On the back of her debut book, Café Kitchen: Relaxed food for friends from the Lantana Café, Shelagh Ryan has also overseen the launch of Shindig at Lantana Shoreditch and Fitzrovia, a special ‘after hours’ venture that’s all about surf and turf. She talks to Mark Kebble about seeing an opportunity in London’s coffee and brunch scene
It’s a busy time for you Shelagh with Shindig and your cookbook, but let’s take a step back first… Did you grow up surrounded by food?
Yes, I grew up in a food obsessed family. My father was a real keen cook and he was very experimental. Food was a real occasion, a celebratory thing, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen helping to prepare meals.
What inspired the launch of Lantana?
It was just when I started getting constant feedback from friends. I started to realise that just maybe this is something I had a particular talent for – and I do think about food all the time. I spend so much time in meetings thinking ‘what am I going to cook for dinner?’, or have meetings at restaurants where I stare at the chefs making the food. I felt this was an obsession that wasn’t going away.
Coming to London, how did the food compare to Australia?
It’s an interesting question. The food is amazing in London at the higher end. The biggest difference is in the casual dining scene – in Australia it’s really high quality and very competitive. You just don’t see the same choice here. I also felt there was a gap in the brunch scene too. People said to me ‘why didn’t you open in Australia?’ – are you kidding!? There are so many fantastic places on every turning, you would have to be very brave – but here I felt I could do it.
Also, Australia and London has a big historical connection – most Australians make a pilgrimage to London at some point. I already worked here in my early 20s, but my sister and husband had moved here and had never gone back to Australia. They kept saying that they missed the café/brunch culture in Australia. So when I thought about a change of career, that was the right time.
How much work went into launching the Fitzrovia café?
It was difficult. It takes a long time to set up a business. I spent a year looking at sites. I took a gamble with what the market wanted here. I realised that even if the locals didn’t come, there were a lot of Australians about! Perhaps that was not a good long-term plan…
Was there a positive reaction straight away?
No, not straight away. We had a quiet couple of months where I was thinking ‘oh my god, what have I done?’. The customers we did have were really blown away by what we were, they felt we were so unique. The menu was quite typical of an Australian café. But it wasn’t until we got a Time Out review that transformed the business six months in. We suddenly had queues outside at the weekend.
Looking at the menu, is there a real mix of international cuisines?
That’s what defines Australian cuisine – a real melting pot of international cuisines. You have a Middle Eastern influence, Asian… Asian is a very quintessential part of Australian cooking and I love it too. I try to be as adventurous as I feel I dare. You go back to Australia and see some menus and go ‘you would never get away with that in London’! It’s a bit more conservative here, but I do try to push people a little bit. Once people trust you and know what you are doing, they will give it a go.
When you were looking to open your second Lantana, why Shoreditch?
Well we felt we had done so much hard work in Fitzrovia, had learnt so much, that we should do it again. There are limitations in Fitzrovia – it’s really small and it’s over two levels, so you are constantly running up and down stairs. Islington was an area we looked at, Camden, Shoreditch, places with a mix of workers and residents. It was a Shoreditch site that we put in a successful bid for. It was an area I hadn’t really associated with the day-time! A part of it was the fact it’s near the Silicon Roundabout and you have a lot of office workers, so there was a long-term opportunity, and this area is changing quite rapidly. One great thing is we have a local community as well as a working community – it does have a soul of its own.
How did the foodie offering lead to you writing your first cookbook?
We were approached to do a cookbook and had a lot of customers asking. I thought I was a long way off writing a cookbook, but customers were saying things like they loved the corn breads, so I felt maybe there was a market for a Lantana cookbook. It’s nice to have all the recipes collated within one place. It’s a dream for someone who has set up a business in food to write a cookbook. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be! I didn’t realise how much as a cook I used my judgment when I cooked. It was an interesting discipline to record every step of the recipe process.
Do you have a cooking philosophy?
I very rarely follow a recipe to the tee, I like using whatever ingredients I have. I see cooking as a creative process, something not to get stressed about. I don’t feel you need to follow a set of rules, but that comes with experience and you can have disastrous experiences! I started this at ten years of age, so now I feel confident about how to experiment with food. It’s nice when you can go off piste.
And you’ve also launched Shindig recently – what’s that all about?
Again it came from customers asking ‘why don’t you open in the evening?’ Where we are in Fitzrovia, Charlotte Place, it’s always been a food hub. We felt there was an opportunity for casual dining at night-time – there’s lots of 24 hour businesses and creative industries here who don’t work normal office hours. I was keen not to make it too restaurant-like, but follow our brand of casual dining. It’s a short menu, surf and turf, which is a bit of a wink to Australia, and change it up regularly.
Well my next project is having a baby! And then maybe open Lantana number three. I don’t want it to be a massive chain, I want to have a really strong presence – I want to be hands on, so maybe just one more…
Lantana Café Shoreditch, Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road EC1Y 1HQ; lantanacafe.co.uk