How can you tell if someone's vegan? Don't worry, they'll fucking tell you.
We've all heard the old joke but King Cook from Cook Daily is turning the knit-your-own-dhal reputation of a meat, fish, and dairy-free diet on its head. And fueling London's grime scene, while he's at it.
Eleven months ago, King took over one of the 3 metre by 2 metre shipping containers that make up BOXPARK in Shoreditch, a collection of pop-ups, micro-retailers, and mini-restaurants stacked up on top of each other like Lego. Since then, the chef has become one of the only cuboids on the site with a queue consistently out of the door.
And that's because he smashes it by serving bowls stuffed with fresh vegetables, tofu, and grains dressed in punchy sauces and dreamy seasonings. All of it vegan.
In a city where you're never more than three feet away from a "dirty burger," the decision to serve only stuff grown in the ground might sound like a risky decision. But King knew his crowd.
READ MORE: Why Men Are Afraid of Going Vegan
"I knew London was missing something like this," he says. "People are more open to being vegan now and there's nothing else like us around. We're London's first fast food vegan joint where you can come and connect and vibe with like-minded individuals. People come back again and again—and they even bring their mums or their grandmas to eat with them."
On the night I visit, I find a mix of diners tucking into the tasty £9 dishes: friends, local creatives, couples, some kids checking out the "No Blood, No Bones" graffiti hoodies on sale—and musician JME from London grime collective Boy Better Know. As JME finishes off his mountain of veg and a fresh coconut juice, King tells me that he often eats dinner here.
"JME and me go way back. He's a vegan too, so loves the food and has always supported me from day one—all that crew have," he explains. "Skepta's a vegetarian, and I cooked up a load of food after one of his shows in Shoreditch last year. Everyone was sitting around backstage with just beer and crisps and sweets, then I walked in with huge plates of my food and they all loved it."
Inspiring a new generation to ditch KFC and McDonald's for vegetables is a pretty big deal, but King makes it look effortless. He seems genuinely hyped when talking about fresh food and—crucially for meat-eaters—he's not preachy about veganism.
"Right at the beginning, I thought, 'We're not gonna label ourselves as a healthy eating place or a juice bar. We're just gonna bang out good food and be professional,'" he says. "Even though I don't wear my chef whites anymore, I still hang them up here in the shop so people know my background—it's all there. It's very important and it's what separates me from other vegan chefs in London."
Food has long been a big part of King's life, but the whole vegan thing didn't happen until he was a lot older. His parents are originally from Laos and while his dad first worked as a chef in a hotel in central London, they later cooked Thai food in pub kitchens across the city. King helped them out after he got home from school.
"I got to know my way around the kitchen so it just became really natural. I learned to mix the British and Asian style of seasoning on things like sirloin steak," he explains. "I'd marinate it with chillies and lemongrass and serve it with a nice bit of fresh salad. When you taste it, it's like, Boom—an explosion in your mouth. After I finished school, I realised all I wanted to do was cook so I went straight to catering college at the age of 16."
After training, King grafted in five-star restaurants but found the fine dining world pretty intense.
"I was 23 and I was working at one and two-starred Michelin restaurants, working 18 hours a day," he remembers. "It was tough—I respect anyone being a chef in training as the money's shit and it's all about getting the experience for your CV. But I got tired. I spoke to my wife—girlfriend, then—and I wanted a new chapter, so we decided to have a family. Then things changed straight away."
King chose to combat the stresses of the kitchen in an unusual way: meditation.
"I could see chefs burning out around me so I started going to a meditation class in the Bethnal Green Buddhist centre three times a week," he says.
King turned vegetarian when he realised that wolfing down a bucket of hot wings down after a chanting session wasn't exactly helping him on the path to enlightenment. A few of those animal cruelty videos sealed the deal for both him and his wife, who went veggie straight afterwards.
"We just gave each other a high five and from that point onwards, we stopped eating meat," King says. Two years ago, the couple became fully vegan.
The lack of main ingredients for a vegan chef may seem like a challenge but King prefers to see it is as an opportunity to experiment.
"You've got to get creative again with what you're cooking," he says. "I went to work for a bit at Vanilla Black, which is one of London's only Michelin recommended vegetarian restaurants and the head chef showed me some amazing things, like how to make smoked tobacco cream. I loved that. Then I realised I needed to do what was best for me."
At this point, King's Instagram game was strong. Thousands of followers (he's now at 23,000 people) would rain down likes on the photos of his stir frys, noodles, or super-charged smoothies. This interest in his cooking was in part what led him to taking on the BOXPARK premises last February.
Cook Daily currently has ten dishes on its menu. Everything is made freshly in the tiny kitchen just behind the counter, meaning there is a reassuring few minutes wait for each dish. King also offers a range of smoothies, a few beers (vegan, of course), and even some intriguing pea flower iced tea, which changes colour from bright blue to purple when a wedge of lime is squeezed into it.
One of the most popular dishes is the High Grade, a result of King trying to recreate the moreish taste of Tex Mex Pringles. If that makes it sound shit—it's not. It's like sweet and sour stir fry with a makeover, the okra and plantain given a deep salty and smoky hit on a bed of chickpeas, brown rice, and quinoa. It's garnished with herbs and hemp crumble.
Meanwhile, Cook Daily's "full English" is a perfect hangover cure, with silky-smooth beaten tofu doing its best scrambled egg impression and loaded with mushrooms and tomatoes. Kings serves it with his house brown sauce.
The London shipping container is just the start for Cook Daily. King plans to take his unique style of veganism further afield.
"I want to open up other restaurants, 100 percent," he says. "There's a demand for it in West London, South London—even from abroad. "It's the vegan take over."