Friday, 13 January 2017

In conversation with ingredients specialist Nicola Lando of souschef.co.uk

People complain about too many ingredients in recipes, or that they're overly exotic. But I like to push the envelope in terms of ingredients, and the more cookbook authors do that, the more likely it is that supermarkets will stock them. Indeed, in my first book Supper Club, which came out in 2011, I talked about yuzu (citrus) and ponzu (soy sauce with citrus), which was a struggle to get hold of even in Japanese shops. Today it is possible to buy yuzu juice in large supermarkets and you can even get the fresh fruit in New Covent Garden.

The internet makes it much easier to get hold of rare ingredients. I often order mine from Amazon or, more regularly, an incredible website called souschef.co.uk based in North London. This was set up in 2012 by two city people with an enormous interest in food - Nicola Lando and her husband Nick. I went to have a browse around their warehouse and spoke to Nic just before they won an Observer Food Monthly prize for Best Independent Retailer.


I snacked on Danish liquorice, chocolate cigarillos and Spanish truffled crisps in their office while we chatted about their business, the food world, ingredients and future trends.



Nicola Lando of Sous Chef, London

How do you find your ingredients?

When I first started, I picked the best-known cookbooks from the world cuisines and top restaurants.

How many cookbooks did you buy? 

I already owned most of them.

Have you got an amazing collection? I've heard Diana Henry owns 10,000 cookbooks.

Not that many. I'm not sure.

5,000?

I don't know. My wall is smaller than Diana Henry's. I'll give you an estimate. I'll go home and count the shelves. Probably about five bookcases. How many have you got?

I've not counted them either. They are all over my house, in the toilet, everywhere. I've probably got about a thousand.

How many would you be buying a week to end up with 10,000 over how many years of food writing?

She probably gets them sent for free. Some of mine are sent for free. I still spend an awful lot of money on them. So you had tons and tons of cookbooks?

I went through them all, with a spread sheet and the cookbook by my side, and worked out which ingredients you couldn't buy on the high street. All the ingredients in columns over the top. Then a tally of the most common, the most frequently used unusual ingredients.

At the start it was trying to find which companies imported into this country, which ones I could get over here or not. I spent ages reading Chowhound and eGullet which were bigger then than now. I read lots of the American food press, the British food press. Often cookbooks mention specific brands. I would contact the manufacturer directly, try to get it over here.


That was the core foundation of the range. Since then it's grown more organically. I go to the different trade fairs around the world that ingredient producers go to.


Which is the best one?

The biggest is Sial in Paris.

Can anyone go?

It's trade. You could probably go.

Is it fascinating?

It's all food. Not just speciality ingredients. There is a hall of butchery and butchery supplies... palettes of processed chicken. At Sial you'll see anything, from bulk importers to a stall with one spice to someone making a deal over hundreds of gallons of milk.

There's a German one; they alternate every two years. America has fancy food shows. There's lots of homeware innovation shows, which have speciality food.


If you see an ingredient on a stall that you like, how much do you order? Can you order in small amounts? Do you just give it a try then order more?

If we can, we'll try a little bit at first. We are a small business.

I remember thinking when you started, 'what a brilliant idea'.

I started because it was a shop that I needed. You never know if other people have the same problem until you start. And it seems like people do need this.

Are you successful? Are you making a profit?

We make a living. We are growing.

How many products do you have now?

3,000. Jordi, our buyer, will order another 500. One in, one out. Some ingredients I order for fun, they don't sell but they satisfy my culinary curiosity.
I've been doing all the buying, all the marketing. I was even doing all the product photography until about a year ago. Until 12 months ago, this business was only five people.

I was always impressed that you personally would reply to my emails to your marketing mail outs.

Yes and the person whose name is on the order is the person who packed your order.

I kind of know that pretty much any ingredient I want, you are going to have.

Really? That's good. Let me know if there is anything we don't have. Unless it's fresh.

I'm an ingredients freak anyway. Cookbook authors should put at least a few unknown ingredients in their books. Supermarkets are obviously looking at cookbooks and ordering things in.

Yes for instance Nigella Lawson wrote about pomegranate molasses in 1995. It's not a recent thing.

Yes, so she's been plugging away about it for some time.

Obviously there's a difference between London supermarkets and elsewhere.

That's why Souschef is perfect. You can be living anywhere in the UK and you can get it.

Being able to cook from a cuisine and reimagine it in your home means you need to have the ingredients. For instance, Korean cooking: you are not going to be able to recreate Korean flavours unless you have the ingredients.

Most of these ingredients last a long time. The sauces don't go off. I don't know why people complain. I know Deliciously Ella was very 'I don't use unusual ingredients'.

I think you'd really get on with Symmetry Breakfast. You are the only two that I've met where I've just thought, 'you know so much about ingredients'.

As a blogger, we have been superseded by the Instagrammers. A paragraph of hashtags has taken precedence over a thoroughly researched piece. Now the Observer Food Monthly has removed the award for best food blogger and replaced it with Best Instagrammer.

Really? I look at Instagram.

I use all of it. Clerkenwell Boy I've met once. He's now being treated as some kind of food guru. He may know about food, I don't know. That whole Observer thing of jumping on trends, everything's about money and aspiration. I'm quite suspicious of all that. That's why I like blogging, it democratised food writing. Anyone could get into it. But now it's gone back to the money thing.

People thought books would be over. Everyone thought people would move onto Kindle. But they aren't. People like to have books. People want to spend time reading.

People buy books as gifts. What do you think of clean eating? Now clean eating is very over. 

Have you seen this book? It's entirely purées, the whole book is purées.

Baby food. 

Which is bizarre because babies no longer eat purée.

Don't they?

I've got a nine month old. The last few years, purée has gone out of fashion for babies. They now eat normal food. The advice is that they should eat what you are eating. Also, they can just sit there. You don't have to feed them. I don't have to force a spoon into his mouth.

How interesting that this has changed.

Funny thing is with clean eating, all the products have come out this year [2016]. This year, it was mainly raw chocolate, kale crisps and avocado smoothies, just everything with the healthy eating buzzwords. The products have lagged the trend a little bit.

Publishing is so slow. If I sign a book deal today, it'll be two years before it comes out. Why is it so slow? 

No idea. They are often printed in China. How long does it take you to write a book?

It depends. The last three I did in 18 months. At the time I was broke so I just ploughed on through it. Half killed me. Diana Henry told me she gets about two years for each book. 

When you have to do everything - testing, writing - six months per book isn't much. How's the vegan one doing?

Not bad. Have you sold many here at Souschef?

Quite well.

The cookbook sets are good, aren't they?

We are changing our book range a little bit. More world ones, which are discounted much less heavily. Diana Henry's latest book is £25 retail and £10 on Amazon. Books are cheaper on Amazon. We buy from the publisher for more than that.

Have either of you got a food background?

Nick doesn't. I did a months course at Leiths when I was 18. When I was working in my last job, I read The soul of a chef by Michael Ruhlman. It's just fascinating, it's complete obsession, lots of interest in French classics. I just loved it. I found it thrilling. So I started cooking a lot myself.

What year was that? 

2009. I went travelling before that. A bit of a waste really, I just enjoyed dinner. Now, I desperately cling onto food memories and taste everything obsessively so I can make it at home. Such a lot of wasted memories.

That's how I learnt to cook too. Also travelling is one of the few times you can afford to eat out. 

I went to South East Asia. Why can't I remember what was in those noodle soup bowls?

Do you still travel?

Yeah, I do.

When you go on holiday, would you go somewhere with a great food culture or just go to say Torremolinos?

Yes. Last year I spent two weeks in Japan, America, probably Korea, Italy a couple of times. Some of it is purely for leisure, but I'm always interested in products. I'm peering at the supermarkets. Buying things. You must do that.

Where is the next place you want to go?

I'd love to go to Mexico, learn all about that cuisine. There's so much more to learn in Japan. You could spend all of your life in learning about food in Japan. I'd love to go back to Korea again. I'd love to go to Taiwan.

Is it very distinct?

No, it's very similar to Chinese food but with the quality of Japanese food. Taiwanese can be better quality in terms of food brands. Japanese is always thought to be of the highest quality.

What new and exciting ingredients have you got coming up?

In Japan I'm thinking more about matcha drinking.

(I whisper) I don't really like it.

It's supposed to be so bitter. The whole thing is you have it with these very, very sweet sweets. That's the concept. It's a bit like a sauna: from the super hot to the ice cold.

So it's the contrast that is satisfying?

Yes, and the ceremony around it, and the beauty, and the frothing. Coffee is very bitter. It's not that dissimilar. We want to bring in coffee.

Some things we know will sell. Some things we bring on, and I think this is a brilliant ingredient but then only half a person buys it and I buy the rest. And then I'm not allowed to bring it in again.


What else?

American BBQ. It's still going to be big. We've started taking the smoky flavours and we've started eating this food out. Over the next 5 to 10 years, it's just going to get bigger.

Activated charcoal. We are getting that in.


Japanese food. Japan is big. Although our customers are sophisticated, people are still interested in sushi-making. People are starting to become more specific about the ingredients they want. Before it was dipping sushi in soy sauce. Now they want more than basic soy sauce: is it whole bean? Is it aged?


We suggest to them, why don't you try this better quality sushi rice? Rice has a 12-month shelf life in Japan. It takes 6 months to come out of Japan. The radiation problems have slowed the whole process. Then two months in a warehouse here. By the time it's got here, you've got a couple of months to sell it. But we sold out of it very quickly. We didn't even talk about it. The grains are so short and polished.


You can turn them into a necklace or something... use them as teeth.

You realise that even plain rice of that quality is so good to eat.

Balsamic vinegar. That's going to carry on.


Do you sell gigantes beans?

No one bought them. British people won't spend money on pulses. 2016 was the year of the pulse, but the British won't try expensive beans, which are so much better. Middle Eastern food is still big. It's that relaxed way of eating. Beautiful big salads. Dinner becomes more casual.

One thing I can't buy in this country is good artichoke hearts. 

We can get them, but they are expensive. Where did you get yours?

In Sicily. The only equivalent I've seen was in Borough market and it was £17 a jar. 

That's the issue. It would have been £17.

In Sicily it cost about 4 Euros. I ordered some Spanish ones off the internet, but they were mushy. Then I read in the Brindisa book that the Spanish like them more squidgy. The Sicilian ones were tight little buds. So gorgeous. I ate them for breakfast.


Tell me more about your start. 

I left my job. I worked in venture capital. I had savings. I thought about lots of ideas. I wanted to do something in food, but that's difficult. It's my passion, therefore perhaps I shouldn't do it. I kept thinking, this isn't serious.

I think you were onto the zeitgeist. Now loads of people come from the City into food. You were one of the first.

I thought I should do something less enjoyable. I wanted to understand the restaurant business and the business environment. I wanted a business making veal stock, which I love, using a waste product, bones. I wrote to a bunch of restaurants and Gaulthier said 'yes sure, come and work here'.

I hurriedly wrote down all the things I might have to do in a restaurant: mayonnaise, hollandaise, making bread. I thought I had to learn how to do all of these. So I learn them quickly the day before. Fortunately on my first day they asked me to make a hollandaise sauce. I stayed for about three or four months.


Were you paid?

No, it was like a stage. I loved it. I asked the chef: so if one of my friends in their 30s wanted to be a chef. Not me, 'a friend'. He immediately said, oh they are far too old. In France you go straight to a kitchen at 16.

That's when you have the stamina.

I'd finish work at midnight, I'd be just dead. But I loved it. That's when I came up with the idea for Souschef. They had beautiful ingredients in the kitchen. And obviously they could get them. So I wanted to create that shop for me. I started working on it probably about March, June that year. By about September/October, I got the website developers.

What year was this?

2011. Then I got a website commissioned. Later that year Nick was made redundant. Which helped.

Was he keen on the idea?

Yes he was.

What does he do in the business?

Nothing. (Laughs.)
He's much more the operation side. Finance. Planning. Managing the warehouse.

You do the more creative stuff?

He enjoys that as well. We work very closely together. We are very collaborative, but we argued so much when we first started. Just in terms of having to make a decision. It took us about a year and a half to make our roles separate enough so we could just do our jobs. It's easy to have your roles overlapping too much.

You had your first child last year?

Yes.

How old are you? 

I'm 36.

So you just pipped one out, in the nick of time. Would you like to have more?

I'd like to, I think. He's very sweet.

You like him?

Yes. I didn't expect to. It'll be great when he's in his 20s and he'll bring friends home who I can cook for.

In your late teens and early 20s, you stop cooking because you're going out. I wrote about this in my book Get Started in food writing. My daughter, when I was her age, we went to gigs and clubs. Now young people go out to eat together. 

Breakfast and lunch is cheaper than dinner. No alcohol. No desserts.

Is it weird that you are both called Nic(k)?

I can tell by the tone of voice that someone is using which one of us they are calling.

Is it confusing? It's a bit like Sam and Sam (two married chefs) of Moro.

It's ridiculous they are both called Sam. (Laughs.)
................................................

We take a look at the warehouse downstairs. I'm in heaven: shelves and shelves of interesting things. Japanese pottery, copper coffee filters, tiny bottles filled with pea-sized scarlet chillies, small jars of crystallised flowers.


Just before I leave, Nicola gives me a bag, like a rice sack, of products to take home. I love the sack, it's fashionably utilitarian but also stylish.


You should make those into bags. Just stick handles on them. 

Great idea!
................................................

Here is a list of what she gave me:

  • Truffle crisps to take home, oily and crunchy and moreish. You end up licking the salt off your fingers.
  • Valrhona 'Lait Carmelia' milk chocolate. Nicola says you can eat lots of this without feeling sick.
  • Kikkoman raw unpasteurised soy sauce. They've brought out raw 'Nama' soy sauce with whole beans. This is very interesting, unpasteurised, with a greater depth of flavour. 
  • Verjuice. Subtler than vinegar.
  • Violet sugar. Not healthy but pretty.
  • Christine Ferber Jams. She is renowned in France as one of the best jam makers. Her family makes them in Alsace. She was Alain Ducasse's pastry chef. Every morning she has her copper cauldrons and she's tending them. Everything is hand-made. I ordered strawberry jam and got the response 'Christine will make you some this week'. It's a much softer set with big pieces of fruit. Eat within eight days once opened - you'll get through that in three pieces of toast. When I compare them with Bonne Maman... there is no comparison.
  • Truffle paste. I love this paste. On a cracker with a sliver of parmesan.
  • Hot smoked Paprika from Spain. The tin is so pretty. Piquante.
  • Sardines. Really nice. So big and plump. I love the tins, which are a trend.
  • Salted cherry blossom. Put them in rice when it's cooking to add flavour. Plus it's pretty. But rinse it first, or it's too salty...
  • Peppers. We are really into pepper. Vietnamese Kampot. Nepalese Timut, really fruity. Long pepper is powerful and pungent. It's hard to grind because it's so big. Cubeb is very clovey. 
  • Midas Japanese Stoneware dish. Gorgeous mother of pearl colours. 
  • Chocolate Covered Cigarillos. These have been flying out the door.
  • Salted Liquorice sweets. I'm addicted to these.
Later Nicola emailed me. She'd counted and she had "a paltry 600-700 cookbooks". I still haven't counted mine.

8 comments:

  1. Gosh I'm way down in the cookbook stakes, I've got just under 400. I try to get rid of some as I get a new one but that's just not that easy. What's the violet sugar like?

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  2. Violet sugar sounds lovely and the salted cherry blossom.I have about 5000 cookbooks but I am addicted/obsessed!!

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  3. I am coveting your goody bag ��

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  4. Wow - this would be my dream business! Although I would find it annoying that the mass of people are just scared of trying new things.

    I'm also like that on holiday checking out new ingredients wherever we are - the friend I go with doesn't complain as she gets to try the results!

    Interesting about the Bbq trend - they've become so popular with us over the last 2 years. Must look into activated charcoal (?). The Japanese trend? Just puts Japan further up the 'go to next' travel list.

    Salted cherry blossom - sounds just your thing - you could try making those!

    Gigantes beans - luckily I have a Turkish shop 5 minutes away. Miss them, miss out!

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    Replies
    1. I had a recipe (!) for cherry blossom tea in MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party.
      Yes I'm quite envious of Nicola for having the idea.

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