In Pursuit of Happiness
Looking back it has already been more than a month since we started at our new stall at Broadway Market. The weeks seem to run together into a circular chain of events that is barely distinguishable by the market sessions on Saturdays. Each day’s work follows on to the previous one, almost uninterrupted by a few hours of sleep at night.
Our hope, to the extent that we had any during that week of uncertainty, was that the mere act of being able to show up at the market on Saturdays, would sustain banh mi on the culinary landscape of London. Amazingly, it is proving to do just that. In our new position, the colorful collage of Vietnamese streets turns heads. And when we grill the Imperial BBQ, the smell of thinly sliced marinated pork cooking on open fire make passers-by very curious to try. For most people, it was going to be their first taste of banh mi.
On a deeper level, the new stall is transforming Banhmi11 and changing our operations in ways we hadn’t foreseen. The amount of food and equipments we bring to the market seems to multiply every week. We have gone from transporting them on the back of bicycles, to towing them behind in bike trailers, to stuffing them into a van, then taking out the seats of the same dark red van and putting in large canvas bags and now piles of blue and yellow crates.
Some weekends were quiet, when the weather had not been kind to us and rain showers came and went throughout the day. So in those late afternoons we sat on the stools outside the stall, eating carefully divided, lovely moist, fudge-like squares of brownies that John our neighboring bread man had given us, and sipping lotus green tea that we give out for free with banh mi. Sometimes we exchanged banh mi for mocha from Climpson’s, cupcakes from Violet, juice from the Juice Bar and gathered all our goodies triumphantly to take home. It can feel a bit sad that we didn’t sell out those days; but that is probably a good thing, because otherwise it would mean that we are not doing something right, not working hard enough to make enough food.
Then after Easter the weather got much warmer, daffodils were appearing everywhere and people covered London Fields on warm, sunny Saturdays. Everyone seems well pleased and intrigued seeing how we prepare banh mi in plain view, and we hear the oh-and-ah when Anh cooks steak to order for Op-La-Di Steak banh mi. It feels so unnerving when we get a big take-away order and as frantically as we can move, the queue is still elongating behind the organic meat van. In those moments, I have taken to looking straight ahead at the customers we are serving, avoiding the sweat beads that build up whenever I glanced sideway at everyone who is waiting. Towards 3.30pm, we had started to sell out and I had the horrible task of going to the back of the queue and apologizing to our customers that we were selling out. Seeing their disappointed, or perhaps fed-up expressions hurts more than going home with unsold bread and eating roast pork for dinner every night.
When I go home, and by that I do not mean the house on the other side of Kingsland Road where all of us live and work, but the place where my parents are, a small town in Niedersachsen, Germany, I still have a hard time explaining to them what we do. It’s hard to grasp that something as simple as making sandwiches every weekend can teach us so much about who we are, what we are good at, and where we fall short. We grew up in families that prioritized doing homework over helping with dinner in the kitchen and we were groomed to work with our minds, not our hands.
But what Banhmi11 is teaching us is that the most engaging work requires our minds, our hands and our hearts. Sustaining and improving the taste of the food, looking for suppliers, working against time to keep the freshest ingredients, marinating to the perfect flavor, keeping the team motivated is a battle that we fight every day. And to make it to market every week, arriving in rain or shine, departing with or without any left-over, is winning.
In this pursuit, what enable Banhmi11 to exist is our customers. Somehow we are blessed with the most amazing customers, who don’t get mad waiting, don’t mind trying new fillings, and don’t hesitate to bring new friends. The people are what we remember from the past month.
The young man with a bookish messenger bag and black pea coat who solemnly studied the menu and said: “This is my first time trying this…how is it pronounced…ban-me?” The family of husband, wife, and father-in-law who came to us and trustingly asked “My wife is pregnant, what can she eat?” The really energetic regular who drives his motorbike from Notting Hill to Bethnal Green for his banh mi and tells us: “You guys have the best jobs, you make people smile.”
We would like to speak to them more. We would like to sit down in the slow afternoons and perhaps have a chat about where they live, what parts of the world gave them this addiction to banh mi, would like to know what adventures they lived through in Vietnam, but things are changing and we often don’t have enough time for that. So I hand them an OpLaDi Steak, wrapped in extra tissues, warn them that it can be messy to eat with the runny egg, and thank them for their waiting.
Posted on: 27.04.2010