When G. Kelly pie and mash on Roman Road reopened after being closed for refurbishment the fanfare was fit for a rockstar. East Londoners queued down the road for their fill, social media was suddenly chock-a-block with locals posing with ‘proper’ pies and mash, and owner Neil Vening has been as busy as he’s ever been – which is some feat.
The love-in is no great surprise to anyone familiar with Bow in East London. G. Kelly has been a fixture on the street for almost a century, and when it closed for refurbishment in 2017 the clamour for it to reopen was almost immediate. We spoke with Vening about the shop’s history, its ongoing commitment to handmade food, and the cultural value of old businesses.
G. Kelly at 526 Roman Road has been in the Vening family for three generations. Some of you may remember when there were two of them on the road, the other being at 600. That had been in the family for four generations.
Neil Vening, 28, has taken over the main responsibilities of running the shop. He’s been involved in its workings on and off since he was 12 years old, when he was drafted in to wash dishes. By the final year of his degree, he knew his future lay at G. Kelly.
It’s been something of a baptism of fire for Vening. Soon after his return, it became clear the building needed refurbishing if it was to have any kind of long-term future, but he isn’t one to be flustered. We speak in the new-look, old-school interior of the shop and his mind always focuses ahead. Vening is a solutions guy, not a problems guy.
‘The idea was always to get it as close to the original as possible,’ he says, his eyes flicking over the immaculate white tiles and faded photographs. The shop’s ‘new’ exterior is almost indistinguishable from one taken before World War Two. That’s the era Vening was aiming for.
All the mirrors in the shop are original. The doors are original The grills in the window were dug out of the attic and restored. The sign was made by Ged Palmer of Luminor Sign Co using original designs. Even the tiles were made by the same company as the originals were – Minton Hollins now owned and available from Jonhson Tiles.
The jewel in the crown of the refurb, though, is undoubtedly the bakehouse. Where there was once a shed there is now a glistening, bustling kitchen operating in full view of its customers. Pies are cooked on demand throughout the day and brought out fresh, often by Vening himself. Every time we’ve met he’s been wearing an apron.
Automation is a big no-no at G. Kelly. They mince the meat themselves and assemble the pies by hand. The dough and mash begin their lives as sacks of potatoes and flour. Tins are effectively banned. Ingredients have to be fresh. That’s the value for Vening. A huge amount of effort goes into the final product.
‘When you do it all from scratch without big machines it is difficult,’ he says. ‘People think pie and mash is a simple food, but being able to produce that on-site from scratch for £3.80 takes more care than people realise.’
If the never-ending stream of customers is anything to go by, the care resonates. Food made with care tastes better than food made with machines. ‘I don’t take much joy from selling cans of coke,’ Vening laughs. ‘And actually people always finish their pies but they normally leave half a cup of coke left.’
G. Kelly shows that the old ways can not only hold their own on the modern high street, they can thrive. It’s an oddly modern approach in this day and age. They’ve even been selling vegan pies since 1994. ‘Before it was cool,’ Vening laughs.
The mash there is still water-based, and eels (jellied and stewed) remain on the menu. The latter splits opinion. ‘Some people love them, some people hate them,’ he says. ‘It’s very rare that you get someone in between, it’s a bit like marmite.’ Italian tourists like them, French not so much. Vening’s grandfather used to go out to Italy and see the eel fisheries at the lakes. It’s part of their food culture.
The working class origins of the dish go some way to explaining why G. Kelly is the busiest its been since the 1980s. ‘Because pie and mash is a very simple food, and it’s always been considered a poor person’s meal, I think for a long time people’s attitudes were negative towards it,’ Vening says.
‘These days there’s an understanding that there’s nothing wrong with food which is simple and doesn’t cost huge amounts of money. It doesn’t have to be really cutting edge gastronomy to be something you want to eat. And if you can afford to eat it six times, that’s perfect.’
The shop is already being adopted into West Ham matchday ritual. Tube, pie and mash, down the Roman to the London Stadium, watch the game, home. Lovely jubbly.
Not that Vening is content to rest on his laurels. The core menu is solid, but additions are on the horizon, starting with the reintroduction of apple and rhubarb crumble. More leeway to be creative with desserts. ‘There’s no hard and fast dessert you have to have with pie and mash, except maybe a pie,’ Vening says.
And that’s to say nothing of events, or social media, or stalls, or all manner of possibilities open to G. Kelly now it’s back in business. ‘There’s always stuff to do,’ he says. ‘I could work every hour of every day if I wanted to.’ Right now Vening settles for most hours of the day. He’s just glad to be back in G. Kelly normality.
‘I’m continuing the tradition of my family, and I suppose a cultural artefact. Without us what other old businesses would there be? We lost the old printer, Arber’s. It’s just us and Abbott’s.’ he says. ‘I think that it’s essential to have culture that’s not a new invention, that is actually a real thing.’ New shops should own that they’re new, and old shops should own that they’re old.
G. Kelly certainly embraces its past, and locals love the place for it. With revamped infrastructure in place, you wouldn’t bet against the shop going strong on the Roman for another four generations and beyond. Here’s to that.
If you liked reading this, you may also like our feature on the re-opening of Angel and Crown pub.
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