Earlier this month, food writer and cookbook author Alexandra Dudley interviewed East London based artist and egg purist Adam Dant on food, art, travel and life. Below we have a peek behind the scenes and into his Shoreditch studio where we hear about school dinners, Viennese specialities and his favourite local eateries in East London.
I meet Adam Dant in his studio behind an unassuming grey door just off Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, East London. In the centre of this cramped workspace stands a life size model of a rhinoceros. Adam is painting it as part of a project commissioned by Tusk Trust. Bizarrely, the Rhino does not seem out of place here. This room invites the bizarre. On the right as you walk in there is a piano. It is littered with papers, prints and scribbled notes as well as a crystal champagne flute, a human skull and a packet of hobnobs. The ceiling is painted in red lozenges with outlines of gold leaf. Adam painted it himself, taking inspiration from Rome’s Palazzo Altieri. He spent a year in the eternal city after graduating with a masters in printmaking from the Royal College of Art. "In here it is almost a space apart from the outside world. It’s a bit like being on a a boat” he says. Originally, the studio was a sweet shop then a chicken butchers, then a mini-cab office . Now it is very much Adam's . He was here long before the hipsters and long before it was marked as ‘edgy’.
We chat a little about how the area has changed. He tells me about ‘Ron’s’, the fabulously filthy greasy spoon, sadly no longer open. “You could get a full English for four quid!” he tells me. I think back to my earlier plate of avocado on toast. It cost me ten pounds fifty. Adam remembers the first time he ate an avocado. It was on a train to Liverpool and he recalls two local teenagers staring with bewilderment until they asked “pardon me, mate. What kind of cheese is that?”.
Our giggles prompt another story. This time of the weeks he spent in Pompeii with friends. Money was generally scarce and a lunch a simple affair. He recalls an absolute steal of a deal for hard boiled eggs and cheese. However, the eggs turned out to be raw and the cheese a great big block of polenta. There was Paris too where Adam became obsessed with trying a specific Greek dish with a name he couldn’t pronounce. He returned to the same restaurant three times, each time ordering a different squid dish – never having the heart nor the nerve to tell the waiter that it wasn’t what he wanted.
Food in the seventies was awful he said. Common school dinners included a dish nicknamed ‘baby's arm’ by disgusted school-kids – an unidentifiable tube of pink meat. Then, there was powdered potato from an ice cream scoop and strawberry custard which tasted like plaster of Paris. Adam went to a Catholic school where the rules were strict. The worst thing he says, was the tapioca pudding. But at eight years old he worked out that if he flicked his spoon under the table “the revolting, gooey stuff would stick to the underside” and he’d be off the hook.
Summer holidays were spent with pals “watching 'The Flashing Blade ' on a black and white telly and drinking litres of Tizer until we were sick” , and he fondly remembers sports biscuits; iced on one side and embossed with figures doing various sport on the other. My own childhood was punctuated with custard creams and jammy dodgers. I am jealous of these sports biscuits.
“I’m sure there are things I won’t eat because they trigger emotions” he says. “I can’t tell you though, because it happens by accident.” It could go the other way too he says. We agree that it is rare to find a really good tomato in London but when you do, “when you suddenly find one that tastes of something it takes you right back”. Some things just aren’t the same in England; Campari, Aperol, Pernod and Ricard. “They just don’t taste right outside of Europe” Adam says. When Adam returned from France and headed to his local pub he ordered a Ricard. The response from that landlord was “I know you’ve been away mate but you’re back now and you’re going to have a pint of bitter”. The pub is the Owl and the Pussycat on Redchurch Street. It is still there but quite different, he says.
Adam’s eating habits are regular-ish. “It depends on how the work is going”. Breakfast is usually scrambled eggs or an ‘egg banjo’ (egg sandwich). He likes watching Prime Minister's Questions on a Wednesday and usually does so with an omelette for lunch. He is a purist when it comes to eggs. Omelette fillings should be restricted to cheese and in scrambled eggs there should be nothing but salt and pepper. His palate is far from bland though. On the contrary he has a good taste for offal and reminisces about a “very decent chopped lung dish” he once ate in Vienna and exquisite, deep fried calf brains in Florence.
When asked to list some of his favourite restaurants, he speaks highly of Fergus Henderson’s St John's , but even more so of Fergus's wife, Margot’s place just round the corner from the studio - Rochelle Canteen. Last week he enjoyed a dish of woodcock that came with a perfectly teeny spoon. For “scooping out the brains” he said. As a family (Adam has a wife; Melissa and daughter Grace) the Dant's enjoy the Tas Firin Turkish grill on Bethnal Green Road. I’m told that the chicken soup is excellent and that they do a very good barbecued quail. In town, he loves Brasserie Zedel. It is “cheap and cheerful” and reminds him of Chartier in Paris. On special occasions it will be The Wolseley for schnitzel, and for fish he recommends Sweetings on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London, a place once frequented by kindred spirit and bon vivant, Toulouse Lautrec.
I have promised to bring Adam some tasty tomatoes from my local grocer, who if asked politely will put a box of the very best Italian pomodoro aside .