Q&A: Richard Johnson

Founder of the British Street Food Awards, food journalist and author Richard Johnson on what makes street food great.

Describe your typical day My typical day is stressful with trying to coordinate so many different elements of the street food revolution, from the app to the awards ceremony, website and school dinners programme. At the moment it never seems to stop, which of course is a good thing. I do find myself a little too often waking up at 5am and mentally placing street food traders in the yard in my head and working out socket requirements, voltages, access to water and all sorts. It’s a seven days a week job, but I love it – working seven days is actually a little bit of a guilty secret.

What’s the best part of your job? Getting to meet and hang out with a group of people that I find really admirable – who get that food is an expression of love and that they like communing and breaking bread with others. They’re very sensory people. They like eating, they like drinking, they like being in the sunshine, they don’t even mind being outside in the rain. There is a particular psychological profile of a street food trader and I think if I went on a dating website they would probably fix me up with a street food trader if I wasn’t already married.

And the worst? Having to say anything negative to a group of people who I admire so much, so maybe suggesting that the presentation isn’t all that it might be, or that the quality of the ingredients isn’t good enough. I have to do that quite a lot with the launch of the street food app – we’re celebrating the best so we mark with a different coloured pin if somebody has been recommended. We can’t recommend everybody so some people feel left out. That’s been quite difficult. I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. It doesn’t really sit really well with the whole street food thing which is about being inclusive and friendly. If you then turn around and say ‘you’re not good enough to join the party’, it hurts.

What’s the main appeal of street food for you? I love eating outside and I love being in the open air. It makes me hungry, being in the sunshine. People say street food would never take off in the winter but that’s just not true. A bit of grey sky or gentle drizzle is exactly the kind of weather that makes me want to eat a burger that’s just caramelised on the grill, that’s still juicy on the inside with melted cheese on the top – that’s what I want to eat, I don’t want to eat that in the height of summer. I think being outside is the best thing and trying lots of new and wonderful foods from very creative minds.

I was talking to a guy in Sweden who does tacos with a real Swedish twist, using Swedish spicing. I’m really excited to try what he’s been doing with Nordic cuisine but put into a taco. There’s so much that’s new and creative about street food. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong, I’ve had viking soul food which was a bad idea, but something like Korean tacos which are huge in America is a very good idea. That sense of exploring and finding something new really makes street food. If you want to try something out, stick it on your A-board. If not, wipe it off, get the chalk out and try something new the next day. You can experiment in a way you just wouldn’t be able to in a restaurant.

What’s your street food holy grail? I like being surprised. There is a real trend at the moment in van food, and sometimes I worry that the van is becoming more important than the food. So for me, to find maybe a slightly run down market stall in the middle of nowhere serving pies that this bloke has made for 20 years to his own recipe and pastry, with his particular type of pie filling, and just having this real epiphany – that’s the moment I look for. When I walk through street food markets or covered markets up and down the country it’s finding something wonderful that just isn’t being championed in the way it should. I had some amazing tripe in Leeds a couple of weeks ago and I love tripe, and I just thought more of us need to be eating this food, it’s wonderful. I’m always on the lookout for something new – or in that case, old.

What’s exciting you about British street food right now? I’m very excited about how many people are seeing that street food is a broad church, there’s so many people coming into it, and yes big business is trying to come into it and adopt the clothing of being young and vibrant but they’re trying to suck the lifeblood out of it. But we’ve also got people that want to get involved in food in Britain thinking that maybe for 3-5 grand they can be up and running in a cool little truck and selling their own menu. That’s their way into the food culture of this country, rather than serving under an obnoxious chef for 10 years putting them on a pass in a kitchen where they can’t flourish or express themselves – this way is just so much more instantaneous and involving. You get to meet your customer and get your feedback straight away.

It excites me to think that the next Jamie Oliver is probably working on the streets, rather than in some high-end Michelin star restaurant. I like to be a part of that and I like improving the quality of affordable food in Britain. Having done my time as a restaurant critic paying over £100 a head, all of a sudden being in places that are doing extraordinary food with a real backstory and real prominence for £6 a pop really excites me.

What’s one thing you can’t live without and why? It’s got to be my smartphone I suppose! To be able to take photos, tweet and Facebook using one hand while I’m eating a burger with the other is really cool, I like that.

You’re holding a fantasy dinner party – who’s coming? That’s my idea of a nightmare, I wouldn’t have a dinner party. I never have dinner parties. It’s sort of everything I’m against, that idea of being stuck next to the same person, generating conversation out of politeness. I’d rather be able to stand and move around and be outdoors and I suppose just talk to people because they want to talk to me, rather than feeling like  I’m being boring. If I ever had a dinner party then something would have gone very wrong with my life plan.

Complete this sentence: “The meaning of food is…” being relaxed and not worrying if you’ve got gravy on your chin.

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