Since meeting in 2009 they have built a loyal following from their tiny restaurant on the Regent’s Canal in east London renowned for its seasonal, nourishing food. With a quiet mission to encourage visitors to lay down their devices and enjoy the food, we learn the story behind their friendship and the importance of creating community.
How did you meet?
LdM: It was back in 2009 in the Auvergne in France. At that time, Laura was cooking at the Auberge de Chassignolles with Harry Lester. I ate there several times and was totally wowed by her cooking.
Describe Towpath to the uninitiated.
LdM: A bit of an evolving, ever-changing whimsy on the Regent’s Canal in east London. Four tiny kiosks – kitchen, bar, a little seating alcove and an open larder, from which we do our very best to feed your body and soul. Laura’s menu is full of homely, seasonal, nourishing delights. No takeaways, no phone.
LJ: Lori will try her very best to get you to put down your devices and enjoy the food, your own company or the company of whoever you’re with. Or the lovely stranger also sitting out on the canal in the sunshine – or rain, or wind. The towpath offers a view onto the daily circus where you can watch the coots skittering across the water and the dogs frolicking past.
What makes Towpath so unique?
We have no front door! Once we roll up our shutters, we are completely open and in conversation with the world around us. We are as much about creating community as we are about filling your belly. We do quite a lot in a tiny space, but we don’t try to do everything. So no special menus; just honest food that we hope offers something for everyone. We also close every year from November until the beginning of March, when we start all over again.
What influences and inspires you?
LdM: The amazing people Laura has cooked with – Margot Henderson, Rosie Sykes, Rachel O’Sullivan, Harry Lester, Davo Cook, James Ferguson and many others. And Laura’s desire to make everything we can ourselves, from jams to pickles and a thousand things in between. And to cook in a way that wastes absolutely nothing.
LJ: Lori is guided by her many years living in Italy and the kind of warmth, generosity, hospitality, simplicity, seasonality and deliciousness that characterises Italian culinary life. And writers like Hattie Ellis, Jojo Tulloh, Ruth Reichl, Laurie Colwin, MFK Fisher and Simon Hopkinson who are so wonderful at bringing their sensibility from the table to the page.
In the ten years since you first opened, how has east London changed?
Oh my gosh. Our disused part of the Regent’s canal was a pretty barren, desolate little corner of east London when we arrived. We miss that a bit; people’s joy and astonishment when they happened upon us. Now people come sometimes with expectations, having heard who-knows-what, and expecting who-knows-what. The canal is a very, very busy place these days. And that vibrancy is also a beautiful thing. Kids and their parents walking to school in the morning. Joggers, cyclists (we could devote pages to this topic), dogs, boats, coots, herons, swans. It’s all happening.
What are the things you cherish most about running the Towpath?
We want to be a place that encourages you to slow down, look around, talk to whoever’s around. We always say it’s like kids showing up at a playground. Only hungry. What we cherish about Towpath is that we are blessed with a partnership that is as strong as the best kind of marriage. Both of us, in our own way, have been able to use the particular constraints of our setup to do our most creative thinking. We love the people we work with. We cherish the friendships we’ve made and continue to make. We work very, very hard. And get so much back in return.
How do you think Towpath helps connect people and allows friendships to flourish?
Because we’re just open to the world, without four walls, and we have water in front of us rather than a busy street with traffic. And we’ve asked in the nicest way possible for you to put away your laptop, and tried to repay your attention with the best food we know how to make. That just creates endless possibility for connection. And, as so many people come again and again – even for just a quick coffee and piece of olive oil cake. Or a little glass of wine and a nibble. They sort of start to recognise each other, and sooner or later get curious about each other and start talking. That’s what we’ve seen so many times in our years out there.
How would you describe your friendship?
As something so precious to each of us. Despite a 22 year age gap between us, and very different temperaments, we are crazily compatible. We love each other’s company. We respect each other, and what the other brings. We always laugh and say if we wanted to close Towpath in a week, we’d put Lori in the kitchen and Laura with the customers. We actually enjoy leaning on each other and puzzling through how to do things or meet certain situations. We seek each other out outside of Towpath: for swims in the pond when we’re in London, or back in Tuscany when we’re closed.
Do you have a typical customer?
A lot of our customers are creatives because our neighbourhood seems to attract that sort of person. But whoever they are, the ones who come and return have a kind of willingness to try whatever Laura’s put on the menu because they trust it will be delicious, to go along with whatever it is we’re doing. December dinners in freezing weather, November fireworks, for example. They come with curiosity and enthusiasm and a willingness to take what we are offering, whatever that may be.
Your book Towpath: Recipes & Stories came out last year and got some rave reviews. What’s different about it?
We’re not sure what’s different about it! But we poured our hearts into it, and though it’s not a very British thing to say you’re proud of something you’ve done, we are! We delivered the manuscript two days before we opened last year, and then closed after one week, pre-lockdown, because we had a sense of what was coming. We used our time in lockdown to really fine-tune the book and the edits, and find just the right pics from the many our brilliant photographers Joe Woodhouse and Scott MacSween took over the many years. It also tries very hard to be not only a book of divine and delicious recipes, but to tell the story of the life of Towpath, our ethos and the things we’re passionate about.
And you do a podcast series…
Well. That was another pandemic bonus. Our wonderful publisher Chelsea Green, who was so amazing to collaborate with, came up with the idea. They introduced us to the hugely talented Hester Cant, and though we were out of our comfort zone, we were, all of us, already so out of our comfort zone that we thought, why not? And it was huge fun for us really, talking to each other and some of our favourite people about Towpath life and, well, life. Olia Hercules and Rosie Sykes, both incredible writers and cooks. And cinematographer Sophie Darlington and the artist Enrico David.
YMC is 25 years old this year. And to help us celebrate, we’d love you to complete the phrase “You Must Create…
…a kind, loving and delicious environment.”