Daughter of an Irish mother and Ghanaian father, Zoe Adjonyoh is from South East London, where she founded Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (ZGK) ten years ago. Grounded in the desire to celebrate and share Ghanian culture and heritage through food and its ingredients with the world, Zoe’s mission remains stronger than ever, even with the setbacks of 2020.
December 2020: Zoe joins me in from back-to-back interviews, but somehow still bounding with energy: “Hi, this is fun, thanks for having me!”
No thank you for having me! It’s such a pleasure to be able to speak with you.
Ok, for those of our readers perhaps not familiar with you and your work, tell me a little bit about yourself.
A little bit… okay, I’ll try. I am a chef, writer, food activist, entrepreneur, mentor, gay, black woman, founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and the Sankofa fine dining concept and cofounder of Black Book, a platform promoting diversity on a global scale in the food industry and media.
I work at the intersection of food, culture, identity and politics and I have long been driven by the need to create space for change in the food landscape. I see food as a bridge and a translation tool between cultures, and I’m passionate about creating community around things that I love and care about.
Wow, short but sweet. Your mission to bring equity to the food and hospitality industry is very inspiring and positive. At TWISPER we also want to bring back fairness and positivity to the industry, and as you said, building community is the way to do this. Tell me about the community surrounding Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.
I founded Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen 10 years ago. I started just outside my front door serving up Ghanaian and west African food, and it just grew and grew. The first three or four years, the business snowballed really quickly all through word of mouth. I didn’t spend a penny on PR or marketing – I was doing because it was fun, and because it was my income while I did my MA.
The business grew very organically based on recommendations and people talking about it. Everything sold out consistently without me having to do very much just growing from the buzz that the recommendations gave. That then seeped into online, even with my small social media presence back then, recommendations gave way to blogs, giving way to press picking up on what I was doing. This was all based on the authenticity of people being kind and lovely and telling others about me. Essentially, everyone else did the work of marketing for me.
TWISPER is centered on positive recommendations, and the recognition that a happy customer is your best and most genuine form of “advertising”. We seek to capture that positivity and create that snowball effect of word of mouth that you mention. How has Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen grown through the years?
Well, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen has gone through various iterations over the past ten years, moving from supper clubs, to kitchen residencies, mobile catering, a restaurant space in Brixton and my highly successful cookbook Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. We’ve been all over the world from Berlin to New York to Accra.
And then a pandemic happened…
Not what any of us expected for sure bringing a lot of uncertainty for all in the industry, especially small businesses like yours. How have you adapted your mission with ZGK?
I mean, as a result of the pandemic, we lost all of our income for the year. It was a chance to re-envisage what the business was and go back to basics. I had a look at my original mission statement and plan and saw that I'd gone away from that. So, in a sense, COVID was a gift because it allowed me to reframe the business. Throughout I’ve seen Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen as a vehicle to celebrate and talk about west African cuisine, with specific lens on Ghana, and COVID hasn’t stopped us.
We have now gone on to be an online shop, filled with spices and products with transparent and sustainable supply chains, and I have direct relationships with the farmers. I have made the decision to focus on helping people take back control of the ingredients used in their food and reimagine ‘healthy eating’ through an African lens.
I’ve always been passionate about creating community around things I love and care about. I’ve been having conversations with black women in hospitality and food, sharing inspiration for people coming up, and showing that we can succeed if we build together, pull each other up and thrive.
I’ve also seen you’ve been active, as always, in your community to support the vulnerable and those in need during this time? How did that start off?
When COVID initially hit the UK, I was immediately worried about father’s mental illness and health concerns. I feared that he wouldn’t get the appropriate levels of care and attention during the lockdown period. It made me realize that there would be people in my own community that would be subject to the same conditions.
So, I started a crowdfunder to help feed those at risk in my immediate community in Hackney Wick & Bow. I had to make myself vulnerable in a really public way – not something I’m historically known for doing. But I was astounded by how many people resonated with the vulnerability – and how many helped. I didn’t realise how big my community was, but it highlighted who was on my team and who wasn't.
I struck up relationships with small charitable groups and social enterprises. Initially we helped the elderly, immigrants, anyone in the vulnerable category, and then it expanded to help feed NHS workers... We went from 150 meals per week to 500 meals per week, and – that's what I did for three months.
There were a huge number of people who had never asked me for anything and were willing to help. It was incredibly encouraging and thank every person that helped, volunteered, donated, shared and supported us. It was really beautiful.
It’s great what community and positivity can do. Looking to the future, what's next for you?
This year has shown how the future is a false economy, but my mindset is positive, and I’ve always enjoyed spinning a lot of plates.
I’m excited about the re-release of my cookbook and the potential for a new one, new projects, new things happening with Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Black Book has finally got charitable status sorted so we can start fundraising. I am passionate about creating community around things I love. The last six months have taught me that I really like hosting and talking to people, solving problems through conversation, celebrating people giving inspiration and motivation. Maybe I’ll do a podcast, be on screen, anything could happen and there’s lots of beautiful and fun opportunities around the corner.
TWISPER is on a mission to bring fairness and positivity back to the hospitality industry. During this unprecedented time, we hope to cast light on the grit, resilience and determination that are an inherent part of the industry. We know that these qualities will lead to recovery and restoration as we look to the future. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to get the latest industry news and TWISPER announcements.