These days, with a proliferation of fashionable reality shows such as Masterchef and the Next Great Baker on television, every second person wants a career in food. However going back twenty years, it was near impossible to make a name for yourself in this highly competitive industry. Yet South African Angie Steele had a dream, and with her passion, training and determination, she made it happen. We spoke to her to find out her story.

Can you briefly describe what your business offers?  

I run a restaurant in Chiswick – we’re a brunch and lunch spot specialising in a daily changing selection of delicious and healthy salads.  I also run a delivery service from the kitchen where we deliver our lunch platters to businesses around London.  Our platters are popular for business meetings and staff lunches and I also do a lot of photo shoots.  I also import South African ceramics from 3 of my favourite artists and sell their work in the shop.

What makes your business unique?

The quality of my food is of a very high standard – I think it’s fair to say that most of our customers are blown-away by the quality of what they get for the price they pay!  My daily changing menu of fresh salads are unique in Chiswick and building a great reputation with the locals. Also, the combination of food and ceramics is something a fair bit different. 

startup - Angie's little food store

And how long have you been working on this business?

The lunch platter business started a year ago (in November) and the doors to the shop opened on 26th November!  The shop design and build took about 6 months prior to that.

What makes you passionate about this business and how did the idea come about?

For years I’ve been passionate about food and restaurants and now for the first time in my career I am working for myself, which is a real privilege.  I’ve worked so hard for other people over the years – 6 days a week 18 hour shifts – and now I really feel like the hard work has paid off as I’ve been able to successfully launch my own business.  I’m still working harder then ever – with the added stress of worrying about the business side of things – but I’m loving every minute!

And your family background? Any entrepreneurial or food inspirations there?

Growing up in South Africa in the eighty’s I imagine was not quite like anywhere else in the world. Beautiful food markets were replaced with bloody warthogs lying in the streets and dried biltong hung from every window, so growing up in an environment where your black “maid” carried you on her a back with a mere blanket and feeding you mielie pap for breakfast, lunch and dinner (“this will make you big and strong”) is not really a foodie’s dream, so I cant say that I grew up with a great love for food.  My mother had set meals for every day of the week as she was a working mum of three and as my father was working nights, she just didn’t have that much time, so like I said, the dishes were pretty much consistent through out my childhood, I didn’t mind, I just didn’t know that much better.

My father on the other hand does actually own a restaurant, a steak house, “the best steak in South Africa”, so every Thursday we were treated to steak and chips. I loved Thursday – it was there I learnt how to make “the award winning pepper sauce”, reduce a lot of cream and grind some pepper into it, not tricky, I know, but it was at about the age of nine I started enjoying stirring sauces, as basic as they were.

Just as about as soon as could walk, all three of us were made to work, slave labour! I began to waiter – at my father’s restaurant of course – it was the best you know, I did enjoy it, I never admitted it, not only was it the food but I loved everything about it: setting the room up, talking about the menu, the steaks, cuts of meat, the deep fried calamari.  My father was a genius with people and even better on the grill, I wanted to be just like him, he was my hero.

startup - Angie food shop chiswick london

Introducing interesting food to my mother was tricky, she was always a baker, it was the only thing she ever got excited about, so we baked and all the time! We did everything: we made our own Easter eggs, frosted our own cakes, fresh crumpets every weekend to chiffon cakes on Sundays, I loved it, it was the only time she had a flare in her eye, still I never once thought about food as a career. It wasn’t really the done thing in South Africa, it was an industry filled with dirty men who worked late nights and there was no place for a woman, in fact it was not even an option. So when I left school I was very confused as to what I wanted to do, studying was not really a featuring point but I did know I wanted to travel and see the world. Cape Town was a very small place, so I took a gap year and headed off to London.

I didn’t do much for a long time, I traveled around Europe and that was it, nothing particularly interesting, until I got a random phone call from a friend asking for help assisting at this diner party. I said yes, arrived in this catering kitchen, amongst all these other professional chefs, I didn’t even own a knife! My reduced cream with ground pepper sauce was going to get me nowhere! As for the chiffon cake, I knew I was pretty screwed, but that’s when I knew I belonged in a kitchen. I did what I was told, didn’t argue, and I got asked back, eventually they hired me a commis chef. I peeled potatoes, a lot of them, but that still didn’t put me off it, it was everything else I loved, the ingredients, the different kinds of potatoes, the shiny skins of the peppers, the frilly frisee leaves, the hares, the venison pies, the respect that was shown to it all, the discipline of just getting things right. I knew it was for me, I just belonged in a kitchen.

I left, went back to Cape Town to study cooking, spent three years at a cordon bleu cooking school, interacted with local restaurants and was very lucky to work amongst the best chefs South Africa had to offer. I decided that I loved to cook more than the smaller more precise things pastry had to offer, but it’s a man worlds, so it was hard competing with their strength in a kitchen. Not only did I have to work harder but I had to be tougher. I was very lucky to work at the Mount Nelson Hotel, at the Cape Colony Restaurant under South Africa’s leading chef at the time- it was there where I learnt my place, and to observe and copy was what I did for a solid year. I was thirsty for information, I wanted to know everything and be the best.

startup - Angie food shop chiswick london

I left and decided that I didn’t know much about real South African cooking, anything good I had ever learnt was European based so I went to the bush. If you ever what to know how to cook pap and sauce the bush is where you go. I was lucky in that I worked in the best lodge Africa had to offer, Londolozi Game Reserve. The ingredients were scarce and the quality of staff poor but there was something magical about it. We made huge pots of venison pies, potjiekos, more commonly known, all food was done on huge open grids and fires and we cooked on big woks sitting in the earth, toasted bread on open flames… It was a total life experience, I just fell in love with it, but as much as I loved making so many traditional dishes I knew I had to head to London and start competing with the best, so I left and headed to London.

I got a job as a demi chef for Gordon Ramsay in his new café, Boxwood Kitchen. The ingredients were amazing! I knew I was back where I belonged, the hours were longer and competition higher, but I survived and did well. I started to develop a strong respect for food, to my palate, trying new flavours, enhancing my taste buds. I was where I belonged, but I wanted to be better, I knew I could always be better.  I left and joined the Claridges team, but that too wasn’t good enough so I joined the three star elite, the best of the best – it was hard, the hardest ever – my work became neater, cleaner.  I stared to develop my own style, I began to think for myself, what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, tastes became clearer and what I wanted from food became clearer and then I realised, it wasn’t just cooking that I loved, I had a passion for the industry as a whole. I loved teaching people that were hungry to learn, I loved talking about food, writing about it… it’s what got me excited and it’s what gets me up in the mornings. It’s the industry and it’s what makes me who I am today, it is my life and I love it!

What’s the most exciting or inspirational moment to date running this business? 

Seeing my name on the shop front was a pretty big moment as it finally dawned on me that I had managed to get there and own my own place!

And where do you want your business to be in 3 years’ time?

I definitely want to have a little empire!  I want to simplify what I am doing and then grow the business; always with the quality of the food at the heart of everything that I do. 

Finally, for someone starting a business, what would be the one bit of advice you would offer?

Make sure that you believe and are passionate in what you are doing – I believe that if you work hard at something then success will follow!