While Adria Wu only went to cooking school six years ago, she certainly hasn’t wasted time kicking off her career as a chef. She set up her healthy eating concept Maple & Co in 2015, which has now grown to four sites, including two in King’s Cross and her latest opening in Hammersmith.
Tapping into the appetite for grab-and-go and delivery, Maple & Co offers both breakfast, salad lunch boxes and gluten-free bakery goods, but also caters for corporate clients having worked with the likes of Nike, Sweaty Betty and the Tate. She also appears on Channel 4’s programme Sunday Brunch and has plans to develop recipes and videos for her online customers, as well as cookbooks.
As for Maple & Co, Wu is introducing more hot food into stores – no easy feat for a chain that is best known for its salads – as well as new sweet stuff in a menu that changes quarterly.
Here she speaks to Sarah Sharples about her hopes for more green vegetables from around the world to appear on UK plates, how fermentation is going to influence sauces and flavouring and the challenges of gluten-free baking.
My background is a bit mixed. My parents are Chinese – we grew up eating a lot of east Asian food like Japanese, Korean, Chinese food, south east Asian like Thai and my husband is Indian so his mum taught me how to make Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani-type food so a lot of spices like turmeric and cumin. Then I lived in the Middle East for about four years and a lot of the food I do to is inspired by the Middle East like tarragon, pomegranate, molasses, chickpeas, sesame seed paste like tahini, aubergine and peppers, harissa and a lot of those flavours.
After Corden Bleu, I wanted to do a healthy version of what I learned so that was how Maple & Co was born. In 2014, I started putting the idea together, started researching competitors and at the time there wasn’t many health focused deli or grab-and-go takeaway concepts.
Our food is all about balanced eating. So balanced eating is basically having half your plate full of veggies, a quarter should be protein and the final quarter should be carbs, but it’s not about any carbs we recommend complex carbohydrates so sweet potatoes, quinoa and – including ancient grains – which is an up and coming thing, like amaranth, teff and sorghum.
We are not a vegan exclusive place. It’s about really vibrant, colourful food. We try with every plate and seasonal menu change to think of the rainbow and we want to have our red, greens, purples and oranges to make it look exciting and appetising.
We also have our own gluten-free bakery so everything is made from scratch.
Because we don’t use refined sugars, shelf life is a big problem for some of the sweet food. Like we had a really popular mini vegan berry muffin but they had one day shelf life so in a catering environment it’s not really sustainable.
With pastry stuff we can’t make any successful gluten-free pastry, which is really frustrating, so until this day we can’t offer customers a gluten-free croissant but I don’t know how many people are dying for it.
I design all the menus with the help of my head chef and he is also the production manager so we work together to figure out what our seasonal menu dishes are going to be and then he makes it come to life in terms of actually being able to execute it and produce it in a big volume versus making it in a singular dish.
We change our menu four times a year. We don’t change all the salads, so there are some staples that stay on rotation so the Julius Caesar and the Mexican Standoff, those two have been on since we opened. We change the other salads pretty regularly and we have chef specials that we roll out to the stores.
The most popular dish lately is cauliflower – it’s definitely having its moment, whether its cauliflower rice or cauliflower steaks or roasted cauliflower or soup. It has been incredibly popular with the different ways it’s being cooked – it is bringing it back to life.
Popular foods we have also seen through the colder months are superfood lattes, so we do a beetroot latte, matcha latte and turmeric latte and they are also really pretty as they are pink, green and yellow.
I think carbs and breads are slightly making a comeback but focusing on the healthier carbs. I think a few years ago we didn’t do any sandwiches or breads in our stores, but actually what we find is that a lot of people are intolerant or sensitive to bread, but can actually consume sourdough bread as the fermentation process is so much longer.
We are just about to come out with our vegan burger and vegan parmigiana. The vegan parmigiana has been a lot of work for the last two months to get a vegan cheese to be stringy, and to have that umami taste with the sweet and savoury is actually really hard. We have been testing the shelf life of this vegan cheese that we are making, trying to grate it and bake it.
With the vegan burger, we are doing a mix of sweet potato, cauliflower and beans into a patty and wonderful fresh herbs and spices.
We are looking at bringing in more hot food and that’s been a struggle as a healthy place. We are known for our salads.
We are introducing a kimchi stewed chickpeas dish which will be served warm. We are going to be doing a miso green curry with tofu. Some of the sides we are adding on are cauliflower rice, as we found that customers really like cauliflower rice instead of having it as a salad.
On the bakery side, we are adding new sweets. Like berry energy balls, so it’s actual berries which are low in sugar but still provide a bit of sweetness, and nuts and it’s coated in a pink coconut – the ball itself is actually purple and pink. The chef has done such a good job, the challenge with berries is they go off really easily, so that is one of the things we had to look at different suppliers and different forms of berries to get them quite shelf stable.
Aside from veganism, I think the other big trends is no sugar and I think that’s going to become more prevalent in the market. It’s used to stabilise food and preserve food, I get it but… manufacturers hide sugar everywhere, so I think people are going to wake up to it and be asking more about sugar content.
Fermented foods are going to become a really big thing with the rise of kombucha.
In Western cultures we don’t eat a lot of fermented foods, but if you look at my background - half the Chinese condiments are all just fermented things. If you eat black bean chicken, black bean paste is fermented black beans, that’s it. If you look at miso, it’s fermented so I think a lot of the sauces and flavouring that comes from the East isn’t just about adding butter, fat and sugar to it, the flavour comes from spices and different techniques to prepare food and I think that is going to have an influence on the way we eat in the West.
I think pulses, legumes and beans will influence the future. You see lots of cuisines around the world use black eyed beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, all the different kinds of lentils – I think that will be quite celebrated in the future as a more sustainable protein source.
Trying to buy a lot of things wholesale or bulk can be very hard, although there are great distributors like we use Marigold.
Especially with a lot of the Asian sauces, finding ones that are not full of preservatives and chemicals is quite hard or that is gluten-free. Like soy sauce is a great example, the great alternative we use now is tamari, but I would love to move to coconut aminos, it’s like the coconut version of tamari and soy sauce, so it’s gluten-free and tastes pretty similar, but it’s bloody expensive right now so we wouldn’t use it in a commercial kitchen.
We love using activated yeast which is what we use in our secret cheese. It has a cheesy umami taste, so that’s something we really like to buy, but the tubs we use are 250g tubs and we will go through that in the day. It’s not that we can’t find ingredients – we can’t find it at an affordable price in a commercial environment.
Last year, we wanted to use aji amarillo which is a Peruvian spice, so trying to track that spice down through distribution was impossible.
Given how much we cook with plants, I think the other trend I hope to see coming in is a lot leafier greens making a comeback as I think everyone has been crazy about kale and spinach in particular, but first of all there is lots of different types of kale like black kale, cavolo nero, purple kale and then there’s also lots of other green vegetables that are really good but not as popular, like for example, all your cabbages, things like napa cabbage, savoy cabbage – they don’t get enough credit for the amount of nutrition and taste and texture.
I think it’s even a lot of Asian vegetables like choy sum, bak choy and all these greens are wonderful and we don’t use enough in our daily rotation of greens, so hopefully we will see a bigger trend of more greens from around the world.