170A Lavender Hill, London, SW11 5TG socialpantry.co.uk
What were you doing when you were fifteen?
I spent my days swatting up for my GCSEs while simultaneously swooning after my friend’s 19-year-old gardener locked as I was in my own sweaty little teenage Lady Chatterley’s Lover delusion. During the evenings I served steaming tangles of sauce-slicked spaghetti and goblets sloshing with ruby chianti at my local Italian restaurant.
It would take me a further 15 years to really decide what I wanted to do with my life. There’s nothing remarkable about any of that.
In stark contrast, when Alex Head was 15, she had already decided that traditional educational routes weren’t for her and had started her own business selling sandwiches at school from the back of her bicycle. Today, this Australian-born, Saudi-Arabian-raised, London-based chef turned entrepreneur is the founder of Social Pantry Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a collective of chefs, event planners and wait staff who are setting themselves up as the go-to caterers in London for discerning foodie events.
The day I went down to Social Pantry’s cafe on Lavender Hill was a typically British springlike one…freezing with an ever-present threat of rain. Inside this bijou eatery though, it felt like the inside of Peyton and Byrne cookbook: a wash of muted pastel, exposed brick walls and a table that looked like someone had spilt the contents of fairy grotto over it.
And the food coming out of the impossibly small kitchen followed in a similar vein: baby crispbreads with a cloud of honey-drizzled goats cheese and edible flowers and an allotment’s worth of bright baby vegetables with a kilner jar of green hummus to dip them in, in short, the sort of canapes that you’d wait within grabbing distance of the kitchen door for.
Alex Head knows what she’s doing. The menu for the evening read like a checklist of seasonal, cool Britannia favourites: sourdough, check; some form of slow-cooked protein, check; a posset/panna cotta pudding appearance, check. However, what made Alex’s food charming was the personal little touches evident in every course. The sourdough was baked with a distinctive mineral undertone of seared charcoal. The decadently tender roasted ox cheek came with a side of nutty toasted tenderstem with shards of pine kernels and a crumble of half-melted feta that I could have eaten all night. The panna cotta was pepped up with orange blossom and pomegranate seeds and just enough rose water to keep it the right side of potpourri and preceded by a tangy, gin-smacked mouthful of granita.
In short, Alex’s food might not be revolutionary, but it is damn beautiful and it is delicious and it is undeniably crowd pleasing. And I not only cleared my plate, I scraped it clean (except for the crab sourdough starter, which, sorry, need a whack of lemon to inject some life into it). If this is an indication of where catering is going nowadays in London, count me in and colour me interested.
Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that Alex is still only 29. Yep. 29. Give her another 15 years and imagine what she’ll do…