Five years ago, Lee Johnson and Sinead Campbell borrowed £10,000 from friends and family to launch BBQ Dreamz – serving Filipino-inspired street food.
Now, fresh from their success on the BBC’s My Million Pound Menu, the Kerb regulars are bringing that Filipino culture to Bethnal Green with their new restaurant Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen. Local Buyers Club members save 15% (info here).
They’ve created a menu that’s full of aromatic, authentic Filipino dishes and a brilliant cocktail menu too – and every Sunday they’re going back to Lee’s roots with some good old karaoke.
We caught up with the Hackney couple to hear their remarkable story.
Lee said: “Sundays are amazing here – we call it the Double K Drop. To start with we have Kamayan, where we serve big plates of food for everyone to share and eat with their hands and we end the night with Karaoke, which is a massive thing in the Philippines. We love karaoke and play all the time – we even had karaoke at my grandmother’s funeral!”
When Lee isn’t on the mic (his go-to karaoke song is White Lines by Grandmaster Flash, while Sinead does a great rendition of The Real Slim Shady), he’s front of house in the restaurant and Sinead is cooking up magic in the kitchen – she’s self taught and has had some top tips from Lee’s mum Leah.
They met 13 years ago through mutual friends, when Sinead was studying fine art print at university in Camberwell and Lee was studying commercial photography. Sinead went on to work for Victim Support and Lee became a restaurant manager at Mayfields in Mare Street.
He said: “We’d always loved cooking for friends and serving big banquets – our lives revolved around food and we decided we wanted to do our own thing so in June 2014 we quit our jobs, borrowed money from friends and family, bought a van, gazebos and grills and set up our first market stall at Hoxton Street.”
Lee was born in the Philippines and, though he lived there from the age of eight for a couple of years while his family followed their dream of running a pig farm, he spent most of his life in the UK. His mum is Filipino, and his dad was from North Shields. Sinead, who does most of the cooking, grew up in Ireland – her first introduction to Filipino cooking came from Lee’s mum Leah but she’s largely self-taught.
The couple quickly realised they needed a more steady cash-flow during BBQ Dreamz’ first year and went back to work full time. They spent every night prepping food and every weekend serving it. Within a few months they’d landed a pitch at Kerb (with stalls in Paddington, Kings Cross and West India Quays). They put much of their success down to the support and mentoring they received from the Kerb team.
Lee describes their food as: “Philippines-inspired.” He added: “It’s meant to bridge the gap for people who have never been to the Philippines or tried the food.”
Dishes include grilled satay duck hearts, sticky adobo chicken wings, 24-hour cooked crispy pork belly and subtly spiced curries and stews sprinkled with peanuts, chillies and spring onions.
Lee added: “At first it was challenging to get people to try Filipino food – if there was a burger van next door, they’d always go to that, but we quickly learnt to change our marketing – instead of calling one dish ‘Liempo’ we started describing it as ‘Grilled, Sticky Pork Belly.’ We started describing the dishes rather than calling them by their name and that made a big difference.”
Lee and Sinead were delighted when the Million Pound Menu team first approached them: “Then we found out they’d approached everyone,” joked Lee.
He described the filming as: “a cool process but stressful as hell.” The couple were filmed for around 40 hours in total – for days at a time, while trying to run a pop-up and with potential investors dropping in to ask questions. They beat off competition from the likes of The Duck Truck and Leeds-based Jah Jyot.
Lee said: “It felt amazing to win – we went into it thinking it would be great exposure and a good experience but didn’t expect to win!
“A lot of people are doing amazing work to get Filipino food out there but it’s amazing to think that we’ve had this exposure which has helped push Filipino food forward.
Bong Bongs opened in late 2019 and cemented the couple’s decision to rebrand their original business BBQ Dreamz into something that sounded more Filipino.
Lee, 36, explained: “People just didn’t automatically associate the old name with Filipino food – in the Philippines ‘Bong’ means ‘Junior’ – everyone there has it as a kind of nickname! I have the same name as my dad, so I’m a Junior. It’s playful and fun and it works for us.”
The restaurant is just around the corner from their commercial kitchen, from which they prepare food for the various markets they serve street food at (Kerb in Kings Cross and West India Quays).
Lee added: “I really like Bethnal Green as a location – it’s a great community – I love all the businesses in containerville – everyone gets on well and supports each other.”
When they won the Million Pound Menu they were offered £350,000 investment to launch their own restaurant – but, though the couple get ongoing mentoring from investor Charlie McVeigh (founder of Draft House), they decided not to take the investment and have funded Bong Bongs from savings.
Lee said: “We are completely independent – we only have ourselves to answer to, but I guess that means we only have ourselves to blame.”
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