By Tyler Lewis
Header image by Tyler Lewis
Outside of Noak SE4, an initially small and humble café in Brockley which has come to be a staple of the area, the wind is blowing and the rain is drizzling. It’s a rather bleak day but inside the heating is turned all the way up and there’s a buzz.
By the windows of the large open space, which oddly feels a bit like a living room, young professionals tap away on their laptops and sip on their flat whites. Groups of friends’ cackle as they drink rooibos and camomile teas from Japanese inspired tea cups and flocks of new mums discuss the behaviours and eating habits of their young.
Noak SE4 is a culturally diverse cafe, restaurant and coffee shop that has come to represent the very best of the area which surround it.
There’s an assortment of different accents and inflictions, so many it would be impossible to try and pin them all down.
Scarlett, a Romanian born barista, churns out coffees and teas at speed but doesn’t let a single one leave the counter until the latte art is exactly how she wants it. Arranging the pastries is Ruth, the day-shift manger who calls Belfast her home town. French croissants are placed next to Danish tebirkes.
Zsolt, the head chef from Hungary, glides across the pass plating dishes stacked with vegetable salads and dripping in sauces. His Italian sous-chef Raf is somewhat frantic in the background of the open kitchen.
“One important thing about Shakespeare is that the cast and the plays show that he wrote for diverse talent. He understood that we all bring different things to the table and somehow you make it work out of that. He’s very accommodating and I suppose Shakespeare knows how to get the most out of what’s there.”
Emma Firestone is the owner of Noak. A Boston native, she moved to the UK in 2005 to do her masters in English at Cambridge following a successful stint at Harvard. In the 11 years that would follow she would do a PHD, marry her husband Matthias from Denmark, run a theatre company and have three children. Her youngest son is sat on her lap contently chewing on a croissant. Born just days before the opening of Noak in August, the café has become a home away from homes for him. She continues:
“I think you can take all types and get them working together to do something beautiful.”
Emma’s passion for culture and multiculturalism is reflected in every direction you look. The interior is a combination of different places. At the base there’s extremely minimalist and airy Scandinavian architecture. However, large wooden tables with long benches add the feel of an American ranch and the low hanging light fixtures without light shades remind you you’re only a few Overground stops away from the European capital of hipsters, Shoreditch. Two red tables with red chairs at either side of the entrance add a Parisian feel that every good café needs.
The menu is much like the interior. The food goes beyond the limits of one country or continent with Spanish tortilla, lentil ragu, black and white pudding, and ‘The Full Danglish Breakfast” all being on offer.
“I would not say that England on the whole is a sophisticated food culture. I think it’s an unsophisticated food culture with a little veneer of sophistication on top. People ask what kind of restaurant this is and sometimes I wish I could just shout CHINESE. It’s difficult to explain which means in the short term we will kind of confuse people and it will go over their heads. However, I think so long as everybody’s honest and is here for genuine reasons, because they like to serve or because they like to make food, we’ll get something that’s full of heart and worth presenting. The cliché would be to say it is thoroughly London.”
Sitting at a table in what has now become an important mark on Lewisham borough, it’s hard to imagine the area without this diverse and vibrant hangout. But getting to this point came close to being a Shakespearean tragedy for Emma.
“I wanted to see whether I could do a thing. I have a friend who is a chef and another friend who worked with him in the front of house and I was just their customer, buddy, and fan. In 2014 they had a place in East Dulwich. They were thinking of opening a place of their own and I found them this site. It had no ceiling, no floor, no walls, it needed a huge paint job, it needed electrical rewiring, it needed plumbing, it needed gas, it needed a new shop front. It was an enormous building project.
“I thought I would write a business plan and try to get us a bank loan and write to the landlord and see whether I could get the commercial lease for the place. I did all of those things. I wrote a business plan, I got a bank loan, and I got the lease. In the process though, I lost my partners. They got other jobs and couldn’t say no to them.
“I had got to the point where I didn’t want to give it up. I was too involved and too committed cash wise, and too committed emotionally to just send it back to the land lord. So, I pressed on.”
At this point it becomes very clear why Noak is such a success. Emma is an extremely driven business woman but also has an extinguishable passion for food.
“It’s important to say that I’ve always loved restaurants and I’m now just old enough to admit it. I have always been that person that shows up in a new city, or even my own town, and just walks around reading the menus in the windows because I think they’re so fun. We used to have something called the Zagat survey which compiles reviews sent in by knowledgeable customers and puts them into a book with different ratings for different restaurants and the Zagat for Boston was my Christmas present when I was 11. I read it cover to cover”
Emma throws one hand up in the air and proclaims, “I just loved thinking about restaurants. I had a theatre company that I developed with a partner who directed plays and I produced the plays, and to cut a really long story short, I think that the skill set used for producing plays is the same skill set used for opening and managing a restaurant. I wanted to build things and manage things”.
Through the door comes a group of friends and Emma quickly stands up to great them. As if she was a waitress she points them in the direction of a table and tells them she won’t be long.
To Emma, Noak isn’t about a style or reference of food but is instead anchored in quality, personality, and what she describes as ‘vibe’.
“It’s just of itself and of its time. It’s a little escape, it’s a little oasis where you can take it easy and just have some nice food. Things are nice, people care.”