Five minutes with Rae Arends, Pophams
Rae Arends is head chef at Hackney’s Pophams, which opened in that fated year 2019, right before 2020’s year of lockdowns. The bakery draws a huge crowd for its pastries and daytime lunch menu, but it’s in the evenings when the space turns into a knockout pasta restaurant, that things become tell-everyone-you-know good.
Rae is the head pasta chef, designing a changing menu of filled and hand rolled pasta such as a cannelloni with slow-cooked lamb and bagna cauda or a triangoli filled with peas, ricotta and lemon in a green chilli sauce. Rae is currently 8 months pregnant and still navigating the kitchen, and we caught up with her to find out what she loves about pasta chef life, and what about the hospitality industry kind of bugs her…
What’s your very first memory of food?
Spaghetti bolognese – I was pretty fussy with food as a kid, and my mum is a great cook so it must have driven her crazy, but I always just wanted to eat spag bol!
What’s the first dish you properly learnt to cook?
My mum had the Delia Complete Cookery Bible and I remember learning to make beef stroganoff from that. Cookery classes in my school were terrible, so she taught me everything I needed to know. Having such good meals cooked at home definitely ignited my passion for food, even before I became a chef, it was all I would talk and think about.
Popham’s functions as an amazing bakery during the day and becomes a hugely popular Italian restaurant in the evenings. Tell us how you find inspiration for the menu?
When planning a new dish, I always start with what’s coming into season, and from there I look at Italian traditions of flavour and what pasta shapes are usually served with a particular item. Then I try to add something different, resulting in modern combinations that you may not always expect. Italy has such a wide regional history of food; I can spend hours reading about a particular type of ravioli and its heritage.
What are your staff meals like at the restaurant?
It’s a team effort, but we do have an incredible chef Yuriko who usually prepares our family meal. Every day she prepares wonderful dinners for us – her fried chicken is the best I’ve ever had!
What’s your favourite pasta shape to make and why?
It’s a VERY difficult decision, but I would have to say trofie. To take a small piece of dough, apply the right pressure in the right motion under your hand, and make a pasta shape (which is also one of my favourites to eat) is just so satisfying. It takes a long time to perfect, but it is worth all the practice!
What’s the one dish you couldn’t live without?
Sandwiches. I’ll put pretty much any meal I can between bread.
What menu item are you most excited about at the moment?
Right now, it’s one of my favourite times of the year for seasonal produce; the end of winter and start of green spring vegetables is so fresh and exciting. I have just put on the menu a pea-filled pasta dish, and it’s a new favourite of mine. When our suppliers move from Italian peas onto the British pea season, it will just get even better, we really have the sweetest peas here in the UK.
What do you do to relax?
My job is very full-on and I spend a lot of time on my feet, so spending time just relaxing with my feet up on my days off is important to recover. I spend time with my boyfriend and dog, and try to eat out as much as possible.
What’s your favourite thing about pasta chef life?
Shaping fresh pasta daily is such a joy, as a team we come together every day and individually shape 100s of pieces of pasta and I just love the craft of it. You also can’t beat the feeling of having a restaurant full of customers eating your food, it’s so rewarding.
What ingredient would you take to a desert island with you?
You can have a one-off dinner party on your island… who would you invite?
My family and friends (and someone who can make excellent margaritas).
Is there anything about the food industry that bugs you? We’d like to hear your thoughts…
There is still a lot of mistreatment of chefs in the restaurant industry, which is nearly always ignored and head chefs who behave poorly are rarely held accountable. This has resulted in a lot of people leaving the profession, and so many kitchens being understaffed. No matter the stresses of the job, I think it is always possible to make delicious food and work hard, whilst still be inspiring and kind to those who work with you.
What is the best food experience you’ve had in the UK? Something that you think everyone should try before they die…
I grew up by the coast, so for me going to a British seaside town, getting a pint of prawns, some vinegar soaked cockles and a packet of crisps is the most wonderful, nostalgic food experience.
Do you have any aspirations and dreams you’ve yet to fulfill?
Plenty. I hope to have a long career ahead of me. I am currently 8 months pregnant, so my next challenge is to manage being a head chef and a new mum!
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