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CODE meets Marc Summers, Bubala

Published 21 October 2020

By Harriet Prior

Whilst it doesn’t shout about being a vegetarian restaurant, Bubala has quietly helped to change the perception of vegetarian food in the capital. Here we speak to founder Marc Summers about the idea behind Bubala, his favourite dish on the menu and why testing your concept before going permanent is so important.

For those that haven’t visited, tell us a bit more about Bubala? 

Bubala is a neighbourhood Middle Eastern restaurant which happens to be vegetarian. We serve up small dishes full of flavour ideal for sharing amongst family and friends. Bubala translates as ‘darling’ in Yiddish; a term of endearment that really encompasses how we want everyone to feel when they experience Bubala, whether it’s our team or customers.    

And where did the idea come from? 

The idea started when I started observing reactions from customers to vegetarian dishes. It became very clear to me that vegetables deserved the spotlight. They were often the stars of the show without having the platform. My favourite Middle Eastern mezze had always been the veggie ones. No fake meats, no substitutes, just working with great quality produce and letting it sing. As soon as I met Helen Graham (our amazing head chef), the menu was taken to the next level and our vision was cemented.  

Do you hope to change the perception of vegetarian food? 

We like to think our food does the talking. To be honest, we really don’t like to shout about it being vegetarian. Helen and I have always said we do not want to be pigeonholed as a vegetarian restaurant. We see ourselves primarily as a Middle Eastern restaurant and hope that we can be seen as a great restaurant, not a great vegetarian restaurant. Vegetarian food has come a long way in the last 10 years but I’m convinced there is so much more to come from. I find it really interesting that when people go for an Italian meal and eat burrata, spaghetti pomodoro and a margherita pizza, there is no mention that they have eaten a completely vegetarian meal. Its just about using the best produce, being creative and giving the ingredients the care and attention that they deserve.  

You recently celebrated your first birthday with an all-star chef line-up. How was that?  

It was great to celebrate the amazing options we have in Spitalfields. To be able to work with Farokh (St. JOHN), Andi Oliver, Mark Dobbie (Somsaa) and Nirmal Save (Gunpowder) was an absolute pleasure and a truly proud moment. I have been going to these restaurants for years before Bubala was born and would never have expected to celebrate our first birthday with them.  

You’ve already received high praise from critics. How does it feel when you get these reviews? 

Its surreal. There is no better way to explain it. We were reviewed a few times in the first couple of months and it probably didn’t sink in until lockdown which was probably the first time we could breathe since opening. The best feeling was that they all absolutely got Bubala. They understood exactly what we are about. All of them assumed that we had a small budget (correct!) but we had put all of our resources into the delivery of the food and service. Even if Jay was angry at our use of the term latke on our menu! 

What is your favourite dish on the menu?  

Grilled Halloumi with Black Seed Honey. It’s a winner. So simple but it surprises me how amazing it is every time I eat it (which is way too often). 

Have you adapted your offering during lockdown?  

Fortunately, being a small team has allowed us to be really flexible and implement change very quickly. During lockdown we started doing cookalongs where Helen would teach groups how to make incredibly tasty veggie dishes at home, peaking (or troughing) when we did an Instagram live cookalong with a Love Island contestant for a tech brand. Absolutely bananas! At the same time we started delivering Shakshuka kits for the weekend and also worked with Shuk to create a Bubala Babka delivery kit. Since re-opening, we are offering our ‘Bubala Knows Best’ set menu which not only helps from a logistical point of view but also is the best representation of the Bubala experience. To continue to deliver meal kits, we are now working with the great team at Dishpatch.

What’s your favourite thing about working in hospitality? 

It’s an unbeatable feeling watching people’s facial expressions when they eat our food. No words needed. Their eyes light up, smiling from ear to ear. That makes me very happy. Its so important, not just during this time, for people to continue experience the moments that we all took for granted pre-Covid. We’re all in this to make people happy and I hope for the whole hospitality industry that we can continue to do so! 

Finally, What would you say to those looking to set up their own company? 

Test your concept. We did Pop Ups for over a year, listening to feedback and perfecting dishes. It also gave us the experience and confidence to work in any environment and know we can thrive in any circumstances. I would also say expect things to go wrong. They always do. But if you’re prepared and have solutions to problems then you can overcome anything!  

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