Helena Spurr, foodie, chef & café owner

15 Nov

Everyone has a story, some of these stories are heard at cafes. The Finsbury Park end of Blackstock Road is crammed with north African style coffee shops packed with men, but there’s also Good For Food run by Helena Spurr which offers a very different Mediterranean dining experience that women, in particular, seem to love. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Helena Spurr: “I like good food and I’m extremely fussy.”

“When I started in Finsbury Park there was nothing like Good for Food – with coffee, cakes and healthy lunches – but now you have the Front Room, Vagabond and a French bakery along Stroud Green Road. There’s the Vintage Café on Mountgrove Road and two Cinamon Village,” says Helena, who cooks healthy salads, soup and mouth-watering borek from 8am until noon, ready for the lunchtime rush. “They looked at me, saw I was doing well and then they opened up. We offer free WiFi; now there’s an internet café over the road too. You could say I helped to change the area a little bit!”

After six years running the popular café at the Mary Ward Centre*, next to Great Ormond Street Hospital, Helena, 53, wanted a business nearer her Wilberforce Road home. She opened on 15 August 2005: within six months the café had broken even, and business was brilliant until the recession in 2008 began eating into people’s going out budgets.  Even so, when I meet her at 3pm on a Friday there are still plenty of customers in the 30-seater café.

Delicious cakes at Good For Food – and of course there are Portuguese custard tarts too, also known as “pasteis de nata”.

Growing up in Portugal
Helena learnt her craft in a very traditional way. “I’m Portuguese. My grandparents brought me up. When I was a little girl I’d mix mayonnaise and beat the cakes for my grandmother. She was a famous chef in my small town. She created recipes, and all day baked and cooked. Every morning she cleaned the house and then went to the vegetable and the fish market. She bought fresh and according to the season. I grew up eating the best food – and exotic food too because my grandfather had a coffee plantation on an island (this is now Sao Tome & Principe, a former Portuguese colony). He’d bring loads of spices from Africa, and we had curry and tea with milk – no one did that in Portugal then.

“I was 15 when there was a revolution. We were very happy to get rid of that dictator after 48 years. We heard it all on the radio, but there was an immediate change – before we couldn’t talk about politics.  It started with this political song and then we all went out into the street with banners saying ‘Down with Fascism,’ and ‘Long live socialism’, but it was so new us being allowed to say these things that we spelt Fascism wrong, we used an X instead of a C.”

“I wanted to be an interpreter (Helena speaks three languages – Portuguese, English and French) and my English teacher went on and on about London, Mary Quant and Kings Road. I thought one day I will go there. But Portugal wasn’t in the EU and so studies were very expensive. I never did the interpreting when I got to England in 1978, instead I carried on in catering.

Fussy foodie
“I met a British man in 1986 – we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this year. Graham is an archaeologist and a vegetarian. He’s against the killing of animals so he doesn’t eat meat, but does eat cheese, milk and eggs. Because I like good food and I’m extremely fussy I’ve always created good vegetarian food and that’s what we serve here, as well sometimes as fish.” Helena’s point about being fussy is true: several times she’s pointed out that I’ve picked dud items during my sporadic local shopping trips – though not in a rude way. I’ve never forgotten the slightly burnt baguette she noticed me carrying into her shop and was quickly quizzing me about where I’d sourced it. It’s lovely to have a foodie interested in what you pick out, and what you might make with it. It’s also a guarantee that what Helena serves up is delicious.

The pair have two sons, one already working as an editor, and the other at sixth form in Stoke Newington, both of whom have done a few stints in the café. But this is definitely Helena’s business. She’s there every day, cooking, ordering and serving. She’s also a voracious reader about all things food. “I read all the magazines and the blogs” she says. “I’ve millions of recipe books, I like to get ideas and create my own things.” Helena’s cous cous with roast vegetables is a treat, and there is also a special hot meal and a soup on sale each day until they run out. “I love talking about food, and I write down a lot of recipes in my little black Moleskin book at home, but I’m not thinking of a book. It takes a long time and I know it’s not going to sell – so collecting recipes has to be a hobby.

Good for Food staff (l-r): Kamila and Kornelia.

Good for Food has many regulars, but to date no celebrity chef has made a visit, even the Observer’s Nigel Slater who lives just up the hill. “I sometimes see people scribbling down notes, and I think this might be it… but so far, no…” It’s clear Helena is up for the challenge – so if anyone knows a food critic, please, point them towards Good for Food.

Good For Food, 16 Blackstock Road, London, N4, tel: 020 7503 0034
Open: Monday to Thursday 8.30am-6.30pm. Friday 8.30am-6pm. Saturday 8.30am-5.30pm. Sunday 10am-5pm
  

Words

  • Sao Tome & Principe (one of Africa’s smallest countries) 
  • Mary Ward Adult Education Centre is at 42 Queen Square, WC1N 3AQ,
  • Nearby coffee shops –Boulangerie Bon Matin, 178 Tollington Park, N4;  The Front Room Café, 158 Tollington Park, N4 and Vagabond, Unit 20, Charter Court, Stroud Green Road, N4. And in the other direction – Cinnamon Village 2, 162 Blackstock Road, Cinnamon Village, 109 Highbury Park, N5 and Vintage Café, 88 Mountgrove Road, N5. Good For Food is still the nearest to Finsbury Park tube and bus stops.

 Over to you
What do you think of this lovely cafe and the fantastic food served by Helena and her team? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. And yes, this islington people blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

 
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2 Responses to “Helena Spurr, foodie, chef & café owner”

  1. nicola baird November 16, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    From Facebook:
    Caroline B: This is a great place

  2. Nicolette November 17, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    This cafe is my second office. Always happy to have work meetings here. Long may it thrive!

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