If you’ve drifted around the food markets of our East London boroughs on a Saturday morning in the last few years – or wandered the aisles of M&S and Waitrose – chances are Vadasz Deli needs no introduction.
For over ten years, Nick Vadasz has been breathing new life into the art of preservation and fermentation with his pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi which have not only had people buying them in droves, but have also reinforced the bonds between the former-Goldsmiths student and his Hungarian heritage through his passion for food.
“As your culture gets diluted through generations of immigration, I think that food just resonates through time,” Vadasz told ELL. “That’s the thing that remains, really.”
The origins of the Vadasz Deli pickles go back further than the ten years they have been on the market. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Vadasz family fled their native country and eventually made their home in Kent, where Nick would later be born. “In a refugee situation, you don’t have much time to think – you just pick up what you can and run. The story goes that all they took was the family silver and a jar of pickles, to sustain them on their journey to Austria.”
Pickles were always a staple on the family dinner table. Vadasz remembers, as a child, his Hungarian grandmother preparing the equivalent of Little Gem lettuce sliced up, dressed with lemon juice, sugar and a pinch of salt. “It was a very simple, fresh pickle, and our Garlic Dill Pickles were inspired by that recipe,” he explained. “It was always part of our eating culture. We didn’t grow up speaking Hungarian, as my dad married an English woman. He was a doctor, so he was rarely home to teach us. So when you don’t have the language, food is the one currency that ties you in with your culture.”
After working as a chef and teacher in the boroughs of East London for over 30 years, Vadasz began to notice the thriving trend of street food. “I thought, ‘I could do this quite well.’” So on holidays and weekends, he started Vadasz Deli: a name chosen to both honour his family name and hold the promise of serving up anything and everything.
But pickles came later. They started with serving up hand-pressed corn quesadillas which proved popular with customers at places such as Broadway Market in Hackney, Brockley Market in Lewisham, and the since-closed food market in Wapping, Tower Hamlets. Now, he is too overrun with orders to continue appearing at East London’s food markets, but he owes them his earliest successes.
But once the queues proved too long and the hot food was too labour-intensive to meet demand, Vadasz turned his attention to producing garnishes. He said: “The jars of kimchi, pickles and sauerkraut actually started to outsell the hot food.”
Restaurants and other food vendors started to order by the kilo for his famed products, so then Vadasz had to drop the street food and focus on the pickles. Why have his fermented foods proven so popular? “It seems to sort of take hold of the imagination,” he thought. “Really, the only reason why people used to cook with sauerkraut was because in the winter there were no fresh vegetables. It was only recently that there’s been a renaissance in the raft of preservation – it’s as ancient as we are, this idea. It adds flavour to the food.” He uses wine, cheese and bread as examples. “It really is a magical process that adds value.”
Coming from a chef’s background, what sets Vadasz Deli apart from its competitors is putting flavour above all else. “Quite a lot of other manufacturers focus on the health benefits, but I’m focused on flavour profiles and tastes. The fact they might be good for your gut is a bonus – but with us, flavour comes first.” For that reason, their kimchi has proven to be the most popular, which Vadasz believes is a strong indicator of Britain’s love of spice. He develops new ideas from his NPD lab and kitchen in Hackney, sourcing fresh ingredients which are sent for production to Clitheroe in the Ribble Valley, where Vadasz visits as often as restrictions allow. The latest of his inventions includes Super Green Kimchi, with apples, kale, green chilli and Chinese leaves.
It’s innovations like these that have seen Vadasz’s goods in Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op, with more stockists interested in the business than ever. Ideas for how to pair the garnishes with food can be found on the Vadasz Deli Instagram page, including recipes for making Korean-inspired, kimchi pancakes and how to upgrade your burgers, to the more outlandish how-to on making kimchi and Biscoff brownies. But the ideas don’t stop there. He told ELL: “We’ve got a few ideas for diversifying our product range, so watch this space!”