A new wind blowing Adam Gilbert’s coronation as the overall winner of the Sandwich Designer of the Year competition represents the emergence of a new creative wave within the industry. Nellie Nichols paid him a call at his Soho Sandwich Company
There is definitely a limit to what can be done with a ridiculously large amount of strawberries at short notice, but the 120kg I’m looking at were going for such a good price at Spitalfields market this morning that Adam Gilbert, of the Soho Sandwich Company and the newly crowned Sandwich Designer of the Year for 2007, felt compelled to buy them.
The fact he hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was going to do with them once he’d bought them simply didn’t come into it. He has the confidence and capability to use them to his best advantage and I soon realise that getting sidetracked is part of his creative make up. It happens all the time. He says he has his eye on Shiso Cress next.
Right now he is spinning like a top around his tiny 700 sq ft production unit in Shoreditch, directing his team in a flurry of words without drawing breath; what’s in his recipe for making mushroom soup, not to forget the salmon that needs to be poached, the sauce that needs blast chilling – his energy and attention to detail is exhausting and inspiring.
His team listen hard because he not only has immense charm and the whirlwind of what he is saying is quite captivating, but because they know he will only say it once before he disappears in a minute with me to visit his flagship store. The road to his production kitchen in Shoreditch has been fast and furious.
A student at Aylesbury College, he won the coverted National Nestle Toque D’Or and a catering scholarship. “He is an odd mixture of creative mayhem coupled together with meticulous detail, whichever way you look at it he’s likely to be here to stay ” Stints with Alan Hill at Gleneagles and then on to The Lygon Arms led to working under John Williams at Claridges. This was followed by a period at manufacturers Bartholdi’s where he learnt how to produce the highest quality products on a large scale.
His kitchen now manufactures not only for a long list of impressive upmarket outside caterers who supply among others the MCC, Lords and Ascot but also for his three retail units. He was making sandwiches for the Queen for the first day of the Test Match on the morning of the final Sandwich Designer Sandwich Awards and has fed McCartney recently – (clearly an accolade as innovative vegetarian products, as far as I’m concerned, are challenging to say the least).
A chance meeting with the landlords of the large office complex at Highgate Studios in 2001 led to his involvement there and The Soho Sandwich Company was born. This was followed by his shop at the Library at Hendon and then another outlet in Loughton in Essex. He and his partner Dan (‘Dan is Dan, a special part of the business, I couldn’t do without him’) produce absolutely everything the units need from sandwiches, salads and the two soups and two hot dishes made every morning.
Each day is precision planned, neither time nor any ingredient is wasted, from dawn when the hot food and sandwich ingredients are prepared through to production and cleaning down they tirelessly share what has to be done. There is a charming Bill and Ben ‘you do this and I’ll do that’ double act they constantly fall into.
What happens I ask if one of them goes under a bus one day? They answer in unison that it won’t happen but they are looking to recruit more support. I’m trying not to keep an eye on the road as he drives and answers my questions. He is animated and ambidextrous and unbelievably enthusiastic in everything food related and I am carried along in more ways than one.
His philosophy is refreshing in its straightforwardness. He says he’s not a sandwich genius and he sees people all the time trying too hard when what’s needed are solid, simple normal products that are just a little different. He only wants to produce food he will eat himself and is value for money.
He constantly asks his team if they would eat what they are making and would they pay three quid for it? Who does he consider his competition? He says he doesn’t have any but that’s because what he does is quite different. I think I understand what he means.
We arrive at Highgate Studios, a busy building offering leased office space, bustling with over a thousand hungry workers. Adam’s unit caters to every taste – a vast menu that ticks most boxes from a bacon buttie to a Crunchie or a box of Sushi. I’m dying to try some sandwiches and Adam suggests three of his best sellers.
The Chicken Escalope (homemade in his unit) with Swiss Cheese and Beef Tomato with Tomato Chutney in his very special toasted Sesame and Nigella Seed Panini is, without doubt, one of the tastiest hot sandwiches I’ve ever come across. Probably because the Chicken Escalope is hand made very carefully and every inch is delicious.
The toasted Brie, Cranberry, Bacon and Beef Tomato is just as good, being in the same crunchy, nutty flavoured panini with the cheese literally dripping out, just as it should be. The last I try is an Olive Ciabitini filled with Red Pepper Homous chunks of red pepper and masses of baby spinach leaves.
Uncomplicated, and very good indeed. There is a sparkle to these products because they don’t try too hard or have too many clever ingredients. They just eat very well and taste very good. Simple when you know how, I suppose. Adam is fresh air blowing within the industry. He’s got raw talent and is hungry for success. He is an odd mixture of creative mayhem, coupled together with meticulous detail.
Whichever way you look at it he’s likely to be here to stay. His importance to me is that he represents a very new modernity in Product Development that’s both mature and blissfully immature at the same time which gives outstandingly fantastic results. A sensible commercial head on wildly creative shoulders challenging everything around them. I hope the industry has many more Adams to come. We need more, more and more.