Choose A Life Less Ordinary
Kerstin Rodgers, or MsMarmiteLover as she’s otherwise known, is an award winning blogger and the mother of the UK’s underground restaurant movement.
We caught up with Kerstin to find our more about how to start a restaurant in your living room, and her journey from vegan café chef to published author.
My life changing moments have occurred when I’ve taken a risk. I’ve normally been rather scared to take this step. Fear is a useful emotion: it tells you when to avoid things but, and this is a judgement call, sometimes it’s an indicator that you are doing exactly the right thing.
I trained as a photographer but had always loved to cook, even when it wasn’t fashionable. Throughout my teens and twenties, I was cooking, making little homemade recipe books, cutting out recipes, spending most of my money on kitchenware and ingredients, when my mates were going to all night parties, spending their money on shoes and makeup, counting calories while boasting empty fridges save a bottle of Champagne and a low-fat yoghurt. Believe it or not, before Jamie Oliver, before Masterchef, before the Great British Bake off, cooking and baking were not cool. Kate Moss says ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. I say ‘skinny don’t feel as good as something tasty in your mouth’.
So speed back to 2008. I’d been dumped. I was working at a vegan co-op anarchist(!) café as a chef, and for the first time in this period of broken heartedness I felt soothed, content even. It’s hard to describe that feeling when you’ve found out exactly what you are supposed to do, it’s a bit like finding The One, a feeling of rightness in your bones, a feeling of being finally ‘at home’. Cooking for others felt like that for me. But as I continued to work, I felt more and more frustrated at not having my own restaurant, at not being in control.
To open a restaurant in London nowadays costs around a million quid. I didn’t and still don’t have that kind of money. As a single mother, I knew it would be hard to get backing as an untrained chef. So I started to think back to a trip I took to Cuba when I visited ‘paladares’ – home restaurants. I’d been inspired at the time but was frankly too scaredycat to do it. In between my trip to Cuba and 2008, the internet happened and most importantly, blogging became easy to do. I started blogging, about motherhood, about London, about terrible dates, about politics, all the stuff that interested me. Then I thought to myself, actually one of the most important things in my life is food. So I started a separate food blog, msmarmitelover.com.
In January 2009 I announced on my blog that I was starting a restaurant in my living room. At that time I didn’t realise that anybody read my blog. But immediately I got comments and emails from strangers asking if they could come. I wrote to The Guardian asking if I could write a piece on it; they replied that they wanted to get one of their top writers to write about it, but they wanted to include me in the article. I was freaked. I was a behind the scenes kind of person. I eventually decided ‘what the hell’.
The piece came out in February 2009 and I was then deluged by the world’s press. I did the supper club weekly. I started out catering for 12 guests (it was supposed to be 15 but three people didn’t turn up on the first night, which made me realise that I had to get the money in advance, so I hooked up with a rock music ticket agency who would sell tickets for me) and suddenly it became 20 then 30 then 40.
It was very hard work, each night would take around four days, shopping, prepping, cooking, serving, clearing up, laundry. I learnt about budgeting: a third or less on ingredients, a third on overheads, and maybe a third on wages. I had top critics come and eat; I held my nerve. I hid my identity for the first year or so, no pictures, no name, don’t give out my address. I was visited by the police, customs and excise, the council. I learnt to overcome the legalities and all the obstacles in my way. I was threatened by lawyers from Warners Brothers and TFL because of the name of my supper club, ‘The Underground Restaurant’. I had freeholder problems which almost broke me – they threatened to take away my lease. As the best known and first of the home restaurateurs, I was the lightning rod and guinea pig for any legal problems.
On the plus side, each week I would come up with a themed menu: Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese. Then the themes became more esoteric: Elvis themed, Wizard of Oz night, food on a stick, the night of four senses (blindfolded courses, eating with your hands, a smell based course of durian and Stinking Bishop cheese). This expanded my cooking repertoire. My cooking improved, I learnt to write recipes properly, I blogged everything, sometimes late into the night after I’d done the supper club, my adrenalin still going, I wrote to calm myself down. From this I got a cookbook deal with Harper Collins which led to my first cookbook coming out in 2011 – a beautifully designed thick and glossy book called Supper Club: Recipes & Notes from the Underground Restaurant. I appeared on TV; on BBC news, on the Vanessa Feltz show, on Food and Drink with Michel Roux Jr. I talked on radio with Chris Evans, Bob Elms, and The Food Programme on Radio 4.
Five years later, I’m still cooking, still writing about and photographing food. I’ve combined my love of travel and food with press trips to Georgia, South Africa, Israel, Slovenia, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark.
In November this year Square Peg are publishing my second book, MsMarmitelover’s Secret Tea Party, which is like a tea party version of Supper Club. Instead of lunches and dinners, it’s baking, craft projects, tea, sandwiches and cakes. Again this book is absolutely gorgeous, with gold on the cover and something I always insist on in my books, a ribbon as a bookmark. I’ve used products from notonthehighstreet.com in the books; the Personalised Wooden Cupcake Spoon and the pretty red gingham Alphabet Bunting Letters.
My new book is another exciting step towards the future, and a reminder of that fateful day when I took a leap of faith and decided to change my life. For good.
Visit notonthehighstreet.com to choose a life less ordinary.