“They became known as Shay Fests” laughs Shay Ola, describing the annual barbecue he used to throw in London Fields. “It started off with two of my friends having a birthday around the same time – but it grew and grew. Suddenly I found myself putting on this party for hundreds of people in the park with a barbecue in the back of a transit van and a 25 metre-long slip slide.”
If Shay Ola is known for one thing, it’s his ability to throw a good party
Ola’s surprise at the popularity of the impromptu ‘Shay Fests’ is perhaps misplaced. Because if the chef, restaurateur and founder of avant garde catering company The Rebel Dining Society, is known for one thing, it’s his ability to throw a good party.
It’s perhaps for this reason that the only criticism of his first permanent venture, Death by Burrito, has been the length of the queue to get through the door – something he’s had to control with a reservation system for half of the booths. It’s not just the party atmosphere that’s drawing the crowds through the door of this old Shoreditch dive bar though, but also its take on Mexican cuisine: “drunken” black beans cooked in tequila and beer, blue corn chips, baja fish and courgette flower with ricotta poblano crepes.
“I didn’t want to do those heavy burritos stuffed with beans and rice” says Ola. “The challenge for us was to create something different, which really stood out.”
“The menu took about a month to plan – I had some ideas in my mind and techniques I wanted to try out.” Ola explains. One of the techniques he refers to is smoking the meat to infuse new flavours. One of the burritos that made it on the menu uses ribs smoked with a mixture of oak wood chips and flakes of cocoa husks. “The cocoa husks infuse the beef with chocolate notes, which goes well with the mole sauce we make.” Ola says, referring to the traditional Mexican meat marinade which uses a combination of 30 different ingredients – most famously South American bitter-sweet cocoa.
He buys a smoker. He nails smoking and creates an instant hit on the menu.
It’s typical of his ‘can do’ approach to cooking.
Ola’s menu creation is a feat of self-belief and extraordinary talent: He decides to “try out” smoking. He buys a smoker. He nails smoking and creates an instant hit on the menu. It’s typical of his ‘can do’ approach to cooking. “I was interested in molecular food, so I bought a book, bought a kit, and just started doing it” he laughs.
Although Ola fell into cooking almost by accident, he has always had a strong, practical streak in the kitchen. “My mum worked a lot, so she was keen for me to cook for my brother and sister” Ola explains “So I’ve always felt comfortable in a kitchen.” Aged 21, he moved to East London where he started making music videos. “I got a bit bored with the music industry, and then everything started going down the XFactor route” he admits, cringing at a Liberty X video he once shot. So he took a sidestep into interior designing, and formed a partnership with a friend converting properties.
It’s the same in the kitchen. If you don’t know
what you’re doing then you can’t expect others to know.
“I learned how to plumb and tile and paint and do structural work” he said. “If I was going to get my guys to do it, then I’d make sure I could do it too. That way I knew they weren’t falling behind on the task, and the job was getting done properly.
“It’s the same in the kitchen” Ola explains. “If you don’t know what you’re doing then you can’t expect others to know.” But when the recession hit, the standard of the work didn’t matter – “the business was obliterated.” Ola sighed. “All of our clients lost their jobs. It was dark times.”
But it was around this time that supper clubs started taking off, so he persuaded a friend to let him use the space in an art gallery on Old Street.
“I hired a chef who’d just left the Fat Duck. I had this plan that he’d be the head chef, and I’d be his sous chef, and I’d watch everything he was doing and try and soak it up” Ola says. “But his wife had just given birth, and he couldn’t commit to the project so he quit after the first event. So I stepped up to the plate – essentially I became head chef by default.”
Ola admits that the first few supper clubs were “very shambolic”. But soon he found his feet, and started putting on more regular food events, then offers started flooding in – from sponsorship by Pernod to events at The Secret Garden Party, with an ever-growing mailing list and sell-out event after sell-out event.
I don’t like cous cous, and I don’t like lute music, so I tried to create something that would appeal more to young, creative people looking for fun – not silver service
“In the early days, there weren’t many supper clubs that appealed to me and my circle of friends. They were either quite hippy-ish, or held at city farms where some girl would come out reciting French sonnets and playing the lute.” He laughs. “I mean, I don’t like cous cous, and I don’t like lute music, so I tried to create something that would appeal more to young, creative people looking for fun – not silver service.”
Ola was leading the trend back when The Rebel Dining Society started out. And he’s leading the trend again now. “There’s a real interest in Mexican food at the moment” he says. Not only that – but a trend of street food, cocktail matching, and cult pop-ups becoming more permanent. And the likelihood is that if Ola is at the front of the movement, then others will follow.