I used to work for a charity helping people with various disadvantages to set up their own businesses. Some of them gave me a challenge: would I be able to set up my own business, with only £250 behind me?
The result was The Coffee Counter, which I started up in a little space in Vine Street five years ago; we got too big for that space, because we wanted to do food as well, and now we’re on Church Street.
For me it’s all about setting up an inclusive community. And I mean inclusive, which is why I’ve been trying out feeding the homeless for free every Monday.
It started like this: every morning I go for a long walk with my daughter, and she asks me the sort of questions eight-year-olds ask. Why isn’t that man sleeping in a house? What does he eat? Why isn’t anyone helping him? I just make enough to get by, but I thought if I opened up the café on my day off – Monday, when it’s normally shut – and ask people who can afford it to contribute money on a crowdfunding site, maybe we could offer food and drink to the homeless. And it’s worked: as long as people keep contributing, we’ll keep doing it.
We’re not an entirely vegan establishment, but we do like catering for those who don’t eat animal products, and when a mate of mine went to New York a while ago I got him to source a vegan Reuben, and to describe to me down the phone what it tasted like.
I’m a self-taught chef, but I’ve got a lot of experience (I ran a bar in Shoreditch which did food and worked my way across Australia in kitchens) so I’m good at trial and error! It took ages to get this one right, and since I’ve started selling it, I’ve been pestered by people asking me to let them into the secret of the recipe. I’m not going to give everything away, but here are the basics.
Getting the right bread is important: I always use the Real Patisserie in Kemp Town, which is for me easily the best baker in town. For this sandwich, either a medium-cut white sourdough or chewy brown. Other ingredients, without giving too many of our secrets away, are: Taifun smoked tofu; sauerkraut; chickpea mustard mayo; tabasco; vegan Worcester sauce; vegan Russian dressing; cracked black pepper; some ‘secret’ spices; and two types of high-quality vegan cheese. It’s important to get this right: poor quality vegan cheese tastes like stale Wotsits. You can source all these ingredients locally. We use HISBE and Infinity Foods, among others.
We cook everything on a hotplate, but you can use a skillet, or a frying pan. Here are some tips: make sure that the toasted bread is evenly and entirely covered by the tofu; melt the cheese on top of the sauerkraut, not directly on the surface; carefully layer the ingredients, cut the sandwich into thirds… then stack and serve!We do the traditional version too, with pastrami, but this one’s proved just as popular. By all means try it at home: if you want some inspiration, you know where we are…
The Coffee Counter, 25 Church Street