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Text by Emily King
Portraits by Paul Wetherell
Issue n° 6, Autumn & Winter 2012

Working out of her grocer’s shop and café off Arnold Circus in London’s Shoreditch, Leila McAlister, 42, is the city’s unselfconscious authority on the buying, selling and serving of food. Inspired by her experiences as a foreign student in 1980s Poland, where communism restricted choice but local markets still offered excellence, she’s built a phenomenal retail and catering system based on hunting down the best of everything, from jars of horseradish to eggs and croissants.

Each product is the link between an international network of specialist food producers and the British chefs and shoppers that consume their wares on Leila’s personal recommendation. A world away from the theatricality of smart restaurants and fancy traiteurs, the ultra-traditional business model of Leila’s Shop feels surprisingly contemporary and desirable.

Leila McAlister serves fried eggs to East London’s arty types. At lunchtime on a typical weekday in her café on Calvert Avenue in Shoreditch, there will be three or four tables of people sporting the subtle trappings of absolute trendiness sharing heavy iron pans of saffron-yolked eggs cooked with either sage or Serrano ham. On weekends, the pace of frying must be five or six times that, and it reaches its height on Sundays at midmorning, when locals are joined by tourists and visitors to the flower market on nearby Columbia Road.

The fried eggs have become Leila’s signature dish, yet she views them as something of an accident – in her words, “an unintentional thing that became the defining thing.” It’s not the first time she’s invented such a product. Before founding her café and shop, Leila worked at the Spanish food emporium Brindisa. She was setting up their stall at Borough Market, a weekend food market near London Bridge when she noticed chorizo sausage was selling slowly. As a remedy, she devised a special sandwich: a small bun filled with grilled chorizo, piquillo pepper and rocket.

Now described on the Brindisa website as the “world-famous chorizo sandwich”, the creation flew from the stall, and at peak times, the queue for it stretched around the block. I remember trips to the market with my husband when I would finish the week’s fruit and vegetable shop in the time it took him to buy his bun – particularly irritating given that I don’t eat meat. Like me, Leila doesn’t recall the sandwiches with unmitigated fondness. “I’m haunted by them,” she told me. “We sell the chorizo at the shop, but I still can’t eat it.” Bemused by the runaway success of both the sandwich and the eggs, Leila doesn’t give herself the credit she should for her ability to get things absolutely right. It’s not that she questions her own judgement – she always speaks on matters of produce and the serving of food with absolute authority – it’s more that she sees it as so darned obvious she can’t believe others couldn’t have thought of it for themselves. Of the eggs, she said, “People still ask how we make them so nice, but we sell all the same ingredients in the shop. They could just make their own.”

Leila’s Shop, the place that sells all the ingredients for her dishes, is next door to her café. Broadly speaking, while young hipsters guzzle eggs, local foodies and destination shoppers spend time exploring the produce. Regular items include Polish sausages and jars of horseradish that Leila imports herself and sells here and from a stall at Borough Market under the brand name Topolski. Another staple is small bottles of Ucal chocolate milk, shipped from Portugal and generally agreed to be the best of its kind. Behind these products lie stories from Leila’s life, of which more later. Other items in the store reflect the lives of her friends, among them the furniture designer Martino Gamper, who brings back Schüttelbrot, a caraway-flavoured crispbread from South Tyrol, when driving back from his hometown of Merano. Leila also sells also bread from St. John Bakery, pain Poilâne, and rye made to the recipe of the Danish baker Troels Bendix. The latter is so dense with seeds it sizzles when it’s toasted and is probably the best accompaniment there is for smoked fish.

Store-cupboard items at Leila’s include cooking chocolate cleaved from large blocks, spices scooped from jars, and loose tea. The shelves hold jars of honey and jam of various kinds. Leila told me many customers ask if the jam is homemade, a question she finds slightly absurd. “If someone’s already making wonderful jam, why should we make it?” she said. Leila revealed even more of her idealistic pragmatism when I asked her why she stocks barely any Scandinavian produce. “I won’t until I can get better stuff than Ikea,” she said. “Have you tried their fish roe?”

Leila lives above her shop with her pet canary, Mr Bird. She’s ambivalent about keeping a pet in a cage, but he was a gift from a Boundary Estate resident who discovered him sheltering from the rain. Named after a character in Paul Grimault’s animation, Le Roi et l’Oiseau, Mr Bird’s enjoys eating dandelions, sweetcorn and, of course, seeds.

Leila’s products tend to come from artisan producers, but she’s not hung up on the ‘organic’ tag. “If something is produced in the right way, who cares if it’s deemed organic?” she said. Similarly, although she wouldn’t sell soft fruit or salad from Africa, she views importing certain produce as both necessary and romantic. Enormous, sculptural Sicilian lemons that yield a cup of delicious juice apiece were among the first distinctive features of her shop.

Leila sells four types of coffee beans: a Guatemalan, a Brazilian, a Kenyan and an espresso blend, all roasted by her former employee Jack Coleman in his midcentury Viennese roaster. Her perishables include milk, yogurt, a regularly changing small selection of cheeses and a stock of seasonal fruit and vegetables. The shop is kept cool, and cheeses sit on a counter, unrefrigerated. Crossing the threshold, you’re hit by a distinctive odour: a mélange of cheese, coffee, the spice of the sausages and an earthy undertow from the roots and leaves of the vegetables. That might sound disgusting, but it absolutely is not. If you could bottle it, I think the scent could be sold as a cure for anxiety.

As reassuring as it is to breathe in deeply at Leila’s, the shop is even more pleasurable to look at. The array of fresh produce on wooden tables out front and at the centre of the interior is a wondrous thing. It’s especially beautiful in early summer, when peas, beans and soft fruits are in season, but Leila also manages to make parsnips and cabbages look like manna.

A regular customer is Margot Henderson, who runs the catering company Arnold & Henderson and the Rochelle Canteen restaurant across Arnold Circus, a small raised park about ten paces east of Leila’s Shop. “I go home with a car laden with Leila’s produce, and I feel very happy,” Margot told me. “It’s a joy to cook. Fergus [Henderson, Margot’s husband and the chef-proprietor of St. John Bar and Restaurant,] always goes, ‘Is that from Leila?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’ proudly.” Fergus described Leila as a “white witch” – a woman with an unnatural talent for fruit and vegetables. Margot compared her approach to that of the great woman chefs working in the domestic tradition, people like Alice Waters and, of course, Elizabeth David. “It’s all about the beautiful, simple, straightforward food European women cook for their children,” she said, “Leila stands for or works toward many things that we are losing in our community – my life is improved by her shop.

I’ve counted Leila as a friend for several years now, but I still remember our first long conversation. It was during a dinner cooked for us by the furniture designer Martino Gamper and served at her shop. We talked about the relative merits of different London bakers and how moving a bakery affected the quality of its bread. A couple of years ago, she mentioned she despaired of finding a good croissant in London and was no longer serving them at the café. Happily, the situation has improved, and Leila now sells croissants and pain au chocolat from the Little Bread Pedlar, based in Bermondsey, south London, on Saturdays and Sundays. Sonia Morange, a French-born, Californian-raised fine artist who works with Leila on special events, confirms they’re on a par with Paris’s best. And Sonia should know. She recently spent three days in the French capital with Claire Ptak of the Hackney cake shop Violet, tasting as many croissants as they were able.

The best way to shop at Leila’s is with an open mind. Rather than arriving with a list and fixed ideas about dinner, you should look at what’s on offer and ask how best to eat it. This advice comes with two cautions: first, it can take a great deal of time – don’t get so transported by a discussion of puntarella (a delicious bitter salad green, best chopped finely and eaten with a dressing enriched with crushed anchovies) that you get caught out by the traffic wardens who patrol Arnold Circus assiduously. And second, it can prove expensive. As Melanie Arnold, Margot’s catering partner, said, “You can’t go into Leila’s without spending at least ten times what you meant to – it’s all so tempting.”

When feeding herself, Leila goes for simple meals such as poached eggs and spinach. “I do cook,” she said, “but I eat lots of fruit and raw vegetables. That’s a major perk of having a food shop – it’s really nice being able to pick what you feel like on the day and take it upstairs. I don’t have food hanging about at home.” Among her favourite things to have for lunch is tomatoes on toast with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Garlic rubbed on the bread? “Yes, that’s always the thing – shall I or shan’t I rub garlic on the toast?”

Leila’s has been open for ten years, and over that time, more and more attention has been paid to food in the British media. Asked if she felt encroached on, Leila replied, “No. I’m very focused on selling ingredients, and I’m constantly surprised, despite all the mania for restaurants, celebrity chefs and food programmes, how little people really cook or know how to buy ingredients.” She said she doesn’t go to ‘hot’ central London restaurants and prefers ethnic food joints in her neighbourhood. Among her current recommendations is a place selling pide, a flat Turkish bread usually topped with meat or cheese, in Dalston, about a mile north of her shop. “People often ask me about fine dining and top restaurants, but I just don’t know about that,” she said. “I see it as totally different – it’s more like going to the theatre. I hardly feel I’m in the same business. In terms of what I do day to day, I feel much closer to the food producers that I work with – the bakers and the cheesemakers.”

Leila’s passion for food has deep roots. One of four children, she was born in 1970 to arty north London parents. Her father, Bill, was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, and her mother, Sarah, was the children’s editor of Time Out magazine. In common with many of their generation, they worshipped the English writer and Mediterranean food expert Elizabeth David as their culinary deity. Leila grew up in a basement flat in Islington, yet her mother grew raspberries and kept bees in the back garden, and her father took the children on adventurous camping holidays. “We were very outdoorsy,” said Leila. “Wherever we went there was fishing, and we gutted and cooked everything we caught.”

“Food was a big thing in the house,” she recalled. “School nights, it was all spaghetti and macaroni cheese, but on Saturday mornings we’d go shopping with Dad to Steve Hatt in Islington [a renowned fishmonger], and the greengrocers at Highbury Barn to buy a big box of vegetables. And sometimes we’d go into Soho to [Fratelli] Camisa and Lina Stores [two traditional Italian delicatessens, both still open] to buy capers and anchovies, or olive oil, or proper Parmesan. Sundays were all about long, involved recipes – I remember all the jugged hare experiments!” In a foreshadowing of the weekly vegetable box delivery scheme she now runs from her shop, her parents belonged to a pioneering 1970s food co-op. Every ten weeks, they bought produce for themselves and nine other families. “You had to buy potatoes, carrots and leeks, but then you had freedom to buy one or two seasonal items,” she said. “I remember buying things like avocado pears and pineapples – that was so exciting!”

The McAlister family’s food adventures stretched beyond London to European countries including France, Greece and Portugal. “Travelling and eating was very important to us,” said Leila. “One summer when I was about five, we drove all the way to Greece in a beaten-up car. I can still remember the food – and my dad walking up the beach with an octopus hung from his trunks, telling us how he’d had to fight it off.” It was in Portugal that Leila really honed her food sensibility. Spending several childhood holidays in a fishing port just west of Lisbon, she said, she marvelled at the markets where “everything you’d find was really rough and artisan – all locally produced.” Leila still has many close Portuguese friends and visits the country regularly, hence the delicious chocolate milk and pastéis de nata (custard tarts) in her shop.

“Leila told me that when she was a child, she could always remember where they’d been, not from events but from what she’d eaten,” said her childhood friend, the landscape architect Maisie Rowe. Maisie was a regular visitor to the McAlister household and remembers wondering at its bohemianism. “They’d painted the ceiling but had left a circle around the light, which was all the flaky paint,” she said. “I just thought it was magic. And Bill allowed Leila’s younger brother to smear the whole area about the sink with squid ink. He’d written his name in the ink, and it was just left like that for years and years.”

“I’m constantly surprised, despite all the mania for restaurants and food programmes, how little people really know about buying ingredients.”

When Leila was ten, her parents separated, and her mother drove her and two of her siblings to the south-west of France to live in a small town for a year. The French education system was comparatively brutal, Leila said, and she would have been very unhappy but for the pleasure of food. “We had rum babas for school lunch – that was wonderful – and I loved going to the dairy in the town where the woman would cut unsalted butter from a block. It was so beautiful, so cool, and it smelt amazing.” There’s a subtle but important difference between comfort eating and finding comfort in good food. Even as a child, Leila was sensing the pleasure that comes from being part of a chain that includes producers, vendors, cooks and consumers.

Leila and Maisie attended Camden School for Girls together in the mid 1980s; there, Leila became absorbed in Russian lessons taught by an émigré teacher, Mrs Rolands. After gaining a place on a Russian and Slavic studies degree course, she spent a year in Poland before university, working as a language assistant at a college in Warsaw. As far as Maisie was concerned, this was in keeping with the McAlister love affair “with far-flung places – the more grimy and depressed the better.” Almost 25 years later, Leila herself wonders why she didn’t choose to go to India or South America. Yet she found the experience of the last months of Polish communism not only fascinating but also “very free, strangely enough.”

“When you’re living in a place when everyone rejects the state – I never met a communist in the whole year I was there – you’re surrounded by people who are very aspirational in their politics.” But the food must have been terrible? “No, not at all. In the UK media, it was always images of empty shops – nothing but vinegar on the shelves – but they didn’t take pictures of the markets, which were always full of seasonal produce. I ate amazingly well that year. I didn’t appreciate it then, but now I look back at the system, it was so logical. If you bought milk or cream, or sour milk or yogurt, there was only one manufacturer, and there were only four or five types of bottles and jars used for everything. They had a completely intact recycling system.”

There’s a contradiction here: Leila enjoyed the company of political radicals while at the same time relishing the limitations imposed by the state they hated. “Yes, I know,” she admitted. “A lot of my friends were obsessed with things like Coca-Cola cans, but I found the lack of choice a great mercy.” Leila still has a taste for the über-basic: the choice of no choice. This is played out in her café and shop through simple wooden furniture – much of it designed by Michael Marriott, a furniture maker who’s worked with Leila since she first opened – and a floor made of pieces of bottle-bank glass embedded in resin.

Everything on the premises is either used or sold. “The shop is a celebration of the ingredients,” said Maisie’s husband, the designer Thomas Heatherwick. “It’s not revolutionary, but it’s deeply charismatic.” The aesthetic appears robust, yet it’s beautiful and finely balanced. When the café was hired as part of the set for the 2011 movie One Day, the film’s designers dressed it up with lace curtains and extra cakes. Leila helped find some of these items, but even so, they rendered the café generic. By adding superfluous things, the moviemakers obscured all that was special about the place.

According to Margot, Leila’s Shop “oozes effortless style and beauty with a seriousness that I love. It’s just like her, really.” Leila dresses along the same lines as she furnishes her premises. Her clothes seem to be uniformly navy blue and utilitarian, yet they always appear absolutely right. Unsurprisingly, she’s not a keen shopper, but she said she sometimes swaps the fashion designer Peter Jensen fruit and vegetables for clothes. “What’s particularly nice is that he just gives me things. I don’t have to choose them.”

The shop and café represent just one aspect of Leila’s world. Though they’re by far the most visible part, she also caters for dinners and parties and operates behind the scenes in various networks in the food sphere and beyond. To see her outside her well-known environment, I went with her to buy fresh produce at New Covent Garden Market on a particularly wet night in June. Leila shops there every Monday night, usually in the wee hours; we were there between midnight and 4am. New Covent Garden is a virtually women-free zone – a place of forklift trucks, heavy PVC curtains and reflective jackets. Although I shadowed Leila closely, her transactions remained somewhat opaque to me. First she trawled the outlets, looking through stacks of fruit and vegetable boxes, often ripping one open to taste an apricot, a cherry, a pea or a broad bean. Then, having worked out what was good, she would single out the person in charge and place an order. In some instances, cash changed hands; in others, it didn’t. At the end of the session, some boxes were delivered to her van; others were sent straight to the shop. To me, these arrangements appeared to have been made with no verbal communication.

Leila boycotts some of the traders on the grounds of sexism, yet a low-key camaraderie/flirtation was evident throughout our visit. She was teased for grazing – “Leila never has to eat breakfast!” one man told me – and her bills come addressed to “Young Lady”. When we got cups of builders’ tea from the market café, she bought one extra and placed it, apparently wordlessly, on the table of the next stallholder she visited.

Leila first shopped at the market around 15 years ago, when she and a friend were cooking in a pub kitchen in Islington once a week. She has the kind of rapport with the stallholders that can only be built over time, yet she said she finds many of their practices alienating – most significantly, their lack of interest in the farmers who supply them and, in some instances, their apparently deliberate obscuring of information about the produce’s origins. “If we get something that’s really good, we like to ring the farmer up and tell them,” she said, adding, “They’re always very surprised to hear from us.”

As well as purchasing for her shop and the members of her vegetable box scheme, Leila also buys for the Towpath café, nearby on the Regent’s Canal, and the aforementioned Violet. In both cases, she works from their lists but improvises when she finds something particularly good. Shortly after our midnight shopping trip, I ate a delicious apricot-and-polenta muffin at Violet with a piece of fruit I knew I’d seen before. Leila tips off the Rochelle Canteen as to what’s looking promising and gives them boxes of produce that need using up in return for a tab at the restaurant. As she drove us home, Leila shelled peas into her mouth, and I received a bag of radishes and flat white Italian onions (cipolle bianche di Pompei) as a souvenir. The onions were a revelation. Fried very slowly and then allowed to brown just a touch, they were dense and sweet enough to eat on their own.

A significant factor in Leila’s impulse to open a shop was a desire to be an active part of a neighbourhood. She discovered her current premises when Arnold Circus was still a needle-strewn no-go area. Soon after moving in, she became one of the founders of the Friends of Arnold Circus, and she remains the organisation’s vice chair. It’s a singular area: a spot where an established community of public-housing tenants, a large proportion of them of Bengali origin, coexists with an influx of artists and designers from all over the world. Leila sometimes faces the charge of gentrification, but, as she points out, she generates more benign activity on the street than the fashion shops invading nearby Redchurch Street and employs far more local people. Her produce is too expensive for most longstanding locals, but as I know from my trip to the market, she’s not charging particularly high margins. Good food costs.

The Boundary Estate housing development, of which Leila’s Shop is part, was built in the late 19th century, and Arnold Circus was created from the rubble of the slums cleared to make way for it. Over the last five years, the Friends have restored the Circus to a pretty park where the area’s two communities rub shoulders. Leila’s Shop at 15 Calvert Avenue was built to be a grocer’s, and a century-old photograph shows it when it was still in the hands of its first occupant, a Mr Raymond. With an open door and produce spilling out into the street, it appears very much as Leila’s does today. You’d have to be a particularly bitter class warrior to argue that the developments she’s instigated are a bad thing.

Leila definitely doesn’t pander, but perversely, her café is a magnet for celebrities – the people you’d imagine would want pandering to the most. Regulars include Alexa Chung, Ralph Fiennes and Julie Christie. The shop’s definitely not a hangout à la the Ivy, but even so, it might have more genuine fame per square inch than a place like that. She cringes at such suggestions, not because she has any self-aggrandising sense of needing to protect their anonymity but because it’s not something she thinks of as important. Asked why his friend’s shop has become such a draw, Thomas Heatherwick said, “Leila has a quality that others gravitate toward, yet what she does is very unselfconscious.” Looking for words to express the nature of that magnetism, he chose “gravity” and “specialism”. He explained, “She’s only interested in excellence: she won’t have five types of tomatoes, she will only have the best kind of tomato, and if there are no good tomatoes, then she won’t have any tomatoes. It’s an approach that raises questions about the way that everyone else works.”