Pop Up People: Zoe Adjonyoh (Zoe's Ghana Kitchen)
By Laura Martin
It's hard to resist an invitation that reads: "big plates, big sharing, big fun", as The Ghana Vista Social Club's does. It's a new supperclub series that launched a few weeks ago and is hosted by the talented cook Zoe Adjonyoh, of Zoe's Ghana Kitchen, in her Hackney Wick home. Zoe's been building a name for herself on the foodie scene since 2010 by showcasing the best of Ghanaian food across her ever-expanding pop-ups, street food stalls and event catering appearances. Her traditional West African cuisine has fed hungry punters everywhere from Bestival to Berlin, but the most important thing that keeps the regulars coming back (aside from the food) is the party vibe, as everyone piles in around the same table, gets stuck into a feast and gets a little merrier until they're all friends. Now that's how you throw a dinner party. I spoke with Zoe just a few days before the next event and got the lowdown on what goes on in her kitchen.
Zoe's Ghana Kitchen has become incredibly popular since you started four years ago. Have you been working to some sort of masterplan this whole time?
To be honest, this has all happened by accident – no, it really has! I had no ambitions to be a chef or cook or run a catering company.
What went wrong, then?
It happened because in 2010 me and my girlfriend at the time moved into this space in Hackney Wick which was a bit of a shell, it didn't have a kitchen or anything. Three days later it was Hackney Wicked festival and she was using the place as a gallery space for her video work. This was five years ago and there really wasn't that much going on in Hackney Wick.The only people who were here were the artists and the only place to be able to get food was The Counter Cafe, so I saw an opportunity, I borrowed a mini Belling hob and put it on a table outside our door and my friend made me a sign that said “Zoe's Peanut Butter Stew” – which at the time, was pretty much the only thing I cooked from my childhood and it was my favourite food. So I cooked up a pot of that, fried up some plantain and the smell drew people in. It went really well, we kept selling out and people were saying: “You should do this more often”.
Did you take their advice?
I was freelancing the time, so I didn't do anything until the following year, when it was Hackney Wicked again. I said: “Let's do a pop up restaurant here as it will be a fun thing to do”. So we borrowed and made loads of tables and chairs and people came and thought it was an actual restaurant. We were busy solidly for thre days and sold out of everything. I started collecting email addresses, then it became something I did every few months and it just grew from there. Then the supperclubs increased and I was being asked to do lots of other events. When I got back from Berlin, I organised the next one, then Diesel hired me to do a project with [African-focused fashion brand] Edun then after that, it became a full-time business.
You host regular supperclubs in Berlin while living in Hackney – how did that come about?
Two years ago I was doing an MA at Goldsmiths in creative writing and some friends and I took the summer off to write. So we travelled around Europe and stopped off in Berlin. I was meant to be staying there for a couple of weeks but I ended up staying a couple of months because I loved it so month. People kept saying to me: “What do you do?” and I said: “Sometimes I do supper clubs and pop-ups” and nobody really understood what that was – it was quite a new idea over there. Then, I was running out of money at the time and I thought: “Why not give it a go out here?”
How did you go about setting up a supperclub in a city you weren't living in permanently?
A girl I met there lent me her apartment and we borrowed tables and chairs. Every bar I went in to, I told people about it. And it turned out to be really busy and one of the people who came used to be the editor for Tip Berlin, which is like their version of Time Out and she did a write up of it. The write up came out the day after I came back to London and I had about 40 emails from people saying: “When's the next one?”. I was like, “Amazing!” So I set up the next one and I've been going back ever since. Markthalle Neun had just started when I was out there – that whole scene was just kicking off, so it was definitely a case of good timing.
Would you recommend it as a good way of getting started?
I love that it all came about by chance. I've met people who ask me: “How did you start?”, and some people come at it the wrong way, like, “How am I going to make money doing this?” and I don't think that's the best approach. I love that it's grown organically.
How many supperclubs are you hosting a year now?
I average once a month here [her Hackney home], then we also do street food, markets, festivals, residencies, private catering, corporate events...I cook every day, basically.
What the biggest and best party you've catered for?
There was a fundraiser for a charity called Many Hopes, a Kenyan charity and they asked for the most extravagant amount of food – like on the scale of a wedding. So I did canapes, then a street food service then a three-course sit down dinner, then food at the end of the night for 200 people. It's the biggest party we've done.
How would you describe Ghanaian food to someone who's never tried it?
For me it's like the feeling of coming home after a long journey. It's very wholesome and hearty without being fatty or unhealthy. Most of what I cook is vegan, but there's always a meat dish plus loads of pulses, it's gluten-free, there's no crappy ingredients, it's all natural, organic stuff.
What would you say is your signature dish?
It's got to be the peanut butter stew.
What are the other popular ones?
There's a particular spice mix I use for jollof but I also use that spice mix to marinate the chicken and people love that. Also lamb in spinach and egusi – a ground nut seed, so it's a dryish stew but has a really unique colour and taste and people are always like, “What is that?”
African dining seems to be underrepresented in the food scene – do you like being able to highlight a cuisine that might be new to a lot of people?
That's why I love this – getting to share that aspect of my culture and surprise people with how tasty it is. When I first started, it was pleasing how many people liked what I was cooking but I had a very small repertoire at the time. I learnt new things really quickly so that was a nice journey for me. It's been a great part of what I do to show a side of African culture that isn't all pot-bellied starving children. I want to show 'this is the food, it's amazing', 'this is the music that goes with the food', 'this is the colour and fabric and social eating vibes'. The whole experience is tailored to show different aspects of the culture.
What do your family make of your cooking?
My dad loves it – he laughs a lot when he thinks about what I do, he thinks it's really funny. When he eats I watch him...Sometimes there's a tone of surprise - “this is really good!”
Do you get over to Ghana much for inspiration?
I went last year and I'm hoping to go early next year too. I went last June and that was great because I was connecting with family I haven't seen for a very long time. They asked me to cook as a bit of a test. I spent every day bullying people into teaching me something to cook because they kept trying to feed me Western food, so I had a real fight and would say: “I don't want to eat that, I want to eat what you're eating”. So I would go with my aunt to the market and we'd pick ingredients to cook that night and she would show me stuff and I would get involved. I was keeping a food diary the whole time I was there, I was videoing everything. One night they challenged me to cook peanut butter stew, but when my aunt made it she put in ground snails and crabs and all sorts of ingredients that I would not put in to mine normally. I made it for them and they were surprised. They were impressed that I could do it as I'm “not from Ghana” - they think of me as being English, so they're surprised I can cook. I think I got the seal of approval.
What's your plans for next year? It sounds like you could get a great cookery book out of your trip to Ghana.
I'm talking to some people about various projects, but it's in the plan to do some sort of cookery book, but it will be multi-layered and multi-media with an online version. Hopefully someone will pick it up for a hardback in the future. My other focus for next year is residencies. My long term plan is to open somewhere small at he end of next year – touch lots of wood.
Finally, we're creeping into a dreary winter. What's your ultimate comfort food to cook up for yourself?
I like to cook a big stew, maybe Irish as I'm half Irish, or something like a creamy mash with sausages.
Mini Mashed Yam Balls in a Golden Gari Crust with Scotch Bonnet Salsa
Nkatenkwan - slow cooked mutton in a gently spiced peanut butter stew
Nkatenkwan - with roasted butterneut squash and garden egg
OMO TUO - Mashed rice balls
Tatale - Plantain Pancakes
Aboboi - Cow Pea Stew
Tickets cost £35 from here and the next two events are on December 5 and a special Christmas feast on the 19.