Kaysor Ambiah moved to London with a dream of starting a food business of his own five years ago. However, born in Milan and spending most of his life there, the Bengali-Italian found it very hard at first. “I couldn’t speak in English when I came here and couldn’t figure out where to start. But I had my idea in my mind and kept looking for that,” he says, with a big smile on his face.
To make his dream come true, he started to take English courses and worked in a hotel where he learned a lot about management. He also got to know more about local culture by watching many English movies and simply walking around the city to “see people and what they are doing”.
After spending the first two years in London, an opportunity arose: during the Covid lockdown in 2020, an owner was selling a kiosk next to Cambridge Heath station in Hackney. Ambiah seized the chance, quit his job in the hotel and took the place over. He put tables and chairs in the small garden next to the kiosk and redecorated it in “Hackney style” with jasmine blooming during summertime.
Ambiah started the business by making the street food he had enjoyed in a food market in Milan when he was a teenager. Things didn’t go well at first; his food didn’t satisfy the palates of Hackney. “In Italy, you don’t use any spices, just garlic and olive oil,” he says. “That’s why I didn’t get that much popularity in the beginning, because actually in London, people like spices in general. So, slowly, I started to learn how to use spices.” He now serves falafel and other street foods such as burgers and burritos.
Now 28, Ambiah still remembers working at Green Glow from 7am till 10pm every day for an entire year, and not seeing a penny in profit. Every penny went back into the kiosk to keep it alive.
His business gradually grew. A customer recently told him he makes the best falafel in Hackney. “I served nearly 200 people just by myself in one evening,” says Ambiah. “In the summertime, sometimes you get a massive amount of people going from Victoria Park to the tube station through here. This is a strategic position.”
The secrets of the improvement of falafel and other street food he serves are always to keep the ingredients fresh and choose the right bread. “Because it’s a small kiosk, people might think they are all pre-prepared ingredients. But no, we really work on those items before selling them,” he says, pointing to all the ingredients on the table where roasted oval beans, chicken tikka, tomato sauce with garlic, and fresh salad in different containers arranged neatly.
Gregory Dreams, 34, has lived in the neighbourhood for seven years, and is one of the oldest customers of Ambiah’s place and, interestingly, the one who helped Ambiah source the best bread for his falafel. “They started really small,” he recalls. “It was obvious that they had to figure out what was working in the neighbourhood,” Dreams says, “but now I think he’s got a signature wrap that people come just for that wrap. And I definitely encouraged them.”
When Dreams first visited the kiosk, Ambiah kept changing the bread he used with the intention of finding the best one. “I found this bread, and I used it for a few days,” Ambiah says, “Gregory tried it, and he really liked that.”
Dreams picks up the story. “It was amazing. And then I came back. It was just a regular tortilla. I was like, ‘I’m sorry, dude. I’m not interested in that. I want that bread from last time.’ He knew he had lost a sale,” Dreams laughs.
With the right bread, fresh ingredients, and having adapted his recipes to the taste of the neighbourhood, Green Glow started making a profit in the autumn of 2021.
But Ambiah is still dreaming. He recounts a story from his days working at a food stall in the Maradona market in Milan, when he was just 16 and learning about food. An old man came and ordered some food. “He said to me, ‘I can see it in your eyes; you can manage hundreds of food stalls,'” Ambiah recalls. “I never saw him again, but I believed that little talk. From there, I started my journey, and I hope it’s going to be in that direction.”
This article is part of our series, Food Without Borders: Taste of East London, check out more stories here. #ELLFoodWithoutBorders