Being one of five girls, my mum insisted I learn how to cook if I wanted a man to marry me! I’m Ghanaian, but grew up in East Africa, cooking Ethiopian, Ugandan and Kenyan food for my siblings. I’ve been cooking for my family forever! Says Adwoa Hagan-Mensah, founder of Eat Jollof London.
When did you start cooking for others?
At university, I cooked for friends who really liked my food. Rather than getting a traditional part-time job, I created flyers with menus and posted them around university. I got orders really quickly, then started cooking and delivering classic student meals, like lasagne. As popularity increased I introduced some Ghanaian dishes and people ordered them too, they became best sellers!
Did you study a food related degree?
I went to boarding school in Bath, England, but left without any qualifications. I felt terrible, letting my parents down after they invested so much in my education. Anyway, I managed to go through clearing and get onto a Hospitality and Management course. I then converted to a Business Management degree and found out after being tested, that I was dyslexic.
Our food is delicious and beautifully garnished.
Did you go straight into the food industry after university?
I actually went into recruitment, but didn’t enjoy it. So, I quit that job and started a Ghanaian street food stall in what is now a very popular food hub, Broadway Market (with my boyfriend, now husband) in Hackney East London. This was 15 years ago when there was no buzz around West African food in London!
Was it hard to get customers when you first started the street food stall?
No. We got our first wedding client, a Scottish couple from our street food stall, which was called Jollof Pot at the time (renamed as Spinach & Agushi). The demographic of our customers then was about 70% white European.
Our African and Caribbean customers used to come along to the stall and ask, “do [white] people actually buy your food?”
You’re no stranger to TV, are you?
[Laughs] We were on BBC’s The Restaurant, hosted by Raymond Blanc and Sarah Willingham (Dragons Den). It was like the Apprentice for food entrepreneurs. We didn’t think we’d last that long, but it was a way to test the market. The concept was to start a restaurant from scratch and perform a challenge each week. We came 4th out of 12 couples, which was great especially as we were representing West African Food and felt we had more to prove.
Describe the structure of your growing food empire?
My husband runs the street food stall Spinach & Agushi (formerly called Jollof Pot), with outlets in Portobello Market, Exmouth Market and our flagship at Broadway Market in East London. We changed the name after going on The Restaurant show. For African food to reach the masses the way Indian and Chinese food has, we make the taste palatable to the masses, while still maintaining some traditional flavours. Our food does taste different across our brands.
Can you maintain your Ghanaian roots and appeal to the masses?
Absolutely, we do this across our three brands and our West African clients who recognise the flavours give us great feedback.
Our luxury catering company is Eat Jollof London (EJL). We do a lot of corporate events for various companies and individuals. We’ve catered for fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, TV personality June Sarpong’s MBE party, Amnesty International, World Vision and UNICEF. The name (EJL) came about because Jollof (originating from Senegambia) is synonymous with West Africa and we are a West African catering company.
One of our summer dishes is a duck confit salad and tatale (Ghanaian plantain fritters) and thinly cut yam chips.
Recently we did a wedding between a Nigerian and Jamaican couple and made Ackee & saltfish stuffed dumplings and had a fusion menu, blending the two cultures.
Fine dining supper club
Tunbridge Wells, where I live, is a quintissential English town. When we moved there, neighbours would ask me about Ghanaian food. So the Ghana Supper Club, was born. It’s a five course supper club at my house that I run with a friend. It’s grown so much that we even have people coming from Brighton to dine with us!
It’s been such an emotional journey but I love it and seeing other African food brands coming up, is great! Supporting each other and sharing ideas will give West African food more prominence in the UK.
What does fine dining mean to you?
It’s refined, tasty West African food, with traditional flavors and amazing presentation.
Do all your brands have one unifying ethos?
All our brands are approachable and we pride ourselves on excellent customer service, which unfortunately isn’t synonymous with African catering businesses.
Your most popular veggie dish, Spinach & Agushi contains…
Tomato stew mixed with grounded Agushi (melon seeds), ginger, garlic, chili pepper and toasted Agushi seeds as a garnish with fresh baby spinach!
Your most popular meat dish is…
Antelope; a nice lean meat we slice finely across Jollof rice. It delicious!
What’s been your biggest learning so far?
After running Jollof Pot with my husband for 12 years and then losing the business in the last recession, I realised we couldn’t work together. We had two young children and the pressure was just too much.
Anyone who’s lost a business know what it’s like, but you must pick yourself up and move on.
Any exciting developments?
We’re expanding EJL to Ghana! For our London customers were developing a food delivery box service, which will contain pre-cooked meals and also ingredients to make your own meals from scratch.
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