Ben MacAndrews and Joe Coulter are two London chefs who wanted to start something different. The frozen food aisle in supermarkets is traditionally not a place where people linger. It’s cold; everything’s behind glass; you grab your peas or your ice cream and you get out. The choices there also tended to be of lower quality, with frozen pizzas and chips always at the ready, and all the extra salts and sugars that come along. Ben and Joe thought the frozen aisle deserved better – that it could be a place of innovative, great tasting, really healthy food.
Both chefs trained at the prestigious Leiths School of Food and Wine, before moving on to restaurants around London. Ben then left the restaurant scene to run a street food and food truck business for several years. Joe was also eager to take on his own business, and Ben was ready to sell his, so they found themselves in a similar mindset at a similar time. With their combined operational experience and chef expertise, they looked to go into business together with a focus on sustainability and a determination to cook with plant-based ingredients. They sold their first meal in December 2019 and PEP Kitchen was born in a tiny commercial space in West Norwood.
The chefs openly admit that neither of them are vegan. As happy omnivores, they do enjoy eating loads of vegan food at home because it is natural and easy, and being chefs, they have the tools to make food taste good. Starting a vegan business was part of a vital change that they see we as a society need to undertake. PEP Kitchen does not preach that everyone should be vegan, but they do believe that everyone could do with cutting down on meat consumption. To do their part, Ben and Joe focus on cooking insanely delicious food, that’s accessible, and happens to be vegan. They opted for frozen meals as a way to control food waste. Chef Ben explains, “When we cook our meals, they have a 9 month shelf life. With larger scale fresh food companies, the waste is so high. Even fresh meals in supermarkets, they have a few days shelf life once they’ve gone thorough that system. We can send a box of 6-8 meals all over the UK and people can fill up a freezer to eat as and when you want.“
Each recipe has been tested, vetted and adapted for freezing. When they were starting out, the chefs would serve prototypes at farmers’ market stalls to understand what got people excited. Some customers were requesting more curry sauce once the meals were thawed and cooked, and the chefs realized the recipes needed to be adapted to account for reheating. “When you freeze foods, it really affects the textures,” Ben shares, “We learned to adapt our recipes. There was lots of trail and error to understand that process. We want our meal on your table to be just as delicious, or more so, as what you’d make at home.” PEP Kitchen aims to cook a broad range of cuisines from all over the place, and to make each dish super colourful. That’s why you’ll find offerings like jerk curry, Greek moussaka, and Brazilian stew all available to serve together, with regular new additions to the range. They’re also sourcing veg from UK family run farms in Kent, so no matter now international their product range becomes, it’s still home grown.
PEP Kitchen’s official website launched in March 2020, and as Ben puts it, “It was crazy! The website went mad.” Thinking back to the panic buying and food shortages of that time, it’s no wonder a delivery, long-life meal service would take off. The chefs took on this steep learning curve by putting in the hard work and cooking long hours to fulfill all orders. “We’re really a two-man band. We are the chefs and a teeny, tiny, brand new business,” Ben says. Along with Joe, he’s tackling all of the marketing and even designed the bold and bright packaging for each meal. In line with their sustainable ethos, each PEP meal comes in a home compostable tray and sleeve, topped with recyclable plastic film. The meals do not look like anything else in the frozen food section at the moment and others have taken notice. Planet Organic has taken on PEP Kitchen in 23 of its shops, with locations in Clapham, Crystal Palace, Wandsworth and Balham stocking them in South London. PEP is hoping to move to bigger premises within Norwood, so they can access more freezer space and launch a few other ideas in the pipeline. Ben reflects that for a local, small business, “It hasn’t been easy, but it neither of us was naive to think that it would be. There is a long way to go, but it’s good fun."
For Local Greens, Chef Joe adapted the gunpowder roots recipe that’s a component in PEP’s coconut dal meal. Both Joe and Ben are veg box subscribers, so they know the challenge, and sometimes pain, of eating all those odds and ends. “It’s a great recipe for when you have a swede, one carrot and half a parsnip,” Ben says, ”You can use a wide range of winter veggies. Throw in anything!” To sample their frozen meals, the PEP website is the best place to order (Local Greens customers have a bonus discount code!) and options abound from perfectly portioned meals for one, to sharing dishes to mix and match with rice and sides. They are also offering DIY roti kits, meal kits and bundles. For Chef Ben, the Brazilian black bean stew is his favourite sharing dish, while Chef Joe loves sweet potato jerk curry.
This small business is hoping to usher in a perception shift in the frozen food aisle, and broaden opinions that ready meals can be good for your health, your taste buds and the environment. PEP Kitchen is ready to add energy and vibrancy to frozen foods and put their stamp out there as a thriving, local, vegan business. Their goal is a simple one, as Ben puts it, “We want a large customer base who aren’t vegan, but enjoy our food because it’s delicious and we’ve made it easy. That would make us very happy.”