Questions of Taste: The Laughing Heart

We talk to the larger than life East London haunt offering Cantonese-Italian plates coupled with natural and organic wine

you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvellous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

– Excerpt from The Laughing Heart
by Charles Bukowski

The Laughing Heart is waiting to delight in you, music turned up, glass in hand, lights down low. The relatively unassuming East London restaurant, wine bar and shop opened its doors in 2016 and offers a decadent, daily changing menu of small Cantonese-Italian plates coupled with natural and organic wine from small-scale production growers. It is a joy to eat and drink here.

Inspired by Sydney’s popular 10 William Street, owner and founder Charlie Mellor used every penny he had to set up, having soaked up experience at renowned bars and specialists including Brawn, P.Franco and Noble Fine Liquor. Together with head chef Tom Anglesea – who himself has worked under Gordon Ramsey, Thomas Keller and Neil Perry – they have created an unpretentious kitchen that evolves around the very best produce available that day. Taking a craft-based approach, the team make their own butter, bread, miso and puff pastry, and a quick look in the pantry reveals some serious fermentation due to the focus on Asian flavours and cooking techniques.

Over a number of sumptuous small plates – including Delica Pumpkin Agnolotti, Buttermilk Whey & Sage and Cornish Mackerel, Apple, Yuzu & Shiso – we spoke to Charlie and Tom about the gravitational pull of East London, what the West can learn from Asia and the importance of accessibility.

Photography Joe Woodhouse

You’ve been busy?

Tom: It’s been a fast two and a half years. There’s large scope for freedom for the team as we’re not regimented to the same menu, we write it every day depending on what’s coming through the door and what’s good. It’s a great job opportunity for me to flex my muscles, but I also want people to have their own voice in developing their own styles. That’s the way we work here. It should be a constant evolution of dishes and ideas. Got to keep moving – I get bored quickly.

Charlie: It kind of has to be like that. If we get a phone call saying ‘we’ve got the best fucking carrots in the world, but there’s only 20 of them’, well, we’ll take them. All of a sudden there are 20 spanking carrots in the building and they’re dictating the menu. Sure, one great mind might be able to come up with the best idea – but it could be the sous-chef, or one of the others who says in the last place we used to rehydrate such and such in carrot juice. If you want to have a daily changing menu responding to what the best available product is, then you’ve got to be open to everyone’s influence.

How did you start cooking?

Tom: I’m from the North of England and always been a grafter. I had a paper round since I was twelve, and when that money wasn’t cutting it anymore, I started washing dishes at a local bistro. One of the chefs went away for summer and I filled in the kitchen doing desserts, it all stemmed from there really. I ended up doing lessons in the morning and then lunch service and then back to school. I didn’t finish my A-Levels but I made a point that I would do it properly so moved down to London and worked for Gordon Ramsey at 18, from then people have just put me in the right positions at the right time.

Charlie, photography Joe Woodhouse

East London’s restaurant scene has been on the rise for a while now, is there something in the water?

Tom: I rarely leave East London now – everything I need is here! A whole array of dining as well, you’ve got your top end Clove Clubs, middle range Brats, Brawn and Brights and all the other B’s and even in Dalston you can grab the best kebab at 2am in the morning (Ummet 2000). There’s a great community, everyone knows each other and there’s real comradery. Everyone hangs out in each other’s places and you wouldn’t have found that in London ten years ago, it was so cut throat.

Charlie: East London is an important hub for gastronomy now. Particularly high-end casual dining, which is the most exciting type of restaurant. In London, you have access to the most incredible product, whether it be fish, meat and vegetables from this great Island or from Europe. Also, it’s probably the best wine market in the world, so together with the people, it’s an amazing opportunity to be here. 

What do you love eating on the menu at the moment?

Charlie: For what it’s worth, Tom’s paté is probably the best I’ve ever had. He puts duck fat in and the sneaky bastard always uses my most expensive booze. The other day, he made a Madagascar paté with two thirds of a very expensive Calvados.

Tom: Nick – one of my sous chefs – has just come up with an amazing snack, he makes a cracker out of mushroom puree, so it’s set puree and tapioca that you dry out and fry, served with a really rich mushroom puree and yoghurt and thyme leaves.

What can the Western world of cooking learn from Asia?

Tom: When I was out in Sydney I fell in love with simple, flavoursome cooking. A lot of English cooking is still based in traditional French technique, and we just don’t need to cook like that – you can get amazing flavours from vinegars and soys, dashes of ferments, stuff that you just can’t find in that French style. Miso is also a great way to utilise all our trim here. We have such a bounty of things that we can grab which makes the presentation and way you cook much simpler because the flavours already there.

Why is accessibility important to you?

Charlie: Inherent within good hospitality is an element of generosity and for me on a personal level, one of the things I enjoy most about the work that I do is being able to share stories and experiences. When my financial accountant points at a figure and asks what’s this – I say this is the money I set aside for staff development, so I can basically open £200 bottles of Jura whites at 1 o’clock in the morning and have a drink with the team. This is built into the business plan, because let’s face it, it’s going to happen anyway. But it’s important that people understand why they’re getting access to these exciting things and having a real relationship with them, not just some taster. Let’s get some fucking comté, let’s sit down, lets drink, lets live! And then maybe cheddar.

Photography Steven Landles

Why did you name the place after a Bukowski poem?

Charlie: I wanted to curate a space that was reflective of the things that I loved in life, and was prepared to be vulnerable in that respect. The poem was recited at the funeral of my cousin, who was 28 when he died of pancreatic cancer, the youngest recorded case in Australian medical history. It was a slow, painful process and I was with him at the end. His brother, one of the greatest men I’ll ever know, read this poem and all of it just resonated. It was like a lightning bolt. In so many challenging moments it’s been a comfort. Plus, it kind of sounds like the name of a dirty East London boozer, so it all just fell into place!

Whisky In The Jar

Clare Finney talks to East London Liquor Company about their ambitious plans to revive the capital’s whisky scene

December 2015. Obama is still the president, Ziggy Stardust is still shining and Brexit is but a twinkle in the eye of some Tory backbenchers. Meanwhile, in an old glue factory in East London, three men are embarking on another project, that will, if successful, herald a new era in the capital’s rich history. They are Andy Mooney, Tom Hills and Alex Wolport – and  their mission is to revive whisky production in London, 112 years after the last drop was produced in the city. “It’s very much a leap of faith,” Hills told us then over a dram of the White Dog – the newly distilled, unaged whisky. “There’s no way of knowing how it will turn out…we’ve just got to put it in a lot of different barrels and, unfortunately, I guess we’ll have to keep drinking it to find out how it’s going.”

Fast forward to 2018 and Hills’ White Dog seems to be the only thing in the world that has got better in the last three years. The first batch has been bottled, and East London Liquor Company are delighted (perhaps even a tad surprised) with the results. I’m invited in for a sneak preview with Mooney, their whisky distiller, who takes me through the process: a mash of 42% rye and 58% extra pale malted barley undergoing double distillation – first, in a pot still, to strip the spirit from the beer mixture, then in a column still to concentrate and purify the alcohol. “I always say brewing is like baking, in that you have to get the temperature and balance of ingredients exactly accurate, whilst distilling is like cooking. You can be more creative,” he shouts over the distillery’s whistles, roars and bangs.

Creative isn’t half of it. When we first visited back in 2015, Hills explained how excited he was about innovating in an ancient industry. “There’s no surviving culture of making London whisky, so we have carte blanche to do what we want.” They aren’t governed by the strict rules of Scotch, they aren’t catering for Japanese or American whisky drinkers, and their sleek copper stills, having evolved in Germany largely for the production of schnapps, are more refined and artisanal than the industrial stills of their Irish and Scottish forebears. What’s more, they’re distilling in East London: home of craft beer, home-brewed ferments and start-ups as far as the eye can see. “Gin was considered a grandmother’s drink, and now the gin scene is massive. People are starting to drink spirits for enjoyment rather than to get drunk. They’re looking for interesting flavour profiles.” If ever there was a time to introduce young, innovative whiskies to Londoners,” Mooney argues, “that time is now.”

He’s looking forward to experimenting further: to creating the sort of “funky flavours no one has tasted in a whisky before,” using different yeasts and barrels. “My barrels are new American and French oak, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, and ex-wine, rye and bourbon, Cognac and vermouth,” he says, gesturing to a gunpowder plot pile of barrels outside. Each barrel infuses the spirit with a different layer of taste and aroma according to the wood, it’s level of char and the spirit it held previously. The London Rye on sale now has been matured in new French oak casks – “intense and cinnamon” – with Level 5 and 3 chars for one year, spent two years in ex-Bourbon – “caramelly flavours” and has been finished off for one month in a cask formerly containing Pedro Ximénez sherry – “to add a touch of sweetness.” The result is bright, fruity and dangerously palatable – but things will get funkier in the future. “I’d love to mature a naturally fermented rye whisky in an ex-orange wine barrel,” Andy enthuses – which is the sort of drink I can only imagine being served in a basement speakeasy in Hoxton.

Next year, they’ll start doing whisky ‘vintages’: a quarterly production of whisky using yeasts which are most comfortable with the season at the time of distilling. “Different yeasts produce different flavours at different temperature,” explains Andy. “A yeast that produces banana and caramel at 30 degrees might produce rich cherry and smoky notes at three degrees.” The first one will be Spring 2019. “We’ll vary the ageing of that, so there will be several editions of it.” The long-term goal, he says, is to work with a natural yeast, “based on this building” – much like the natural starter culture used by some cheesemakers, or the indigenous yeasts collected by brewers like Wild Beer – to create a spirit that inherently reflects the distillery’s locale.  

East London Liquor Company’s rye whisky has diverse and multicultural roots – but like the city itself, these only make it more ‘London’. The chefs, sales team, bar team and tour guides, all have a say in the final product: “that’s really important. They’ve different professional experiences, cultures and tastes.” Head to the ageing room and you’ll find the team rolling the barrels around to the sound of techno or bass music. “It’s a good idea. Unlike wine, whisky needs to be oxygenated, and have contact with the whole barrel for maturation to work effectively, and the vibrations help that,” grins Andy. It’s difficult to imagine a more London image – but then, East London Liquor Company is premised on being local, inclusive – “a local bar offering amazing spirits to Londoners.” It’s one of the main reasons the recent crowdfunding campaign to expand the business was so successful. And it’s one of the main reasons you need to lay your hands on one of the 269 bottles, for, once London gets wind of it – this beautiful, expert distillation of a brighter past – they will not delay.

Inside East London’s Creative Spaces

Hackney’s community of artists and designers intimately documented by photographer Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis has been photographing artists and designers in their east London studios for four years. Firstly, as a way to celebrate their creativity, but also to understand her own place as an artist within her community, and to pay tribute to the area’s fading studio culture. ‘I wanted to explore the creative world of Hackney and to discover who these people were,’ she says.

After an encounter with fashion designer Isobel Webster, the project took on a life of its own. Each subject nominated someone they thought was exceptional and, by word of mouth, the series flourished into a “family tree” of Hackney’s creatives. By viewing their studio set-up, their paints, materials, sketches or storyboards, Lewis has captured their inner workings.

When photographing her subjects, Lewis took a conversational approach so as to put everyone at ease. ‘The focus wasn’t solely on them,’ she explains. ‘We were talking about the person that recommended them and discussing who they might nominate.’ With 20 years of experience behind her, she believes the success of a portrait depends on a connection with her sitters. ‘It takes the ego out of the picture. They are much more relaxed, much more intimate and authentic.’

The series, which has been newly published as a book, does away with creative hierarchies, and painters, sculptors, musicians and film-makers sit side by side. ‘It’s not about established artists – even though some of them are very established – it’s about the integrity and passion for their work and admiration among their circle.’ Artists would nominate their assistants, tutors would nominate their students and vice versa.

Hackney Studios began as a celebration, but a year into the project came clear signs that things were changing. Over half of Lewis’ subjects have now been forced out of their studios due to redevelopment or rising rent prices. ‘It gives a different tone to the whole series. It’s such a fragile ecosystem and we all need each other to survive, but this support network is crumbling and disappearing.’ Many creatives have moved to other areas, including Margate and Tottenham. Others have had to give up their studios to work from home.

Despite challenges faced by the community, Hackney Studios is ultimately a salute to the spirit of creativity, and Lewis now calls many of those photographed close friends. ‘They deserve to feel celebrated,’ she says. ‘There’s a lot of pride and soul in this project.’

Hackney Studios is available from 6 April, published by Hoxton Mini Press