Out of Many, One: Five Black woman chefs shifting London's food culture

Words by Kat Lopez

It’s the first Vittles post of the month! If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32064286, which ensures all contributors are paid for the month ahead. Any donation is gratefully appreciated, and all patrons are automatically added to the paid-subscriber tier on Substack. Your donations mean that the September rate has now risen to £150 for writers and £70 for illustrators.

In case you missed it, this week’s subscriber only article was an interview with chef and writer Feroz Gajia on the topic of London’s Halal brunch scene https://vittles.substack.com/p/what-is-halal-brunch

It’s been a hell of a week for restaurant writing.

On Wednesday, the reviewer for a minor London newspaper cited Vittles in a column I can only describe as ‘negligently edited’ which appeared to say the quiet part loud and affirmed that the paper has a diversity problem in who it reviews because “customers of all kinds probably embrace the comfort of pasta and its cohort pizza rather more readily than, say, Eritrean” ─ a point of view some Eritreans would take issue with for two separate reasons. The editing status of this piece was soon upgraded to ‘deleted’.

Then on Sunday, almost without fanfare or warning, the UK had what I believe is its first national review of a West African restaurant, in the pages of the Mail on Sunday no less, citing Helen Graves’s article on barbecue in Vittles as inspiration. Loathe as I am to give people credit for doing their jobs, especially given the length of time it took, it was a fine, inquisitive review, admitting ignorance of Nigerian cuisine but promising to do better and do more.

On Monday, Vice published an inquiry into how many Black-owned restaurants have received national reviews, this time citing Melissa Thompson’s article in Vittles, revealing the number is about 0.6% of all reviews. Most papers did not respond for comment, although the Guardian/Observer did release a defensive statement which would have taken more time and effort to write than actually just publishing a review. As the Mail on Sunday proves, sometimes just doing it, no matter how rushed, is a much more powerful statement than talking about it.

Which brings us to today’s piece by Kat Lopez, exactly one week later, which is on five female, Black chefs in London, all of whom are ─ in their own way and collectively ─ changing the way we eat and think about food, simultaneously working within and reforming African and Caribbean food traditions. Statistically, Black women are the most underrepresented demographic both within restaurants and within coverage on food media, but that is the least interesting thing that I could tell you. What is more interesting is how these chefs and cooks have all used their position to create, not restaurants, but spaces where culture, art, music and food all intersect, spaces which are inclusive, political and radical as much as their are culinary.

All five of these chefs represent various potential futures away from our fixed idea of a restaurant, and make me excited to be a writer covering the possibilities of food in this city. I hope that not only will they continue shaping cuisine and culture, but by doing the very basic courtesy of covering them properly, they will also change our own understanding of what restaurant writing can and should be.

Out of Many, One: Five Black woman chefs shifting London's culture, by Kat Lopez

Looking back through the history of London’s restaurants, it’s certainly not a lack of presence, talent or drive that has limited the representation of Black women chefs. As far back as the 1920s, when the first Caribbean establishments in the UK started trading, complex structural issues such as racism, gender inequality and socioeconomic barriers often determined who got in, who stayed and whose words were deemed valuable – almost always erasing the contribution of these cooks and chefs. 

While the restaurant industry’s under-representation of Black chefs still remains, the past few years have seen a dynamic and long-overdue shift. Nestled between the tresses, a movement has begun to weave itself throughout the city. The emergence of pop-ups and supper clubs in particular have expanded the possibilities of visual representation and diversity of palette while avoiding the large overhead costs of restaurants, which have undoubtedly been a barrier for Black women chefs with limited access to capital or PR. 

The following five women are part of a moment within a series of moments that echo a long line, a collective ensemble not just of Black restaurateurs, but also of musicians, activists and authors. They are individually and collectively looking back at their histories from the African and Caribbean diasporas, radically demonstrating expansive ways to approach ingredients, textures and flavours. They ask the question: what does it mean to push against the limits of the culinary archive, but also the preservation of our histories? By pushing against the now, they are also a pivotal part in the process of redefining what the ‘now’ means. 

Although they might come from similar backgrounds, the experiences of these five women greatly vary, and they uniquely celebrate these variations through culinary processes that might not have been deemed possible ten or 20 years ago. They have created their own communities: hosting supper clubs alongside some of London’s most notable artists, holding residencies at weekly art and music sessions in south London, or running food stalls at Black Girl Fest – the UK’s first arts and culture festival ‘dedicated to amplifying the voices and experiences of Black British women and girls through community-based events’.

The palpable vibration throughout London and across the culinary world speaks to the magic these women and womxn are making as they’re often interwoven through each other’s projects, such as Nyami – a new culinary collective of Black women chefs and creatives set to launch at Peckham Palms on October 15th.

If there’s one thing they share, it’s an understanding of where we might be headed. You can’t help but feel like something big has happened and is continuing to happen and that these five are right at the heart of the shift.

Shanice Bryce - OOM

Shanice Bryce started OOM as a one-off supper club fundraiser; a contribution to the reduction of single-use plastic in Jamaica. Now, almost four years since its birth, the transition into what OOM has become was unimaginable. Bryce, born in Catford, south east London, is of Jamaican heritage and was one of last year’s nominees for the Young British Foodie awards. OOM, which stands for ‘Out Of Many’ is a multidisciplinary studio for creativity and collaboration at the intersection of food and design inspired by Caribbean cuisine. Through OOM, Bryce shifted toward plant-based cooking, meaning she would have to achieve the depth of flavour she was accustomed to but through a new lens. She began exploring combinations of ackee gyoza and plantain sushi, which are now some of OOM’s most favoured dishes. 

Bryce’s love of cooking for others started with an annual dinner party she would throw with a friend when their parents went on vacation. “It was our thing, and I then realised I really loved to bring people together. Cooking for people is what I knew to do and is what I’d always done.”

Bryce speaks on the role of collaboration, the richness we can experience with one another. “In everything I’ve done, I think about how I can share the moment”, and we can see that essence being carried into the ways she approaches projects through OOM – one of which is a cookbook featuring some of London’s most innovative Black creatives set to launch next year. Bryce’s focus is connection: “Curating a supper club with food at the centre, but weaving other artistic disciplines throughout the space is what I love”. She wants to hold a deeper historical narrative in mind whilst incorporating sounds, textures and colours. The ability to oscillate between those mediums surrounded by people who share these sentiments is at the heart of what OOM hopes to achieve. 

Bryce says she feels invigorated to see chefs around London tapping into what identity means to them and wants to continue to consider the various ways you can show people your heritage and what matters to you. “Right now we are exploring who we are and where we’re going, and it’s really something!”

Marie Mitchell - Island Social Club

“Sustainability is a useful approach when you’re thinking about affordability. If you’re eating things when they’re ready that means they’re more affordable," says Marie Mitchell, the chef and co-founder of Island Social Club, which recently finished a year-long residency in Haggerston. She reminds us that engaging with ingredients in a seasonal way is not only exciting, but also a way of making food accessible to a wider audience. “This is here, and only for two months – so if you want it, get it!”

Celebrating just over four years since its inception, Island Social Club is an opportunity for Mitchell, who is of Jamaican heritage, and co-founder Joseph Pilgrim, of Grenadian heritage, to showcase the huge wealth and vibrancy that is the Caribbean. “There are stunning nuances, but also profound differences across the islands,” she adds, “so relaying those traditions whilst showcasing their expansiveness was essential.”

Much of the inspiration for Island Social Club came from trying to negotiate complex forms of identity. Mitchell speaks of an “ethereal thing I called home,” as she wanted to better understand who she was and where she sat in the world, because “how much do we really know about where we come from?”

Mitchell says that the processes within Caribbean cuisine are reliant on time, giving dishes a chance to impart their bold, complex flavours very delicately and slowly. “There are beautiful bitter notes that sit alongside other flavours that haven’t been sweetened for the European palate. So with these considerations in mind, we want to allow time and space for the ingredient to sing.”

When I ask Mitchell her thoughts on London’s food scene, she notes that some of the most successful places are quite culturally diverse, but aren’t always represented by those who come from those cultures. “For a long time, it’s been challenging to gain equal traction within the industry as your white counterparts [who may be cooking similar cuisines].” This movement is one that Mitchell is elated to share with many others who are receiving the recognition they’ve long deserved. “There’s time, effort and consciousness that go into these processes, and we ought to be rewarded.”

Safiya Robinson - sisterwoman

The levels of technical complexity within cuisines that emerge out of the African diaspora have been disregarded by mainstream food media – often referenced as antiquated and unrefined, further narrowing notions of excellence. Safiya Robinson aims to change this by way of food education and her sisterwoman vegan supper clubs, guiding us toward repairing our relationships with food that patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy have disrupted. 

“Stereotypes were a very important part of what I was trying to combat – that people who look like me can eat this way.” Robinson says. “There has been such a narrow representation of our food, and I wanted to disrupt that.” Born in Ladbroke Grove, west London, Robinson is of African-American and Jamaican descent and is often reminded that we are extensions of our ancestors and family. Robinson notes that, for a long time, the dinner table has been historically hierarchical and shouldn’t be. “Growing up, dinner time was a special moment to talk, and really just be. It was about love and transparency.” 

During her early years at university, she led many anti-racist campaigns and political events. “It was important that people felt safe and comfortable, exploring what it meant to be seen and feel liberated.” Robinson believes that “wellness is not a luxury and shouldn’t show up in ways that aren’t accessible.” Through sisterwoman, Robinson is continuously meeting these priorities. She is creating a blueprint of how to show up in tangible ways such as recently launched ‘Children of the Yam’ – an e-book that prioritises Black mental health and contains 30 plant-based recipes while consistently critiquing mainstream ideals of self-care. 

Community is connection and is embedded within the theoretical underpinning of sisterwoman. When she gathers with kin, Robinson feels drawn to share in a way that allows us all to see each other and ourselves – a reminder that our communities should feel nourished, in all ways.  

Kareem Arthur - The Healing Table

“When I think about being British right now, I don’t feel particularly proud,” says Kareem Arthur, a chef and writer who runs The Healing Table, a space which ‘celebrates womxn who cook.’ “The people that are in charge don’t look like me.” Since becoming a mother she feels as though it’s even more of an imperative to think about the importance of identity and belonging.

She harkens back to being in south London with her Sierra Leonean grandmother as a child. “There was always jollof rice – for every occasion and no occasion,” she laughs. She then recalls cooking in restaurants and feeling pressure to create foods that stemmed from Eurocentric culinary traditions. To be a chef, and to work within the industry, you’ve always been expected to have gone to culinary school – “but I didn’t want to work within those confines,” she says. The idea that Western culinary school is a prerequisite to be a chef and concerns about not being able to cook like that are ones Arthur believes are no longer relevant. “I thought about what I want my story to be. I want people to feel connected to a story that’s a part of me”, she explains. Her aim is to bring people together to just eat, talk, heal and share.

Arthur tells me how moving forward necessitates looking at the past. “I want to continue to learn about my ancestors’ stories and use food as a way of transporting us back toward memories – the last place you were when you ate something, the memory of someone you loved or someone you miss.” It’s this that makes Arthur’s work feel vital, especially within the current climate; to hold on to this heritage, to make sure the stories of those who come before us are not lost.

Denai Moore - Dee’s Table

When artist and singer Denai Moore started Dee’s Table, she knew she wanted to create something she hadn’t seen before. Her vegan ‘eggs benedict’ was exactly that – something we’d never seen. Oyster mushroom in cornmeal batter, ackee as hollandaise, wilted greens and a potato rosti. 

Dee’s Table is a radiant blend of memories from Moore’s childhood plate as well as techniques acquired from working as a chef around England. There might be an element of nostalgia for some, but even so, the vibrant food she is making is something many of us have never considered. For a younger generation in particular, it’s inspiring to experience the reinvention of foods we feel close to. Moore started Dee’s Table as a vegan supper club just under four years ago and explains that the name is about “inviting people to my table, the table that exists in my mind and where the food is coming from – from me, from home.” 

From Newham, east London, by way of Jamaica, she came to England at nine years old and many of her childhood food experiences influence her dishes today. It conjures up a fusion of nostalgia and newness that veganism in particular lends to quite well. “For centuries the food industry has said ‘this is how you bake a cake’ or ‘this is how this is done’, so disrupting those rigid ways of approaching technique was exciting… Breaking all the culinary rules, rewriting the book coupled with rediscovery gives me the opportunity to make my way. We wanna break the rules and, honestly, the rules don’t matter.”

She is reluctant to proffer what people may expect of her as a vegan Jamaican chef, but rather, aims to share what Jamaica means to her: “It’s important that I remain authentic to my headspace.”.

Food speaks to our histories; so cooking food unique to our own experiences is important. Moore says the future of Dee’s Table is in a restaurant, and that she is extremely exhilarated to see the shifts that are continuing to take place. “I wanna create a soundboard of chefs that are here to break the rules. The future feels warming and full of possibility.”

Kat Lopez is a writer, chef and the founder of SATION - a culinary collective and events company that focuses on food as the medium to facilitate beauty and connection. You can find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sationuk/. Kat was paid for her work.

All photos courtesy of the chefs