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How to Eat Alone Podcast

Episode 1 - Michelle Obama's Cheese Toastie with Katie Holton (What Katie Did Next/Canababes)

Julia talks with chef Katie Holton (What Katie Did Next/Canababes) about how Michelle Obama can up her cheese-on-toast game, what she cooks for herself and why cheese toasties have permeated her life...

by Julia Georgallis

A year ago

You can find the recipe for Katie's ultimate cheese toastie here (there are vegan and veggie options). I've also added the recipe for that posh chocolate toastie (vegan). The What Katie Did Next cafe ran until the end of lockdown in Summer 2021, but Katie continues to run her catering company Canababes.

Transcript, interview with Katie Holton by Julia Georgallis  

Hello, welcome to the first episode of the How to eat alone podcast, with me, Julia Georgallis. I’m a baker, I write about food and I currently run edible food museum, The Edible Archive. 

This podcast looks at the art of eating alone and explores topics surrounding loneliness and aloneness. I’ll be talking to people from all walks of life about their own experiences of solitude and solo dining.  With every episode, I’ll share a recipe which is designed to be cooked and eaten by one person and one person only, because I find, as a single person, that most recipes are written for two or more people. 

This first episode looks at I suppose the joy of cooking for yourself, of mucking around in the kitchen alone with various flavours, of not really caring about what the outcome is but kind of cooking for your own curiosity.  I think there’s a family of foods that are great friends to the single cook and one of those is the infamous cheese toastie. There’s so much you can do with a couple of slices of bread and a bit of cheese.  I decided to talk to the wonderful Katie Holton, who in my opinion is London’s cheese toastie queen and I know that's a very big statement but I think it's true. And so I asked her whether she wanted to take me through her little black book of cheese toastie memories, which she seems to have a lot of.  I met Katie a couple of years ago kind of via the London hospitality scene and when I came back to London after leaving Lisbon in September 2020, she gave me some shifts in her new cafe, What Katie Did Next, where I made sriracha and bacon baps and toasted those delicious toasties for the good people of Hackney Wick. 

Katie is a chef, she’s cofounder of wedding catering company Canababes which she ran for over 10 years with her business partner. Her business partner left London and the business. With finding herself solo and after the onset of the pandemic which left the wedding industry really on its knees Katie decided to set up her own cafe in the form of a revamped trailer. The trailer is so much fun, in true street food style it/s bright pink with olive green stripes and it serves scrumptious takeaway food - you know, good coffee, nice cakes and of course, a wide variety of excellent cheese toasties. And the trailer really feeds all of the surrounding warehouse units and studios that are nearby, which mainly are inhabited by kind of small, creative businesses.  I wanted to speak to Katie not just because she's just set up a business on her own after being in a partnership for years but because I think she is a really independent person. She’s obsessed with flavour and it's an absolute joy working for her. At the beginning of our chat, I read her this really joyful excerpt from the beginning of Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming, because weirdly enough there's a description of one of the first times that Michelle finds herself alone in the house after leaving the White House and she goes to the kitchen, takes a plate and makes herself a grilled cheese sandwich.

This is what she writes, 

‘I found myself in a silent empty house like I haven’t known in 8 years. And I was hungry. I opened the fridge, found a loaf of bread, took out two pieces and laid them in the toaster oven - I opened a cabinet and got out a plate - I know it’s a weird thing to say but to take a plate from a shelf in the kitchen without anyone first insisting that they get it for me, to stand by myself, watching bread turn brown in the toaster feels as close to a return to my old life as I come. Or maybe it's my new life just beginning to announce itself. In the end, I didn’t just make toast, I made cheese toast, moving my slices of bread to the microwave and melting a fat mess of gooey cheddar between them. I then carried my plate outside to the backyard. I didn’t have to tell anyone where I was going, I just went. I was in bare feet, wearing a pair of shorts… I ate my toast in the dark, feeling alone in the best possible way.’ 

Alone in the best possible way. That is marvellous sentence

Isn’t that nice?

KH - It is nice. 

JG - Just the joy of eating a cheese toastie is lovely

KH - I like the bit where she says maybe it's her new beginnings though and I was thinking maybe she’s going to open a cheese toastie restaurant...

JG - But the thing is, what I wanted to know, because I know that you are, like the cheese toastie queen, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MICHELLE OBAMA'S CHEESE TOASTIE?

KH - Mmm, yeah… Oh I don't want to rip it to shreds, because it's such a like, sentimentally nice, well the sentiment of what she just said is so lovely. But yeah, the actual concept of the cheese toastie that she made - Not that into it

JG - No, me neither, why does she put it in the microwave?

KH - She didn't put anything special on it, there was no fun alternative flavours to cut through the cheese, and then, yeah, she ruined the toast that she’d made by putting it in the microwave, which I imagine if her microwave’s anything like they are in Britain, makes it go all mushy, and it'll be kind of a wet, soggy, cheese toastie, essentially with some really hot areas because microwaves never really heat consistently so she probably burnt her mouth when she was eating it. But it's alright because she was on her own! 

JG - That's the thing, because I suppose when you're on your own it's kind of fine if you make something that's a bit shit because you're on your own and you don't have to share it with anyone. Which is sometimes the joy of eating on your own because it doesn't matter. 

KH - Yeah, definitely 

JG - I have to say, from the time I spent in America, I don't rate the cheese. Especially the cheddar. 

KH - Yeah, they haven't quite got into the cloth bound caves of Somerset have they? They’re not trying to replicate the savoir in the same way that the British are now doing a very good job of. 

JG - What's your favourite cheese?

KH -  I think if it was a death row cheese question, I'd probably go for a gruyere. Something nutty and hard. 

JG - What's the best cheese for a cheese toastie?

KH - It depends… That's a complex question. It depends on the outcome of the type of toastie you want to make. We are currently using Ogleshield, that's a replica of a kind of raclette, French style. And it melts really well and is really smelly. Obviously, it wants to melt well, that's the aim of the game, but you also want to be able to taste it and it has a little salty cut through, you don't want it to be too greasy, obviously, because you don't want it to be dripping with oil that would be gross. For me I just want it to balance with the other flavours, because the cheese toasties that we serve in the trailer are pretty wild! 

JG - They are

KH - I think so. 

JG - What is your ultimate recipe for a cheese toastie?

KH - I think my ultimate cheese toastie harks back to my 11 year old self. I think one of the first holidays that we went on as a family, we went to Lanzarote for a week and we had a little apartment on this big complex. Yeah it just felt kind of fancy and we were abroad and it was super hot and me and my brothers both had lilos and all we did was spend our time having fun. And this pool had a bar in the middle of it that was half in the water and half out of the water. It just felt super kind of 80s and jazzy. And mum and dad just let us get on with it I guess. And I remember one day I sat down at the bar, like in the water, but at the bar. And I was like, urm I'll have a coca cola please and I'll have a cheese and ham and pineapple toastie, because that was on the menu, and I'll have an ice cream and I literally bought all three at once and I think my brothers joked that I was gorging myself on everything I could possibly get and I was quite a gluttonous little child, but I just didn't care, I felt like I’d arrived. I'm ordering my own lunch in a pool in the sun in a swimming costume and it was just the best thing ever but I think it would be that flavour - ham, cheese and pineapple. I think for me, I want something interesting in my cheese toastie, there needs to be something else that compliments just the cheese

JG - Like a pineapple?

KH - Like a pineapple!

JG - That sounds amazing and also grilled pineapple is really delicious…

KH - Oh, I don't think this was grilled, I imagine it was from a can. I think it just felt really grown up. I think it was the buying it myself, ordering my own lunch, doing my own thing. Sitting there on my own. As an adult now, obviously we can't at the moment go out and sit at cafes and eat on our own but I think London has taught me to enjoy food on my own in a way that I didn't know before I lived here. Partly because when you live in London you like to move around don't you, sometimes you're at work or you're at a meeting and then you need food. So you go and find food on your own. And I think I used to feel strange about sitting in restaurants and eating alone, whereas now, having been in London for 13 years, you know I quite enjoy it. You know the calm, mindful state of sitting there, ordering your own food, watching the world go by, always find a window and I think that's what I felt then when I was little. 

JG - That kind of set the scene. 

KH - Yeah. I did want to go into food when I was a teenager, I had a job in the pub and I was always licking the bowls when they got to the sink. But it meant that I suddenly started tasting all these flavours, again it was really 90s, pork dijonnaise, mustard and cream in a pan, great! Or chilli garlic prawns, I just remember being like (gurgles) what is this?!

JG - Yeah because in the 90s that wasn't a thing.

KH - It wasn't a thing, it was very gastro - gastro before gastro.

JG - And then so you kind of had your 11 year old self at the beginning of your cheese toastie story, your cheese toastie history, how else did cheese toasties… 

KH - Permeate my life?

JG - Yeah, permeate your life! 

KH - So I went to quite a strange school, actually I guess it wasn't strange but I didn't really like school very much, it was a private school. There was tea, we had afternoon tea. Lunches were pretty good but tea was piles of bread, piles of jam, piles of peanut butter, doughnuts, cakes, cookies, biscuits, basically just loads of beige, sweet processed stuff.

JG - Yeah I mean that's what teenagers… I had an iced bun every day for my entire secondary school. 

KH - Yeah I think I ate a Boost everyday, a Cadburys Boost - a Boost a day. But yeah I used to go to tea, at 3.30 we'd go to our houses. And tea was just somewhere you went and something you did. I don't even know that I was hungry. But, there was cheese toastie makers and I think that was the first time Id come across a toaster oven, a press -  a Breville, I think they’re the cheese toastie makers where you make your sandwich, then you butter the outside and then you put it in and it creates those kind of cheese toastie triangles. And we used to make chocolate spread toasties! And I remember so clearly they would provide jars of Cadburys dairy milk chocolate spread. No joke, you would put half a jar - Our fees must have just gone on chocolate spread! Basically you'd have a melted chocolate spread toastie. And that's the next big toastie I remember. I don't even think it was interesting enough in terms of flavour. I think it was just sweet and hit the teenage spot of needing sugar. 

JG - It sounds delicious though, 

KH - It's kind of gross now I look back on it. I think I probably ate one of those every day along with all the biscuits and the boost.

JG - But if I did it now it would be homemade chocolate spread, sourdough bread…

KH - Ok yeah, so it would be the zjoozji version. And it would have some crumbled hazelnuts or something to give it a bit of crunch! See this is a whole different thing, all of a sudden you've got a posh chocolate toastie.

JG - Yeah! 

KH - I think as I got older… so… I grew up in a little village, kind of between Salisbury and Winchester. Really nice little village. And we'd all go to the pub, as teenagers. And the main pub I'm thinking of is about 2 miles from our house, so we'd often just get head torches on and walk there and walk back. And then there would often be an around the kitchen table session at our house or somebody's house but it was often ours and my dad brews homebrew - he's never sold it to the public but he was a chemist so he's quite into brewing cider and beer and stuff like that. So there would often be stacks and stacks of homebrew to drink. And a fridge full of food. And I think Tom, my eldest brother, he was often into, like, ‘whose in for a bit of cheese toastie?’ Wait it wasn't a cheese toastie, it was cheese on toast, back then it was cheese on toast. There would be a whole baking tray and like 10 pieces of bread. He'd toast them first quite, you know religiously, making sure they were toasted on both sides first and then rummaging around in the fridge for whatever cheese he could possibly find, which was normally loads because my mum loves cheese. So a whole different melange of whatever cheese all over it, and then always, Lea and Perrins! 

Occasionally I’d go home and there would be no one there apart from like, say my dad, and we'd walk to the pub and then come back and then when we'd get back he'd be like grass of home brew and I'd be like yes dad and then he'd be like shall we have a bit of cheese and jam on toast? Me and my dad would always have mum's homemade raspberry jam and then weirdly my mum would be Leerdamer, absolutely great… but cheese and jam generally is so complimentary. I think weirdly there's been a massive cheese toastie hiatus in my life.

JG - Until I started your van…

KH - Until I started the trailer. And I don't know what really was the impetus other than… I think since I've been running Canababes, for the last few years, I think more and more and more I've just really liked to play around with flavour. I realised that that is something I naturally do. I made some cauliflower brinjal in the summer aubergine pickle, it was a bit like piccalilli, in the summer for our mutual friend, Lizzie, and she said ‘oh this is like a kind of cauliflower mustard, you should sell this, this is great.’ And I thought well that would be interesting in a cauliflower cheese toastie and I just trialled it one day over summer, then got the trailer and thought oh thats a given well do that. 

JG - I mean the food that you sell in the trailer is very different from the food you were serving up at weddings. I mean it's the opposite. 

KH - It's much more playful. The toasties I wanna make are playful. And sometimes we talk about doing red onion and goat cheese. it just feels a bit too… normal. 

JG - Yeah so it's fun food and it's fun food at a time where no ones having much fun. 

KH - Hey guys, you're not having any fun but just come and eat my toasties. 

JG - It's sort of how you mentioned earlier that you ordered your first cheese toastie sitting alone and I think a lot of people come to the trailer, even if you're with a pal, you order yourself food, it's kind of like a very solo experience, isn't it - you know, you’re at work, you need to grab some food… 

KH - Yeah we definitely have a lot of people who come to the trailer who are getting out and about for their daily walk at the moment who just want to have a chat and definitely people who live alone in the area, there's loads in Hackney Wick, I think… 

JG - Yeah, there are, well I mean London's ust full of single people, I lived on my own for years, you live alone. And what kind of stuff do you cook on your own?

KH - Hmm.. (laughs)… I feel like this is kind of embarrassing. I take leftovers from work, that's probably one meal a week. I eat tinned tomato soup one meal a week. I often find myself with loads of green veg and herbs and lots eggs, eggs - I eat lots of eggs. In kind of a big tortilla frittata pan-job. And… fish and noodles. And basically I get a bit obsessed with Asian food left on my own. Lots of soy and ginger, chilli…

JG - I mean those are such… I mean, eggs, Asian food, soup, they're the single cook's friend. 

KH - Yeah well they're quick as well. 

JG - They're so simple!

KH - I think stir fry was one of the first things I learnt how to cook on my own. 

JG - I think stir fry was one of the first things I cooked when I moved to Uni and I remember the first time I made a chicken stir fry I poisoned myself  because I didn't cook the chicken properly. 

KH - Oh I remembered one more thing that I love eating on my own is fish finger sandwiches. They're just so good. With a watercress. Or mustard. Or, I dunno, tartar, anything. Nice, like, zingy condiments. 

JG - Yeah. What I find interesting is that you were in a partnership with someone doing wedding food and then and now you're your own boss and I wanted to know what that feels like. Do you enjoy doing stuff on your own or…

KH - No I think I really enjoy having someone to bounce ideas off, that is lost at the moment. I think it's easier to progress with things. But then also that might be because Corona has meant I have to just get up and do things quickly otherwise I would be doing nothing. They're quite different businesses to run. When Canababes was kind of working a couple of years ago really well we were quite a big team, it was a well oiled machine. What Katie Did Next, again it feels more fun and I like the kind of like joy that it brings to people in the local area day in day out that's really nice, but no I think running something on your own is really tough and I think ideally still I’m a group player, and it's easy now because because I've historically had another business you kind of know how to run things together. Canababes wasn't first, we called it Canababes but we had a street food meat ball stall called Cannaballs was our first business. And people were like are these veggies? And we were like some of them are, and some of them aren’t and, by the way they are not made of humans, and the whole thing was really confusing. We thought meatballs were a good thing because there weren't any street food companies doing meatballs, which is true, but I think there's a reason for that which is that, ‘scuse the pun, they're a ball ache to make it long. 

JG - Eventually you ended up doing weddings!

So thanks for chatting to me. The way I would love to end this is by asking what's the best thing about being alone 

KH - I think when I really get into being alone it's the lack of boundaries that you need. I sometimes think if money didn't exist and you weren't, maybe if I wasn't in a relationship which I am which means that I'm not always on my own I could while away the hours not really doing much. Just kind of being interested in stuff. Cooking a bit of food, sleeping, reading. 

JG - Doing what you want

KH - I think it is the lack of boundaries, that you don't have to answer to anyone else. And it's just peaceful and you don't have to kind of like justify it to anybody. There's no compromises. On the other hand, when you're not feeling great that peacefulness can often not be peaceful and it's like a terrorising emptiness at times, when you feel like you want to be with people and you're not. 

JG - Yeah and you can't be. Do you like your own company?

KH - I think I'm a bit like I was saying about being in London. I think I've learnt to like it. I think the last two years especially, lockdown and the year before, yeah. I think I do like my own company now. But I've had a few years of really not. I teeter on the edge of mental health stuff coming up every now and then and I definitely have had moments where I didn’t like my own company at all. FOMO doesn't even describe, when you feel like you need to be, like for me I need to be around people at points. But yeah I don't have that at all now. ITS GREAT!

JG - That's lovely. That's lovely when you realise that. 

KH - I hoped lockdown would last forever and ever… no I don't really wish that.

JG - Well let’s hope it doesn’t…

(Both laugh a lot) 

JG - 

Katie talks about being alone, as if every moment alone, even if it is difficult, is important for our own growth, so I hoped you enjoyed hearing her talk about her story of food and independence.  It’s funny, actually, since I recorded this episode with Katie I’ve had so many conversations about cheese toasties with other friends , they are, I suppose, a national dish and I think most Brits have a story or two about them. 

If you have any thoughts on cheese toasties or any other stories that you’d like to share with me, I would love to hear them. I’ve been messing about with Katie’s suggestion of the ham, cheese and pineapple toastie - which is a ham, cheese and pineapple pizza in toastie form and I’ve also put up the recipe for that posh chocolate and hazelnut cheese toastie that me and Katie riffed - it’s vegan as well for all of my plant based chums, that's for you guys. I've put both recipes up on the How to eat alone project/s blog, which you can find on the edible  Just scroll through to the How to eat alone section of the website. 

You can also find recipes and more information about How to eat alone and also The Edible Archive on instagram and facebook. The instagram handle is the.edible.archive and check out The Edible Archive’s facebook page. Thanks so much for listening to the first episode of the podcast, I hope you enjoyed being alone with me. I would really appreciate it if you can share this podcast with anyone you think might benefit from listening to it, especially as I’m so teeny tiny, this is such a shiny new project. Thanks for listening, I will see you next time for the next episode of How to eat alone. 


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