I've never met anyone quite like Jahson Peat before. A South London entrepreneur, over the years he has established an eclectic range of African-inspired art and antiques businesses in Brixton and Peckham. He opened Zionly Manna Vegan Rastarant one month ago—the sign above the door still says "Universal Express Shipping."
"I've got an idea for a sign but I can't get it the way I want it. It's got to be the right one. I've got a particular eye," Peat tells me with a smile.
Inside, Zionly is similarly unique. Occupying a spot in Peckham's Rye Lane market, it stands opposite a stall selling sparkly sandals and phone cases. Peat tells me he wanted a setting that felt homely and inspired interaction with strangers, and everything from the colour of the restaurant walls to the flowers on the tables was chosen with this in mind.
"I grew up in North Peckham Estate, when this was really Peckham—the height of South London as far as I'm concerned," he says. "It's nostalgia for me, I know every inch of this place and it's home."
This part of Peckham Rye is a vibrant, multicultural haze. Balls of hair (or "tumbleweave," as my friend calls them) blow across pavements, while kids scoot outside nail bars and the smell of raw fish swims up your nostrils from nearby seafood stalls. For Peat, it was the natural home for a love of food he developed as a child.
"I've been a cook since about seven. I think you have to when you grow up in a Caribbean household," he says. "My big brother, he was no good, so it fell onto me. My mum would start cooking in the mornings then I'd be given instructions on how to finish it when we returned from school. By ten or 11, I was cooking the whole Christmas dinner. I was never forced, I wanted to learn."
As he grew older, Peat began to question the purpose of eating meat and discovered vegan cooking.
"I'm a Rastafarian and within Rastafarian teachings, there is a saying: 'Eat not flesh,'" he explains. "Long before we called it vegan, we said it was Ital."
Ital is food that is natural and pure: no salt, chemicals, or flesh. Peat is a strong believer in its abilities to influence the way we feel.
"I started to study not just the cuisine, but the effect it has on the body," he explains. "And how you can use vegetation as a medicine for the body and also for the spiritual body, so being vegan became about finding a balance for me."
At the Zionly counter, I choose a raw kale salad with brown rice and "smutton" stew. The crunch of the vegetables blends with the rich flavours and surprisingly realistic soya "meat" of the stew. Despite the complexity of flavours, Peat tells me it's a simple dish.
"I'm not buying from anywhere specialist, so customers can buy the ingredients easily too," he says. "It's about not distancing myself from the pockets of the customers and showing that vegan cooking isn't as tricky as you think."
Zionly doesn't have a set menu either. Some of the dishes are available all the time—like the smutton, for example—but otherwise, Peat likes to create new options every day.
"I need to be creative, it's like an artist that has a canvas, and every morning I've got a blank canvas. I don't plot the night before, I find that boring," he says. "That feels like actual work."
Like Peat himself, Zionly's dishes are inspired by experiences. Perhaps it's this uniqueness that explains his reluctance to hire anyone else to cook his recipes.
"No one can take my food. I don't hire chefs," Peat says. "When they come trained, they think they already know everything and aren't prepared to learn. I don't know what's in their heart when they're cooking—do they just want money, or to steal your ideas, or are they truly passionate about it? It's not just about being a chef, it's about actually feeding people."
While the food at Zionly is fresh and exciting, Peat has bigger dreams than simply running a successful eatery. He hopes to help people to re-learn their eating habits, and bring locals together.
"I'm the father of a young child—three months old—and my wife feels awkward breastfeeding in public," he tells me. "I want her, along with other women, to be able to come here and I'll protect them. This is a space where they can feel safe."
Peat also wants to lead workshops on cooking meat-free meals, with an emphasis placed on the benefits of ingredients and how to reduce food waste.
"We repackage all foods at the end of the day to give it away cheaper. Any fruits and vegetables we turn into a juice and bottle," Peat adds.
While we're talking, at least four people drop into Zionly to say hello, and Peat greets each of them with a huge smile. It may be early days for the restaurant, but things seem to be going well.
"It's been great. The feedback on the food, it's full of variety. People will give me little pointers, and I keep a note of them," he says. "They'll come into practice eventually, but it can only come as the people do."
Peat has plans to introduce gluten- and soy-free foods to the menu, a cold counter, and even working up to an industrial-sized kitchen. Zionly Manna may currently be hiding under the wrong sign, but its presence is unmissable.
"I'm influenced by food from everywhere," says Peat. "Why not have a place where all the world can come? That's really what I'm about."