To celebrate Organic September, we chatted to one of our favourite, pioneering organic cafe founders - Lee from the fantastic Story Deli. His passion for Organic is enormous! He has been making and serving organic food since 1983 - long before the concept of organic food was well known or understood. Here's what Lee had to say about starting his own business and why eating organic is so important...
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your business?
About me. I’m a secularist. I'm into the universe, the earth, the earth force, nature, Gaia and the ether. I do cooking, water divining/dowsing and tree surgery. As a well meaning Picean, I always try to do the right thing, make a positive contribution, be part of the solution not the problem and pursue a cause I really believe in. My main interests are food and the environment. Therefore, the answer to my lifestyle equation is food x environment = organic
Story Deli started in ‘03 - funnily enough almost 20 years to the day after I opened an organic cafe in ‘83 which only lasted 3 months. No one was interested or got where I was coming from, and finding organic food was much harder, and relatively much more expensive then. Story Deli came out of Story, my partner, Ann’s groundbreaking eco lifestyle store that opened in Spitalfields in ‘00. The deli menu was simple - any style of food so long as it tasted good and it was made using only 100% certified organically grown ingredients. The pizza soon outsold all other dishes, which, one by one faded away. So, from '06 we just did pizza.
Covid was difficult for us. Our last space in Hackney was doing really well. Our clientele, who were 80% international - not sure why, but apparently we get good press around the world - all disappeared with the first lock down. We couldn’t build up takeaway fast enough to replace them and survive, so we morphed into nomads and started doing popups and events. We’re currently popping up for weekend parties in our friend’s Covid friendly outdoor dayclub/nightclub in Wapping. The demographic is a little challenging for us - 20/30 somethings from Essex and Kent. They don’t know or care that we’re organic, but they buy a crap load of pizzas, so we’ve gone with it. Next we have popup invites to go to Soho, Columbia Road, Kentish Town and Spitalfields. In the meantime we continue to try and raise finance to get a permanent space and to expand into other organic cuisine types
Can you briefly explain what organic means when it comes to food?
Today's organic food is grown the way it was 150/200 years ago and certainly before the beginning of the KNP fertilizer industry in the middle of the 19thC. Then, food was grown in nature and with nature - nurturing and feeding the soil using only organic matter, maintaining soil fertility with land, fallow and crop rotations, and gentle and caring animal husbandry etc etc. There was absolutely no input of the nasty 8 - chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, steroids and GM now used in growing and rearing. And none of the synthetic E numbers used in manufacturing and processing.
Why do you choose to use organic ingredients?
Back to the above - it’s my default. I believe there are 2 types of food - certified organically grown and chemically grown. I only eat organic and only sell organic. I simply can’t poison people, the environment and abuse animals for profit. I pay up to 40% more for some of my ingredients, and knowingly make less profit because I'm organic. But, you know what? I don't care, It feels great, and it kind of makes me feel a little proud of myself.
Are there any negatives to eating organic?
No, none for just eating organic - but, yes for selling it. Because, we now only do pizza, we get snide remarks and are often dismissed as a fast food joint. Sure, in fast, it takes me 3 minutes to make a pizza, but we are real food and we are slow food. Then there's the pizza nerds and anoraks who are often in my face questioning me about flour, dough - why I use mineral water, why don't use yeast or sourdough, oven temperatures, electric v wood fired and will I do demos and classes or attend pizza events and shows etc etc. I find it all very boring . Pizza is just a vehicle to shift loads of organic food. Pasta, risotto, toasted sandwiches or any other organic food would do instead - I'm a dealer and a pusher, but instead of heroine, I want to get people hooked on organic food
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Grilled salmon Salad Nicoise - using organic salmon of course.
What advice would you give to those looking to eat more organic food?
Just do it. If there's a price issue, forget organic asparagus, artichokes and other expensive exotics. Look at the supermarkets own brand organic ranges - their basics like pasta, apples, potatoes, rice, flour, bread, onions, carrots, mushrooms etc etc, cost only a few pennies more and in many cases are cheaper than their conventional chemical named brands. However, whatever you do, do it quickly, in quantity and help cash to flow back to save our soil, habitat, biodiversity, our environment
Where can people find you and enjoy your delicious food?
firstname.lastname@example.org/ @storydeli / At the moment we are popping up in a container at 60 The Highway E1W 2BF. (https://what3words.com). You can sit in the yard, collect or we can deliver.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Yeah, there's loads! Like having a go at all those chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, farmers, growers and agro chemical companies who've already messed up the bees and other insects! These will soon to be followed by the birds and inevitably, our babies and the world cause they refuse to go organic etc, etc. In the meantime, love, health and happiness, is probably the best thing to share