Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A Yankee at the Stables

Under a high, red, rubbed-brick arch that quietly looms over the wide, trendy, Tribeca-esque city street whose bleakly literal name, simply and persuasively bestowed, is “Commercial”, a few doors down from modern fashion house All Saints but light years away in style, is the narrow, tardis-like entrance to an astonishing survivor from another age. Inside, a towering courtyard opens out in a way that puts you in mind of an Italian opera house, with galleries and offices on three levels ascending under the wide span of a pitched slate and framed glass roof. Here was the old stable block that served Spitalfields Market and surrounding streets going back two hundred years or more, before the age of the modern motor vehicle, when goods were transported in and out of the wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower markets all by horse-drawn cart, and when I saw this great edifice some ten or so years ago now (though I do not know exactly what has become of it since), it was scarcely altered since those times.

My guide to this forgotten antiquity and its warehouseful of treasures was my friend Keir Helberg, or, as all Spitalfields knows him, and London too for that matter at one time, ever since Fay Maschler once championed him in one of her big-splash Evening Standard restaurant review features, ‘your favourite American’, the former chef-owner of renowned Arkansas pit-barbecue restaurant in the market: Bubba. Keir specialises in knowledge of secret and out of the way places. He seems to know everyone and everything about Spitalfields, and has a story for each. To say that Keir is a ‘character’ doesn’t even get close. Keir holds the patent in eccentricity in our neighbourhood. There never was a more exotic and original American-in-London. Stories come tumbling from this source like a whitewater rapid ride. I have known Keir for twenty-three years and not yet exhausted his stock of them. Norms and conventions are tossed aside. Political correctness was never one of his strong points. Recounting red-letter tales of brushes with restaurant diners, I always found myself wondering exactly how vegans and vegetarians found their way to the Arkansas pit-barbecue restaurant in the first place. Keir’s spoken English has a wonderful ripeness. Americans can excel at this. No sentence ever left his lips without a swear word (this is of course an exaggeration). Though sometimes his stories seem altogether too baroque, too fantastically lurid to be believed (and that is the clearly-expressed opinion of many), experience has taught me they are more than just the fruit of a fertile mind, an unstoppable outpouring of natural exuberance and joie de vivre. They usually turn out to be true.

I first met Keir back in 1994. We had just bought the big old wreck of a building on the edge of Spitalfields Market which would soon become our home and one day our restaurant. I had heard about this crazy American in the market and in no time at all he was targeting me, new owner of a crumbling old building with lots of history needing fixing up, as potential customer for some of his architectural salvage. He marched across Brushfield Street and came straight up to greet me, kicking off his opening gambit with some funny, gossipy, insider tale about the building my wife and I had just bought. He then pressed me to buy a range of dado panelling squirrelled away in an upstairs room over his restaurant. It had been trawled from a ruin in the Soulard bars district of old St Louis, a pretty wild place from all accounts, where Keir once traded and collected some of his most ribald and colourful tales. There always seemed to be a weapon involved in these stories - a gun or a bowie knife - never in Keir’s hands of course. There was always high drama, a skirmish, then Keir narrowly escapes disaster. But his pitch for me on this occasion fell on stony ground. I had lead roofs and crumbling brickwork and rotten timbers to stress over and repair, as well as a home for my family to make, before I ever started to think about buying dado panelling and the like for my future restaurant.

Keir was enrolled in Medicine at Johns Hopkins University when he first started to trade in antiques and collectables. He needed to supplement his meagre student income. He somehow got hold of a derelict colonial mansion with banqueting hall and colonnaded entrance and stuffed it with students to pay the rent. The roof was leaking and the floorboards had woodworm. Keir taught himself plumbing to fix the leaky pipes. He began to acquire antiques and objets to furnish the empty rooms. He became a familiar figure in the auction houses and salerooms. With his formidable memory and high intelligence, he began to build up an encyclopaedic knowledge of the trade, then haggled and hawked and hustled his way out of penury.

Keir came to England in search of adventure. In due course he paid his adoptive home the highest compliment a man can make: he married an English girl. And not just any girl. Sarah Thellusson, daughter of a baron and partner in their early antiques business in New York and London, is an English aristocrat polished and poised and charming. She is the perfect foil to his volatility. Their front room in Stamford Hill (which he calls “kosher kamikazi-land”, alluding to the standard of driving skill there), was dominated when I visited by a pair of old wind-up gramophones with horns reaching up toward the ceiling. The chassis of a priceless pre-War racing car was somehow shoehorned in the loft. The kitchen was bare wood American colonial. Out back was a conservatory with an ingenious underfloor heating system of ducting and tiny electric fans. I liked the place. It was different.

The two of them set about making the restaurant that showcased their creativity and personality. Under the glass canopy of Spitalfields Market, Bubba dressed in bib and brace overalls, red check shirt and straw topper: the perfect stage American. A cast iron smoker, shipped from Texas, totally looked the part. Pork ribs dripped on the roaster with sweet and spicey Southern barbeque sauce. A dining room like a slangy Southern diner was festooned with beer posters. This was old Spitalfields, random and quirky, fast ebbing away in the corporate environment we have now. There have been troubles, travails, sticky situations. I have been present at some of these. He famously ranted at St John Bread and Wine, across the road, when they first opened, but later became an ally and friend. When decanted from the market by some new owner eager to sterilise and sanitize Spitalfields, Keir opened a new restaurant to much fanfare in the basement of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square. Keir seemed to have struck up a friendship with the ambassador, but things turned sour when a kitchen fire threatened the building. I once saw Keir, watching from an upstairs window, in the grip of one of his mood swings, propelling his little supercharged Citroen 2CV van on packed ice round and round my block, tyres spinning, car drifting (on empty roads thankfully, at that hour) but ignoring every one of the one-way road signs. He calmly told me it was perfectly safe when I challenged him. He told me he had complete control. He learnt how to drive on ice in upstate New York, where the snows were as high as telegraph poles. He made me believe him, such is his charm. He once bought two pallets of South African pinotage in auction and offered me the wine for the restaurant at a favourable price. The wine was good, and he paid very little for it. There was just one problem. For some years the bottles had been stored upside down in their boxes. These natural wines generate sediment. This collected in the neck and formed a plug. You pulled out the cork only to find the wine wouldn’t pour. That could be more than a little awkward in a restaurant context. Sometimes life’s pressures take their toll. I once answered the buzzer in my upstairs flat to a voice muffled and disguised but somehow familiar. I opened the door to Keir wearing a WWII gas mask. He told me that London pollution had become intolerable. This is life lived as a kind of performance art. I am happy to join the ovation.

Aesthetic taste has been, as far as I can judge, at the back of everything for Keir, that and unceasing good humour. I detect kindness, consideration for people and delicacy of feeling. I like these qualities when I find them. They seem sometimes strangely in short supply. This is just one more reason for me to know and like him. He introduced me to the best meat wholesalers in the half-dark of dawn in Smithfield Market. “Bubba!” the guys all called out affectionately, as we passed. He found me the George III mahogany table for sixteen settings which is the centrepiece of our panelled private dining room. A seventeenth century brazier for real (smokeless) coal fires was one of Keir’s genius finds. Our customers can’t quite believe that such things are still possible in a Central London restaurant. To be sure I borrowed freely from his taste in furniture and fittings. An eighteenth century wine cabinet stretches across a wall in an upstairs room. Scrubbed pine tables with pretty pad feet are dotted about and seem favourably received. I often learnt from him, as I did from other Spitalfields luminaries. I once or twice helped him out of a spot, but this seems small thanks for his many insights and suggestions.

I stood with Keir that day at the stables, waiting to get through the narrow opening that pierced the two heavy wood gates. Workmen were pottering about as we entered the cavernous courtyard within. I passed a couple of dusty classic cars on my way. I remember one, a red Marcos 1800GT, sans engine. Keir’s wares were piled high on three levels. There seemed no end to them. We went up to a mezzanine which was all furniture and architectural salvage. I picked out a heavy wrought iron lamp which, since being restored, now hangs over the stairwell in my restaurant. Another great bracket lamp, with Brick Lane origins it would seem, is mounted on the corner brickwork, missing its shade after a lorry clipped it. Various tables and chairs were gathered up, and now are fixtures. We descended great open solid wooden horse stairs: long, shallow steps like the ones that take you down to a bay or beach, steps that wrongfoot you and nearly trip you up, to the dark rows of stalls beneath. Lined up in the gloom were half a dozen pallets of black bin liners, many thousands it must have been, another of Keir’s “speculations” with a colourful story attached. Keir asked: was I interested? I demurred on this occasion.

Keir had rented this ample storage from Offa Zeloof, owner, with his siblings, of the whole of the Truman Brewery site in Brick Lane, and sundry other deserted commercial buildings around Spitalfields - including the stables. I don’t suppose Keir paid much in rent to him, but that won’t be why he had notice to quit. The law had changed and rates became payable on empty property. Offa needed to find some profitable use for the space. I have never met this gentleman, but I like the sound of him. Apparently he lives in Israel on a kibbutz with his ex-model wife. My friend Sasha Morgan knows him. She told me recently the story of how they met. Sasha was renting in Wilkes Street but had been given notice when the owner wanted to sell. Next door was Offa’s warehouse which housed Lee and Anne Story’s beautiful design studio. A fire escape bridged the two buildings and Offa kindly offered Sasha and her housemates access to his roof terrace. Late one day Sasha found herself up on that roof contemplating her future. Offa appeared, also it may be in a pensive mood. Sasha mentioned her predicament, and Offa told her at once about the stable block in Commercial Street which is now her home. In like fashion, with a kind of easy openness, he administers all his properties. He works with the grain of Spitalfields, not against it, enabling little businesses to flourish and grow, and that has been the story all across the Brewery site. He is on Spitalfields’ creative side. He wants to let a thousand flowers bloom. Some of these corporate types could take a page from his book. (They never will.)

But he may have misjudged the temper of our close little quarter this time. Time Out Markets recently made a pitch for the stables, and it seems Offa acquiesced. A planning application was made but local people objected, fearing noise disturbance and booze-fuelled antisocial behaviour. People felt their intelligence insulted by talk of “Michelin-starred restaurants” and the like. They saw the proposed “restaurant complex” as no better than a Trojan Horse to swell the never-ending tide of drinkers to Spitalfields. Tower Hamlets agreed, and the application was refused. Only time will tell whether the developer can succeed in some legal arm wrestling in the future.

One afternoon Keir was in my restaurant holding a small worn leather briefcase, something I had seen him with from time to time. I asked him what was inside. One of his more implausible riffs had been how his father had worked for the government during the war. The Manhattan Project he said. I knew about this of course. German Jewish refugees and some of the most brilliant scientists in the world had come together to invent the bomb that would stop the war. Keir opened the suitcase and out fell a recent clipping from the obituaries page of the New York Times. I picked it up and read it. It was for Keir’s father: nuclear physicist and founder member of the Manhattan Project, it said.