Sunday, 18 February 2018

Peckham sake brewers Kanpai and a recipe for Japanese pickles

Tom and Lucy Wilson of Kanpai sake brewery in Peckham, London

Sake, a rice-based alcohol from Japan, is now being brewed in South London by a young English couple, Tom and Lucy Wilson. I visit them at their micro-brewery Kanpai, a tiny room the size of a large cupboard, behind a garage and under a noisy printing press in an industrial estate in Peckham. 
Tim hands me a small china cup of sake.
'This is our latest batch of Junmai, batch 4 since we've been in the brewery, just shy of a year now.' explains Tom. 'Junmai is our flagship product, a sake that people will be familiar with. It works well with a multitude of foods, particularly spicy food, not just Japanese food. 
Lucy adds:
It has some similarities with wine, it's sitting at 15% strength. Tasting with friends yesterday, we are getting Fino sherry quality, stone-fruit, melony, fruity but savoury.
Good with tapas perhaps?
Lucy: You can drink sake on its own, or put it in cocktails. We personally think it's perfect with food. It enhances food, in the way that sherry does, it's umami and savoury. 
This is a labour of love. This had a low, slow ferment. The fermentation, including the yeast starter and the fourth ferment, we are looking at 6-8 weeks, we do a traditional drip press with cotton bags. We don't apply any pressure to it, it's purely filtered by gravity. The clarity comes through because we do charcoal filtration. We don't want to strip out any flavours, it's a very natural product.
Is this the only sake you are making?

Tim hands me another cup from a bottle with slightly yellow liquid and some sediment in the bottom. 
From each batch, most of it goes to make Junmai, but we make a smaller amount of nigori. It has a small amount of fine sediment; we add some of the lees back in. It kind of harks back to more of what a traditional sake would be, before fine filtration methods. Even though this is super fine, there are no chunks in.
Some of them are sold with chunks in?
Absolutely. You can get it a bit thicker, a bit chunkier. This is on the lighter side. Our very first nigori, people didn't like it as much.  People were freaked out by it. You get nigori heads, people who are hooked on nigori. This is Marmite - love it or hate it.
It's more flavourful. 
Lucy: You've got a bit more of a mouthful, a bit thicker, a bit more tense, on the nose there's a lot of apple going on. We've made this a little bit thinner to make it more friendly for our market here.
Nigori heads? Do you mean in Japan or is that even a thing here?
There is a sake scene in London. There are real aficionados like the British Sake Association, the Japan Society. We love being part of that. 
Who are your customers, are Japanese places buying from you?
It is a mixture, Japanese places, plus British, Indian places. Sake is often drunk by people who are into more natural wines. 
Mainly we sell to local craft-beer bars, restaurants and cocktail bars. We've gone down an alternative channel to begin with. The Japanese food scene is an obvious market.
It's word of mouth at the moment, so we can keep up with it. We absolutely want to be in Japanese restaurants. 
I quite like sake hot, but I know that's not what you are supposed to do...
Tom: It's seasonal in my view, I know it's fashionable to drink chilled sake. But if it's cold outside, you want something warm to drink! Junmai is more suited to being warmed up.  
Tim puts the bottle of Kanpai Junmai sake, which resembles a beer bottle, into a bain-marie. 
This is how they do it in Japan, gently, so you don't burn all the alcohol off. You don't want it too hot, 45-50ºC maximum.
How did you two get into this?
Lucy: We went to Japan, not particularly focused on sake, just a holiday. We were there for about 3 weeks. We did Tokyo and small places in between; on the way to the small towns we made sure that we popped into sake breweries. The breweries have realised they've got to be a lot more open and welcome tourists. So the time we spent there, that started us off.
In Japan, wine and beer are taking over from sake. I think it's a generational thing, young people think it's not cool to drink sake, it's something their grandad did. But it's coming back. In the last few years there's been a decline in the consumption of sake, but internationally it's on the rise.
Who taught you how to make it? Did you just look it up in books?
Tom: Initially self-taught, I was reading any information I could get, all the books available on the market, even getting things from other brewery websites, YouTube, anything.
We did visit some sake brewers in the US as well, got some tips. There's about a dozen now. We visited one in Texas, some guys from Colorado were in here this week, also California, San Diego, Canada.
Lucy: Then we just starting sharing what we made- we had sake parties, at our flat. People starting liking it. You'd have good and bad batches. We did a fair amount of beer brewing before, so we already had a decent amount of equipment. So, at very little cost, we brewed some small batches...  
You'd literally buy ordinary sushi rice and start with that?
Tom: Yeah we also smuggled back Yamadanishiki, a sushi grade rice, from the States. You can't get sushi grade rice in the UK. Yamadanishiki is the king of rice for making sake. It's pretty much the most expensive rice you can get your hands on
How much is it?
Tom: About the 7 times the amount of normal rice. You have to buy a pallet normally. It's only grown for sake production, you don't eat it. Most of the grains that are grown for sake, are not for eating....
Is that because sake rice isn't nice?
Tom: It usually lacks flavour. The thing you are after when you are producing sake, is a minimum amount of proteins and lipids and a maximum amount of starch. You want the starch to be collected in a clean disk, the shinpaku (which means 'white heart'), in the middle, so you mill the outside of the rice down. 
When you look at an ordinary grain of rice, the pockets of starch are usually scattered around. For sake, the starch is collected together in one central mass. You minimise the proteins and lipids that go into the tank and you maximise the starch. The starch stays in one piece and gradually gets broken down into sugar by your koji, which is a magic yeast, and then your yeast gets turns that into alcohol, step by step. 
It's a unique way of brewing, a multi-parallel fermentation process.
When you make say wine, you've got all your sugar, you press your grapes and you've got your sugar juice. With beer, you make your wort by boiling up your malt extract the sugar then add your yeast, so its like a two-step process.
With sake, it all happens at the same time, you don't start with any sugar. All the ingredients- your koji, rice, yeast, water are all in there working together. The koji and the yeast are in this symbiotic relationship: the koji is breaking down the starch and releasing glucose and turning that into alcohol. 

What is koji again? Isn't that what you use to make miso?
Yes, soy sauce too. Koji is a mould.
I smell and taste the koji, which smells pleasantly of chestnuts. 

You make it yourself?
Lucy: You can buy koji covered rice. But making it ourselves is what makes our sake unique. To make it is like having a baby. For 48 hours it's constant, constant, care. You have to set up an alarm and wake up in the night to tend it.
Have you had much press?
Lucy: For our size, with no budget, yes. There's not been any marketing. We are sold in Selfridges and the Japan Centre. You have to cut out the middle man when you are a start-up. 
 We talk about strange food customs in Japan.
Tom: I ate live lobster. I didn't really have a choice it was a business meeting in Hong Kong.
Did you think if I don't eat this live lobster I wont get the deal?
Tom: I was being treated and it was customary to accept.
Lucy: We love that not really knowing what you are eating element about Japan. We had a rectum on a skewer. 
Whose rectum? What animal?
Not sure. It was yakitori...
Did it look, er, rectumy?
It was just written on the menu. It was singular,  quite big. 
Big enough to stick on a skewer?

Do you do this full-time?
Tom: We still do our current jobs, we work during the day. We are in London and we've got overheads. We require salaries. I work in financial marketing, in a bank, my day job is sitting at a desk in front of a computer.
Do you hate it?
No, but in an ideal world this would be our sustainable passion.
Lucy joins in: I work in communications, it's hard, we are burning the candle at both ends.
Are you knackered?
Yes we are limited by time. We need to hire in some help. We are in this limbo period where we'd love to expand and give more money and time to it
Are you getting more orders than you can fill?
Yes. We have organic growth at the moment. Last year was setting up, getting licensed. HMRC don't have a sake category. They sort of ummed and ahhed,  we ended up in 'made wine'. Any alcohol that is fermented, gets put into 'made wine'.
The process doesn't cost anything, the actual licence?
No you just have to apply and appear, get it sorted. You have to stay on top of your operation. 
Do you have hygiene inspections?
Tom: Yes, that's organised by our local council, annually. Southwark is so busy, with so many businesses. It's not tricky to comply with, a lot of its common sense. We have a cleaning register. Because we aren't hiring staff, we know whats going on. To produce this product -everything has to be so sterile. Our own standards are very high. Everything is done here. We designed our own logos. We do all our own bottling- 200 bottles at a time. 
What's your turnover at the moment?
Tom: We produce 1000 x 330ml bottles every 3 months and we are doing a batch every couple of months. 
Japanese brewers come here to taste?
Lucy: People have come to visit us in this space. The Japanese know of us now and when they come over for other events, say at the Japanese embassy, they visit us. Even before we had the brewery, we met people at tasting events.
Lots come here and now we are going to visit them in return. That's been one of the best things about this journey. We've met so many people. And the Peckham scene is cool and very supportive.
What about water? The Japanese are obsessed with water...
We use Peckham Spring. (Laughs) Most water used in Japan is very soft.
The biggest difference is that with all the minerals that are in hard water, yeast loves minerals, so it gives it more vigour, We have to be really careful about lowering the temperature, we counter-act the extra vigorous ferment by lowering the temperature. We still want that low and slow ferment.
What about getting a water softener?
Lucy: We want to avoid adding anything to the water, to our sake. We have carbon filtration of the water coming in, so it removes any heavy metals, but we don't adjust the pH. We want to keep it as natural as possible. Also you'd have to replicate it every time, which is making a rod for your own back.
Southwark has the most amount of breweries out of any borough in London and they all say, don't touch the water, make the most of what you have. We aren't trying to replicate Japanese sake. 
You are making a very London sake?
Lucy: Yes. There are over 1000 Japanese sake brewers, why would we want to imitate them?
Do they notice the difference?
Yes they find it very dry. They like it. They recognise that it's sake but also that it's totally different. We aren't competition. They take it as a massive compliment. 
Tom: I did brew school in Japan last year, I took a load of bottles there. Feedback was phenomenal. I had 2 or 3 types analysed there. They put it through their laboratories which was invaluable. We don't have that kind of specialist knowledge here.
Any changes they recommended?
One of the takeaways was on our koji production. We are over the moon because for our latest batches, we've changed our koji production ever so slightly and our product is significantly less acidic.
The most common thing you find when talking to international sake brewers, is they have really high acidity. That's the stand-out difference between Japan and others.
You visited Japan in 2014. Within three years you are making your own sake. That's amazing.
Lucy: It overtook our flat. To the point that my mum cut her head on a piece of equipment. That's when we realised we had to get a premises.
We'd love to be in a railway arch situation but they are extortionate. Arches in Peckham are 30k a year in rent. If you want to be in the Bermondsey beer mile, double that. And that's without business rates.

Our goal in 2018 is to expand, to grow, our ultimate goal is basically be somewhere where we have a frontage, a tap room, where people can taste. Accessibility is key: smaller bottles, serving sake by the glass to people, serving it on tap. Then you can mix it up and do flavours, and we are releasing a sparkling sake.
Ooh lovely.
A full batch is going to be sparkling, in these half champagne bottles. In bottle carbonation with really fine champagne type bubbles. We are keeping things natural, not overcomplicating stuff.
Even though our equipment is stainless steel and modern, all the techniques are completely traditional and hand-made.
How much money have you spent on equipment so far?
Tom: Double figures -20k?
Would you get other people investing?
To jump to the next level, we need investment.
Would you do Dragons Den?
Tom: I find the show stressful, it's stressful to watch.
Lucy: If we are going to go down the investment route, we'd be looking for a partnership, somebody in the food and drink industry.

At the end of the visit, Tom and Lucy give me some sake lees to make pickles.

Kasu Pickles Recipe

I've seen that people make a kind of pickle bed, using a flat shallow plastic container, with layers of different vegetables for pickling. Here I'm using cucumbers, on an enamel tray, but you can also try white fish filets, beetroots, radishes, ginger.

You'll need some 'kasu', fermented sake rice lees or leftovers. It smells very alcoholic.

(Quantity depends on how much you want to make)
12 small cucumbers, cut lengthways in quarters
6tbsp Sea Salt
3tbsp caster sugar
250g or more Kasu
Optional: grated ginger, grated garlic, lemon zest, sweet mirin.

First salt the cucumbers or other vegetables. Simple sprinkle with 3 tbsp of sea salt/sel gris or kosher salt.
Leave overnight weighted down.
Mix the kasu with the rest of the salt, the sugar and make a 'bed' in a flat non-reactive container.
Lay down the cucumbers.
Cover with another thin layer of the kasu mixture.
Leave weighted down for a few days.
Rinse off and eat with rice for instance.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Competition: win all 6 food books shortlisted in the Andre Simon Awards

Scroll down at the side to see the competition. Your email address will be sent to me directly once you fill in the form fields below.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Andre Simon Awards: conversation with Michael Booth, author of The Meaning of Rice

Michael Booth, The Meaning of Rice

I spoke to Michael Booth, author of The Meaning of Rice, over Skype. He lives in Copenhagen with his Danish wife and two boys. The book was shortlisted in the food section of the Andre Simon book awards.

I've been enjoying your book. It's very interesting. I've always wanted to go to Japan and I've never been, although I've been all over the world. But everytime I want to go, something happens like I have a baby or something.
I started to think today - going to Japan is a bit like meeting David Bowie. I would never have wanted to meet David Bowie, in case I was disappointed. And maybe Japan is like that for me. So perhaps I'm actually avoiding it.

I know what you mean. The only thing you don't have to impress Japan. That's the thing with meeting David Bowie you would feel like you wanted him to become your best friend and you had to do something original that he'd never heard of before.

I would feel that about Japan as well. I would want Japan to become my best friend and that I would have some special connection to Japan. But you've done it.

I agree there is a danger of it being overhyped and it can't possibly live up to the expectations. But it does really. I've been there maybe 25 times, and I still get excited at the prospect of it. I'm going in a couple of weeks time and even though I go two or three times a year, but I still get giddy and silly about it.

I'm not reading it consecutively but you can dip in and out of the chapters. Each chapter is quite self-contained and about a different food and drink. 

You don't need to read it as one narrative at all.

It's like a collection of short food stories. Was this all from one trip or several?

It was three trips with my family. Some of it was from previous trips, over the last five years.

It must have taken at least a year to do this.

The journey through Japan was done in at least 3 different legs.

I've read the purple potato, rice, yuzu and whisky chapters so far. I'm obsessed with yuzu. My first cookbook came out in 2011 with a yuzu recipe, and nobody had ever heard of it. You literally couldn't get it anywhere. I think it's important to include new ingredients in cookbooks, then supermarkets are more likely to stock them.

The big supermarkets have scouts who go to Japan. But they always are about five years behind.

We still haven't got fresh yuzu in the UK. Just ponzu from specialist Japanese shops. I've heard from a chef that they are growing it in France.

That'd be a good story.

It is difficult to grow, as you mentioned. I've had one a couple of years and it's looking very poorly. I haven't even had a flower.

It does take about ten years for a tree to flower.

I was interested in your growing tips. You mention you peeled a yuzu pip, and grew a seedling from it. 

I don't know what happened to them actually. I moved house and I don't think they survived the move. I got something that grew 10 to 15 cms. I will try again. It was so thrilling when it sprouted.

What's the season for harvesting?

End of November, December I think.

Citrus is the best thing about winter.

Your family is famous in Japan?

Yeah, kind of. A lot of people know the cartoon family from my book Sushi and Beyond.

Is that in Japanese or in English?

It's in English as well. It was strange to hear ourselves voiced by other people. 

Where can I see that? 

I think it's on YouTube. It's a surreal programme. It's very beautifully drawn and animated. 

Do you speak Japanese? 

No. I kind of know food words, enough to get by in a restaurant.

Do you think it's necessary for a visit?

No, absolutely not and it's becoming less necessary. If you make yourself a burden on Japanese people and corner them, then they can kind of understand you. They have this amazing hospitality and duty, they can't escape. Then they have to talk to you in English. They can understand it but are sometimes shy about speaking it.

They are sort of passive bilingual.

Yeah. All the signage, there are now these amazing apps, Google Translate app, which takes pictures of the signs and translates them. Put a menu in front of you and take a photo, it immediately translates it. It suddenly took a really big quantum leap last year. They did something with their algorithm.

When you travelled around Japan how have you done it? Train, boat, plane?

Every possible form of transport.
You've got to try the Shinkansen bullet train. It's not that cheap, but it's pretty quick. Tokyo to Kyoto is three hours. There is a lot of good cheap domestic airlines now, like Easyjet equivalents in Japan.

Going to visit the yuzu island, which I now want to do. 

To Shikoku, we flew, a connecting from Tokyo Narita airport, combine it with a visit to Osaka and Kyoto and take a bus across the bridge.
I've driven lots in Japan, it's very easy, you drive on the same side of the road as the UK. Japanese people drive everywhere at about 5mph. It's incredibly safe.They are really slow, very courteous, very law abiding. Now you can get English language GPS.
Me and my family went campervanning in Okaido, the northern island. Campervanning is really shit. It was awful. I realised we are a 5 star hotel family.

Oh I love everything like that.

I'm too old for that.

You are younger than me!

I always thought there were quite a lot of similarities between the Japanese and the British. We are both densely populated islands, that's why we are quite polite, we like to maintain our distance.

That's true, we are both monarchies and sea-faring nations, the manners, the etiquette. There is a whole stream of thought about that, comparing Brits to Japanese, yeah. I love it there because people are just so incredibly polite and kind. It's not just cos you are a tourist, they are incredible polite and kind to each other. Theres an appalling vlogger who went there and caused a scandal in Japan.
I saw some of that video and it caused me physical pain and he was being so rude and disrespectful to Japanese people. They are not used to it, they didn't know how to react to this oafish American youtube vlogger. I didn't see the suicide video, there was someone analysing his general oeuvre. He's just a tosser. They are open to that kind of abuse. I cringe when I see foreigners in Japan eating on the street or sitting down on the pavement. That's the downside of more and more tourism to Japan. They are having record tourism year on year at the moment.

Despite the nuclear accident?

Yeah, it's really bounced back since then. They had 20 million tourists last year. The thing I'm evangelical about is everyone should go to Tokyo, spend at least a week there, but no one goes anywhere else. Wherever you go in Japan, it's just strange and different and other. There is this huge great long island chain and there is so much diversity. Everywhere you go, you feel like you've discovered it. Outside Tokyo there are very few tourists.

I was thinking I'll go for a month and try and do the whole lot. I'll do a whistle stop tour from south to north.

If you go, drop me a line.

The Meaning of Rice is going to be my handbook. I was reading it and thinking what the fuck am I going to write - you've done it all.

There are 42 prefectures, and there are 100 stories in every one. It's just a bottomless mine. I could write ten more books about Japan.

How have you financed all of this? Obviously you got advances for the books.

I couldn't do it without that. The first book I didn't really make much money on.
I did one trip for three months. This new one, it's being published in Japan next month, so I'll get an advance from the Japanese publisher as well.

I imagine the first book opened a lot of doors for you. People were willing to talk to you.

I had a publisher in Japan who helped set a lot of stuff up, and for the first book I had a fixer who helped me to say, meet TV stars, have lunch with sumos. We went to this village with the oldest demographic in the world, all the centenarians. Japanese people are fairly open, they really like it when foreigners show interest. I wasn't that respectful. I think that's why the Japanese people read the first book, I was a bit cheeky, and they are interested in what foreigners think about them.

How do they treat women? I was talking to the Rare Tea Lady and she said she often goes to India and China to collect teas but she's had lots of problems in Japan because they don't respect women.

I'm not a woman so it's very difficult for me to pass judgment. I know it's an extremely unequal society. I live in Scandinavia so it's the antithesis of that. It's true there is a lot of chauvinism, particularly in the workplace.  Japan is one of the worst countries in the world for equality of opportunity and it's kind of biting them in the arse now, as they need women in the work force because their economy has stagnated for so long now. But it's a safe country to travel in.

She was trying to do business and they were sort of blanking her. 

That's amazing. That's a shame. I think she's got a double problem, being a foreigner and a woman.

She said in China, they are just all business. They don't care what you are, it's all about the money and the business.

Japanese tea culture is just incredible. I don't know if you like green tea. That's something really to look forward to when you go there. Many regions have their own type of tea. 

You are married to a Danish woman. How long have you lived in Copenhagen? 

On and off, about ten years. I moved there in 2000, was there for a few years, then I managed to escape to Paris for three years.

What were you doing in Paris?

I wrote a book there, I went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school where I trained as a chef. And then went to work in a couple of Michelin star restaurants.

How old are you?

I'm 46.

Since you were 30, you got married and then moved to Denmark. Do you speak Danish? And your kids are bilingual?


What was your background? How did you get into food writing?

I trained as a journalist. The long version is.... (deep breath)
Did a degree, worked in television, really hated it, ran away to Bangkok, where I found an English language magazine, rang them up and said 'do you need any writers?', wrote for them for a while, came back to the UK, did a graduate course at LCP in journalism. Worked as a freelancer since my late 20s, working for Time Out and The Independent and loads of different magazines and newspapers.
My wife, a bit like the Vikings a long time ago, she came across the North Sea and dragged me by the hair, to live in Denmark, kind of against my will. We moved to Copenhagen, I helped start  Time Out in Copenhagen. I bagged the restaurant section for myself. I really loved it. I became more and more interested in food. I realised I didn't really know what I was talking about. So I went to Paris to learn to cook without recipes.

Is that what you think being a chef is? Learning to cook without recipes?

No. I'd done all the Jamie Oliver and the Nigellas, and all the kind of bish-bosh, throw it at the plate, all the very cooking that was very popular at the turn of the century. It sounds so old. That was the style, it was great, it got a lot of people cooking and interested in food. I got very frustrated, I found it was too easy, I was looking to take cooking to another level. I thought who complicates food the best? Has to be the French. I wanted to learn the Grand Larousse stuff... 

...the mother sauces..

Learning the ground rules.
I thought it'd be an interesting book project. Going from a home cook to grand table, stuffing a quail with foie gras and truffle kind of cook.

One of the most inspirational food books I've read is Heat by Bill Buford. He did a similar thing.

We had the same publisher actually. He came out with that a bit after mine. Nearly scuppered my book actually.

You did it first!

It's a great book. Don't you think it's dated a bit now? Post Weinstein, it's all a bit...

That whole Anthony Bourdain macho..

I find that really tiresome. I'm the anti-Bourdain. I take my family with me.

I know what you mean. I'm permanently furious, about, literally if you turned on the TV you'd think that men do all the cooking in the world.

Right. How has Gordon Ramsay still have a career? How is he still a public figure? How is he still on tv?

He isn't so much here, more in America I think. I've been to Sweden a few times. That guy Niklas Ekstedt was on Saturday Kitchen, he's very good looking, very charming, very good on tv, easy way about him like Jamie Oliver, but the man can't cook for shit. His plate was just horrendous. It's all annoying. He's there because, I dunno....It's like everybody trusts men more than they trust women, but I find that ridiculous when it comes to food.

It is ridiculous. I get exactly the same feeling when I see all of these cliques of chefs, who roam the world, getting together, it's always the same bunch of... I always think that they overcompensate for the fact that their job involves tweezering coriander. Every photograph has to have them with the middle finger up, a desperate kind of rock n roll, the tattoos and all that shit, I just think oh grow up and move on. They so desperately need some women to just tell them to shut up. It's like a whole community of chefs that run the world without women and who have completely lost perspective on what food is, what cooking is. 

99.9 per cent of the world's cooking is by women. It's the classic thing, the minute there's money in it, men do it.

Yeah. It's more like traditionally because restaurant kitchens are such a toxic place to work and the hours are so ridiculous but that should have changed by now.

That's why I started the supper club movement.

All right, ok.

I hold up the laptop. 
This is my home restaurant, this is my living room.

Where are you based?

Kilburn. Beginning of 2009 I started a restaurant in my living room based on Cuban paladares.

Wow you must be mad. You must be absolutely bonkers to do that.

Why do you say that?

Ooh because, when I cooked in Paris, I went to work at the Joel Robuchon restaurant, the one with the big counter, there's one in London. It's an open kitchen and the first day I had to go out and start cooking and I wasn't told what I was supposed to do. Anyway I realised as I looked at this bunch of strangers that I was going to make lunch for, that I didn't give a shit about them. It suddenly dawned on me that I like cooking for my friends and family. It was my emotionally constipated English way of saying I loved them. When I was cooking for people I didn't know, I just didn't give a shit.

I'm a feeder. It's about love but it's also about control. I've realised I want to control what people eat.

We laugh.


In some twisted way, it's about dominance. 

Really? You could be right. Maybe I have the same thing myself?

Of course it is also about love, and food cooked with love is better, love is the secret ingredient.

I told myself in the book it was about showing my love for people but really it's just about my own sheer greed. That's really what motivates me to make nice food to cook. 

I'm a nightmare to go to restaurants because of that, because I always think I can do it better.

Michael Booth's The Meaning of Rice is available in bookshops and on amazon. 

My next post will run a competition to win all six food books shortlisted for the Andre Simon book awards. Read all the interviews to answer the questions in order to win.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Andre Simon Awards shortlist: interview with Thad Vogler

I interviewed Thad Vogler, author of By the Smoke and the Smell, over Skype while he was sat in a car outside one of his bars in San Francisco. It was early in the morning his time, and tea time in the UK. I could see that over there it was sunny, there were blue skies visible from his car window. This week in London, the temperature has hovered around 0ºC.
Thad is an imposing presence, this was most detectable in his voice; he has a radio voice, a deep and rumbling baritone.

How do you feel about being nominated?

I was unbelievably excited.

Is this your first book? It's really well written.You are obviously a natural writer.

Thank you. I was amazed what a collaborative process the book was. I've heard that, but editors make all the difference.

What struck me is it very much is a memoir. It's quite emotional and very frank.

I hope so. I guess. When I was approached to write the book, I thought there is an abundance of the standard bar books with a collection of recipes and the ethos of the bar person and there are enough of those. The woman who became my agent, proposed something more along the lines of a memoir. That sounded like fun to write.

In the whisky chapters, you talk about very personal subjects, your relationship with your stepfather. It's very touching. And also you talk about trying to have children. How did that work out in the end?

Still at it. We haven't had the desired result yet, It's been a surreal experience, It's a very modern experience. We are right in the middle of IVF as we speak, this week. It's an interesting time.

My sister had it. It's hardcore. It's difficult.

It's hard for the women. So much pressure and expectation. I'm just amazed at how comfortable people are asking 'Why don't you have children? When are you having children?' Maybe that's more of an American thing. It seems like a lot of pressure on women.

It's physically hard on women.

Definitely. All on the woman.

You have two bars, the Trou Normand and Bar Agricole, I like the names. The 'trou normand' has helped me out with big meals many a time in France.

No kidding.

Your book makes me want try all the spirits in your book. Very evocative. What's your favourite spirit?

My favourite is mezcal right now. It's what I most like to have in front of me, smelling and tasting.

Do you go through periods where you get little obsessions? Or is it always mezcal?

No. It's very much like music, it goes in phases, You may have an all-time favourite but you are always interested in a different thing. There's only so much that's excellent.
For a couple of years I was really trying to get up to speed on scotch and was very interested. Although it was my favourite, the more I learned, the more disillusioned I became.
There's a number of ways to consider it: there's the business of liquor which is always interesting but maybe a little depressing, considering the market place, where it's going to sit. What's happening? Is it growing? Is it being changed? What's happened with scotch the last 20 years is fascinating.
But yeah right now for the foreseeable future you just have access to something really amazing with mezcal right now, these tiny, tiny producers. You always get a sense of what might have been, when it's closer to the land, not so mitigated by technology and commerce.
The earliest scotch used the barley from out back, the water from the well. There was an incredibly specific sense of place and you're tasting the place. Now all the grains are coming from Eastern Europe or North England. That sense of place that scotch trades on, is sort of a myth at this point. I find that very interesting narratively, it's an interesting story, the trajectory, and now it's such a  huge business. When scotch started it was something so colloquial.
Mezcal is sort of like a time machine, you find these guys are digging up one wild big piña (the cactus) and fermenting it in a animal bladder and distilling in a tiny handmade still. It's very close to the land, very specific to that place with no technology.
It's like with cheese. Cheese is more and more sterile and they are stripping microbial life out of everything. Particularly in the US we have these sterile awful cheeses..

I thought that was improving...

It's getting worse and better at the same time. It seems to be more conglomerated, at the same time there's a very passionate small movement. There's this niche small market that seems to be surviving while the rest of the market is becoming homogenised and conglomerated. It's a nice tension between the two. Something to think about.

Mezcal is the one with the worm?

It was popularised like that. There's a brand called Gusano Rojo which means red worm. The worm is a cactus grub that lives in the piñas. It just became correlated.

...but its not true, it doesn't have to have the worm?

No, it was a marketing trick for the first ones that were exported, and those were terrible.

Tequila is my favourite out of all the spirits. 

Oh good.

For me it's more druggy than boozy. I've had more occasions with tequila where I've ended up vomiting in the loo and having the black whirlies. Whereas there are other drinks where you drink too much and then you can't touch it for years.

(Laughs). Something about it is so aromatic, it feels like it's coming out of your pores, it just overwhelms all of your senses. I totally agree.

I went to Scotland in November and I visited Oban, the distillery. Whisky isn't really a girls drink.

Historically maybe, but they do say that Oban is the 'ladies scotch'. It's marketed that way.

They were saying all the grain was grown locally. Is it bullshit because it's owned by Diageo?

Yeah it's kind of bullshit. Maybe it's Scottish grain or Northern English grain. It definitely has no real provenance. They definitely add caramel colour and it's chill-filtered.

Have you watched Outlander?

I've watched a few minutes.

That woman never stops drinking scotch.  I wonder if they've sold more scotch since that programme.

That's a really good question, that makes me really want to watch.

I fell into a Netflix hole. I became obsessed with sipping a little bit of scotch while watching it.

I would hardly say Oban is terrible, but they do fudge the truth a bit. You are always interacting with this myth they are propagating and the reality is just a little less.

When I was reading your book I was thinking aha! I found at the end of my trip to Oban, when we did a little bit of tasting, the scotches I like are smoky and peaty.

Me as well. The island ones usually. They are still heating things with peat over there.

Are your bars dealing with artisanal spirits or cocktails?

We sell a lot of cocktails. It all started with trying to get better ingredients for the cocktails, but for cocktails you need to use something a bit more affordable. It's really hard to get our hands on things that were a certain price but still good quality. We found a sweet spot with French brandies in particular where you could get a young spirit from a small producer who would be happy to sell on a barrel or something, if you committing to a large quantity. So we found a nice little niche.

Usually wine when you import it, it's by the palette isn't it? But with spirits you are ordering a barrel at a time? How many litres?

A barrel is about 400 litres.

So you will use, say a barrel of calvados, how long would it take you to get through that?

About a year. Generally we go to France every year and choose another barrel or a mixture of a couple of barrels.

To ship one barrel, how much does it cost? 

It's by ship, and we are lucky we have a producer who will assemble palettes, and we can take part in a palette. We have a great relationship with an importer.

Otherwise I imagine it's incredibly expensive?

Sure it is. It's luxury goods we are dealing with. As much as we'd like to be revolutionary, even though we are finally getting these grower goods at a reasonable prices, a mistake people make with food and drink, is thinking that these are political movements, and it's generally people of a certain politics that are engaged in this dynamic, but ultimately it's luxury goods.
Yes you are right.

Its hard to earn money in food on a small scale like I am. It seems to me always that there is money in alcohol, am I correct?

I think the margin is so much better in drink. Largely due to people like me, the public is demanding a better product, whereas 20 years ago you'd be slinging a six dollar bottle of vodka now it's a 25 dollar bottle of vodka, of armagnac. Our liquor margin is about the same as our food margin.

If you are getting rich in food, you are doing something suspect.

Our drinks margin is 22% and food margin is 27% so it is better. It used to be 10%. It's a terrible industry. Thank god people are interested in it. It's a brutal industry, brutal, brutal, brutal.

Do you see any trends coming up? In the US you guys are always 5 to 10 years ahead of us.

That's funny because bars in London are fabulous.
Bars are becoming more like restaurants. In the '50s in the UK and here as well, you'd go to a restaurant and expect to have the same sort of traditional dishes available.
Now you are seeing specific types of bar -gin bars, rum bars. Twenty years ago, all bars were the same. I think it's going in the direction of specialisation.
That renaissance was rough, for a bit, everyone with their waxed moustaches and wanting it to seem like New York in the 19th century. We've moved through that. Now people expect a drink of a certain quality. The bar has been raised. On a certain night you might go to a certain bar for a different kind of experience. whereas it used to be that we all went to our local.

It's absolutely freezing here right now, I went for cocktails the other night and- bars don't do this enough- they did hot cocktails.  Pubs won't do hot cocktails, a hot toddy. But this place did rum and milk and freshly grated nutmeg on top.

That sounds wonderful. That's cold for London.

Normally it's quite temperate here. Right now, you want something alcoholic, and something warm.

Is there any particular spirit - mezcal is probably not really happening over here, we don't have as much as access to it.

Sure. Armagnac and calvados are wonderful spirits. Calvados is an emotional favourite. With both of those spirits we are finding a grower producer, who grows the fruit, ferments it, ages it, bottles it. That level of control, we expect it in wine but with spirits it's just not the case. It's very hard to find them. Armagnac and calvados producers are real farmers, they are raising cows, making cheese, cider, spirits. They are more agrarian, rustic. I really like them. You are always looking for stuff that's not chill-filtered.

I found out about that from reading your book. It makes everything blander.

It's like skimmed milk, or non-fat yoghurt, it removes all the fats and oils from the spirit. You taste a chill-filtered spirit and one that's not, next to each other, you'll see that your mouth is more coated, there's more acid and fat and oil and flavour. It's night and day. Generally all you are tasting is chill-filtered spirits but when you get one that is not, it's a stunning difference.
Oban is chill-filtered. Springbank is not. Taste Springbank 15 and compare it with an Oban 12 or something and you'll be stunned.

In Britain we are very much associated with gin. A lot of gin happening in Scotland right now.
Are people crazy about gin in the States?

People love gin. Gin is probably the best cocktail spirit there is. It's affordable, unpretentious, it's proprietary, each one has its own blend of spices. Some are like subcontinental, some are like African. Some are citric, some are earthy. It's fun to use and mix with ingredients. It's not particularly expensive and extravagant and it's very, very flavourful.

I went for a kind of distilling lesson, I made my own. I put a lot of angelica in it. I grow that in my garden, it's amazing. If you make a sugar syrup with it, the whole house smells wonderful. I'm very into botanics.

That's wonderful. You use these things at your restaurant? Where are you based?

Yes. I'm in Kilburn. Everything here is made from scratch.

I lived in Kentish Town for about six months.

I'm north of the river, we are very different from south Londoners. they are all cowboys down there.

Well you are all snobs right?


In terms of your personal heritage... Vogler sounds German?

Yeah largely German, some British/Irish mixed in.

I read that you are 6 foot 8.

There is some Dutch blood as well.

In terms of our whole hipster scene, there is one mixologist in London, he doesn't drink, he mixes his cocktails from smell. 

As you age and work in this business, you have to be careful. I personally find I have to taste. I respect them, because this business destroys your health. I don't drink as much as I used to. But I do taste everything that goes out. What about cooking?

(Laughs)Well I'm really fat.

You taste everything?

Yeah. It does destroy your health. 

It sucks. You are eating. You have to eat.

You have to taste everything, that's your living. I think a lot of chefs have got diabetes, high blood pressure, all those diseases...

I was diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago. I have to work really hard to get the sugar back down.

How do you manage that?

Not drinking, drinking less, eating less carbs. It's very hard. It's so stressful, the toll it takes on your body.

How much do you drink a day or a week?

Not so much now.
When in my 20s and 30s it was 6 to 20 units a day. I would say I had a problem that I had to address. It's no accident that the Diabetes happened. I was a whisky drinker and drank quite a bit. I'm tasting it all the time.

In the spirit business are you spitting?

Yes you are. In the distillery you are spitting. Otherwise you'd be useless very fast. I do classes for people that aren't in the industry. It's very hard working with spirits, they'll insist on swallowing and within five minutes the whole class is drunk, no one is paying attention and chatting. It's useless. It's a powerful substance.

Do you travel a lot? Your schedule in the book sounds like some press trips I've been on, long days, very exhausting, the amount of tasting, making it quite hard going.

We organise our own press trips. Those trips where someone else pays for your trips, they are so mediated. So generally we organise our own contacts. You pack it in. You are eating too much, you are not walking at all, you are tasting stuff all day, it's gruelling.

People think it's glamorous, it's actually hard work. You brought that home in your book.

Do you have plans for another book?

My agent says yes. I kind of want to sit with this one for a bit. I really really enjoyed writing it. The restaurant business is so shit and stressful that turning it all off and writing, I find it really relaxing.

You can tell that you enjoy it. You are opening up, being vulnerable. Some of the comments about the people you are travelling with, you don't hide the fact that they irritate you. The way you describe people, do any of them get offended?

Yeah a couple of people took offence. I'm sort of an arsehole, but I thought I was very gentle with most people. The people I thought would take offence were fine, the ones where I didn't think I'd said anything untoward at all, a couple of them took offence. When I was writing, I thought it would all get cut out, but it didn't, they wanted more. I didn't expect it to be such a personal book.

You've got a very strong voice.

Thank you.

That's what's different about this book. You are interweaving both, the personal and the technical. How long did it take you to write?

18 months from signing the contract to turning in the final draft.

How many words?

80 thousand.

Hospitality is a very sociable industry, writing requires solitude.

I find I always do it in coffee shops, I need other people around. I don't like doing it at home, it's depressing.

Yes it is a bit like depression. At least you've got your own bars you can write in.

I prefer other peoples. Because people call and ask you for money.

Interrupting the muse, how dare they?

This is your first ever writing, you don't have a blog, you just went straight into the book...

I had some help for sure, I had two editors, a style editor who I'd give pages to very regularly. I spent the first 6 months getting my chops up. I was prone to writing short sentences and unvaried sentence structure. All I'd been writing over the last few years was emails and text messages. So getting out of that informality. I read a lot in my 20s and 30s. It's so different now, I used to read a couple of novels a week.

I never read.

The fact that I read a lot, I have a liberal arts degree where you learn how to write, but I had a great editor. And we got some style developed. I was approached by an editor, who I told, I don't want to do another recipe book, they come and go so quickly. She claims there is this genre, which is the person coming to terms with their career, not coming of age, but coming of middle age. A bildungsroman.
I'm self-indulgent, I'd like to make some sort of sense of my career, the things I've done. As a bartender you are having all of these five second conversations. You don't want to bore your guests and be negative and say do you know about caramel colour? So it was nice to sit and write it all out.

Do you spend much time behind the bar?

I'm there at one of both of the bars most days. I'm not behind the bar as much as I'd like.

I bet there's a load of stories there. 

Yeah that's what my agent wants my next book to be much more the trade and what goes on.

I bet that'd be great, sort of Charles Bukowski.

I'm guilty of having been a huge fan, he's dangerous though, hes a murderer.

I liked Factotum, he just describes what he does every day.

Exactly, theres so much humour in it.

I think if you wrote a week in my bar and you wrote every story, every person, you are so good at doing little character sketches.

I love describing people it was so much fun.

Are you coming over for the awards?

Not sure. I haven't been to London in ten years. It'd be nice to come over. There's a nice window of opportunity.

Do you like Marmite? 

I love it. My flatmate in London loved it and just the right amount on toast is great.

It's good to meet an American that likes Marmite. 

Lovely to talk to you Thad. 

Thad Vogler's book By the Smoke and the Smell: my search for the rare and the sublime on the spirits trail, is available on Amazon. It's shortlisted for the Andre Simon book awards. 

To win all six food books shortlisted, read all the interviews: