by Laura Rowe
It’s amazing what can happen in a year, says Laura Rowe, as she speaks to Cafe Môr founder Jonathan Williams.
How did Cafe Môr come about?
Food’s always been part of my life . All my grans are passionate cooks, as is my mum. We grew up having paellas on the beach.
At university I used to cook for everyone and then I went travelling, all round Australia and Europe, and I managed to blag my way into work in Sydney as an agency chef, where I’d work in a café one day and then a five-star restaurant the next. I did a season in the Alps, and I also cooked in the army as a chef helping out and went to Germany to do large-scale catering. When I came back to Wales I used to work in a Spanish deli called Ultracomida in Narbeth.
I’m not technically trained. I’ve done a sushi-making course, which was two days, and that is about it really. But once you get a few chef jobs on your CV it’s much easier to get another job.
Two years ago I took a Masters in renewable energy and I ended up having a job in Swindon. As soon as I got there I started missing Pembrokeshire. I felt lost. I just wanted to do something that I enjoyed doing and I started looking at all the different options.
I had the idea for Cafe Môr and I came across this fantastic building in Tenby overlooking the harbour. It was a closed-bid tender but I wasn’t successful. After that I started cooking outside farm shops during the summer. Then I started doing local farmers’ markets at the end of 2010. I’d drive back to Pembrokeshire from Swindon on Wednesday to work at the market at St David’s on Thursdays, doing events on the weekends. It was a really good learning curve.
When you are doing street food, the customers are right there and you get feedback straight away. The feedback was good so in May last year I decided it was time to start putting all of my energies into it.
Why did you decide to focus on seafood?
I love beaches and I love surfing, I do a lot of fishing and seafood has always been a big passion of mine. I wanted to combine everything into one.
Using sustainable fish and shellfish was really important to me. Growing up in Pembrokeshire I have seen the effects it has had on different places. If you want to use anything locally you want it to be there for future generations.
I always remember we were surfing in North Wales one year and I saw a plaque by the estuary saying that 5,000 salmon had been caught there in one day. Now there is no fish left and the industry has died. If you want a sustainable business then you need sustainable practices.
Was it a conscious decision to set up as a ‘street food’ trader?
I just fell into it really. I loved the idea of being out and about. I like new challenges and new environments and the great thing about street food is that everywhere you go, everything is new and it keeps things interesting.
There are low start-up costs but the risks are probably even higher. It only takes one bad event and you can potentially wipe your profits out for a summer. With the weather we’ve had recently I know a lot of people who’ve been really struggling.
I was lucky enough to be at the Hay Festival a few weeks ago. We were under cover there and there were lots of people around. But if you’re in a field, selling seafood, in torrential rain for three days you’re not only losing your stock but paying thousands for your pitch fee. It’s high risk stuff. I’ve probably been quite lucky. It all depends on what your selling. Potentially it could be very expensive for me with fresh seafood if I don’t manage my stocks properly as it only has a few days shelf-life. At the bigger events the pitch fees are increasing every year, too. You’ve always got your fingers crossed.
Who designed your award-winning shack?
My brother’s a boat builder. When I entered the British Street Food awards last year we were just working under a gazebo or on the beach. Everyone else at the awards were using VWs or caravans and I didn’t want to go down the same route as they’re quite expensive and I didn’t think I’d stand out. I spoke to my brother and he started collecting bits and bobs of wood and got the hut ready for the event.
I emailed Richard Johnson [the founder of the awards] last year on a whim after chatting to someone about street food. I just went to the awards for the experience. I thought I had no chance as there were seasoned London traders there. So I just enjoyed myself and I was pretty shocked when we won.
What cuisine inspired your famous seafood wraps?
It’s a fusion. They are inspired by a seafood market in Zanzibar that I went to a few years ago. Every night in Stone Town they would have a night food market. It had a massive seafood section, which was amazing, with grilled lobsters, crayfish and snappers. One day they were making Zanzibar pizzas similar to the wraps we make but with a different dough, with mincemeat and chillies, and it was really nice.
When I started developing the recipes for the wraps I wanted to use classic Welsh ingredients and started making things like laverbread pesto. The salmon, laverbread and cheddar is one of our really popular wraps and I got that idea from Cardigan, where they used to catch fish and stuff it with seaweed and local cheese.
I think people are very curious about laverbread. It is traditionally such an underused ingredient. It’s really strong but it is abundant on our coastline. I love it in soups, stir-fries, seafood sauces, it just adds extra depth. I hope people start seeing the possibilities of what can be done with it.
What’s your most popular dish on the Cafe Môr menu?
It varies so much depending on where we go. In Wales everyone loves the laverbread, bacon and cockle wrap. In England the crab and sweet chilli is always really popular and salmon and Welsh cheddar. In each area it’s slightly different. Just because one thing works really well in one area doesn’t mean it’s going to work the same in the next.
It makes life a little bit more difficult but it keeps it interesting and keeps you guessing. The weather plays a massive part, too. If it is hot, the lobster and crab fly out. When its colder the hot wraps will do better.
Tell us about your stand at the Olympics this year, you must be really excited.
We’ve been planning it for the past three or four months now. It’s a fantastic experience and it’s a completely different kettle of fish to a normal market or festival.
The beach shacks went up last week. It will be really nice to be in the Olympic Village, seeing the athletes and handing out our seafood wraps.
In London and England generally there seems to be a big street food movement developing, can you feel the same momentum building in Wales?
What I find frustrating is that at many of the markets and food events in Wales you’re not allowed to sell hot food. I think some of the councils are behind the times in that respect. The councils are very mindful of the local traders, which is understandable, people are paying their business rates but we need to work together in partnership and cook local produce at these markets.
London has really embraced the idea, a few other places in England and the Riverside Market in Cardiff, but I think Wales has probably got a bit further to go. Things are slowly changing but it’s still quite prohibitive. It’s a shame really because one of the great things about street food is that it really celebrates local food.
Look out for Cafe Môr at:
- Pembrokeshire Fish Week Festival, 23 June – 1 July
- Wakestock, 6-8 July
- Really Wild Food & Countryside Festival, 27-28 July
- Vale of Glamorgan National Eisteddfod, 4-11 August
- Chris Evans’ Car Fest, 25-26 Aug in Hampshire
- Jamie Oliver’s Big Feastival, 1-2 September in Oxfordshire
- British Street Food Festival in London on 14-16 September
Cafe Môr also runs a range of seashore picnics and foraging events. Visit www.cafemor.co.uk for details.
Plus, if you’re a street food trader or are inspired by Cafe Môr there is still time to enter the British Street Food Awards 2012. Visit www.britishstreetfood.co.uk.