The story of Bill's
PUBLISHED: 01:16 06 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:49 20 February 2013
Bill Collison, the name behind Bill's Food and Produce Store in Lewes and Brighton, is bringing his easy, no-nonsense cooking style into our homes
Having won us over with his relaxed take on cafe culture, Bill Collison, the name behind Bills Food and Produce Store in Lewes and Brighton, is bringing his easy, no-nonsense cooking style into our homes. Interview by Angela Wintle
Ill never forget the first time I walked into Bills in Lewes. It was a show-stopping moment. And how often can you say that about a grocers shop?
You could spot it from 20 paces: the pavement overflowing with fruit, with signs declaring Kentish corn-on-the-cob: five for 50p. Inside was a foodies paradise: leeks displayed with daffodils; delphiniums jostling with purple sprouting broccoli; hanging dried peppers and shelves of own brand juices and olive oil, not to mention a counter of film-set puddings. Up in the rafters, rustic wire baskets hung from butchers hooks beside rainbow-coloured raffia, which swayed in the breeze like the feathers of an exotically plumed bird.
Sometimes Id walk in just to drink in the spectacle, though I rarely left without clutching one of Bills mouth-watering homemade quiches. But Bills, of course, was always much more than a fruit and veg shop. He ran a cafe, too. And the cafe became so popular that it quickly gobbled up the shop (and the premises next door) to become the biggest thing in town.
Now everyone nonchalantly talks of Bills. But I was there at the start when the magic was at its height. And if you sense a whiff of nostalgia in my musings, youd be right. Bills Food and Produce Store, much as I love it still, isnt quite what it was not since Bill Collison (yes, hes a real person) sold a sizeable stake to Richard Caring, the owner of the hip London eateries Le Caprice and The Ivy.
Now hes rolling out the Bills model across the country, with cafes in Brighton, Covent Garden, Reading and Cambridge. Inevitably, theres a more corporate feel now. And though Bill still pops into the Lewes store to tweak the radishes, hes no longer the lifeblood of the business.
None of this seems to bother the punters, however, who are still happy to queue for a table. They dont even seem to mind the deafening background music. But then, Bills was never simply a cafe. It was a lifestyle choice; the Boden of the culinary world. A place where Yummy Mummies could meet for brunch and natter with a mate about the miseries of the school run, while giving their new Diesel jeans and Ugg boots an airing. This was a place run by beautiful people for beautiful people.
But there was an inevitability about the Bills takeover, so we mustnt complain. And Bill deserves his success. The business was his fourth child; he lived and breathed it for a decade. And all that hard work paid off. It brought him fame and fortune. Why, in the last few weeks he has even popped up on Midweek with Libby Purves!
He once told me he was a barrow boy, pure and simple. And with his close-cropped hair, jeans and crumpled T-shirt, he looked like one, too. Not anymore. Nowadays, his tousled grey locks, stubbly beard and designer specs are as artfully turned out as his produce. Youd think he was an antiquarian book dealer.
And as befits his new public profile, hes brought out a cookbook a fat, orange, Double Gloucester wedge of a book packed with tempting photos by Dan Jones. The recipes reflect his love of offbeat food combinations and seasonal produce. And its largely veggie fare: hes a big fan of the poached egg, Portobello mushroom and cherry and plum tomato, not to mention guacamole, hummus, sweet chilli sauce and freshly baked bread. But will this enable you to recreate Bills at home?
Well, all our breakfast menu is in there and weve been serving that for a lifetime, says Bill. Hes right. His celebrated veggie breakfast is on the very last page and what a showstopper it is, deservedly voted Vegetarian Breakfast of the Year by the Vegetarian Society.
Youll also find his familiar salads and puddings, though the ingredients have been scaled back so you can replicate them at home. Theres also a fair sprinkling of lyrical prose about the simple pleasure to be had in tucking into good grub with family and friends.
And to top it off, theres a dash of Bills back story, which is an inspiring one. His parents were travellers, who earned a living fruit picking in Kent. But by the time Bill was born they had adopted a more conventional lifestyle, and his father and two uncles set up Swanborough Nurseries in Kingston, near Lewes, now the site of a Wyevale garden centre.
Bill bummed around as a teenager and rarely turned up for school. He worked as a chef and then did a stint at Plumpton Agricultural College. But he admits he was lazy and lacked direction. So in despair his dad offered him a small shed off Cliffe High Street and told him to make of it what he wished.
Bill did what came naturally and opened a little greengrocers, which, in time, became a larger greengrocers on the high street. Presentation fascinated him even then. I didnt want fruit wrapped in tissue paper; I wanted my goods tumbling out of trugs as if the farmer had just brought them in. Polished things were out; I wanted my produce to still carry its bloom.
But then came the great flood that swept through Lewes in October 2000, destroying everything in its path. The shop was forced to close for nine months, but he valiantly continued to trade from a makeshift stall in the precinct, waiting for the insurance money to come through.
In a curious way it was a blessing in disguise because it gave him chance to take stock. And it was then that he changed direction, opening Bills as we know it today, encouraged by his sister-in-law, Tania Webb, who worked in the restaurant business and could see the cafes potential.
It was a success from the off, thanks in no small part to head chef Andy Pellegrino. They did things differently at Bills. They put fruit on their pizzas, added roots, sprouts and leaves that people had never seen before to salads, and made cakes that looked so extraordinary customers stopped to take pictures before they ate them.
And as word spread, London food critics began dropping in for lunch. In 2006, he won the Observer Food Monthly Best Newcomer award, he was invited to share his recipes on Sheila Dillons Food Programme on Radio 4 and was even asked to participate in a fly-on-the-wall documentary, which he wisely declined.
Expansion beckoned, though he was initially reluctant to broaden his remit, arguing that small was sweet and big could be really sour. But expand he did, opening a store in Brightons old bus depot in 2005. It was a sensation and the tills never stopped ringing.
It worked really well, but it took us five years to reach that point. We thought wed open a chain of stores, but when it came to it, we just couldnt do it on our own. Plenty of suitors came a-wooing, however, and eventually he plumped for Richard Caring, sensing that he would maintain his standards.
Bill has now stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business, though he remains a shareholder and director. I look after the look of Bills and still eat in the Lewes cafe a couple of times each week, he says. Its been hard letting go. I miss it greatly. I needed a passport to cross Cliffe bridge because I worked so hard that I rarely left the store, he jokes. Id moan that I had to go to work, but really it was what I wanted to do.
Now Bill has swapped the kitchen for the microphone and is currently hard on the publicity trail, plugging his cookbook. He has taken to it like a duck to water. Not bad for a bloke who insists hes just a barrow boy made good.
But though the media spotlight beckons, I doubt the restaurant trade has heard the last of him. Hes still only 48. Can he imagine starting up another business? He laughs, clearly relishing the idea. Everyone asks me that. Maybe one day.
Bills The Cookbook: Cook Eat Smile by Bill Collison and Sheridan McCoid is published by Saltyard Books at 25.