Fried chicken is a London institution. Piping hot, well seasoned, and with a satisfyingly thick layer of crisp batter, it’s the full stop at the end of a night out, the affordable after-school meal for jostling, uniformed teenagers, and the inspiration for 2017’s favourite YouTube star, The Chicken Connoisseur. There are reportedly 8,000 fast food outlets in the capital, and the fried chicken market is worth billions of pounds.
South London locals Khamisi McKenzie and Daniel Opoku-Baah have been making their mark on the fried chicken world for just over a year with Drums & Flats, a food pop-up and catering business. As second-generation immigrants from working-class backgrounds, they stand in opposition to the arguably culturally appropriative practices of Caribbean food outlets like White Men Can’t Jerk, and are vocal about their roots.
McKenzie and Opoku-Baah recently moved Drums & Flats into its first permanent residence at multi-storey-car-park-turned-food-and-arts-hub Peckham Levels, with the intent of “maintaining a presence in the area.” Earlier this year, it was reported that house prices in Peckham have grown faster than Mayfair over the last eight years, causing generations-old black businesses to be moved to backstreets as the council persists with its regeneration project.
“We’re determined to make sure that we don’t forget who we are,” says Opoku-Baah. “It’s important for us to stay in Peckham because growing up, we didn’t really know anybody who had their own business. I feel we can be an example to local young people.”
I meet McKenzie and Opoku-Baah in an unremarkable cafe close to their new Peckham Levels premises, where they serve me a perfect platter of four types of chicken wings, doused respectively in a glossy barbecue sauce, spicy red cayenne pepper, potently spiced jerk, and tangy lemon pepper. Sides include the best sweet potato fries I’ve ever eaten—perfectly cooked and covered in melty, gooey Stilton. Then there’s the jerk halloumi burger, solid vegetarian fare with a slab of tomato and slow-cooked caramelised onions thrown in for good measure. And, of course, a side of thick-cut plantain.
“I forgot to bring the thermometer,” Opoku-Baah winces after tasting the chicken. “There’s a perfect temperature for chicken and they’re slightly overdone.”
The pair don’t pretend to be master chefs (they’d much prefer to be out of the kitchen and managing the business), but they care a lot about their meat, which is sourced from nearby independent butchers Murray Bros. They also use a secret jerk rub, which is thoroughly massaged into the chicken each night before they begin a day of deep-fat frying, ensuring that the flavours hum in your mouth after every bite.
“My grandma told me when she tasted my food: ‘Make sure you don’t tell no one this recipe.’ So I have to listen to her,” says Khamisi when I ask him about the rich, nutmeg-led spices in the jerk rub. The last time he didn’t listen to her business advice, things didn’t end well. “It came back to bite me,” he remembers.
The pair’s entrepreneurial spirit—and love of strongly flavoured food—is typical of their backgrounds. The immigrant hustle runs deep. Opoku-Baah’s heritage is Ghanaian and he laughs that “seasoning of food basically to us seems like a natural thing to do,” bringing to mind Niall Horan’s viral Snapchat of under-seasoned chicken—and basically any joke that references bland “white” food. Khamisi is Jamaican and learned about seasoning from his mum.
“I think my mum is one of the best cooks in the world,” he says. “It’s mad. My mum makes porridge taste proper nice and I’m just like, I can’t do it like you. Even though I follow the recipe, it never comes out the same way.”
McKenzie and Opoku-Baah have been friends for 17 years. Over our plate of wings, they recall fond memories of playing hours of football and going to the chicken shop after school, teasing each other in the easy manner of brothers as they argue over the correct pronunciation of “plantain” (McKenzie thinks it’s “plantin,” Opoku-Baah, “plantain”).
“You’ll realise who’s correct when you start doing mountain climbing and drinking from the fountain,” McKenzie says, winning the debate.
Later, I ask McKenzie what Opoku-Baah was like when he was younger. “Exactly the same as he is now,” he says. Opoku-Baah laughs and asks: “What’s that?”
“Volatile,” replies McKenzie.
“Volatile, irrational, passionate,” says McKenzie. They both giggle.
Growing up only minutes away from each other, their friendship is clearly founded on something more substantial than banter.
“The funny thing is, it’s a bit cheesy, but Daniel was my first friend in secondary school,” McKenzie says, suddenly altogether more serious. “When you have a business with somebody that’s like more than your friend, your actual brother, then it’s like you’re willing to go to the bitter end.”
Opoku-Baah agrees: “Let me be honest. I’ve actually gone through a lot of tough times in my life and Khamisi has always been there pretty much at the end of the phone at anytime. So I do actually value his friendship.”
The tough times Opoku-Baah references are family-related. His dad wasn’t around and his mum had a stroke ten years ago, forcing her to retire from her job as a nurse. He became something akin to a young carer.
“You can’t really wish for something like that to happen but the only positive I’d say out of it is that it really did make me focus a lot more and become more responsible,” he says.
The pair went to The Charter School in Herne Hill and were among the first intake students in what is now a flourishing academy. With no older students to look to for guidance, they used their wits to make money, selling illegally burned CDs and Jamaican bulla cakes. McKenzie put one of their friends out of business after upping the stakes from processed cheese to mature cheddar.
“Obviously, I saw the gap in the market,” he laughs. “Within half a week, I put him out of business.”
After leaving school, both went to uni and set up businesses. Opoku-Baah only stopped working on his other venture in July—a mentoring service for local kids from troubled homes that were struggling at school. Now, alongside Drums & Flats, he is studying towards a Masters degree in neuroscience.
“My dad wasn’t really around and I didn’t really understand the impact that had until I was a bit older,” he says of his mentoring business. “So I kind of wanted to work with kids to see if we could get them to work through their problems early enough so that it doesn’t manifest into something bigger, basically.”
McKenzie studied sports journalism as an undergraduate, then did a Masters in media and corporate public relations. After uni, he founded PR agency, Three Halves, which represents brands including Wray & Nephew. It’s a good connection to have: the rum punch they serve me to accompany the wings is extremely heady.
For the moment, however, Drums & Flats is the pair’s main project, and at the end of our conversation, they highlight their South London allegiance again.
“I think that a lot of people underestimate the amount of talent, whether it be creative or anything else that exists in South London,” says McKenzie.
Opoku-Baah chimes in: “We spent many weekends and late nights in Peckham on the high street … ”
“Taking the Tings to the cinema,” says McKenzie. They both giggle again.
Fried chicken might be the unofficial dish of London but if there’s one plate of wings I’ll be returning to, it’s this one. As McKenzie and Opoku-Baah say themselves: “No one can do it like us.”