Street Feast: Summing up the Summer
By Laura Martin
It is the final night of Street Feast in Dalston Yard and its founder, Dominic Cools-Lartigue, is buzzing. It's the third successful year of the evening food market and 90,000 people have turned up over the course of the summer to try out more than 30 street food offerings. The past 20 Friday and Saturday nights have been stuffed with tasty treats from the likes of St Louis ribs to peanut butter brownies, and like a few waistlines, the popularity of this event only gets bigger. And it's not just Dalston that's been getting to enjoy the delights of this “food rave', as some have dubbed it. Across the summer, Dominic and his ever-expanding team have also been running two other versions of the foodie feast in Lewisham (Model Market) and a pop-up in a park next to Battersea Power Station, too.
Back in the Fairground office (and Street Feast HQ) in Haggerston, the former club promoter says it was a natural progression when he originally came up with the concept: “I think Londoners have always been into food, but we didn't have an outlet for it. For me, the one thing that I always came back to was that it didn't make sense that we didn't have a night market culture. What, a city like London? We're clearly social animals - club culture and rave culture showed that. We like to get together and hang out, and that's whether you're raving back then or whether it's hanging round and eating.”
And he was right. Whether it was the death of clubs in London like The End or Turnmills or just a change of scene, Londoners were still looking for a night-time social event – and if it were food-focused, then apparently even better. And so heralded the shift from people chomping on disco biscuits to steamed pork buns instead. However, it took a lot of persuasion by Dominic to convince the owner of the Dalston Yard site that he wasn't actually going to be throwing some sort of huge, illegal party. He says: “I found this car park and it took me six months to convince the guy to let me use it. I think he thought I was going to put on a rave. He really wasn't interested - he was quite rude, but I knew it was an amazing space so I stuck with it. In the end, we launched somewhere else instead and I showed him the video of the opening night and said: "This is what I want to do, it's just a food market." And eventually he relented.”
Dominic – who grew up in Portabello Road but now lives in De Beauvoir – says: “I'd spent a year researching street food and thinking about launching this thing. I wasn't sure what to call it, Friday Night Feast or Midnight Feast...?”. But Street Feast stuck and it finally appeared in Dalston Yard for the first time in 2012 with just 12 traders and a host of delicious food.
The idea took flight, and over 20 weeks, more than 15,000 people turned up to be fed and watered. But as the end of summer approached, there was a problem: the weather was on the turn and no-one wanted to be outside freezing and holding a rain-drenched taco. Street Feast then moved in to Hackney Downs studio for a roof over their heads, but Dominic thought there had to be a more creative way to weather-proof the event. “So the following winter, I created this thing called Hawker House,” he says, “which was a cross between an Asian hawker market and a cocktail bar. Rather then market stalls, we built these shacks and we got the traders to make light boxes for their signage, so it looked like a food version of Bladerunner. Then it had these four amazing bars - a whisky bar, a hot cocktail bar, a wine bar and a craft beer bar - so conceptually there was nothing like it before. We got all the traders to do smaller versions of their portions to encourage the idea of making it into a hang-out.”
The concept (housed in a warehouse on Pritchard's Road) proved so popular that although the initial run was November to December 2013, it was extended and ran January through to March 2014. And in May this year, Dalston Yard opened again for the third time, with more street food stalls than ever and expanding into the back rooms to create hidden whiskey, rum and gin areas.
As the brand expands, Dominic says he's always on the look out for the next big thing in street cuisine: “I love that people are still really adventurous. We can bring in a brand new trader who nobody has ever heard about and they're like "oh, what's that?" There's these guys from Chile called Rica Rica and people are like: “What's a sopapilla?” and want to try it.” FYI: it's a Latin American fried pastry. He adds: “It stands true from the first year when we introduced the Vinn Goute stall from the Seychelles, people were so interested. That's why I want to find out who's new, who's doing something exciting.”
But regular favourites like Yum Bun, Rola Wala and others will always be on the menu as Dominic adds: “We often use a lot of the same traders that we really like because when it comes down to it, for example, we think Breddos Tacos really are the best tacos in London, Smokestak really do the best ribs in London. So why use someone else that we don't think is as good?”
This past weekend, Model Market Street Feast in Lewisham held its last event this summer and thoughts now are obviously on where to migrate to this winter. While Dominic and his team are in full planning mode, we won't be seeing the winter incarnation of the market until February 2015. Dominic says: “We decided we want to take the idea on further, so we've found this huge venue that we can do something pretty special in, but it's going to take a little more time. It's in a part of East London that we haven't used before but I think will work really well.” He won't be drawn any further on where exactly this, or another potential venue will be, but adds: "If you noticed at this year's Street Feast we've done micro-diners, like B.O.B.'s Lobsters and Pizza Pilgrims, we're planning something like that, so rather than grabbing from a shack, you get to sit down and enjoy.”
While there's plans bubbling away for a couple more potential sites next year, Dominic says: "If this time next year we've done three or four events over the course of a year, I'd count that as successful. We like to keep an eye on things and look out for opportunities but we're from London – and we want to stay true to that.”
And for Dominic, that means perpetually keeping his eye out for the next cool space to host one of his events. He says his dream East London venue would be “the old magistrates building opposite The Clove Club in Shoreditch.” He adds: “I absolutely love that building – we'd have a lot of fun there if we had the keys. But they're making it into a new hotel – someone told me yesterday that there are 12 new hotels planned in Hackney over the next year or so.” At the rate of Street Feast's expansion, they could well be rivalling the new accommodation additions, too.