THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Bea Vo's Bringing it to the Boil
American Bea Vo tells us about bringing Crawfish Boil and US Food to the UK
Event Details: Crawfish Boil at Boondocks
Thank you for talking to us, Bea. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself - where are you from in the States?
I'm from the Washington D.C. area in Virginia, born and raised.
How did you find yourself moving to the UK?
I came here for cooking school, at Le Cordon Bleu here, and I loved London so much I wanted to move here - which I did after I graduated from Cornell, in a degree not even remotely related to cooking!
Since your first concept - Bea's of Bloomsbury - you've since developed 'Feed Your Soul', which includes several venues including Stax Diner, the Butterscotch Bakery, and Boondocks Restaurant. Is there a big appetite for authentic American food in the UK?
I think American food is so relatable to people in the UK, and there's a definitely kinship when it comes to the cuisine - their bread sauce is our white gravy, we have A1 sauce, they have HP sauce, their scones are like our buttermilk biscuits, we both love big hunks of meat on our plates, and so on and so on. As a result, I think the appeal for fried chicken, burgers, and our buttercream cakes aren't going to go away anytime soon!
Butterscotch Bakery majors on sweet treats and desserts, whilst Stax Diner and Boondocks offer the full sit down restaurant experience - is being an all rounder when it comes to food important for you as a culinary expert?
I think it's about passion and representing my own love of food more than anything else. I trained in classical French cooking and spent a good amount of time at Nobu, which is Japanese-Peruvian, Asia de Cuba which is Asian/Cuban fusion, as well. For me, Stax, Boondocks and Butterscotch are expressions of my childhood and my American experience and love with food - for example we have Strawberry Funnel Cake and S'mores on the menu at Boondocks, which most Brits are thoroughly mystified by, and sometimes with the S'mores they even try to melt the chocolate over the fire! Stax is a remembrance of my summer family trips down to Nags Head, North Carolina, where we would stop by random shacks and just pick up burger and fries - and just sitting out there among trees alongside the road and just taking a break, that's what I wanted to recreate.
Can you tell us about the infamous #DuffinGate?
Gosh it was so long ago, I'm not sure there's much more to add! Starbucks' and Rich's Products R&D bakery team decided to capitalise on the frankendessert craze (like Cronuts), and lifted the duffins off of my cookbook and from various articles about it. They neglected to tell the marketing team where they got the idea/recipe from, so the marketing team just decided to say "hey we invented this!" but they hadn't. The scariest part was Rich's products had trademarked the name duffin, which meant they could have potentially sent cease and desist letters to anyone making duffins, including me! So one thing led to another, next thing you know I'm on the Today Show! I think it was really heartwarming to see the outpouring of support from people who really appreciated independent bakeries and wanting to support small business. We sell the duffin in ice cream sundae form at both Stax and Boondocks, and it was even featured on Adam Richman's "Secret Eats" series a while back.
What prompted you to expand on the Bakery concept by developing Stax Diner in 2013, and later Boondocks?
I left Bea's of Bloomsbury to open Stax Diner, because I found some partners that I really wanted to work with, and the idea for a burger bar had been thrown around, and it was an exciting challenge and I wanted to rise to the occasion. For Boondocks, Stax was so popular that we thought it would be nice to have a bigger, groovier digs, so we also have an amazing event space downstairs with its own bar making it for the perfect birthday party place. Also because it's a bigger space we have a bigger kitchen which allows us to do more fun things like the Crawfish Boil, and have a bigger dessert menu.
For both the diners and the bakery, how do you create authentic American tastes - do you use UK ingredients / bring in American products etc?
Well, yes we are a bit obsessive about ingredients here - I bring in Frank's Hot Sauce (a must), as well as chipotle Tabasco sauce which I love. Really just lots and lots of hot sauce. For the most part though because we make our own sauces like our Chipotle BBQ Sauce, and our Cajun Seasoning in-house, we use ingredients that we can source more readily around here.
Are there any foods / drinks you miss from the States that are really hard to get in the UK?
Popeyes Chicken and Girl Scout Cookies. I used to have family friends who were stationed in Lakenheath Air Force Base so I could get a Popeyes fix, but now they've returned home to the States. Girl Scout Cookies, I have a requirement that any friends who come to stay with me must have Samoas or Thin Mints in their luggage if they wish to stay with me!
Are there any other apsects of life in America that you miss when you're here?
I miss 7-Eleven. Funnily enough I was in Hong Kong recently and excited to see 7-Elevens everywhere but not a SINGLE SLURPEE IN SIGHT! I suppose that's better for my waistline but still ... another thing I miss about life in America is the full-sized refrigerators and separate washers and dryers. Everything is so minaturised over here which is good in it being efficient but then hosting a BBQ at home can be a challenge when your tiny freezer can't hold a single bag of ice. :)
One of the concepts you have which looks really great is the Crawfish Boil, at Boondocks during June through August. How did the idea come about, and what's the secret to a real American Crawfish Boil?
The idea funnily came about as I was at this local food chef day workshop where we got to visit food and veg suppliers, and one person mentioned that American crayfish were taking over the Thames, and my ears perked up. I then tracked down Crayfish Bob, who is an amazing person who started his business to cull as much crayfish as possible to clean up the Thames. So the crawfish boil started as an ecological mission, and so every year, we host a crawfish boil at Boondocks!
The key to a real American Crawfish Boil, is you have to get dirty. You have to wear clothes you're okay with burning later (elastic is good), and be ready to just use your hands. We have newspaper on the tables, we have Zatarin's seasoning, baby red potatoes, sweetcorn, and of course garlic bread and comeback sauce and cajun butter for dipping. We tape rubbish bags to the tables and leave paper towel rolls on the table so you can just toss as you need, and keep going and going and going. A bucket of beers and that's what heaven sounds like to me. We got paletas (popsicles) to cool you down after.
As a chef, what do you hope visitors take away from the experience of your diners / bakeries?
What I want them to take away from it, is to feel the heart that's in the food - that isn't pumped full of artificial flavourings, to really taste the authenticity of the food (we have Ranch Dressing!).
Do many Americans over here regularly eat at your establishments for that taste of home?
We get quite a few who are obsessed with our Chicken and Waffles and the Big Stax Burger, and they just keep coming back!
What's on the horizon for you - do you have plans for expansion / new food concepts going forward?
Right now the idea is just to focus on growing Butterscotch and Boondocks and making new additions to the menu, and making sure we just make everything the best that we do!
Finally, what's the best thing about being Bea Vo?
I have the energy of an Energizer Bunny.
Bea's special Crawfish Boil events are taking place at Boondocks (205 City Road, EC1V 1JN London) on June 28 and 29, July 19 and 20, and August 8. Tickets are available from Eventbrite - just click here. To find out more about Bea's American Food empire in London, head over to her website, http://feedyoursoul.co.uk/.