Operator profile – Café: Be-spoke dining

Operator profile – Café: Be-spoke dining

“I entered, partly on a whim when I received the e-mail, but mainly to see what people outside of the café thought of the food, and specifically breakfast, we have on offer. As a self-taught cook who changed career and turned passion into business 11 years ago, I thought it would be interesting to put forward a dish of my creation to see what the professionals thought.”

Owner Steve Bell is sitting down with me in his Yellow Bicycle Café in Blandford Forum to reflect on his decision to enter our inaugural National Breakfast Awards, which were held in London in January. And he must be glad he did take plunge, as he adds: “I was amazed, gobsmacked and stunned when I actually won!”

It hasn’t exactly been an obvious route that Steve has taken to becoming an award-winning chef, as he entered the working world with a degree in geology and oceanography, before dabbling in sales and then spending 15 years in the fitness industry. “I got to the age of 41 and thought, ‘I either stay running big health clubs until I retire or get out,” he remembers. “So I left. That was back in 2007.”

Was that with a view to getting into food? “No, I just needed to get out! Food was a passion and a hobby then, to be honest. It came about because I had been drinking with friends, banging on about how I didn’t know what to do, and my best mate just said to me, ‘Shut up! Why don’t you just buy an old VW Campervan and sell food out of it?’ Which is exactly what I did.”

With his friend appearing to have accidentally drunkenly predicted the forthcoming street food phenomenon, Steve took his advice, setting up a business called Cooking Camper, catering at shows, events and festivals. “It worked out well,” Steve recalls, “because now there are loads of people doing food out of campers, but back then there were only a few of us, so I got a lot of bookings very quickly.”

After three years, though, Steve realised that it was very difficult to make a living from such a small unit. Alongside this, it was even harder during the winter, and with it being a campervan, the increasing outgoings became something of a vicious cycle.

Things started getting into gear when Steve set up a café in Cowbridge, the small Welsh town he was living in at the time, but this only lasted for a year as he proceeded to make “all my café mistakes there; things like trying to be all things to all people. I was attempting to do my own thing, but also doing full Englishes and bacon sandwiches. I don’t think it really had an identity.”

The big turning point came when he relocated to Blandford Forum, a market town in North Dorset (he is from nearby Wiltshire), finally getting Yellow Bicycle Café up to speed in 2014. So where did the slightly strange name come from? “Partly because I’m a cyclist, so that came up in a few of the ideas, but we also wanted a name that was a bit quirky and had to have two words in it. This was based on the idea that customers are more than likely going to remember at least one of them.”

Is that from in-depth psychological research that’s been painstakingly undertaken, or did he come up with the theory himself? “It was something I thought up,” says Steve. “It works, though, as we had only been open about two weeks and a lady came in saying, ‘I’ve never been to Blandford before but my friend said to meet, I think, in ‘The Yellow Elephant’. And, sure enough, two minutes later her friend walked in.”

Is there a typical type of clientele that this innovative idea attracts? “Not really,” says Steve. “The one thing I would say is that the people who come here are bothered about what they are eating. They’re not just looking for a pitstop. All the food is cooked as much as possible from scratch, so it takes on average 20 minutes to get your lunch.”

Of the dishes that they order, which Steve cooks up at the front counter in full view of the customers, the best-seller, I’m pleased to report, is his now famous chorizo on eggy bread with kale and hollandaise sauce, which won him Breakfast Chef of the Year back in January.

Having created it specifically for our awards, he now recycles it for his customers, and I’m keen to hear how he devised and developed it. “Hollandaise sauce [which the finalists had to utilise in the technical round] is obviously associated by most people with eggs benedict and ‘refined’ breakfasts of a similar style,” says Steve. “I felt that it would be interesting and true to the café to do something that was both unusual and with a touch of simple ‘home cooking’.

“Eggy bread is a taste of our childhood that we all love, and importantly to me would fit on the café menu. It was essential that my dish was in-keeping with the cafe’s style and gave a true representation of what our customers like. Chorizo was an easy choice for flavour and appearance.

“I then needed something that contrasted in terms of flavour, colour and texture. Pan-fried kale ticked all the boxes: vibrant green, crispy and with its touch of iron. Finally, I wanted to use the hollandaise in more than one way, and the dish was perfectly suited with its addition to the eggy batter and in the spicy hollandaise dressing, sharpened with lime.”

Having not had the chance to sample it on the day, I can confirm now that it is a worthy winner. Not only does it taste superb, it also shows a little extra imagination and innovation in a field that was dominated by eggs benedicts. “We are just trying to do things that are a little bit different here,” reasons Steve. “We’ve never used it in our marketing, but we had our own phrase when we opened, ‘A bit different but not weird’. We’re trying to do unusual things with familiar ingredients.”

He is certainly achieving this aim, and his love of food really comes across when I ask him what advice he would offer other café owners. “Only do it if you’re really passionate about the dishes you create, which you don’t then compromise on,” he says. “You have to decide what you are. One piece of advice I was given when I started, and I’ve stuck to, was, ‘Cook what you like to eat, how you like it, and make sure every dish that goes out is something you would be ecstatic about if it was put in front of you.’ That’s how I put together the menu and how I cook.”

Looking to the future, Steve tells me that his win has inspired him to move into an exciting new direction. “I’m writing a book at the moment,” he says. “It’s going to be a breakfast and brunch recipe book funnily enough! I’ve had the idea for a little while, so when I won the award I thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, now is the time’.”

An exciting future for Steve, no doubt, and we will report back on it and the Yellow Bicycle Café’s progress in future, but we conclude our chat by looking back at the event that set off this chain reaction. “I had an absolute blast,” Steve says of the National Breakfast Awards. “I have never cooked in a professional kitchen before and I have never worked alongside other chefs. I made new friends, learned an unbelievable amount – and for the first time felt I part of the profession, rather than a lone wolf with a café.”