Bonita De Silva tells Simone Richardson how she discovered Brixton’s Cafe Van Gogh and became its chef and a business partner with founder Steve Clarke
Vegan or not, you will enjoy both your meal and the atmosphere at Cafe Van Gogh on Brixton Road.
Bonita De Silva has been a major contributor to both for five years.
Steve Clarke’s memorable putdown of the man who complained about a vegan café that did not offer cows’ milk was still echoing around on social media when Bonita recalled: “I have been veggie since the age of 10”.
She was was educating herself in veganism while working at The Camberwell Arms on Camberwell Church Street before discovering Café Van Gogh.
“I soon reached a point where I couldn’t work with meat any more.
“I went travelling and on my return got in touch with Steve after seeing photos of Café Van Gogh pop up on my social media.
“I went in for a trial and was immediately taken with the positive atmosphere and ethos of the place – this was in 2016.
“In 2019 both Steve and I became business partners with Steve focusing more on the social enterprise aspect of the business and myself on the kitchen and food output.’’
Bonita grew up in Aston Abbotts, a small village near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.
“My parents had very recently moved out of Stockwell to live in the countryside,” she says.
“My mother, Barbara, was English and worked as a photographer.
My father, David was half Sri Lankan and an artist.
“I moved to London when I was 19 and have always lived South. I moved to Forest Hill two years ago and commute to Café Van Gogh on my bike.”
Bonita enjoyed creative writing and art at school, leading her to follow her parents into visual arts.
“I always assumed I would go down their route,” she says.
“I completed my art foundation at City College Brighton & Hove. However, after taking a gap year and travelling, I soon realised that an art degree wasn’t the right path for me.
“I had always enjoyed cooking, even as a small child with my mum, but had never thought of it as a career.
“It was my dad who suggested I pursue cooking professionally.
“I moved to London and completed a part-time pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu school whilst working behind the bar at Corsica Studios nightclub in Elephant and Castle.
“In hindsight, I would have gained more experience and enjoyment from working in kitchens from the outset, rather than spending money on a course which is fairly limiting as it is all based on old French techniques.
“After working in various jobs, I got a job as a chef at Frank’s Café in Peckham, before training for two years at The Camberwell Arms, where I began to take cheffing more seriously.”
Cafe Van Gogh sits next to Christ Church on Brixton Road, an art nouveau and Byzantine revival building, constructed in 1902 by Arthur Beresford Pite.
Vincent Van Gogh lived nearby for a while at 87 Hackford Road – a stay now marked by a blue plaque and statue.
Bonita doesn’t have one favourite meal she likes to cook at home.
“However, I am always drawn to more Indian and Middle Eastern styles of cooking, she says.
“There’s so much you can do as a vegan chef within those fields, especially with the ingredients and produce that is often used.
“My go-to dinner at home is actually jacket potato and Heinz baked beans, I like to keep it simple when I’m not at work!”
Customers love Café Van Gogh’s gochujang-glazed tofu banh mi, which is available for weekday lunch.
“Our signature Van Gogh burger is a firm favourite too,” says Bonita.
“We change the menu every six weeks – except for staple dishes – in keeping with seasonality.
“we make everything in house and from scratch, which is something that we pride ourselves on.
“I love making vegan food and people coming to enjoy it – it gives me a real sense of purpose as animal welfare and the environment are things I feel very passionate about.
“Running the kitchen at Café Van Gogh is a way in which I can have a positive impact on both those things.”
Bonita is grateful to their landlords through lockdown, saying “they were a huge help” while Café Van Gogh was closed.
At the start of lockdown, “there was a feeling of dread,” she says.
The café was open for a limited time last autumn and again briefly before Christmas, but was closed most of lockdown.
Bonita’s positive attitude saw them through.
“We used our time positively, completing our downstairs refurbishments with money raised through a crowdfunder by the public and the Mayor of London funding scheme.
“The new area means we can train participants with learning difficulties as baristas.
“We also donated 200 meals to families in need in the local area, ingredients were paid for by the local community and we were overwhelmed by the support.
“Now that we’ve got through the various lockdowns – there’s a feeling that we can conquer anything!”
Bonita loves “the general buzz”, particularly when cycling down Brixton Road by the station and hearing music everywhere and feeling the bustle of people.
“I love a Nanban on Coldharbour Lane and, of course, the Ritzy,” she says.
If you would like to enjoy the food, ambience and interior of Café Van Gogh, then lunches are usually easier for walk-ins, but you can book via the café website.
It is now available for bookings for Saturdays and Sundays, previously these were walk-in only days.
Café Van Gogh
88 Brixton Road
- Monday – Closed
- Tuesday to Friday 9am – 4pm then 5 – 9pm
- Saturday 10am – 3.30pm then 5 – 9pm
- Sunday 12 noon – 4:30pm
- Last orders at 9pm Tuesday to Saturday, 4pm Sunday. Cafe closes one hour later.