A story about Serendipity....
Jordanian Jad was born in 1962, in a small village called Azraq next to a wetland oasis in the Eastern desert. He grew up, rolling around in the sand dunes, picking desert capers and wild herbs and taking quiet moments to watch the abundant wildlife activity on his doorstep. Naturally he developed an affinity with the elements and the free spirited nature of migrating birds that stopped to rest on their travels between Africa and Europe. Eventually he joined the birds on their travels and settled in London. But after some time realised he missed the beguiling flavours of his homelands – and a spark was ignited and Arabica was born.
On a cold autumn morning in 1999, Jad rocked up to Borough Market for his first day’s trade. Armed with little more than an 8ft trestle table and a cool box of fresh mezze, he’d lovingly made, less than a half a mile away in a small live-work space on Wilds Rent Road around the corner from Bermondsey Street. At that time there were probably only a handful of traders, 20 at the most.
Whilst Jad was acclimatizing to standing in the freezing cold selling hummus with numb toes, I was in sunnier climes, exploring the state of Sabah, Borneo. Scuba diving on the island of Sipudan, spotting proboscis monkeys amongst the dense mangroves, trawling through the food markets of Kota Kinabalu and holding my nose when ever I got a whiff of Durian. Whilst climbing to the summit of Mount Kinabalu for sunrise, I randomly met a couple from Brockley. I shared my recent food horror stories (that had resulted in me sustaining myself on a diet of Rambutan, baby bananas, Pringles and Mars bars) while they shared stories of recent shopping trips to a relatively new food market near London Bridge.
Fast forward, a few months to spring 2000 and I returned from my travels, eager to discover what the hype was about. I rocked up to Borough early on a Saturday morning, grabbed a coffee and sat on sunny piece of pavement on the corner of Stoney Street, observing traders hurrying around with barrows of fresh produce and bantering with each other, whilst setting out there stalls.
It took me back to fond childhood memories, accompanying my mum on the weekly food shop as she nattered on first name terms with the local butcher, fishmonger and greengrocer. I was born in 1978, when the high street thrived with local food retailers. But in my mid- teens watched the sad demise of the Shopkeepers from my neighborhood parade, as the supermarkets muscled in, expanded their product ranges as well as their opening hours and ultimately put the smaller operators out of business. ‘Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em low!’ and consumers opted for convenience, with price top of mind and quality second. This was the reality for all of us in the 80’s and 90’s.
If you cast your mind back to pre 97, before Jamie Oliver first hit our screens, you’ll also remember there were only a handful of food programs and presenters at that time. My favourites being, the witty, Two Fat Ladies, the missed and much loved Keith Floyd and I quite enjoyed the original Masterchef / Junior Masterchef, when it was presented by guitar strumming, Lloyd Grossman. There weren’t hundreds of weekly food markets up and down the country either, and no one had coined the phrase ‘Street Food’ – in fact food had been enjoyed this way for Millennia. Supermarkets stocked curly leaf parsley and coriander at best, forget thyme, birds eye chilles and lemon grass. Hotmail was fresh off the press, there were no ‘tweets’, ‘likes’ or a ‘hashtag’ in sight, and the food section of your local book shop probably took up a shelf or two at most. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered this relatively new, but vibrant international food market in my home-town in 2000! It was a life changing moment, that’s profoundly influenced and shaped the way I choose to live my life.
I met a host of interesting characters that morning, but it was a serendipitous encounter - a lengthy chance conversation with a warm engaging, character who talked passionately about the food of the East, of travel, of adventure, the meaning of life, but mostly about Za’atar that fueled a desire in me to learn more about this ancient food culture.
I joined forces with Jad not long after, on a mission to learn about the flavours of the Levant. We spent countless hours hanging out, talking about food, travel, culture, spices, music, drinking tea, cooking, playing back gammon and becoming friends. They were fun times with fond memories.
The years rolled on and the landscapes changed
Borough blossomed, Bermondsey gentrified and we expanded into trading at several London market locations. We went on tour from time to time, and in 2002 we took a stab at opening Café Arabica on a miniscule budget of £20,000 in a back street off Ladbroke Grove. We spent 3 months building the place ourselves, I made the bar, Jad did the plumbing (which constantly leaked), I did the electrics, somebody official actually did the gas! Finally Jad and I spent a week making the tables from cheap ply and painting them with glue mixed with sand and we bought second hand furniture from Portobello road. We met local artists and photographers who generously lent us artwork to cover the walls. It was kinda shabby-chic before the phrase was hipster-fied.
We received some respectable reviews, but sadly there just weren’t enough appreciative mid-week punters to make the numbers work long term. So when a regular of ours offered us a small premium to take it over, we jumped at the chance to learn, reflect and move on. We re-booted our hard drives and went travelling in search of artisan producers across the Levant.
We returned from our travels in 2008, re-energized, took on a larger production kitchen in Camberwell, and launched a small range of specialist products that we’d procured from various small co-operatives on our travels. And shortly after opened our Selfridges concession. It was then that my friend, the Nomadic, Jad decided it was to time to take flight again, out of the city, in search of a slower pace of life. He settled in sunny Crete, leaving me to take the helm and steer the ‘good ship Arabica’, through the recent recession. Thankfully I managed not to hit any icebergs with the help of my loyal shipmates and in 2011 decided it was time to freshen up our look and find a permanent home for Arabica. I started brainstorming ideas with the super talented mob at Here design and began negotations on several sites across London. They fell through one by one, I became increasingly frustrated and then one day we had a call out the blue from Borough Market about a potential opportunity. It took two years of complicated negotations but we finally secured the site for Arabica Bar & Kitchen in Borough Market site in March 2014.
It was a grueling 3 years. One friend kept saying, “What’s for you, won’t pass you” and that along with the support from my nearest and dearest, (the DNA to this story) and my determination, kept me striving for what will be the next chapter; a fresh new look and the opening of Arabica Bar & Kitchen.
Looking back I had no idea when I awoke that morning, jumped on a train to London Bridge, on the back of a recommendation half way up a mountain in the middle of whoop whoop, how much of a pivotal day it would be in shaping my future.
The word has spread of our fabled flavours, our reputation has grown, along with our horizons, but that doesn’t mean we’ll ever loose touch of our humble beginnings.
To my dear friend Jad, I'll see your bonkers home brewed super strength raki and raise you a glass of the finest Arak from London town! Thank you for holding out your hand and leading me on this journey.