Jul 3, 2020 • 52M

A Conversation with Zoe Adjonyoh

Listen now | Talking African food, representation, and sustainability with the London-based chef and writer.

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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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When I opened Zoe Adjonyoh’s bright orange cookbook Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, I was immediately thrilled with all the possibilities for the many plantains and various root vegetables—viandas—that enter my San Juan kitchen. “Yam 5 Ways,” “Plantain 5 Ways” kick off this book, which is subtitled Traditional Ghanaian Recipes Remixed for the Modern Kitchen.

But Zoe isn’t just her recipes: She’s also part of founding Black Book, “a global representation platform for black & non-white people working within hospitality and food media,” and has spent much of the pandemic feeding her community. We discussed all of this and more. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Thank you for taking the time and putting up with my technical difficulties today.

Zoe: They’re my issues, not yours.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Zoe: Yeah, well, I mean, I grew up in more than one place, really. Because you know, I'm from southeast London, but I'm a third culture kid. So my mum's Irish and my dad's Ghanaian. And so I'm brought up English in southeast London, but I spent a couple of years as a baby into my toddler times in Ghana, so I would’ve been eating fufu and like Ghanian baby food, basically lots of mpotompoto, pounded yam, porridge, things like that.

But I also spent a huge part of my childhood growing up in Ireland. So yeah, like, every available summer—all the school breaks, half terms, Easter, summer holidays - up until I was probably… I think I started losing interest when I was about 14, I think I carried on doing the family holidays until I was about 15. And when I say family, I mean, that was just me, my mom, my sisters—very small nuclear family. And yeah, I was in Ghana, without my parents, actually living with my grandmother, and there was some woman looking after me. But the majority of my childhood, I guess, was growing up in southeast London.

Alicia: And then how did you end up working in food?

Zoe: Yeah, really good question. There's not an easy answer to that either, I’m afraid.

But, you know, I like to think of it as kind of, in one sense, it's like this happy serendipitous accident, but actually, increasingly, I've come to believe that the universe funneled me down a certain path because it really never felt like any of it was, you know—I didn't think I was destined to be a cook of any description; it was really not on my radar. But it's certainly the space in where, like, I found my power and my voice and stepped into my purpose. But, how did that start?

Well, I guess I have to go back quite a few paces to childhood and the fact that I am from two different ethnic parents and the fact that I had this close relationship with Ireland and my Irishness growing up. And I didn't have that same relationship with my Ghanain-ness, and so food, from quite a young age, became my access point to Ghana and that sort of inquiry into my heritage and trying to understand what that part of my culture was about.

I started working with food, in a way, from a very young age. I used to cook my friends particular dishes that I love, like peanut butter stew, which has gone on to become my signature dish. And then how my business started was in 2010, I basically got back from the States. I spent three months traveling around the States on Amtrak and, you know, any means possible really to see as much of the continent as I could and had an amazing time and I came back broke. I've always lived in Hackney Wick when I've been back in London—well, not always, technically, that's another story—but anyway, I came back to Hackney Wick, and I don't know what you know about Hackney Wick then or now, but I guess it was like Brooklyn 20 years ago, where it was kind of very affordable living, cheap warehouse, big spaces. So the dominant kind of tenant then, we were artists, creatives, writers, photographers, right? Huge studios, white spaces. But there was nothing else here. There's no bars, no restaurants, no cafés or anything like that—good times, before it was gentrified.

So Hackney Wick then used to have a festival, an arts festival called Hackney Wicked. And so all of those studios would get opened over the course of that weekend. And so during this weekend, I was looking at this bleak industrial landscape of Hackney Wick suddenly fill up with like all these people from all over London. And I thought, well, there's an opportunity to make some pocket money here because they’re gonna be hungry, they're like roaming around. So basically, I decided to make a makeshift kind of food store outside my front door because my actual home, like the warehouse we live in, was being used as a video gallery, so I couldn't be in it. And I didn't have anything to do, so I thought, well, let me cook some food and see if I can sell it. And my friend made a big sign saying Zoe's Famous Peanut Butter Stew. Obviously only famous for me and to them, but as a marketing ploy, it kind of worked. And the smell, you know, it's a big smell. It's like a bold, full flavor piquant, spicy, sweet, delicious smell so it drew people and to outside my front door, you know. I kept selling out of this stuff, basically, and it started some interesting conversations around why people had never heard of Ghanian food, why people have never heard—a lot of people didn't even know where Ghana was, you know, on the map.

So I think that's the moment where something subconsciously ticked in my brain, I thought, there's a problem to solve here, but I'm not going to be the problem-solver, do you know what I mean? It was still wasn't on my radar. And people wanted me to do it again and I was like, “Ah, probably not.”

Anyway, fast-forward a year and I started my MA at Goldsmiths and that same weekend—I was just about to start my MA at Goldsmiths, sorry. So that same weekend, we turned the flat into a restaurant, so instead of an open studio, we made it into a restaurant because we had so much fun the year before, right? And I called it Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen—actually, I called it Ghana Kitchen; it didn't have my name on it yet. So we made loads of tables and chairs—I still live in this space now, actually, I’m sitting in it—and we made lots of tables and chairs. I would basically ransack loads of charity shops, got all second-hand cutlery and plates and went through Ridley Road Market, got this African fabric; I created a Spotify playlist.

And for all intents and purposes, it looked like a restaurant. So people thought they were in a restaurant and people were trying to—and it was Ram Ram, Ram. Thank you, ma’am. It was so busy, like so I cannot tell you how extraordinarily busy it was over the course of four days and people were trying to book you know, for next week and the week after, and so on. And I had to be like, I'm really sorry, this is actually my living room, you're actually standing in my office. This isn't how this normally looks. It's like a fun thing. But I'll take your email address, and if I do it again, I'll let you know. And that's basically how that started.

And because I enjoyed it so much, I kind of started doing it every few months, and then it became monthly. But it's still a hobby, right? It wasn't a business. And then when I started the MA, I thought, Oh cool, I can do this and not have to work for anybody else. And, you know, I can just write and read and have all the fun and cook when I feel like it and have these amazing parties. Because that's what they were, really, is like these huge dinner parties of like 60 people twice a night. And we used to do 60 covers twice a night. It was just so much fun. 

And I was still kind of hesitant, to be honest, because I really was focused on writing and wanting to be a writer. And I tried to move to Berlin—and I did move to Berlin, because I found my bohemian paradise there. And, you know, I was going to be this cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, late-night, you know, bohemian person breathing in Berlin culture and society and then putting my spin on it. But I also took a kitchen residency while I was there to earn some money, and then at the same time—and in doing that in Berlin, right, the first event I did in Berlin went into their version of Time Out straightaway. And after that I had like my inbox full of people in Berlin trying to book for the next one. So that gave me a reason to keep going back to Berlin before I moved, then I eventually moved there.

But you know, there was this Zeitgeist moment, I think, where cooking shows were taking off. Jamie Oliver's Naked Chef had done some interesting perspective-changing around what TV cooking looked like, you know; foodie became like the new language for people that love food. And there was this big gap, right, around what African cuisine was. And nobody was really stepping into that gap. And not to say that there weren’t African restaurants all over London, because there certainly were, but they certainly weren't doing what I was doing, which was having a modern perspective and modern take on it and also making an environment for people from all parts of society to feel comfortable in having that experience.

The reason I came back from Berlin was because, you know, I just kept getting so many catering jobs in London, I ended up coming back to London once every two weeks I thought, Well, this is silly. So I decided to move back to London. And when I realized, you know, so it started taking off in blogs and the press. I was in German press; I was in British press; I got asked to go to do some amazing projects in Moscow, like this long table dining in a public park and it was fucking cool as fuck. And so I was like, Okay, there's something here. What is it? Like, why do people enjoy this so much? What is the problem that I'm solving? kind of thing. And I decided that the reason—well, there's lots of reasons, but I just decided that, okay, so what you need to do is educate people about what this food is. And then that became the mission statement for Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, to bring African food to the masses and start an African food revolution. And that's pretty much why we spent the last 10 years doing.

Alicia: And it's so interesting because I do feel like the universe, you know, you can have all these intentions and put all the work toward doing one thing that you think you want to do, that you think you're supposed to do, and then the world will be like, absolutely not. No, you're doing this other thing.

Zoe: But yeah, and ironically, I mean, interestingly, I don't even think that, you know, everything that's happened so far in the last ten years still isn't even—I think I'm only just now actually getting to the point of what the purpose was of all of that experience. And that's exciting.

Alicia: And in the introduction to your book, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, you write “African cuisine has been surprisingly marginalized.” And that reminded me of, I'm sure you know her work, Dr. Jessica B. Harris. She wrote in High on the Hog, which is about African cuisine in the States, the same thing, basically. And you know—why do you think that's the case? And have you seen that change at all since your book came out? I mean, in the States, for whatever reason, right now Nigerian food is having kind of a moment—at least in the media because, you know, nothing can have a moment in real life right now. But yeah, so do you feel that that's changed at all? Or if it has, you know, maybe morphed slightly?

Zoe: Yes, I mean, I wish when I wrote that that I hadn't written “surprisingly,” because it's not surprisingly at all. I was a bit more polite in 2015 when I was writing that book than I am now, for sure. 

But it's not surprising, actually, for lots of reasons. And the big reason is because we understand that the food world has a white gaze all over every single aspect of it, right. So... but let's take some responsibility where we need to actually, and we do, and I think that part of the reasons that we can raise our hands up on that front is the fact that you know, within our communities—and even as I say this, there is still the lens of white supremacy behind what I'm about to say—but you know, 99.9%, if not 100% of African mothers and fathers want you to do a hard academic or hard science degree, right? Because their belief is, the world is going to be hard enough for you anyway, you need to have the best qualifications behind you so that people can't say no to you. So we don't think of, in those cultures, we don’t think of hospitality and catering as desirable careers, historically, for good reasons. 

Also, from a historical gastronomic perspective, those cultures in West Africa haven't had that leisurely headspace that the French and the Italians have had for hundreds of years to develop their cuisine, because we've actually been oppressed for hundreds of years and been trying to get our land back or our freedom back. Food was very much sustenance, and a means to an end. We know that, culturally speaking, food is very important in terms of celebration and in family get-togethers and things like that, but outside the context of nostalgia, sustenance, familiarity, and togetherness, and connection, there isn't a career associated with any of that, at least historically. 

So they're just not careers that we’d have thought to go into. Add on top of that, the huge lack of representation of Black faces in food media, full stop. I’m going to speak to the UK perspective. Growing up, the Black faces and food I saw on TV—and I mean, no disrespect to these people—were… it was just Ainsley Harriott. He's a guy of Caribbean influence, but he wasn't cooking Caribbean food. He was hosting this fun, throwaway, almost... it was called Ready Steady Cook or something like that. In its first iteration, it's like “Oh, I've got a pepper and onion. What can I make?”

And he was a fun, nice, charming character. Easy on the eye for the white gaze, for sure. And then you had Rustie Lee, who similarly, I think, was from a Caribbean background, but cooking in in stereotype of, yeah, ha ha ha, I'm a big, gay, boisterous, fun, unintimidating Black woman. Let me guide you through this thing that's got nothing to do with my heritage or culture. That was kind of the landscape apart from, maybe you saw Amanda Jeffrey occasionally or something like that. And certainly anybody from the continent of Africa was just absolutely absent in terms of representation. 

You can't be what you can't see, right? If you don't have any role models in that space to make you think, Oh, that person's doing it, I can do it, and you put all of those things together, and you've got roadblocks in the way. But then there's the inherent problem of having an all-white media and whether or not they're interested, and this is why I'm always going on about how important it is to own story and narrative and be in charge of it. Because if I wasn't the person I was, with the experience I have, and my intersectionality and all the tools that I equipped myself with, because I came into food in my 30s. I wasn't some spring chicken.

I had my armor for the world already, and I had my intention. So, you know, for a lot of young people, I think that it could have gone really wrong, really quickly. It's because I've got a strong voice and a strong intention. I have this armor that I built up through various other things over the years, I was able to be really quite forceful about how I wanted my cuisines to be represented. And even with that strength of mind and voice, I still get mis-introduced on panels. My cuisine, my style of cooking, all the food I cook still gets mis-called or mis-named on labels. There's constantly this desire to put me in an authentic bracket or traditional bracket, which is absolute bullshit. I just spent an hour on the phone in another interview talking about that. 

There's like layers and layers and layers of reasons why, but has that changed? Absolutely, yes, of course it has. Dramatically. When my book came out, Hibiscus, it came out the same time. How that book came out, and the way they went about publishing that, I'm not 100% behind, because basically what they decided was, Oh, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is doing really well. There must be some kind of market for African food. Like, let’s do a competition to find a Black cook, because we like to—we're just too lazy to actually do a real investigation who's actually cooking this stuff.

So it’s this kind of like this tokenistic adding into the equation another cookbook. And I don't say that to take anything away from Lopè Ariyo, because we’re friends; I like her a lot, and she was a great food blogger before that book came out, and the book’s a lovely book. But I don't think that she had the armor she needed to make that book the success it needs to be and to have a strong enough voice over how the marketing and publicity of that book happen.

And incidentally, another racist thing that happened was they put those books out intentionally at the same time. So they delayed my release by a year so that it would come out at the same time as her release, which meant that they then split our audience. And, you know, the reason I say that that's part of systemic racism is because they're not giving appropriate value to the work, and to the fact that we're already competing in a space that is hugely competitive with niche cuisines. And trying to give it a voice, a place, and a platform. And if you split our market, you split our voice and you split our earning potentials and blah, blah, blah, and so on. 

I thought that was an extremely cynical and untrustworthy move by the media. And of course, we had The Groundnut Cookbook just before those two books came out, actually. So there was that moment around West African cooking, but they would like to keep that as a moment, so they're not going to encourage us to keep producing books, and I even had a meeting in which my publisher said to me, probably not even a year after it was released, they were like, sales haven't been what we wanted and we’re not going to do a reprint. And I said, will you do a paperback or something? And she was like, no. And then I said, okay, well, I'm interested in doing like an afro-vegan something or other, and she said, I think you missed that boat. Missed that boat? In 2018? What the actual fuck are you talking about?

So I've been trying to get my rights back to my book, which they haven't been willing to give me. Well, let's say there's been a lot of excuses like this person's on maternity, this person's on maternity, this person's not in the office. And then the whole BLM movement blows up. And then suddenly I've got my extra 3,000 followers overnight, and everyone's like buying Black. And then suddenly the publisher wants to reprint my book, and it's like, oh, you son of a bitch.

But anyway, in the meantime. We have lots of new African food businesses. Some of which have been kind enough to reference me as an inspiration for what they've done. So you've got you we have Jollof Box, we have Nim’s Din with her Cham Cham from Sierra Leone. We have Little Baobab, who's got a cookbook coming out soon. Chuku’s, which is in London, has just opened a restaurant in North London and Tottenham. They do Nigerian tapas. We have Akoko, which is fine dining opening October which has been delayed from April this year. We have Stork in Mayfair. And obviously we have Ikoyi, but they want to distance themselves for whatever reasons they have from West African, being labeled West African food, but inherently it is and, and hundreds, hundreds of street food vendors, supper clubs, private dining, and food writers, food bloggers. 

We have seen a huge change in how at least the cuisine is represented in terms of the number of people representing it. We still have a long way to go in terms of how it’s represented in the media visually, whether it's online or on TV, but also in print. And we still have the problem where there's only space for one Black face at a time, and there's only room for one conversation around African food at a time, even though it's a continent that has 54 countries. 

There's still lots to do. But we have made huge progress. And I have seen that progress translate to the States. I think there's a whole other conversation there around the relationship with slave history, and slave culture and the food. That is the origin story of so much of the food of the South. And I think that's a complicated thing to unpack, but I think that there's definitely been, in the last 10 years, a movement of voices, whether they're chefs or writers in food, who are making the connection between the African American food experience and the origin point of all of that and that is leading to great new concepts. 

There’s cooks, people like Kurt Cooks; Yewande [Komolafe] is doing great things; she's a great friend of mine as well. And I mean, I could list lots of chefs, Kwame [Onwuachi]. There's lots more chefs who have gained traction and profile around their cuisine, and they are majority Nigerian. And I don't know if that speaks to the fact that, especially the East Coast has a larger population of Nigerians than does Ghanians.

Maybe that is why it's gaining some traction, because there must be a lot of immigrants from those communities there to have the relationship with it in the first place, I suppose. Whereas we have a huge community of Nigeria and Ghanian people in Britain, probably in equal measure, whereas perhaps maybe on the East Coast, there's more Nigerians. 

Eric Adjepong from Ghana, he's not based in New York, I think, but he's certainly been a huge profile builder for Ghana in the States. I'm hoping he does all the work that I've done over here so that like when I get there I don’t have to explain to anybody where Ghana is.

Alicia: It's fascinating for me because I'm in Puerto Rico right now. And for me, in the cuisine here the African influence is so obvious, you know, and not in a way that it's been sort of translated through the food of the American South, like because the climate is the same, the food, the ingredients are so much the same. And that influence is so, so strong and it's obviously it's combined with Spanish influence from that colonization. But it's interesting because I feel so distant from whatever is happening in the United States around food right now, because I'm not there. And so I'm watching this and I'm like, Oh, wow. How is this happening? I mean, as you noted, it's like there's this push right now where people are like, Oh, follow all these Black people in food, buy their books. And it’s a bit… I've talked a bit about this with another friend whose magazine has seen this kind of bump from this moment, and it's a complicated thing to deal with. It's absolutely and so how I feel like... did you launch Black Book, the kind of conversation series you're doing on Instagram, as kind of a way of discussing how this moment is very complicated?

Zoe: Well, the answer to that is also a little bit … not complicated, but it's actually a bit longer than that. The Black Book has been on my mind as an important thing that needs to happen for a couple of years. And I'll tell you, when I've worked in New York...  my wife's from New York, so I spend quite a lot of time in New York, and I've been lucky enough to work there. I've been lucky enough to meet some amazing inspirational voices in food. And when I became part of or saw what Black Food Folks was, honestly, my jaw dropped. I was like, What the fuck is this? Everybody in this room works in F&B, and they're Black. And there's no hierarchy in this room, right? We're just all there because we are all Black, and we are all working in this industry. And it's really easy to have a conversation with anybody in this room. And I was blown away by that, because nothing like that exists in the UK. And ever since that, I've been like, how do I make that happen? Like, how do I make that happen here? But I was still trying to run my other businesses in this chaotic, horrible, messy way. So this wasn't a priority there. But when I just got back from New York, recently, in February… I was having this big... as a result of COVID, as a result of lots of personal development and growth I've been doing in actually shifting my perspective on vision and purpose and stuff. 

And so really the Black Book is born out of that experience of being in America and seeing the power of connectedness between a community. So back in February, March, I emailed two friends of mine—I've been having these conversations for years. This is the other thing that's very frustrating, is I've literally been one of the few voices criticizing publicly or having these conversations with people about inherent systemic racism and how and why our voices are controlled and limited and how we're not paid properly. 

So at the start of COVID, I reached out to these people and said look, I want to start Black Book, here's the vision. This is what I want it to be. And we’d been working towards that. And then the BLM thing happened. And then in the UK, the wave of the movement. And then suddenly all these people were wanting me to speak on panels. And I was like, wait, wait, wait, no, you've got this all wrong, you don't get to host this conversation. You don't get to tell me what's important to me, or what needs changing because you've got no fucking idea, you know? 

So I just contacted as many people... I just said, we need to talk about this meaningfully, and it actually, it needs to be a global conversation. And it needs to have the voices in it who've been having this conversation for years, because we need to get past this question of whether or not there's a problem because of course, there's a fucking problem. The next part of the question is, How deep is it? And how do we unpack it? And do we bother unpacking it or do we just let them carry on with it and we start our own versions? 

The food industry is so big—it's bigger than hospitality. There's so much to discuss. And there's so much to unpack, it's like, you can't do it in one panel. So that's why the Black Book series was born, decolonizing the food industry, is because I wanted us to take control of the conversation, and also not wait for them to have the right conversations, and not wait for them to come up with the solutions that would only just suit them. So that's the point of the Black Book series of talks. It's eight weeks at the moment, but I can see it probably extending, because there is so much to talk about on so many different topics. I've been lucky to get some amazing, amazing voices on the panels, and the first one last Sunday was great, very energetic, and ultimately very positive, because what we also want to do is give people hope that there is space for Blackness in F&B and hospitality. Whether it's in the existing institutions or not is another question. But everybody should be hopeful in this moment, because there is so much for us to look forward to if we've got the right glasses on, you know what I mean? 

Alicia: Absolutely. And what made you what the specific topics that you guys are talking about over these eight weeks? How did you decide on what they would be?

Zoe: The honest answer to that is in about 30 seconds, I just went—off the top of my head, what are the eight most important things? I said, guys, can you work up these headline topics a little bit, like give me a paragraph as to what this conversation looks like? And that was it. That's how it started.

Alicia: Amazing. Yeah. I always say this, that the best things start from nothing, you know, the best things start from just dumping your brain.

Zoe: I think it's true, because I've been saying this a lot recently, because the vision for Black Book is so big—and I don't think I've explained it adequately. So let me just do that for a minute.

So Black Book, the vision for Black Book is to be a global representation platform for Black and anybody who doesn't identify as white, right? So some people, I don’t know why they get hurt by this phrase non-white. If you’re not white, then you’re not white, and that's the end of it. I feel okay about non-white, but have it your way. Ultimately, it's about creating, inspiring, and empowering people, and giving them the tools to represent themselves in a way that gives them the tools to fulfill their dreams the way that they want those dreams to unfold, rather than going down the wrong rabbit hole and seeking the wrong kind of attention in the wrong kind of press because the way the system is currently works… it has its own kind of modality and its own rhythm. 

Publishers are like, okay, we've got a cookbook, it has to go into the Times and The Telegraph and so on. And it’s like, is my book suitable, actually? Is that the right space for this book? No, it really fucking isn’t. I know that, but trying to tell the man at the top is another story. What we need to do is understand where we want to be, be connected to the right people to help us get there, but the extra piece of it in its essence isn't agency, but it wants to be a little bit more than that, because it wants to plug in the need for self-care, self-empowerment. I wanted to give people tools to navigate a white space and industry. 

It wants to give people the connections they need for the things that they want to get done. Mentorship, training, funding in some respects, and to do it or to do it in a more holistic kind of way rather than just being like, okay, I've signed you up, you go for the next five years, build your career, and when you start earning money, I'll take 20 percent of what comes into your inbox, you know what I mean? Which is majority of the time my experience of how an agent treats you and your talent. They just wait for you to do the work, and they try and cling onto it.

It's an antidote to all of that. And it wants to give people across the world a platform or voice for whoever wants to build their businesses how they want to do it, or their brands, if they’re writers or whatever they are. It wants to create equity in the food and beverage industry and also wealth creation. This makes sure people are earning the appropriate amount of money for the amount of work they're doing, because for so many years, I have literally almost killed myself working for other people's interests for nothing. Not getting anything out of it, apart from what they would like to call exposure in entirely the wrong media, in entirely the wrong space. That's what the big vision is for Black Book, a global representation platform for anybody working in F&B.

Alicia: That's great. And not to kind of pivot back to your book, and to food, more literally. But in the notes section of your book, you mention sourcing ingredient ingredients responsibly. And that's not a thing that anyone says in a book that comes out in the United States. In a cookbook from the United States, no one talks about where the food comes from. That's not a thing that anyone talks about in the States. There was kind of a moment maybe in the maybe 10 years ago when that could have been a thing, but it's very alienating to a U.S. audience to ask them to care where their food comes from. But I've noticed it's more of a thing in the UK, like, from the cookbooks I've read, which I have…. I have like a million British cookbooks on my desk right now. I don't know why—I don't know how it happened. But why was it important for you to make that statement? And how does it affect your food choices in your day-to-day life, and in your work as a cook?

Z: Inherently, I am a human who values the planet, right? So if we consider ourselves humans that value the planet, then we have to be thinking sustainably around most things we do every day. What I am aware of is that definitely something I don't want to do is be preaching at people, you have to buy organic, you have to do this, and you're not a good human if you're not spending 20 pounds on your eggs. This actually really winds me up, because people are priced out of sustainability and they're priced out of healthy choices because of  idiotic marketing around it. And, you know, I love that you've got a new book coming out, haven't you?

Alicia: I do. Yes.

Zoe: I love the topic, and I love the title because you’re right. Anyway, let's go back. I try to practice sustainability as best I can every day. And sometimes it’s macro choices, sometimes it's micro choices. When it comes to my everyday cooking, like Sarah and I—she's keto. So her protein usually comes from a meat source or a fish source. But we only eat meat or fish maybe two or three times a week, and that's because we want to be buying the right sustainably-sourced meat or fish proteins. And that's a responsibility to the environment that we think is important. We don't eat loads of meat and fish.  

If I put loads of meat or fish on my menu when I'm cooking, it means that the price will reflect the fact that it is sustainably sourced and organic, and that is problematic for a lot of people, because they're people think they want to be woke, and into sustainability and the environment, but then they don't necessarily want to pay the price of what that actually costs when it comes to a supper club or a restaurant. So it's challenging. I have something to say as well about how we can work harder to bring the cost down of organic and free range and stuff like that. Because there's lots governments could do in terms of subsidies and legislation against existing farming practices, and just make everybody fucking do the same thing the same right way and subsidize it and then we're all good. 

I'm certainly not there to preach at people about their spending choices around food. I grew up eating out of tin cans. I'm not saying I was poor on the street, I'm just saying, tinned food wasn't uncommon in my house growing up, frozen meals and ready meals. I'm not a snob around any of that stuff. But I certainly see the value in amazing fresh ingredients. And I see the value in the better flavor that you get from good sustainably sourced ingredients, full stop, whether it's vegetables, proteins, legumes, lentils, grains—whatever the ingredient is, it's always going to taste a little bit better if it's sustainably sourced, sustainably farmed. All sustainably means, really, is with love, right? Instead of for money. Instead of capitalism being the sole driving force behind the production of food.  

That’s in there because I care about it. But also I don't want to labor the point too much. Also, a lot of these ingredients are coming from the continent of Africa, and there is an environmental impact there. I choose to make these other choices around not using single-use impact plastics or using cleaning things that are better for the environment than what I used to use. Nobody's perfect, so you have to make compromises. 

It’s—okay, if I want to eat really good quality meat, then I'm only gonna eat it once a week. If I want to be importing ingredients from Ghana, well, then I should be a bit more mindful about how many times I put the kettle on, how many times I flush the toilet in a day. Whether I'm using eco- or some other environmentally friendly products. If I'm using cling film or not, which we don't anymore. I try to make the choices that I'm comfortable with, because I know that me and my business are essentially adding carbon. Even things like using the browser I use, Ecosia every time I do a search on Ecosia, they plant a tree. My conscience is balanced in those ways. I think it's up to everybody to find their own conscious balance in a way that's affordable for them. 

But I am really, really annoyed and frustrated by the marketing around healthy food and veganism, actually, and just the barriers to entry that are put over people who don't have high disposable income. They're kind of marketed out of and priced out of healthy choices around food, which is probably a campaign I might take up at some point later. Maybe not this year, but maybe next year. 

Alicia: Yeah, no, that's why I'm... my book will be about these things, sort of about how all these choices that get pushed on us as individual are actually structural, and the price of things that you know, meat isn't cheaper then vegetables, inherently, it's because of the subsidies. My book is about veganism, but it's more about how to diversify the way you eat in a way that recognizes all these forces that are crushing your ability to make good choices, to make better choices for the world. And to show that yeah, it's not a rich person's thing. Eating well and eating sustainably is not just for rich people.

Zoe: Exactly. I don’t know if I’ve already spoken on this or not, but Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen as a business is pivoting now… I hate the word pivoting, because we were doing it anyway, but I wanted to change the brand a little bit to make it more focused around accessibility. For one, there are a lot of people who don't want to do the work of just googling where to find an ingredient. But then there's the problem of okay, I'm interested in that ingredient. I didn't want to pay 25 pounds for a kilo of it from that posh health food store, because what if I don't like it? 

Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen now is basically transforming into an e-shop, basically, for interesting, healthy, African, not just West African ingredients, whether it's your maringas and your baobabs or grains of paradise. And the beautiful thing about this food is every single thing has an amazing health property behind it, and not just one, probably like four or five, six or seven, right? What I get to do now is bring African food to the masses, but do it through an e-shop that's also going to give people access to healthy ingredients in small quantities and affordable quantities with guidance on how to use them or apply them. That's where we're going. Basically, your health is your wealth, and you can achieve this. You don't have to only shop at Holland and Barrett, you don't have to go to Whole Foods. Here's some nice choices you can make that happen to be exciting flavors in your kitchen, but also have these amazing properties behind them as well. That's where the business is going long term, and more away from catering. Definitely away from street food. I'm done with that.

Alicia: Is there Whole Foods in the UK? 

Zoe: Yeah, yeah. 

Alicia: I didn't know that they made.., I don't know where Whole Foods is and that anymore. I thought it was just a U.S. thing.

Zoe: Here’s the thing. You can tell, the people who shopped at Whole Foods… it's like there's some cachet around it, you know? There shouldn't be cachet around buying healthy food, it should just be, everybody has access to this food. Like the whole caged hen thing. Why are we still doing caged hens? Like, why? Why, why, why? I want to ask the people in agriculture at the ministerial level, why haven't you not just banned caged hens? We know it makes bad products, we know it's bad for the hens. And it's probably not that great for the environment somewhere along the line. So why are we doing it? Just give everybody nice, good quality, organic, free-range eggs. That's a big bugbear of mine, how health is marketed mainly to white people, mainly to middle-class white people. And it assumes that nobody else is interested. And it prices out anybody else who might be. I'm over that as well.

Alicia: Absolutely. No, I love talking to Bryant Terry, because he is so vocal about being like, people think veganism is a white thing. But he grew up in Tennessee, where also people think veganism doesn't exist. And it was Black folks who were the people who taught him about plant-based eating and that lineage is so important. And it gets erased because it serves a purpose, of course. 

Zoe: There's so many reasons why I wanted to start. When I figured out the reasons why Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen existed, there were so many reasons why it needed to exist. And part of it was this…. I grew up in the ’80s, watching this narrative come out of Africa—that there was poverty, it was famine, it was destroying itself, imploding, dictators. That was the media description of what was going on in Africa for me. And you know, compare and contrast with my delicious kenkey, and my tilapia, and my shito, and I'm like, what is going on? There must be some other stuff happening here. And so, you know, it's all about the gaze, and how they want to position it, and how they want to keep the power. 

The other part is people thinking that African food is bush meat, and it's all like, fatty, greasy. People were looking down their nose at that cuisine. My menu, before veganism became fashionable, before plant based became fashionable—that's what my menu was. I didn't even realize. It was gluten free. It was dairy free. I had probably 80 percent of the menu was vegan and plant-based. And you would have a meat dish, you would have a fish dish and maybe you'd have one more. I had my fried chicken, you always got to keep fried chicken on the menu. But the majority of it was plant-based and like, I've kind of missed a trick by not capitalizing on that sooner. I certainly would have made some bang for my buck then. But it wasn't in my marketing concerns because it just inherently this was it, you know? Fixing those stereotypes, or addressing them anyway, is super important and yeah, we live off of plant-based diets, because me actually is a luxury in some part of the world. 

Alicia: People don't understand that. And so during the pandemic, not to use the word pivoted again, but you were providing—are you still doing this? You're providing meals to NHS workers from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen? 

Zoe: Well, I set up a community kitchen via public donations from crowd-funder, and that was to specifically help vulnerable people in the community around me in East London. So I’ve been working with like Hackney Migrants’ Center, Across The UK, which is a West African at-risk migrants center—lots of little organizations, basically, whether they were elderly people or people in sheltered accommodation, or homeless, or had health underlying health conditions. I work with all these little small groups to get food to those people. And then on top of that, we were also providing meals for NHS key workers and staff, and also care homes. So yeah, we were doing about 500 meals a week in the end, which is kind of incredible because I only set it up to do 150 meals a week. 

But we're not doing NHS meals anymore, as of this week. And the crowd-funder, to be honest, has kind of lost its momentum and stuff like that. But I've also decided I can live my purpose by running a community kitchen, or I can live my purpose by doing the bigger work. So I decided not to extend it very much. So what I am going to do is I'm going to continue to provide meals for the at-risk migrants, because they are my community. And the numbers are small enough for me to be able to pay out of my own pocket. So we're going to carry that on. But like the big 500 meals a week stuff—this is the first week where I'm not doing that, actually. And it's really nice, in a way. I hate to say it. 

But it's been a very rewarding thing to do. I've grown tremendously from it. I stepped into my myself a lot more during the process of doing that scene, I had to make myself super vulnerable by asking people for help, and that really isn't me. That's not what I've done historically, I'm a strong Black woman. I learned so much, and I met some amazing people along the way and obviously, we've done good work, feeding people. It's been hugely rewarding. That's scaling right back now so that I can focus on Black Book, focus on writing, focus on the spice business. There's so much more going to happen.

Alicia: So for you is cooking a political act?

Zoe: Yeah. Yes, it always has been for me, and you can define your politics another way. I mean, it's cooking at home political for me? Hmm… also, probably, because of the choices I make when I make my purchases around food, right? They're politically informed. They're made with a consciousness around food politics, around sustainability. But I don't always want to talk about politics when I’m eating. 

So politics is informing my choices around food, but me cooking, me representing Ghanian flavors, or West Africa, or Africa in any context when it comes to food—and whether that's me on a panel, whether that's me giving a demo, whether that's me hosting a soccer club or a residency, whatever the space is—that is political, because I'm challenging people to interact with a culture that's perhaps, for some people, unfamiliar to them. Or I'm challenging people to interact with a culture in a new way that's familiar to them. And that's going to challenge all their concepts of what is traditional, who’s allowed to cook what, cultural appropriation, and so on. 

If you're from a place that's considered other, and if you yourself are a representation or have been made to be a representation of other, then everything you do is political in the end, because you're a living, breathing, walking… I nearly went so dramatic and said bill of rights, but that’s too much. But you're basically like a manifesto in flow, right? So every exchange you have around food, every meal you cook, you're prepared for the conversation that's either an interrogation of the thing, or an introduction to the thing or an education of the thing. There's always some political moment around the food, even when it's a positive, bringing people together over food, there's politics in that as well. Why do we need the food to bring those people together? Because there was some political thing keeping them apart. So I think inherently when you are what other people call other, politics is that part of my fabric.

Alicia: Thank you so much for taking the time.

Zoe: Oh, absolute pleasure. You know I love to talk, babe. If there was a job where I could just be on back-to-back podcasts… 

Alicia: I mean, there are so many podcasts. I feel like I now—I have to say no to people lately. I'm like, I can't... I can't, because for me, I'm like, I don't actually enjoy talking that much. Like, I like writing. So I'm like, doing this is just like… stressful. 

Zoe: We do need… I mean, I know there's a lot out there but we need to have a lot out there so that people can hear. So thank you. 

Alicia: Thank you.