Turning a greasy spoon into the well-oiled Well Street Kitchen

Jens Harder took a chance when he converted an old East London-based greasy spoon into the now Well Street Kitchen. Aside from a few takeaway joints and long-established ethnic eateries, Well Street was largely uninhabited by modern food joints when Jens moved into the neighbourhood. His cafe is now humming along and has only recently been joined by an array of other food businesses, bottle stores and pubs.

A Day in the Life of Jens Harder

What inspired you to set up your business?

I had trained and worked as a fine dining chef but wanted to do something more casual. I was looking for the right location, as I always knew the location would help define the business. I found our current site, an old greasy spoon called Karen’s Cafe and decided a more modern and fresh breakfast/brunch style café would work.

What’s the philosophy behind your cafe?

I’m a friendly person that loves unpretentious food. So, I hope my café is friendly and [the food is] tasty.  I’ve tried to keep a broad customer base as I never wanted to appear to be just a trendy new place parachuting into an unexploited bit of Hackney. I’ve tried hard to not let the prices get too high.

Well Street Kitchen Breakfast

What’s it like working in Hackney, East London?

Our small corner of Hackney (Well Street) is changing very fast with interesting new businesses and people moving in. So it’s fun to be here, but overall Hackney remains a place where a lot of people are really struggling.

What do you love about your job?

I love working in the front of the café and talking to my customers. Everyone has a story to tell. I got into all this because of my passion for food and I love that my professional life requires me to think creatively about food.

What’s your best selling item and why?

Smashed avocado. There’s a reason it’s on every almost every café menu in London. It’s very tasty, satisfying and healthy.

Tell us about some of the changes you’ve noticed around Well Street since you opened?

The street has a vibrant new pub, The Gun, which I love. There are two more cafes which gives the customer great choice and certainly provides a little healthy competition to keep me on my toes. A great new pizza place has opened as well as bar at the other end of the street. Most of these new places have started in sites that were boarded up and had been closed for awhile. So, it feels like the street is waking up from a long hibernation.

What projects do you have in the pipeline?

Well, I can’t tell you everything but I do need to pull my finger out and start opening in the evenings.

Best Kept Secrets

What’s a simple recipe our khoollectors can create at home?

Tinned sardines and paprika hummous on toast with tangy red onion, fennel, and parsley salsa:

  • Blitz a tin of chickpeas with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and a generous couple of pinches of paprika.  Thin it out with a little water if required.
  • Slice a red onion lengthways, add fennel and mix with chopped parsley, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil, and a little fresh chilli.
  • Toast some good quality bread and drizzle with olive oil.
  • Spread a generous amount of hummous on the toast, add sardines and dollop an abundant heap of the salsa on top.

What three recipe books couldn’t you live without?

I like recipe books but it’s not often I use them. I tend to buy them and then read them in bed. I love going to the fridge and just making stuff from whatever we have. Having said that I do have some cookbooks that mean a lot to me, as well as some great new ones. Rick Stein’s Seafood Odyssey is a book I’ve had for years. I love it and love him for his pursuit of authenticity. Right now, I really like Anna Jones. I have her book A Modern Way to Cook.

What’s your secret ingredient or top tip in the kitchen?

I like to keep things healthy(ish) so I use yoghurt to enrich sauces, soups etc. I could put yoghurt on everything.

Well St Kitchen

Best tip for dealing with grumpy customers? 

Smile and throw a love bomb.

Urban Favourites

Where do you live?

I lived in Newington Green, Hackney.

What inspires you about where you live?

I would find it very dull to live somewhere that didn’t have the diversity of culture and ethnicity that I see around me. I like knowing I can leave my house and get real turkish food, or a Jamaican salt fish patty, or blow my head off with some red hot Nigerian cooking.  That stuff inspires me.

Top three foodie spots in your city?

I don’t get out much these days but Whitechapel still has some of the best North Indian/Pakistani food you can find. Tayyabs, Zaza’s Grill, or Lahore Kebab House where I am off to this evening.

I think Dalston and Kingsland Road is pretty damn special in its variety. There are still a lot of the old places including amazing Turkish that were there years ago, but you also have new choices like that great little Chinese place Fan Tong.


Well Street Kitchen Union Coffee

Best spot for lazing on a Sunday?

In bed with my wife and baby. But that’s just a fantasy as the little man never lets us linger there for long. In a previous lifetime I very much enjoyed picnics and napping at Hampstead Heath.

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