Just another sunny day in East London
Wherever you may be in the world, if you have an internet connection and are reading this blog, you would no doubt have heard about the recent events in London. It's been a trying time, to say the least. Frangelico and I have been thinking and talking about almost nothing but. Yesterday evening, we expected the looting and vandalism to worsen, but in London it was mostly quiet. Sadly, the same can't be said for other parts of the UK, and worse things happened last night than shops being broken into. This morning, as has been the case over the past few mornings, I started waking up feeling unsettled and disturbed. The world was spinning, and I was struggling to find something to hold on to. In that space of time when I was surfacing from sleep into wakefulness, a few of the pieces that were swirling around my mind came together and fit alongside one another like the embryonic beginnings of a puzzle.
After running some errands in the morning, Frangelico (who was on holiday today) and I took the tube to Aldgate East. Here in East London, about 10 minutes north of the tube station and not far from Spitalfields Market, we found the Crisis Skylight Café. The blackboards behind the broad counter offered for lunch a warm soup, tempting hot dishes, and a variety of jacket potato options. On the counter itself were large white dishes with fresh salads, a feta and vegetable frittata, an egg tortilla with bacon and onions, and various cakes and pastries.
Service with a smile
Both of us went for the sweetcorn chowder to start with, followed by the roasted vegetable dal with rice and tzatziki. Having placed our orders at the counter, the food was delivered to the table. Everything came together, and Frangelico and I leapt in without hesitating.
The chowder was properly steaming and hot, unlike soups you get in most London cafés. It was full of plump and sweet kernels, which had a delightful crunch to them still. The chowder base had the perfect consistency for a summer soup: light, yet fulfilling without being creamy. There was also some chili in the mix, giving the whole flavour profile a stronger dimension.
Roasted vegetable dal with rice and tzatziki
Next up was the dal and rice dish. Now, I know my South Asian food, and my experience of eating dal in restaurants has either been of the pretty-bland-and-stodgy variety or the over-spiced-and-swimming-in-oil type. The Crisis Skylight Café's dal knocked my socks off. I'd never tasted one as flavourful, healthful, and comfortingly homemade in a restaurant. I loved the tzatziki accompaniment, rather than the usual cucumber raita, because the tzatziki was thicker. Its texture stood up to the dal's complexity of lentils and roasted butternut squash and aubergine, whereas raitas tend to get runny because of the thinner yoghurt and the cucumber.
The ones that got away
The meal was very filling, and we didn't have space for dessert. Just check out what we missed! Triple chocolate muffins, cookies, flapjacks, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, almond croissant, and cherry and almond croissant.
We enjoyed the ambience a great deal too. There were plenty of smooth wooden tables (with elevated seating by the window at the front), and throughout the two hours or so that we spent there, we witnessed brisk business taking place. The customers seemed to be a mix of local suits, office workers, fashion students, and retired couples. At the height of trade (at around 1.30pm), the queue was all the way to the door.
After lunch, I asked to speak to someone about the café, and I first met Eki, the front-of-house manager, and then Carrie-Ann, the head chef. Eki and Carrie-Ann are two of the 4 or 5 members of staff employed by the café. All of the others who work there are their trainees, who are either on the 'front-of-house journey' or the 'kitchen journey'. And who are the trainees, the most important part of the café? The trainees can come from two groups: the first is a group of young offenders working with Switchback, a charity that supports 18-24 year olds to build on skills learnt in prison kitchens; and the second is a group of people working with Crisis, a charity providing education, training and employment services to single homeless people.
Eki talked me through the front-of-house training they undertake: everything from food hygiene, customer service, barista skills, to managing basic accounting. Each trainee spends roughly 6 months on the programme, working in the café 2 or 3 times a week. At any one time, they are working with roughly 10 to 12 trainees.
Head chef Carrie-Ann, a sparkling Scotswoman from Edinburgh, works on the kitchen training together with the sous-chef Ross. Kitchen trainees are taught everything they need to know in order to operate in a professional kitchen, and the trainees who go on to be placed successfully in employment find jobs as kitchen porters or commis chefs (responsible for basic food preparation). She told us that the dal and rice we'd enjoyed so much that afternoon had been prepared by one of the trainees working with her, Steve. He was familiar with Caribbean cuisine, and so she had given him the task of preparing the dal as a means of introducing him to a different cuisine using different spices.
I was then given the honour of being able to look around the kitchen and photograph the chefs and trainees in action! Sous-chef Ross was busy zipping around preparing some takeaway orders that were coming through, now that it was past the lunch hour. (In fact, he was moving so fast, I didn't get a single shot of him that wasn't blurred.) There was a cake-making lesson going on in the corner too, with Mary and Eric stirring demerara sugar and butter in large bowls.
Eric, a trainee, is taken through the paces of a ginger cake by Mary
Following on from the events of the past few days, I've been thinking today of something Mahatma Gandhi said: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." I'm not quoting this because I'm a communist, a leftist, a liberal, politically correct, or suited to any other label. I think the reason is that I'm human. And although I (as much as anyone else) find it difficult to deal with other people a lot of the time, I don't want to see parts of my human family crash and burn when it's within my power, and the power of so many others, to try to do something about it. Even if this perspective isn't for everyone, at the end of the day no man is an island, and unless the prospect of living in a self-sufficient nuclear bunker is particularly attractive, I suspect that only when all of us are doing well, will each of us individually too.
Back row: Eki (front-of-house manager), Carrie-Ann (head chef), Alana (café manager), Eric (trainee), Ross (sous-chef)
Front row: Mo (trainee) , Jo (regional manager), Steve (trainee)
To the teams at Switchback and Crisis: hats off to you guys. You're carrying out tremendous work that not all of us have the emotional strength to do, and you're out there fighting to make a difference to the city I call home and beyond. For this, I thank you and wish you all the very best for your projects.
Crisis Skylight Café
64 Commercial Street
020 7426 3867
Crisis Skylight Café
64 Commercial Street
020 7426 3867
The café is open from Mondays to Fridays, 8am to 3pm (covering breakfast, elevenses, lunch and tea). Their catering services are also available to companies and for events, and the café space may be hired for private events.