Growing their own at Grain Store: Bruno Loubet and Julie Riehl
by Tom Moggach
Credit: Grain Store
Rewind the centuries and see King’s Cross, in the heart of the London, as it once was – a vital hub for the storage of grain, which arrived by canal barge from the fields far beyond.
Nowadays, this area has been changed beyond all recognition, by the upheaval resulting from Western Europe’s largest construction project.
But as the dust settles, a sense of the area’s food heritage is returning: commuters stroll past living walls and micro orchards; food gardens float on canal barges; and diners are flocking to the new Grain Store restaurant and its wonderful edible terrace garden.
Chef Bruno Loubet grew up with a love of gardening; he recalls picking wild salads in the local vineyard in a break between services. Loubet gives vegetables star billing in his kitchens. His latest cookbook is even called Mange Tout. The Grain Store project is an opportunity to fully express his passion for making a connection between growing and cooking.
“To make something truly fantastic with a carrot is harder than with a fillet of beef,” he says. “You need to be a good chef, have feeling, understand the best way to cook, how to get the most flavour – you have to be really involved.”
Obviously, this is far harder in the city, where people are remote from the cycles of the growing seasons. Children often “think salad grows in a plastic bag on the shelf in a supermarket”. Many of his chefs are not familiar with the plants that become ingredients in their dishes.
Exploring the link between plot and plate underpins the Grain Store concept. Only open since June, the restaurant is already one of the hottest tables in the capital.
The attraction is not only the menu but also the venue. The site is on the corner of Granary Square, a new and majestic plaza on the edge of the canal, decorated with 1080 pulsing fountains.
The restaurant terrace is enclosed by the garden – a sequence of wooden planters brimming with a seasonal array of edible plants such as purple sage, salad burnet, mints, nasturtiums, violas and ornamental grains such as millet.
Inside, the 120-seat space is a stylish blend of industrial chic and a more rustic aesthetic. Huge metal pipes snake overhead, past displays of wooden chopping boards and brass saucepans.
A long bar bisects the room, with a cocktail menu that features wines spiced with clover honey and fennel pollen, in the ancient Roman style. The kitchen is fully open to the dining space, so chefs prepare vegetables in front of their customers.
The menu is eclectic, an adventurous array from around the world. Meat, if included in a dish, is not the main event. One main course, for example, is ‘spiced mash, mint pickled cucumber, raw pink turnip tops, broad beans, confit lamb belly’.
A signature starter from the menu mimics the experience of eating an oyster. A slice of crisp potato and rye bread is spread with seaweed butter and spiked with young borage leaves.
“It looks like a little garden growing on toast and when you bite it’s like a tsunami of the sea,” Loubet says. “It’s so simple, a few greens – it makes you think a lot.”
It’s been a frenetic few months, both in the kitchen and garden. Urban farmer Julie Riehl leads on the horticultural side, designing and maintaining the garden as part of her role with Global Generation, a local charity that runs various growing projects including a moveable Skip Garden.
The design of the garden space is ingenious. Each wooden planter is designed to house a 30-litre metal insert that can be lifted in and out. This enables an easy rotation through the seasons: while one is on display, another is growing on, ready to takes its place.
With a new concept such as this, there are multiple challenges: watering; wind; and the interaction of customers and chefs with the plants themselves. “I now see things in a different light,” says Riehl.
It’s been tricky to train the large team of chefs in the harvesting skills needed to keep the plants in prime condition. “Most of the chefs aren’t there yet … whenever I catch one outside we have a little chat and they are very keen.”
The last months have thrown up questions about the true function of the garden. Is it for the chefs to use in garnishes and cocktails? They have certainly enjoyed learning about and harvesting the plants. Volumes may be small, but the impact is significant.
Or is the garden more a talking point for customers, a way to link them to the concept and the produce on the menu? “Next year we’ll have a very creative terrace where the purpose will not be to use the produce in the kitchen but to interact with customers and the local community as much as possible,” Riehl says.
Loubet believes that there is vast potential for more projects like these to be incorporated into the planning stage of urban developments: “What’s wrong with having a few veg mixed in with the flowers in the park?”
More importantly, he hopes that his style of cooking can prove to people that you can still eat extremely well while significantly reducing the amount of meat in your diet.
He explains that to produce a kilo of meat requires many times more than this weight in grain to feed the animal, plus hundreds of litres of water.
“If it becomes normal to eat less meat but better quality, imagine the impact it will have,” he says.
The vast demand on the planet’s limited resources is perhaps one of the biggest challenges humanity faces today.
Tom Moggach runs City Leaf, which trains people in urban food- growing skills, and is author of ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City’ (Kyle Books).