Lucky us and lucky you, dear readers… A few weeks back, as part of our ‘Local Talent’ series, we grabbed a coffee with local legend, head chef at Bow’s Vinarius (on Roman Road) and creator of East Ham’s own Bread Club, Sophie Downer-Hill.
While she held the EastBlam baby (see him yawning in the pic above!), we talked some serious sourdough, community baking and what it was like to work for the Queen (yep, Sophie has brushed pastry and trimmed crusts for our very own HRH). We grilled her hard on plans for the future and whether an East Ham bakery was on the cards any time soon. Scroll down for the full interview – Errr, wait, make a cuppa first and if you are in Bread Club (first rule of bread club, is um… um…) grab a slice of Sophie’s super sourdough toast while you are at it!
EB: What were you doing before we so rudely interrupted you?
SDH: Drinking Coffee in the Erstwhile Parrot, on Green Street E13…
EB: We know you are a Far East Londoner – which bit are you in and what brought you to this sunny part of London taaan? (Don’t worry, we don’t want your door number, or people will come hounding you for bread at all hours of the day!)
SDH: I’m in East Ham South, near Central Park. I lived in Fulham before, as I was working at the River Cafe in West London. I was there about 4 years and rented a little flat but we wanted to buy somewhere of our own and East Ham meant we could afford a little house. It was a bit of an adjustment at first because we didn’t know anyone (it’s always like that when you move somewhere new) but then we just fell in love with it really.
EB: What do you like about our little bit of the East Edge?
SDH: Oooh, my favourite bits of East Ham… Hmmm, I like Central Park and Brampton Park to take my children to (I love the water in the summer). Also I love the old Liberal club and the old prudential building – beautiful and historical. The Boat House space in Barking is lovely too – a great community space.
EB: Got any East Ham tips you can share? Where is best for buying secret ingredients? Where do you hang out at the weekend?
SDH: Vijay’s Chaiwalla on Green Street is my favourite place to eat – they have an all female kitchen! I recommend the Thali and their chickpea bread – they are my favourites. It’s a great people watching space, right on the corner of the high street and good for kids as they have a few high chairs. Molly loves the colourful fish tanks.
There is also a great shop opposite called Green Village which sells great veggies, so I tend to go there afterwards.
As for my bread ingredients, they are secret, but a little tip from me though, if you are home baking – I would recommend Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference flour. It’s brilliant.
Also Wenlock is brill for meat. I used to live round the corner from a great butcher and struggled to find one when we moved here, until we discovered Wenlock’s. He is one of the best butchers I know (EB note: Wenlocks has been closed for a family bereavement, but reopened earlier this year). All the local ladies still get their pies and faggots from him and they always sell out of meat on a Saturday.
EB: As mum of two, any top tips for readers with kids?
SDH: Tots go wild, at Bonny Downs near Flanders field is great – it’s a forest school style outdoor play session so wonderful for them to run around. Also I grow a lot of our ingredients on Newham City Farm which is a good walk with a buggy, in the summer.
EB: Soooo, tell us more about brand Sophie. We want the whole story – Do you love food? Did you learn to cook by hiding a french rat in your hair? What are you up to now?
SDH: Well, I went to art college and i hated it, so I found a 3 year cookery course doing sugar and ice and beautiful advance pastry things but on the way, I fell in love with kitchens (I was cheffing while I was at college) so then I interned at Buckingham Palace
EB: *chokes on coffee* Did you meet the queen?
SDH: No, but I saw her once!
It was really good fun – the kitchen are beautiful and enormous. So many people working in there. I cooked for the other staff mostly, but I did make the Queen sandwiches sometimes. You get to live there if you work there, so i lived in the Mews, with the horses!
Then I did the Hard Rock Cafe in Florida for a few years. I wanted something fun, and a bit different. Then back to London and like all young chefs, I was desperate to work for Gordon Ramsey. I lasted a few months – it was awful so I sent my CV to the Intercontinental at Park Lane and they accidentally sent it to Theo Randall (EB editorial note: All famous River cafe chef – ding ding – connection made) by mistake who was opening a restaurant in the basement, and he hired me! That was a complete ethos change about choosing the best ingredients and really knowing where your food came from. Gordon Ramsey chefs go home and eat Pot Noodles at the end of the night, whereas this was a whole lifestyle about eating well.
So now I am at Vinarius (the wine shop come deli in Bow). The owner lives on Frinton road and his wife has a studio at Red Door which is how I met him. They were doing a small food offering before and they wanted to ramp it up which is where I come in. We’ve got Blood Orange Salad and Oxcheeks in suet pie on the menu right now – crossing winter with spring!
EB: So tell us about Bread Club. It started with a few loaves at Red Door Studio’s cafe and then….
SDH: Well, I have the starter, which I have to feed to keep it up. If you feed it, then you HAVE to bake as it grows and grows. So I started to bake for myself, then Red Door and at that point it was no extra effort to bake a few loaves for friends. A few extra loaves has turned into 30 loaves a week – I tend to bake twice a week, and I have a WhatsApp group of eager bread lovers who come and collect them. The largest batch I can do is around 30 loaves so I often have to turn people away. It’s a lot, but I really like doing it. It’s not for profit, just a group of friends really.
EB: Aaand, what does the future hold? Can we expect an indie bakery in East Blam (*every reader crosses fingers) or some more fantastic lunch clubs at Red Door?
SDH: It’s looking more and more like a possibility as with summer coming, I will need to find somewhere new to bake as need a space with refrigeration. I have been looking at spaces and educating myself on the whys and wherefores, but nothing is confirmed yet.
It would be great to have something that taps into the desire for proper food. I think people are getting tired of the internet shop, they want locally grown, veg boxes and the like, you know, to buy a little piece of the community, of the people.
EB: What’s your favourite culinary thing right now?
SDH: My latest thing is Kefir – a fermented probiotic drink made from milk and yeast (a bit like yoghurt). I love it – you can make it sweet or sour to taste.