The Crumbs interview: Elly Pear
06 July 2016
"He told me to get an iPhone and Instagram my own meringues. So I did. And then look what happened!”
We get gritty about pleasing publishers, slaying social media and ridiculous rumours…
Words by JESSICA CARTER
Whether it be as a café owner, cook, food writer, social media heavyweight or general girl-about-the-foodie-town, we bet you know Elly Curshen. Most familiar to some as Elly Pear (we’ll get to that later), this adopted Bristolian hails originally from London. Having moved to Bristol for uni back in 1999, she… Well, she just never left, really. Now she has a brand spanking new book – Elly Pear’s Fast Days & Feast Days – which it seems everyone was falling over themselves to get their mitts on the second it was released…
Elly owns a food-to-go joint, The Pear Café near Stokes Croft, which she opened 10 years ago. Although she’s always been into good grub, and was thinking about starting her own foodie biz, a café wasn’t what she originally had in mind. (“My mum says to me, ‘Oh, you always wanted a café,’” she tells us, “but I never remember saying that!”) So, when she rocked up to a half-day business course run by Bristol and Avon Enterprise Agency with a pal, she had no idea she’d spend the following evening frantically typing up a business proposal for one…
“We were originally thinking about some kind of catering or events company,” Elly remembers. “But when we turned up to the course [held at The Coach House, where the café now is], we saw there was an empty unit. We sat through the course, but the whole time I just wanted to find out what the deal was with downstairs. So we did. They said they were looking for someone to move in, but that they’d need our business proposal by Friday – this was on the Wednesday – and we hadn’t even thought about doing it. So I went home, and just typed and typed and typed.
“My aim was always to make the kind of food that I’d want to eat. When I was little, we’d go to sandwich shops in Soho or Greenwich Market on a Sunday, where they’d have counters like I have now. Being able to have a sandwich made exactly how you want it is what I wanted to offer."
Of course, we’ve been through two recessions since then, and this has always been a small business. It must have been tough at times, right?
“Oh, the number of places that have opened and closed in that time is ridiculous,” Elly says, “but we’re just, like, heads down, keep going and keep doing what you know is right. All sorts of people have told me what I should be doing over the years, but I’m like, no, what we’re going to do is make the best food we can, and make it at a price that people are willing to pay. We don’t try to make it mega, mega-cheap because food shouldn’t be mega, mega-cheap. You can only make food mega cheap if it’s mega-crap.
“I’m really stubborn, though, and I always knew what I thought was the right way to do it, so I just kept going. I was certainly not trying to please everyone all the time.”
Call it stubbornness, call it decisiveness: if there’s one thing this foodie entrepreneur knows, it’s how she wants her scran. And, perhaps one of the (many, we bet) reasons she’s never been able to peel herself away from Bristol is that her philosophy happens to be totally in sync with that of the city itself.
“It’s about making things from scratch, and using local suppliers,” she says. “We all walk or cycle into work, too. That’s just the way we are. And I think it’s really reflective of Bristol: the way we’re able to run our business. I just wouldn’t be able to do it like this in other places.”
And the book – whose pages are lined with fresh, colourful, imaginative recipes – follows the same ethos, while remaining properly accessible.
“The whole point is trying to get people to stretch themselves,” explains Elly. “It’s not just chopping stuff up and putting it on the plate, but it’s nothing that’s going be like ‘Ah, that’s too hard, I can’t event approach it,’ either.”
The book is based around the 5:2 lifestyle, a plan which involves having careful control over your food intake for two days of the week, then pretty much eating and drinking whatever the heck you like for the other five.
There is a mix of fast day and feast day dishes, as well as a ton of practical information: the concept of 5:2; Elly’s own experiences; where and how it’s best to shop; even how to fit booze around your diet. Although, diet isn’t really the best way to describe Elly’s take on things...
“This is about changing the way that you eat for life,” she says. “Although you can lose weight quickly if you do the 5:2, this book is so much more than that.”
Whether you’re into fast days or not, you’ll be into the food here: straightforward weeknight dishes are joined by dinner party recipes, brekkies and snacks. After all, the aim, Elly tells us, was for Fast Days… to serve not only as a recipe guide, but as a source of some proper, good, practical foodie inspo, too.
“This is basically my kitchen diary,” she says. “It’s food from the café, from home, and from The Basement – the supper club that Dan [Vaux-Nobes – you know, from Grillstock and Essex Eating] and I ran. The home meals are obviously where the fast day stuff came from, because there aren’t any fast day foods at the café. Pure practicality means we can’t serve that; we just can’t weigh things and measure them carefully enough.”
But, if you are wanting to do a wee bit of a shred, and adopt the 5:2 lifestyle, this is the gal to hit up: she knows her fasting facts.
“I have lived it for a long time,” she says. “I lost weight, and kept doing it for ages after. And I also have knowledge about what happens if you stop doing it.”
That’s right, Elly’s just one of us – and certainly not a total 5:2 saint...
“I can be nothing but truthful about what I’ve done, and that’s what’s on the page,” she says. “I couldn’t do two fast days a week while I was recipe testing, though – there was just too much to do. But if I can fit two fast days into a week, that’s great. I know how good it makes me feel.”
That said, she worries that she’s letting the side down if she doesn’t stick with the regime herself.
“I did think that if I’m not doing two fast days when my book comes out then I’m not speaking the truth,” she says. “But my life is the truth; I have to honest. It’s more valuable to say to people that if they do it – and I did it for two years or something – that they’re not going to balloon again afterwards. You’ve changed the way you eat, and the way that you approach cooking. I certainly haven’t put the weight back on, and that’s as valuable a lesson as there is.
“The whole point, anyway, is to free yourself from calorie counting; you don’t need to weigh or measure anything for five days a week. And I’ve tested this theory to the max. I have whatever I want. Seriously. (You read these interviews where people say they stuff themselves all the time, and you think, ‘Bollocks, you do’. But really, speak to any of my friends. They’ll tell you I eat and drink a huge amount.)”
Having said that, though, when she’s at home Elly’s always cooking fresh food from scratch.
“When I say ‘have whatever you like’,” she says, “I’m still talking about good quality ingredients, cooking from scratch, and basing your meals around vegetables.”
However people have been using her recipes, though, the feedback has already started flooding in – thanks, in part, to social media, which has transformed the way cookery writers interpret how well their work is going down, reckons Elly.
“Even just a few years ago, you wouldn’t have had this experience of releasing a book where, literally the day it comes out, people are posting pictures of what they’ve made from it,” she says. “Not so many years ago, if Nigella bought a book out, and everybody’s making every recipe from it and absolutely loving it, she wouldn’t have got to see other people’s versions. Not unless someone actually took a photo, printed it out, and posted it in a letter to her. And who does that? Nobody.”
In case you’re one of the few food-loving locals who isn’t following Elly, the fact is that she’s a bit of a social media pro, and pretty darn popular on the old Insta: we’re talking upwards of 36k followers, here. But she still remembers how it started…
“I know exactly when I started using Instagram, because I had a Blackberry (which you couldn’t use it on) and Dan had an iPhone, and we’d made these amazing Ottolenghi-style meringues for a catering event. They were all piled up in our kitchen, and I was like, ‘Dan, take a picture, take a picture, put it on Instagram!’ And he told me to get an iPhone and Instagram my own meringues. So I did. And then look what happened!”
There’s more to it than pretty pictures, though; Elly found social media to be a massive help in negotiating her way around a new business…
“For me, Twitter became like a staff room. When you’re running a business on your own, you’ve no-one to bounce ideas off. And it was quite isolating to be in a takeaway café that’s not open evenings and weekends. No one could come and sit at the bar with you and have a chat. [There are no tables at the caff – it’s so cosy that it’s almost a one-in-one-out affair.] If you open a restaurant, you’ve always got the hope that people are going to come and start hanging out with you. But I didn’t have that, and it was really hard.
“Nearly all my friends that work in food in Bristol I first met through Twitter, because we wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise – we were all just doing our thing. With Twitter, though, you end up feeling like you’ve got a staff room. So if you need any help with something, or want advice, or just need to bounce some ideas around, it becomes this amazing resource, where everyone’s in the same boat. The connections built through Twitter are incredible.”
Social is also how her alias of Elly Pear came about, she explains.
“When I started my Instagram account I made a really conscious decision for it to be personal, and not to call it Pear Café,” she says, “so I thought, ‘Elly from the Pear Café’, and that turned into ‘Elly Pear’ – and now that’s how everybody knows me. I was mortified to hear some rumour was going around that I’d changed my name! There are no other Curshens in the world apart from me, so my name is a massive part of my identity.”
Having become something of a foodie star, moving in celeb circles, and now promoting her book, Elly is often to be found darting around the country. There seems to be no question of her upping sticks, though – the ever-evolving and refreshingly collaborative Bristol food community is still where it’s at for her.
“Hospitality is a really tight club,” she says, “and, for me, Bristol is food and food is Bristol. In my mind, the two are completely one and the same: I can’t separate them.
“What I love, though, is that in Bristol it’s all very uncompetitive. It’s like, we know we’re not London – and we don’t care. We might be years behind with some trends and fashions and stuff, but the thing is, we’re not trying to catch up. We’re just doing our thing at Bristol pace, cider-fuelled and chilled as–”
We get you, Elly.