London

This South London Cafe Wants to Showcase the Work of Black Chefs

Mae J’s, named after NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, is part of The Palms, a new Black hair and beauty hub for Peckham's Afro-Caribbean community.

by Carly Lewis-Oduntan
16 April 2019, 1:57pm

Ever since I was young, I’ve always had a keen interest in hair and beauty. As a Black British woman, it seems I’m not alone in this passion. According to research from L’Oréal, Black women in the UK spend six times more on hair products than white women, and yet many of the specialist hair shops catering to these women are not Black-owned. Meanwhile high street beauty outlets often offer a poor selection of Afro hair products.

With this in mind, when I heard about The Palms in Peckham, South East London, I was more than a little intrigued. Run by a team of four Black women and funded by Southwark Council, it claims to be London's first Afro hair and beauty centre, established to provide local Black hair stylists with a space to run their businesses after regeneration in the area forced a spate of salons to close.

“The reason why the council funded the project is because of all the regeneration work that’s happening,” explains Sara Shipley, hospitality director at The Palms. “Peckham is greatly changing, everything’s going to be knocked down and one of the main things that were going to be affected were the Black female hairdressers by the station, mainly on Blenheim Grove.”

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Mae J's, a cafe located inside The Palms in Peckham, South London. The Palms is the city's first Afro hair and beauty centre. All photos by the author.
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Drinks on offer at the Mae J's bar.

It’s a story that Black people in London are all too familiar with as gentrification continues to literally sweep through our neighbourhoods. The cost of living spikes and small businesses struggle to survive as larger conglomerates settle in. Those who’ve nurtured and sustained their communities are often left with no choice but to move elsewhere as higher earners take their place. What’s happening in Peckham, a district known for its sprawling Afro-Caribbean community and even dubbed “little Lagos” because of its huge Nigerian population, is no different.

Having opened its doors in January this year, The Palms is still in its infancy, and the team running the modest space, which is segmented into small hairdressing units, felt it needed to offer something unrelated to hair and beauty.

“There needs to be something that drives footfall outside of hairdressing because what we really want is for this to become a community hub where people come every weekend and somewhere people can hang out,” says Shipley.

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Dr. Mae Jeminson, the first African-American woman in space and the cafe's namesake.
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Mae J's hospitality director Sara Shipley (centre), with Jess and Jo Edun of Nigerian street food pop-up Flygerians.

Her answer to this? A cafe called Mae J’s, named after Dr. Mae Jemison, an astronaut who became the first African-American woman to travel into space in 1992. A tiny and somewhat awkwardly shaped unit, what it lacks in space it makes up for with an unabashedly Afrocentric aesthetic. In-keeping with The Palms’ ethos, the cafe hosts kitchen takeovers and events run by Black chefs, including an upcoming Easter brunch with Caribbean dining pop-up Lime Hut.

“There are so many Black street food vendors who are doing amazing things, so I thought it would be great to use this platform to showcase them, rather than us trying to do everything ourselves,” says Shipley.

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Suya, a popular dish on the Flygerians menu.

On the day I visit, British Nigerian duo Jess and Jo Edun of Nigerian street food pop-up Flygerians are approaching the end of their two-week takeover of Mae J’s kitchen. With a menu that includes jollof rice and suya (diced pepper steak), they attract a customer base that’s familiar with Nigerian food while enticing an audience who may be tasting it for the first time.

The former dish was a non-negotiable for the pair. “You can’t cook Nigerian food without doing jollof rice,” says Jo. And they do it well. Covered in its signature red tinge, Flygerians’ jollof is flavoursome, moist, and savoury with just the right amount of kick.

The chicken wings are similarly well seasoned. “Super-duper fly! Hot and spicy wings” come lightly battered and topped with a tomato-based traditional hot pepper stew sauce. Their “2 fly chicks” dish is an homage to themselves, and consists of two pieces of chicken marinated in “Mama’s forbidden sauce,” a sticky, sweet glaze drizzled over the crunchy coated meat made using a top secret recipe.

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Flygerians' “Super-duper fly! Hot and spicy wings”.
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Cassava root chips, served with ketchup or a spicy crayfish dipping sauce.

Jess and Jo also wanted to incorporate British flavours into their menu. Their cassava root chips are twice-cooked for extra crunch and served with a spicy crayfish dipping sauce—or ketchup.

“We wanted to stand out from other Nigerian restaurants so we wanted to bring out the best of Nigeria and the best of British,” says Jo.

Jess continues: “We’d definitely describe our food as authentic and traditional but with a Flygerian, fun, and vibrant twist. It’s packed with all the authentic flavours but we give it our own little spark in terms of the way it’s presented and the kind of sauces that we’ve created.”

While Jess and Jo’s time at Mae J’s is now up, they’ll be back at the cafe for a month-long residency in the summer, following The Krio Kanteen, who will serve Sierra Leonean food throughout the month of May. Further residencies will be announced in due course, and Shipley looks forward to collaborating with more Afro-Caribbean chefs to provide innovative food at an establishment whose doors are open to all.

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“The Palms is an Afrocentric place that’s a celebration of Black culture and Black women, but everybody is welcome here,” she says. “We want everybody to come here, we want it to be diverse and we want people to know that no matter where they’re from or what they look like, they can enjoy it.”

And with the consequences of gentrification in Peckham becoming more apparent, there’s never been a better time to spotlight Black businesses in the area.