Being cramped and hard to find aren’t normally advantages for a business, but for Nicola Willis, her ability to put a positive spin on her unique and off-the-beaten-track café ensures Pea Souk’s season-dependent vegetarian menu is fresh, colourful and continuously inspired by her far-east travels.
Walking through the door of Pea Souk in Falmouth, Cornwall feels like you’ve stepped into the owner and chef’s personal kitchen. Nicola’s end-of-alley blackboard menu entices you up Well Lane, opposite a view of cascading green vines. Hung above the door, its sign incorporates the hand of Miriam and indicates a middle-eastern charm and its size seems more like a ‘sit while you wait’ café with two tables and a sharable wooden bench.
“People say I should get a place on the high street. Why,” she asks. “I’d get more customers… but I’d get more annoying customers! Like people pushing prams saying ‘do you do chips?’ Oh f*** off,” she says with a half-laugh in her voice.
A colourful character to say the least, Nicola steadily attracts tourists and locals alike to her monthly Supper Club evenings or daily servings; the café can be fully booked and can fit an astonishing 19 people at a genuine squeeze. It’s interior boasts clean, white walls with a prided collection of Arabic mirrors, framed posters and artwork and red cushioned seats. And even after she thoroughly scrubbed its two-man kitchen of its greasy past as infamous fry-up joint, The Clipper Café, Nicola has yet to break Cornwall’s celebrity status as the ‘home of the pasty’ (meat enveloped in pastry).
Regardless, Pea Souk has done nothing less than pull its weight since opening. Famous for her Happy Pig Porkless Pies, Supper Clubs, bespoke catering and even her ‘no nonsense’ approach to both cooking and serving, she’s restored hope for the recent, lifelong or occasional veggie.“I’m not a perfectionist but I’m not a slap dash cook. I’m trained and I have specific skills and that’s why I like to have a small café because if you’re making huge batches of food, you lose the attention to detail and you lose the flavour.
“I mean if I was cooking a curry in a pan this big,” she says as she creates an image of a cauldron with ingredients carelessly being chucked in, “it’s very difficult to keep the flavouring…to have such sharp flavours as if I was making a small pan,” explains the chef.
Nicola also talks about how she’s found the past five years of being owner, chef and waitress, challenging, “You just can’t do all three” she says. “And when I go home, I don’t do any cooking. My boyfriend does – I just supervise!”
Like many owners of small eateries with an online presence, Nicola has had to stomach both sides of customers’ testimonies of their experiences at Pea Souk. Some of the reviews on TripAdivsors read how the food is dated and “old fashioned vegetarian…something you’d find in the 70s or 80s” or that you should “only go here if you like cramped conditions, sharing a table with strangers, and being abused by rude staff.”
“Everyone raves about the tarts. I never, ever roast vegetables in the same tray. I never steam vegetables all together because they take different amounts of time. Just having the knowledge of knowing how to cook vegetables to their best. And the fact that the tarts here are I’d say 70% veg and 30% egg custard,” she explains.
“That is why people like it here. I use different cheeses, I layer different kinds of vegetables that have been really, really well cooked, well seasoned. I use fresh herbs with different types of vegetables and you can’t get that anywhere else. That’s why I’m a trained vegetarian chef.”
What is certain is that if you make the effort to travel up the slightly inclined hill of Well Lane and have a chat and some ‘grubbins’ at the petite noshery that is Pea Souk, you’ll be one of many who have taken the first initial step into a whole other transition of traditional Cornish eating all together, even if it is a bit intimate.
“I don’t want to expand it,” Nicola concludes and yawns loudly.
Photographs by Lucy K. Piper
Published on Frais Magazine