The exhilarating highs and bone-chilling lows of the inaugural Marylebone Food Festival

Words: Mark Riddaway
IMAGES: kris iotrowski

The main question on our wind-numbed lips as the inaugural Marylebone Food Festival concluded in sub-zero temperatures and a violent flurry of unseasonable snow was: what exactly happened at the church on the opening night that so offended the Almighty? Why were we being punished in this way? Was a plague of locusts on its way to really finish us off?

It had all started so well. This ambitious 10-day festival had been conceived, funded and organised by Marylebone’s two historic estates, The Howard de Walden Estate and The Portman Estate, and supported by the Journal. The two estates are both rightly proud of Marylebone’s diverse, distinctive and dynamic food scene; a food festival would offer a platform for celebrating and promoting those qualities.

The festival kicked off with a very special gala dinner. As ideas went, this one walked the line between commendably adventurous and completely insane: 10 courses, each prepared by a different chef, served to over 100 diners, not in a restaurant or a well-appointed events space but in a Gothic Revival church. The Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch offers many things—atmosphere, grandeur, the warmest of welcomes—but is equipped with neither a professional kitchen nor the power infrastructure needed to support one. And yet for one night only it would play host to a large number of chefs making complicated food for lots of people.

Jerry-rigged kitchen
Despite the challenges, the event was a stunning success—in no small part thanks to the sense of community engendered by this beautiful building, which had been so generously lent to us for the night. For us, there were two main sources of satisfaction: firstly, the evident enjoyment of dozens of people as they feasted on course after course of spectacular food, washed down with perfectly matched wines from the area’s many wine specialists; but just as importantly, it was hard not to be both delighted and a little bit humbled by the camaraderie on show in the simple, jerry-rigged kitchen down in the church basement.

For the restaurants, one of the main motivations for taking part in such a resource-draining evening had been the chance to collaborate with each other. Restaurant people love restaurants—that’s why they work such unforgiving hours for relatively meagre reward—but the demands of the job mean they rarely have time to meet. They may respect each other’s work, but usually only from a distance. Here, they had the chance to rub shoulders together—quite literally given the tightness of the space—and they clearly relished every moment. What began as 10 individual teams ended up as one big and only slightly chaotic brigade of chefs, all mucking in—with spectacular results.

That collegiate spirit would be very much in evidence for the next 10 days, as dozens of businesses and organisations chipped in with their own food-themed events: wine tasting and vegetarian food tours run by the Marble Arch London BID; a food market and a lunchtime food tour run by the Baker Street Quarter Partnership BID; curry-making masterclasses at Hankies; a cocktail lesson at The Pickled Hen; fresh pasta masterclasses at La Cucina Caldesi. Twenty-two local restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs put on special fixed-price menus. Many of these activities raised money for FoodCycle Marylebone, a charity that uses surplus food to produce a weekly meal for some of the area’s most vulnerable residents.

Plunge in temperature
Then the final Saturday arrived—time for the Marylebone Street Kitchen, a free outdoor event to wrap up the festival. But with it came a dramatic plunge in temperature that turned what should have been a balmy day of activities and al fresco eating into a weird hybrid of Saturday Kitchen and Captain Scott’s race to the South Pole.

A brilliant selection of traders turned up, selling everything from cheese pastries to aloo chaat, and a programme of interviews and performances, starting with Mercedes from Yeotown Kitchen and concluding with a cocktail demo by Chris from Marylebone Gin, went ahead in a central marquee—but the Arctic conditions meant that most sensible people were indoors with the heating on, not outdoors trying to suck Fishworks oysters through their snoods.

Those who came along, however briefly, and all who worked through the day, either running the stalls or helping with the organisation, have earned our enduring respect. On the plus side, the gin and tonics stayed perfectly chilled, and no one actually got frostbite.

Loudly and joyfully
So, whoever it was at the church on that opening night who blasphemed a little too loudly and joyfully at the taste of the spiced coconut laksa, or perhaps coveted too openly their neighbour’s casarecce with slow-cooked lamb ragu—I hope you’re proud. But despite your worst efforts, no icy winds could completely chill the wave of warmth generated by this festival. Hopefully it’ll be back next year, blizzard-free.

Marylebone Food Festival

FoodMark Riddaway