We ask food writer Helen Graves 'Where Do You Go?'
The editor of Pit magazine lets us in on her favourite London places
Every now and again we like to ask people for their personal take on London. We get them to tell us the places in the city that they turn to for different reasons: the spots that excite them, inspire them, make them feel calm, happy or just make them want to spend money. We call it ‘Where do you go?’.
This week it’s the turn of a recipe developer and food writer Helen Graves (above). We’ve been reading Helen’s writing about food (and London food in particular) since we found out what a ‘blog’ was, and now she’s added the role of Magazine Editor to her CV we thought it was time we picked her brains for her most beloved London places.
Who are you?
I'm Helen, a food and recipe writer and editor of Pit magazine. Pit started out as a magazine about BBQ, but has developed quite quickly into something totally different: a food magazine with a much wider remit. We like to say it has 'roots in food and fire' though. A lot of my recipe work revolves around the BBQ too - I work for lots of different publications and brands as a freelancer.
And why should we trust you?
With Pit (below) we work very hard to commission the best writing, photography and illustration and we put many hours into making the highest quality magazine we can - it's not about products or reviews, it's about publishing the most appropriate voices to tell their own stories as best they can. We tell cultural stories through the lens of food - most of the time. Sometimes we just publish silly stuff that makes us laugh. We are really proud of our little publication, and I think the quality shines through.
For the 'unsmoked' among us, can you explain what 'live fire cooking' is?
We tend to say 'live fire cooking' rather than barbecue these days, and it just encompasses a whole range of techniques really - hot smoking, grilling, slow cooking. Barbecue tends to be associated with American BBQ and that's fantastic, but people all over the word are cooking with live fire, using many different techniques.
Are there any specific London places our readers could visit to sample really good 'live fire cooking'?
Some of the best places for me are the jerk places, the suya spots. Jerk is a great example because the flavour of the finished product absolutely relies on the smoke. It must be cooked over live fire on a jerk drum. I love JB's Soul Food in Peckham, and Tasty Jerk in Thornton Heath. Smoky Jerkey also has a special place in my heart and his hot sauce is killer.
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You were part of that first wave of London food bloggers. How do you think food writing has changed since then?
Ha! I was. It seems like such a long time ago, because it was! Food writing didn't change much at all until recently, truth be told. Mainstream magazines kept on appealing to the same audience - middle-class white people. It's only recently that different voices have had a space to be heard. I love that Melissa Thompson has a column at BBC Good Food Magazine, and she's doing really great work. Magazines like Whetstone, podcasts like Lecker and newsletters like Jonathan Nunn’s Vittles are so important.
Jonathan has created something special, a place for voices to tell stories that might not be heard elsewhere. I hope we are also achieving that with Pit. We are trying to do that and I think we are moving into such a great space this past year and looking into the next. Food has had such a one-track narrative for so long, and I'm so happy that's finally changing.
On to the usual questions... Where do you go to have a great time?
I'm in Camberwell, and we are lucky to have a very good selection of local restaurants. I love the Ethiopian food at Zeret Kitchen (above) - Tafe is a wonderful cook and such a warm host. I go to Theo’s for pizza, Nandine and FM Mangal for Kurdish food, Silk Road for Xinjiang cuisine (their boiled lamb bones and onion and home style cabbage are amazing), Alhaji Suya for the best suya, JB’s Soul Food for jerk chicken and The Camberwell Arms for seasonal British plates. I head into Peckham too, for pies at Levan and latkes at Larry’s.
I love having a pint or two in Stormbird, which is a craft beer pub. I drink way too much craft beer, truth be told. Good beer is so widely available these days and I am here for that.
Where do you go and always end up spending too much money?
If I'm in town I always go to Kiln, which is an incredible Thai restaurant where everything is cooked over charcoal. I always go crazy in there ordering small skewers of lamb, langoustines, crab noodles. Wine. Everything is fantastic. I also feast on dim sum at Dumplings Legend in Chinatown (below) which is a special restaurant for me as I always go there with my very favourite people. Their xiao long bao are brilliant.
Where do you go that can never close down, because if it does you might cry?
I would cry if Dumplings Legend closed because I think we all have restaurants like that, which are part of our our own personal story. I have shed tears and watched them being shed onto the paper tablecloths in that place. I have looked out of the window at all weathers. I have nipped in there between lockdowns. I've had many intense conversations there and equally spent a lot of time chatting shit. Stack those steamer baskets high and let me at 'em. It's also great for people watching.
Where do you go to cheer yourself up?
Where do you go to be alone?
If I want to be alone but ‘out of the house alone’, I always go to the V&A or National Gallery. I've headed to either one after significant things have happened in my life, like after my PhD Viva which was hellish (it's in psychology). I go there to wander undisturbed. Looking at art takes me away from my own thoughts and lets everything else process in the background. Art is very healing. It's become something of a ritual.
I'm also reconnecting with my own urges to make objects in recent years, which I'm doing at a local pottery studio. I studied ceramics a very long time ago, and I'm finding the process of making very therapeutic. It's quite solitary in many ways, although there are other people to chat to. Makers tend to have a very calm presence, and I love to be around them. This is why I always visit the studio on Mondays, which can be a day full of quite negatively charged energy - particularly when people start firing off emails and making demands on my time!
Where do you go that's within walking distance of your house?
All the restaurants I mentioned earlier are within walking distance! I find local restaurants are so precious to me these days, as I have little time or energy for travelling into town.
Where do you go to get inspired?
Recipe writers lose their mojo, it just happens. Creativity isn't a switch that can be flicked on and off unfortunately, and sometimes the mojo just leaves. When this happens I will try to visit as many new restaurants as possible.
A really inspiring restaurant I visited in recent memory is Chishuru in Brixton Market. It's West African cuisine, and the lady who owns it Joké, is a spectacular cook. She has a magic touch. The food is surprising, vibrant, full of big, exciting flavours and so beautifully put together with a really delicate touch. I walked away thinking wow, this is one of those restaurants that will really change the food landscape in London. I'm so happy it exists.
Where do you go to think?
The shower. Nowhere better. It's a bit like doing a Magic Eye picture but for brain block. If I'm stuck on something I get in the shower, zone out and the answer will come to me.
If you know of anyone that you think would make a good interview for our ‘Where do you go?’ series then let us know on Londoninbits@gmail.com.