Columnist Melissa Thompson shares her pick of cooks and artisans who are inspiring change in the food world. Discover some new dishes with bold flavours.
When I started working in food six years ago, I thought it was an honest industry. I’d started a supper club at home, transforming my dining and living rooms into a makeshift spot to feed Japanese comfort food to strangers. Sure, the hours would be long and margins tight, especially when it grew into pop-ups and, later, residencies in pub kitchens that would run for months. But, I believed the food would do the talking, and that ultimately, success would boil down to one thing – whether the food being served was good.
But, it eventually dawned that food was subject to the same unspoken rules that govern all aspects of life. That the powerful few – the food media, and the top chefs and PR companies that promote them – act as gatekeepers to the food world, and decide who makes it and who does not. This is as much to do with perception as power; ideas about which foods ‘deserve’ to be celebrated and revered, and which are there only to serve a quick, cheap hunger fix, if acknowledged at all.
The mindset that the foods of western Europe (especially those of France, Italy and Spain) are superior to others still lingers. Food from African countries and the Caribbean islands are kept out of the mainstream, or viewed with trepidation, save for a few breakthrough dishes, such as jerk chicken and jollof rice. This exclusion has long been known in black communities, but it’s only recently come to the fore as Britain grapples with complex conversations around race, and its role in inequality. And it’s not a moment too late, because this whitewashing of food has left a lot of cooks, chefs and restaurant owners without the recognition they deserve.
But it’s also left the British majority blind to a rich, beautiful world of food with a fascinating heritage, such as perfectly cooked plantain, grains of paradise, and egusi, not to mention the ingenious cooking methods that have been borne out of necessity, due to things like only having access to the cheap cuts of meat traditionally rejected by the wealthy. These methods magically transform inexpensive, inedible ingredients into dishes of unimaginable delight.
That’s how this new column came to be. In its determination to redress the imbalance, BBC Good Food has invited me to share the people, foods and projects that you may not have heard about, but that will enrich your life and meals. In the first of my monthly columns, I’ll be introducing the game-changers – those who are breaking boundaries in the world of food, and who deserve recognition for doing so.
1) Keshia Thomas-Jeffers
Keshia is on a one-woman mission to challenge the perception of Caribbean food in Britain, and show there’s more to it than jerk chicken. She shares mouth-watering recipes online, some of which feature on the menu of her south London restaurant Caribe’. From perfect pholourie (fried dough balls made with gram flour) to Haitian griots (boiled pork that’s then fried), Keshia reveals hidden food gems and fascinating facts about the islands and their culinary history. @caribe_uk
2) Zoe Adjonyoh
Zoe started by serving her peanut butter stew at a festival in east London a decade ago. Its popularity eventually led to Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. She’s since showcased Ghanaian and West African food in supper clubs, a long-term pop-up in Brixton, and her 2017 cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (£25, Mitchell Beazley). She also campaigns for better representation of black people in hospitality. @zoeadjonyoh
3) Riaz Phillips
Having grown up with a deep love of Caribbean food, Riaz felt that the island cuisines he loved had been ignored by the mainstream. He set about redressing the balance by writing Belly Full, a book that highlights the foods of Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and other Caribbean nations that are cooked in eateries across Britain. He travelled to Leeds, Coventry, Manchester and beyond to meet the people behind these cafés, restaurants and takeaways and tell their stories. It’s a necessary piece of social history. @riazphillips
4) Shane Wisdom-Smith
Shane is an expert fermenter and food preserver. What started as a hobby has since become a calling. He experiments with all manner of fermentation and ancient preservation techniques. The videos of his foraging outings are a joy – his excitement at coming across a wild herb is contagious. He suggests ideas for using common but underutilised herbs and plants, such as lemon balm, and gives advice. His ideas are endless, such as the ‘honeyion’ (a honey- fermented onion) and the ultimate umami-bomb: smoked and fermented chanterelle mushrooms. @wisdom_smith
5) Yvonne Maxwell
Yvonne runs Pass the Dutch Pot, a platform celebrating food and culture from around the world. Her beautiful photography and compelling descriptions of the people, food and communities she comes across fosters an intimacy that brings people along the journey with her. Her documentary style is engaging and her eye for detail draws out engrossing facts in the seemingly mundane. From the glories of plantain, to the salt harvesters of Senegal, her knowledge is an education. @passthedutchpot
6) Jenny Lau
Celestial Peach – a name based on a tale from Chinese folklore – is a project that chronicles Chinese cuisine and the people behind it. Jenny’s interviews with cooks, chefs and restaurateurs gives an insight into the myriad foods found across China’s different regions, and her interviews draw on an intimacy and nostalgia that transcends geographical borders. Jenny, a champion of vegan Chinese food, also hosts potluck lunches where attendees bring a surprise dish that fits within a specific theme. She’s also worked with police to support those affected by racism during the covid-19 pandemic. @celestialpeach_uk
7) William Chilila
William, head chef of new London restaurant Akoko in Fitzrovia, aims to put West African food in the spotlight. His cooking brings his Gambian, South African, Ghanaian and British heritage together along with methods from all over the world (think suya spice-battered veg). His dishes use a larder full of ingredients not yet well known In Britain, such as grains of paradise – a seed that imparts flavour similar to black pepper – and ehuru, a seed from the same family as nutmeg (though William will tell you it is much, much better). @william_chilila
8) Nokx Majozi
South-Africa-born Nokx is senior pie maker at the legendary Holborn Dining Room in central London, which is renowned for its incredible pastry creations featuring beautiful, intricate designs and inspired flavour combinations. Nokx oversees The Pie Room, and as Holborn Dining Room is located in the five-star Rosewood Hotel, Nokx has become an icon of the fine-dining scene. The combination of her joyful presence and unparalleled talent serves as a refreshing, welcome change from the stuffiness usually associated with this sort of food. @nokxmajozi
9) Ravneet Gill
Ravneet’s chocolate cookies have taken on legendary status in the last few months. As the founder of online bakery school PUFF School of Pastry, she’s been virtually leading amateur bakers through her best recipes. She’s also an ardent campaigner for change in the hospitality industry. After working in difficult kitchens, she became an advocate for employee rights, and campaigns for decent working conditions. Her baking book, The Pastry Chef’s Guide (£20, Pavilion Books), is out now. @ravneeteats
10) Adam Purnell
Adam, Shropshire Lad, is a live-fire cooking master, rustling up incredible feasts over flame and charcoal at his home in Telford. The self-taught chef has become a regular feature at live cookery shows around the country, and is known for his incredible flavour combinations, such as his soft-shell crab benedict with Creole lime and chilli hollandaise. Adam is one of few black or dual-heritage barbecue cooks in the UK, which is important given barbecue’s roots in black culinary history. @shropshire.lad
Melissa runs food and recipe project Fowl Mouths. In 2014, she started a supper club serving Japanese comfort food that eventually grew into a successful pop-up which only ended after the birth of her daughter in 2018. She’s been a vocal advocate for the promotion of black and minority ethnic people in food, and now provides advice on all aspects of the industry. @fowlmouthsfood