Ray Winstone (left) and Phil Daniels eating at A Cooke's in Quadrophenia
A Cooke’s have been knocking out bowls of pie, mash, liquor and jellied eels for over a century. The shop on Goldhawk Road – which you’ll recognise if you’ve ever seen Phil Daniels and Ray Winstone casually being racist over a cup of tea in Quadrophenia – has been run by the same family since 1899. The shop's current owner, Mike Boughton, is the great-grandson of founder AH Cooke and through its four generations it has become an iconic West London destination. But that’s where the romanticising stops.
For nearly three years now, A Cooke’s has been operating under the threat of a compulsory purchase order from property company Orion Land and Leisure, who want to rebuild Shepherd's Bush Market and its surrounding shops and replace it all, of course, with a block of 200 luxury flats. A Cooke’s went to the High Court and had judgement passed in their favour but it still doesn’t guarantee their safety: Orion are still pushing to bring in the bulldozers. So, the future of the shop is uncertain.
Pie, mash and stewed eels (All subsequent images by Tom Jones)
If you live in London and haven’t tried pie and mash, well, what’s wrong with you? David Beckham can't get enough of it; it's one of the finest marriages in British history. It’s the liquor that makes it; a kind of thick, slightly sweet parsley gravy that the whole meal is drowned in. Give me any red wine jus that’s been reducing for hours in a Michelin-starred kitchen and I’d throw a pint of liquor in your face. It’s unbeatable.
The other thing you get with pie and mash shops is a sense of community – a precious thing that London is steadily losing as EATs, Pret A Mangers and Giraffes swallow the city whole. Yes, they provide a perfectly alright (if wallet-emptying) lunch, but have about as much soul as a Jiffy bag.
These fingernails aren't gentrified
As a loyal customer of A Cooke's, I visited the shop recently not just for a fine plate of scran but also to get the lowdown on the current state of affairs. I spoke to Mike and some regular customers, starting with Danny and Michelle Canon, who have been coming here since they were children. “We were born and bred on it," said Danny. "I bring my kids up on it – you can’t get this type of food at home."
“It’s tradition," he continued. "My grandma and brothers come in here all the time and while I believe in modernising, I don’t believe in destroying and taking away people’s livelihoods.” Michelle agrees. “At the end of the day, it’s all about money,” she says. “Surely they can build the flats somewhere else? Why build here?”
Customers Danny and Michelle Canon
That property developers don’t necessarily cherry-pick their locations based on what small businesses they’re going to engulf doesn’t come into it: these people – a large portion of whom are working class – can’t see beyond a part of not just their day-to-day lives, but their heritage, being swept away.
While I was eating, Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook came in with his daughter, the singer Hollie Cook and his sisters, Jackie and Margie. He’s been coming to A Cooke’s since he was a kid and had a lot to say about the precariousness of its situation. “There’s not many places left like this in working-class areas. Everything’s going now and, along with pubs and markets, people should do everything they can to keep hold of places like this.”
Like Danny, though, Paul can also see the need to modernise – “perhaps Goldhawk Road does need a bit of a facelift" – but questions whether getting rid of a pie and mash shop is really the change it needs. “It might be a small part of life, but it’s an important part of our life. And there’s just something about it [pie and mash]. It’s addictive.”
Sex Pistol Paul Cook
“It can never be replaced once it’s gone,” says Jackie and Margie Cook. “We’ve been coming here since we were babies.” Hollie chimes in: “Generations of our family have been coming here, too – my dad and his family before me, and the families before that.” Ron Burton, who’s been coming from North London once a month for the last 50 years, says, “You can’t get food like this – good, traditional Cockney food – where I live. I’d be choked if it went.”
It’s not just the fear of the shop disappearing, either; it’s the identity of the whole road. “Granted, Goldhawk Road isn’t the most glamorous road," admitted Hollie Cook, "but a big, shiny new block of flats will stick out like a sore thumb.” Who’s going to come to this part of London to see another identikit block of flats? As a testament to pie and mash’s allure, I meet folks who have come from all over London and the suburbs for their lunch: people from Aylesbury, Staines and Twickenham have all trekked to Shepherd’s Bush specifically for A Cooke’s. Very rarely is it only filled with locals. People make the pilgrimage.
Sitting down with Mike, the owner, the threat over losing his business creates a palpable air of fear. “Initially we were told we were going under compulsory order purchase,” he says. “But although they said they’d notified us, we’d had no notification. It was only hearsay. We were just told they were going to develop the area – it was a bit wishy-washy surrounding where we were going.” He pauses. “I don’t want to lose my business.”
For Mike, it’s not as simple as finding somewhere else to set up a hotplate and “flip a few burgers” because his shop is, in effect, a bakery. “We produce our own pies here and when I had to dig deep and look for a new premises for us, it became a nightmare.” He remains defiant, though, and seems to be made of the same strong stuff as those crisp piecrusts. “We won’t just lie down and take it. We’ve got to stick up for our rights. I’ve always looked after my business, which, as a family business, has been here 114 years now. They can’t just steam-roll us and buy us off for half a crown.”
Owner Mike Boughton
It was a spirited conversation but the sad thing is, for the time being, A Cooke’s remains in a state of limbo. Its destiny appears to be out of Mike’s control and his struggle to keep the footing of his family’s business seems at odds with the motivations of those property developers aiming to flood London with wealthy professionals. Yes, this is a perennial conversation at the moment all over London and Britain, but it’s only when you visit businesses like A Cooke's that the effect on the human beings and their communities becomes so evident. You can’t empathise if you’ve never met anyone whose entire livelihood is at stake. And yes, A Cooke’s hasn’t been closed yet, but the threat is a niggling worry, day in, day out.
On their website, A Cooke’s state that they’ve lodged an application to appeal the decision and arguments will be heard at the High Court on April 15th. “We are hoping that common sense prevails and we are excluded from the development. Compulsory purchase orders are normally used for things like HS2, Olympic stadiums and motorways, etc, not to enable a developer to line their pockets.” When I called Mike to confirm, he actually says they'll receive their fate from the council at the end of this month.
So do yourselves a favour before it’s (possibly) too late: Head down to Shepherd’s Bush for a plate of one of the finest and fastest disappearing contributions to gastronomy Britain has ever produced, before it turns into an estate agent's living room.