Lillie O’Brien

1st April 2016

Interview & Photographs: Monica R. Goya

1st April 2016

Interview & Photographs: Monica R. Goya

In 2011, Lillie O’Brien quit her job as pastry chef at St John Bread & Wine to start making jam. After four years at Fergus Henderson’s much-loved restaurant in Spitalfields, Lillie, who is from Melbourne, was keen to set up a company of her own. At first she sold her jams at farmers’ markets in east and west London. Then she found a tiny premises in Clapton, close to where she lives, and turned it into a beautiful and highly personal shop. London Borough of Jam opens only two days a week but it’s well worth finding time to visit: Lillie is warm and welcoming, she stocks a variety of well-chosen products (chocolate, honey, books, baskets) and there are always interesting topics being discussed, from bee conservation to making your own vinegar. Oh, and her jams are out of this world.

She produces them all in her kitchen at home, often matching fruit from New Spitalfields Market in nearby Leyton with herbs and flowers from her own back garden. Lillie lives off Chatsworth Road with her husband Marcus, a graphic designer, and their house feels just as relaxed and welcoming as the shop. Any discomfort I feel about intruding on her breakfast is immediately put to rest by her easy-going nature and contagious smile – it feels more like hanging out with an old friend.

On my way over, she texts asking if I could pick up some heavy cream. As well as plum and wild fennel jam (using blossoms from the garden), she’s making raspberry fool with a butter bread that she prepared the previous day. It’s a dispiritingly grey August morning, but the forecasted rain doesn’t turn up so we set out our plates in the garden under a dark, threatening sky. The wonderfully fresh  raspberries add flavour and texture to the whipped cream and the bread, croissant-like in its butteriness, goes perfectly with the jam. Not a breakfast you should have every day, we agree, but sometimes you’ve got to make an exception.

Continued below...

Where did you grow up and when did you move to London?

I grew up in Melbourne and moved to London in 2007. I came over to do some cooking, then I met my husband and never left, much to my mother’s disappointment. She keeps asking: “When are you coming back?”

Was food important back home?

My mum is a really good cook – she’s so good at feeding people, you’d think she’s Italian. She always cooked everything from scratch and there’d be enough homemade chutneys and preserves in the house to last the year. We never had take-out and I was never allowed to have junk food. My mum threw a lot of dinner parties and I love cooking for other people as well.

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When did you first start cooking by yourself?

I didn’t cook much at home because my mum is such a good cook (and a control freak, so she wouldn’t let me). When I was a teenager I worked in a café in Melbourne making coffees, and I started helping out with the cooking there. Later my parents moved to a farm in the countryside, but I didn’t want to leave Melbourne so I had to learn how to cook properly. The first meals I cooked for myself involved putting things in the pot or oven for a long time – slow-cooked dishes like osso buco or a shank.

At St John I’d make the dough on Friday night, the baker would deep-fry the doughnuts late Saturday night, and on Sunday morning they’d be ready for me to pipe the custard

Have you always worked with food?

I planned to go to university and study textiles, but I dropped out after a couple of months and mooched around for a year or so. Then a family friend offered me an apprenticeship in cooking at a hotel and I jumped in the chance. After that I worked for five years at a bistro in Melbourne called Cicciolina. When I was 25 I moved to Japan for a year to cook for the Australian government in Nagoya – that was an amazing experience. Then I came to London.

Did you start working at St John straight away?

Not long afterwards. My friend Rachel went to St John Bread & Wine and asked if there were any jobs going. James Lowe, the head chef at the time, said there weren’t any in the kitchen but there was a job going in pastry. I always liked pastry so I went down, met James and he asked if I could do a trial the next day. I said, Yep, no worries. I did the trial and was there for the next four years.

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It sounds like a nice job. Did you enjoy it?

It was great. I couldn’t believe it: I had my own kitchen. The pastry kitchen was bigger than the normal kitchen, which had four people in it, whereas I had this whole space to myself. We were the ones who did the doughnuts1. It’s quite a labour-intensive process. I’d make the dough on Friday night, the baker would deep-fry them late Saturday night, and on Sunday morning they’d be ready for me to pipe the custard into them. It was a bit of a mission. I made them for many years.

Was St John a nice place to work?

Yeah, really nice, and we were a really tight team. I’m still really good friends with everyone, though we’ve all gone our separate ways.

Jam really captures a specific moment, and it lasts a long time – you’ll open the jam at some point in the future and remember that moment

Why did you leave?

I guess I was in my early 30s and didn’t want to be a head chef. I didn’t want to do double shifts any more or work Sundays, but still wanted to do something with food. I had started making jam when I was still at St John. I sold them at Chatsworth Road market every second Sunday, testing it out. It’s a pretty nuts idea, to say I was going to start making jam for a living. Now everyone is making their own craft beer or setting up street food stalls or whatever, but there wasn’t much of that going on in London four years ago.

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Did you have much experience making jam?

I’ve always made jellies and things – in Melbourne I used to make crab-apple jelly with fruit from my mum’s tree. And we used to have big marmalade sessions at St John every January, making enough to last the whole year. There was a nice show on BBC radio recently about preserving, presented by Diana Henry. They were discussing why people like making jam, and someone said that it really captures a specific moment, and it lasts a long time – you’ll open the jam at some point in the future and remember that moment.

What’s the most popular jam in your shop?

Fig and Earl Grey. If I stopped making it, people would start getting angry. Honestly, I think I could just sell fig and Earl Grey and everyone would be happy. People like the texture, and it’s versatile – really good in yoghurt. It’s not really a toast jam.

Describe your average day at work.

On Tuesday or Wednesday mornings, I’ll get up at 5.30am and go to New Spitalfields Market in Leyton, which is just down the road from me (it’s the massive wholesale hub for whole east of London). I’ll look around and see what’s available depending on the time of the year and buy all my fruit – plums and figs in September, citrus in January, Wiltshire rhubarb in early spring. Usually I make jam two days a week – I make it in my kitchen at home. The other days I’ll do deliveries or I’m in the shop – I spread it out a bit. I’m always in the shop on weekends.

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Talk me through what you would eat on an average day.

When I come home from the market at 8.30am, I sit down and have my breakfast, which is green tea and an omelette or scrambled eggs on toast, or yoghurt and fruit. I try to sit down for half an hour and decide what I am going to do for the day. I won’t have a coffee until midday – I don’t really like coffee in the morning, it’s too harsh.
If I skip a meal it would be lunch, because I’ll have snacks in the afternoon. But if I’m having lunch, at 1 or 1.30pm, I usually decide based on what’s in the fridge. It might be something really simple like an omelette, a broth, and lots of stuff from the garden too – courgettes, tomatoes, herbs. I am quite happy eating the same thing, I don’t worry about what I am going to cook.

Pacific Social is a café during the day and a Japanese restaurant at night. I go there for the okonomiyaki
Lillie on her favourite London restaurants – see Address Book

What about dinner?

Dinner will also be based around what I have. I get a vegetable box every week from Leila’s Shop [see Address Book] and right now I am going mental with courgettes. My husband works near Southbank so he can always pick up some fish or cheese from Borough Market and I’ll do something with it. But it’s really only when I take the day off, or when I’m on holiday, that I can properly think about food.

What’s your favourite meal of the day?

I’d probably say dinner because it’s usually shared with someone. Friends will often come over or we’ll go out. Whereas breakfast and lunch are usually on my own.

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Describe what you are like in the kitchen.

I am a chef by training and my tutors were quite harsh – you were only given two oven cloths for the whole day – so I’m very organised. I clean as I go along. I do composting with leftovers. Sometimes I wish I could be more relaxed. I don’t give nearly as much attention to the rest of the house as I give to the kitchen.

How do you divide your cooking duties?

I usually do the cooking because I really like it, and I am a bit of a control freak. Marcus needs a cookbook and lots of time and focus when he’s cooking, whereas I can just cook something in half an hour. He is very good doing breakfast, that’s his thing. But otherwise I don’t really let him cook. He’s messy as in the kitchen. It doesn’t really work when we cook together, it’s just easier if I do it.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Lillie O’Brien
London, August 2015

To eat:

Butter bread and raspberry fool »
Plum and wild fennel jam »

To drink:

Water

Is cooking a pleasure for you?

Yes, I love it. I find it very relaxing. I’ve been really busy the past few months and I have to plan what I am going to cook in my head and make sure I have a couple of glasses of wine while I am doing it. I like being alone when I’m cooking. If I have people around me I get distracted. Marcus really annoys me when he comes home and starts eating the salad while I prepare it [laughs].

Do you prefer cooking for yourself or for other people?

Other people, definitely. Food has always been a bit deal in my family. At home, mum would make a big lunch with nice wine and everyone together at the table. Here I don’t have much space to entertain, but I do definitely love cooking for people, more so than myself.

What do you cook when you want something quick?

Probably spaghetti with spinach, garlic, chilli and olive oil – a dish I picked up when I was working at an Italian restaurant in Melbourne. It’s really simple, tasty and quick. Really good.

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Are you influenced by the cuisine of any other country above others?

I definitely love Italy. It seems like very simple food but the quality of ingredients is so amazing that you don’t want to mess with it. I tend to cook more Italian than anything else and it would be my favourite food to eat.

How far would you travel for a good meal?

A long way. I took Marcus a couple of years ago to San Sebastián and we went for lunch at Etxebarri – it’s the ultimate restaurant for barbecues. We loved it.

What ingredients are you happy to spend extra money on and why?

Meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables. The meat, so that the animals are treated in a humane way – I don’t want to be eating meat from chicken that has been in a cage and can’t move. But I do understand that a lot of people can’t afford good meat. That’s fine, but I think if people were into vegetables more they’d be better off. Cooking with vegetables can be amazing.

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Any food that you don’t like or don’t eat?

I don’t like liver. But I like pâté. It’s pan-fried liver that I don’t like. And I’m not mad about Scotch eggs. I am a bit weird with eggs. I like it when white and yolk are mixed together, so scrambled eggs or frittata are fine. But I can’t eat boiled eggs.

I like your garden. Do you spend much time in it?

I made a point last year to start taking care of it and it’s worked. I love it. Every day I’ll try to spend at least 20 minutes doing some weeding or whatever. It’s my main hobby at the moment. I’m really into herbs, so there are lots of things I can use in my jam: lemon verbena, which is one of my favourite things, rose geranium, angelica, pineapple sage, wild fennel… Eventually I’d like to have a bigger garden to work on. Gardening is all about experience: you can read as many books as you want, but the most important things are time and experience.

Visit Lillie’s shop, London Borough of Jam, at 51d Chatsworth Rd, London E5 0LH, or go to her website.

Follow Lillie: Twitter | Instagram

  1. St John is justly famous for its doughnuts, and thanks to a recent craze for doughnuts in London the St John doughnut has become an object of obsession – although they are rivalled now by the Bread Ahead doughnut, overseen by former St John head baker Justin Gellatly (Lillie’s former boss)

Posted 1st April 2016

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Interview & Photographs: Monica R. Goya

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