The Simple Things
SOURCING THINGS UP
Nicola Lando, founder of Sous Chef, tracks down the hard-to-find ingredients that spice up everyday meals
Your hobby can be your job. When I thought about what I’d like to do, I kept coming back to food. I’d been working in venture capital and I was a keen home chef, but thought I was kidding myself that it could become my business. I did work experience in the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurant to understand the industry better. There I came across ingredients that home cooks didn’t have access to, really nice vinegars and oils for instance, and it sparked the idea for Sous Chef.
We want to make things possible. The sous chef is the person who helps the head chef make it happen. Going around a Chinese food hall with a recipe book – even with its glossary of ingredients – it took me 90 minutes to find about a third of the products I wanted. We want to make that process quick and easy, but also authentic.
The challenges aren’t always what you expect. I thought it’d be finding customers; it was actually sourcing the products and understanding the chain behind each one – farmer, distributors, importers and exporters. We work with a couple of hundred suppliers and many more producers. We manage a lot of different relationships! Working with your partner takes kindness. It’s easy to take frustrations out on each other. In the beginning, my
husbandlots of energy Nick discussingand I didn’t every have little clear detail.roles so After we about spent a year, about we ‘shop defined talk’. our You roles need better,to rememberand set boundariesthat – whatever happensto each of – you. you’re It’s both stressful trying but very wonderful.hard and it’s important
realisedGood food other should food be retailers accessible. would Whentalk aboutwe started, heritageI or provenanceI wanted to knowof ingredients,what differencerather than they’d how maketo useto your them. cooking. We develop our own recipes so we can advise customers on how something works. It also means I learn something new about food every day, which is brilliant. Tastes are much more adventurous than ten or 20 years ago. That’s partly due to blogs making us realise that there’s lots more we want to eat! Some of my favourites include chinasichuanfood.com, maangchi.com, about Korean food and Khymos (blog.khymos.org), about molecular gastronomy. Nearly 20% of our customers are professional, so we know that Korean sauces are now being served in country pubs with burgers! Enhancing everyday meals doesn’t need to be complicated. A slightly higher quality store cupboard staple, such as a really fine vinegar, makes a huge difference to salad and veg. I also love stovetop smokers – they make things like salmon or steak beautiful and moist. Or even introducing something like Korean flavours doesn’t have to be hard. With soy sauce, sesame oil and gochujang (a hot pepper paste), you can easily make spinach or broccoli taste totally different.
Your customers are powerful. Being online, it feels we sometimes miss out on customer interaction. Last year we won the Observer Food Monthly award for best independent retailer and since then we’ve had lots of emails telling us they’d voted for us and how we make their lives more interesting. That’s so great to hear, it really underlines why we do this.
We believe in slow and steady. We’ve financed the business ourselves, meaning its growth has been very gradual. Our sales need to pay for our staff, overheads and then us. The team grew slowly: we were doing all the packing – then we got someone to help; I was handling customer service, then someone else did a bit, and then a bit more. The biggest change is that the team can now run without us. That’s a lovely feeling. The luxury of your own business is tailoring it to your life. We had a baby last year and I could slowly pace my return to work, a tremendous luxury that not many people have. And now, although we may work later at night, we’re both able to be home for dinner, rather than commuting in and back for a particular time. I used to have real Sunday night dread – now on Sunday, I’m looking forward to seeing the team and getting to work. souschef.co.uk