Edinburgh street food pioneer Markus Pilgram tells us why his newest venture, Ninja Kitchen, is the natural evolution of the original Ninja Buns concept.

Fans of Edinburgh Street Food giants Ninja Buns were crushed when they learned that the team were ending their year-long residency at Paradise Palms and going their separate ways.

The decision saw the end of an award-winning two years for the business in which it grew from the humble beginnings of a stall in a street market to catering for weddings and festivals before finally securing their own kitchen – scooping The Food Awards Scotland ‘Best street food 2015’ along the way.

Video courtesy of David Hughes 

Thankfully, just a few short months later, Marcus Pilgram, who originally created Ninja Buns alongside business partner Inga Ward, announced the opening of Ninja Kitchen, which Pilgram says is a natural evolution of the Ninja Bun idea.

An idea which Markus says took root after a visit to San Francisco in 2013 and grew from witnessing the success of a particular vendor there.

“We went to San Francisco to look for inspiration as the street food scene over there is massive,” explains the entrepreneur.

“I checked out quite a few places and at one of the street food conventions there was a food truck and the queue for it was a mile long.

“The penny just dropped, I asked myself what they were doing and it must have been something right. I googled them and found out they were called the Chairman food truck and that they were doing something called a gua bao – which is what eventually became our Ninja Buns – a steamed bun originally from Taiwan, supposedly thought to be the original ‘burger’ before the West had even thought of the idea of creating something similar.

READ MORE: Ninja Kitchen, Edinburgh, restaurant review

“It was something different, I’d never heard of it before, and following a trip to South Korea and the food markets there, I came back to Edinburgh where I met Inga who was also looking to start up a Street food business and so we decided to do it together.”

“We immediately tried to source the buns myself and then started making them, the only competition we had at that point was another place in Edinburgh but their version wasn’t great.”

Pilgram says that at first, they started experimenting with recipes, creating their own gua bao out of their own kitchens and getting feedback from family and friends nearly all of which was good.

From there, the pair set up a small stall on Leith Walk doing just two buns – one pork and one tofu bun – which sold out in the first couple of hours.

Pilgram admits they were surprised by just how popular their street food offering became.

“We realised a few months in that we had quite a fashionable product, we didn’t know then that we were catching a wave before the wave had even started.

“It was a funny one, before we knew it Yo Sushi and Wagamama were doing them, we get people coming to us and saying ‘You know these people are doing Ninja Buns?'”

Much like how Hoover and Coke became synonymous with their product category, Ninja Buns success meant they were now the name given to gua bao across the city.

“It was great to realise that people connected us with this product so much that it was the name locals now used for any steamed bun.”

“We got lucky on the concept for the product and it was something that hadn’t even hit London properly, never mind Scotland.

“It is still a very fashionable product and people are still trying to do it but we got there first, it was our sole product and put all of our focus on doing it and doing it well.”

Markus says the name they eventually came up with, ‘Ninja Buns’, was perfect for summing up the fun aspect of what the pair of street food cooks were hoping to achieve.

“We spent weeks and weeks discussing ideas, we would throw ideas at each other and at one point, Inga and I were in Stockbridge checking out the market there, and she blurted out ‘Ninja Buns’ and I thought ‘that’s the one!'”

“We didn’t want the name to be too serious, we wanted it to be fun and different and although we still got a couple of people pointing out that ‘ninjas are from Japan and not Taiwan’ we thought it tied in quite nicely.

“The new menu is more pan-Asian anyway and includes more Japanese stuff, so it works, as the fun name it was originally meant to be.”

Markus is quick to point out that it wasn’t all plain sailing, in fact,  it was often quite the opposite.

“We started off renting out a little kitchen next to my house and it was a steep learning curve, we aren’t trained chefs so we literally just blagged it, we got our health certificates and we were making food that was tastier than a lot of other places and that’s what mattered.

“We put ten grand in each to the business and we didn’t pay ourselves so we were basically skint for a whole year and it was like a rollercoaster, there were tears, there was blood and sweat, there were a lot of arguments and so many times we nearly gave up.

Eventually, they secured a pitch on middle meadow walk, in the centre of the Meadows, that put helped to cement them on the Edinburgh street food map thanks to the huge footfall.

“About six months into that a couple of guys from a local dive bar called Paradise Palms, came and asked us to take over their kitchen and that felt like the biggest break we’d ever had.

“It really put us on the map as a bricks and mortar concept, we got some great reviews for that (including a glowing one from the Scotsman’s own Gaby Soutar) and that was our first attempt at really running a kitchen.

“That was an independent business, we were running our business alongside their’s and that felt good but we didn’t really make any money off it and after that we decided to stop that and go our own ways.”

From there Inga left the capital to go down to Newcastle to continue studying and Markus decided he’d take some time off.

The Ninja Kitchen concept was then born in March 2016, which Markus explains was the natural evolution of the Ninja Buns concept.

bourbon

Taking certain dishes from their former menu, Markus wanted to expand and diversify the offering.

The idea of adding Asian style tapas was something he was keen to explore, so he set about bringing together a handful of his favourite pan-Asian dishes – some classic and some with a twist – and sourced local ingredients for the menu.

As for a venue, Markus explains that he was approached by the guys who had taken over Bourbon (on the city’s Frederick Street) to take on their kitchen.

“The new place isn’t Ninja Buns – as that was still mine and Inga’s – but it’s the natural evolution, I’ve created a new logo and extended the menu which I was extremely excited to do.”

Markus says fans of Ninja Buns and newcomers alike will love what Ninja Kitchen offers.

“There’s nothing on the menu I don’t recommend really, there’s nothing mediocre, everything has been designed to have real flavour.

Picture: Ninja Buns

Picture: Ninja Buns

“I would have to say try the pork bun and cauliflower as they are our two best sellers.

“The menu though, is designed for sharing small plates, so you can pretty much try everything!

“It’s Asian tapas, so you don’t come in and order a main course and then you are stuck with it if you don’t enjoy it, you order two or three things and you get to taste and share them with your friends.

He also assures fans of the Ninja Bun not to worry, as the now famous product is still there.

“The buns are still very much at the heart of the menu, they won’t be going anywhere so I do recommend people try those, but then there’s a lot of things on there that I’ve hand-picked from around Asia.

“The Korean fried cauliflower dish is a real dark horse and has gained popularity very quickly.”

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Korean fried cauliflower. Picture: Ninja Kitchen

Markus was also keen to emphasise that the menu has been designed to be as accessible to as many people as possible.

“You would be surprised by how many people now look for gluten free or vegan options and we did not want to isolate those customers so we created these menu items without sacrificing the flavour.

To do this Markus looked at everything on offer to make sure they were as many options as possible, even going as far as replacing the honey they used with agave sugar syrup and only using gluten-free soy sauce.

It wasn’t just the menu items he wanted control of, even the ingredients are selected carefully and local suppliers are used wherever possible to ensure they are as fresh as possible and support the local economy.

“We use as many local producers as we can, our local butcher is John Lawson, which is a family-run company based 15 miles outside Edinburgh, we get all of our meat from them so we know exactly where it’s made.

“We also get our ice cream made especially for us by a lassie called Lucy and she’s got a farm down in Lawder and I’ve asked to create flavours especially for us, chocolate and chilli, ginger lemongrass, coconut lime sorbet.

“We want to support local businesses, providence is a huge thing for us.”

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Picture: Ninja Kitchen

Markus has a word of advice for anyone looking to take on the same journey he did.

“It’s very rewarding, and I’m now, finally, at the place I want to be. I have clear goals for the future, which is a great feeling.

“If you are going to do what I did, you’ll either need a lot of money or a source of investment. If you don’t have that then you need some real grit and determination and hopefully, eventually, someone will recognise what you are doing and back you.

“It’s not easy but don’t give up and don’t treat it like a side project, you need to commit to it full time. You have to put 110 per cent into it but take care of yourself, especially your health.”

 

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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