Rachel Zadok: Waitress. Writer. Designer. Star

New literary sensation Rachel Zadok wrote her novel while waiting tables in a café full of aspiring stars. Steve Bloomfield meets them; and the author herself writes of life taking orders
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The Independent Culture

But now Ms Zadok, buoyed by her Whitbread prize nomination last week, has left waitressing behind - and her former colleagues are determined to join her.

No one who works at Pullens sees themselves as a waiter. Artists and musicians, actresses and designers, all have artistic ambitions and all are inspired by Ms Zadok's success to make it in their chosen field.

The café's owner, Alan Gaunt - who himself admits to having aspirations to be a writer - said the reason for the hordes of creative talent waiting at his tables is "purely serendipitous". It is less a reflection on the café, he said, and more on the area. Herne Hill is fast becoming one of the capital's artistic hot-spots.

But he admitted that, unlike most café and restaurant owners, he and his partner Debbie (an artist, naturally) are "sympathetic" to the their staff's dreams. "One of our waiters has disappeared for the winter because he is in a pantomime. He will be back in three or four months. Most places would not be so flexible," Mr Gaunt said.

Another of his staff, Carlie Thomas, 28, worked with Ms Zadok for two years. An aspiring music producer, she said of her former colleague's success: "It makes me think that, yeah, I can make it. It is just brilliant."

Fellow rising star Alice Selwyn, a 30-year-old actress, has appeared in EastEnders and set up a theatre company, The Work Theatre Collective, which received the Time Out Critics' Choice for its latest show. She said Ms Zadok's sudden fame "shows it can happen to anyone. It gives me hope."

Working at Pullens did not only help Ms Zadok stay afloat financially, it helped her withGem Squash Tokoloshe, the novel that has made her such a sensation. "As a writer you get stuck in your own head," she said. "So this forced me to speak to people.I was terribly shy."

Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller, agrees. "The advantage of working at a restaurant or café is you get to meet all types of humanity," he said. "There is an endless stream of different characters, voices and conversation."

Despite a £20,000 advance, Ms Zadok continued to work two shifts a week at Pullens. She won the advance after entering a "how to get published" competition on Channel 4's Richard & Judy. Some 46,000 would-be authors sent in a first chapter and a synopsis. Ms Zadok was one of five to make the shortlist - all received an advance from the publisher Pan Macmillan.

Richard Madeley said: "We are delighted but not at all surprised that Rachel has been shortlisted for a Whitbread Award. The quality of her prose is extraordinary... Judy and I are absolutely thrilled for her."

Until this week, Gem Squash Tokoloshe was the poorest seller on the Richard & Judy shortlist. That is likely to change.

Alice Selwyn, 30


Has appeared in EastEnders, London's Burning and TV commercials. Her company, the Work Theatre Collective, won Time Out Critics' Choice for their last show. 'There are years when being an actress pays the bills, but generally I need to work here. What has happened to Rachel is so inspiring. It gives me hope.'

Liza Spenz, 51


'You have to earn a living when you are not doing what you really want to do - and there is no better place than Pullens. I love working here. It is a very enigmatic, vibrant place. I am working on a new project at the moment and putting a band together in the New Year.'

Carlie Thomas, 28


'I love doing my music. I'm trying to do a lot of drum'n'bass. It gives me a push to go on and do my thing when I see everyone else here. I hate being known as a waitress. It is my dream to have a record out there, but I need to pay the rent, so I am working here.'

Hannah Brown, 25


'I had done an MA in printing and liked the idea of doing it on T-shirts. I design them, print them and then sell them on a website and in shops. Shift work is really useful. I am not an office person. I tried doing nine to five but it was terrible - I can't do it.'