The following article was published on Boat Thursday September 13th, with a new record number of unique visitors heading to the site on that date.
It’s not often that having been instructed to walk down an alley that “looks like it leads to nowhere” late at night I gladly comply, but then this was not a run of the mill evening. As midnight struck last Thursday I was just getting off the phone with Mark Gevaux or The Ribman as he is more commonly known. Ahead of me was a night with perhaps the biggest name of London’s burgeoning street food scene somewhere off this dark back street in Dalston.
As I wandered into a dark dead end, surrounded by a handful of locked gates and fences, Gerry, Mark’s long-time friend and assistant for the evening met me at the gate. He worked through a sizeable set of keys before arriving at the one that unlocked the imposing padlock securing the entrance to the area in which Mark has been doing his overnight cooking over the last three weeks or so. In the darkness it took a few steps beyond the gate before I got around the corner and could see the striking sight of The Ribman in full flow. A pair of builder’s site lights cut through the dark and illuminated the five gas barbecues each crammed the with Norfolk and Suffolk bred baby back rib racks that Mark has favoured since embarking on this solo venture.
The night’s preparation was for The Ribman’s weekly spot at eat.st King’s Cross and resultantly two hundred racks of ribs amounting to roughly one hundred kilos needed working through. Until this new location was established, Mark would have to drag all of the barbecues down to King’s Cross (or wherever he was selling that lunchtime) and do his cooking there. While this new set-up, which sees him cook amongst a set of shipping containers saves Mark further graft, these overnight cooks are not for the faint hearted. Starting at midnight and dropping everything off on location as day breaks, he rarely relents from the physically demanding process which also calls for constant concentration.
The set-up is raw and unapologetic but the way in which the food is prepared is meticulous and skilful. Only the necessary tools are utilised, a pair of thick rubberised gloves, a set of tongs and a few re-used tubs of seasoning that sit in a supermarket trolley. As Mark methodically worked through the daunting amount of food, our conversation revealed the scant amount of time between buying the meat and serving it. At 4am on Wednesday, collection of the two hundred racks took place, that day was then spent cooking a new batch of his infamous sauces, before returning to the lock-up at midnight to begin the cook for that day. It is lengths such as these that contribute to the incredible product that Mark serves up, how many street traders can claim to serve meat that has slow cooked for thirteen hours? Few, I would imagine.
The taste of both his pork and sauces are a testament as well to his command of flavour, on-line sales of his Holy F**k, Christ on a Bike and Holy Mother of God sauces increase week by week as do his orders of scotch bonnet and naga chilies in order to meet the demand. It was with mild trepidation but overpowering intrigue that when offered a taste of a new “even hotter” special edition sauce, I accepted. Mark passed me a polished metal screw-top bottle of around 150ml; I opened it and dipped a finger in the top before wrapping my lips around my finger and dragging the fiery contents off it with my tongue. The result was one that instantly rewarded with a deep tomato flavour before the fire of the chillies began to flood the back of my mouth and throat. There exists no written down recipe for any of Mark’s sauces and from every one of my experiences of them, they stand up with the very best I have tried.
I knew from reading other interviews that Mark had qualified as a butcher by the age of thirteen but was curious as to what had been the tipping point in his decision to begin his street food venture. He regaled the story of a butcher’s he was working at when on his first day he was boning out pigs, only to find out that the owner did not want to keep the racks of ribs. Startled by this oversight on her part, Mark started to cook them for fellow employees, earning rave reviews through doing so. Certain that this would convince his boss to start selling them, when she then maintained her lack of interest he decided to set up on his own.
In the early days, for his stall at Brick Lane market, Mark would haul his set-up to the location in the small hours and set to work. Over the course of time, the revellers making their way to and from the local bars and clubs would become familiar with the sight of him cooking overnight and the pseudonym ‘The Ribman’ was born. It is testament to Mark’s personality that he is able to embody this character, he is a natural entertainer and while an imposing figure is exceptionally warm, often engaging in deep conversation with customers.
This enigmatic element to the whole thing extends to his Twitter account which, at 5,000 followers is one of the most watched on the London food scene. A quick check of it this afternoon shows that today at eat.st Mark will be cooking almost twice the food that he did last week, a good job considering that he had completely sold out before 1pm. Through Twitter he truly interacts with his customers and touches base with his regulars. A number of his sauces were named through competitions hosted on Twitter, something that Mark has to cite when his Spanish Catholic wife suggests to him that he ‘hates religion’. After revealing that tale through a smirk he went to point out that people love the series of sacrosanct sauce titles which have now become indicative of the Ribman brand. A scour of the social media site duly confirms this suggestion, with hash tags-a-plenty and tributes to lunch hours well spent.
As the last of the food was packed into thermal containers so that it could cook overnight, I had to stop for a moment and contemplate just how long this process would have taken if it weren’t for Gerry’s presence. For the most part this feat is undertaken alone and when it came up in conversation that this was the case Mark’s response was simple. It means that (by his reckoning) he only works three days a week (these are far more than eight hour days of course) meaning he gets to spend more time with his wife and children. By this point, the new adidas trainers that his wife bought him were now splattered with rib juice, so it was perhaps best that he was nipping home for a shave and a couple of hours nap before heading back to King’s Cross for an afternoon’s selling.
As I returned to meet him again a few hours later at eat.st the sun was out and the queue for his stall was snaking down past those unfortunate enough to be on the same rota as him for the day. As I mentioned before, by 1pm, the last of the food had disappeared, leaving scores of people rueing their decision not to take a lunch break at the first available opportunity. This though struck me as just rewards for the phenomenal commitment, care, passion and humility that Mark possesses in bucket loads. If the street food revolution that has gripped the capital is to continue to grow and spread further afield, it will need more people with this level of dedication serving truly exceptional food, doing so because that is what they love. My time spent with Mark left me under no illusions that his billing as ‘The Godfather of Street Food’ is thoroughly apt.
The Ribman can be found most weeks at eat.st King’s Cross on Tuesdays, Street Feast on Fridays and on Sundays at Brick Lane Market. For confirmation of these appearances follow Mark on Twitter and to buy hot sauce head to his website.