In just two years, his range of tasty, as-good-as-homemade stew pots went from a stall at the Alexandra Palace Farmers’ Market to being sold in major supermarkets.
Somehow, Alan has also found time to write a book, Stewed! Nourish Your Soul: a feast of one-pot dishes from jambalaya to bouillabaisse, from curries to tagines, to boeuf bourguignon and beyond. The London Word caught up with him at Flat White in Soho over a very good cup of coffee.
Like many good business ideas, stewed! came about because of a lightbulb moment. In 2007, founder and MD Alan Rosenthal was on his way to work (in DVD product management) when it occurred to him that stew would be a great way of filling a gap in the market. ‘There were so many soups and ready meals yet nobody was specialising in stews,’ Rosenthal says. ‘Because stews are hearty, one-pot dishes,they’re perfect for a convenient lunchtime eat and great for dinner.’
He resigned from his job, spent three months brushing up on his cookery skills, then went off to work as a private chef in France to build on his experience as a keen (and talented) home cook before returning to work in London restaurant kitchens. It was, he says, ‘quite an experience!’
Alan decided to take the plunge and start selling his own stews at Alexandra Palace Farmers’ Market, where they went down a storm. Buoyed by the response, 34-year-old Rosenthal developed his product and was delighted when it was taken on by Harvey Nichols and Budgens. You can now buy stewed! in some branches of Waitrose and Sainsbury’s and from Ocado: Thai chicken, chorizo, chickpea and pork; chickpea, sweet potato and feta, beef in ale (launching in January) and Hungarian goulash. They taste really homemade because they’re slow-cooked for several hours, as you would at home, giving great depth of flavour.
Alan is a past master at marrying flavours and ingredients: in his book there are 80 brilliant winter warmers, such as beef with beetroot and stilton, lamb tagine, plus the summery marinated zesty lamb salad with pine nuts and raisins and bouillabaisse.
Stews are such versatile meals too. ‘They’re easy, single-pot, communal food that can usually be prepared ahead, so perfect for entertaining. And it’s a bit of a myth that they only work in cold climates: there are plenty of African and Asian casseroles too.’
When cooking stew, Alan uses chuck steak rather than braising steak as it has a more open texture so will break down to be tender. With chicken he’d always choose thighs over breasts as they have more flavour and give a juicier result. His own favourite stew is ‘persian chicken with sour cherries and walnuts – so unusual and a wonderful balance between savoury and sweet flavours.’
Although stews are easy to cook, Alan offers a couple of failsafe tips: ‘Don’t add too much salt at the start because stews intensify after a couple of hours’ cooking when the liquid evaporates – you can always add more at the end if it needs it. Another tip is to keep the heat low so that meat becomes meltingly tender. If you have the heat turned up too high it’ll toughen everything up.’
Alan’s book is divided up into world regions: stew is certainly international, whether it’s a Brazilian black bean, chorizo and pork stew or a good old British Lancashire hotpot. Many of these food influences have come from living in London. Alan says: ‘I live in Bounds Green and love the local fishmongers, butchers and bakers – there’s a Lithuanian shop that sells amazing dark rye bread. Because the area has a large Greek, Turkish and Polish population, local food shops reflect that diversity.’
But it’s not just the food that is a draw. ‘Sometimes I’m crossing a bridge over the Thames and I’m flabbergasted just how beautiful the city is. I also love going up to Kenwood, then climbing up Parliament Hill Fields to look at this incredible city!’
Alan’s love of London has led to stewed! getting involved in Trees for Cities. ‘It’s a charity that plants trees and edible playgrounds in schools and local communities around the UK and internationally, teaching adults and children about the food they eat. This is invaluable as I believe an appreciation of good food is deep-rooted and stems from an understanding of where ingredients come from and combining them for delicious meals.’
Not surprisingly, Alan enjoys eating out in London too. ‘I love finding little restaurants off the beaten track, such as Royal China on Baker Street, which does amazing dim sum. Since I came back from Melbourne (a real city for coffee lovers), I’ve become a fan of the little cafes springing up all around London: Flat White on Berwick Street or Milk Bar on Mortimer Street in Soho both do great coffee. I enjoy London’s food markets but they’re expensive, so I have to limit my buying! Another favourite is Lina Stores on Old Compton Street for great fresh pasta and truffles.’