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London French Dip

Anyone who’s seen my Twitter feed lately will know that since April I’ve been working on a project called @LondonFrenchDip with my friend Andrew. Since moving to Brixton in December I’ve been bowled over by the food culture here – not just Brixton Village and Market Row, which are obviously both great – but the street trading that goes on on Electric Avenue, and the wonderful Brixton Station Road. I walk down this road a few times a week to go to the gym, and every time I’m amazed by the food and drink offerings – from the delicious Ethiopian coffee at Shawl Cafe, to the incredible marinated rotisserie chicken at the Halal Butchers and the brilliant curried goat rotis from the Guyanese roti van. There’s also plenty of jerk being barbecued on this road (check out ‘Jeff the chef’), great cous cous and hummus from the Moroccan cafe and, from Friday on through the weekends, rotating markets with various food traders, retro, vintage and craft stalls. Even since December I’ve noticed that the market has been picking up, and what started with a couple of food stalls has escalated to a nice little selection, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to get involved. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about other people doing things, I wanted to get stuck in and try my hand at making and selling food in my community.

Coming up with the idea for a food stall that might bring something different to that road, with its already vibrant array was tricky, but I already had something in the back of my mind. At the tail-end of last year I visited LA and tasted something for the first time – the French Dip sandwich at the legendary Philippe’s restaurant downtown. Philippe’s, with its sawdust-strewn floors, long serving counters and queues of hungry customers is a massive institution, and, it claims, the originator of the ‘French Dip’ – a roasted meat sandwich that’s been dipped in the roasted juices. French Dip is now something that you can find across the US, in various formats – many restaurants give the juices, or ‘au jus’ as it’s known in the States, on the side of the sandwich in a little cup. But Philippe’s, which makes all of its au jus by simmering meat juices with the mirepoix the meats have been roasted on for 48 hours, just dunks the light bread subs to preserve the precious liquor.

Philippe’s is one of those fantastic American food institutions that’s worn-in and historic, in that it’s looked the same, and has been serving the same abundant plates of well-made, simple, tasty fare since 1918. It’s similar in that sense to places like the Loveless Cafe, which I visited in Nashville or Prime Burger in New York. I was talking to Mark Ogus from @MontysDeli – who serves wonderful home-smoked pastrami at Maltby Street and we were agreeing that these American places are so special precisely because they’re a part of the country’s relatively recent history and as such, have been preserved in their original form.

The sandwiches at Philippe’s are simple but utterly delicious, comforting and satisfying – served with an obligatory gherkin and scorching hot house mustard. I had never even heard of French Dip before going to LA – it’s one of those American sandwiches, like the PO Boy that just doesn’t seem to have been done very much here. Hawksmoor is the only place I’ve heard about doing it, so I thought it would be cool to set up the UK’s first French Dip stall – serving sandwiches made with freshly roasted meats and bread, dipped to order in the roasting juices. The folks at Brixton Market have been really helpful and supportive, and went for the idea with zeal – so we managed to get the whole thing set up really fast. Andrew, an accountant by day but passionate food enthusiast at heart, was a natural choice for a business partner, with his flair for number crunching, instincts with food and creative ideas.

Finding suppliers was really the first step in getting set up. Luckily a friend recommended the brilliant Kindred – a craft bakery in nearby Herne Hill, who we met with and came up for a spec for the baguettes, which needed to be crunchy on top but light and easily chewable. The baker was amazingly helpful and accommodating and after a couple of test runs we came up with a model we’re really happy with – fluffy, crusty and perfectly dippable. For meat we turned to the excellent Moen’s in Clapham Common, which has supplied us with prime Scotch Beef topside and excellent meat stock for the gravy for both stalls so far. The topside comes coated in some fabulous fat which keeps the meat moist and tender and flavours the jus beautifully.

I wanted to keep the sandwich recipe as close to what I’d experienced at Philippe’s as possible, because I loved its simplicity, but also because I believe it’s the best French Dip out there. We spent a few weeks prior to our first stall messing around with roasting times and perfecting the au jus, which is made with just the roasting juices, stock and a bit of thickening and seasoning.

We’ve now done two stalls in and are absolutely loving it. Both times we’ve been positioned at the mouth of the market, next to the man who sells records and plays great reggae and soul tracks all day, giving that special Brixton atmosphere. Bunting is strung up at the start of the day and people start arriving from 10.30 onwards, perusing the stalls, hanging out and drinking coffee and tasting as they go. Initially lots of people needed us to explain what a French Dip was, but we have had a surprising number of people who have found us through Twitter or googling French Dip. Weirdly we’ve had two people walking past and spotting us who have been to Philippe’s. It was amazing when one of them said it was as good as the sandwich there!

We’re taking a hiatus for June because Andrew is going off around Italy, but we’ll be back in July and have some ideas bubbling under the surface about our next sandwich, which will be a summer special of pulled pork and barbecue au jus, and the beginning of a number of experiments with different meats and dips. Do follow us on Twitter @londonfrenchdip for updates and thanks to everyone who’s come down and supported us so far.