Words by Circe Hughes

Just around the corner from Hoxton station, hidden behind a tower block, is St Mary’s Secret Garden, a tranquil horticultural hub for the community. There, Aidan Brooks of Eleven98, a Hackney-based supper club, is cutting and collecting what looks like long blades of grass sprouting up around a tree. In actuality, these are three-cornered leeks, an unassuming-looking member of the allium family that’s bursting with flavour.

These leeks harvested on Tuesday morning will feature in Aidan’s upcoming hyper-local, hyper-seasonal dinner that Friday. He’s been running these meals since 2018, with each made exclusively using produce he’s sourced in Hackney, either from local producers or his own foraging.

With such a local base of sources, Eleven98 already claims sustainability creds for its low carbon footprint, but eco-mindedness is engrained into even the smallest of details. For example, Aidan closes the loop and diverts food waste by giving leftovers and cut-offs to his mum’s neighbour who then uses it in his wormery, converting it into nutrient-rich compost that can then fertilise a vegetable garden.

Aidan has always been a chef, having worked with Nuno Mendes while he was opening Viajante, at La Fromagerie, Ducksoup, and as the head chef of Vanilla Black which was a vegetarian fine-dining restaurant in Holborn. After being there for two and a half years, he was ready to move on to his first independent project. “I felt like I’d kind of given everything that I could to the restaurant and I wanted to start something all of my own,” he says, “so I did. I handed in a six-month notice and slowly went about my business planning to start this thing.”

Whatever shape the concept would take, Aidan knew he wanted it to centre around the place where he was born and bred – Hackney. “People from Hackney have a very collective spirit,” he says, “it’s unlike any other borough in London. There’s such a strong community vibe and a very strong sense of identity.” The name, Eleven98, comes from the first year on record that the area was known as ‘Hackney’.

@londontheinside Come with us to #forage in #hackney with the guy behind @eleven98 supper club. 🌱 #sustainableliving #foraging #hackneycentral #london #uk #fyp ♬ Storytelling – Adriel

“People from Hackney have a very collective spirit. It’s unlike any other borough in London. There’s such a strong community vibe and a very strong sense of identity.”

As for the sustainability element, “this will sound like I’m bragging but, I’ve just got a very sustainable mentality in terms of the way that I do things naturally,” Aidan says. “So the idea of it [Eleven98] being about having a low carbon footprint and local produce wasn’t something that I had to think too hard about. It just all fell into place.”

Back to the leeks. “If left and unharvested, this stuff just grows everywhere and takes over. So since this is an invasive species, it’s mutually beneficial for me to pick these up because I get a really amazing-tasting product,” explains Aidan. “And, also, I’m helping them do a job that they would have to do anyway.” This week, he’s going to turn the fruits of his forage into an oil. Using a restaurant-grade Thermomix and some extra virgin British rapeseed oil, the three-cornered leeks will soon become a rich, dark green oil that has a chive-y, wild garlic-y flavour (though slightly less pungent).

On other weeks, you might find a goat’s cheese and buttermilk croquette with Clapton rhubarb on the menu, or ricotta gnudi with Hackney Downs butternut squash, parmesan and sage from Adian’s garden, or rice pudding with brioche and Stamford Hill blackberries. Always, you’ll be welcomed in with a cocktail made from foraged or local ingredients, frequently with gin from 58 & Co. made in a distillery in Haggerston.

Putting something like this together every week of course requires a close relationship and regular communication with the horticultural producers in the area, as Aidan says, “without having people like St. Mary’s garden, the concept wouldn’t work at all.” And while this may come as a surprise – ‘The Big Smoke’ isn’t exactly renowned for cultivating greenery – there are actually quite a few such producers in London. Aidan gets a lot of his produce from Growing Communities, a community-led organisation of urban and independent farms, specifically, the four small market farms in Hackney that make up the Patchwork Farm and where salad is grown.

“There is definitely an appetite for it. People want to be more and more sustainable in the choices that they make in their everyday lives.”

During the growing season, which is usually from spring to late autumn, Aidan will message the farm’s head growers via a WhatsApp group to find out what’s being harvested and when. “I might get a message on a Monday morning saying ‘the first of the cucumbers are going to be harvested this week, do you want four kilos?’ or ‘we’ve got eight or 10 cabbages and a load of cavolo nero’. And then I’ll pop by and collect them.” St Mary’s is different, though. “Here, I harvest everything myself and it’s more on me to know what’s going on in the garden,” Aidan says, “I’ll pop down and just enjoy the lovely peace and quiet that I get around the garden” (we can only apologise for disturbing that peace with a bunch of questions).

It seems if one wanted to start a hyper-local, hyper-seasonal supper club, Hackney is the place to do it. “There is definitely an appetite for it,” Aidan says. “Using local produce and having a focus on being green in every way you can, is obviously something that people are catching on to.”

That’s certainly true and London in particular has become a hub of the eco-friendly restaurant. From the Michelin Green-starred spot Silo in Hackney Wick where they’re so low waste that they don’t even have bins, to Peckham vegan spot The Omni Collective that centres around a micro-seasonal, plant-based menu and changes it every 3-4 weeks, the city’s restaurant scene has definitely become a shade greener. “People want to be more and more sustainable in the choices that they make in their everyday lives,” Aidan says, “so coming to an experience, like what Eleven98 offers, ticks all of those boxes for an eco-conscious consumer.”

Local Heroes is a series where we big up the people, small businesses and neighbourhood spots that make London great, you can see more from our series here.