I would give up all the modern equipment in a contemporary kitchen for a couple of green sticks, a good fire, and a brace of locally caught rabbits, or “sho shoi” as they are called in Romani.
Photo via Flickr user Desirae
We all look to our family and the past to find meaning in the present. I am no different. As a professional chef, I am drawn more and more to my roots and the culture of my ancestors. The stories and traditions of my family weave in and out of the food I create, and the way I teach others about cooking.
In food circles today, the word "heritage" features heavily in terms of ingredients, techniques and dishes, but I am talking about my personal, family heritage.
My grandad's mother was a Welsh Romani Gypsy who journeyed from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales to Birmingham, England. There, she married, started a family and "settled in bricks," to use the proper phrase. She left the road, and moved into a one-up-one-down tenement house: and so Grandad John's life began. Against adversity and poverty, he survived—unlike some of his siblings—to become a great man in so many ways.
When I decided to start out on the path and branded myself as a "Gypsy Chef," I came up against strong prejudice. People laughed at me and called me a "pikey," asking if I was going to start eating roadkill. People who I saw as friends or valued co-workers would start ranting about Romanians and "dirty gypsies," all small-minded trash-talk from tabloid newspapers.
It couldn't be further from the truth about Romanies and their culture. They would get very confused when I told them that I don't now live in the Romani community, but that it is still my ancestral heritage and something I want to explore and celebrate.
Sadly, due to a certain Channel 4 TV franchise, no one wanted to know about true Romani culture or the rich and colourful world of their food. And so, after much soul-seeking, I stopped trying to tell people my story as I thought no one wanted to hear it. At least not in the way I wanted to tell it.
When I decided to start out on the path and branded myself as a 'Gypsy Chef,' I came up against strong prejudice. People laughed at me and called me a 'pikey,' asking if I was going to start eating roadkill.
But as a child, my favourite stories were the ones about my family and my favourite storyteller was John. I would sit for hours listening to stories of when he was a child and stories he'd heard from his mother. Just as he kept her stories alive, I am doing the same in my practice as a chef. These stories are bound up with the way I cook, and the stories that surround ingredients, dishes and cultures are what keep me endlessly fascinated by food.
Grandad John was the most resourceful person I have known; able to make anything with limited tools and time, never needing to measure anything, just using his eye. And if I think about it, the times when I am left with limited ingredients or have to rely on my intuition as a chef, are when I'm at my best. Kitchens are tough places to work and I have had to draw on my inner resources to pursue the career I love.
One of my strongest memories as a kid is making bubble and squeak with John on a Monday morning with the leftovers from Sunday lunch. The smell of potato and cabbage combined with bacon never ceases to give me goosebumps. John was a great believer in "waste not want not," something that came not only from his experience of the Depression in the 1930s, or the army during the Second World War, but his Romani background.
As a chef, I am equally committed to the cause. Seasonality and sustainability are key in my cooking and I still love using up leftovers in the kitchen at home and making sure to use as much of an ingredient as I can in the professional kitchen. I spent some time with a famous Romani family in Kent named the Brazils. It came as a surprise to find that we were related. As they explained our shared genealogy, I looked at them and saw Grandad John and his brothers, all different shapes and sizes, but all with the same dark skin and the thick-set nose they had inherited from their mother.
They invited me there to cook for them. I took a couple of rabbits, some smoked bacon, a variety of seasonal vegetables, and a large loaf of pumpkin bread I had made the day before. They built a fire, set up an old cast-iron grate to cook on, and we sat and talked while eating simple Romani food: spitted rabbit and Joe Grey stew, which contains tomatoes and bacon and big chunks of bread to mop up the smokey juices.
After the food, I brewed some tea I had made with fennel seeds, camomile, dried nettles, and a good amount of sugar. They all said that even though I had added a few herbs they wouldn't have used, it all tasted kushti, and took them back to when they were kids. I felt truly at home and close to my roots in a way that I had never experienced before.
Because of Grandad John, food and family have always been inextricably fused in my mind. Big Sunday lunches at my grandparents' house when I was a child saw him at his absolute best. It gave John great pleasure to provide for his family and the best excuse to tell us stories. The ceremony of food and coming together at the end of the day to eat, warm yourself by the campfire, and tell a story or two is, of course, a linchpin of Romani culture.
When I became a professional chef over ten years ago, I started out with the aim of working in the biggest and best Michelin-starred restaurants. I was head chef at a gastro pub and worked at the OXO Tower, but as I developed, I realised that food grounded in my heritage—and all that brings with it—is where my culinary destiny lies. It seems serendipitous that I now find myself working at Caravan restaurant in Exmouth Market, London.
One large pot over the communal fire, stewing an inexpensive piece of meat with a selection of seasonal vegetables and some choice spices, served with homemade bread to clean the plate is my idea of perfection. I would give up all the modern equipment in a contemporary kitchen for a couple of green sticks, a good fire, a brace of locally caught rabbits (or "shoi shoi" as they are called in Romani) and some foraged produce. In many ways, Romani culture points the way to better, cleaner and healthier eating.
Grandad John is my hero, and my heritage underpins what I do as a chef. With these two as my guide, I have learned to tell my story with ingredients as my words and plates and pans as my paper.