My Modern House: chef and food blogger Anna Barnett talks cooking and communal living in a converted East End pub
INTERVIEWS , My Modern House
“This building was one of the first gay pubs in London back in the Seventies, which my housemate Dan’s uncle used to drink in. The main saloon bar was up on the first floor. Dan went to the library and looked into the history of it all when he first bought it. He found one photo where next door had been bombed, and you could just see the pub – it was pretty much all that was left.
“These days it’s a bit of a modern commune! There are five of us living here. Dan’s the lead singer of The Feeling, and when he bought the pub seven years ago he was touring a lot with his band; he was really keen to live with friends when he was back in London. I met him years ago, when he was doing the rounds at the festivals and I was working as a celebrity booker for T4. Mike works for Dunhill, my husband works at Edelman PR, and our other housemate is a playwright – she’s away in LA indefinitely!
“We all try to cook together, and we’ll sit round and watch a movie in the TV room. We also have a dog who we jointly parent – me more than others! We’re lucky because everyone living here is very creative, so there’s always something going on.
“I think this place, and the flat I lived in previously – a warehouse conversion on Tudor Grove – have helped me forge my career in food. It’s amazing to have the space to turn it into a pop-up restaurant, or do shoots or big dinner parties or press dinners. People really love coming into your home and being in that environment. Dan’s so generous in letting me use it.
“We’ve done some pop-up events here, where we move all the furniture out and turn it into a restaurant – a Christmas party for Topshop, for example. I’ve got a big basement downstairs which is filled with stuff I’ve collected, from tables and chairs to crockery, so that all comes up. It’s like a scene change.
“I started out at MTV, doing client booking. I was also a PA for Kelly Osborne for a year…that was interesting. She called me the other day, frightened the life out of me! And then I worked at House of Holland for years, because Henry is a friend. We would always do dinner parties, or for birthdays I’d cook and we’d have 30 of us crowded around a table. I started doing supper clubs and a foodie blog, and then it spiralled; Henry ended up saying, ‘just go and do it for yourself’, although when I eventually did try to resign he said, ‘I don’t accept it!’
“At the moment I’m putting together my next cook book, The Reluctant Vegetarian, which is a name I write under. I’m not vegetarian myself, although my husband is; for me it’s more about re-evaluating what you’re eating, particularly how often you have meat, and the quality of it. Agricultural rearing has a massive impact on the environment, so I try to eat meat maybe once or twice a week when we go out somewhere lovely, or if I’m buying it, spend £20 on an organic chicken. The book’s about coming up with recipes that encourage people to eat really well, but are incidentally vegetarian.
“Since Dan bought the pub he’s redone the whole interior, and he’s got plans to put another floor on top now too. He’s responsible for most of the décor, but lots of the cookery books and ceramics are mine. Some of the ceramics used to belong to my grandparents, and some of the stuff is from Princess May Car Boot on the Kingsland Road. All the lamps in the sitting room are from there – there’s a Portuguese one we looked up on eBay which was worth almost £300, but I got it at the car boot for £20. I used to be down there all the time, but I got married last July and my husband and I are looking to buy somewhere. I’m sure some of this will come with us, but I’m ready to go minimal.
“I love this area, because you can live like you’re in the countryside. You can walk down the road and you’re in London Fields, and the other way you’ve got the farmers’ market at the weekend; you can walk down the canal and you’re in Victoria Park every day with the dog. You don’t have to get on public transport; you can walk everywhere. We’re very lucky to have this urban life all around us, but also this amazing country-style retreat with so much open space.
“There are loads of Italian restaurants around here too, which is great because I basically live for everything Italian: Lardo on Richmond Road, which does really good pizza, Rotorino just over in Dalston, and a new Palatino near City Road. We got married in Italy last year, and the previous year Thom and I travelled across the country together.
“I’ve also just started some work with Lavazza, which will hopefully mean even more travel to Italy. We’re doing some supper clubs and some recipe development for their coffees. They’re a family-run company still, and I went over to Turin to meet them. Turin’s been named the first vegetarian capital of the world; I read a Guardian article which said that they’ve got something like 30 vegetarian restaurants now, and they’re encouraging butchers to go meat-free on a Monday (which presumably means close!).”
Anna, what’s your definition of modern living?
“I don’t like the idea of a terraced house – because I’ve always lived in more interesting or bigger spaces, they feel very confined. I love the social element of open spaces, where you can cook and have people round a lot. I can be quite ad hoc when I’m hosting, too – if I’ve invited two people round for dinner, before I know it there will be eight. It gets a bit ridiculous, and I’m usually still shopping for food at 5pm, but it means that people will gravitate to the kitchen. You don’t want to be missing out.”
If you were to move, what’s the first thing you’d take with you?
“We’ve got a series of butchery diagrams which take you through how to dissect various animals, right from the slaughter to the cutting up. They’re really gory. Maybe I’m into them because my husband’s veggie, so it’s my little way of rebelling!”
Which property on The Modern House website has particularly caught your eye over the years?
“You were selling a 1-bed flat on Wilton Way that we tried to buy. It was only 450 sq ft, but it was about what the sellers had done with it. The light was amazing, because it was south-facing, and they’d been so clever with the space; he’s an architect and she’s an interior designer. We ended up making friends with them. I was there for hours, saying ‘I love your flat! Let us have it!’. But there were lots of offers, it went to best and final bids, and a cash buyer came in and got it. I have also been looking at Assemble’s Yardhouse, with all the pastel tiles on the front. It’s a shell, and I thought, can’t we buy a big plot of land somewhere and live in it?! What I like about The Modern House is that there’s a certain calibre – looking for flats can be so depressing.”