The word ‘canteen’ brings back traumatic memories of my early school dining experiences: a cold grey out-building, ruled by the tyrannical cook, Mrs Ashby, who would aggressively spoon dishes of over-boiled greens and lumpy mash onto greasy, plastic trays. I am therefore relying on my visit to East London’s Rochelle Canteen (in the old canteen of a school building turned artist studios) run by chef Margot Henderson and her business partner Melanie Arnold, to transform this image.
The imposing red-brick building of the old Rochelle school is tucked off Bethnal Green Road. I wander round it, assessing its entrances, and discover a gate of painted green wood, half open. Beyond I can just peek through a window into a gleaming kitchen.
Melanie Arnold greets me warmly and ushers me into the canteen building. We sit on simple wooden chairs at a long square table, coated with a layer of smooth white plastic. The tables are laid for lunch: glass bottles of water, small white dishes of salt and pepper. The room is light. The open glass front looks out onto the school courtyard and the simple white walls and wooden floors reflect the autumn sunshine. Pegs on the back wall are ready to receive guests’ coats and a shiny metal counter separates the dining room from the kitchen. The top is filled with bottles of ketchup, plates of cookies and an array of ingredients and beyond it I can see the kitchen staff, busy at work. The room smells of freshly baked bread.
Margot Henderson dashes from behind the counter to join us. ‘I’m so sorry – I don’t have long. I’m helping in the kitchen today’. Her New Zealand accent is still noticeable, even though she’s been in England for so many years. She sits down opposite me and fixes me with a direct gaze. I decide to get to the point quickly; I don’t want to keep Margot from her cooking.
What does she find most inspiring about her work? ‘When people enjoy your food and there’s a really great buzz to the atmosphere. That’s inspiring.’
Margot hands me the canteen’s menus which simply list dishes and their components. Breakfast includes granola, poached apple and rhubarb and coffee, with beans by Caravan Coffee. ‘Oh yes, Breakfast is rocking here’ Margot quips. The lunch menu changes daily and could include parsnip soup, Risotto and a sweet pear and almond tart for desert. Margot describes her cooking style as ‘the food that is in our hearts.’
Ingredients are fresh and seasonal or, as Margot poetically phrases it, ‘we live by the seasons.’ Melanie and Margot started out running The French House Dining Room in Soho with their children running around them whilst they worked. The canteen continues to be family-orientated: ‘we started out here with just one big table.’
The canteen is only a part of the Arnold & Henderson whole. Catering for events, mainly arts related, forms an essential part of the business. They recently served in the VIP rooms at Frieze art fair.
I ask them what they’d consider their best event to date and Margot replies, ‘well we love a good wedding, the excitement… everyone dresses up and makes more of an effort’. They tell me too about how, as a one off, they catered for New York based artist, Matthew Barney: ‘we cooked for and served 300 people in his studio. He was really nice and helped us out but it was hard work.’ At this point Margot apologises and has to rush back to the kitchen.
Once-book-designer Melanie fills me in further on the history of the canteen… ‘The school closed about 20 years ago. It was squatted at one point and was generally not a great place for a while – lots of drug-dealing and crime were associated with it.’ Now the building is used for studios and the headquarters for Frieze, making the canteen a popular stop off point for hungry artists.
On their style of service she explains ‘we like things to be very straight-forward. We don’t like excess stuff on the tables. We like food to be the focus.’ When I ask about why they’ve been so popular with the art world, Melanie answers telling me that they believe that ‘people who eat out a lot get very fed up with catered food.’ Arnold and Henderson instead offer wholesome home cooking served to a really high standard and with an interesting twist.
Margot’s cookery book ‘You’re all Invited’ came out in august. All of its recipes were cooked and photographed in the canteen and it is a testament to the hard work that has gone into making the place such a success. However, the Canteen keeps to school hours (breakfast and lunch) and has no license, instead operating a BYOB rule. In the future, Melanie reveals, they are hoping to expand and open a restaurant in a pub outside London.
Melanie eventually has to go to another meeting, but I feel at home here and am reluctant to leave. Instead, I linger and watch the staff debate how to spell ‘fennel’ on the specials blackboard. It’s a relaxing place to spend an hour… or three.
To find out more about Rochelle Canteen go to www.arnoldandhenderson.com
words Helena Goodrich