A potted tale of Canteen

Published on Foodepedia on 16th September 2010:

Canteen is the critically acclaimed mini restaurant chain whose raison d’etre is to serve wholesome British food and this has been a major factor in its success from day one. There are four busy locations across central London playing host to a branch of Canteen: Spitalfields, Royal Festival Hall, Baker Street and Canary Wharf.

Now coming up to its fifth year of serving up simple delicious food, it’s still as busy as ever. So I took the opportunity for some sumptuous steak and chips to meet the founders and talk past, present and the recently released ‘Great British Food’.

The story began when co-founders Patrick Clayton-Malone, Cass Titcombe and Dominic Lake gathered round a table at the Real Eating Company, a restaurant that Cass was running in Brighton at the time. When it came to the subject of food, the three discovered that their different upbringings had converged on to one point, they all had a love of good quality British food, the kind grandma used to make. This is something which they felt passionate about and yet at the same time found to be uncommon on the British High Street. They craved for something that was good and wholesome but that was also affordable and accessible. So the idea for Canteen was born, a restaurant which served simple, high-quality ingredients in an unpretentious environment.

So here we have classics like devilled kidneys, fish and chips, and treacle tart to choose from on the menu. But perhaps in many respects the seed was sown many years before that when each of them were introduced to their idea of real food. For Patrick, the key influence on his ideology of food was perhaps growing up in rural Dorset and being immersed in home-grown produce and home-made food. Then of course there were the cattle markets, farmers’ stalls and village fetes which also played a key role in his experience of eating local, something which is very central to the ethos of Canteen.

Patrick’s first job was that of a kitchen porter at a Tex Mex restaurant, which although uninspiring, did propel him into the hospitality industry. He went on to a career in events organisation and promotion which later morphed into multimedia production. During this time, Patrick ate out regularly and discovered the growing discrepancy between the cheap but low quality high-street brands and fine-dining experiences. While event organising in Bath, Patrick met a young chef called Cass who later went on to work for Daphne’s, The Collection and Pasha in London.

Like Patrick, Cass also grew up with home-cooked meals in a rural surrounding. His parents were small-holders in Wales before it became cool. For Cass, memories of food were all about making elderflower champagne for the summer, preserves for the winter, raising chickens and ducks for eggs and goats for milk. Cass had felt for sometime that his heart lay with organic and seasonal food so when Patrick introduced Cass to Dominic, Canteen began to take shape. By pure chance, Patrick had also met Dominic through one of his oldest friends and discovered that he had a strong entrepreneurial streak. Despite studying at Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design to begin with, Dominic went on to become an investment executive at a boutique venture capital company before gaining an MBA from the London Business School. Dominic has always had a passion for food and in 2001 he even organised the European Motorcycle Extravaganza, combining Europe’s mountain roads with the best of Michelin starred restaurants.

The meeting with Cass moved Dominic firmly away from fashion and into the food arena. Of course, while each was passionate and committed, it wasn’t as simple as upping sticks and opening a restaurant. There were logistics to be worked out. So after many months of planning, recipe tasting and tentative site applications, the first Canteen was finally ready to be revealed. And on the 19th of October 2005, Canteen was opened to the public at Old Spitalfields Market where it was welcomed with open arms. And it seems that everyone who is anyone on the food scene has eaten there, liked it and written about it; everyone from A A Gill to Fay Maschler.

Fast forward to today, Canteen remains a firm favourite of critics and customers alike and continues to serve those traditional dishes. And by popular demand, the three founders have decided to release their first cookbook, Great British Food. A cookbook which embodies the entire ethos of Canteen, from its tweed cover and simple layout to the nostalgic collection of their favourite Canteen recipes inside. It’s clear that Canteen has worked hard to stay true to its ethos and in meeting with its founders I firmly believe that it’ll continue to do the same for years to come. And my steak and chips? It was simple and delicious..

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