Risotto balls and chicken feet: why London restaurants are specialising
PUBLISHED: 08:00 16 November 2016
Dave Arkin of Arancini Brothers and chef Mark Hix talk to Zoe Paskett about specialising their food and the difficulties in the restaurant industry
Some trends come and go. I can safely say I won’t tear my hair out if I’m not served coriander-infused foam on my salted caramel lamb chop. Call me old fashioned but foam belongs in the sink and caramel in the secret drawer under my desk.
It seems that the London food scene is driven by trends that pass us by before we can sink our teeth into them. It’s hard to predict which ones will stick, at least from the outside.
“I’m hesitant to label these as ‘trends’ as these always seem more like short-lived fads,” says Mark Hix, celebrated chef, restaurateur and food writer, who has venues in Farringdon, Shoreditch and Soho, to name but a few.
“Health is an area where we are seeing lots of exciting new developments; I don’t like to call them trends as ideas with integrity will generally stand the test of time.”
Clearly, there are some things that permeate the food industry because they will change things for the better.
I can’t conceive what it must be like to work in a restaurant kitchen. Making food for more than four people at once gives me heart palpitations, and I haven’t given them the chance to choose between twenty different options.
I imagine that single dish restaurants relieve some of this pressure.
“We make 20,000 risotto balls in two days,” says Dave Arkin, co-founder of Arancini Brothers.
Well, there goes that theory.
“We started cooking everything out of my house,” he says. “A small home kitchen and we were doing everything there.”
Arkin and his business partner Dave Earl started Arancini Brothers at Brick Lane market eight years ago, which was “where everyone started”. Having met in Melbourne and worked in kitchens since their mid teens, they both moved to London believing there was “nothing happening here” on the food scene. They decided to do something about it
“It got to the point where we were making 7 or 8,000 risotto balls at my house and my wife started going ‘hey, it’s time you got out of here.”
It was at this point they opened their Kentish Town café, the Arancini Factory, and started to produce all their food there. A few years on, they have shops in Dalston and Old Street and have shifted production to another site, hand-making all the food and transporting it across the city.
“We started by putting our risotto balls in salads and thought something was missing. London understands something when it goes into bread, so we put it all in a wrap. We haven’t looked back.
“It confirmed to us that we can have a single dish and turn it into lots of things: wraps, salad boxes, stews and last year, because of the burger trend, we make an Arancini burger.”
Arancini Brothers have adopted a number of “trends” through the years, able to do this fruitfully because of their success with one base concept. Embracing the growing demand for vegan food by creating the burger and adding pulled pork to the wrap menu, they have ensured that they can serve food that keeps up with what Londoners want to eat.
With more and more options becoming available, the answer to what Londoners want to eat is becoming less tangible. While some places increase their options to meet a demand for variety, chefs like Arkin and Hix try to counter it by reducing choice.
“The concept to serve simply steak and chicken was born of my desire to eat simply and simplify the restaurant experience,” Hix says of his Shoreditch spot, Tramshed. “We wanted to eliminate having too much choice and do just a few things really well.
“The move towards simplicity has been happening for a few years now and it isn’t going away any time soon. I think it reflects the more basic way that people want to eat out these days.”
Arkin agrees, but cites street food as being the influence behind this simplicity.
“I think everyone wanted cheaper ways to eat good quality food and street food has done that. A lot of restaurants started copying what the street food people were doing – a lot of them will say otherwise, but I’ve worked in street food and restaurants, so I’ve seen it.”
While Arkin is still a fan of quality street food, his position now, having harnessed it into three successful permanent locations, puts him in competition with street vendors, some of whom don’t meet the standards he sets for himself.
“If you get a large quantity of meat for five or six pounds, how can you get that much product for a small amount of money? It’s because it’s rubbish.
“Most people want something fast, something cheap, just a filler. They say they care about food, but they don’t. It’s a very small minority of people who love food and understand the industry. But in 10 years time, I think it’ll be different.”
Arkin predicts that London will go the same way as Melbourne, a haven for food enthusiasts – but only those who appreciate it enough to pay the extra bucks.
“If you’re using good quality products, you have to charge for it and people have to get used to it. We’ve got to make a profit.”
Coming from Australia, where Arancini are eaten regularly as a bar snack, Arkin has the luxury of foresight and, with an existing empire, Hix has the luxury of being one of the most successful chefs in the country.
“The development of the industry has its upsides,” says Hix. “The choice we have these days is phenomenal. However, democracy comes at a price – the rise in the number of restaurant openings has brought its own challenges: rents and properties are fierce.”
The restaurant industry might be tough at the moment for the professionals, but as consumers with ever growing appetites, we have that luxury of choice.
It remains to be seen whether we’ll opt for a 20-selection menu or 20 variations on one theme, but whatever happens, I’m going back for more Arancini.
Arancini Brothers are in 115A Kentish Town Road, 592 Kingsland Road and 42 Old Street.
Tramshed is 32 Rivington Street, Shoreditch.