In Conversation With Ben Walker

Having recently opened Leeds’ only all vegan taco joint, El Marchador, Ben Walker has now found a permanent home for Wanderer Junk Food.

Thomas Chalk popped along to the new venue to meet Ben (AKA Big Beardy Vegan) to discuss plant-based bacon and putting down roots.

Firstly, congratulations on the openings. How have things been?

Both have been going really well; both have been given really good feedback – which is fantastic, but suddenly my job gets hard; I’ve got to start thinking about planning and thinking ahead a couple of weeks, not just ‘how many burgers have we got on order right now?’ I think there are a lot of benefits to being in the same place, but there are a few more things to think about. Fortunately for me, most of my working background has been in restaurants and bars, so actually this is more of a natural environment for me than out on the road – though I found myself quite at home there as well.  It was nice to have the change of scenery.

You weren’t always vegan, and have previously worked in non-vegan restaurants.

Very much so – I worked in steak restaurants, burger joints, big American diners.  I’ve done road trips to the States specifically to eat cheese steaks and barbecue. Part of what I’m trying to do now is make that experience accessible to vegans, but also to show people they don’t have to be missing out. I think there’s a lot of perception of veganism that it’s food without something, and that really irritates me because it’s just food; it just happens to be a different type of food from what people are used to, but it doesn’t have to be lacking in those flavours, those aromas that you get. That’s pretty much how I approach all my food, but especially here at Wanderer.

Looking at the menu – it’s not the stereotypical rabbit food!

One of our taglines is ‘to subvert expectations’, and what do is to try and find an accessible entry point for people who have maybe heard about vegan food but don’t know how to approach it. Suddenly expecting somebody to dive into a piece of marinated grilled tempeh with quinoa salad – as delicious as that can be – it’s a big departure from what they’re used to. If you give them a fried ‘chicken’ burger they know where they’re at. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt over the last couple of years of doing it. Putting something very accessible in there gives people a gateway that then opens up a whole world of ‘that was really good, so I’ll try this next time or I’ll try that…’. We’ve found that gradually people are willing to be more adventurous and try different things. For me, running somewhere where people come and eat, that’s what we’re here to do; we’re here to try and show people that there are other things that they can eat and that are delicious, and that they can enjoy without having to compromise on the ethics.

It’s particularly important that things are not poor substitutes, I assume? That objection people have of “I don’t know why you would eat this when a piece of chicken would be so much better”. You are after all directly competing with what people want from a piece of chicken.

I’ve always been very picky about what I’ve eaten – I’ve always wanted to eat the best of the best. If we’re going to make bacon and call it bacon, it needs to be as close as possible to bacon. Short of growing it in a lab somewhere under strange conditions, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to make bacon out of plants, but we can make something that’s crispy and smoky and salty and fatty and savoury. If we can do all those things and make it look and act like bacon when we’re cooking it, then I think that’s what’s important.

What are the latest creations?

Crackling! There’s a pork crackling which had its first outing at Vegan North, that’s been flying out. Pigs in blankets are in the works, as it’s coming up to that time of year, and I’m sure some turkey will be making an outing soon. But rather than pushing for lots of brand new stuff, at the moment we’re mainly revisiting some of the stuff that we’re a little less happy with from when we were on a stall – now we’ve got a production kitchen and more consistent equipment, so we’re revisiting the burgers and sausages and have improved on them. We’re also using this time to look at how we can scale stuff up as we get so many people asking if they can buy the bacon or buy the pork scratchings to take home. In terms of other new ideas, we like to be led by people coming in and saying ‘Have you thought about this?  What about that?’, and we’ve got a big list of to-dos already. It’s just about settling in now and then in the next week or two we’ll be able to start experimenting again.

Is it mainly vegans who are putting things on the to do list, or is it people who are saying they’d like to eat more vegan food but would miss a particular thing?

A big chunk of it is vegans who are missing something, but then a part of it is other people saying ‘If I could have a particular thing but vegan, it would make the transition a lot easier’. I think it’s more the people who are missing stuff, but it’s the things that people miss that are the things that people find hardest to give up, so if we can start to fill those gaps, then it will make the whole transition easier for a lot of people.

It seems a part of veganism’s growth that there are more and more options available for people.

The shift in particular in Manchester and Leeds is following what happened over the last five or ten years in London. These trends always start in London and shift to the big cities, and inevitably it will work its way down. I’m encouraged that I went to a pub a couple of weeks ago in the village near to where I live, not expecting there to be anything for me to eat, but somebody mentioned to them that I was vegan and they said ‘Oh yes, you can have this or this, or we can make this for you’, and that was fantastic. I think it shows the shift in what we are doing as a country, and hopefully if we can help that and be at the forefront of that and share ideas, I think it’s a really important thing to do.

There’s a tendency when talking about vegan cooking to talk about ethical consumerism in all its guises, in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t if I was interviewing someone who had a steak restaurant, say, so apologies that I’m about to do that! Is there a wider stance that you have as a restaurant around sourcing ingredients, for instance?

If we were to just do vegan food and not pay heed to those things, we’d be very remiss. Certainly for me, one of my reasons for being vegan is the economic and ecological aspect of it. Especially with documentaries recently on plastic usage, the sheer scale of the impact of what we’re doing is vastly easier to see nowadays. In all our sourcing we try to look very carefully at the companies we’re sourcing from. Two of our most recent companies we’re sourcing from that are fantastic are a Leeds company, North Star, who are not only local but also their whole ethos around how they source their coffee and support the farmers who are producing it for them is outstanding, and our tea is from a company that’s a little bit further away based in London, called We Are Tea, whose whole production process including making teabags that are zero-carbon is sensational.

I use the same veg supplier I’ve used for the last ten years in different businesses because they’re really particular about what they source, where they source it from, and they have a sourcing policy that’s always local first if it’s available, and I think that way of working is a happy medium. As much as it would be fantastic for us to be completely seasonal, we still have requirements to have tomatoes to put on burgers in the middle of winter. In a different type of restaurant you’ve got the luxury of saying you’re going to be completely seasonal, but here for the crowd we’re aiming for and the style of food we’re doing we don’t have that luxury, but at least we can strive to make those things happen more. And the other beauty is we don’t have a big loading in terms of sourcing meat or dairy or eggs, as it’s almost entirely down to veg and then some dry goods, the vast majority of which we get from Suma, a big cooperative in Halifax, so not far away – it’s local jobs, putting money back into the local economy.

We’re working with a couple of local cycle couriers at the moment to try to set up a localised version of an online delivery service, so that whatever money we give over to the cycle for doing the delivery stays in the local economy. They’re doing better out of it and we’re doing better out of it, and there isn’t a big admin fee going out to somebody in an office in London or out of the country.

It does seem that in the food and restaurant industry more widely there is a resurgence of interest in localism.

I think it’s a fantastic thing. I live in the Dales, and anything that’s helping local farmers and businesses to survive and thrive has got to be a good thing. There’s some would argue that maybe I should be helping that by eating and selling meat, but the last time I saw a farmer getting a fair price for a head of livestock or a pint of milk was a very long time ago, so I think that the more of us who take a stand on that the better it will get – maybe not in the immediate short term, but I think it’s only right that if people are still going to eat meat it should be considered a luxury, that they should pay for that privilege. It shouldn’t be something that’s stacked high in supermarkets and just flung out at absolute rock-bottom price. Farmers work hard for their money and they get next to naff all off it, and personally I think it’s been driven by the scale of business in particular – large shops, supermarkets. We all rely on them, I guarantee there’s shopping in my fridge at home that comes from one, but if we all make a smaller change it’s better for the whole economy.

The other obligatory question is: what made you go vegan?

A huge number of things. I grew up vegetarian, my parents were quite big in the ecology movement in the early 80s when I was a kid, and then I went off and spent a bit of time abroad and got incredibly bored of just having the same thing over and over again, which was the only thing I knew how to order, so I started trying a couple of different things, chicken and beef, and when I got back I went straight into working in kitchens and quickly realised that I needed to be able to taste everything I was doing in order to move that forward. I did that classic thing of having abstained from something for so long and then suddenly having the whole world of it open, I probably went a bit overboard and ate just about everything I could get my hands on, and that carried on for quite a long time.

As I grew through the industry it was always in the back of my mind that I probably shouldn’t, from what I knew about the ecology and the environmental side of it, and as time went on also the economics of it all, but I was working for other people and if I was running someone’s restaurant for them I needed to know that everything going out was as it should be. Eventually I made the decision to start my own business, and when I did that it was a lightbulb moment that I didn’t have that excuse any more – I either had to stand by my conviction or shut my eyes to it, and I didn’t feel I could shut my eyes to it. I was surprised at how easy it was, I expected it to be a lot harder than it was. If you’re eating good food you don’t miss a particular something. You may have a little craving for something, but it’s usually a craving for fattiness, or savouriness.  It doesn’t have to be that particular thing. It’s like what I was saying about bacon earlier – if you can get something that’s crispy and smoky and a bit salty with quite a bit of chew to it, it does what you want it to.

Photography by  Mark Wheelwright (markwheelwright.co.uk)

Thomas moved to Leeds in 2001 after a few years in Bristol and a childhood in Hull. He cooks (and eats) a lot, and intermittently blogs about it at https://toomanycookingblogs.wordpress.com/

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