Photography: Will Brembridge
Street food. If two words sum up the change in the British culinary landscape over the past 10 years, it’s ‘street’ and ‘food’ put together. You can laugh all you want at its buzzwordy spread but the truth is, as it’s now dominating places that are most definitely not streets, if you don’t dine on it at least occasionally, I’ll eat my artisanal, locally-sourced hat.
I’d also wager that many of you have looked at these vendors, flipping burgers, wrapping wraps, taking handfuls of coins, and thought: “I wouldn’t mind a slice of that pie.” I know I have. I spent summers in my early-twenties serving burritos out of a van across Britain’s festivals. Though it left me with a lot of things – Buffalo Soldier rattling in my skull via repeat-play trepanning, inevitable sclerosis of the liver – it was an appetite to do this for myself that was most prominent. Now this day’s arrived: I’m going to set up my own street food stall.
The problem is, the market is flooded. From vegan sushi to savoury churros, every food you can think of is being flogged to us for £6 a pop. I need a food that hasn’t yet been ‘done’, and I’ve got just the thing: jellied eels.
Yes, me ol’ mucker! So cockney they make Ray Winston’s teeth look showy. I know the idea of those loose chopped eel bits swimming in gelatinous bone juice is making you wince, but who could have predicted pork scratchings would turn into ‘pork crackling’ and become marketable? Now, it’s jellied eels’ turn to return to their natural home – the streets of London – albeit in a way that appeals to a younger audience. And in five days’ time, I’ll sell them at the hub of all things food: Camden Food Market.
Choosing my food offering is the first hurdle cleared. The second is a little higher: I have no idea what I’m doing. Luckily, I know a man who does, who will be my street food Mr Miyagi: Mathew Carver, proprietor of The Cheese Bar in Camden Market.
Carver knows street food. He is a man who, over the past four years, has turned an old ice-cream van selling grilled cheese sandwiches into one of the most successful food businesses in the city. You probably know them. Remember the gooey cheese advert on Facebook that made you want to do bad things to your body? Well, along with the other 15 million people who watched that video, I saw it, too. Carver started with a stall on Maltby Street Market and now finds himself with a spot in Camden Market. In five days, I’ll be metres away flogging eels.
“Making jellied eels desirable? That’s a hard sell,” says Carver, a kind of Del Boy for the Instagram generation. “If you’re selling them, you want packaging that you can’t see them in, because if people can see them, they’re not going to want to buy them.
“My instinct is to market ‘London’s oldest street food making a comeback’. There’s something nice about pie and mash in London, isn’t there? Think about who you want to sell to.” He places two hands on the counter. “On one hand,” he lifts his left, “Camden’s an iconic place where tourists will try a heritage product. On the other, there are big offices – ASOS, MTV – and workers who go for healthy lunches.” Carver lifts his left. “I’d go for the vintage option and tourists,” and points at me. “So long as you believe in it.”
To change the course of history, one must learn from it. What went wrong for the jellied eel? Clutching a coffee, I navigate the iconic docks of Billingsgate Market at sunrise
on Tuesday morning to find out. This is where I’ll source my product. With its squat structure, dwarfed by HSBC and NatWest towers, to the jaundice-coloured St George’s flags hanging above every counter, visiting Billingsgate is like stuffing your head inside a sarcophagus – like being inside a relic. However immaculately preserved it is, when it comes to eels, the depleting number in the Thames has meant things are different for Billingsgate’s last traders, Mick’s Eel Supply.
It’s not just availability, though. Frank Bradley – owner of Bradley’s in Eltham – attributes the decline of popularity to the growth of pubs serving food in the Nineties, and the subsequent closure of traditional street food spots in the city. But surely in this, the renaissance of street food, things could change. While the lady at Mick’s explains how jellied eels are high in protein, amino acids, filled with vitamins and contain no carbs, my head whispers: I can market that.
As the saying goes, however, it takes a grown woman spitting in your face like a baby in a high chair at the word ‘jellied’ to make you appreciate the weight of the task. And during my Wednesday standing by Dulwich Library asking what the public think of the meal, I learn a lot. Let’s put it this way: 18 out of 20 “love unagi” but wouldn’t try a free jellied eel. This is not going to be easy.
Thinking about what Carver said, I ask my designer friend, Dan, for a quirky, vintage logo. Something with a title you can imagine Ben Fogle proudly uttering, like ‘The East End Eel Company’. Later, I can’t sleep. Everything needs to be finalised for tomorrow, but the image of Billingsgate’s empty aisles keeps me up. Something isn’t right. At 3am, it hits me.
This is modern London. The land of sunrise cardio and straight-edge parties – you’ve got to be fit and tough if you want to make it. And there is nothing tougher than an eel.
If they can withstand the toxic pollution of the Thames in the 18th century and keep Londoners fed through two World Wars, they can keep 21st century workers going. Jellied eels aren’t going to be a lunch young Londoners enjoy, but can be one they need. Let’s market them as a superfood. I begin an email to Dan. All caps. The logo should make you feel tough. The title… ‘MAKE EELS GREAT AGAIN!’ How about ‘Chopped Eel Bites’? Now I believe!
I wake up late. With less than 24 hours until market, I need to put everything together. I’m going to need public liability insurance – £117 for 100 events – register as a food business, get hygiene inspection, then acquire a licence from the market stall owner, which requires a £4,000 deposit. Adding £75 for eels, £68 for prints, £30 for catering stuff and £800-a-week rent, the barriers to put off idiots like me doing this become apparent.
I manage to sort a special one-day slot in exchange for mag coverage. Relieved, I ring Carver, detailing my macho food snack. For the first time, he’s silent. “So you’ve not taken on the advice, then?” I feel pulses go up my spine. “I like where you’re coming from, but the problem with the health thing is if I go to a street food market, I’m not there to eat healthy, am I? Is it too late to make changes?” We have less than 14 hours. “I’m unsure how you’ll make a success of this.” What even is a successful day? “On our first day, we sold 28, so anything above’s great. Anything below six is a bad day.”
Hello big day. It’s 8am, and I’m running into Camden with a cardboard box balanced on my head; lukewarm splooge is creeping down my neck. Having picked up my case of eels from Billingsgate at 5am, I’ve just learned jelly melts. I make my way over to my plot – it looks like the kind of place a crouching nude Terminator would appear. I hurriedly start putting the place together; sweeping away dirt, kicking aside broken extension leads. A discarded slab of MDF becomes a counter; CD holders my shelves. Chopped Eel Bites are ready for business!
I spot a thick-set guy slurping an iced coffee, eyeing us. “Cool logo, man,” he says in a thick Michigan accent, taking a photo. “What’s this all about?” I wipe the sweat from my brow and unload my superfood spiel. He cuts me off, hands over £6 and takes a pot. This is it, isn’t it? I’m going to be the next Uncle Ben or – dare I say it – Mr Kipling!
The next half an hour creeps by quietly, so I hand out samples. I try changing my shirt, building a pyramid out of pots, but nothing works. Something is wrong. Then I hear it. “Mama – que es eso?” A child hangs off his mother. The mother – hair like Howard Stern – yells, “Anguila!” Wait – there are no Pret bags or suits – this is a tourist spot!
My breath shortens; I feel a tidal wave of pins and needles from the crown of my head slowly spreading down. I’m having a hot flush. Tourists? I won’t hit the nightmare six figure, let alone 28! I slump under my counter, defeated.
“Have you ever tried jellied eels, love?” I rise, and there is Carver. He hands me a beer. “Drink that and get back in the game. This is what street food is about; reacting and rolling with the punches.” He rubs out the £6 on the board and scribes £3. It’s a change of plan: we’re now marketing novelty food. Soon people are crowding round to see what these cerebral-looking beauties could be. Before I know it, we’re up to five – within touching distance of our target.
But with my lunchtime and license almost up, I accept defeat. Suddenly a big guy – tattooed arms; face as red as a bus – appears. “Never thought I’d see jellied eels on a stall in London in 2017!” We talk his East End upbringing before he shakes my hand. With what’s left of it, I wave goodbye. “Oh, mate!” he’s turned back. “Two, please.”
Seven! Though not terrible, I feel the touch of that familiar friend: failure. I shut up shop, and head to the Cheese Bar.
Sitting down, I tell Carver my score with a huff. “That’s not so bad, mate! I respect you for going with what you wanted.” He puts his arm round my shoulder. “The reason I gave you that target of six is because six is the worst day we ever had.” I look up in disbelief. “It was in central London, too, and it just didn’t sit right on the day. There’s nothing you can do about clientele.”
Laughing with Carver, he’s right – I’ve learned something today. Marketing food is a lot like getting sexless pandas to fuck: you can time things, light candles and put on Barry White, but sometimes the universe operates on a level you can’t understand. I’d done everything I could for jellied eels, and it hadn’t been quite enough. “You never know, you could be one fine detail away from making it work,” Carver poses. “Maybe it’s just pairing the eels with a different taste. Have you had any ideas of seasonings that could breathe extra life into the dish?” I stop, scrunch my face, and retort: “No idea, mate. Not tried them. They look absolutely disgusting.”