Monday, 1 November 2010

Here and There

My life is now a curious mix of deeply rigorous academic study and a never-ending popping up at different London spots in the choc van. The two could seem far removed from each other but what I love is how well they feed into one another.

Studying cities is what my Msc is all about - how we all negotiate and interpret our urban space, despite of/because of our apparent differences and how we claim ownership of those spaces and through doing so help contribute to the health and well-being of the city.

I love that Choc Star takes me here:

Choc Star + friends were invited to trade in the Jubilee Gardens as part of the Thames Festival in September. It was a great opportunity to show off's wares in one spot - a whole strip of high-energy, high-quality, flavour and personality driven food stalls/vans lined up, shimmering.

And here:

The '80s style Fashion Fete at Covent Garden found us back on familiar territory - except with a doggy catwalk show. And an Anna Wintour coconut shy opportunity.

Oh, and with us serving Elvis Sundaes (choc ice cream, vanilla ice cream, brownie bites, banana, hot fudge sauce, salted peanuts and gold dust). Here's one happy partaker:

Then there was the Warwick Wingding. This is an interesting one. Over in Peckham there's a whole scene going on. People tend to think of Peckham as crawling with miscreants where every step is a run of the gauntlet through gnarled chicken bones and eyeballing pitballs. But what about the quaint village life that exists alongside it?

A whole community of arty folk keep the area around Warwick Gardens ticking along with a real homespun, homemade, DIY kind of lilt. Every year they hold the Wingding for the people of the area to come and sell their creations, listen to local musicians, eat well, dance, drink and so on. I was lucky enough to be invited, despite the SW9 postcode. Everyone was extremely friendly, interesting and interested. I just felt a bit sad for the small number of quite-clearly-not-part-of-the-scene kids who strayed over for an ice cream, £1 coins clasped in their mitts, and looking nervous and like real fish out of water amidst all the folksy reverie.

There was nothing stopping these two though - all the way from Canada they came (they said) to visit us!

Back on the Southbank for the Real Food Festival market. I love seeing our vehicles nestled in amongst all those clean lines and imposing edifices.

Down at the Deptford Project for a food night with The Meatwagon. This bloke turned up and started asking me lots of questions...

We bonded over the fact that one of my old friends had her first ever snog with him in a bus stop in Essex.

Then the Towpath event took on a further lease of life as we staged a two day event down by the river there - all in aid of War Child and brimming with East Londoners all looking for a bit of edge to their outdoor dining that weekend.

More of these to come as the Waterways people are excited by the possibilities that putting on events like these - self-organised, grass-roots, fabulous food, nice music, better vibes - can create. And what a wonderful opportunity to re-animate the dead zones of the canal in this way - the place was heaving! (Not in this pic - this was early).

I loved this Mad Max themed party we catered for in an old warehouse in Battersea the other day. The costumes were outrageous - but this guy trumped them all for all round squishability (little smorgasbord of choc treats for his table):

And this dude did stunts that were eye-popping:

And then there was Brent Cross. Britain's first stand-alone shopping mall - a 1970s powerhouse of hardcore consumerism. Despite seeming a little dated and past its best now, its postcode guarantees a huge number of avid, high-spending shoppers every week.

The Centre decided that the recent interest in curbside eating should be realised in their carpark every month in the form of a mini-food festival.

I actually loved being there and think it looked great. Not only our strip - which included stalwarts Churros Brothers, Brewed Boy, Healthy Yummies, The Meatwagon, Bhangra Burger and Ca Phe VN - but the contrast of that bleak, almost Brutalist facade as a backdrop to the informal, quirky arrangement of food traders who couldn't be further from your typical Nandos-fest usually associated with the mall experience.

This could have potential for real growth but it's going to require a bit of a re-think on many matters - not least of which being, how do you divert indoor mall mentality to outdoor ad-hoc style street food eating?

The good news is that pondering exactly these kinds of questions is all good for my course. Now I just have to remember how to write an essay...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Back to the Towpath for a full weekend

This weekend sees another, more expanded DIY event at the Towpath in Hackney. We're all really excited to be involved with what we hope will become a continued theme in the trading habits of the crew.

The summer has confirmed a lot of things that we already suspected: that many of the events we've traditionally attended are going in a direction that is rather lacking in the original festival spirit from which they first sprung. This is a shame because what's so special about the food traders who have joined is that we are, by our natures, still full of mad love for our customers and the food we serve. It's difficult to do what we do when confronted with exorbitant pitch fees, heavy-handed sponsors, excessive amounts of traders for too few punters and a general sense of disconnect from the good, wholesome and happy vibes.

Let me say that there are still exceptions and we love them for remaining true. And we understand that everybody needs to make money and we wish them well. But Choc Star and many of the other great people of have other ideas up our sleeves...

As I press pause on the road-tripping for a while and turn my mind to my studies, it is also London that I want to focus on more closely for the Choc Star ramblings and adventures. Full of opportunities to bring great food to its streets and public spaces - many of them disused or under-used.

We tried it a few weeks ago and now we're off again - Right opposite the canal from Jason Lowe and Lori De Mori's wonderful Towpath Cafe lies a piece of land that shouts DIY micro-festival like you wouldn't believe.

Alongside the choc-mobile will be super-proactive member Yianni of the Meatwagon, Portobello favourites Jamon Jamon, Mongo Denoon and the OK Catering Success (or The Everybody Love Love Express, depending on how you're feeling) and ruffneck coffee supremo Brewed Boy with his cart of joy.

There'll be music, fire, edible magic and sunshine. Or, in the words of Mongo Denoon:

The LoveLove Express happily heads East to be part of a one off weekend in an exclusive waterside location for a do with some of the finest street food wagons, dj's, bands, top hat cocktails and side stepping possiblities - and all blessed and bathed in the last golden days of summer. Its free if you are. Come and remind yourself why you love London.

Hope to see you there for a milkshake/chaat/espresso/burger/paella...

Thursday, 30 September 2010

One day only!

We'll be back on the Southbank this Saturday for one day only.

As it's sunny and rainy and windy and all we'll be selling all sorts: ice creams, milkshakesm hot chocolates, sundaes, truffs, brownies, Willie's Cacao...

10am-6pm, Belvedere Road side of the Southbank Centre.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Warwick Wingding - Peckham, here we come!

We're so excited because this weekend we barely have to leave our neighbourhood. To some people the differences between Peckham and Brixton are massive - even the way a person walks can denote SW9 or SE15 - but when it comes down to me and Jimmy it's well local.

The Warwick Wingding
is a one day urban fete kind of affair - the result of all those who know and love the green space of Warwick Garden coming together to have a bit of a late summer shin-dig.

Alongside us will be the properly local likes of The Meatwagon, Ganapati, Helen Graves serving up mezze and some storming music and fabulous japes from all manner of others.

It runs from 12-7pm and is followed by an after-party. So if you're coming from North you'd better pack an overnighter.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Thames Festival this Weekend!

This year the Thames Festival have been really keen to make collectives a key part of its trader presence. The idea being that if groups of like minded operations can come together to double up on deliveries, space, power, etc, then there is an overall reduction in the environmental and administerial burden on the Southbank - along whose shores will gather hundreds of different stalls for the coming weekend.

We at were thrilled to be given our first official opportunity to gather together in one spot and do what we do as a group. It's a rare thing to be working with such progressively minded events organisers as well - and we have the super-conscientious market trading stalwart Barny Copford and his team to thank for this. have been allocated the most incredible pitch - right in the middle of Jubilee Gardens, under the London Eye. Together with Choc Star will be some of our crew favourites: Bhangra Burger, The Everybody Love Love Express, Eggonomics, Churros Brothers, Spinach & Agushi, Bean & Gone coffee and the new Jamon Jamon off-shoot - slinging hot, buttery garlic bread.

Looking forward to seeing you down there!

Monday, 6 September 2010

I left my heart there...

...or at least any hope of wearing summer clothing again this year. The blueness of the sky was incredible. I would wander around San Francisco's audacious slopes fairly pinching myself to be there, in it, amongst it - revelling in having suddenly transported myself to one of my favourite cities in the world - all on a stomach pulsing whim.

They catch you sometimes, these gut-fuelled desires. Whether it's sensible or feasible or not, that part of your instinct will not hush up until you obey it. I like obeying it. Makes me feel like I'm on course. Keeps me alert.

The last one I had was on a rock in India where I became consumed by the need to return to Uni and study Urbanism. I'm fascinated by how cities work, by how we all negotiate the space that we occupy within them. How every city has a different personality, like people, and functionality akin to the human body. And how public spaces, with a little imagination and vision, can provide a city and its people with a vital aspect to this personality.

So it is that Choc Star + + my upcoming Masters amounts to a deep interest in the question of how instrumental street food is to the animation and integration of urban public space. When I heard that over in Fog City La Cocina were holding a street food festival and two day conference on this very subject I got all hot under the collar and was on a flight in a matter of days.

You can read about the festival here and I'll be writing about the conference shortly but, for now, here's a little round-up of the sweetness coming my way during my San Fran Express trip.

Pud number 1 in La Dunya on Polk St. Settled into my hotel and then headed straight out in pursuit of my first glass or two of some really good zinfandel. I love a cheeky zin. And they always give you the most enormous glass to quaff it from in Cali. For fear of falling off my perch I ordered some food, culminating in the owner wheeling out three different puddings for me to try. The brownie was perfectly fine, the Tiramisu nice enough, but this lemon situation above had me all up in my clover. A great buttery layer of tangy lemon curd atop a crunchy base of ginger biscuit. It worked for me - I felt perfectly normal the next morning, like I'd been on Pacific Time for weeks.


Soon turned to this:

and I was off into those streets like four dogs on a three-legged cat.

Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream (Salted Caramel and Malted Vanilla for me).


Tartine friand, cacao nib rocher and Mexican sugar cookie (there was something else in there which was way too good to wait for its pic to be taken). I love Tartine. There's something almost apothecal about imbibing from it. Feels like it'll help you to live a long and prosperous life.

Equadorian, hi-camp jellies at the street food festival. I've never seen anything like it. Reminded me of those T-shirts you grow in water.

I'd heard so much about the Creme Brulee Cart and was devastated not to be able to try the Mexican Chocolate. They were dishing out frozen ones to the people a few in front and then torches down, party over.

But I did get to have this as consolation...

Hot off the press, slippy-slidey, melting choc/mallow, squidgeable, crunchable hot mess. Thanks to Kika's Treats for the light relief!

Then someone hawked me this Alfajore (Peruvian dulce de leche cookie) for $2, which I ploughed into before remembering to snap. That keeps happening to me lately.

Oh, and these cheeky little Madeleines were sat winking at me - all sassy and keen - as I passed by Delfina on my way out of there. When it comes to pure comfort cake this has to be up there. And you just feel so damn special with one of those in your hand/mouth/tummy.

Speaking of Delfina, if there was one thing I needed from my San Francisco express visit it was meatballs, California style. I took myself off for a cosy dinner a une (such a luxury) to the Pacific Heights branch and got well stuck into those polpette. I mean seriously stuck in - to the point that, along with a dozen or so other memorables, I swear I'll be recalling them well into my granny years. Anyway, of course I needed dolce after and opted for a moreno cherry sundae with bitter chocolate sauce and toasted pistachios. I did have something of a waddle to my walk home that night.

Brunch at Americano the next day - ahead of the conference - was knock-out. Along with empenadas, panzanella, corn frittata, beef satay, a whole world of Bloody Marys and other deliciousness, they hit us with some sweetness too.

This was a Malaysian porridge:

Nice but perhaps a little too wholesome for me.

More up my strada were the homemade 'pop tarts' - ricotta and blackberry compote:

and the mini cupcakes:

Pink lemonade, Guinness, spiced and Red Velvet. I banded around the idea of the 'cupcake backlash' to the people I was sitting with and they thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. No visible signs of this phenomenon hitting US shores as far as they were concerned.

Later I hit the Humphry Slocombe/Big Gay Ice Cream truck party in the Mission (but not before getting an education in real bourbon from a ripped guy in a low-down dive bar round the corner). What a contrast it was between that and this:

The cake was fine but what really got me inspecting the back of my head was the much raved about Humphry Slocombe ice cream. Hot diggity. My eyes pulsed with fever as I surveyed the list. The queue was ridiculous, I had to be ready with my order. In the end, despite stiff competition from the Salt & Pepper and Balsamic Caramel flavours, I went for Malted Milk Chocolate and Secret Breakfast with hot fudge sauce and frosted peanuts.

I nearly keeled over, straight into the arms of an enormous Tranny. People - it was that good. Not French cleverness, nor Italian velvet, but a pure creamy, delicious pleasure with an almighty flavour that I haven't experienced in London so far.

The next day my hangover (after a heavy duty session with Southern food legend John T Edge) prevented me from exploring sweetness much further. It was all about the tacos, the Po'boys and the empenadas. Except these did catch my eye and I did have to try.

Organic doughnuts. Who knew? This vanilla cookie one did actually feel like it was doing me good in a fairly wholesome way. Not wholesome green pulsey porridge, more soulfood wholesome - my favourite kind.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Screw Work, Let's Play

Well it wasn't exactly what I said to myself when I first began the Choc Star thing, but the leaning towards adventure and away from anything officey was always at the forefront.

I've met so many amazing people through doing what I do. In every new town, at each festival, party, wedding and market will come a new person with a great story. Or a link. Or an enthusiasm that just makes me glow. That's when I feel like I'm playing - bouncing around in Jimmy, coming across good people with the fun-times look in their eyes and making friends for life.

John Williams has written Screw Work, Let's Play to talk about all the many different options for income that we can find that don't have to be dull and unengaging. He asked me if he could write about Choc Star in the book and of course I said yes. We're on p23 (How To Work Out What You Really Really Want).

Check it out if you're feeling playful - it's become a bestseller! Well done John, play on playa.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Summer slinging

The summer has been going by in a haze. What a great one we've been having. Jimmy's been getting stuck into some new places and befriending lots of new people as ever - and really shaping up pretty well for someone of his age.

I discovered recently that I have been accepted on a Masters course at UCL - an Msc in Urban Studies - and I am beyond excited at the prospect of getting my brain cranked up again. So, this summer marks the last one of things being as they were. After this year, who knows? Choc Star will most definitely continue but my role in it won't be as hands-on.

So I'm enjoying every event with Jimmy - and delighting in the excitement I still feel when hitting the road, bound for somewhere I've never been before...

In May we went to Letchworth Garden City for its first food festival. I was totally rivetted by this place - Britain's original Garden City and in possession of it's first roundabout (built in 1903). The whole town had a really extraordinary atmosphere: heavy duty, high-design suburbia with a touch of the Legoland about it.

Punters in Letchworth = all incredibly friendly and easy-going. Must be the Quaker influence.

Prime example = this couple. I marveled at her very ostentatious necklace and she tried to insist that I should keep it. Too much! Then they went on to divulge the secrets of her current husband having snatched her away from her original husband. They looked utterly delighted that things had all worked out for the best and really tucked into those Choc Star treats.

My pal and fellow founder Giles brought along Mary, his caravan of joy. While we all roasted in the upper 20 degree heat, Giles stood over a pulsing pot of games stew - chunks ahoy of rabbit, pigeon, guinea fowl, quail and venison. Next on his agenda is to incorporate some Suffolk squirrels into the equation.

The County Arms in Wandsworth booked us to be part of their re-launch at the end of May. Along with Morris dancers, face painters, jugglers and other such pageantry, we served the pub's patrons with as much sweetness and joy as they could cope with. Great burgers too...

...Although not quite as special as Yianni's. We finally got to go side-by-side again - this time outside the independently run Red Lion & Sun up in Highgate. Joder! I felt like I was crawling up out of the Brixton swamplands and onto a great precipitous ledge. Felt like another city altogether.

No sooner had I arrived than I was met with a series of food ramblers. People who love food so much that they will hunt high and low for the best on offer - no matter how far or out of the way. I was impressed by the dedication of some of them and did my best to answer all the very detailed questions about sourcing and ingredients and baking methods.

The Meatwagon delivered great juicy American style burgers (never had one in this country that tastes quite so much like the ultimate one I ate in a Wyoming roadhouse several moons ago), and we provided the sweetness.

I drove home that night (getting massively lost in Camden as ever), marveling at the pull of the informal/transitory food offering. We need more of this cutting out the middle man type trading.

Mid June found us back at the Teen-age Cancer Trust area of the Marylebone Street Fair. Loads of great people stopped by for milkshakes and chats - including this family, the man of which was one of my first ever customers when I used to take the van to Portobello Market.

He turns up occasionally and makes all the necessary 'ooh' and 'ahhh' type noises.

I have to include a pic of this lot because they were so rowdy and wild. I love kids like that - roamers, tree-climbers, camp-makers, scuffed knee-ers. One of them was called 'Mushroom'. Priceless.

And then came Winterwell....a magical micro-machine of a festival in a valley in Gloucestershire. The theme for fancy dress (because there's always a theme for fancy dress) was The Complete Works of Roald Dahl. Well blow me down, if the place wasn't run amok by a sea of Oompah-Loompahs, Fantastic Mr Foxes, Willy Wonkas and even a Snozzcumber (who revealed to me during an intimate moment at the choc counter, that his shins had had to be dressed by the St John's Ambulance for custume chafing).

But my very favourite costume of all came courtesy of this dude. Whilst other would-be Hungry Crocodiles lagged around in matted old costume cupboard type affairs, this guy went above and beyond and made the thing himself. I told him, listen, you and Jean Paul Gaultier should hook up - this lime green PVC thing is all that. I was crazy for that guy and his costume and I didn't care who knew.
Meanwhile one of my little helpers turned up for her shift as a Giant Peach. We never lost her again for the whole night.

Later on that week I returned to almost the very same spot for the OnForm bi-annual sculpture exhibition at Asthall Manor. It was an idyllic setting, marred only slightly by my having to listen to the England-Algeria game on a wind-up radio that kept needing re-booting.

Back on the road to Essex after that for the Colchester Food & Drink festival in ancient old Castle Park. I used to knock around in that park as a teen-ager. I probably slept the night there on the odd occasion when I knew not where I was or how I came to be. It felt great to be back there - almost like a county show, complete with Suffolk Punches, donkey rides and a flower competition.

This lot were eating for seven...

And I had a great little helper with me but she did try and eat her way through the profits somewhat. I'm looking forward to when my god-daughter Zahara can actually drive the thing.

The following week we returned to the Southbank for the first of the Real Food Festival monthly markets. It felt like coming home and the sun poured its sugar on us all weekend.

Favourite customers of the event was this Christopher Wallace fan and his reluctant sidekick. There's Biggie on his T-shirt. He got very excited when I told him my sitting-on-Biggie's-stoop story. Then I cranked up Playas Anthem and he fairly skipped off back into the throng.