Supper Clubs in the Big Smoke
African pop-up restaurants burst onto London’s food scene.
Over the last half-decade or so, London has seen hundreds of “pop-up” restaurants blossom across its landscape — temporary dining establishments that might also frequently change locations. Offering everything from gluten-free supper clubs and theatrical banquets in art galleries to secret literary dinners in private homes, these quirky culinary experiences are spicing up London’s dining scene and gathering devoted followers.
Whatever the theme, the menus at such events are produced by chefs (whether amateur, professional or Michelin-starred) whose palates range from Italian to Modern British to Malaysian. But until 2011, African pop-ups have been rare here.
The reason probably lies somewhere in the fact that communal dining is nothing new in African social life, with food usually being the focal point of any event that brings extended families together. But adding an enterprising element might just be the trick to draw African cuisine into some of the culinary conversations between restaurant diners and critics alike.
Enter the Groundnut and Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen — two pop-up enterprises that are now putting African food firmly on the London map.
What these particular pop-ups are doing is twofold: They’re highlighting some of the flavors of a diverse continent, and they’re also illustrating the fact that African cuisine is just as varied as the many countries and regions from which it springs.
The Groundnut launched in late 2011 as a creative project founded by three 20-something chefs. Today, Folayemi Brown, Duval Timothy and Jacob Fodio Todd host their monthly pop-up at Enclave Projects, an artist-run space in south London. Their goal is that the atmosphere would be as much about a lifestyle as it is a dining experience.
The trio’s mixed heritage strongly influences Groundnut’s changing menu: Afro-European fusion, with Nigerian, Southern African, Ghanaian and Ethiopian flavors running through. The events are very much a Facebook and word-of-mouth phenomenon, with bookings taken on the pop-up’s website at a reasonable rate of roughly US$20 per person.
On each Groundnut night, three sets of hour-long seatings are well choreographed. Multiple hands reach out for platters spread atop communal tables, which might include generously sliced chunks of sea bream, each cooked with a crisp skin and a moist but firm center. Dexterously rolled portions of homemade injera (an Ethiopian sourdough pancake) are used to mop up the predominantly hand-eaten food, which can be optionally spiced with shito, a Ghanaian fish sauce with a chili-oil base.
There’s an experimental edge to the menu, with a convivial crowd of up to 30 diners eager to try each dish. Despite the African flair to the main options, the desserts are fairly globally focused and ultimately aimed at cleansing the palate. Large bowls of dates and shot glasses of fresh melon-and-ginger juice, for example, provide a perfect end to the meal. As the night winds down, the event becomes more of a private lock-in, with the chef-owners kicking back and sharing bottles of wine with old and new friends alike.
A similar atmosphere of sociability exists over in East London, where Zoe Adjonyoh is the industrious chef and founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Hers is a thoroughly modern Ghanaian affair — from the dishes served and the event’s rapidly growing audience, to the puns used to market her pop-up sessions on Facebook, Twitter and the ZGK site (“It’s Ghana be huge,” “It’s Ghana be tasty” and “Ghana stand up”).
What essentially started out as a one-off stall at an outdoor arts festival has since turned into monthly four-hour dining experiences with a party atmosphere. It’s this celebratory vibe and a sense of getting to know Ghana that has, like The Groundnut, created a broad word-of-mouth following from event to event.
Since kicking off her venture in 2011, Zoe has established lucrative London partnerships, including one as part of Diesel clothing’s Studio Africa campaign, highlighting the continent’s creative talent. More recently, Zoe has added a second monthly event, in Berlin.
Zoe hosts her U.K. meal at the 40-person-capacity Studio Gi, with prices ranging from roughly $15 to $40 a head depending on the size of the menu. Events often feature mass Ghanaian Azonto dancing and sociable table-hopping, with conviviality being a huge part of the ethos.
Zoe’s ever-changing menu serves up a mixture of contemporary and traditional homemade dishes based on meals from her childhood, such as nkatenkwan — peanut-butter stew with slow-cooked lamb. A comforting delight, it’s infused with fiery scotch bonnet peppers, which offset the creamy nuttiness of the melting meat. Her “bites,” or finger foods, are pretty special too: mashed yam balls (a compact combination of deep fried yam and potato), as well as hot platters of sweet fried plantains and barbecued suya kebabs (a Nigerian influence).
The Groundnut and ZGK share a mutual respect for each other, as well as a philosophy to promote a fun, heartfelt entrée into African culture for a broad audience. “London is a gold mine for great food,” Zoe says, admitting that the competition keeps her on her toes. “I embrace any new pop-ups bringing forward new food ideas and concepts, especially anything from the African continent.”
It’s this type of thinking that is ultimately helping these two pop-ups to successfully usher African food into London’s culinary fold. It may be nothing to sample French, Asian and other successfully marketed international cuisines throughout the capital, but now — as palates are introduced to everything fromwats(spicy Ethiopian stews) towaakye (Ghanaian rice and beans) — an African food movement has begun.