Starting a Caribbean Restaurant with My Parents Turned Out to Be the Best Idea
Photo courtesy James Hardwick.

Starting a Caribbean Restaurant with My Parents Turned Out to Be the Best Idea

"They’re continually really supportive of everything I do and have so much faith in it that I wouldn’t want to do it without them now."
May 18, 2017, 4:46pm

I'd always dreamed of opening a cafe and then one day, I was reading something about supper clubs and thought I'd start one. A month later, I did the first Pop's Kitchen night.

Two years later and I'm the co-founder of Island Social Club (ISC), which is a collective of pop-up restaurants and music nights that explore Caribbean London subculture. Pop's Kitchen serves restaurant-style Caribbean food and is run by me and my parents, Barbara and Earle. The rest of ISC, which I run with friends, comprises of Rotishop, which is more about street food, and Everybody's, a music night that runs alongside Rumshop, where we serve rum punches.

A selection of dishes at Pop's Kitchen, a Caribbean pop-up in North London. Photo courtesy Enzo Cerri.

When I found the venue for the first Pop's Kitchen, I asked my dad if he'd be up for cooking with me and he said yes. Then of course, Mum wanted to be involved as well. Now, she helps me set up and host the evenings—serving, chatting to people, and making sure everyone is happy.

At the time, I didn't overly think about my parents being involved, but with hindsight, I think I liked the safety of having them with me. They're continually really supportive of everything I do and have so much faith in it that I wouldn't want to do it without them now.

Island Social Club founder Marie Mitchell's dad, Earle. Photo courtesy James Hardwick.

I'd always cooked different cuisines but hadn't really explored Caribbean food before starting Pop's. But it just felt like the most natural thing to focus on. Both of my parents were born in Jamaica and moved to London when they were eight-years-old. I'm born-and-bred London but there's so much tied into my upbringing, culturally, in terms of having parents who were brought up in Jamaica.

Pop's and the Island Social Club has not only become a way to explore my own heritage but also to explore all the Caribbean islands. I think it's something that's not really been focused on enough. A lot of people's exposure to Caribbean cuisine is mostly Jamaican and Trinidadian, but there are so many other islands that have different food cultures. The pop-ups and different projects under ISC are a great way to do Caribbean food without feeling limited. It gives us way more to explore.

Photo courtesy Riaz Phillips.

Initially, it was all about Dad and I working together on recipes. He was my main resource but earlier this year, we started doing some heavy research. We went to the British Library, exploring cookbooks and also looking in history books at the ways people moved around during the slave trade. I'm influenced by art and music as well. Colour is really important too—it's about making sure what's delivered is vibrant.

Dishes ready for serving at Pop's Kitchen. Photo courtesy Jon Arnold.

When I'm developing dishes, I always start off with one element—like a flavour. From there, I work on the recipe. We focus on a particular region and then look at the cooking techniques and differences in cuisines. For example, this week we're doing colombo de poulet, which is a dish from French-speaking Caribbean islands. It's a wine-based curry, which gives it a different depth of texture. These curries aren't creamy, they're more tangy.

Our cassava fries are one of the most popular things that we've ever done and I love them. A lot of the time, ingredients like cassava are referred to as "hard food" and are usually boiled—they're not normally fried. We look at the ways in which ingredients are used culturally and shift them slightly, bringing dishes into a more contemporary context. Mum is always skeptical about whether a dish will work. Then it does and she gives it the seal of approval. She's got to make sure she's OK with it!

The cassava fries at Pop's Kitchen. Photo courtesy Enzo Cerri.

Working with family has its challenges. When you're with family, you're so close that when you argue, you argue. But when you're feeling like you can't do something, they're great in giving you support. Mum and Dad throw as much as they can into it. They're retired and Dad always jokes that I've still got him working!

I'm lucky because my dad's really chilled out—like, really chilled. Even when he's stressed, he seems really calm. Once, the oven broke just as we got to the place we were renting for an event. I just said to everyone, "I'm going to have a minute," and walked out! Dad stayed calm and we managed to do it.

Mitchell's mum, Barbara. Photo by James Hardwick.

My mum makes me laugh because I'll often say, "OK, this has to be done now," and she'll be there, just taking her time, doing things in her own way. I think Mum and I probably lock heads more in a funny way. She's just really cute and small and feisty. People love her. I'm fairly convinced that people return to Pop's Kitchen just to chat with Barbara.

Mitchell with her dad as a child. Photo courtesy Marie Mitchell.

Just yesterday at the restaurant, I had a small back injury and I'd asked Mum and Dad to come and help me but then decided I'd be fine. But they came and looked after me and helped all day. That's what keeps you going. I feel like they've done so much for me and given me so many opportunities that they didn't have as children. That's a huge part of why I want this to be successful. And why it's lovely that they're involved too.

Chef Marie Mitchell is co-founder of Island Social Club, a group of pop-ups and music nights that celebrate Caribbean London subculture. The collective currently encompasses Pop's Kitchen at the Greens Room Hotel in Wood Green, Rotishop at Styx in Tottenham, and Everybody's and Rumshop at various London venues.