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!

Massimo Vitali: Disturbed Coastal Systems

The Italian photographer discusses scouting locations, the politics behind his work and the changing status of Europe’s beaches

Massimo Vitali is known for his large-format photographs of crowded beach scenes. A former photojournalist and cinematographer, Vitali has committed the second half of his adult life to travelling across the globe. “At the beginning of the season I look up places to shoot,” he says. “Sometimes people I know will talk to me about new locations, sometimes I will want to go back to places I’ve been before.” It’s this tradition of visiting and re-visiting beaches that has reinforced his idea of them as places of perpetual change. “If you really wanted, you could go to the same beach for twenty years and every year it would be different,” he explains. 

“When I first started taking pictures, beaches had no connotations. They were places where people could not think about anything, and be totally at ease.” Today, the same beaches are still holiday destinations, he says, but they are also the troubling backdrops of the European migrant crisis. For Vitali, an artist who has spent the last two decades documenting holidaymakers along the coastlines of the continent, as well as further afield, the beach has become a looking glass into the heart of the lives of Europeans. Of the current political climate, Vitali notes: “There is a vague sense of doom.”

New work in the Italian photographer’s current exhibition at the Benrubi Gallery in New York, Disturbed Coastal Systems, was primarily shot on the beaches of Portugal, where over a million Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees first set foot on the shores of Europe. Vitali continues to look at the tension between the human habitat and the natural world with his latest photographs. Throughout the images, man-made saltwater pools and concrete piers break up natural scenery and hint at ways coastlines are occupied.

While at first glance Vitali’s photographs can seem almost saccharine, on closer inspection there is an unexpected depth beneath the bubblegum colour palette – something that feels both timeless and fleeting. “I try with my pictures to be in the middle, in the middle of something that is not long lasting, like walking on a thin line between what is already there and what is changing all of the time.”

Disturbed Coastal Systems is on show at the Benrubi Gallery in New York until 17 June


Stories of Craftsmanship

In a series of six short films, Canali explores the craft and construction of some of its key designs

‘Where do stories come from?’ asks Italian writer and director Ivan Cottroneo. ‘Everything starts with a blank page – metaphorical or physical – or a blank screen in a cinema before a movie begins. This is a very significant image and despite everything that is said about writer’s block or director’s block, this image is inspirational to me. I get the urge to fill that blank screen, I want to fill that blank page.’

In a recent collaboration with Canali, Cottroneo – who co-wrote the script for Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love – came together with Luca Bigazzi, director of photography for Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli to create an exclusive short film. The result – Rewind – pays homage to the attention to detail involved in the making of a Canali blazer, from pattern-making to the final stitches. 

Now, this narrative continues with Stories of Craftsmanship, which explores the craft and construction of some of the other garments the brand is best known for. Six short films released over the several weeks each focus on an item from the Canali catalogue: The Shirt; The Tie; The Shoe; The Belt; The Sweater; The Trouser. The latest episode, released today, focuses on the construction of a Canali sweater. Watch it here