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The Durham Street Food Project makes a welcome return

Meet the two food-obsessed friends who have found a tasty alternative use for a Durham city centre car park

There are not many obvious alternative uses for a multi-storey car park.

These usually soulless concrete monoliths are there for one reason alone: to store large numbers of vehicles under one roof.

They certainly aren’t renowned for being hotbeds of food excellence. But could that be about to change?

Durham’s Prince Bishops Car Park is fast gaining a reputation as a culinary centre.

It’s all thanks to The Durham Street Food Project, an unusual gastronomic event held on November 28 last year. It saw street food companies offering a variety of globally-inspired cuisines setting out their stalls in the car park for an evening of eating, drinking and live entertainment.

More than 600 people, from families to students, were enticed to the unusual night ‘street’ feast.

From left, Lee Hardy, Toby Marshall-Robertson and Centre Manager Richard Toynbe at the launch of the Durham Street Food Project
From left, Lee Hardy, Toby Marshall-Robertson and Centre Manager Richard Toynbe at the launch of the Durham Street Food Project

Such was its success that organisers are now dishing up a second helping at the venue on January 30.

Where during the day cars are parked, between 5.30pm and 11pm level six will be transformed into Durham’s newest and trendiest eating venue, catering to the cathedral city’s nocturnal food cravings.

This time 12 food and drink ventures will be setting up shop, offering everything from Asian to Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, American and European fare as well as craft beers and cocktails – all against a backdrop of live dance and music.

The night market is the brainchild of long-time friends and chefs Toby Marshall-Robertson, 22, and Lee Hardy, 30.

Together they run their own street food business, The Asian Project (TAP), which they launched last September.

Their base in Durham happens to be next to the Prince Bishops Car Park. Looking for ways they could reach as wide an audience as possible, they hit on the idea of imposing on their neighbour’s hospitality by organising a one night street food festival.

Scene from last year's Durham Street Food Project
Scene from last year's Durham Street Food Project

The pair quickly garnered the support of both the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre and Durham Markets.

Thus The Durham Street Food Project was born.

Toby and Lee hope their second street food event will prove just as popular as the first.

Plans are already afoot to hold a third outing which will hopefully realise their dream of turning Durham into the region’s street food capital.

Lee says the duo’s passion is “great tasting, honest food” that they can take onto the streets.

Food, music and drink have traditionally gone hand-in-hand and The Durham Street Food Project allows them to bring everything together in one neat bundle.

“The Durham Street Food Project is about creating a completely new experience in Durham, one that we’ll all be talking about until the next one comes around,” adds Toby.

Food at last year's Durham Street Food Project
Food at last year's Durham Street Food Project

The business partners’ car park-based street food endeavour is not unique. Others have been held around the country, most notably in London, but it’s something different for the North East.

A sign of just how much of a taste the public has developed for street food is the fact that Toby and Lee are having to be so ingenious to stand out from the crowd.

At least this event is not weather dependent.

Britain’s eccentric climate isn’t always the friend of those organising outdoor events. It’s probably one of the reasons, along with uncooperative councils, that so many street food events have now come in out of the cold and are being held in old warehouses, art galleries, train stations, shopping centres and even utilitarian car parks.

It’s all a world away from the rather more haphazard origins of street food that can probably be traced, in this country, back to Roman times.

Certainly the style of food offered has moved on. You might still find whelks, eels and hot pies, but more likely it will be wood-fired pizzas, Jamaican jerk chicken, Japanese sushi, Cuban-style pulled pork, Texas barbecue classics, organic, gluten free and vegan burgers, salads made from the latest pulses and foaming take-away lattes.

Street food has evolved to meet the needs of today’s urbane, contemporary and refined diner who has tired of paying through the nose for ‘not much on the plate’ haute cuisine.

Among the names taking part on January 30 will be Papa Ganoush with its increasingly popular Middle Eastern food; Electric East which specialises in Cambodian, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine; Hani’s Kitchen with its globally-inspired cooking; Elodie Raclette and its fondue cheese; Three Horseshoes craft beer; and The Cocktail Project.

Toby and Lee’s The Asian Project which, as the name suggests, focuses on everything from Japanese to Thai, Chinese and even Indian food, will also be taking part.

The pair fell in love with Asian cookery while they were both working at Seaham Hall.

Lee was employed in the hotel’s Pan Asian Ozone Restaurant, where he eventually worked his way up to be head chef.

Toby, meanwhile, was a teenager with a hunger for cooking who spent his weekends working in a professional kitchen to learn the ropes.

When he reached 16 he left school to become a chef full-time.

In 2009 Lee decided to go travelling and jetted off the China to indulge his love of Asian food. He returned to the Ozone Restaurant where he stayed for another two years before joining the team at The Lotus Lounge Pan-Asian restaurant in Yarm.

Lee then went on to help open a Durham branch.

Toby joined his mentor at The Lotus Lounge in 2012. Then last year they decided to go it alone and set-up their own Pan-Asian food business.

Both are equally fascinated by what the food genre offers.

“I’ve worked with Mediterranean and French food and found Asian food almost by accident,” Lee says. “I landed the job at the Ozone and as soon as I started cooking it I found I really liked it.

“It’s such interesting and vibrant food. It’s so diverse and you can do almost anything with it. Its real beauty is that it spans such a huge range of food cultures and traditions, from China to Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and even India.

“It’s essentially fusion cooking and draws together ingredients and flavours from each area. With English food you sort of know what you are getting, but with Pan-Asian you never really know.

“For a chef it’s a very exciting cuisine to cook.”

Toby and Lee tested the water with TAP at Newcastle’s Sunday Quayside Market. It took off. They were then invited, in the run-up to Christmas, to sell their food to Northumbria University students a couple of days a week, and hope to be returning shortly.

They also ran fresh sushi taster sessions during Durham University Freshers’ Week. Then the idea for The Durham Street Food Project came along.

They had expected to be rebuffed when they approached the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre management. The car park has spaces for 400 cars and holding The Durham Street Food Project there involves closing two floors for a whole day.

But they found the centre manager, Richard Toynbee, and the Durham Markets director, Colin Wilkes, very supportive.

“It all came together at the right time really,” Lee says. “The first one was a big risk. The figures had to add up and the car park owners had to be sure they would cover their losses from closing off two floors.

“But the first one paid off and we got great feedback. For a small entry fee you can experience great food from some of the region’s best street food vendors in a really unusual and atmospheric setting.”

Toby and Lee want to branch out now and are looking to hold other whacky street food events in Durham.

“The Durham Street Food Project aims to create regular not-to-be missed events, combining freshly cooked food and locally-produced craft beers with live music in pop-up venues,” Lee says.

“Just for a few hours we want to create events the likes of which Durham has never seen before.”

It would seem it’s a food idea that’s streets ahead. And certainly Toby and Lee aren’t planning on parking up any time soon!

The Durham Street Food Project, with food, drink and live entertainment, will take place on January 30 on floor six of The Prince Bishops Car Park from 5.30pm. Entry is £2 on the door.

Keep up-to-date with what’s happening on The Durham Street Food Project’s Facebook page. For more on The Asian Project go to www.theasianproject.co.uk


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