Lise Thiollier, one of the founders of the Morningside Community Café. Photograph: Ella Jessel

These days in Hackney you might be hard pressed to find lunch for under a fiver, but a vegetarian community café recently opened in Hackney Central is bucking the trend by serving up homemade and healthy hot meals on a ‘pay what you can’ basis.

Tucked away on Cresset Road in the Morningside Community Centre, the new café is winding down after a busy lunch.

Sunflower patterned tablecloths cover the trestle tables and home-made fruit cakes decorate the counter top. ‘Today was good”, says Lise Thiollier as she dissembles the tables before the stampede of youth club children arrive, “we have almost run out of food!”

Thiollier and her friend, Francesca Camporealle, originally from Paris, only opened the cafe three weeks ago.

They source ingredients from nearby markets and use food donated by local businesses such as The Grocery, a Dalston delivery company specialising in organic and locally produced foods and Fresh and Fruity, a greengrocers in Stamford Hill.

Relying on the surplus produce of market traders means a ‘plat du jour’ style menu (fitting for the Gallic roots of the café founders) and allows Morningside Café to serve ‘sophisticated food’ at flexible prices.

Homemade Soup du Jour

Homemade Soup du Jour

The cafe asks customers to pay as much as they wish to, whilst encouraging guests to put a coffee on a tab for fellow customers unable to contribute.

Onion soup with chunky melted cheese croutons and brown crusty bread comes at the ‘recommended’ price of £3.50. Breakfast is still chalked on the blackboard, a bargain at £2 for scrambled eggs and beans on toast.

All welcome

Thiollier explains that the idea is to appeal to everybody on the estate and to provide healthy food at affordable prices. “It’s a community centre, we want people to come from around here,” she says.

“The décor is simple and the prices are cheap. It’s not the usual prices of cafes in Hackney because we want everyone to feel welcome.”

So how have the residents of Morningside responded to the young food enthusiasts? “It was slow, but things are getting better, says Thoillier, “it takes a while for people to get used to us. I hope its not because it is vegetarian…”

Refugee chefs

The chefs who work at the Morningside Café are provided by Mazí Mas, a social enterprise based in Hackney Wick that creates employment opportunities for women from migrant and refugee communities whilst bringing authentic international cuisine to the intrepid palettes of the London public.

“One day we have an Ethiopian, one day Brazilian, one day Senegalese. The chefs decide what will be cooked on the day from the leftovers the day before. All the chefs know how to use all of the food, they throw nothing away.” says Thiollier.

The rest of the café is staffed by volunteers but Thiollier says she wants to begin to make a profit in order that the business can be sustainable and pay its workers a wage.

With up-market eateries now the norm in Hackney, a ‘pay what you can cafe’ might seem like pie in the sky. But as Thiollier says: “So far, when we have said pay as much as you can, people pay more.”

The Cafe can be found on Cresset Road in the Morningside Community Centre. Opening hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 8.30 until 1.30.

Contact details here.