Q&A: Glen Dinning, Blue Collar

Glen Dinning has been the mastermind behind Blue Collar Street Food for nearly four years, going from running a street food stall cooking burgers to a weekly food market, adding Cheese Feast and Feastival in Forbury Gardens as major events in Reading’s food calendar. In 2018 he won the Pride Of Reading Award for Entrepreneur Of The Year, and last year he was awarded the contract to provide the match day food at the Madejski Stadium, making Reading’s fans some of the best-fed in the UK. He lives with his girlfriend in West Reading.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Street food, pubs, restaurants, football, everything. I’m desperate to get back to work – I’ve volunteered but can see myself being more of a hindrance than help.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Trying apple crumble for the first time. I still can’t get enough of it – brown sugar instead of white is the key. 

What’s the worst street food pitch you’ve ever heard?
Someone once rang to pitch their entomophagy stall (the practice of eating insects). At the time I had no idea what it meant so just nodded along until I looked it up, horrified, later. I’m all for giving things a go but the conversation with Environmental Health would’ve been a difficult one.

You’ve been running Blue Collar for coming up to four years. What’s the most ridiculous situation you’ve found yourself in?
Early on, a rival organiser tried to sabotage our events by getting their food traders to sign up, but pull out at the last minute leaving empty pitches. On a more positive note, the celebrations for Blue Collar’s first game at Reading FC ended at the bar with Sir John Madejski, Ady Williams and a drunken phone call to one of my heroes, former manager Brian McDermott.

What words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Do you know what I mean?”

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The independent scene in our town continues to build. You can have breakfast at Yolk, lunch at Vegivores or Shed and dinner at Bakery House, Clays or Geo Café and have an experience unique to Reading. The independent coffee places and pubs were thriving – before Coronavirus hit I genuinely thought in ten years’ time we would have an identity of our own as strong as Bristol or Oxford, but now I’m not so sure: everything is up in the air.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Obama, Gervais, Robin Friday and Don King – he’s a controversial figure but the best salesman there’s ever been.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
The Godfather.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A meal at José, a tapas restaurant in London by the Spanish chef José Pizarro, had a big impact on me. It’s a tiny space, about four hundred square feet, walk ins only and the menus are chalked up daily depending on what’s available. The food is always brilliant and eaten stood up, with wooden barrels to rest small plates on. It’s a different kind of dining experience but there’s such a buzz to it, it’s so authentic and I’d love to try and open something like that one day. On the finer dining side of things, I really like Dinner by Heston and Manchester House by Aidan Byrne.

What’s your most unappealing habit?
Snoring.

Where will you go for your first meal after lockdown?
Bakery House for the chicken shawarma.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
If you find a job you love, you’ll never work again.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
The original Hula Hoop.

Where is your happy place?
A long boozy lunch in the sunshine.

What would you be doing in life if you weren’t running Blue Collar?
I had visions of being a comedy agent and promoter for a while and started a little business hiring out pub function rooms, booking comedians and selling tickets. It led to a job selling shows at the Edinburgh Festival and was fun, but I think I’d find it difficult to enjoy something that isn’t food and drink related now. 

How do you relax?
When I started Blue Collar I was still young enough to be able to drink heavily to get through stressful times and not wake up with a monster hangover the next day. More recently, I’ve jumped on every fad going – my girlfriend has tried to get me into yoga during isolation but I’m not sure my body is designed to bend that way.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
If we’re being honest, it would be a low budget project that would go straight to DVD. A former Hollyoaks star would probably be the best I could hope for.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Cheese. The smellier the better.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
My first little food business was selling chocolate bars in the school playground when I was eleven. I used to dabble in a few other things too, like watches and pens, but then Jamie Oliver came along and banned schools from selling sweets in vending machines. It meant my only competition was gone and my sales went through the roof. I owe that man a Wispa.

Describe yourself in three words.
Ambitious, friendly, foodie.

Bhel Puri House

Bhel Puri House is one of those places that it would be easy never to spot, let alone visit; it’s tucked down a side street as part of the George Hotel (opposite the Minster Street entrance to the Oracle) with small windows that make it hard to see what’s on offer inside. It has good credentials, though, as an offshoot of the highly regarded Royal Tandoori. It offers what the website describes as “Indian street food”, which translates as a wide range of small dishes, practically all of them costing less than a fiver. Although it’s open until eight o’clock, it feels – from the menu at least – more like a lunch venue and was doing a healthy trade when I visited on a Sunday lunchtime.

The interior is quite basic and a little confusing. It’s a lot better than what was there before (remember Dickens Brasserie? No, I’ll bet that nobody else does either) but the thick black and white striped wallpaper and the basic tables and chairs don’t make it look inviting. Then there are the piles of clear plastic tubs arranged on the counter filled with various dry Indian foods and snacks (I won’t try and guess what they are; I’m far from an expert and I’m keen not to embarrass myself any more than necessary). Were these for diners? To take away? I had no idea, and I didn’t really know if I’d walked into a restaurant or a canteen.

Looking at the menu made me realise just how unfamiliar with Indian street food I am. Some of it was familiar, but much of it wasn’t. What’s kachori? What’s sev and would I like it? What’s chaat when it’s at home? I’m ashamed to say that it was one of those menus where, even after you’ve read the description, you’re still none the wiser about what the eventual dish is going to look like, and as much time was spent on Google as reading the options. The other diners (the majority of them Indian) were having no such difficulty, which I took as a promising sign.

Ordering here is at the counter (which, again, makes it feel less like a restaurant) so I trotted up and recited our pick. Given how difficult I’d found choosing, that was probably the point at which I should have asked the staff to make some recommendations, but somehow it didn’t feel appropriate. The service throughout was kind and polite yet oddly shy, in a way that made asking questions feel awkward. So instead I gave the menu my best guess based on a combination of the blurb and Google and sat back down to see what would turn up. I’d gone for a few gambles and a few safe bets, so I figured the worst that could happen was that there were one or two duffers.

First to arrive were the two most mainstream things I ordered: chilli paneer and Punjabi samosas. Maybe it’s my conventional taste coming out, but these were my two favourites. The paneer was just gorgeous – firm, sticky cubes of spicy, slightly salty cheese, cooked with chilli, garlic and fresh peppers which were almost caramelised. Overall the flavour was terrific – sweet, rich, hot but not overpowering. It was served on a bed of pointless lettuce, but you can’t have everything. It reminded me of that bad habit some cafes have – Picnic, for instance – of putting your napkin under your slice of cake, rendering the napkin completely useless (except of course that an iceberg lettuce garnish is even more useless than a napkin, and rarely any more edible).

Paneer

The Punjabi samosas were also very good. It you’re used to rather flat triangles, these were a world away from that – big fat pastry pyramids packed with potato, vegetable and spices. The pastry was crispy and indulgent without being heavy, and the filling had just the right amount of heat. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how they are Punjabi, or how Punjabi they are, but I liked them and that’s what matters.

Samosas

After that we moved into the more unknown reaches of the menu and it became clear that neither the menu nor Google Image Search had quite prepared me for kachori chaat. It’s rather hard to describe, so bear with me. At first sight it seemed that we’d ordered a big plate of yoghurt with very finely shredded bits of Bombay mix on top (this, it turns out, is sev – tiny chickpea noodles). Underneath the yoghurt, I discovered after a bit of claggy exploration with my fork, was a layer of kachori, small round pastries filled with lentils, onions and potatoes. Among all that that I also picked up fresh chopped onions and something crunchy that we couldn’t agree on: was it pomegranate? Was it puffed rice? Neither of us would have put our mortgage on a guess, put it that way. I’m not sure I would even have put my mortgage on knowing whether I liked it or not, because the combination of flavours (simultaneously sweet, tart, tangy and spicy), textures and all that stuff was so different from anything else I’ve eaten in the last year. It was in many ways so alien to what I normally try in restaurants that I felt a little bit as if I’d just eaten the national dish of the Moon.

Kachori chaat

The final pick was vada pav. The menu describes it as “spicy potato filling deep fried in a gram flour batter”. I was expecting something resembling a pakora, but what arrived instead looked more like a pair of veggie burgers. The potato was in a soft bun (reminiscent somehow of a McDonalds Filet-O-Fish) and served with two sauces, a green one pungent with coriander and a red one rich with chilli. This goes to show how remiss my Googling was, as every image I’ve subsequently found of vada pav looks exactly like the ones that arrived at my table. Once I’d got over that I found myself liking it, although it would have been nice to be able to feel my face afterwards. Everything else had been so subtly flavoured that I hadn’t quite realised any of my choices would be quite so stonkingly hot (there are no helpful chillies for illustration on the menu, another sign that they presume a degree of prior knowledge).

Vada pav

I was glad of the mango lassi I’d ordered by that point – it was delicious but no different, I don’t think, to any mango lassi I’ve had anywhere else. The masala chai was lovely, though I found it odd that it came unsweetened (perhaps this is for the English customers, as it’s normally a rich, sweet and slightly syrupy tea based on past experience). We didn’t stay for dessert – no gulab jamun for me, not this time anyway – but in any case we’d ordered more food than we could comfortably eat (in the name of research, of course). The bill came to twenty-one pounds, but you could easily leave full and spend less.

I’ve managed to get through almost the whole review without saying this, but I probably should: I believe, at the time of writing, that Bhel Puri House is currently Reading’s only entirely vegetarian restaurant. It’s the best kind of vegetarian restaurant, where you don’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice and in truth the real sacrifice would be eating somewhere else. You could easily order delicious things off the menu without even noticing, and not once did I find myself thinking This would be so much nicer if only there was some meat in it. I only mention it for all you vegetarians out there, in case you fancy an embarrassment of riches at lunchtime.

I could see everything wrong with Bhel Puri House without having to even try: unattractive room, sterile furniture, feels a bit like a cafeteria, strange product display on the counter (is it really plastic tubs full of Bombay mix? Damn. I promised myself I wouldn’t guess) and diffident service. And yet I still liked it a lot. It’s an interesting place: there’s nothing in Reading quite like it. Most people have stopped talking about small plates in restaurants, thank goodness, and yet Bhel Puri House – without fanfare – is offering exactly that, without the eye-watering bills usually associated with those kinds of places. It’s independent and imaginative, an lunch option that offers something completely different, perfect for those times when you don’t want the usual sandwich from the usual suspects but also don’t want to tackle a full meal in the middle of the day. I’ll go back, sans Google, and I’ll pluck up the courage to ask for recommendations next time. I’ll still order the chilli paneer though: just try and stop me.

Bhel Puri House – 6.8
Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF
0118 9572802

http://bhelpurihouse.co.uk/