Remember when the words café owner used to make you think of Roy from Coronation Street pottering around in his greasy spoon? Fast-forward to 2016 and it’s the career aspiration of every Stan Smith-wearing hipster dreaming of dishing up their own homemade avocado on toast on blue-and-white enamelware while rocking a striped apron.
Head of this squad is Elly Curshen, aka Elly Pear, whose career path many aspiring food truckers and bloggers have pinned to their inspo board. When it comes to #foodgoals she’s got it all. An independent cafe. Tick. Cute foodie name. Tick. Mega Instagram following. Tick. Book deal. Tick. However, as I quickly find out when I meet her for lunch at Oldroyd, a tiny north London restaurant all neat navy walls and Scandi-style tables, none of it was ever intentional. Even her moniker was something of an accident. ‘I tried to set up my Twitter as @EllyPearCafe but it was too long. So I shortened it to @EllyPear and it’s just stuck,’ she shrugs while spreading mackerel pâté on to crispy sourdough toast. When I arrive, she’s already sitting at a window table upstairs catching up with the owner Tom, who she first met a few years ago at the foodie’s equivalent of Glasto, The Big Feastival in the Cotswolds. ‘He was involved at Polpo,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve been dying to come here.’ But she hasn’t had much time for long lunches recently. Having made the 5:2 diet more fashion than fad, she landed her first recipe book deal and her routine has pretty much become cook, write, sleep, repeat. Here’s how she’s done it…
‘I became friends with Caroline Flack in my first job. We worked at Browns restaurant in Cambridge. We could wear anything we liked as long as it was black. Caroline would come in a one-shouldered black tight top and bootcut trousers and her hair in Spice Girls horns. It was hilarious. After work we’d all go for a curry and drink pints of Kingfisher.
I never learned to cook from my parents. There’s nothing that I go home now and say: “Please Mum, make me...” She had a few regular things she was happy to do. So if she had a dinner party it would be salmon en croûte or coq au vin. It’s hilarious that she calls me now to ask for recipes.
We were never allowed to be fussy eaters. Growing up we were always encouraged to try different types of food. We ate out a lot. I was veggie for the whole of my teenage years but I started eating fish in my twenties.
I never ate like a student. I spent a lot of money on food. I’d rather not go out or not buy new clothes than economise on food. I’d cook for friends only occasionally as I was working full time, but I knew I was a good cook. I just picked it up from being in restaurants, reading recipe books and watching Ready Steady Cook every day. Their mantra about making what ingredients you have work is totally what I love to do.
It’s good to learn on other people’s time and on their money. Once you run your own business, you’re completely alone. After uni I worked as a manager at a nightclub and restaurant. I’d work until 4am then sleep all day. I’d go a month without seeing my friends and family as my lifestyle was so different to theirs. My last job before opening my cafe was as a manager of a gastropub.
I had never cooked professionally, so call it confidence or cockiness, but I wanted to set up my own cafe. I had loads of managerial experience and I was on a one-day business course when I spotted a free shop unit in Bristol. I just knew it was a perfect space for a cafe.
My best friend’s dad lent me the money to set up the business. I did the final repayment in the form of a massive dinner party for him and his friends. For me, it was never an option to fail. You’ve got to make it work as you’ve borrowed his money.
When we’d go for lunch at my grandma’s we’d have a mixture of stuff she’d made herself and bought at the kosher deli. It was never looked at as cheating and I totally agreed. I realised it’s the same when running a business. You’re better off paying people, like an accountant, to do what they know, and spending time doing what you do best.
I started the 5:2 diet four years ago because me and my boyfriend at the time got really fat. He had a food blog and we’d go to a restaurant and order the entire menu to share. I started posting photos on Instagram of what I was cooking. People would comment and request more recipes. Loads didn’t realise that on a fast day you could eat delicious and nutritious food. I’m not professionally trained but I know what I’m talking about when it comes to food. It doesn’t have to feel like a diet. I’ve gone from a size 14 to a 10 and feel better than I have done in years.
The food circle is very friendly if you’re genuine. When I was invited to the London restaurant awards it was with all these people I had interacted with on Twitter but never met in real life. Gizzi Erskine was presenting an award and we all went for dinner afterwards. We just got on really well from the start.
I do loads of fun stuff with Gizzi: we went for a juice cleanse in Portugal (and got really drunk the night before), and to The Big Feastival in the Cotswolds with Millie Mackintosh.
I was approached by lots of publishers who were just hopping on to the 5:2 mania. I'm so pleased I waited. Gizzi put me touch with her agent and she just got it. I'd never done an office job before, so suddenly finding myself sitting writing or recipe testing was the weirdest thing.
People always tell me they are going to quit their day job and start a food business as they “just love cooking”. I say go for it, good luck! If only it was that easy. I think cooking is such a tiny part of running a food business. My business has been successful because I’ve accepted the fact that my entire life is work. But I’ve created for myself a job that I’m happy to be doing all day, every day. There’s never a day off, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
Elly Pear’s Fast Days and Feast Days (Published By Harper Collins) Is Out Now
Check out Elly's 100 calorie lunch box ideas here