Stargazing and sustainability at the Culpeper

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The Culpeper rises four floors above bustling Commercial Street in London. There is a pub on the ground floor, a restaurant above that, bedrooms on the third floor, all topped off with a roof terrace garden. They strive to offer excellent food, drink, and service, with a keen eye for the green. The roof garden supplies them with herbs, salads, and things to pickle and ferment. The food on offer is carefully sourced, with a waste-not, nose-to-tail approach.

Locavore caught up with them to talk about 17th century botany, stargazing, and giving back to the community.

How and when did the Culpeper come about?

It all started in 2010 with a passion for rooftops and the simple ambition to build a business that would bring durable, positive change, create jobs and opportunities, as well as contribute to a more sustainable way of living.

You share a name with Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century botanist and herbalist. Does his influence extend beyond the name?

Yes, lots. We grow a lot of herbs on the roof that are used in drinks or food in the building. He wrote the first medical textbook in English, bringing healing knowledge to ordinary people who could not speak Latin. He worked hard to have a positive impact on his local community, and so do we. The pub was the original community centre and it’s very important that we make a positive change to the area we’ve moved into, not just being part of gentrification that makes locals feel less connected to the area they’ve always lived in.

You’re a pub over four floors. What happens on each of these floors?

The ground floor is the pub, where you can come and just have a pint, or grab a table and have lunch and dinner. There’s an amazing selection of cocktails here as well. The 1st floor is our restaurant, where you can book, unlike the pub. It’s a different menu there, with a slightly more formal feel, but still pretty relaxed.

You grow some of your own produce on your rooftop garden. What do you grow, and why? How much of your produce comes from here? And who grows it?

We have our wonderful gardener Janelle. This summer we had a real focus on cucumbers, as we wanted to explore preserving more. Each year we’ve tried to do a bit more. The first summer we just tried to grow anything. The next year, we tried to grow enough stuff to always have one dish on the rooftop summer menu that was completely grown on the roof. The third, year we wanted to grow enough to have in the rest of the building, for the summer. This summer we wanted to do the same, as well as have enough extra to be able to preserve and carry us through the winter, or as far as we could get. So we’ve been making lots of pickles. We’ve also grown lots of herbs and salads.

How would you describe the food you cook? 

Produce-led, seasonally driven. Dishes that are grounded in a region and respectful to where they come from.

You say you cook what is in season. How strict are you with this? And what challenges and opportunities does this seasonality offer?

We’re very strict. It doesn’t give any challenges. Food in season tastes better. It’s exciting to follow the seasons, looking forward to old friends returning and celebrating them whilst they’re around.

Who are your suppliers? And how do you choose who to work with?

For fruit and veg, we use Natoora. They have really similar views and goals as we do on sustainability and supporting small farmers. They’re a joy to work with. Their produce is spot on, but also having people who care about what you care about and helping each other achieve our sustainability goals is so important.

How does your thinking around sustainability affect aspects of the business aside from sourcing? 

It affects everything, every aspect of the business. Every decision should have sustainability considered, too. We know we’re not perfect, but we’re working really hard to make lots of small – and some big – changes to keep improving. From how we look after the team, to energy consumption, to integrating into the community, to suppliers. It’s all so important.

Working with the Sustainable Restaurant Association has been wonderful and really helped us become closer to the business we always wanted to be.

How does the Sustainable Restaurant Association help and influence your thinking about food?

It’s not so much changed our thinking, but helped us make sure we work with the people we want to, who share our beliefs, and to make sure we ask the right questions. There were a few things that we thought our suppliers did, but only when we asked more probing questions did we find out it wasn’t as we thought. We wouldn’t have done that without the SRA.

Sustainability is something of a buzzword these days. With headlines about climate change becoming increasingly alarming, do you think the food industry is making real, impactful change?

Yes, I do. And customers care, too. We all need to get better at talking about it. Everyone wants to make sure their chicken is free range, but who asks about waste management and energy consumption? We also need to ask more about how staff are treated and what happens to service charges.

You host a number of events throughout the year. What kinds of things do you do?

Lots on the roof. Astronomy nights, workshops with Janelle, making cocktails with herbs we’ve grown, sketching the skyline with an artist up there, drawing produce we’ve grown – there are so many amazing events that the guys put on, really fun interesting stuff.

What are your plans for the future?

Keep trying to make a positive contribution – to the fun people have in their spare time, to our team’s lives, to the local community, to the environment, and to the farmers and wine-makers who work really hard to produce something amazing.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

We love seeing people enjoy themselves. It’s incredibly rewarding having a building full of people having a beer, a meal, a night’s stay, having a good time and enjoying your hospitality. And seeing the team enjoy this, too, and take so much pleasure being a part of something they are proud of is amazing.

Photography by Veerle Evens.


To find out more about the Culpeper, visit their website.

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