Lunch is the most important meal of the day, in my book. Especially during the week. Mornings are not my forte – it’s all I can do to get myself dressed and out the door pre-8am – so breakfast usually happens by way of a banana at my desk, mid-morning. (Poor effort, I know. Sorry, mum.)
Dinner holds much more promise, but unless I’ve been organised by planning ahead and getting shopping in at the weekend – which is, I admit, rare – weekday evening meals (when I’m not out gallivanting around local restaurants) are often a rotation of old- faithful recipes that require little more than storecupboard staples and half an hour of my time, post-commute and dog walk. (Frozen peas are my most-used-in-an-emergency staple, by the way, for a twist on pesto, quick veggie sides and summery salads and soups.)
Lunchtime, then, often brings with it the most culinary potential during hectic working weeks. But choosing well is a challenge: go too light or too small and by 3pm productivity is rock bottom with your brain too preoccupied by that moaning, empty stomach – but too heavy and you spend the last three hours of the day trying to resist slipping under your desk for a nap, feeling far too lethargic and regretful to be of any professional use.
Thank goodness, then, for entrepreneurs like Vanessa In. This Bristol local set up Lunch Club in 2019 to get wholesome, delicious meals out to the city’s workers. It’s a pop-up affair, appearing regularly in offices and co-working spaces across Bristol, like Framework, Gather Round, St Nicholas House and Origin Workspace.
The menu changes up weekly – satay butternut squash with crunchy Thai noodle salad, and Mexican-spiced chicken with herby couscous and tomato salad are on the go on the week that I’m writing – and dishes are £6.50. Sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s exactly why, when Vanessa invited me over to her gaff for lunch one day, I practically bit her hand off.
When I rock up to her flat–which is all white walls and big sash windows, set in a lovely Georgian townhouse – the other guests have already congregated in the front room. This was a bit of a social event for members of The Coven in Bristol – an online community of female entrepreneurs and freelancers.
On the guestlist are jeweller (and founder of Skin and Bone) Jess Grant, freelance graphic designer Beatrice Menis, photographer and artist Laura Mallet, and Bristol Film Festival producer Catherine Gillott.
No time is wasted in tucking into the canapés: satay prawn shooters. Shot glasses are layered up with chopped nuts and peanut sauce, with plump, marinated prawns poking out the top along with crudites of carrot and cucumber. This, Vanessa says, is a take on a regular Lunch Club dish, which is usually served with a Thai noodle salad.
Much of Vanessa’s food has an Eastern feel, with lots of Thai and Chinese influences. This has a lot to do with her family’s roots, she explains, but also how well this style of cuisine lends itself to healthy but filling midday meals.
“The foundations of my food ethos for Lunch Club were built on my Chinese heritage and the kind of food I grew up eating – fresh ingredients, cooked simply.
“I find healthy eating can sometimes be unsustainable as the options out there either are not actually very good for you once you add the dressing, or leave you feeling hungry. In Chinese culture, the idea of detoxing or starving yourself is crazy – food should always be enjoyed and celebrated!”
So, she thought there must be a way to create meals that are delicious and filling, but also make you feel good after eating them.
“Oriental cooking is good for this, as it uses a lot of herbs and fragrant vegetables which are flavoursome in themselves and don’t require much seasoning to be added,” says Vanessa, noting that it works very well for people with specific dietary requirements.
“Most Chinese people are lactose intolerant to some degree, so this kind of food is naturally dairy-free.”
Post-canapés, we take a seat at the large dining table in the centre of the plant- bedecked room. (If you like the look of Vanessa’s foliage, it came from Wild Leaf Bristol in St Andrews, who’s also just done the plant landscaping for The Wave.) Soon, we’re taking delivery of our lunch from the kitchen hatch. Deep bowls are piled with cardamom and lime soba noodles, topped with hunks of juicy sweet chilli chicken, roasted broccoli, fresh coriander, radish and sesame seeds. On the side comes a lime, ginger and soy dressing, which, after a taste, is swiftly upended over my bowl in all its fresh, zingy deliciousness.
This is just the kind of food that Vanessa cooks for Lunch Club, she says.
“I generally stay away from recipes where you buy a load of obscure ingredients, use them once, and then they sit in the cupboard going off, so I tend to use a few of the same ingredients across all of the dishes,” she explains, describing the building blocks of her cookery as herbs and spices, citrus and fragrant vegetables.
Reg the Veg in Clifton is a favourite of Vanessa’s for all those greenery needs, and her meat comes from Wood Family Butchers in Shirehampton. (“A friend recommended them and they are the loveliest people who offer incredible value – it’s how I’m able to control the costs for Lunch Club while still using quality meat.”)
Dessert has been created by Anna Cake Couture – whose shop is dangerously close to Vanessa’s flat – and takes the form of perfectly light macarons.
I’m the first to drag themselves away from the table (and with half a bottle of wine still sat in front of us, too – sometimes I really outdo myself ) to get back to my desk. I’ve got lots to get done, and this working lunch has got me pretty fired up for the afternoon…
Photography by Alice Whitby