By Richard Johnson | British Street Food
Andy Bates was there at the very beginning of the Street Food Revolution. The launch was of the British Street Food Awards was held on Whitecross Street, the London market where Andy sold his custard tarts and black pudding scotch eggs, and I remember him sending Marco Pierre White and Antony Worrall Thompson home with enough samples to feed an army. But he has that special ‘something’. And a knack with pastry. Which explains why he still holds the Best Pie title at the British Street Food Awards, and he’s now a tv star on the Food Network. It’s well deserved.
There was never an Eat My Pies ‘business model’ – Andy Bates isn’t a business model kind of fellah. “I just wanted something to do on a Sunday” he says. “I thought ‘I’ll make pies, run a stall and listen to the cricket’.” But it hasn’t worked out like that – he’s too busy serving the long line of customers who come from far and wide to taste his scotch eggs, pork pies and custard tarts. By the time he’s served them, England are all out. And the Australians are batting again.
Andy had always made pies. Whether it was a highday or a holiday, Andy would never turn up empty handed. “There’s nothing like a pie” he says. “Especially a big pie. To make people smile. I’ve got friends who can afford to buy anything they want, but if I give them a pie which I’ve made myself, you can see how chuffed they are. The feeling lasts for a few days, and then I get a text message saying ‘I’ve just had the last slice – thankyou’. I like that feeling.”
Pies are part of Britain’s history – just think of all the references to pies in the nursery rhymes of our childhood. There was Simple Simon, who met that pieman, going to the fair. And Tom, Tom the piper’s son, who stole a pig and away he run. The ‘pig’ that he stole was actually a sweetmeat pie from a street trader. So, whether it’s a sweet pie, a savoury pie, or a four-and-twenty-blackbirds-baked-into-a-pie, we are pie crazy. Pies are in our very DNA.
Andy, however, didn’t know what to do with his genetic predisposition toward pies. He wasn’t commercially minded. He had been to catering college, and was working – part-time – as a commis chef. “But, at 30-years-old, I got to thinking ‘I want to run my own business’. I had been speaking about setting up a pie stall for two years, and a friend just turned round to me and said ‘Why don’t you do it?’. It was the kick start I needed. ‘Oh’, I said. ‘I will’.”
The early success of Andy’s stalls in Brick Lane and Whitecross Street markets was down to his pastry. He knew the secret – love your pastry, and it will love you in return. From years of watching food programmes, he had learnt not to overhandle it. It just increases the gluten development. The butter is there to separate the gluten lumps – if it melts, the gluten molecules join together and you get tough pastry. That’s why, when you’ve got pastry to make, you need to keep everything cold.
“But I started in the summer” says Andy. “I had a terrible time of it. I bought marble slabs and froze them at night. I would try and get into the kitchen by 6am – before the kitchen got hot – because after 8am it was no good. I was using pate sucree recipes from Gordon Ramsay and, to be honest, I found them a little bit unworkable. The high-end chef’s recipes were a little bit out of my league. So I took a mix of Delia and Gary Rhodes, and developed my own. I think it worked.”
For his meat pies, Andy uses a hot water crust pastry. It’s a classic, old-school recipe that bakes to a rich brown, and holds in the wet pie filling very snugly. When you cut open Andy’s crusts, you will be struck by the colour of what’s inside. It isn’t artificial. It’s wholesome. And whether there’s a lip of untrimmed pastry, hanging over the edge of the pie tin, or slight variations in the colouration on the top, Andy’s pies all feel wonderfully hand-made.
Andy Bates is happy to think of himself as a modern-day pieman. In Victorian times, the pieman would hawk for business on the streets with a large tray of pies on top of his head – or strapped to the front of his chest. If customers wanted a pie with sauce, they would make a hole in the top of the crust with their finger, and the pieman would pour in the gravy. Andy likes the idea. He’s now developing his own range of Eat My Pies sauces and condiments.
Andy has a new kitchen unit (Pieworld, as he likes to call it) and a rickshaw for deliveries – the Piemobile. A sign on its bumper says ‘There are no pies left in this vehicle overnight’ – well, it warns off hungry kids in the neighbourhood. The Piemobile doesn’t have to pay road tax or congestion charge. “And I can park it on double yellow lines” says Andy. “The traffic wardens just stand there, scratching their heads. They’re like ‘We can’t nick you’. I say ‘I know. That’s why I bought it’.”
Andy has recruited a top sales team – Mum and Dad. “Well,” he says, “they watched me struggle during my 20s, when I was a bit wayward, so they’re as chuffed as chips to help out now. My Mum spent 30 years demonstrating kitchens. When I went to work with her, I would sit in the cupboards all day and hear her say, ‘You need a new kitchen don’t you, sir?’ She’s used to rejection. On the stall, I can still take it personally. But she can joke, and have someone buying a pie by the end of it.”
Now the Americans want a slice of Eat My Pies. While he was researching the New York street food scene, he set up shop in Brooklyn. In the middle of an eclectic mix of vintage mink stoles, broken alarm clocks and Star Wars collectibles, he sold out – in three hours. “Everyone was asking for Scottish eggs. I explained that they were called Scotch eggs, and they weren’t actually from Scotland. But when I sliced one in front of them, and the yolk was runny, I got lots of oohs and aahs.”
He wasn’t very taken with what he saw of the New York street food scene. “I wasn’t blown away by anything at all” says Andy. “Too much junk food. And the packaging? Everything came in three or four layers of plastic. I get people in London who won’t buy a slice of custard tart from me because it’s in a plastic box. I thought New Yorkers would be the same. But no. I think we’ve got the best street food in the world right now. I really do. And it’s only going to get better.