The Story of a Gypsy Chef
To use the Romani term, I am a Didikai; a person of mixed Romani and non-Romani ancestry. My paternal Grandfather’s Mother, Agnes France was a Welsh Romany Gypsy who journeyed from Merthyr Tidfil to Birmingham, where the family ‘settled in bricks’.
I was brought up in a Gaje (non Romani) household by my Mother and Father in Birmingham. Food was always at the heart of our family life, my mother growing much of what we ate. From an early age, I spent my weekends cooking with my extended family, pickling with my Granddad, baking cakes with my Aunties and always making the all-important gravy for the Sunday dinner with my Grandma.
Taking this family-wide love of food with me as my inspiration, I moved to London to study Sociology and Communication Studies at Goldsmiths College. Working to fund my studies, I found myself in the student’s union kitchen, working sometimes up to 40 hours a week. It wasn’t long before I began to enjoy working in the kitchen as much, if not more than studying.
The decision to become a professional chef was easily made, and my first job was at Hardy’s, a small French bistro in West London. Here I learned a lot, getting to grips with the finer details of the French classics. I moved on to the Oxo Tower Brasserie, and here I had the opportunity to work with a diverse stable of international chefs, with whom I shared many exciting, inspiring, and stressful moments.
When the time came for me to take on the responsibility of my own kitchen, I was appointed as Head Chef at The Honor Oak, a gastro pub in South East London. My Steak Night and Sunday Lunch quickly became a hit with locals. I was involved in a wide range of community events, including crèche mornings, weddings, funerals and everything you would expect from a diverse South East London borough.
After three years of success at the Honor Oak, I felt the need to get back into a central London kitchen, and I now run the Seven Dials Club kitchen in the heart of London. Mainly catering for the local community, whether it’s birthdays, weddings or other family functions, I love these large events, with lots of people and honest, well-made vibrant food. Over the last year, I have started running food-related classes with children from local schools; an incredibly rewarding aspect of my job. Having earned the respect of the community leaders, I am now actively pitching other proposals for food projects in the Covent Garden area.
As I have grown as a chef, I have realized that my Romani roots are reflected in my cooking style. I like nothing more than moving from place to place and sampling and mastering the local dishes. Soups and stews have become an increasingly significant part of my repertoire, and the act of preserving has become more commonplace in my armoury. My cooking style often reflects the humble beginnings of my forefathers. Some would call it peasant food, but I wouldn’t want to give it such a lowly name. Frugal cooking doesn’t have to be unadventurous.
I have recently been appointed Trustee and Fund-raising Secretary of The Gypsy Council, something I am very proud of. The Gypsy Council is an organisation charged with helping the travelling community with the social, welfare and civil rights issues that arise from time to time. We also work with a wide range of groups in order to build a better future for the Roma of Europe.
I am about to begin my own great adventure. I am currently working on a cookbook and TV program that will tell the story of my Romani Heritage through food and take me on a journey of rediscovery.
It will, I hope, inspire others to seek out their own culinary heritage wherever they are from. I am excited at the prospect of bringing the disappearing art of Gypsy food to a wider audience, and to doing something to address the problems of negative attitudes toward the Romani community in British society. Fingers crossed you will like what you read and watch.
If you have any questions about my heritage, my cooking or me, then please get in touch! I would love to hear from you.
The Gypsy Chef