“We want to give the five star service of Michelin star restaurant but without any of the kind of things that we deem unnecessary such as you know, serving from a certain side or all that kind of stuff. We want to deliver amazing food, amazing service in a relaxed setting. We’re a 100% vegan south east Asian restaurant in the heart of Brighton in Baker Street. All small plates. We pride ourselves on high energy and low kinda… poncey-ness…
We’re with Amy Bennett, co founder of Bonsai Plant Kitchen.
“So basically, Bonsai was started by myself and Dom. I’m 22 and he’s 27. So myself and Dom are both college dropouts and both just jumped into the hospitality industry.
“I became a waiter, he became a chef. I had no intention of being a chef, but kind of worked really really hard and the head chef kind of said to me “I’ve seen your work ethic, do you want to come into the kitchen?” So my whole chef career started that way, coming all the way up to a sous chef and then head pastry chef.
“I was always vegan but was working in really meat heavily dominated restaurants. So then I decided that I wanted to move to Brighton to work in a vegan or vegetarian restaurant, moved to working at Food For Friends, met Dom, he was head chef, I was the head pastry chef. And decided that we wanted to open our own thing. He wanted to do something Asian. I wanted to do something vegan, and so we created Bonsai.
Tell us a bit more about the food. What’s your favorite dish? “OK, so we’ve got a tempura cauliflower that’s probably my favorite, because any kind of vegan restaurant that you go to, they offer you some kind of battered cauliflower dish. So when people kind of see it on the menu, they don’t really think much of it. They think ‘Oh, here we go again, another battered cauliflower dish’. But it’s just absolutely phenomenal. People tend to walk away and say that that is their favorite dish.”
A longer version of this interview is featured on The Brighton Whistler podcast, available at all the usual places.
September marks 10 years since I arrived on these shores as a fresh-faced student who was determined to make it to the top. That was the only way to justify my mother’s heartbreak at leaving the homeland and my sisters’ delight at being able to have a room to themselves.
My secondary school yearbook asked where I saw myself in 10 years time and my answer declared I would be leading the Irish national team to the 2022 World Cup or have a weekly column in the Irish Independent. I’m going to tell you why leading Montpelier Villa Women and writing for the West Hill Whistler is better (Quite right: Ed) and why Graham Potter is wrong to go to Chelsea (Also quite right: Ed).
I understand why Potter has gone. I understand that his career has been a series of calculated gambles both on his part and on the clubs that employed him, including his first club Östersund who played in the Swedish fourth tier who took a risk on someone who at the time was just the coach of a university football team. I understand that Potter may feel that this is justification for his seven years in Sweden and traveling to the Women’s World Cup in China in 2007. Not that either of these are something to be endured, but rather this isn’t the conventional route to one of the biggest jobs in English football and it’s hard not to be disappointed by Potter finally choosing the path expected of him.
I won’t be the first to describe Potter as unconventional and most will be aware of him getting his players in Sweden to perform Swan Lake and his influence or rather his reasoning of taking players out of their comfort zone reached Montpelier Villa as our players endured American football, Gaelic football, rugby and netball all to take them out of their comfort zone or in other words – make them uncomfortable.
This September, Montpelier Villa will host the FA Cup for the first time ever and this will be the highlight of the season for many, the ability to say you competed in the same competition as some of the biggest names in the game. It won’t surprise you that my ambition for our team is to play just one match at Wembley Stadium and fortunately we find ourselves in a competition that means we are just ten wins away from that goal.
What I don’t understand is this move being explained as Potter being ambitious. Potter has joined a team with infinitely more resources and expectations, but he has left one of the few clubs that has slowly and sustainably built an infrastructure that can challenge the elite.
At this point, it’s important to rule myself out of the vacant position at Brighton and it’s not for lack of ambition. It’s because I’m too ambitious. Football in my opinion is the greatest leveller and no matter the resources that any club has, no matter the perceived quality of the players on each team, if you are on the same pitch then you are in the best possible position to beat them – whoever they are.
Potter had all the tools available at Brighton to make the city and region a footballing hotbed akin to Barcelona or Amsterdam. I would find it hard to justify walking away from that for the chance to coach in the Champions League for a team that won it as recently as 2021. Potter was on course to bring that competition to Falmer albeit only after six games and I believe the latter would have been a far greater achievement.
I wholeheartedly believe that Montpelier Villa will walk out at Wembley on May 14th next year and I’ve been called enthusiastic, deluded, silly and stupid and I could go on but I know how great our team is, I know some of the sacrifices they make to play for us and the resilience they have, I know this football team has given me a reason to be proud of our little corner of Brighton whilst also paying homage to where I came from (Villa wear the same colours as my childhood team – Railway Athletic)
I know it’s going to be difficult to win the FA Cup, but until we’re knocked out, we can. I don’t blame Potter for moving to Chelsea for any number of reasons but I am disappointed that his ambition could not see the potential in Brighton. As for my own ambition and where I see myself in the year 2032? Coaching Montpelier Villa women and writing for the Whistler? I told you I was ambitious.
Well, you can do rock climbing in the mountains, but generally when you go to the mountains, it’s more… It’s not as technical as rock. You can climb up a mountain, depending on the mountain, but it’s not so technical that you need loads and loads of equipment like you do with rock climbing. With mountains you don’t necessarily need a harness, whereas he’ll be in a harness…”
It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting to have in a fabric and upholstery shop, but then again “And we don’t know what happened, but he ended up in the back of an articulated lorry” isn’t a sentence I expected to write when transcribing the interview tape.
The Whistler is with Denise Robins, wife of Adrian Robins, they of the fabric and upholstery shop of the same name in Guildford Road. We’re surrounded by rolls of beautiful fabrics and textiles and just lovely stuff you just want to touch and cover yourself with.
Adrian’s not here – “Adrian’s off rock climbing in Scotland at the moment” – and Denise is only here because she’s done something unnecessary to her knee. “I won’t climb this year. I think… maybe the winter, late winter. But I think it’s a good six months.”
It’s a nice contrast, isn’t it? The delicacy of the fabric world and the out and about mountaineering and all that.
“We’re passionate about the outdoors, which is quite funny because everybody expects us to be passionate about our home, and you know, we’ve got a nice home, don’t get me wrong, we’ve got a nice home. But it’s just a nice home. I wouldn’t say we were passionate about our home and about everything being just so, that’s not really who we are.
As much as they love fabrics, it’s the white knuckle stuff that’s in their blood. “We did loads of that. We still do. We were away every weekend in various clubs. We met in the Brighton Explorers Club, we were in the Sussex Mountaineering Federation, we were in Hastings Rock Club, the Brighton Excelsior Club. We were doing all that, all the time working, that’s what we did. Yeah. And then when I was 27, I had our first child. So I kind of stopped all the mountaineering and stuff then because I just did stuff with the kids. Adrian carried on I just thought I was way too valuable to hurt myself!”
Do you still cycle and..
“Yeah, yeah, mountain bike. Adrian had a very bad cycle accident 15 years ago and he was told he would never work again.”
Wow, what happened?
“He’s like the bionic man. He was training, he was doing triathlons at the time, and we don’t know what happened, but he ended up in the back of an articulated lorry. He broke his back, very badly punctured his lung, broke lots of ribs, sustained a head injury because his helmet split into and was in intensive care. He had to have surgery on his back, so had bone taken from his hip, put into his back and he’s got big metal rods in his back holding his back together. And slowly, being Adrian and because he’s so fit, he got back to swimming and, and then wanted to work again. So he only actually ended up having less than a year off. And then he was back at work.” And now he’s off rock climbing in Scotland. Crampons and ropes and all that.
Denise is Brighton through and through. “Yeah my lot go back to the 16th century. My great, I think it’s great great great grandfather, was the last map person off the chain pier, the last person off the chain pier before it collapsed. He was head of maintenance or locked it all up or something. But it’s mentioned in a few books, because my maiden name is Fogden in which is an old Sussex name – and “Adrian Robins” the shop has been on Guildford Road since 1983.
“No, no, we didn’t have this one. Adrian rented the shop next door for two years. He’d finished an apprenticeship in town in upholstery, and then he set up on his own, and by time we’d got together this came up for sale, and he desperately wanted his own shop. So we sold my flat and bought this. When we bought it, it had been rented out to students as individual bedsits each room for about 10 years. It was utterly hideous. hideous, you know, it was it was so funny because we, you know, we were so young and people would come along and I just, I’d look at it and they just didn’t know what to say everybody thought we were completely mad. Because we had no money. And we bought this wreck. And, and they just say the word that was said all the time was potential.
1983. That’s a fair while ago. The area must have changed hugely since then. “There were lots of shops which have gone. We always fought to keep the shops because once they’re gone, they’re gone. They never come back”
Do you remember what other shops they were on this stretch?
“There was a restorer. That was a few doors down. There was a TV shop. Right on the corner. There was a basket making. That was a basket making shops and guys sat in there making cat baskets all day, and then at the top on the corner was like a wholesale butchers. Actually, this had been a butcher at some stage before because it had all butchers hooks in the ceiling.”
Or maybe that was just for the students.
Denise, it should be said, is a great interviewee in that she likes talking. And she’s a terrible interviewee – because she likes talking.
“Do you want to know about the shop?”
OK, let’s talk about fabrics. Do you design your own fabrics? “We used to do a lot of that years ago, but I like to advise rather than design. I like to tap into people’s personal taste, and then help them look good.
“There are certain things that we don’t do much, for instance and I don’t have many glitzy books here. They don’t sell in Brighton, I think there’s an understated look they want, people want things to look really nice, but not in a flashy way.
“If I was going to say what’s the best seller, it would be probably plain and natural weaves. Very natural. So cotton linen blends walls, things like that. But sadly, plain, actually.”
And what’s your favourite?
“I love William Morris. I really like William Morris. I like prints. I like bold prints. So yeah, I mean, it’s you know, it’s funny when we were redoing our sofa Adrian said ‘Why don’t we just have plain velvet’ and I was like ‘No. No way’, you know because… we just shouldn’t.”
Do you often find yourself talking to customers and they’ll pick something out and you think to yourself ‘Are you sure about that?’
“Yes, and I would say that because I really want people to be happy with what we’ve done. I’d be mortified if we did some work and then people didn’t like it, they felt that they’ve made a mistake, because it’s a lot of money. I mean, I’ll say to people, it’s not like a dress you bought that you can hide in the wardrobe and pretend you didn’t buy it. It’s a sofa, it’s a bay full of curtains. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
“If you came in here, I would look at how you’re dressed and it would give me an idea of what to pull out. Some people don’t think they’ve got any idea, some people don’t even think they’ve got any taste, but everybody has. I find that quite fascinating.”
Have you noticed over the years, how tastes have changed? “People are far more conscious, environmentally conscious. I’m being asked for things that are natural, all natural fibres. I’ve got some (fabric) books that are made from recycled fabrics and things like that. Also I think the air miles of fabrics, people are more conscious of that, where things are made.”
It’s time to go. You don’t want to take up too much of people’s time so a bit of small talk while I pack up…
Good luck with the physio and I hope you get out and about sooner rather than later.
“It’s OK. I’m not going to get back into it till the end of the year, and until then I’ll do all my water sports.”
I thought you were resting up?
“I’ve bought a paddleboard. And I’m a sea swimmer and try to do lots of sea swimming.”
Clearly we have different ideas about resting up.
“Yeah, I bought a dinghy and I’ve started sailing, so I’m a member of the Brighton Sailing Club as well. And I like to do some surfing if I can kneel OK.”
So there’s mountaineering, cycling, surfing, the dinghy…. Anything boxes not ticked?
“I’ve always been a bit of a thrill seeker. So… I’ve never done any diving and then somebody mentioned to me that where I’m going on holiday there’s a dive school… “
We don’t fly these days. Flying is, well, the planet you know. It’s My Fine Wife’s doing really – she’s more principled than me – but I agree with her, so we just don’t do it. But sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and so a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in row 5, seat A listening to someone telling me the exits are here, here and here. In Spanish.
I haven’t been in a plane for years, since long before Covid, and I’d been unashamedly excited. We live, objectively speaking of course, in the best place in the UK, but there’s still something exciting and romantic about travel. When I was young, I used to go to Heathrow and just hang around, watching the planes fly off, wondering where they were going, fantasing about the adventures, wondering what it was like the other side of the “Departures” sign.
I’ve been on a few planes since then, but there’s still something curiously glam about flying, still something a bit jet set. It’s kinda like still thinking a sun tan and smoking still look cool. But then again… they do still look cool. They shouldn’t, but they do.
There’s nothing cool about row 5, seat A. I’m not sure Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair ever travelled Economy, and even if The Terrible Thing did happen I’m not sure I could get to the exits that are aquí, aquí y aquí because, as my new best friend, the guy sitting next to me, said “It’s cosy here, isn’t it”.
It’s quick and it’s cheap and I suppose that’s good in a sense, but really. Think about it. Anything that sells itself on being quick and cheap… it’s probably not going to be a great experience.
“Come and eat at our restaurant – it’s really quick and cheap”. It’s not where you’re going to go on your hot first date. On the other hand, I’ve just described the global fast food industry so maybe that’s not the best example.
The whole flying experience is a bit odd. Before squeezing yourself into row 5, seat A you spend an hour and a half wandering around a faceless soulless shopping mall full of shops selling a variety of men’s clothes, women’s clothes, posh bags, shops that don’t exist anywhere else, shops that are completely empty. I walked into a men’s clothes shop, the t-shirts were all neatly folded into squares and the shirts were hanging up. I said “Hello” to the woman behind the till. She shuffled uncomfortably, like she didn’t quite know what to do.
“It’s quick and it’s cheap” – and as clunky links go, this is up there – made me think about this issue of Your Mighty Whistler. The reason we don’t fly isn’t because the experience is rubbish; it’s because the planet. And if you read “Gull About Town”, Feedback Special and the interview with Philip Lymbery, they’re all also because the planet. Everyone likes quick, everyone likes cheap, but we’re a little bit past that now. We’ve got to really start being a bit more careful and if Philip Lymbery is right and there are only 60 harvests left… quick and cheap won’t cut it anymore. As mother used to say, you get what you pay for. Maybe it’s time to stop doing quick and cheap. Maybe it’s time to take a bit more care, to take a bit more time and if it costs a bit more, well do it less often.
As we head into an autumn of change, the double whammy of cost of living and climate crises means fewer take away pizza boxes strewn across the city streets (Ed: you wish) and less in the bins behind the back of our favourite restaurants as they pare back their waste. And that is not a good look for the birds of Brighton.
But ‘eat less, but better’, is what Great Uncle Gull has always told us, reminding us what happened to our favourite childhood treat, the earthworm, when animals were put in cages in vast factory farms. So, your gull has taken flight to check out the latest plant-based kitchens and chefs who care about where their meat, fish and dairy comes from.
This Gull loves little more than good pub food, and particularly when it’s a pop up like Kokedama at the Roundhill with glamorous plant-based small plates.
A peck at the leftover Gochujang Panko Cauliflower Wing and the skin-on Fries topped with Apple & Fennel Kimchi, Spring Onions, Gochujang Drizzle, Cashew Parmesan, Wasabi Mayo and Furikake sent your bird’s spirit soaring onto a passing thermal to check out its other locations in East Street and Lewes. But not before clocking that Sunday lunch roast is a feather light £15.
Portland Road may seem a long old flight for a hungry bird, but the word on the wing is that Ciaran’s is a properly sourced treat for a Sunday lunch. Its crispy belly of pork with sage stuffing, roasted duck fat potatoes, glazed carrots, sautéed cabbage and apple cider gravy all comes from within a 40-mile radius.
The pigs come from Calcot Farm in West Sussex where this bird has witnessed them larking in fields, playing with their siblings and pals until their time comes. She’s also spotted the Ciaran-mobile buying fish from Brighton and Newhaven Fish Supplies, the preferred fishmonger of the most responsible of Brighton eateries.
His dairy is delivered from Bristol’s Estate Dairy which Cousin Gus from Southville, Bristol’s grooviest neighbourhood, says is the work of a collective of young passionate individuals dedicated to producing and bottling the highest quality milk and cream from the Chew Valley. He’s been very picky about tahe ethics behind his dairy since he developed a taste for ice cream on a brief visit to Brighton as a chick.
It was Cousin Gus who spotted a cool young eco-warrior at Veg Fest back in 2013, feeding a Bristol crowd vegan sushi burrito and environmental activism like they were baby birds. Anna told them that they couldn’t love the ocean if they ate fish, and well, you can imagine how that’s gone down in the gull world.
But when Anna moved to Brighton, set up Happy Maki in Pool Valley, the gulls were all over it, as were festival goers throughout the country as word got out about the fake fish that tastes so delicious.
Let them eat fake if it helps them give up junk food. As the tractors harvest the fields of Sussex, this gull is up, up and away to pick at the worms coming back to the cow-mown farms, and breathe in the beauty of animals on the land.
For more information, see Gilly Smith’s feature with Philip Lymbery