Shoreditch in East London can often feel like a stressful mass of tourists—home to 17-year-old Supreme heads queuing around graffitied corners, endless warehouses-to-office conversions, and cafes serving cereal in avocado skins. But take a turn off the popular Brick Lane market street, and you’ll discover something hidden in plain sight: an entirely volunteer-run garden, bursting with artwork and allotments. The Nomadic Community Gardens are situated in one of the busiest areas in the capital, and yet, despite having visited the area hundreds of times, I have never once heard of them.
It’s here that I find Hayley Edwards, otherwise known as the Roving Chef, slowly cooking vegetables on a stove. Her eatery, the Roving Cafe, has been based in the Nomadic Gardens for almost three years now, and serves anyone who manages to scope out the mysterious green pastures. She works from a lime-green Piaggio Ape that stands in front of a makeshift cafe, decorated with fairy lights and colourful paintings. Beside it is a table hidden among the bay trees. During the summer, Edwards makes three different types of salads, all named after “the boys” who run the garden, and in winter she sells homemade soups. The set-up is simple but effective.
“I didn't want it to be a coffee cart, it's a cafe, because it’s a bigger picture than serving coffee,” Edwards tells me, as we sit in the shade of one of the garden’s gazebos. “I wanted to be at ground level and not looking down at somebody. It makes it homey.”
Edwards' culinary background spans countries and locations. After training in hotel management and working front-of-house for restaurants in England and France, she put the cooking on hold to become personal assistant to acclaimed (and notoriously shouty) chef, Marco Pierre White. “It was fantastic,” says Edwards, clutching a bottle of water in the heat. “I did it for years. It was amazing. I learned so much, and it was really hard work.”
“It was full-on but Marco gave you respect,” she continues. “The people who couldn't cope in that kind of environment weren't suited to that kind of environment.”
Despite gaining a lot of knowledge from the experience (the phrase “be respectful” appears numerous times as we speak about White), Edwards’ PA work began to get in the way of home life, and she decided to branch out into something different. Namely, a return to sharing her food and cooking skills with others.
“I did some private dining,” she says, “and then in 2009, I started the Roving Chef, and off the back of that, I started giving cookery demos in Borough Market as their resident chef for five years.”
Edwards began her cooking classes and decided to launch Roving Cafe as a moveable cafe on the back of an Italian three-wheeler. The idea was to park up at different locations around London, and it wasn’t until someone mentioned the Nomadic Gardens that she realised she may have found a permanent spot.
“I first ended up on Bethnal Green Road, and had a tough time,” explains Edwards. “Bethnal Green Road wasn't ready for a hot little Italian van like me, but I have to give things a go. While I was there, three people who were related to the Gardens mentioned the space, so I thought I'd check it out.”
When she arrived, the Gardens derelict, and a far cry from the community space it is today.
“There was nothing here in the Gardens,” Edwards remembers. “No fence. Crack heads underneath the bridge.”
However, thanks to the hard work of a small community of people, the run-down space developed into an area filled with plants, artwork, and sculptures. The Gardens are now home to street art classes, a theatre and events space, and other private businesses selling everything from toiletries to food. I do spot a group of teenagers smoking weed, and the allotments are still a little scrappy in parts, but it’s impressive to see what was essentially a wasteland in a gentrified area of London become something open to tourists and locals alike.
"Everybody and anybody walks through that door," says Edwards when I ask her about the demographic. “From the die-hard hippie that made his own house to even a few City boys.”
It was atmosphere of the space, she tells me, that drew her to the Gardens. “I thought, ‘People believe in me here,’” says Edwards. “It's not that I wouldn't put the energy in but when people are on your side, even though you're quite different, that's a green light to go for it.”
However, with the positives, come some challenges. The space is open to anyone, and Edwards has struggled with finding the right approach to helping the homeless community that can frequent the Gardens.
“This has been an eye-opener,” she says, “because I've come from a very privileged background.”
In response to seeing some of the poverty in this part of London, Edwards began working with Refugee Community Kitchen, a charity that serves food to refugees and homeless people in Calais and the UK. Although Edwards says that she “doesn’t want to do anything political,” she concedes that she also doesn’t want anyone to go hungry. She donates cakes to the organisation and has helped host two fundraising dinners in the Gardens.
The strength of the Nomadic Gardens community is something that has kept Edwards from moving—even if the location has come with some difficulties (no fridge, and no heating in the winter, to mention a few). “The positives outweigh the negatives,” she tells me, “Everybody's represented in the garden and I would say I'm the white, middle-class moment. I've been called ‘Tory girl.’ I’ve been told not to be here because I'm a private business. You're given these challenges but you've just got to work with it.”
As I leave, I ask Edwards what she’d like her cafe to achieve. “It's about the bigger picture,” she concludes. “It is about selling teas, coffees, salads, and everything, but also about making a bigger contribution. There's a feeling of inclusion. I love going round to and saying hello to people and being said hello to.”
She pauses. “Hopefully, it will encourage areas to do their own little garden.”
Anyone know of any derelict spaces in London that could do with a roving cafe?