s no shortcut to success: Rome wasn’t built in a day. You have to focus on quality or your business won’t succeed. You have to find talented people. You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. And don’t ever quit. 

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Surprisingly, I don’t normally eat crisps (although I’ve tried many types). If I had to choose, it would be original Pringles. They’re crisps, right?  

Where is your happy place?
By the seaside, with a fine sandy beach and not many people around. Sitting on the beach reading books, running and playing with my kids, and then cooking the seafood we’ve caught ourselves. That’s the life I long for.

I’ve eaten at Kungfu Kitchen and had the fear of God struck into me by your karaoke machine. What song would you sing at karaoke?
Wow, good question! I actually have a really good singing voice and came third in a singing competition back at university in China. I’ve hardly sung at all since I came to the UK, because my life has completely changed. I arrived in the UK in 2003 the week before Chinese New Year, homesick and eager to explore this new world, but because I felt my English wasn’t good enough I lost confidence in singing English songs and, eventually, Chinese songs too. And now I’m so busy I hardly get time to stop. But to answer your question, the song I like the most is My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. I’ll sing for all my customers, one day.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I love seafood, cooked naturally and simply, like it is back in Shandong. Shellfish especially, just boiled or steamed.

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind. Straightforward. Funny. 

Q&A: Phil Carter, Anonymous Coffee

Phil Carter has lived in and around Reading all his life and worked in the hospitality industry for the best part of thirty years. After a twelve year stint at hospitality giant Baxter Storey, he left to pursue his dream of a job in the coffee industry in 2013. He spent four years at Tamp Culture before setting up Anonymous Coffee in 2018 and is now one of the most recognisable faces (and beards!) of Reading’s coffee scene.

During lockdown Anonymous has delivered coffee and coffee-making equipment on a weekly basis – it reopens for takeaway on Chain Street from today.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
People! I miss seeing our customers. I love entertaining – my mum always used to have friends round and entertained a lot, which must be where I get it from. While I love drinking coffee, I really enjoy making it and sharing it with other people more. It’s the whole ceremony and experience.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
When I was really young our neighbour used to bake tiny little individual Hovis loaves and we used to sit on their doorstep eating them fresh out of the oven with little jars of strawberry jam. That and baking cakes with my mum (mainly so I could clean out the mixing bowl!)

What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
It’s pretty hard to describe, but blasting lime deposits out of the chimney silo in a municipal waste incinerator filtration system. It was hot, sweaty work in a dark, confined, awkward space and it stank to high hell. Luckily I only had to do it once (and we did get to blow stuff up at the end of it!).

When did your love affair with coffee begin, and what triggered it?
In 2002 I had my first real barista training, and first decent coffee. I was working for BaxterStorey at the Oracle campus on Thames Valley Park. We changed coffee suppliers, and the new suppliers gave us proper barista training. The coffee tasted amazing. Shortly after that I tried a Kenyan coffee at Monmouth Coffee in London. It tasted like Ribena, blew my mind and showed just how varied the taste of coffee could be: from that moment on I was hooked.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
There are so many things I love about this town. First and foremost the people – there’s such an eclectic mix of characters and backgrounds. We also have a strong community of independent businesses who support each other and work together which is really cool: from breweries and restaurants to arts and culture, there’s a lot going on in town.

I love the irony of one of Reading’s most high profile cafés being called Anonymous: where did the name come from?
There are several reasons, but first and foremost exactly that, the irony. When I was younger my best friend’s dad had a boat called Anonymous; I just thought it was a really fun play on words. I also want the focus to be on great quality coffee and hospitality, not the ‘brand’ so I wanted the brand to be anonymous. It’s also a nod to all of the people before us in the supply chain such as the farmers, producers, roasters etc. who remain anonymous to most of the people who drink their coffee. It just works for a lot of reasons. Everybody asks ‘why Anonymous?’ so I guess in hindsight it’s been quite a good choice.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
The World’s Fastest Indian. It’s set in the early 60s – Anthony Hopkins plays Burt Munro, a New Zealander who puts everything on the line to take his home-built motor cycle to Bonville to set a world speed record. It’s an intriguing and endearing film. A bit of a contrast, but I also really love Sexy Beast with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, among others.

If you had to give up coffee or alcohol, which would it be?
Alcohol.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
That’s a tough one! I think the best meal was at XO in Sydney when I was visiting my sister. There was a several month waiting list, but we somehow managed to blag a table. The food was sublime and we ate to a backdrop of the harbour bridge. The food wasn’t quite as good but the most amazing dining experience I’ve had was in New York: I was lucky enough to eat at Windows On The World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. That was definitely the most memorable dining experience I’ve had.

You must have one of Reading’s most famous beards. Do you ever suffer from beard envy?
I’m not entirely sure that’s true. And yes I do, but I won’t say of whom!

Where will you go for your first meal after lockdown?
Hopefully a BBQ with the rest of my family.

What’s your most treasured possession?
A letter that my mum wrote to me and my sister before we said goodbye. I have part of it tattooed on me.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? 
You’ll probably lament me here, but I’m a sucker for prawn cocktail – and I was born in Henley – so Tyrrell’s Posh Prawn Cocktail.

Where is your happy place?
As much as I love being around people and coffee machines, nothing is quite as relaxing as flying my kite and lounging around in the sun on a nice quiet beach (which is becoming increasingly difficult to do). I love the sea.

Do you secretly judge people who have sugar in their coffee?
Not at all, but I’ll always encourage them to try it without. Everybody is different and we all taste things differently, that’s human nature. That said, a lot of people only put sugar in their coffee because it needs it – that can be the case with lower quality and more robusta based drinks. We use coffee that has more natural sweetness and balance, so doesn’t necessarily need added sugar. That said, I’m very happy when we can help someone kick the habit.

What’s your most unappealing habit?
Probably talking over people. I don’t mean to, and I try not to, but I’m aware I do it sometimes and hate it when I do: I’m getting better at not doing it, though.

Who would play you in the film of your life? 
I don’t know who would be best suited to the role, but I know who I would like to. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it would have to be De Niro.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? 
Dirty, slow-cooked, sticky, smoky barbecued meat. I also have a really sweet tooth – I can polish off an entire Victoria sandwich (no cream in the middle!). It’s not a good combination for my waistline.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Something my mum told me – ‘life is for living, we are here for a good time, we are not here for a long time’. Don’t put things off: if you want to do something just do it. It’s better to regret trying and failing than not trying at all.

Describe yourself in three words.
Outgoing, ambitious, considerate. Coffee!

Q&A: Tutu Melaku, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

Tutu Melaku was born in Addis Ababa and moved to Reading in 1991. In 2006 she opened Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in the Reading International Solidarity Centre and stayed there until 2019 when she took on her own premises in Palmer Park. Both Tutu and her restaurant have won numerous awards over the last fourteen years and earned plaudits in both the local and national press. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table is open in lockdown for takeaway, selling its dishes and sauces through the website. Tutu lives in New Town with her two children.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
My customers, because they’re like my extended family. We still keep up some online social contact through zoom coffee meetups and Facebook, but it’s not the same as filling my café with smiles, hugs, laughter, good food and good times!

What brought you to Reading almost 30 years ago? What were your first impressions of it?
I came from Ethiopia to join my (now ex-) husband who was doing his PhD at Reading University.  My first impressions of England were confusing: the doors of all the houses were closed and I couldn’t see any neighbours. It was as if there were no people! It was quite a lonely time.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Shiro. It’s a stew whose primary ingredient is powdered chickpeas or broad bean meal. It’s often prepared with the addition of minced onions, garlic and, depending upon regional variation, ground ginger or chopped tomatoes and chillies. It’s served with injera, and we ate it every day as children. I can still smell and taste it in my imagination.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading? 
The community includes such a wide of range of fascinating people. After those early lonely days, I soon got to understand the English way of life better, and now I feel at home and I love the richness of our community, and know so many amazing people. 

What is your most treasured possession? 
My two beautiful children, Bethlehem and Biruk. They are both in the middle of “online” university exams at the moment, so I have the unexpected delight of their company during lockdown. I’m so proud of them and love who they are – they’re great company and a massive blessing to me.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Cleaning university halls, when I first came to the UK. It was grim, especially Monday mornings after wild uni weekends!

What prompted you to start Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in 2006?
In 2004 I was doing some mobile catering from home – food for birthday parties, weddings and office lunches.  It became so popular that my home kitchen just wasn’t big enough any longer, so I begun to look for premises. After being turned down lots of times, I managed to convince RISC to hand over their kitchen so I could get my business established there.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
To be honest, I’m not a fussy eater. For me, a meal is more about the people and the atmosphere – the social side – than about the food. I’ve had really simple meals with totally amazing people, and those are occasions I’ll remember for ever!

What was your most embarrassing moment?
When I came to England I went shopping in a super market and picked up a delicious looking tin of meat. It had such a nice picture of a cat on it.  I didn’t know at that stage that English people bought tins of food for their pets…

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My sister says I always said I would run my own school one day, maybe because I was the bossy big sister! My business has given me the amazing opportunity to make that dream come true: I’ve been able to set up “Tutu’s Fund For The Future”, raising money to build schools in Ethiopia and sponsor children through their education there. So far I’ve been able to build two schools in a remote deprived part of Ethiopia. It’s great to give back to my country, and to see my childhood dream come true in a way I could never have imagined.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
I will go for coffee with my friends. I don’t eat out that often, but coffees and catch-ups are things I miss a lot!

You’ve run your business for almost fifteen years. What have been the highest and lowest points so far?
The highest point was opening my own premises in Palmer Park last March. It was better than a dream come true, after so much hard work. The premises were run down, filthy and full of rubble when I was first given the keys, and – with the help of some wonderful friends who believed in me – I worked day and night to make it into the beautiful homely place it is now. The lowest point was the first few days of the shock of lockdown, when I realised my life and work were going to change dramatically over the coming months.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I never watch a film twice: I always like new films!

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Michelle and Barack Obama.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Black Pepper Kettle Crisps.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
All things are possible if you work hard.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I am an open book: I don’t have any secrets!

Where is your happy place?
Being at home, with my kids. That’s definitely been the plus side of lockdown: having time to be together and enjoy our home and garden.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Ginger biscuits. I’ve been known to eat one before bedtime, then sneak downstairs and get another one for a midnight snack!

Describe yourself in three words.
Loyal, positive and persevering.

Q&A: Kevin Farrell, Vegivores

Kevin Farrell moved to England from Belfast in 2010 to further his career in commercial banking. In 2017 he established Vegivores, at the time Reading’s only fully vegan street food and catering company, with regular appearances at Blue Collar and various other events. This helped build a strong and loyal following, and Vegivores opened its first bricks and mortar location in St Martin’s Precinct in Caversham in October 2019. Kevin lives in Caversham with his wife, Emma.

Vegivores has continued to trade during lockdown and has a popular delivery arm with online ordering. Later this week, they will officially announce that they will also open weekend daytimes for brunch, coffee and cake takeaways.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
From a work perspective, I miss having our whole team together. We assembled a great bunch and we have a lot of fun at work so it’s strangely quiet at times now. 

From a personal perspective I miss having some sort of social outlet. I didn’t have a lot of free time from work pre-lockdown and if I did it was always for a specific event or concert. Now, like many people I guess, I find myself with a bit more free time and nowhere to go. I can’t complain though: in honesty I’m appreciating the slower pace of life a bit and there are definitely things I’ll try to maintain when lockdown ends.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
I’ve lived in Reading for over eight years now and in Caversham for five of those, and I like that I am still constantly discovering things and places that I knew nothing about. I also like the fact that outsiders think the town is dominated by chains but people who live here know that we have a thriving independent (and therefore unique) sector across retail and hospitality, and an amazing sense of community that sits behind that.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
This isn’t a pleasant story but, regardless of veganism, I’ve been allergic to all forms of poultry for my entire life (weird, I know). One of my earliest memories is being about three years old and ending up rolling around choking on the kitchen floor after being given a chicken leg by my parents. They were obviously oblivious to the cause at the time and a few similarly traumatic occurrences happened before it got worked out!

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve had a few spells of living in Spain and I’m obsessed with all things Spanish so a lot of our downtime is spent there. It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific plate of food, because they eat so well, but nights spent bar hopping in San Sebastián grabbing a couple of pintxos in each place have been some of the best food experiences I’ve ever had.

What were the biggest challenges in going from a street food stall to permanent premises?
Getting to the point where we could actually open the doors was really tough. The process of getting the keys to the property following acceptance of our offer was incredibly drawn out (it took about 10 months in total and another 3 months of fit out), so trying to keep the existing business going and growing whilst dealing with lawyers, builders, licensing and suppliers and recruit a team meant there was seldom a dull moment! The biggest challenge when we opened, I think, was being able to deliver a much more varied menu from a space that isn’t that much bigger: over time we managed to streamline some processes to make that work.

What is your most unappealing habit?
This might make me sound like a toddler, but I’m a notoriously messy eater. I don’t know how it happens but I seem to manage to spill at least a part of almost everything I eat or drink. It’s incredibly frustrating and a source of constant amusement to my friends.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food?
My earliest memories of being completely engrossed in something food-related are from watching Keith Floyd on TV. I think I was more mesmerised by him and his swagger than the food he was cooking, and even today I’ll never flick past one of his programmes. Watching him gave me a great awareness of how food varied from country to country and definitely led to me taking an interest in the wider world of cooking. 

In more modern times my biggest influence has to be Sarah (the other half of Vegivores’ management team). She quite literally never stops thinking or talking about food and how it can be done better, and it’s impossible not to be motivated by her passion.

What is your favourite smell?
Probably a strange one, but without a doubt it’s stale beer. When I was about 15 I got a job in a local pub and it sparked my whole interest in hospitality. I had so many good times there over many years and every time I walk past a pub in the morning when the cleaners are doing their bit I can smell the revelry of the night before and it instantly takes me back.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
The strong likelihood is that it will be Quattro. It’s a ten minute walk from home, they have a decent vegan menu, their food is always good, it’s always busy with a nice atmosphere and the staff are always lovely. Hopefully it’s a Saturday and I can make it down to the Double Barrelled tap room for a couple of hours in the afternoon beforehand. That would be a pretty perfect day in my book.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Why?!’ (apparently), and ‘Delicious!’

It feels, as an outsider, that the world of plant-based eating has made exponential progress in the last five years. Would you agree, and what changes would you most like to see in the next five?  
I’d definitely agree. From supermarkets to restaurants, the plant-based offering has exploded and it’s because the public has created such a demand. The government has been telling us relentlessly that the response to this pandemic has been led by science. Independent science has been telling us for quite a while now that plant based eating is optimal when it comes to health, so my hope is that the government allows itself to be led by science in other areas and makes plant based food the norm in schools and hospitals where the consumers are those most in need of the right nutrition.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
When young and naive I once inadvertently told a job interviewer that his boss (who I knew socially) had told me a monkey could do his job. It caused a full-on mutiny amongst the staff and needless to say I didn’t get the job. Not my finest moment!

What one film can you watch over and over again?
To be my usual cool self I would say Goodfellas – and I’d mean it – but my wife would tell you that the true answer to that question is Jurassic Park!

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
As far as I’m concerned you can’t beat a simple salted crisp, the thicker the better. Real, Tyrrell’s and Kettle are probably the pick of the bunch in the UK.

What’s your biggest bugbear about people’s attitudes to vegetarianism and veganism?
Probably a reluctance to try something because of a preconceived idea that it won’t be as good. Our customers are an adventurous bunch, so I’m lucky in that respect. Amongst the wider population though, if you sit two identical products next to each other and label one of them as vegan it’s likely to elicit a reaction in people. That’s part of the reason why we downplay the vegan element of our business, because in our eyes ultimately it’s all just food and anyone can enjoy it.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
An obscure one but Eamonn Owens is ginger, Irish, and the same age as me so he’d have to be in with a decent shout.

Where is your happy place?
A golf course on a summer evening or on a boat, any boat.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Cold pizza the morning after the night before. Delicious!

Tell us something people might not know about you.
Some very questionable music that I made quite a long time ago is still on iTunes now.

Describe yourself in three words.
Happy, excited, exhausted!