‘We won’t be ignored’: London’s west African eateries with Michelin stars | Restaurants
On Monday, two west African restaurants in central London became some of the newest recipients of Michelin stars. Chishuru and Akoko, both in Fitzrovia and with Nigeria-born chefs at their helms, pride themselves on a creative and modern take on west African food, a set of regional cuisines which have received little recognition outside their communities in the past.
Adejoké Bakare, of Chishuru, also became the first Black woman in the UK to be awarded a star – only the second in the world – and, in homage to the area of northern Nigeria in which she grew up, named the restaurant for a Hausa word meaning “the silence that descends on the table when food arrives”– a clue to her culture’s positively reverential approach to food. “Food is spiritual for her,” confirms her business partner, Matt Paice, describing how she once fired an Italian chef for swearing at the food while he was cooking it.
Aji Akokomi of Akoko also earned a star for his sleek, elevated take on the food of west Africa, a term that encompasses 17 countries in the continent, including Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia, Senegal, Chad and Mali. That said, chefs resist defining their food according to national boundaries; these are culinary traditions that pre-date imperial borders, says Akokomi, with different regions borrowing from one another. Food is defined by its smoke, heat and intensely savoury umami flavours – like the slow-cooking of onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and spices to form rich and concentrated bases for common dishes with almost infinite variations, the likes of jollof rice, egusi soup, groundnut stew, kebabs marinated in a spiced peanut sauce, and fufu, which Akokomi describes as “an edible spoon”, one of a few different pounded root vegetables used to scoop up soups and stews.
Bakare fuses the styles of modern-day Nigeria’s three regions – the heat of Yoruba food, the complex spicing of Igbo dishes and the fire-cooking of the Hausa communities in the north. As Paice says, “‘Nigerian food’ doesn’t really exist”; “west African” feels more appropriate.
Michelin stars recognise excellence in fine dining and they remain heavily apportioned to white male chefs. The symbolism of Bakare and Akokomi being awarded them this year is arguably long overdue. Still, says chef Akwasi Brenya-Mensa of Tatale, a roving west African restaurant with which he is touring the world, it is the right kind of progress for a cuisine – or set of cuisines – which 450 million people across the world call their own. “I was overjoyed when I heard the news,” he tells me.
Like Bakare and Akokomi, who had before worked in HR and IT respectively, Brenya-Mensa is largely self-taught and grew up in a Ghanaian household in south London where he was put to work in the kitchen by his mum. “When you come to professional cooking from outside the food industry, you’re not bound by its rules,” he says. “I don’t know the theory, so I do what I like and, more often than not, people like it.”
The original Chishuru site was in Brixton Village and opened not long before the pandemic; the menu quickly became a set one, designed to guide diners through unfamiliar ingredients and dishes, aromatic spices such as uda and grains of paradise, or the likes of sinasir (fermented rice cake), moi moi(fermented bean cake) and imoyo (a fish and tomato stew). When local restaurant critic Jay Rayner came in just before the second lockdown, he gave it a glowing review. “It’s a portion of the community on a plate,” he wrote, “one that has all too often been overlooked, including by me.”
Paice agrees, identifying critics as key gatekeepers to the public’s awareness of restaurants; when Chishuru reopened in Fitzrovia last year – a slicker rendition of its Brixton predecessor, ready to compete with all the best central London restaurants – he noticed that places which had opened at the same time received many more reviews. Landlords are another potential barrier. “We’re now in the fourth site we offered on,” he says – the others just didn’t see the commercial potential in high-end west African food.
Brenya-Mensa would like to see more recognition of west African food across a wider spectrum of price points. He also makes the observation that the kind of west African cooking acknowledged by Michelin doesn’t, to his knowledge, exist outside the capital, although of course more casual places do, especially in Birmingham and Manchester.
Michelin has helped to put it on the map for a mainstream with disposable income, but he cites Chuku’s, which serves “Nigerian tapas” in Tottenham, Little Baobab, a Senegalese cafe in Peckham and pop-ups such as the Flygerians and his own, Tatale, as examples of cooks who have set out to introduce west African food, often creative renditions on it, to wider audiences. Brenya-Mensa thinks British palates have become more adventurous, helped along by chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, who has introduced them to manifold big new flavours, but more than that, he says, “we are a wave of restaurateurs who refuse to be ignored. We think our food is excellent – it’s what we do, we’re uncompromising about that, and it deserves to be recognised alongside the best of the rest.”