Jamaican food

Denai Moore’s Side Hustle Is Making Vegan Ackee and Saltfish

The British singer-songwriter—known for her soul- and electro-influenced vocals and collaborations with SBTRKT—also runs Dee’s Table, a vegan Jamaican supper club.

by Wedaeli Chibelushi
10 May 2018, 12:34pm

Denai Moore (left), founder of Dee's Table, with her team at the recent Vegan Nights food festival in East London.

Musicians are often multi-talented. Many of them supplement their day job with production work, label ownership, DJ sets, and other pursuits. A handful venture outside of the industry, and into the weirdly natural overlap between music and food. Take MUNCHIES’ own Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren, or singer-songwriter Kelis training as a saucier at Le Cordon Bleu.

Denai Moore’s face lights up when I mention Kelis. “It kind of makes sense, the food and music world linking together!” she exclaims. “I think anything that heavily relies on your own validation, to me, makes sense.”

Moore would know, she’s a singer-songwriter and part-time chef. The 24-year-old straddles both worlds, collaborating with SBTRKT in one orbit and devising supper clubs in another.

Best known for her music, Moore’s blend of soul, folk, and electro draws almost 69,000 Spotify listeners per month. Her vocals on SBTRKT’s 2014 album Wonder Where We Land pricked industry ears, and since then she has released two acclaimed albums of her own.

The Moore I meet is mellow, apron-clad, and serving me vegan ackee and saltfish from a makeshift stall. Since 2017, Moore has run Dee’s Table, a vegan Jamaican culinary business. It mainly comprises supper clubs and stalls in London, however, Moore recently flew her venture to Los Angeles.

“The vegan world there is also massive there’s so many exciting food spaces and chefs that are coming up in that space,” she tells me.

The Dee's Table menu at Vegan Nights. All photos by the author.

We talk at the Vegan Nights food festival in East London, where her main dish is an ode to LA. Moore and her team pile jerk cauliflower into a crispy plantain roti taco shell, top it with charred pineapple salsa, and finish with a spring onion aioli drizzle.

“Wherever I go, I’m always inspired by the food I’ve eaten there,” Moore explains. “Mexican cuisine is so heavily influential in the LA space at the moment—this idea was inspired by my stay there, but still with Jamaican flavours.”

Despite reaching the modish heights of LA, Dee’s Table has humble origins. Moore spent the first decade of her life in Jamaica (Kingston, then Spanish Town).

“Where I grew up, I had three different mango trees in my garden. My aunty grows the best avocados,” she beams.

Moore was raised around fresh ingredients and ate the “quintessential Jamaican diet,” something she tries to reinvent with Dee’s Table. Part of this reinvention comes through making traditionally meat-based dishes vegan.

“Ackee and saltfish is kinda the national dish,” Moore explains. “I do a version of saltfish where I use seaweed—I use nori—to get the flavour of the fish.”

Encased in dumplings, Moore’s ackee and saltfish does have an unmistakable fishy taste. The creamy ackee plays off the salty “fish” nicely, as does the spring onion aioli. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that she spent years developing dishes like this one before launching Dee’s Table.

“I’d think, ‘If I had a menu, what would the restaurant look like?’” Moore says. “It’s something that has always been in my head, and I’ve always cooked at home for friends and family and thrown dinner parties.”

She adds: “With vegan food, its all about thinking about where the saltiness is coming from, the sweetness—anything from the traditional dish—then supplementing it in different ways.“

This knowledge of how to deconstruct flavours wasn’t gained from an esteemed cooking course, but from Moore’s desire to continually improve her culinary knowledge. In between records, she worked at a series of vegan restaurants. She also studies the techniques of foreign cuisines.

Denai Moore fries the vegan ackee and saltfish dumplings.

“I’m, like, obsessed with Japanese food,” she says. “Their understanding of flavour works well with making vegan food, because of their understanding of umami, this deep flavour that you traditionally get from meat dishes. In their cuisine, they have so many sources of it that aren’t meat-based.”

Last year, Moore had a chunk of free time after the We Used To Bloom album tour. This is when Dee’s Table finally came to fruition and she was able to test her dishes out on paying—and hungry—vegan customers.

“It’s amazing how it’s grown,” she says. “I think what’s exciting for me is still creating menus, and still creating ideas, starting from a spark, and seeing where it goes.”

Moore soon found that her penchant for study made supper clubs and stalls the perfect stomping ground, allowing her to frequently change her menu and develop new ideas. If Dee’s Table were a restaurant, she’d likely be more restricted.

“I can do new things all the time and test things out,” she explains, telling me about an upcoming dessert dedicated to Milo and Horlicks, both drinks from her childhood. I wonder how Moore’s more inventive dishes been received.

“I think the majority of vegans in general are quite receptive to different cuisines,” she says. Apparently, Dee’s Table has also been a hit with meat eaters, particularly its jackfruit and seitan jerk “ribs.”

“People have it and don’t really notice the difference at all, or say its just as good, or just as rich and flavoursome,” Moore adds.

Jerk cauliflower on plantain roti with pineapple salsa.

Despite needing to hurry back to her stall and prep for her customers, Moore takes the time to give me thoughtful, elaborate answers. I wrap things up by asking about the future of Dee’s Table.

“I think I want to open a pop-up restaurant,” she starts. “I don’t know. I still want to travel more, go to different places, make supper clubs in different countries, and take Jamaican food with me.”

With a demand that stretches as far as LA, Moore has several opportunities to explore.

“I’m also excited by all the ideas that I haven’t made yet,” she finishes. “That’s what’s exciting to me—the pursuit of those dishes.”