We meet cook, author and king of the pop-up, Philip Dundas
by LOUISE HOOTON
What am I?
- I reside in what used to be a Citreon car garage
- My roof leaks when it rains
- I am heated only by small heater fans
- I have wallpaper pasting benches for tables
I am one of Islington’s best restaurants with a waiting list that rivals that of The Ivy. My name is Pipsdish and I am the brainchild of entrepreneur, cook, author and the utterly charming Philip Dundas.
It might seem an unlikely venue for a restaurant, which now in its second year has far outlasted its ‘pop-up’ intention. But for Philip – who first visited the venue many years before the arrival of his first restaurant while taking his Citreon for a service – the no-frills, function-over-form dining room, with its exposed brick walls and leaky ceiling, posed just the right backdrop and theatre for Philip’s venture into cookery.
With the restaurant Philip was keen to find a way for people to feel like they were ‘going out but coming home’, by offering a delicious menu of home-cooked food. However, the biggest twist perhaps is the menu – a three course feast which is prepared without recipes and which changes daily in accordance with Philip and his kitchen ‘soulmate’ Maria Doherty’s culinary fancies, as well as the availability of ingredients. For just £30 a head, diners get to feast on canapés and three courses of modern country cooking. It’s bring your own too and, with no corkage, it’s easy to understand how this laid-back, unpretentious approach to food keeps diners returning again and again.
Last week TheLondonLuxe went to see what all the hype was about and to meet the man behind this gastronomic school dining-esque experience.
“We originally thought it [Pipsdish] would be here for 2-3 months but people have kept coming so we’ve kept doing it,” said Philip, who started his career in TV Production at the BBC before deciding to pursue his life-long passion for food.
“I learned to love food when I learned to walk. I was a greedy child and there were always rules around food, so when I became an adult and started working in kitchens I broke all the rules and started to eat what I wanted, when I wanted it.”
This same disregard for conformity is evident from the minute you step behind the pillar-box red painted Garage doors and into the restaurant shack. The Garage offers little in the way of luxury mod-cons, yet the rustic design is strangely welcoming, cosy in fact. Stepping inside feels a little like you’re Alice going through the Looking Glass – you don’t know quite what to expect but its promise is strangely intoxicating.
What is also apparent is Philip’s genuine love of food. Baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables on display add colour to the open-plan kitchen while a collection of books about food and jars of home-made preserved apricots speak to the team’s genuine passion for impulsive home-cooking. Philip assures us that he never cooks the same dish twice, “sometimes we find a particular ingredient or cut of meat that we keep ordering and doing different things with.” On the menu the night we went was pork butt – one of Philip’s favourite cuts of meet at the moment. The lack of menu not only intrigues diners and satisfies Philip and Mary’s impulses, but is also affords them the ability to create dishes which suit the current mood of their clientele: “Right now people are wanting comfort food – so we’re cooking lots of greens to offer something a bit lighter after the heavy Christmas period.”
So what influences his proverbial ‘menu’?
“My mother was really a great influence; she was of the Elizabeth David generation and I used to love watching her trying all these amazing French recipes.” Unsurprisingly the menu is nostalgic with dishes akin to the sorts of home-cooked comforts that families a generation ago were accustomed to eating. The starter on the night we dined, for example, was Haggis and potatoes (we were there the night after Burn’s Night) and for dessert, a classic red berry crumble with crème Anglaise.
However, the Garage’s four-day week does adhere to a loose schedule: Thursday is the night to go for fish; Sunday serves up Sunday lunch – and what is more, kids under eight eat free while under 12s are half-price; leaving Fridays and Saturdays open for freestyling. You get what you’re given at Pipsdish but it seems that the punters love it. “Not having a choice is what people tell us is their favourite part of the experience,” adds Philip.
On the subject of inspiration Philip, who is keen to point out that he is a “cook rather than a chef” adds: “We don’t look forward to coming here in the morning; we don’t have the heating on when it’s just us so it can be hard to get inspired! But last year we went to Pas-de-Calais to see if we could find some new and interesting suppliers and ingredients – we take influence from everywhere.”
Ingredients are sourced only from sustainable sources at Pipsdish, a move not only for ethical reasons but for quality too: “We could stick down a plate of cabbage in front of you so if it’s not good ingredients we’re in trouble!”
Doing things the ‘right way’ seems to be a theme which marks out Pipsdish from its peers: for the local community Philip runs a successful scheme for elderly residents who are given lunch for free each week, while day-to-day his people-first philosophy has kept the punters coming back: “The real heart of a good restaurant is what they think about people. So if you go somewhere like Trullo, they make you feel like you’re part of the family and that you’re the most important person there. That’s really important. No one wants to go somewhere and get Shoreditch attitude and be made to feel like you’re a spectator in their show.”
Although it’s a great time for budding chefs and entrepreneurs to capitalise on the demand for pop-ups as estate agents wise-up to current demand for short term commercial lets, Philip has some cautionary words for anyone looking to give it a go: “I spend far more of my time now doing PAYE, till receipts and running the business than I do cooking; it comes with the territory so be careful what you wish for”. But if this doesn’t put you off then Phillip’s mantra is to “have no fear; if you can win in a recession, you can win anytime.” And Pipsdish is clearly testament to this.
The venture has been such a success in fact, that Philip and Mary have now set their sights on opening a second restaurant in the coming months, which we’re told will be in the same vicinity. Good news for fellow Islington residents! You can put us on the waiting list now.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a proper TLL interview if we didn’t ask Philip about his favourite dining hotspots and tipples. So here you have it!
- Trullo, Highbury Corner - 020 7226 2733
- The Crooked Well, Camberwell Green - 020 7252 7798
- Cafe Anglais, Rowley Leigh’ place in Whiteleys - 020 7221 1415
And to drink – Negroni “every time” says Phillip.