This Is How It Started
Street food: Where it came from and how it got here
For an almost insultingly perfect two days in September, Birmingham will be the nation's home of street food as Digbeth Dining Club hosts the British Street Food Awards. But where in the actual living hell did street food come from, we hear none of you roar. Well, two Brum foodies told us, so we're telling you.
WHO SPARKED IT?
"It can be traced back to one man - Roy Choi" says Mark Laurie of NCASS, The Nationwide Caterers Association. "It was 2008 in LA. The economic crash kickstarted it. Banks stopped lending money to people to open restaurants, so chefs had to make do with what they had, where they could. And consumers had less money to spend, so they started looking for cheaper food alternatives to restaurants. You can see where this is going, right? The conditions were perfect. Roy was cooking Korean food but working from a taco truck, so he set up Korean barbecue tacos. It was illegal to serve street food in LA, but Roy was Twitter savvy. He would tweet where he would be, when and what he would be serving and people would flock to him. The entire community formed around his success. Chef, the movie was actually based on Roy, he was a consultant on the film. He was the father of the movement, no doubt."
WHO BROUGHT IT TO THE UK?
(Yianni and his perfected burger)
"Yianni Papoutsis," says Mark without hesitation. "Yianni was a technician with the English Royal Ballet, he travelled the world and struggled to find decent food options when the ballet shows had finished. Not so in LA. There he discovered the community Roy had sparked and he loved it.
"Months later he volunteered to flip burgers at Burning Man Festival in the States, then came back to the UK and started to cook burgers from a van. He stuck his 'MEATwagon' outside a carpet shop in Peckham and tweeted "Free #burgers for #burners. Bring booze". He offered free food to anyone who had been at Burning Man. Five hundred people showed up and he fed them all. It was was the UK's first meat rave. From here on Yianni was hooked and became obsessed with creating the best burger on Earth. This guy spent two years finding the right type of cheese, he tested 1500 kinds. One burger he served is called The Dead Hippie and I swear to God it's the best burger I've ever eaten. Now? He has a raft of restaurants including three MEATliquors, a MEATmarket, a MEATmission and even has a restaurant in Singapore. Dead Hippie is on the menu and is one of his biggest sellers. His cookbook, The MEATliquor Chronicles, is excellent."
WHO NAMED IT?
"Back in 2009 it was called "recession chic" food and Yianni called what he was doing "guerrilla dining". Whatever you were calling it, it was popping up in all quarters of London, but nobody called it street food. Not then. Up to this point NCASS was all about ensuring food hygiene standards for festival catering and burger vans outside football grounds. But the bigger the street food scene became the more I engaged with it. I was travelling from Brum to London to work, but the work was food and the food was good.
"Pretty soon we received a call from a journalist called Richard Johnson. He'd discovered food trucks in the States and coined the term "street food". It stuck. Richard wanted to set up the British Street Food Awards and in 2010 NCASS helped. It was held in Ludlow and hardly any diners showed up. Every trader lost money, but by this point I was obsessed with street food and I wanted to document its rise. I knew where it was going and I knew a videographer who would help."
"Me." Says Jack Brabant.
WHO BROUGHT IT TO BIRMINGHAM?
(Mark and Jack eating Dead Hippie burgers)
"Mark and I were spending time in London videoing these events and falling in love with the food" explains Jack, founder of Digbeth Dining Club. "It got to the point where we wouldn't dine out at Brum restaurants because they simply weren't good enough. We would save ourselves for London street food. We became social pariahs and the only people that would listen to us witter on endlessly about street food was each other. Naturally our obsession progressed to setting up Birmingham's first street food event. This was easier said than done. Birmingham Bull Ring has a royal charter that dictates that nobody is allowed to set up a market within miles of theirs. Ever wondered why we didn't call it Digbeth Dining Market? You probably haven't, but there's the reason. Our event really could not be a market. I had contacts at the Rainbow Venues and we met with them. Told them we wanted to set up a street food nightclub. They laughed. We told them we were serious. They started listening. We told them we wanted to do a food rave and by chance they had just acquired a venue called Spotlight. It was perfect.
"On the weekend of August 25th, 2012, we launched street food in Brum. I'd say about 1500 people showed up, but maybe half of them were our friends, and friends of friends. We thought we'd cracked it. We were so arrogant we thought within six months Digbeth would be the new Williamsburg and it would all be down to us. So we decided to go weekly and what followed, well, it wasn't Williamsburg. It was probably the worst six months of my life. It was a brutally cold winter, we did no real marketing and eventually it got to the point where we couldn't keep insisting our friends make up the numbers. Some traders were only doing 20 covers a night and we were in deep, deep sh*t. By Christmas we were considering folding.
"But, in March my business partner and Spotlight owner James came on board - he's a really switched promoter and it alleviated a huge amount of pressure. The two of us clicked and away it went. It got better and better, bigger and bigger and we entered the British Street Food Awards 2013. By this stage Richard Johnson had turned the Awards around and it was the foremost ceremony on the UK scene. We won Britain's best street food event. Then, in 2014, we won it again, and in 2015 we came second. This year, we're hosting the damn thing, in the Rainbow Arena. Twenty of the nation's best street food traders in one outdoor arena, in Birmingham. Cafe Mor are coming from Wales (I drove two hours to try their lobster) Le Bao are coming from Hackney, Shoot The Bull from Hull any many, many more. It will be, without doubt, the biggest street food event to be held in this city."
'I Choose Birmingham' is a free weekly email about the best things to do in Brum. Subscribe below.