It’s not easy to get hold of Dom Cools-Lartigue, and when I eventually do, I understand why. He’s working on an ambitious new venture that is going to make a big impact in East London – an area that is saturated with retailers, bars and restaurants. Having worked in the music industry for almost two decades, Cools-Lartigue went on to establish Street Feast, the hugely popular night markets first launched in 2012, taking over abandoned and derelict spaces with street food vendors, drinks and music.
Food and music are powerful things – they bring people of all walks of life together like nothing else – and Cools-Lartigue now set to combine his passion for community and convivence with Modern Assembly, an all-encompassing venue with, among other things, a 200-seat lecture theatre for discussions and talks. London is Cools-Lartigue’s hometown, and he’s seen it change rapidly over the years (he turned 45 a few weeks ago, he tells me). That change hasn’t always been for the better, and in a city with a Pret-a-Manger mentality where everyone is quick to franchise success, it’s difficult to fight against the capitalist tide with integrity, as Cools-Lartigue tells me. It’s immediately obvious that that is something he intends to do.
We had a chat about the politics of culture, building responsible developments in a city like London and how to set your own standards.
It’s great to catch you finally! It seems like you’ve been busy lately?
It’s quite intense right now! We’re planning to build a huge new site in Hackney Central: 32,000 square feet with a live music venue, restaurants, retail, and all sorts of things. The planning applications and the designs and build are where we are right now, and it’s full on! I’ve been required to be really focused the last few weeks! The new business is basically an amalgamation of everything I’ve done plus everything I like to do. I spent fifteen years in the music industry doing events all over the world before this, and then doing Street Feast, I loved it, but I realised if we had an interesting cultural programme alongside a more expansive food and drink offering then we might have a really good proposition there. When I realised that, I thought I had to do it.
It’s going to be around Morning Lane, where all the designer outlets are. Is that the vibe of the new spot?
To a degree, but hopefully, we’re going to bring something new. I think the whole area doesn’t massively like that development. That’s one of the things we’re doing right now, making sure we’re communicating with the local community, to find out what people want. I think we need to make sure we’re not alienating local people.
That’s something I really wanted to ask you about. I was born in West London, and now I live East, on the edge of Fish Island, and seeing the relentless development there is crazy, and it often feels like these developments go up fast with no consideration and contribute to an ever more divided city. With things like Street Feast, that have gone up in places like Dalston and Lewisham, I was wondering how you feel about it?
It’s something I feel very strongly about. Like you, I grew up in West London, just off Longsdale Road, near Portobello Road. I was born in 1973, so I was lucky enough to know Portobello before it was cool. I left in the 1990s and moved to Brixton – that was my early 20s knee-jerk reaction to like, I can’t deal with this gentrification, so I’m out of here!
I grew up with my mum in a housing association basement flat, and I remember her coming back from the shop, and there was a guy in there she’d got into an argument with who was moaning about “people like us.” He had the equivalent flat as us on the same road, but he owned his, and ours was through a housing association, and he was saying how awful it was that we get to pay next to nothing while he had paid so much for his and it was terrible that he had to share the street with the likes of us.
Oh my god. Wow.
My mum still lives over that way, so I go there a lot to visit her. It’s such a diverse area: there’s us, the Caribbean community, African, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Irish. We all knew each other, that was the community. And I remember that changing in the 1990s. They decided to “clean up the streets,” certain faces disappeared and weren’t there any more. In a few years, very quickly, it wasn’t the same area, it wasn’t the area I knew and felt connected to. A lot of people left, and so did I. But there was a period before that, on Portobello Road in the sunshine – there was no better place to be. That was amazing. But things change, and they’re going to. But bringing that knowledge to what I do is a bring thing for me. So whenever I opened a Street Feast, in local communities that have a real need we’ve always had some kind of connection to the community but I’ve always felt that we could do more. To have the kind of relationship with people that I’d like to have, it takes everyone in that business to feel the same way. So when I started a new business, I was very clear about that.
I haven’t traded for three years, and that means I’ve been able to look at what’s been going on, in London generally, and with leisure and culture. A few years ago we moaned about identikit towns, where everywhere has a Pret and a Costa, but the same thing is happening with the so-called ‘cool’ versions of those. You know, everywhere’s got a Patty & Bun now. Everywhere has a Pizza Pilgrims.
It’s the same thing with different packaging. Do business owners get greedy? How do you try to resist that?
It’s not something I’d ever do. I’ve been very careful. The new thing I’m opening is called Modern Assembly, and the overall business is called Studio Mazaar – a word I’ve created that combines modern and bazaar – because that’s how I see it. I’ll never open a chain of 20 taco bars – as much as I love tacos! I’ve spoken to all kinds of people, and I’ve been careful in bringing in two partners who don’t expect me to open five or ten Modern Assemblys as we did with Street Feast. I don’t have a five-year plan! The world moves way too fast now for that to even be a thing, you know. But that’s my part. So many people have expanded so much, so fast in the restaurant business, and the beast feeds itself. Why are people doing these things? There’s no guiding hand.
It’s this advanced capitalist mentality of needing more and more, why can’t we just be satisfied with one great thing that works? Shouldn’t there be some kind of legislation around say, how many Prets you can open on one street?
We’ve all travelled to places where there’s a lovely look and feel, but we don’t have that in this city and don’t think we’re ever going to have it. I don’t want to sound like the sad old bloke lamenting how it was better in my day, but I don’t think it’s going to get any better. I think what we can do, is to do what we can where we are.
I think about the opportunity I have: I’ve got this 32,000 square foot spot in the middle of Hackney. If I had my Street Feast hat on, or Pergola on the Roof, or any of the other organisations – we all know exactly what would be in there, and it would be about rinsing as many people as possible, and for a certain type of person. And I’m not going to do that.
But then again, to do what we’re doing is really hard. To have standards, and to have integrity, and to follow through with that, it’s hard. If you ever talk to anyone who knows a politician, often they start off with good meaning and then they have to start compromising.You need to set your own standards and have the strength to follow through.
Using food, and culture to talk about current politics and to genuinely connect people is so important, and it sounds like something you’ve always been keen on doing.
Totally. When I’ve been thinking about the food offering we’re going to have at Modern Assembly, I’ve just been looking at where we are. Why am I bringing food to Hackney when there’s so much great food here? There’s people here from Eritrea, from Trinidad, from all over the world. We’re doing a big campaign to find out what people are cooking at home in their kitchens, to try and bring that in, rather than just bringing in loads more hot dogs and burgers. It’s a really interesting journey of discovery that hopefully, we can keep doing over time. In bringing all these people together with food, I’ve realised we can do so much more — we can create a platform to have all those important conversations we need to have today. So that’s what we’re going to be doing.