The Surrey Street-food Revolution (part two)
Fresh and dedicated – the street food traders’ stories
George Whatle’s Caribbean outfit was the first of the present-day street food traders to set up in Surrey Street, Central Croydon’s medieval street market.
On the freezing winter’s day when I visited his stall, George was serving Jamaican patties, jerked chicken and pork, curried goat with rice and peas, goat soup, fried fish, and – for anyone with space remaining – heroic slices of fruit cake. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, there was an impressive and determined queue in front of the counter, and I chatted with Caribbean food enthusiast Johnny Newell, who works at Metropolis Publishing and comes over with colleagues to buy lunch twice a week or so (“too often”, as one of the colleagues observed, patting his belly ruefully).
George Whatle’s food has a well-deserved and faithful following spread over a wide area. His customers regularly make their way down from the Home Office on Wellesley Road to Surrey Street to buy lunch. Along with the food, friendly and efficient service is part of his appeal, and by watching George and his team at work, it is obvious that he take his responsibilities to his local business regulars seriously – the stall trades five days a week to meet their demand.
This all sounds pretty much how any small businessman works to build up his reputation. George’s story, however, is less straightforward.
In February 2010, George Whatle was taken seriously ill with a brain aneurysm and required two life-saving operations. Doctors warned his recovery would be slow and that he would be away from work for at least a year – daunting news for anyone, and more so for a man who has built his own business and takes real pride in what he does.
By October 2011, George Whatle was fit enough (not to mention determined enough) to return to working part-time, and in December 2011 he was once again running the business full-time. The return of the ‘jerk chicken king’ featured in a local paper on December 21 2011 and it was clear from the warmth of his welcome-back just how important a place he holds in the Surrey Street community. It also speaks volumes for the community of Croydon, a place regularly and relentlessly painted as a community without cohesion and importance by an uninventive and out-of-touch media. Meanwhile, very different stories – about good neighbours, supportive communities and our numerous endeavours to create civic bonds, grow businesses and build a strong future together – go untold. A point, in my opinion, that we should make at every possible opportunity.
Next to open up in Surrey Street was Thomas Liu, who with his wife Mei runs Faith Wok Chinese Food. The most striking thing about the Lius is that despite becoming so engrained in the Surrey Street scene, they are not local – the couple travels to Croydon from Kent 6 days a week to prepare and serve their speciality food.
Spring rolls are the Lius’ claim to fame, along with a stir-fry prepared while you wait. Fresh ingredients stand chopped and waiting for the wok, and the best feature is that your lunch is served just the way you want it – patrons can customise their own dish both in content and in level of spiciness. Nando’s, eat your heart out! Like George Whatle, Thomas and Mei Liu count among their regulars many office workers in the working week, and then on Saturdays see more local folk, as Croydon residents pay their weekend visits to Surrey Street.
Sunny Quinton’s Mexican Ambulance sounds as if it could be the title of an arthouse movie, but her delicious street food is a regular feature of Surrey Street. Sunny hails from California, where an equally vibrant community has capitalised on street food, and the brightly decorated ambulance brings a distinctly West Coast ambience to the grey English winter scene – as do the terrific dishes on offer there! Spicy burritos are her speciality, with slow-roasted pork or steak the best sellers. It’s worth noting for your diaries that Thursday is always charity day, when Sunny’s sales help raise money for local causes.
On the other side of the road, Rahim Toufiz is busy selling rice, lamb, and Afghan wraps, a kind of flatbread prepared as you watch on an iron griddle, topped with your choice of fillings, and folded in half. I chose chilli sauce and coriander and the result was ideal street food – hot, fresh, and easy to eat one-handed, as well as spicy and full of flavour. Rahim described his ambition to provide authentic food for Croydon’s Afghan community of between 6000 – 7000 by raising the funds to buy a community oven to prepare their traditional bread.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking tale I heard in Surrey Street came from Amir, who runs the doughnut stall. He arrived in England as a teenage refugee from Afghanistan and did not enter education here until the age of 15. His English at this time was not good, and as a result he initially struggled in school.
Amir was determined to make best use of every opportunity that came his way. He worked hard to learn English, and now, almost five years later, he is studying engineering. His immigration status makes it hard for him to obtain funding for his studies, and so the thriving Surrey Street doughnut business he runs was set up to support him as he perseveres to fulfil his ambitions. In short, if there was ever a way to ease my guilt at buying doughnuts, Amir’s stall is it – I bought four for just a pound and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them.
A few days later, I met Rachael and her husband Chef Zak, newcomers to Surrey Street and joint proprietors of the smart, black Zanylicious stand. Rachael and Zak sell soup, gourmet sandwiches, and your food critic’s choice that day, a wonderfully warming spiced apple tea.
Chef Zak lived in Jamaica until he was 18 when his family moved to the US, giving him the opportunity to study at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation he worked first as a chef in the States, then in London. Having combined forces with Rachael both personally and professionally, the couple are now their own bosses, and Zanylicious trades at Brick Lane in London’s East End, at Camden Market, and at numerous festivals and events. What is most exciting is that right now this savvy pair sees their new stall in Surrey Street as an opportunity to grow their business and go on to even greater things.
But of course, not all the news in Croydon is good. In September 2012, Allders department store closed its doors for the last time, a loss felt even more acutely during its celebratory 150th year of trading. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there is real mourning for Allders in Croydon, where so many of us remember its glittering heyday from our childhoods. Our central shopping area has entered a kind of visual mourning too, with funeral drapes (bright and colourful as they are) screening Allders’ bleak empty windows and hiding the mounting decay within from public gaze.
A sad time indeed, but for most of us it will be a temporary sadness, as retail in Croydon looks forward to the arrival of either sexy Westfield or less-of-a-household-name, but still highly prestigious developer, Hammerson. Town Centre regeneration prospects look good either way, but for the 850 employees who lost their jobs three months ago, the reality of Allders’ ending is very much still present.
One of these employees was Charmaine Laurent, formerly employed in fashion retail, who has just opened her new Surrey Street business, LoveSome Cake. Cake is a happy-making thing at any time, but my meeting with her left me in a particularly good mood. The stall looks great, the service was warm and friendly on a dank and soggy day, and the cakes really were out of this world. In uniformly austere economic times, Charmaine Laurent’s story is genuinely uplifting. For her, Surrey Street food offers a real way forward.
A final flourish
Two other Surrey Street traders caught my eye, not for the meals they sell, but for the garnishes. Three days a week, trader Qais Sedi sells pure Mediterranean gorgeousness – olives, sundried tomatoes, dolmades, marinated garlic cloves and more – at his stall near the Church Street end of the market. And the Mad Ass team – Dave, Sarah, Ashley, Kate, and Catheryne – offer their superb locally-made sauces and relishes (including the most aptly-named ‘Dare Ya’) each week from Thursday to Saturday. These two businesses are simply ornaments to Surrey Street, both in professional presentation and in absolutely excellent quality. They do Croydon proud.