FoodLifestyleVolume 13 Issue # 02

The chef who’s getting young Londoners to love vegan food

It’s midday in a vogueish corner of East London. Shoreditch’s Boxpark – a complex of shipping containers housing small shops and restaurants – is rapidly filling up with a hungry crowd. Their options are a show-and-tell of 2017’s most photogenic food, all pulled pork and bubble waffles. But there’s one queue triple the size of any other. And it’s for … pause for effect … vegan food.

The restaurant in question, Cook Daily, measures two by three metres and its crowd is one of many different faces. “What I wanted to do was create a vibe,” explains its owner, 34-year-old local boy King Cook. “A London eating culture that just happens to be vegan.” Rambunctious teens sit alongside Hindu families, speed-shovelling office workers and creatives with ironic facial hair. They all eat from recyclable bowls at long, shared tables. T-shirts line the walls – black and emblazoned in dripping red graffiti script, declaring “Vegan. No blood. No bones.”

A survey released by the Vegan Society in 2016 found a 350% rise in the number of vegans in the UK over the past 10 years; and 42% of these are aged between 15 and 34. In 2016, Shambala was the first UK music festival to go meat and fish-free; Pret A Manger recently opened its second vegetarian branch in the capital; and this March BBC iPlayer showcased comedian Simon Amstell’s Carnage, a pro-vegan feature-length comedy.

Veganism 2.0 is officially booming. Cook Daily is neither a bean-bothering hippy joint nor a Gwyneth Paltrow juice den: it’s the unofficial headquarters for a new tribe of proud vegan.

King opened Cook Daily in 2015 without a website or contact number, let alone a PR plan. But what he did have was the fevered backing of the UK music scene. King’s heavily scrolled Twitter feed is chock-full of love from the likes of Emeli Sandé, Professor Green and JME, chief rallier of the Boy Better Know grime crew, the brother of Mercury-winner Skepta, the poster boy for the #Grime4Corbyn campaign. He embodies a new trend for awareness amongst millennials – a pride in being armed with information and making considered choices.

For JME, who King describes as a former three McDonald’s-a-day man, his thirst for knowledge took him down an internet wormhole that led to veganism. To his 763k followers on Twitter he calls Cook Daily “my 2nd home”. “All it takes is JME to tweet and say ‘I’m at Cook Daily’ and I’ve got 50 young boys in here,” says King. This introduces the lifestyle choice that he’s championing to a whole new demographic. “They think vegan means white, middle class,” he explains, “but I hope I challenge that. It’s just about making them know: bruv, I wasn’t born vegan, I don’t really know anyone that was born vegan. We’re in the same boat.”

At Cook Daily, 16 honed dishes offer the familiarity of comfort food while appealing to London’s multicultural fidgetism. You’ll find the Hard Bowl, a bright mountain of Caribbean textures and flavours – yams and dumplings, Scotch bonnet and thyme; the marijuana-inspired High Grade, all smoky and sweet vegetables topped with a hemp seed crumble. Or the house pad Thai, a nod to King’s Lao roots, boasting his clever recreation of fish sauce using soys and seaweed.

A bowl at Cook Daily costs £8.50. “It’s too expensive, but I’m still here,” laughs local customer Danny, as he waits for his black bean sauce bowl. Shoreditch rental rates, along with King’s no-exceptions rule on serving fresh vegetables in every dish, make it hard to compete with neighbourhood chicken-shop prices. King does his best to be inclusive – he has replaced the quinoa with brown rice for economy’s sake.

A Public Health England 2016 report found that only 8% of children aged 11 to 18 are currently getting their five-a-day. Introducing young Londoners to plant-based food that isn’t perceived as “worthy” is an important first step in what King describes as “breaking the cycle”.

The youth are coming back of their own volition. Danny tells me: “The food’s proper tasty and I don’t feel like I’m missing the meat.” King says he gives kids that go to the chicken shop an alternative. King explains: “They’re not gonna go to a juice bar in Notting Hill! But they will come here, realise that no-one’s looking at them weird and learn that vegan food can be fun.”

Earlier this year, Cook Daily took over a second unit in Shoreditch’s Boxpark and opened a new spot in Croydon, offering an option in a less gentrified part of the city. Tomorrow he’ll be bringing vegan food to Boy Better Know’s hoards of fans for a pop-up at their Millennium Dome takeover. “Kids with tracksuits are eating Cook Daily rather than McDonalds,” he beams. “What more could I want?”