We continue our Street Food Stories with a chat with John Wallace, a man who travels far and wide serving up some fantastic Asian inspired bao buns that people just seem to go crazy over wherever he turns up.
Working at Manchester’s Finest has started to really take its toll on me – despite constant reassurances to myself that it wouldn’t. Not only have I put on about 2 stone since starting but I’ve also started to only ever talk about Finest too.
So now I’m fat and I’m boring. That’s pretty bad all round. The one seemingly saving grace though is that I’m both single and don’t have any kids – meaning I can swan around at openings, get absolutely rat arsed at Bunny Jackson’s on a Thursday and retreat into a Social Media enclave over the weekend that is located equidistant between my duvet and the latest gritty crime drama on Netflix.
A few years back though, John Wallace, owner of Wallace & Sons, found himself in a not too dissimilar scenario. A fully trained high-end chef, John had worked in many jobs throughout the UK and Ireland, finding himself working around 80 – 90 hours a week in the kitchen, something which I definitely couldn’t even do – never mind complain about.
To make things worse, John had a wife and child and he found himself in the kind of situation where he struggled to be at home. “All I wanted to do was see my family more… be more flexible, pick my own hours and still do what I really enjoy – which is cooking.”
So he decided to bin off the chef life, one where he ended up in a rather insular environment, where “all your friends are chefs, you don’t go out and when you do it’s with other chefs.”
For these reasons he went into street food with Wallace and Sons and he’s never looked back. As John says, “being able to work for yourself… there’s nothing quite like that, and the freedom of being your own boss, having less responsibilities, less constraints and more importantly – better margins.”
He started serving up Asian inspired bao and gyoza around 3 years ago but he found the initial offerings in term of events quite restricting. “The first event I did was actually the Manchester Urban Food Fest, which wasn’t very good to be honest”, something that became a bit of a reflection on the rest of the city’s street food scene.
“There weren’t really many good events around then, I think Levvy Market was going, although that wasn’t as busy as it is now, so it was a kind of struggle for the first year and a half”.
The struggle got so hard that he even ran out of money 3 times, even getting to the stage where he “did an event in Stockport and needed a float but didn’t have enough money for one”, resulting in him having to borrow a float just to keep the business trading for another day.
John has no qualms about the difficulty of setting up a street food business; “It’s hard work, really hard work – even now. You have to set up your stall, take it down, driving to up to 3 events on a weekend around the country – it can get really intense. But it’s generally worth it – especially if you pick the right event!”
Once he was through those difficult first year and a half, Wallace & Sons has gone from strength to strength, partly because of this marked increase in good quality street food events but also because of the food.
Clearly one of the most important aspects of his bao, John tried a myriad of recipes before getting the bun perfect. “I tried loads of different recipes to make the bread that just didn’t work, I tried Momofuku’s recipe but couldn’t even get that to work.” He kept slogging away until eventually, he got it all to work.
His soft sticky buns come with a range of fillings, from Chicken Katsu with pickled shitake and wasabi mayo, through to Salted Cod with pickled fennel and Sriracha mayo. Veggies are looked after with a delicious Beer Battered Cauliflower Bun and those who are indecisive are equally catered for.
Their Mini Buns are certainly their biggest seller, with 3 little bao each with a different filling – perfect for people who can’t fully decide which one they want. My personal favourite is the Pork Bun, which is truly divine and comes stuffed with pickled cucumber, hoi sin, Sriracha and some very welcome crispy skin.
The end of September will see John take Wallace & Son down to the big smoke to attend the UK Final of the British Street Foods Awards 2018 after smashing it at the regionals.
Even though it sounds like a plot line from Glee, John was suitably impressed when he found out he’d won; “I didn’t really appreciate how much it meant to me until they actually called up and said it. You get quite emotional about it really, and I’m really pleased with winning.”
We caught up with John down at GRUB, which in the approaching winter months will retreat into the Fairfield Social Club. They’ll still be offering plenty of street food options, booze and live music though, of which Wallace & Sons are certainly likely to be a feature.
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