The Brigade on Tooley Street

Founder Simon Boyle with a group of apprentices

Many of you may have heard of HONY - or ‘Humans of New York. Because what started out as a personal photographic project by 29-year old Brandon Stanton quickly escalated to an enormous street portraiture blog with over 1 million followers all round the world.

A few years back, founder Stanton was trading bonds on the Chicago Board of Trade. He says that “it went really well for a while. But then it went really bad. Whoops.” Like many, many people his life shot down an unexpected track, and he lost his job. So Stanton moved to New York without an exact plan, but with a love of taking photographs.

Each day he woke up, and stalked the streets of New York, taking beautiful, beautiful portraits of strangers. His original task was to plot photographs of 10,000 New Yorkers on a city map, but the blog quickly turned into something else. And now he posts a few photographs on Facebook every day, accompanied with a very observant caption - anything from a couple of words to a few sentences - that provide an (often unexpected, and very humbling) insight into the stranger in the photograph.

I am a keen follower of HONY. I love the photography. I love to speculate over the - often decontextualised - snapshot in time. And I love the interest and beauty that Stanton finds in things so many others walk past on a daily basis without batting an eyelid.

There is one photograph that Stanton posted on Sunday 16 June. The image is of a middle-aged man perched atop of some city steps, texting. “I’ve got a problem with procrastination” he says in the caption. You read on, and learn that he’s got an opportunity to write for a music magazine, but he’s blowing it. Unusually, Stanton puts his own voice into the caption: “Can I give you a piece of advice?” he asks the stranger on the steps. “Sure” he says. “Instead of focusing on the million things you need to do to be successful, focus on two or three things you can do to move forward each day. The quickest way out of a paralysis is a simple daily routine.”

The advice really struck a chord. It was a timely post. Because, like Stanton, and like the man in the photograph, my life recently shot down an unexpected route, as I left a full-time, nine-to-five, and started freelancing - cooking and writing. A potentially chaotic move. But I think that Stanton hit the nail on the head with his advice. A “simple daily routine” is key. Getting up in the morning - walking, swimming, no TV, just Radio 3. Writing. Routine.

As part of my freelancing, I’ve been working in a restaurant kitchen. And the “simple daily routine” hit home more than ever. If you’re blowing in the wind, a restaurant kitchen is a wonderful place to wind up. There’s the strictness of start times, the feeling of belonging that comes from being a cog in part of a team, a sense of purpose throughout the day, and a sense of achievement at the end. It’s not brain surgery - a lot of the work is repetitive - but there’s something calming and focusing about podding several kilograms of broad beans. A great “way out of paralysis”.

Many people might be familiar with Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Launching in 2002, the charity now runs two branches of the social enterprise - one in London and another in Cornwall. They are thriving. The concept is simple - each year, fifteen young adults from a disadvantaged background, often ranging from a criminal record to a history of drug abuse, complete an apprenticeship in the working-restaurants, and are provided with the vocational skills needed to launch themselves into the restaurant industry.

With Jamie Oliver behind the charity, it’s unsurprising that Fifteen has received so much air time, and proven to be a great success story. So it was brave of chef Simon Boyle to return from Sri Lanka in 2004, where he had been working to create a relief camp after the Tsunami - and to throw himself into launching The Beyond Food Foundation, which similarly offers culinary apprenticeships to people who are at risk, or have experienced homelessness.

Like Fifteen, The Beyond Food Foundation operates alongside a working kitchen, called The Brigade, where apprentices cook for paying customers. The restaurant itself is a symbol of social enterprise - it’s an old fire station, built in 1879 as a reaction to the devastating Tooley Street Fire in 1861 - the worst London had experienced since The Great Fire of London (1666). Now, the building has been entirely modernised, with few signs of its previous life inside. There is a bar, and a bistro restaurant with an open kitchen. Upstairs are a series of meeting rooms and intimate, private dining spaces.

The menu lists a great selection of modern British dishes: Wiltshire venison carpaccio, confit of Scottish salmon with rilette of apple and horseradish, and seared fillet of beef. I started with the scotch egg and potted pork belly which came with crackling and a delicious apple chutney. My mum picked baked goats cheese and nicoise salad off the specials board, where the dishes were all cooked by the apprentices working that evening - and an extra £1 was donated to The Beyond Food Foundation.

Scotch egg and potted pork belly with pork scratching and apple chutney

Baked goats cheese and nicoise salad

The starters were made from beautiful ingredients, were well-presented, and absolutely delicious. But the main courses were the real show-stoppers. I had the poached and seared leg of stuffed rabbit - so tender, with the stronger gamey flavours of the rabbit balanced by the lightest summer vegetable consommé. A clever rabbit dish I have every intention of trying to replicate back home! My mum - usually quite reserved - actually whooped when she tasted her main of roasted monkfish. It was served with parmesan gnocchi, chorizo and baby gem - but the sauternes sauce drizzled over it was a buttery-delicious sauce of dreams. Whoever made it must have been very pleased with themselves. I know that I would!

After such filling starters and mains, we weren’t sure we needed a pudding…but managed to squeeze in some ice cream to share. The list was one of the most extensive sorbet and ice cream lists I’ve heard - so struggling to remember the twenty or so flavours reeled off, I went for rhubarb, ginger and salted caramel. An excellent choice! Though potentially the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of over-eating, and what caused me to forego the bus and walk home in an attempt to aid digestion.

Poached & seared leg of stuffed rabbit with summer vegetable consomme and purple potato pasta

Roasted monkfish, Parmesan gnocchi, chorizo, baby gem and sauternes sauce

The wine starts at £18, but then shoots up to the mid-£20 to late-£30 range. It’s not a cheap place to eat. But then I couldn’t help think that as I’m lucky enough to occasionally afford to eat out, that paying a little extra than normal toward such a super charity was the least I could do to contribute to such a great cause. Particularly people looking for meeting rooms, with somewhere to eat nearby should be consider using The Brigade’s beautiful private rooms - far nicer than usual drab conference rooms, and with a worthy charitable edge.

I wish Simon Boyle and The Brigade every success, and hope that the apprentices finishing this year agree with me and Stanton - and hopefully the man in the photograph - that “the quickest way out of a paralysis is a simple daily routine.”

The Brigade
The Fire Station
139 Tooley Street

0844 346 1225

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