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An interview with Faye Gomes of Kaieteur Kitchen
Cooking as communion, nourishment, medicine and love
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For an ex-British colony, the food of Guyana is still relatively little known within the UK, even in its former imperial capital. Formed through the movement of various peoples, both voluntary and involuntary, the harmony of the cuisine elides a history of slavery, indentured labour, and hierarchical racism, much of which still plays out today in present day Guyana. Food though is perhaps the one thing that everyone can claim for themselves as completely Guyanese ─ no matter your race, the knowledge to make curries and roti that labourers from Uttar Pradesh brought over with them are Guyanese, so too are the variants on West African stews and Chinese chow mein, no more so or less so than the indigenous Amerindian food traditions which they augmented and supplanted.
To get the background on Faye’s cooking you can start with this profile I did of her last year, which explains how she came to cook her version of Guyanese food at Kaieteur Kitchen in Elephant and Castle, her years spent at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and her unshakeable faith that the best is yet to come. When the shopping centre closed in September, she moved to the new Castle Square complex where she now has the indoor space she has always dreamed of.
I sat down with her last week to talk about the positive aspects of the move, about how Elephant and Castle is changing, about food as communion, food as nourishment, food as medicine and food as an act of love.
How have you been since the pandemic?
It was a bit hard, because it was something we didn't expect to come and it came. You know, we weren't prepared for it. So during that time. I found it very hard, financially, because my only source of income is this shop.
You weren't allowed to open, right?
No and I didn't get much from the government either. So after a few weeks, actually after a month or so, people started to call in to find out if I was back at the shop. I still wasn't there because we weren't allowed to come. So I started doing a bit of catering from home, which was very successful. And we came back in June and it wasn't really good at all out there. I mean the customers were coming but not in a big capacity. And they wanted us to pay rent. We actually fought against it, the traders I mean, with the help of Southwark Council. There were a few who came around to ask us questions. I remember one, her name is Sophia. She really helped us; me I mean, I don't know about others. But she really fought for me not to pay rent. Even my arrears from last year, because I had to travel away ─ there was this arrears outstanding, and and she actually fought and she helped me not to pay that arrears.
So that was from June, July, August, until we came over here in September. But during that time it got really bad because they were breaking into our shops regularly. My shop was broken into twice, And it's made me feel very depressed, like I don’t want to go out anymore. So things were hard during that time, but we closed down with the shopping centre on the 24th and we came to new premises here. The new shop opened on the 26th. And from the 26th to now, it's a really, it's, it's really been building up actually, the clientele is really getting bigger and bigger each day.
Have you noticed a change in clientele.
Yes. I was just about to say that. A really big change. Really a big change in the clientele. I mean, a few nights ago we had like five young guys and they were from Germany. We have people coming all the way from Basildon. People who have heard about it who worked in Guyana. This English person who worked in Guyana, he heard about it on Instagram, he came in and he was very excited because you know everything brought back Guyana memories to him. Even on Saturday evening, there was a group of people who came from different parts and they all met here. I don't know if you were there?
Yeah I think I saw them.
And they all wanted pepper pot! And the garlic pork! So I said at the end of the month, on the Friday and Saturday, because I need time to do these traditional Guyanese dishes.
They've been reading my....
After a few weeks, what have you learned so far about operating a restaurant compared to a stall?
It’s challenging. There’s a lot of work that you have to put into it, and it's really challenging because it's long hours. It’s almost the same hours open but there’s so much more work you have to put into it. Because you have to make sure your customers are being well taken care of outside, trying to cook inside. So it's hard and challenging but it's great. It makes you know that you can really push yourself. It makes you know that you can be what you want to be, as a business or a manager or owner of a restaurant. And at my age, I've done well.
I remember when I first interviewed you, you were talking about how it was your dream to run a restaurant and I think you told me specifically about having one in Guyana. You've been cooking all your life in various forms, so what does it mean for you to have a restaurant like this rather than just a takeaway or a stall?
For me it's about comfort. Firstly, it makes me feel more healthy. I can sit. I can meet people. I can interact with them, you know. I can come out and say to them “well this was cooked like this”, “are you enjoying your dinner?”, “are you enjoying what you’re eating”. Because when I was in the shopping centre, they would take food away, it's only in the summer that they sit down. So I don’t know if they're enjoying it or not; some come back, some probably will not ─ I don't know the reason why. Here I have the time to come to them and say “thank you for coming”. “What do you think about it?”. “Don't be shy to tell me if it doesn't taste well, because if you will tell me, I would make it even better”. And people always want to feel welcome, homely, wherever they sit and they have a meal. So if you make them feel happy and make them at home, they will come back. People look at the way you treat them, the way you welcome them when they come into your place. And if the treatment is wonderful. something will stick. They might say, “oh I didn’t like that dish so much but the service was beautiful”. And they would come back because of that. So that is a reason why I always wanted somewhere that people can sit and have a proper meal, a hot proper meal.
During lockdown I collected food at your flat at the Aylesbury Estate, so you live and work in the area. How long have you been there?
Oh about nine years now.
How have you noticed the area change over the last decade?
Not much changes there. I think now they're starting because they're pulling all the blocks down,
Oh I didn’t mean the Aylesbury itself, I meant Elephant and Castle and Walworth in general.
Oh the area is changing. It's a big difference. Yeah, it's a very big difference. And what I say to some of the customers who ask questions like that, I always say to them “we're looking at another five years, this is going to be such an expensive area to live in”. A really expensive area to live in. I don't know how long it’s going to take to build everything and to build another shopping centre, shopping mall or whatever, but it's going to be a very beautiful place. But it’s going to be expensive! So, I don't know what they will do with us after five years here, but if I don’t have anywhere here it won’t really bother me that much because I really want to get back home to do what I want to do at home. So if in five years I do very well here, which I know I will, I am so grateful and thankful to God for that. Because I will be going home to explore my beautiful country Guyana, and do my beautiful restaurant in Guyana.
Have you hired more people since you opened here? I see you’re now selling some shito made by Ivy, one of your Ghanaian staff members!
I have yes, we do shift work now. Ivy has actually been a very good help to me. She helps with my accounts and bookkeeping and everything. So I just wanted her to feel welcome too. So I said to her just bring in whatever you make, and I’ll display it and sell it. At least you have a taste of another country. So she brings it in, and I just presented it for people to taste it, because people know about my pepper sauce and it's nice when they taste something else similar but different. And I wouldn't give that to a vegetarian! Because it's made out of fish and shrimp I mostly give it to people eating fish. And they love it! People actually love it.
I’ve been using it at home in pastas and it’s delicious! And there’s a nice synergy with your food because of course there’s a very big West African influence on Guyanese cuisine. I think a lot of people, even people who may have had your food, might not know what Guyanese cuisine is and the influences on it. So how would you describe it to someone unfamiliar with it?
Sometimes people say, “okay why do you say you’re from South America, and your food is Caribbean”. For me, our food is like everybody else's food. Because a person from Sierra Leone can come and taste our food and say “Oh! This tastes like our food”. Someone from Ghana might say your rice and peas is like our rice, with a little bit of difference. I’ll do oxtail and people will say “oh, but you’re doing oxtail and this is a Jamaican dish”. But the thing is, the Guyanese create so many other dishes. And we have six races of people in Guyana: we have curries spiced like an Indian dish. Pepperpot; an Amerindian dish. Then we have chow mein. That's a Chinese dish. You know, cook up rice, is what we would say is a Black people dish. Our dish.
Obviously there’s a huge Indian influence. I remember being really surprised when you used the word ‘mithai’ to describe your sweets.
Sometimes I want to know if mithai is the same thing in India as it is in Guyana?
So it refers to a whole spectrum of Indian sweets, which are often made with milk or condensed milk or ghee. But I think Guyanese mithai is much more specific?
There are a few Indian things I actually saw here in London that you make back in Guyana. So many of them, but some of them are named differently. They are named differently but it just means the same thing. For example, pakora; pakora is something we call pholourie, or almost something that we call pholourie. But it's a different name. Dal puri, roti, they're all Indian stuff. But because Guyana is made up of more Indian than Black, I mean, the majority of people in Guyana are Indian. And because of that, we have so many beautiful Indian dishes that we can cook
Given that there is a lot of ethnic tension in Guyana - especially recently with the presidential election - do you think food hides some of these tensions or do you think it actually does bring people together in a way?
It brings people together. No matter what is going on in Guyana, Indians would go to Black restaurants and still eat. We would go to Indian restaurants and still eat. You know, people still mix. Indian neighbours will plant vegetables and would give it to their Black neighbours. They would share things. So I don’t know if food always brings people together, but it brings Guyanese people together!
I guess it's also one of the things which you will have a shared ownership of. Like you don't necessarily see your dal puri as separate from your pepperpot: it’s all Guyanese.
It’s all Guyanese, it’s all Guyanese, it’s all Guyanese! And there's so much more you can do that I haven't even done here yet, because I don't want to, you know, push myself into all these big cooking. For example, aubergine. We don't even call it aubergine, we call it boulanger. It can be done in a beautiful curry. It can be done with beef and prawns together, it can be done with salted cod fish and prawns. You can fry them just like that with tomatoes, and they put a nice piece of fried fish on the side with some rice. Okra. You know, the long old beans that they ‘long beans’, we call it ‘bora’ in Guyana. Dal. You cook a nice dal with some jeera inside and you bunjal it. You cook the split peas and spices in oil, and right at the end you fry the garlic in hot oil and it makes this big noise, like PSSSHHHHHHHHHH and then pour it over.
What dishes do you want to bring here, because I remember you said when you have more cooking space you want to expand your repertoire.
That is one of them! The dal and rice. Actually I have some things in my head that I didn't even write down. Because it's I'm actually inventing it myself. It's just like the ground provision, we call it metemgee in Guyana. The boiled provision in rich coconut sauce; we call that metemgee but to make it more….posh….I call it brown vegetables in a rich coconut sauce. That's supposed to be served with a nice steamed fish or fried saltfish on top of it. That's something people don’t know because they didn't have the chance to try it over there at the stall. So that's one thing I'll bring it over here. Also fish tea.
Fish tea! Like a stew or a soup?
It’s a soup, like a tea. You’ve got a beautiful piece of salmon. And you boil it until it is melted. You put different types of vegetables inside. And you boil everything up together, and you sit with a nice bowl of it during the time this time where it's getting cold. And it's really healthy during the winter. Also I really want to introduce breakfast in the morning.
What is Guyanese breakfast like?
Okay ─ fried bakes and salt fish. Fried cassava, with a nice piece of fried fish on the side. We can have some salted cod fish and homemade bread with some mackerel in the middle. And actually, I’m going in search of shark. Fried shark. A bit of fried shark in the morning with some breadfruit. Porridge, different types of porridge. If you want a really hearty Caribbean breakfast, especially on a Saturday and Sunday morning, you can have a steamed fish with homemade bread or pepperpot. That's a proper breakfast.
Oh wow. I was going to ask you about the Amerindian influence on Guyanese cuisine but you’ve got a bottle of cassareep out on the table here, almost in anticipation.
Pepperpot! Which is made with cassareep. It’s a Guyanese Amerindian invention and it’s made from cassava root. It’s the bitter cassava, not just the ordinary cassava, and it goes through a long process.
You have to boil it to stop it from being poisonous right?
You have to boil it and then there's some sort of ferment. But it's important, it is very important. It’s not only fundamental to pepperpot but it makes a beautiful chicken stew. It can go into a beef stew. You can even make fried rice. It can do so many other things.
It’s got such a distinctive taste. How would you describe it?
If there’s anything better than cassareep, I don't know. I've tasted different types of food flavourings and all sorts of things, but there is nothing better than cassareep. It’s bitter and sweet and adds a beautiful taste to anything you do ─ all you have to know is how to prepare it. For example, if I'm cooking a fish stew with cassareep I wouldn’t cook it with just thyme and water. No, I would use coconut cream, coconut milk, onion, thyme and cloves.
Where can you get it from?
I order from a person who actually brings it from Guyana, to distribute it to places in London. So straight from Guyana to his company here. And then he brings it to the shop. So you can find it in a few shops, like in Brixton, in Tooting in Peckham. Coming up to Christmas you will hardly ever see cassareep on the shelf. People buy it because this is what is used for pepperpot and people get before it's finished. So most of the time it runs out before the Christmas season.
It’s almost like the Guyanese version of the Christmas turkey.
I get the feeling that food for you is about nourishment, you often say the word ‘healthy’ or call a piece of fish or vegetables “beautiful” like there is value in that food beyond taste. I always come away from your food feeling nourished and feeling healthy, whether I’m just eating vegetables, or even your fried fish and fried chicken. I feel comfortable afterwards. Is that important for you in the way you cook?
It is important. It is important that you know what people eat, and what you wouldn’t like for yourself you wouldn't give it to somebody. So you always make sure that when people finish eating that they have something that helps with some parts of their body. Some nutrients in the food, or when the food is so nutritious that they enjoy the experience and the aftermath of eating that food. It’s not that you come and have a piece of fish; the fish must first have taste and then it must go with something else. If you look at my plate most of the time, you have protein, you have something starchy, you have vegetables at the side. So your whole plate is a nutritious plate.
That's the beautiful thing about eating, it’s not that you just eat a plate of food. You have to get something into that plate of food that helps your body, you know, if you're feeling weak. I know one morning one lady came shivering and she said she was so cold and not feeling well. So I said let me give you a warm glass of ginger beer. She said “would that help?” and I said, “of course, yes it would help.” So I took one of those deep polystyrene cups with some ginger beer in and warmed it, and I gave it to her. And she drank it. She was like “is this is a medicine”. I laughed and said no, it's my own way of thinking about how somebody can feel warm; not just having a cup of coffee or having a cup of tea or whatever. And because it carries that heat from the ginger inside, it will make you feel better. And now she will never come and ask for a cup of cold ginger beer. She always comes for a cup of warm ginger beer.
In a way she’s right, it IS medicine. There’s no border between food and medicine.
It is, it is. You know, so these are the things that makes me feel that cooking is so much more than cooking. You present a plate of food to somebody and you can say “oh I feel good eating this myself”. It must be presentable. Colourful. That’s the next thing about food, it must always be colourful. You must always see the beauty in the food when you’re eating. You don’t just eat with your mouth but you eat with your eyes.
Let’s go back to your time at the Commonwealth Secretariat. How did the experience of that prepare you for going out and doing our own cuisine?
Very well, very very well. Because at the Commonwealth there was such a huge variety of different kinds of people. It really widened my horizons because there were so many people from different countries. So I had to cater for people from all around the world who would come there to have a meeting or to have lunch.
I would have to hire chefs to come in. For example, at one time we had a diplomat from India, and what he wanted on the menu, I could not have cooked it. Because I had never heard of the dish! So I had to go to an Indian restaurant and hire a chef to come in to cook some of the dishes. And I actually learnt those dishes from that one day that he was there. Fish kofta. That was one of the things I remember that he did. Fish kofta is what we call fish cake, but he had put nuts into it to make it a fish kofta, but otherwise it was exactly the way that we cook fish cake. So it really made my mind and my cooking intelligence just broaden. One time they had a Nigerian diplomat, he wanted this to have this big loud Nigerian dish I'd never heard about! So I had to get a Nigerian chef to come in to do that. And that's how I learned to cook so many other Nigerian dishes. Because when they come in, I would look at what they were doing, write bits of notes and things like that and that’s actually how I learned to cook a lot of dishes from other countries: Mauritius, Sierra Leone and so on.
Did it also shape the way you approach the chef/customer relationship? Because in a normal restaurant, the customer has to adapt to the chef ─ the menu is set and the customer comes in with that knowledge. But in a canteen, you have to adapt ─ you’re adapting to what the customer wants.
Yes, it actually even changed the way I speak to people. Some people might come into the canteen for lunch, and because they feel they’re in this high position they talk to you in this patronising way. And it was a problem, because for some of them you cannot talk back.
We had this diplomat, his name...well, he was very high at the Commonwealth. And he would treat us like if we are nobody, really nobody. So when I started working there, everybody would tell me about this particular person. And I was like, so why are you afraid of him? “Oh you don’t know him, he insults us, he brings us down”. I said you know what, I came into this place with a blessing, I didn't come here to serve no man. I came here to serve God and to serve this food. So I said “show me who this person is”.
And he came, because they had just emailed everyone to say that there’s a new chef at the Commonwealth. When he came over he picked his plate from the end because it was a long range of dishes. He picked his plate from the end. And I had said to the staff “do not allow anybody to pick their plate” You take the plate first, and then you ask them what they want, hold it and then serve them. Because that was something I was trying to change.
So he picked the plate. And then he came to the food and he was like, “I want that, I want that. What is it that?” So I looked at him and I said “Good afternoon, sir. My name is Faye, and I'm the new chef. And your’s?”
He looked at me.
I said, “Can we start all over again sir? I'm saying to you. Good afternoon. My name is Faye, and I am the new chef. And I'm saying, what is your name sir.”
And he mentioned his name.
And I said “Good afternoon. So can we all start all over again?” So I took the plate from him and I said, “What would you like to eat today sir?”.
And he looked at me, he was just standing there looking. He said “oh, I’d like this please. I told him how much it cost, I handed him his plate of food. And he went to sit down.
At the time I was just trying to bring customers in because the food was going really downhill. So I said to the girls in the canteen “make sure everyone gets a jug of water and a jug of homemade drink to welcome back the customers”. Because he had just come in I said, “let me take it to him, you leave him to me”. So I took the jug of water and whatever punch I had made that day. I said “Excuse me, sir. Would you like a glass of water, and the glass of the punch. It’s just to welcome everybody back into the canteen.” When people were finished I went to all the customers to say “thank you”, “did you enjoy the cooking?” and introduced myself to them. So I went to him and said “so how was my lunch today sir. Did you enjoy it”. And he looked up at me and said “very nice”. I said “Thank you, sir and you have a good day”. And I went back.
Now, when he went off to his office he called his secretary to the room. And he said to his secretary, “call down to that canteen and find out who that young lady is who shook me today. She shook me today.” He said, “Wow, whoever she is, she really made me feel small today.”
So eventually, she called down to the canteen and my boss was so afraid. She was like “Faye what did you do?”. And the girl said “no no no, calm down, calm down. He didn't mean anything. He said he actually was so happy to know that just one time they had somebody who actually stood up to him”
So, the next day he came back and he looked at me and smiled. And I said “Hello sir, good afternoon, how are you today? And I'm all yours today, you know, so let's go”. So I took his plate. And believe me, it happened that at one stage when they wanted to close the canteen and take it away from us, he stood up and fought for us to maintain that canteen. And at the end of the day, he has become my very good friend. And that is what I talk about respect. Because whatever you give you receive.
Is that something you bring into your cooking here ─ that your first job is to please your customers?
Yes, when I came here and I bought the place out there in the shopping centre, I maintained that same standard of meeting people, not being rude to anybody, even if sometimes people try to insult you because you’re in a little shed selling food, you’re nobody. You have to stand up and let them know that you are not uneducated, you are educated, but it’s just because you choose to do this. Most of my certificates are in catering, are in cooking. So I choose it because I like it.
When I’m cooking, I cook with happiness and I cook with love. It doesn’t tell just on you but it tells on the food. People would come eat this food and say “my god, this was cooked with a lot of love you know”. And then other people will say “how do they know this food was cooked with love?” But you will know. No matter what problem you have, no matter what you're going through, if you forget about it, and you come to your kitchen and you make other people happy, you cook the food with a nice heart, people would know. And they will leave with that food tasting nice in their mouth. Those are the things you have to maintain in your business to let it grow. You don’t cook because you want money, you cook because you enjoy doing what you're doing. And that's the beauty of me and my cooking. I enjoy my cooking. I enjoy cooking. I enjoy creating my dishes. I enjoy presenting my food to people. And I enjoy people. I do enjoy people.
You can find Faye Gomes at Kaieteur Kitchen at the new Castle Square complex just off Elephant Road. She is open from Tuesday-Saturday, 12-8pm. To order her special dishes like pepperpot, please check with her in advance!