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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Thursday 1st December 2005


On the face of it, Pullens doesn't seem like a hotbed of literary talent, at least not judging from the menu. The word "medallion", as in "grilled springbok medalion", is spelt wrong (and there should be an "s" on the end); there's a missing apostrophe in "Kennedys sausages"; and bok choy is rendered as "bok choi". Still, perhaps these errors have only crept in since Rachel Zadok gave up her day job. This modest café-cum-restaurant in Herne Hill recently acquired some notoriety when it emerged that Zadok, who's novel has just been shortlisted for the Whitbread First Book Award, used to work here as a waitress. It's a classic rags-to-riches tale and if Zadok wants to repay her former employers I suggest she gives them a dictionary for Christmas.

According to legend, Rachel Zadok left Pullens one afternoon after a particularly exhausting shift and happened to switch on Richard and Judy at just that moment when they were announcing their 'How to be Published' competition, a talent contest for unpublished authors. "To someone as superstitious as me, that's a sign," says Zadok, "so I sent something off." Even though she was one of 46,000 aspiring writers to enter the competition, her book, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, made it on to the shortlist and as a result she landed a publishing deal with Pan Macmillan. She gave up her waitressing job on the day her book came out.

The owner of Pullens, Alan Gaunt, met Zadok on a writing course and admits to being an aspiring novelist in his own right. Indeed, he and his wife, Debbie, preside over what might be described as a little slice of Bohemia in this otherwise rather sedate London suburb. The current staff include the founder of a theatre collective, a T-shirt designer and a music producer. The atmosphere is very "alternative", too, with its Guardian-reading clientele and the sort of colour scheme that wouldn't look out of place in a squat. If there's a Herne Hill branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, this is probably where they meet.

The type of cuisine on offer at Pullens could politely be described as "international". When he isn't banging away on his typewriter, Alan Gaunt is behind a stove in the kitchen and the menu reflects his eclectic taste. On the evening I went there, the dishes on offer included moules frites, jerk chicken and Thai green tuna curry, though more conservative patrons could opt for a burger and chips. It's the sort of food that's available in gastro pubs the length and breadth of the country.

I started with a blue cheese brûlée, which was slightly heavier than I was expecting, and, for my main course, had the grilled pork fillet, while my companion had the rare duck breast, followed by the grilled springbok. It was good, hearty fare, not remotely pretentious and only slightly over-priced. (£12.95 for my pork fillet struck me as a little steep given that it was basically pub grub.) For starving artists venturing out of their garrets, there's a blackboard outside drawing attention to various discounts, such as a happy hour that lasts from 5pm - 7pm, and at the end of the meal you're given a voucher shaped like a wine bottle that entitles you to a free bottle when ordering your next meal. I imagine that goes down particularly well with struggling novelists.

It's hard to find fault with this down-to-earth little bistro and if I can ever afford to move to Herne Hill from Shepherd's Bush I might well become a regular. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen because, like Rachel Zadok, I'm an author. The sad truth is that only a handful of people in this country make a living from writing books and unless Gem Squash Tokoloshe becomes a runaway bestseller Zadok will have to supplement her income by doing something else. She may have given up her waitressing job for the time being, but don't be surprised to see her back in Pullens before too long.

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