A stone’s throw away from Roman Road, Victoria Park’s lakeside Pavilion Cafe and its signature Sri Lankan breakfasts are a mainstay of our local patch of green. Crisp, savoury, coconut pancakes serve as a bed for a just-soft yellow egg yolk, punchy sambals and a soul-reviving turmeric gravy. While a classic Sri Lankan dish of lentil dhal and rice appropriated with a boiled egg make for a belly-warming brunch. The chefs are Sri Lankan too, blending the flavours of their childhood for a distinctly sunnier feeling park café menu.
The story behind Pavilion’s Sri Lankan dishes, and indeed, behind the East End foodie hot-spot itself, is known to few outside of the close knit band of local suppliers and growers that work with the café and its owner. Rob Green took over the Pavilion in Victoria Park in 2011 after making a success of his Sri Lankan tea stall on Borough and Broadway Market. He’d spent a chunk of time before this in the foothills of Sri Lanka volunteering at an orphanage, made contacts on the tea plantations there and began selling the aromatic tea blends in London on his return.
‘The idea behind it was I’d capture the essence of each season in Sri Lanka in organic tea leaves supplied from a single estate,’ says Green. A portion of the profits would then go back into funding the orphanage he’d volunteered at in Sri Lanka.
Cutting his teeth alongside the best food growers in the UK and the most inspiring people in the food industry, Green turned his attentions to café culture. First came Elliott’s bistro, a joint venture which led to Green going it alone with Pavilion. ‘I liked the sourdough baking element and having a day-time job,’ he says of the decision to focus on Pavilion and his bakery.
Light, airy, dog and kid-friendly – Pavilion has become a bastion of what all local cafes should be. A favourite with Hackney-based foodies like Gizzie Erskine, the Pavilion Café is unpretentious and serves up unfussy food to a high-standard and an ever-evolving menu that’s a reflection of the times. A move to become meat-free this year was inevitable.
‘Over the past few years, we have made the effort to reduce our amount of meat products and have finally decided to pull it completely from our offer and concentrate on developing menus based around well sourced plant-based food,’ says Green. ‘We feel the challenge for the next years should be focusing on reducing waste, purchasing produce from organic growers, understanding and using food for health through education and working with our community.’
The café’s support of the community has in fact been key to Pavilion’s success story. Subsequent stores on Broadway market, Columbia Road and Newquay have opened, all owing to Green’s commitment to buy local and give back. ‘I don’t want to sell my business or my brand to someone bigger,’ he says. ‘I want to be here for five years, ten years, twenty years. I want to look after the people that have helped build this business with me.’
Sri Lanka was where the Pavilion story began. From Green’s experience in the hill country right the way through to his tea stalls in London. The Pavilion bakeries incorporate cardamom and turmeric into their bun recipes, while the café’s Sri Lankan breakfast is a firm favourite with locals. All this, Green says, is feeding back into the orphanage that inspired his journey as a small business owner. ‘My ultimate goal is to get back to Sri Lanka and open a foundation for street children there,’ he says. ‘Not just donating money like we do now, but funding a whole charitable initiative.’
That cup of coffee, your cardamom bun or this morning’s veg-packed brunch at Pavilion isn’t just feeding your appetite then. It’s feeding a food evolution focused on reducing food waste, supporting local growers and feeding our community wholesome, healthy and nutritious values. Rob hopes you’re hungry.