I love a warm welcome. And on a very cold morning after a freezing walk I’m also really dying for a cup of coffee. But sometimes things have a habit of turning out differently to what one expects and this morning is no exception. As soon as I introduce myself to Sam Hurst he is absolutely desperate to get rid of me.
Could I come another day? Or later? Or even better, could he just speak to me on the phone? (If you know me you can imagine I hardly find this funny). He hasn’t the time, or it seems the inclination, to be interviewed. He has a business to run and it appears nothing (not even me, strange that) is going to get in his way this morning. His Chef is ill and he is two men down and even he, as he apologetically explains, is moving this way and that to clear a table, serve a customer, answer a phone, call out a Good Morning, and check something in the oven.
I find myself following him about like a puppy. He is all at once and in no particular order elastic, meticulous, extraordinary, unflappable, passionate, controlled, but over all hugely refreshing. His final offer is ten minutes of his time. Why on earth do I feel so hugely grateful and relieved?
Sitting down has a, thankfully, quite disengaging effect on Sam and even though something is often catching his eye he only disappears for a moment to quietly deal with it and it does get to the point I hardly notice. He has that uncanny entrepreneurial ability to concentrate and focus on a huge catalogue of issues simultaneously. This, after all, is solely his business, he has no partners and I can see he has the determination to give it his best shot to make it a success.
Sam is 28 years old with a chef background and a degree in Hotel Management. He’s spent the last four years working as a restaurant consultant, helping companies with viable business plans, before deciding he couldn’t find a decent bacon sandwich anywhere and should open a chain of eateries that hopefully will do for meat what Starbucks did for the coffee bean. His strategy and brand values are completely up my street: to produce straightforward and simple quality driven food. He has a natural style you simply can’t buy and the detail visible throughout his first store is very impressive indeed.
There is an overwhelming sense of the home-made – cleverly illustrated by a very obvious lack of packaging. Giant bowls of salads, (a box will cost you £3.00 or £4.50 and you can cram in as much as you like); homemade brownies and flapjacks trickled with icing piled higgledy piggledy on the counter top – this is a kind of Willy Wonker food place where you want to buy too much and try everything. Grazing is based on the great British favourites, the Bacon Butty, Sunday Lunch and the Sandwich. Real Manfood with the fabulous salads providing the perfect balance.
The intention is to provide delicious recipes using ingredients of the highest possible quality; everything, with the exception of the baked goods, is made fresh on site – soups, salads, mini roast potatoes and roasted veg, fruit salads and brownies, flapjacks, the list goes on. I truly understand this when I visit the kitchen and see Beetroots being roasted. I can’t help asking if this is a good and effective use of time and why. I feel rather stupid with the answer I’m given: ‘Yes, because they taste better and fresher’. Sam is more than aware he could buy more effectively, but has never believed for a moment it was the right strategy for his business model.
He argues if he’s paying rent and has a kitchen it makes sense to use it to his full advantage. He doesn’t have a freezer – he would rather use fresh food and when I taste his prawns I truly understand why he is a pioneer with a definite difference. He just isn’t prepared to cut corners and cost. All his meats are free range and are sourced directly from the farms all over the UK where they are produced using the best possible husbandry methods.
He has eight meat suppliers who are all specialists in their particular animals. His beef is matured for 28 days in Aberdeenshire to achieve the best possible taste and tenderness. His Smoked Streaky or Dry Cured Back Bacon is from Denhay’s in Dorset. All pork is RSPCA Freedom Foods certified. Simply Sausages in Smithfield Market provide a seasonal choice of fantastic sausages with the exception of his Chorizo supplied by Brindisi in Borough Market. The Black Pudding is made by a small family firm in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, and theFried Egg sandwich it goes into has become the legendary morning staple for the Beefeaters at the Tower of London just down the road – unmissable when they pop in wearing their red stripped trousers.
One can argue that all this provenance is just an expensive marketing tool – and if I’m honest yes, I am a sceptic too at heart. But the proof is in the pudding and so I must taste these meats to see if they really do deliver a point of difference. Interestingly there seems to be some fierce competition on the high street at the moment as to who’s bacon sandwich really is the best. Amano, Leon, EAT are all tasty enough, each one believing they offer the ultimate taste. I love the choice of either streaky or back but the real point of difference, and such a simple brilliant one, is that Sam insists your bacon is grilled to order – no warming cabinets here to dry out your rashers. Not only is the bacon cooked perfectly, it sits cushioned in the softest fluffiest white textured bread with the crispiest of crusts. I am so impressed.
Sam brings me a lovely tray laden with my Roast Beef Roll that comes with Roast Winter Veg and Horseradish, along with his special Chorizo & Rocket Roll with Onion Marmalade. Again the rolls have been made to his specification – he describes precisely that the crust mustn’t be crispy but just the right softness without being chewy. He won’t use steam ovens but prefers Rotisseries because as he rightly says: who steams their Sunday lunch? He is an advocator of the importance of texture in food – because he understands how incredibly important it is and he keeps coming across as being so immensely sensible. My head keeps nodding like one of those dogs in the back of a car that you can’t seem to buy anymore.
The Chorizo and Rocket Roll is, through his own honest admission, a direct copy of the famous Chorizo Roll everyone flocks to Borough Market for on a cold day and, I must say, is the best copy of the original I’ve ever eaten. He’s made it just that bit better by adding Onion Marmalade which cuts through the spice and the heat just perfectly. And now there’s just one more recipe I’ve got to try and this just might be too weird even for me. Surely the Smoked Chicken Prawn and Avocado Sandwich on the menu is a misprint. But this is his signature sandwich and one of the first recipes he ever learnt as a young Chef. He insists I try it and that I’ll love it. He uses Rannoch Smoked Chicken with a light mayonnaise and fresh peeled prawns that have never seen a glaze, and then the thinnest of slices of avocado go on top. I do really love it. It all works so fantastically together and now I’ve got a smoked chicken on my shopping list.
I imagine there are a great many who believe there is an element of short-sightedness in all this. Paying over the odds for ingredients that will only eat into precious margins never makes investors very happy people. But despite the continuing challenges presented by seasonality and cost, there clearly is a groundswell of industry support for provenance and regional sourcing nationwide. So when I finally leave Grazing it’s with a skip in my step and a smile and I am filled with a huge positiveness that in our current climate of exorbitant raw material price rises, food scares and disease here is a new challenger with a remarkably impressive offer and one that I predict will be on a lot of high streets in the coming years. Just plain delicious.