The Clerkenwell kebab shop that sells veal and posh cheese but not chips
PUBLISHED: 12:23 07 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:12 07 March 2016
The Gazette drops in for a chat with Nick Green, the man behind one of Clerkenwell’s most unusual restaurants, and finds out how artisan kebabs nearly ended his marriage
To many, the word “kebab” conjures up images of greasy fumes and drunken pubgoers staggering home.
But according to entrepreneur and Tufnell Park lad Nick Green – owner of the Chifafa kebab shop in Clerkenwell Road – this unsavoury reputation is thoroughly undeserved.
The inspiration for his “posh kebabs” pitch came during a German visit four years ago.
“I was in Berlin on business, and I noticed a street kiosk with incredibly long queues of people of all ages and religions,” he told the Gazette.
“It was just a little kebab stall, but everyone seemed to want this food. Unlike in the UK, in Germany the kebab is revered and not stigmatised. It got me thinking – why couldn’t the same happen here?”
Meanwhile, back in the UK, a “healthy food” revolution was in full swing.
“Pret A Manger started with the sandwich in the mid-’90s, then Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Byron with the burger and Itsu with sushi,” says Nick. “But of all the street-food staples, the only thing that hadn’t been upscaled over the course of the last 20 years was the kebab.” So with friend Matthew Kershaw, Nick decided to set up his own upmarket kebab shop.
Of course, not everyone was convinced they’d make it – including Nick’s wife, ITN political editor and news reader Romilly Weeks.
“When I told my wife I was opening a kebab shop, she looked at me as though there was ‘divorce’ in a thought bubble above her head,” he recalls.
Undeterred, after spending two years travelling and researching Middle Eastern food, Nick and his partner opened Chifafa, a premium kebab restaurant that sells “excellent, affordable, fresh, healthy kebabs quickly”.
So what makes his kebabs different? “The main thing is that we don’t do doners,” he says. “At every stage, we are trying to be antithetical from your normal kebab shop.”
Chifafa offers five kebabs ranging from marinated veal with feta to halloumi and pickled turnip. They are served in fluffy souvlaki bread with house-special chilli sauce.
If the idea of a kebab at lunch makes you feel a little queasy, try this on for size: this year the pair started producing a “breakfast kebab”, which includes bacon, tomato, feta and herbs.
“It’s a real leap from having a kebab at lunchtime,” admits Nick. “When we launched the place, we thought it would take longer to get people round – but it’s really picking up.”
Of course, Chifafa is not the only outlet experimenting with kebabs. Le Bab in Soho, for instance, serves gourmet kebabs at sit-down evening meals. “There are lots of new kebab propositions popping up, and long may it continue,” says Nick, “because it creates the market that we started.”
Customers range from suited City workers to young artistic and media types. “Farringdon will be the hub of Crossrail, and we envisage it will bring a lot more people to the area,” says Nick – and indeed, local firms are already considering setting up a Business Improvement District to take full advantage of the increased footfall, as reported in last week’s Gazette.
Of course, healthy kebabs aren’t for everyone. “The other day, a cab driver popped his head around the door and said: ‘Do you do chips?’ When I said no, he said: ‘Oh mate, kebab and chips – it’s like Romeo and Juliet!’”
Others remain unconvinced a kebab could ever be healthy. “That’s the challenge,” says Nick, “to change people’s perceptions of the dish. There’s still a long way to go.”
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