Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
Words by Pelin Keskin
Zoe Adjonyoh has a cloth slung over her shoulder and her tall, slender frame approaches me and shakes my hand. "Walthamstow? We could've just met up at Hackney Wick!" she exclaims. I just told her I took the Victoria line from one end to the other to get to her pop up in Pop Brixton, and both of our homes are in North East London, so yeah it could've been more convenient. But what good would that've been if I couldn't see how wonderful a space Zoe's pop up is? Like a cocoon, the warmth and cosiness overwhelms the tiny space and you can't help but sit and feel like you're at home.
I had the pleasure of speaking to the Ghanaian Irish chef about her famous peanut chicken stew, how it led to her loyal following and what being a chef and businesswoman entails.
P: Tell us about what Zoe's Ghana Kitchen is, how it started and why?
Z: ZGK is a food business, so we do catering for events, we do street food, festival events, pop up restaurants, supper clubs, residencies in various places. The concept from a food perspective is that it's modern Ghanaian food, so it's taking the essence of traditional dishes and flavours and ingrediants and making them as accessible as possible to a wider audience. We're now at this nice little cusp where African food is having that revolution (which I've been talking about for years by the way!) where people are recognising it. More and more people are hosting supper clubs and pop ups and street food that represents countries where they're from but doing it with a little twist in the same way that I do - just kin of reimagining dishes and adding something new that fits in a Western environment without watering down the flavours at all. So that's where it grew about. How it started basically was a weird happy accident. I don't have any background in being a chef
P: Do you think it's important to?
Z: No not at all. I mean the reason why my food has been successful is because I put a lot of love into the food, a lot of passion into it. Any kind of supper club or pop up - it's very much about the experience of the food. One of my favourite dishes growing up is the peanut butter stew and that was something I would cook for my friends every now and again and they would bug me to cook it more often so I knew that people liked it other than just me. I live in Hackney Wick and there used be be an Arts festival that were open studios taking over all of Hackney Wick. Everyone poured into the area at around the festival time and I thought "here's an opportunity to feed some people, a bit of pocket money". So a friend of mine made a sign that said 'Zoe's Famous Peanut Butter Stew' which was the joke cos it's only famous among us, and then I made a big vat of it on a tiny stove outside my front door and it was really popular and it sold out every day. People again were bugging me to do it again and I said "no probably not" but then a year later in that same weekend instead we turned it into a restaurant and called it Zoe's Ghana Kitchen. So I went and got loads of African fabrics, made tables and chairs, made pots. I made it very homely and cosy but made it feel like a restaurant. We were basically slammed all weekend, and I collected emails for a mailing list. We started doing it every few months, people told other people, it grew organically from there. We started doing private catering, events, street food, and I just didn't say no to anything for three years which gave me steep learning curves as I'd never done anything like that before. It was just really fun, and meant I could work for myself
P: That's the dream
P: What would you say has been the biggest lesson that you've learned over that three years, the one thing you take away from it?
Z: Ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
P: Is that something that you find hard to do due to a want to be self sufficient? I feel like a lot of women suffer from this.
Z: I still struggle with it. I still do too much on my own even though it's turning into quite a big business. I still am the person that does the marketing and PR, I do the accounts, still work in the kitchen, still organise the private event catering - it's a lot of stuff.
P: Do you feel like it takes away from the rest of your life?
Z: There is no Work/Life balance, but I'm working on it. But I mean for early days - for anyone starting out - just ask people for advice and help because I didn't ask anybody for anything. So I would turn up at a streetfood market, never having done anything, on my own and I'd just be looking at what other people were doing and learning like that, when I could've just asked and made my life easier. Don't be afraid to ask before you start, because I didn't want people to think I was an amateur or something.
P: Out of the private catering and the pop up and supper club, what's your favourite to do?
Z: Supper clubs because it's actually hosted so you get to really interact with people and talk about the food and get to know them. That personal interaction is great. We're currently doing a Tuesday night supper club called Chef's Table and we change the menu each week. It will reflect recipes that will go into the cookbook that is coming out 2017. What I like is the challenge because it can get boring cooking the same thing over and over again so it's nice to come up with new ideas and test them out.
P: I know you mentioned that part of it is to bring Ghanaian food to a wider audience, has there been any challenges or high/low points, maybe a miscommunication - something lost in translation with presenting a food and how it is received?
Z: Yeah I mean sometimes there's food that you want people to love but the flavour is just too unusual for some people. That has happened - it's tricky because Ghanaians come and they're like "there's no banku there's no kenkey" and it's like well, I can't do banku cos I know only 1 in 50 people are gonna order it. But with kenkey, I make it so it's manageable and easier for people to try it. If you whacked a big fermented paste on a plate most people would be like 'nahhh'. I love kenkey but it's how you introduce it. With okra soup, people don't like okra. Okra is a funny one so what else can you do with it? Let's fry it, let's add some chilli, ginger, and make it into a tempura, for example. Or with okra soup, let’s not make it as slimy as most people make it, let's add the okra at the end - you get a different consistency but you get all the same flavours. So it's just those little tweaks it that makes it more friendly for people.
P: Sometimes I feel like there’s a few differences between my mums generation and my generation of what we appreciate in food. I find that a common theme with children of immigrants raised here. Have you noticed this?
Z: The very first Ghana kitchen I was just serving up food in the same messy way that my dad served, so I didn't care too much about the plating because to me it was all about the flavours, but as time has gone on, I've realised people do eat with their eyes and you have to think about making it more attractive.
P: Do you find that people have accused you of a lack of authenticity because of the stuff you've done different?
Z: Yeah there's a handful of people who are like that. When I design this menu, I tried really hard to design a menu that would allow as many people as possible to have this food in a restaurant style environment so I was really conscious of the price point. So that was important. But of course people don't factor in rent, staff wages, organic ingredients. Second generation Ghanaians love it because they see it in a different light. But the older generations who cook this stuff at home will come in and say "that's not how I make my jollof”, but then again they're not my target. On the whole though, the majority of responses are very positive because they get it. Especially those that have grown up in London. There's such a huge foodie culture here who are used to eating out at certain places so they're used to a certain type of plating and a certain price point.
P: Are you still in writing? I know you were studying it at Goldsmiths
Z: Yeah I got my MA. I'm writing the cookbook but creative writing I haven't really had any time right now.
P: Writing and cooking are both creative outlets - do you prefer one to the other? What's different about either one?
Z: They're both solitary pursuits, when you're writing you're making it up, same as when you're working on a recipe. You might want someone to try something you cooked the same way you ask someone to read something you've written. It's about exploring ideas. To be honest because I cook so much and write so little, I'm swayed to say I prefer writing because I don't get enough opportunity to do it. I'd love to have more balance where I can do both equally.
P: What would you say is the most overrated and underrated dish?
Z: Overrated...pulled pork. It's so ubiquitous and very seldom will you find someone doing something interesting with it. Pulled pork and burgers are probably the most overrated. Underrated...softshell crab. When it's cooked really well...there's a place in Kingston Road called Bun Bun Bun - they do an amazing softshell crab. It's so soft and succulent and juicy.
P: So you have 15 mins to eat, and you have to make something, what do you make?
Z: An omelette because you can throw whatever's inside the fridge and put some chilli in it, it's gonna taste good.
P: What do you do when you're not cooking or working or writing? One way that you unwind?
Z: I've started doing yoga so that's my down time. It's once a week and I cherish that two hours. Or I'm probably caching up on iPlayer some kind of crime drama. Anything that's edgy - I love Luther, I love the Bridge.
P: You should watch Fargo if you're into crime drama.
Z: I'll add to my list