Doppleganger founder Alf Flower on why he is determined to spread the plant-based word
Let’s start at the beginning: did you grow up in a foodie house? Tell us about your earliest memories of food and cooking.
My mum is one of those cooks that can just look in a bare cupboard and rustle something up. Always an advocate of a vegetarian diet – not averse to meat, just primarily veggie – she’s particularly interested in nutrition, too. When we were at school she used to garnish dishes with various seeds and my retort was ‘Mum why are you giving us bird feed?’ Little did I know!
Then, when I was about 12, I got a pasta maker and loved making fresh pasta so much. That’s when I really started to cook. The fresh ravioli you got from the supermarket would be my Friday treat as kid. When I got my machine it meant I could make that.
What made you want to pursue a career as a chef?
I didn’t directly. I am a trained designer and was working professionally as one. I always loved and worked in the catering industry growing up, but was aware of the graft. It’s only when I realised I was spending 38 hours a week clock-watching that I decided I should maybe do what I loved.
Tell us about the first pro kitchen you cooked in.
I was predominantly front of house when I was a teen and while at uni. Then I started working with a chef who did private dinner parties. He was the GM of The Harwood Arms when it got its star – it was the first Michelin-starred pub in London. I worked as his hand for years and just working alongside him, asking him questions, is where I really started to learn how to cook.
When you slip up or only have what’s in front of you, a good cook can still make something happen. Seeing mistakes happen in the kitchen and knowing what to do to fix them is being a chef. I think a little bit of that goes back to my mum looking in the cupboard and working out what she could cook for dinner!
Remind us how Doppleganger came to be? It started as a pop-up, didn’t it?
I went vegan for a month a couple of years back as a cooking challenge, really enjoyed it and decided to stick with it, as it made more sense in a number of ways. Veggie burgers at that time were still beany numbers that squidged everywhere. I thought I could do better, so I started a pop-up on the terrace of the design studio where I worked.
Making a veggie burger gives you a lot more freedom with flavour combinations, as you don’t have to respect the flavour of the meat – our patty is just there for the textural element. The pop-ups all sold out. So I did a few more; they all sold out.
I then emailed everywhere I could think of in Cambridge, trying to find a dark kitchen to cook from for Deliveroo, and 2648 on Trinity Street got back to me! I was able to cook for Deliveroo and customers of the bar – bonus. They let me use the kitchen Monday to Wednesday, 5-10pm, so I would go to work as a designer then cook burgers by night.
It got to the point where my boss at the design studio could tell I didn’t love it anymore. She asked me if I did care, I said ‘No’, she said ‘When do you want to leave?’, I said on Thursday – it was Monday, December 21.
I then called 2648 and asked if I could have the kitchen full-time from January and they said yes. I’d paid my personal rent a month in advance, my folks got me a deep fat fryer for Christmas, and I started on January 4 with £400 to my name. It was make or break.
Doppleganger has got a serious fan following. What makes your burgers so good?
We’ve only been in our own spot for four months, but we were trading out of 2648 for a full year. It was pretty underground; the only way you could tell we sold Doppleganger burgers was by asking for a menu. I think it created a bit of a buzz, as I don’t think people were always sure we existed.
What makes them sooo good?
The effort we put in to every element in the burger. All our cooks have plant-based diets and we all believe we can make a difference to people’s opinion of plant-based food. We are here to have a greater impact with every bite – not in a preachy way, just by doing.
We know you’re passionate about plant-based dining. Where does that passion stem from?
I realised my career as a designer was just about making people want more stuff. As an angsty art student, I’d read Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff and it rang alarm bells. One of my projects was looking at all the plastic in the ocean – this was back in 2011. Plant-based cooking appealed to my creativity and rang true with my concerns.
Veganism has seen a huge surge in the last two years. What’s driven that, in your opinion?
People try it, it’s not so bad and it makes sense. The product you eat is as delicious as its non plant-based counterpart, just in a different way. If something is delicious and makes more sense environmentally and animal welfare-wise, then it’s hard to argue against.
Cambridge is becoming something of a hot-spot for good vegan food, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. I think we’ve got to be thankful to the residents and students for supporting it. Without them we wouldn’t be here.
What are the key ingredients to being a successful chef, would you say?
The obsession with trying to be better at the simple things – like chopping and slicing – every day. And loving long hours: the passion outweighs the time.
And what’s the reward of being a chef, for you?
Seeing people come into the restaurant! It’s still a bit of a shock when that first customer comes in each day.
If readers haven’t eaten at Doppleganger before, what would you say to tempt them?
I’m sure you’ve heard about plant-based dining. . . Let us break your duck, we won’t disappoint.
What does the future hold for Doppleganger – and for you?
Cook-offs every month, the launch of weekend brunch events, cooking more different things. . . That’s the immediate.
In the future, hopefully more restaurants, keeping up the care and consistency we deliver to every customer and changing perceptions of plant-based food, making it
a preferable alternative to more and more people every day.
Doppleganger is at 59, Regent Street, Cambridge CB2 1AB. Call (01223) 665917, see dopplegangerburger.co.uk and follow on social for more.
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More by this authorAlice Ryan