Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 23 seconds
If you believe that good food is a key part of good health then meet gardener and chef, Mikhail Braunhofer, who runs the coffee and hot meal spot, Pop Coffee, by the Whittington Hospital. Interview by Nicola Baird
It’s clear that Mikhail Braunhofer, who is just finishing his second winter running Pop Coffee, the little café by the Whittington Hospital entrance, is passionate about food. “Good cooking is naturally healthy,” he says passing me a delicious bowl of his home cooked carrot soup topped with a silky swirl of Italian olive oil. It’s eaten outside on tables covered with cheerful red and white tablecloths. There’s fresh thyme growing and a beach windbreak creating a sheltered spot to relax, and eat, before Mikhail’s customers head into the hospital to work, visit a patient, go to an appointment or even return to their hospital bed.
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“My mother is a gardener and is the daughter of a farmer. I was really lucky to be exposed to ingredients as I was brought up,” says Mikhail, 30, who grew up in Haringey. “My uncle still runs the family farm in Italy on the border of Austria in the Dolomites. He makes his own cheese and pancetta (smoked ham). And I’ve been there many times. I used to stay the whole six weeks of the summer holidays.”
Perhaps this is why, despite the small kitchen, Mikhail’s a surprisingly inventive cook. It’s not just his white coffees and cakes that sell out at Pop Coffee, it’s also his soup and piadina (Italian street food). Islington Faces also gets to try a fabulous combo of parmesan cheese shavings drizzled in honey and topped with a mystery ingredient which has been brought from the top Mayfair restaurants to Archway. “It’s like a dessert before a dessert,” he says reflecting on the taste.
Places Mikhail likes in Islington
Mikhail Braunhofer: “I go out of my way to try dishes in different places. As a chef it’s really important to try other people’s take on things and see what their service is like. It gives yourself confidence.”
- I love the Malyasian Laksa soup at Hot Wok, which is just by the KFC at 663 Holloway Road. There’s a good new chicken shop near there too
- I really like Spoke, 710 Holloway Road. It’s very relaxed and my son really enjoys their sweet potato chips. It makes me want to get a fryer for Pop Coffee and make some to sell.
- I get my fruit, veg and hot chocolate from the organic shop near Archway, HR Fresh Fruit and Veg, 786 Holloway Road, N19 twitter @HrOrganicShop.
- My sister bought some of the old Beanos, used in the collage around Pop Coffee, from Holloway car boot sale, and I bought the newspapers at Southgate Auctions.
“I’ve been helping the family gardening since I was 17 – we run Lunar Landscaping – but it used to quite quiet in the winter so I trained to be a chef. Growing and cooking food goes well. I’d been looking for somewhere to set up and was always trying to get into the markets, but I found if there was another business offering a hint of something similar they won’t have you. I’d been coming to the Whittington for appointments and scans before my son was born and I kept noting this café was closed. It had been a food place but it was dormant. I asked at the desk and they said no one had wanted it for about two years. So you could say that I took it on from the NHS by accident,” jokes Mikhail who hopes to soon be growing edible plants at the hospital’s community garden.
In fact it’s a busy site for a café, and often Mikhail recognises people heading into the Whittington. “Mr Corbyn has had an espresso, I’ve seen the lead singer of Mumford & Sons and Kathy Burke. A lot of nurses, doctors and consultants come here for coffee and food,” adds Mikhail who hopes one day to build the business into an Italian style trattoria where people “who like trying different things will come for lunch.”
Life and death
Mikhail, who now lives in Wood Green, had imagined that running the business would be about cooking and getting to know his regulars. What he hadn’t realised is that the experience at a hospital cafe would be so intense.
“I’ve lost a lot of customers… over 10 in just over two years have gone to the after life. One gentleman passed peacefully here in his wheelchair,” says Mikhail who admits it took him a time to come to terms with this.
“It was really challenging being exposed to the brutal reality of life and death. But it’s a hospital, so naturally this is going to happen. It makes me grateful for my own health and for my son, who is one and a half now. It makes me want to live more, be more generous and kind and reminds me not to worry about trivial things.”
It’s a good approach to life and there is undoubtedly a friendly, Italian-style family atmosphere at Pop Coffee. Mostly it’s Mikhail who’ll be serving you, although his friend Enriko helps him out, especially in summer when h
eight tables to enable customers to linger a little on the sunny forecourt of the Whittington Hospital.
“Pop Coffee is something new. I’m developing something I hope customers will want to tell a friend about and then come back again,” he says preparing a roasted veg and smoked mozzarella piadina, before getting busy creating a second chocolate cake. “Good eggs and butter makes a massive difference when it comes to baking. Just like fresh vegetables…” For anyone interested in healthy, fresh food Mikhail’s Pop Coffee is exactly what the doctor ordered.
- Pop Coffee is open Monday-Friday from 7am-7.30pm. Pre-order from 07931 786342.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.