What It’s Like to Quit Your Indie Band and Become a Restaurateur
Having fronted Hope of the States (a mid-noughties band that disbanded after two albums) and lost “a lot of money for a lot of people,” Sam Herlihy has opened a restaurant in London.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
Sam Herlihy is, it seems, a glutton for punishment.
Having fronted Hope of the States (a semi-well known, mid-noughties indie band that disbanded after two albums) and lost "a lot of money for a lot of people," he has moved into the equally ruthless world of food.
Herlihy is now co-owner of Pidgin, a small East London eatery with 28 covers, open for dinner and serving a weekly four-course set menu. It's perfect for him.
"You have to accept who you are and how your brain works. I'm a creative twit. I can't go and get a proper job," he says when we meet at the restaurant, which sits on a quiet street near London Fields. "People say food is the new rock, which is strange to me. I suppose they're similar in that they're risky as fuck, you can fall flat on your face."
In a way, music brought Herlihy and his business partner James Ramsden, a freelance food writer, together. A self-confessed Hope of the States super fan, Ramsden had been following Herlihy's sporadic food writing for music blog The Quietus and suggested they meet. At the time, the latter was trying to figure out just what to do with the rest of his life.
"When the band split up, I didn't quite know what to do with myself," says Herlihy. "I was into food and always had been. I was an awful, precocious, middle-class, fat kid. I wrote a book of reviews of these restaurants we went to when we were on holiday in France. When the band was touring, I would always want to go and eat in interesting places."
Herlihy began helping at The Secret Larder, a supper club that started life in Ramsden's flat before being run out of a coffee shop on the Holloway Road.
"After a while, he very kindly asked if I wanted to do it as a 50/50, collaborative thing," explains Herlihy.
For a time, it was a blissful union of food and music, with both cooking home-style modern British dishes for a handful of guests seated on communal tables.
"I'd come up the prior night and go out for dinner with my sister," says Herlihy. "Then I'd go to James' in the morning. We'd cook all day and listen to music and then in the evening we'd do this supper club. It was really great fun, but we possibly both felt like it had reached a natural point where it was like, Do we carry on doing this? Do we do something different?"
The pair first discussed the possibility of opening a restaurant in early 2014. With both Herlihy and Ramsden adamant they didn't want to cook—conceding neither of them were quite up to the rigours of a professional kitchen—they set out in search of a real pro, eventually recruiting Elizabeth Allen, former head chef at Neil Rankin's Smokehouse in Islington.
"Elizabeth cooked us breakfast: badass deep fried egg segments and a , which she still hasn't given us the recipe for—awesome," remembers Herlihy.
"That was my interview," laughs Allen.
"She had a very modern style of cooking and a modern way with ingredients. We couldn't believe our luck," adds Ramsden.
Having made offers on several venues in central London ("I was like, is this even going to happen?" remembers Allen), they settled on their current home, formerly a much-loved local restaurant called Mayfields.
"It wasn't quite the part of town we were looking for and it's pretty small, but then I sort of talked us into it," says Ramsden. "I'm really glad I did because for all the difficulties—and there are plenty largely based on its size—I think it's a really good starting point for us."
Hope of the States' post-rock inflections never really caught on among the angular dance and scuzzy urchin rock of 2004/5. Similarly, Herlihy doesn't feel Pidgin is part of the local Hackney food scene.
"This place is not specifically tied to Hackney—I'm not dissing that, it's a lovely place to be—but it's not defined by where it is, rather by the people who run it," he explains.
The trio brainstorm their menus a month in advance and have tried to incorporate a supper club feel to Pidgin.
"We wanted it to have the spirit of a supper club but the polish of a restaurant," says Ramsden.
The decor is simple and though not communal, the tables are close enough together to require graceful manoeuvring when you get up to go to the toilet. With Allen's Singaporean heritage and love of Japanese food, the menu has a fusion of modern British and Asian influence. Dishes include braised cuttlefish, smoked garlic aioli and beef dripping toast, duck breast with pickled elderberries, and roasted pumpkin seed flapjack.
I visit Pidgin the days following an extremely positive review in a national newspaper and the three of them are clearly buzzing. Herlihy is also making music on the weekends and confesses to "still chasing the dream."
But it's a cautious buzz. Before the interview, he's on the phone confirming that evening's guests, following a host of no-shows the previous night—an ample reminder of the knife-edge on which small restaurants such as these operate.
"Everybody assumes that if you're getting all this great press—I'm not saying we are—that you must be killing it," Herlihy says. "Bands are probably more black and white. You're a success, a failure, or a Biblical failure. With restaurants you can be perceived to be successful, but the bottom line is you might not be making any money, or as busy as everyone assumes you are. It's a tough gig."
All photos by Liz Seabrook.