Introducing… Craig Ballinger, London’s secret street food accomplice
A few months ago, a man named Craig got in touch with me to introduce himself. A freelance chef and writer, he had been working with various street food traders over the last few months, and had lots to say about them.
While he wouldn’t be able to review them impartially, it did get me thinking. Now that street food in London has become, er, trendy, a lot of us read about it, eat it and then mostly think about where to get our next fill. But most of us probably haven’t a clue what it’s like being behind a grill all day, or filling and piping sauce into over 100 sandwiches, or even what a trading day is like when the weather’s bad and fewer people put their noses under the canopy.
Craig works freelance for a number of people, many of whom we’ve covered on LSF before and you may recognise, but I thought it would be interesting for us to read a little snapshot of street food life in London.
So today’s menu includes a bread roller, a burger flipper, a bhangra wrapper, a bagel loader and an oven boy. Enjoy.
Who’s he oven boy for? I started my street food life with street graduates HomeSlice, which taught me all of the finer points of making stone baked pizza in a car park. I’ve taken my laboriously learned skills and since worked for Soho’s Pizza Pilgrims.
What does it involve? I know how to hand roll a pizza and am comfortable with customers, but it seems pizza bosses prefer me to have my head in the oven. Cooking a pizza in a 400-degree oven isn’t as difficult as it may seem, but margins for error are small. When the pizza only takes 90 seconds to cook, you’ve got to be quick to get it cooked evenly. Hear a sizzle? There’s a hole in the pizza and it’s sticking to the stone.
Fun Factor: Burns happen, eyebrows are lost and my face is invariably blackened, but pizza times have been good to me. With HomeSlice we got to do a lot high profile events and the pizza was just incredible. Adventures have continued with the Pizza Pilgrim boys, including a fun day out to cater for the cast and crew of a Stephen Frears film.
Who does he flip for? Kimchi Cult serves up juicy beef chuck burgers topped with homemade kimchi. Add cheese and bacon and you have the Cult Special, one of the tastiest burgers in the street. The Kimchi Cult team have a pub residency and are regular Kerb and Street Feast London traders.
What does it involve? In a two-man set up, I’ll start by forming the burgers first thing. When it comes to service, it’s my job to squash and season the patty on the grill, before flipping it over to Danny (Kimchi Cult’s founder) for the all-important kimchi topping. Numbers vary depending on the market but the aim is always triple figures, as it is with most traders. However busy, working with Danny is always very chilled, so we get to chat and never really feel any pressure.
Fun factor: Pop-up culture has allowed us to get off the street recently and into the kitchen at Camden’s Black Heart, where the rain can’t get in. On the downside, I don’t particularly enjoy smelling of burger, and people on the tube home enjoy it even less…
Who does he wrap for? The Baba Gupta’s (originally called Bhangra Burger) British/Indian creations are a staple of London street food. The Royal Raj Rump is the current trademark dish of Bhangra Burger; thinly sliced madras-spiced lamb rump in a wrap, packed with mango-glazed cabbage, toasted seeds, crunchy salad, mint yoghurt and a fruity, fiery green chilli sauce.
What does it involve? Baba Gupta founder Alec is a whirlwind to work with, his ideas and personality permeating every bit of the business. My job is usually to help with the prep (chopping a mountain of cabbage) and do the final building and wrapping. Alec mans the grill and does the money, and I try to keep up with the rest. As with most busy traders, I need to work quickly and accurately, but with the mix of breathtaking spices and complex composition, a day with Bhangra Burger always feels like a journey, an experience to survive and high five about.
Fun Factor: The Royal Raj Rump Wrap is one street food creation I never get bored of eating. I’ve tired of pizza and burgers and hot dogs but I’ll never get bored of the explosive flavours of a wrap from Alec. Along with Mike and Ollie, this the tastiest wrap on the road.
Who does he fill for? The Bell and Brisket is a mobile salt beef bar, serving soft beefy goodness in an East End bagel, topped with homemade pickles. A proud member of Kerb, business owner Bel Shapiro takes her converted horsebox to their markets around the City and beyond. We’ve had adventures on the Southbank at Real Food Festival and at London Street Feast.
What does it involve? In the confines of the horsebox, the set up has to be simple and efficient. At one end, we’ll have someone manning the till, taking the orders and pouring the home brewed ginger beer. At the other, we’ll have Bel carving the brisket and piling it into the sandwiches. In between, I simply put the fillings in the bread. Be it soft black rye or Brick Lane bagel, I fill the bread with the customer’s choice of pickles and mustard. The Lord Rupert, London’s take on The Ruben, is endlessly popular: pickled red cabbage, Dijon mayo, cheddar, beef and gherkins. Classic (almost).
Fun Factor: If cheese is going on the bagel, I get to melt it with a blow torch, which is usually entertaining. This gives me an opportunity to talk to the customers that are awaiting their order. Working with Bel is always fun, mainly as we have a similar taste for beer!
Who does he roll for? Mike and Ollie who serve freshly made flatbreads filled with seasonal and often foraged ingredients. The meat, fish or veg of the day is served with fitting accompaniments and dressing – like a whole meal in a wrap. Mike trades at Brockley Market and with Kerb
What does it involve? On a Saturday on Brockley Market, I’ll roll and cook a minimum of 100 breads on a hot stone. I get myself deeply caked in flour and the work is pretty relentless, but it’s part of the theatre that makes up a good street food kitchen. I’m right up the front, so I also help take orders but it’s mainly just putting your head down and rolling. Still, I also get to hear the reactions from the customers and have a chat about what we do. It’s rewarding to hear people getting excited about the food that we’ve taken such pains to put together.
Fun factor: The work is fairly tiring and the clean-down is long but it’s great to work with someone as talented as Mike. He’s shown real endeavour to get to where he is and it’s great to be part of the team.