Life

‘Everything Has to be Authentic’ – Black Restaurant Owners on What Inspires Their Business

Gordon McGowan of Buster Mantis, chef Zoe Adjonyoh and others discuss the cultural connections that lie behind their restaurants.
01 September 2020, 8:15am
New Project (11)
Zoe Adjonyoh and jollof quinoa served at a Chuku's supper club. Photos courtesy Zoe Adjonyoh and by Liz Seabrook

With the countless linguistic differences, cultural characteristics and geographical locations that exist among those of African and Caribbean heritage, one thing that resonates with people across the community is the significance of food from our respective countries of origin.

For those in the diaspora who’ve never travelled to these places, food is often the only thing that ties us to the lands that birthed the generations before us. We take comfort in its familiarity. It evokes a sense of pride that we can collectively identify with.

It’s why so many Black and mixed-race people who venture into the hospitality industry choose the food route: setting up catering companies, shops, bars and restaurants that allow them to share the dishes they grew up eating. I spoke to four people behind businesses like these to find out more about the significance of the cultural connections that lie at the heart of their brands – and the joy of sharing this with others.

April Jackson

April Jackson, owner of Three Little Birds.

‘I’m very proud of where I come from. Jamaica has made me who I am’

Traditionally in this country, Caribbean food is seen as takeaway. It’s seen as a styrofoam box with a lot of rice, a whole heap of curry, and jerk chicken that’s not jerk chicken. And coming from Jamaica, my experience was that people had an image that the Caribbean was either a ‘ghetto’ or a luxury vacation – but I didn’t grow up in either of those environments. So, I wanted to create a space that showed the diversity within.

I also find a lot of people within the community complain about the way our culture is portrayed but we’re not doing anything about it. So I, for some crazy reason, took it upon myself as a consumer of restaurants who loves going out to eat, to create that for other people.

I get a lot of satisfaction when I’m achieving the mission which is to make a statement that counteracts stereotypes, particularly as it relates to Jamaicans and Jamaican culture. I’m very proud of where I come from. Jamaica has made me who I am so I feel like I’m forever indebted to fly my flag and this is the way I choose to do it.

April Jackson, owner of Three Little Birds, a restaurant serving Jamaican-inspired dishes across two locations in south London.

Chuku's co-founders Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick

Chuku's co-founders Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick at a supper club in 2017. Photo by Liz Seabrook

‘Nigerian culture deserved to actually be there loudly and proudly on the high street’

The idea for Chuku’s was essentially just born out of a desire that Emeka [my brother and co-owner] and I had to create a place where we could share and celebrate our cuisine and culture outside of the family home. We grew up on the border of east London and Essex and near us, there weren’t many Nigerian food establishments so the ones that we did visit, we always had to travel far to. There was just a frustration that we had because we weren’t able to invite our friends into a space where we could say, “Look, this is us”.

That’s why our location was key for us. We knew we wanted a high street presence because our issue had always been that a lot of Nigerian restaurants weren’t accessible. We felt it was something that the culture deserved, to actually be there loudly and proudly on the high street. If you come down to Tottenham High Road where the restaurant is, it takes up space. It says: “This is a Nigerian restaurant and when entering here you’re coming to experience a taste of Nigeria.”

Ifeyinwa Frederick, co-owner of Chuku’s, a Nigerian tapas restaurant in north London.

‘We only serve the food that I come from eating. We play the music that I’ve grown up listening to’

Undoubtedly, my culture affects the way I run my business. I think it has to. Maybe not in general but it has to shape the way that I do it because fundamentally, what I wanted to create was somewhere that I would want to go to. Everything has to be authentic and come from what shaped me, and I’m moulding the business the same way my culture moulded me.

We only serve the food that I come from eating. We play the music that I’ve grown up listening to. Even down to the names of the drinks that we serve, they’re all references to my childhood town [in Mandeville, Jamaica] or where I grew up, so I suppose it’s autobiographical.

Knowing that I’ve created something that’s someone else’s favourite place – that resonates with them and touches them – it’s a really nice feeling and the novelty never wears off. I can leave an empty room and come back a few hours later and see that the place is full, the music’s going and people are having a good time, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Gordon McGowan, owner of Buster Mantis, Stockton and The Watergate in south London.

‘I wanted to present Africa, or West Africa at least, in this new, fun, contemporary way’

There’s loads of reasons why Ghana Kitchen turned into a business and some of it was to put West African on the map for food, but also to invert the stereotypes that I’d grown up with around Africa. This, I suspected, led to some of the problems as to why the food hadn’t been given its rightful place in the mainstream narrative around food culture in the UK. I wanted to present Africa, or West Africa at least, in this new, fun, contemporary way that was about art, culture, music, fashion and all that stuff – but to do it through food.

As a mixed-race person, I had a serious concern that I didn’t want the Ghanaian community to be upset or offended by my reimagining of the food, so I really wanted to be clear to everybody that this wasn’t traditional Ghanaian food, this was my interpretation of it.

I’m proud to have been one of the early pioneers of putting this food on the map and I continue to do that. I’m also proud of all the other people who are now doing that. We’ve done a lot but there’s more to do and it’s not just work that we need to do. The industry needs to give us the space and recognition for our achievements as well.

Zoe Adjonyoh, chef, cookbook author and owner of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, as West African supper club and pop-up.

@writtenbycarly

UPDATE 4/8/2020: An earlier version of this article misnamed April Jackson. We regret the error.