Seven years is a lifetime in the restaurant business. They open and close before the paint is dry and the menus printed. Beset by cash flow problems, staff problems, supplier problems – it’s a miracle any survive. So when a restaurant opens and not only survives but thrives selling reasonably priced food, aimed at a local, neighbourhood crowd, then people pay attention.
This is the story of Trullo, a restaurant serving Italian-inspired food on an unpromising stretch of St Paul’s Road in Jeremy Corbyn’s north London constituency of Islington (its neighbour was and remains a fried-chicken shop). Or rather it was unpromising seven years ago. Thanks in large part to Trullo’s success – other restaurants and cafés have gravitated to the area. Now there is even a Trullo cookbook by chef and co-founder Tim Siadatan.
Siadatan grew up in Reading, one of six children. Getting everyone dressed, fed and watered was a military operation. “I am in awe of my mother, the fact that she was able to juggle all that.” He mentions her in the “Antipasti” chapter of Trullo, the cookbook, crediting her with introducing him to an English version of pre-meal nibbles they called “snackettes” – small bites of food to keep hunger at bay between meals.
He spent time at the pizza shops his father owned – his parents split when he was still very young. While his siblings favoured front-of-house duties, he veered towards the kitchen. Siadatan says he enjoyed school but knew early on that it wasn’t for him. “The head of sixth form pulled me into his office one day and said, ‘Look are you sure you want to do this because it doesn’t seem like you do? You’re not here that much and you’re kind of wasting our time and your time’.” Before long he left school to look for a job.
He found one at the Reading branch of a chain restaurant called Old Orleans. “I started on the microwave section,” he says. “I was doing potato skins in the fryer and nachos in the microwave and it was horrific food but I loved being in the kitchen and I loved the camaraderie of being there.”
He left when he was 17, Siadatan travelled to South-East Asia and tried the foods. It was revelatory. “I got really into the food they were cooking because it tasted so delicious. I was taking down notes and recipes and I would ask if I could come hang out, even to the point that I was pot-washing sometimes to pay for my beach hut.”
Back home, he got another restaurant job but one day missed the bus into work. It was the best thing that could have happened. “I’d gone back into the house in a bit of a tizz,” he says. He turned on the television and saw Jamie Oliver talking about a new programme he was launching called Fifteen. Siadatan wrote a letter, applied, and was chosen to take part in the training course. He was 18 and it proved a life-changing experience.
“It was the first time in my life that not only did I absolutely love what I was doing but I excelled at it.” He was top of his class and knew that cooking was his path. “Within six months of being there I realised that I’d found my thing. I’d never felt that passionate about anything in my life.”
While his friends were off at university, going to parties and hanging out, he was immersing himself in cooking, dreaming of “stages” (kitchen-speak for training stints) he wanted to nab at famous restaurants and the chefs with whom he wanted to work. He insists he never felt he was missing out on a ‘normal’ life. “I didn’t care. I was having a blast. I really enjoyed it and I knew that it’s not normal to have a job you love so much. I still feel that way now.”
From there, he got a job at legendary St. John in central London, cooking for Fergus Henderson. “I think I learnt more there about cooking there than I did anywhere,” he says. The style of cooking – pared back but sophisticated – was one that hugely influenced his own approach to food.
He was at St. John for about a year and a half and still is close to Henderson, who wrote the forward to Trullo, the cookbook. After St. John there was a stint at Moro – another well-known London restaurant, a move to the Cotswolds to set up a pig farm (“it failed spectacularly”) then a stint in Oxford.
His now business partner, Jordan Frieda, joined him there and they began planning what would become Trullo. Frieda had worked at River Café in southwest London – between them they had some serious restaurant credentials. Their idea was to take what they loved about those restaurants – the professionalism, the skills and the passion – but turn it into something more affordable. “Let’s put it into a neighbourhood restaurant.”
The pair have stayed true to that vision. There was a point where Siadatan experimented more with the menu but around three years ago he pulled back.
Does he regret the period when he went off-piste? “I didn’t know I was creative before I opened Trullo I was ambitious before,” he says. “I worked hard and I knew I had the grit and determination. But I didn’t know I was creative until about six months or a year after I opened Trullo. That was a really joyful surprise.”
Today the menu changes with dozens of Trullo “hits” as he calls them – the favourite dishes. Trips to Italy and changing seasonal ingredients mean that the dishes are constantly tweaked and refined. While you’ll find Trullo under the Italian category in guide books, Siadatan wears that label lightly. “Jordan and I aren’t Italian. We both grew up in the UK. We have a decent knowledge of Italy but I don’t speak Italian.”
What they clearly aren’t however is a “fusion” restaurant. “I don’t like that phrase,” he says. “Fusion would never come into our vocabulary. It makes us both feel a bit sick.”
Siadatan and Frieda have now opened a second restaurant, a fresh pasta bar called Padella, which has queues out the door. There’s not an empty table at Trullo either. While seven years have passed, there’s clearly still a joy Siadatan feels about feeding people. “What a joy, what an honour that is… creating a place where people are happy.”
‘Trullo’ by Tim Siadatan is published by Square Peg, priced £25
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