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James Cochran
Photograph: jessicajillphotographyJames Cochran

Black London restaurateurs reveal how their industry needs to change

With eateries opening their doors again, it feels like the right time to ask what change the renewed support for Black communities is going to make

Zac Ntim

It’s been almost a month since Londoners first protested the murder of George Floyd by police in the US. Since then, activism on the capital’s streets has been joined by online campaigns, fundraisers and conversations about how we can better support Black communities in the city, including Black-owned businesses. Last weekend saw the launch of the first Black Pound Day and, on social media, activists have shared and re-shared lists detailing Black-owned restaurants for people to support.

Most of London’s eateries were shuttered when these lists were first made. But, with lockdown rules relaxing, and many places opening their doors again, it feels like the right time to ask what change this renewed support for Black communities is going to make, and what other shifts Black chefs and restaurateurs hope to see from London’s restaurant scene as we move forward.

When Warren Richards first started Café Caribbean as a small Covent Garden outlet in 1993, his friends thought he was ‘mad’ because ‘there weren’t any Black people up there’. Caribbean restaurants were predominantly located in the south or west of the city, in areas where the majority of Windrush migrants first settled in the 1940s. But Warren says that he was determined to show that Caribbean food was good enough to be served alongside French, Italian, Chinese and Indian cuisine, all of which the nation had taken to their hearts, and more importantly, their stomachs.

‘A lot has changed over the years,’ he explains. Warren now runs two sites with his family: one at Old Spitalfields Market and another in Loughton, Essex. He says that in the 27 years he has been in business he’s seen Caribbean food become a mainstay of London eating. Mini-chain restaurants such as Rum Kitchen and Cottons have opened venues across the city, making it easy to find jerk chicken or curried goat wherever you are in town. Meanwhile – for better or worse – corporate appropriations such as McDonald’s jerk burger and Jamie Oliver’s widely criticised ‘punchy jerk rice’ have taken the flavours mainstream.

Perhaps more excitingly, an increasing number of British people of Caribbean and West African descent are reclaiming their culinary heritage and creating their own spaces to share it with new, broader audiences. In 2016, Joseph Pilgrim and Marie Mitchell launched Island Social Club, a series of hugely popular supper-club-style pop-up restaurants that explored London’s contemporary Caribbean subculture. Most recently, the pair took over Curio Cabal in Haggerston.

After many years of being frustrated by the lack of casual African dining outlets in the UK, Matthew​ Omeye-Howell and his mother Sade opened Jollof Box, a West African restaurant based in Dalston, and the family-run venture has quickly gained a large following with its hearty dishes named after famous African footballers – the Drogba, the Essien, the Boateng – served in novelty Chinese takeout-style boxes.

Photograph: Aji Akokomi
Aji Akokomi Photograph: Akoko

But while London’s tastes have diversified, the kitchens at top restaurants haven’t.

If you’re a fan of the BBC’s cooking competition ‘Great British Menu’, you will probably be familiar with James Cochran. He was crowned Champion of Champions on series 13 of the show. His title-clinching dish, Under the Knife, featured five cuts of goat served with black-eyed pea dhal, scotch bonnet jam, and rum dressing. Now he co-owns Islington restaurant 12:51, serving dishes inspired by his Scottish and West Indian heritage.

Cochran was classically trained in Michelin-starred kitchens like The Ledbury in Notting Hill and Fulham’s The Harwood Arms before he made his TV debut. He says that top roles at high-end eateries rarely go to Black people: ‘I’ve not seen enough Black chefs. I can tell you that.’ Research from 2018 showed that of all the Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, only 12 percent had head chefs from a minority ethnic background; Black and South Asian chefs led just 6 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants; and only two Black chefs held Michelin stars. Meanwhile, Cochran says that the majority of kitchen porters, who are primarily responsible for ensuring kitchen cleanliness and basic food preparation, are mixed-heritage, Black, Indian or Asian.

Cochran explains that ‘there’s a massive divide’ and this can often make restaurants an intimidating environment for young BAME chefs hoping to start a career in the hospitality industry. And he’s not the only restaurant owner who has noticed problems with staffing in the industry.

It took Aji Akokomi three years to find a head chef for his forthcoming super-hyped restaurant Akoko. The British-Nigerian restaurateur faced a ‘lack of interest’ from the hospitality recruitment agencies usually used to find chefs when he explained that he’d be serving West African food. He says he was told by agencies that ‘nobody wants to cook African food.’ Of course, they were wrong.

He began to tour restaurants across London to seek out any potential hires. ‘I would go to somewhere like Frog by Adam Handling. I would go to any top restaurant,’ he says, and if he saw a Black chef he would find a way to speak to them. This is how Akokomi first approached former ‘MasterChef: The Professionals’ semi-finalist William Chilila, who was named as Akoko’s head chef late last year. After watching the BBC cooking show, Akokomi tracked Chilila down to Orrery, a traditional French restaurant on Marylebone High Street, where Chilila had spent ten years as a sous chef, and asked him whether he would be interested in a new venture. ‘I had to be that strategic,’ he says. ‘That’s how I built my team.’

But what’s next? Cochran has found the changes of the past few weeks ‘enlightening’. ‘I think we’re moving 100 percent in the right direction,’ he says. ‘It’s great to see.’ But he believes that there is still a long way to go and a lot of change needs to happen. Namely, he would like to see the bigger hospitality groups introduce a ‘fast-track programme’ for people from underprivileged, Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. His hope is that it would not only teach the necessary culinary techniques but also the business skills to move up the ladder. He says: ‘As a hospitality sector as a whole, I think we need to do more with bringing underprivileged people into the industry and nurturing and training them and bringing them up.’

Akokomi agrees that there is still a lot of room for improvement. He says that he has seen small changes in the industry since 2017, when he first started working towards his dream of opening a restaurant. Specifically, he says that chefs are now more open to experimenting with African food. But he hopes that the industry can become more open-minded and adventurous in the future – and he plans for Akoko to help advance that change. ‘Akoko is going to show Black excellence,’ he explains. ‘Amazing service, beautiful space and all inspired by what we can do.’

Akokomi and Cochran appear in ‘Community Comfort’, a cookbook featuring more than 100 BAME chefs, all sharing recipes of joy and comfort to raise money for a charity which supports BAME communities that have been affected by the current crisis. The cookbook comes out digitally this month. 

Zac Ntim is a journalist and recent graduate from north London. He writes about films, visual art and all aspects of culture. 

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