Harvey Cabaniss, Verde & Co
If you go round to Verde & Co, the delicatessen at 40 Brushfield St on any given Friday morning at ten, you will discover Harvey Cabaniss, the head chef and proprietor, serving the eminent Edith Randall, his most favoured and loyal customer who gets special service. “You mustn’t tell everyone about the special service” said Edith, regal in her velvet hat, when I stumbled upon the Friday ritual last week, “otherwise I’ll have rivals and that will be no good at all.” Fortunately, I know I can rely upon my readers’ discretion to maintain this best kept secret in Spitalfields – of the special service at Verde & Co – because I have no doubt it could also be arranged for you too, if you ask Harvey nicely and avoid ten on Friday mornings.
What is the nature of the “special service” that has kept Edith Randall coming back, walking in all weathers from her home in the Barbican to buy her weekly supplies here every Friday at ten, since Verdes opened a few years ago? Emerging with the immaculate brio and theatrical timing of a stage conjurer, in one step Harvey appeared from the kitchen and held up a rabbit in triumph, the only difference being this rabbit was skinned and ready for the pot. Overawed at the prospect of this delicious leporine specimen, Edith clasped her hands in delight, but this was merely the overture to the performance. Harvey vanished into the kitchen again and returned with a sirloin steak, then an ox tail, delivering up a fresh box of John Dorys as his grand finale. It was an embarrassment of edible riches and with each option I could feel the rising excitement as Edith Randall rubbed her hands together in hungry anticipation of the culinary treats that the coming week held for her.
Very soon, Harvey had the pieces of meat and fish lined up neatly on the counter in boxes, supplemented by some salad, mince pies and quiches from the Sally Clarke’s famous bakery in Kensington Church St. For Edith Randall, next week’s menu was taken care of. “I’ll weigh the empty box first this week,” said Harvey catching Edith’s eye with a knowing grin. “Harvey always weighs the empty box first so he knows how much a box weighs,” said Edith inexplicably, “Sometimes, I get home and it puzzles me why there is a box with nothing in it, until I realise it is the empty box!” Clearly, this is one of those rare private jokes that can run and run, accumulating greater humorous import with further repetitions.
I think we have established that Edith Randall is a female of descriminating tastes but what I have not revealed is that she is Canadian, not that these things are mutually exclusive, though it is Edith’s prerogative to disagree. “I came here from Canada in 1951 to escape from the lack of culture, I had to get out and I just simply loved it, because I had a desire to be in Europe. Even though, in 1951 everyone was going the other way and it was pretty grim here with rationing, bomb sites and flowers growing on the ruins around St Paul’s.” A graduate of the University of Canada with a passion for European literature, Edith Randall never looked back, she is at the opera almost nightly and scrupulous in keeping up with the latest exhibitions. “I killed the Turner yesterday,” Edith declared in a throwaway that is distinctly North American in its laconic irony.
It is no surprise that Edith and Harvey have become soulmates in a formal, highly respectful, mutually amused kind of way, because Harvey too is a refugee from the former colonies. Coming here and washing the dishes for Fergus Henderson at his first restaurant “The French House Dining Rooms”, Harvey quickly graduated to be a chef, working with Fergus for six years before becoming head chef for the top notch catering operation run by the Caprice group. The surprising part of Harvey’s story is that he is of Huguenot origin, his ancestor Henri Cabiniss passed through here from France in 1695 before leaving for North Carolina. After three centuries, Harvey feels he has come home now.
When Jeanette Winterson bought the building in Brushfield St and renovated it, she wanted to lease the shop to a grocer and Harvey took it on. Retaining all the charm of the quaint old premises, enhanced with a fine display of antique china, Staffordshire figures, toy theatres and nineteenth century clocks, Harvey has stocked it to the roof with his favourite foods.“The best things you can buy in London,” he terms it simply. Sometimes, I have noticed that oranges are the only fruit on sale here and I always wondered if this was a subtle joke at the landlady’s expense, but I was too shy to ask.
Just like the planets in the heavens, Harvey is in a constant state of motion. Even as I took the photo above, I was aware that he was poised, about to run off to the next task. A tall man with agile grace and a powerful physical presence, who lifts his head up to look you in the eye, I should not have been surprised if, like Nijinsky, Harvey was capable of spectacular leaps, though maybe this would not be especially practical or entirely advisable in such a tiny shop crammed with pots of jam stacked up and valuable antiques.