It’s been a while since I posted anything remotely personal on here over the past few months. The reason partly being I’ve simply not had the time to relax and sit down in front of the keyboard and just let it flow but also I’ve had my guard up a lot more recently. I believe that being honest and frank about my ideas and issues such as the food industry, animal welfare and the business in general has been a staple part of the success of The Troll’s Pantry from day one, but in the latter part of last year I feel like I’ve withdrawn for a number of reasons.
Many of you may be wondering why I left the Brunswick Pub at the end of the year and in order to answer that question I feel I also need to explain the reasons I decided to go there in the first place. I know some of you feel that perhaps I tried to expand too soon and I would say that you are probably right, however the reasons at the time seemed perfectly logical. Winter was coming, we were serving from the garden of the Hobgoblin which was undoubtedly going to get emptier as the weather worsened and the Hobgoblin has never really been known as a food pub. I was also getting a lot of feedback from people who didn’t feel the Hobgoblin was really their scene, whom I figured would prefer the less studenty more Hove-esque vibe of the Brunswick.
I also felt like I needed to validate myself as a chef somehow. Street food was always my thing and I’d always shunned the concept of food served with cutlery, plated up and brought to your table. The problem was I became aware of a demand from customers who didn’t agree with my ideas and wanted the works. With the Brunswick I tried to combine high quality, ethical food, reasonably priced along with all the other thrills and spills. Simply, it didn’t work, not when my standards are so ridiculously high. Many restaurants often cut corners and accept a minor loss of quality that would not be noticeable to many, while still maintaining some element of an ethical model such as local sourcing or organic meat. However the extent to which I try and source ethically and cook everything as freshly as possible is simply too expensive for a traditional pub/restaurant setting, unless I’m charging something like £15 per burger. I don’t just source ethical meat, but everything from the oak smoked, cold pressed rapeseed oil we use in our sauces, to the organic cheeses on our burgers. I’m not the kind of person who does things by halves or who’s content with following the same path as others. I always have to make things that little more challenging and difficult for myself. A good analogy is something a teacher said in my report card when I was at primary school. It said something along the lines of “If he wants to get from A to B he’ll go via Z”. The teacher meant this as a criticism, but as I’ve grown up I’ve learned that this aspect of myself has also lead me down paths that I would otherwise have never have taken.
As many of you may know, I have never been trained as a chef and prior to The Troll’s Pantry I had practically zero catering experience. I learned all I know from teaching myself how to cook from scratch, seeing other people’s mistakes and generally being incredibly critical, not just of food that I had experienced when eating out, but of myself as well. I am my own worst critic. In many cases this has been a blessing as it forces me to constantly strive for perfection. The downside is I often forget that reaching the standard of perfection is totally unobtainable and don’t know exactly where to draw the line. This has blown up in my face in the past where I pile so much on my plate I get to the verge of a breakdown before I slam on the brakes. I thought that perhaps my doubts about expanding were due to my own feelings of inadequacy of not being a trained chef and fear of failure. So I decided to brush the doubts aside, grit my teeth and dive straight in without any further debate.
Despite me deciding to leave the Brunswick venture at the end of last year, I don’t have any regrets nor do I see it as a waste of time and effort. I’ve learned a great deal from the experience, not just on how to run a multi franchise operation, or to work from a kitchen, but most importantly some valuable life lessons. I feel I quickly realised after starting the venture that it wasn’t where I belonged, but persevered not only because I had so much invested in it, but because I felt a sense of responsibility. I’d started down this path and by Jove I was going to see it through. Looking back I feel that maybe The Brunswick and myself had very different ideas about what we wanted from from a food point of view and I perhaps made too many compromises. For example, no takeaway option, food served on plates, cutlery readily available and generally a less casual set up to what I prefer. Most of all I missed talking to all of you guys as I cooked the burgers, I hated being locked away in the kitchen all the time and those damned pretentious plates! God knows what was going through my head when I decided to buy them. My heart wasn’t in it and I think that you guys probably picked up on that. The passion I have for what I’m doing and the knowledge that everything I create has every ounce of love I have put into it is what has kept you guys coming back each time. I honestly haven’t felt like that the past few months. I’ve seen each week as a trial that I have had to get through, just counting the days to the summer where I aimed to train someone else to run the Brunswick kitchen while I went off and explored the festival scene, burgers in tow.
But recently it dawned on me, what is the point of building something up, just to then palm it off on someone else who isn’t going to have the same passion I do for the business? I could have trained someone and maybe, just maybe the quality of the food wouldn’t suffer, but still what would be the point? Would it make me happier? Would it do anything for the local food movement? Sure it would increase the number of locations that someone could procure an ethically sourced burger, but wouldn’t it be better to keep things small and inspire others to emulate rather than trying to capture the whole ethical market for myself? That’s the conclusion I eventually came to. I was doing something I wasn’t happy doing and the main reason I was doing it was because I thought it was in the best interests of the business. I put the needs of the Troll’s Pantry far above my own, seeing my lack of love for the job to be a necessary penalty I had to pay for my business to succeed. But what I failed to grasp is that the business and myself are inextricably linked. If I’m unhappy then the business is unhappy, to penalise myself is to penalise the business.
So what have I learned and how can I use that knowledge to further improve what we offer at The Troll’s Pantry, while at the same time ensuring I stay happy and sane enough for it to be sustainable? Well the one thing I’ve learned above all is that we should always strive to do what we love and are passionate about. For me, it’s providing simple, unpretentious fast food, cooked slowly and with love. For me there is no greater experience than eating food with your hands. While I accept that many are uncomfortable without using cutlery and eating food in a casual setting, I have to accept that I can’t please everyone and that there’s always going to be someone who wants to complain. Personally I believe that eating food with our hands is a totally different experience and helps us to feel more connected not only to the food we eat but to ourselves. I’m no psychologist, but you don’t need a PHD to appreciate that feeling you get when you’re sitting around the table with all your friends, juices pouring down your chin, messy hands as you moan in mutual pleasure without a care in the world as to how you look or how others perceive you. Eating should be a sociable experience where people feel they can let their guard down and enjoy the pure indulgent experience of the food without fear of being judged or looked down upon. So from now on, all the food I serve at the Hobogblin will be food that can be eaten without cutlery. I want to encourage you all to, like myself, drop your guard, stop worrying about what other people think and simply enjoy yourselves. People often overlook the importance of food, but it’s the very thing that fuels us. Not just our bodies, but our spirits. It’s what connects us to nature, to each other and allows us to feel pleasure and excitement. Quite simply, food helps make life worth living.
So that’s my new years resolution right there. I’m going to go back to doing the food I love, the way I want to do it. While it might not be for everyone and others may not understand my reasoning, it’s what I enjoy doing. I urge you all to learn from my mistakes and make sure you make time in your lives for the things you love too. Everyone has different goals, different interests and beliefs and there will always be someone you upset or who tries to judge you for your choices, but it doesn’t matter. I’m in danger of this closing chapter sounding very cheesy, but follow your passions to inspire others. If everyone was just blindly following the status quo and doing what they thought they were supposed to, it would be a very dull world indeed.