If you were to visit the Climpson and Sons coffee roastery in East London on the weekend, you might be surprised at what you’d find. On a sunny day, the tables in the courtyard are populated with Londoners cautiously beginning to enjoy the late appearance of warm weather. Pints of beer are sipped and arms are bared, while jackets lurk cautiously underneath the table in case of nearly inevitable sudden showers. A lively buzz and noise spills out from inside the roastery, a cavernous space beneath the railway arches between Cambridge Heath and London Fields stations, where trains roll overhead and rattle the corrugated tin roof.
But today, the noise isn’t the sound of a roasting machine tumbling a few kilograms of coffee at a time, and the delicious smells hanging in the air aren’t the sweet, malty aromas of caramelizing coffee beans. The roasting machine sits to one side quietly, its metallic sides gleaming, the exhaust pipe hanging over the tables of diners. Some people turn and regard it briefly before returning to their spread of sticky rice, curries, barbequed meats, and ice cold Thai beers. They may not even know that the space is normally a coffee roastery—all they know is that amazing food can be found here. And why would they have reason to know it for anything but food? Climpson and Son’s roastery, also called Climpson’s Arch, has become more widely known in London for its strong lineup of excellent chef residencies for nearly three years. When the weekday roasting is done, the space transforms into a fully-licensed bar, kitchen, and events space.
Crossovers between the worlds of specialty coffee and good dining—baristas and roasters who seek out the best eats in their city; chefs and restaurateurs who prize a well-roasted, well-pulled espresso—are common enough. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that when Ian Burgess, owner of Climpson and Sons, found a large new space for his expanding business in 2012, he wanted to share it with talented chefs. The residencies at Climpson’s Arch have moved from strength to strength following the first in 2012, when Australian chef Dave Pynt brought his Burnt Enz pop-up to life for one, glorious, unusually sunny Olympian summer. Perhaps because of the success of Burnt Enz, with its wood-fired oven, charcoal grills, and “boutique” BBQ cuisine, the Climpson’s team sought to install wood-fired ovens of their own—as well as a working kitchen in a shipping container. The next residency saw Lucky Chip, cult London burger joint, take its art of grilling to another level, cooking anything but burgers. Now, since October of last year, chef Andy Oliver’s Som Saa pop-up has had casual diners and food critics alike all aflutter over their flavorful Northern Thai dishes.
While most Thai restaurants that London diners are familiar with tend to focus on Southern Thai cuisine—think spicy red and green curry pastes mixed with smooth coconut milk—the offerings at Som Saa gravitate more towards Northern Thai cuisine, specifically the Isaan region, where Laotian and Khmer culinary influences can be seen. One of the more well-known dishes to come out of this region is som tam, or green papaya salad, a refreshing and complex salad high in acidity, heat, and a pleasant sourness. One of the stand-out dishes on the menu is the gaeng heng lay, pork belly seasoned with pickled garlic, tamarind, and ginger, then roasted in the wood-fired oven until crisp and crackling. It’s served with a curry thinner than its Southern Thai counterparts, but no less flavor-packed, and a little basket of sticky rice.
Andy Oliver became enchanted with Southeast Asian cuisine while travelling around that part of the world when he was 19 years old. Following stints at acclaimed Thai restaurants Bo.Lan in Bangkok and Nahm in London, he has been running Som Saa as an intermittent pop-up over the past few months while he looks for a permanent space in London. Though their residency at Climpson’s Arch was supposed to end earlier this year, it was so popular that they have committed to stay at least until the end of the summer, by which time Oliver hopes to have a permanent home for his concept. Until then, he will be more than happy to bring this underrepresented cuisine to the hungry public of London.
After Som Saa moves on, it isn’t clear yet which innovative chef will step in to take over the grill at Climpson’s Arch, but if the past is anything to go on, it will be a residency worth checking out. Until then, the worlds of specialty coffee and good dining will coexist in a happy symbiosis at this innovative roastery—a real world reflection of the way these industries naturally complement each other.