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Levi Roots: Caribbean crusader

HOT PROPERTY: Levi Roots

“WE KNOW that our cuisine is fantastic, but the mainstream has also now discovered that taste and that’s been the biggest leap forward for our food.”

Levi Roots’ observation of the rising popularity of Caribbean cuisine in the UK couldn’t be more spot on.

Granted, there has long been a contingent of English folks who would pop into their local Caribbean takeaway for a patty or a portion of jerk chicken.

But recent years have seen West Indian delicacies gain huge mainstream attention, whether it was Jamie Oliver cooking Jamaican-style jerk pork with Usain Bolt; Nigella Lawson serving up her recipe for jerk chicken; or Marco Pierre White delivering a video demonstration of his, shall we say, unique version of rice and peas. (If you didn’t see that video, Google it. That is all).

In short, to coin a Jamaican term, Caribbean food ‘gone clear’ in the UK. And if ever a thesis is written on the development of Caribbean cuisine throughout the last decade, an entire chapter should probably be dedicated to Keith Valentine Graham – better known as celebrity chef Levi Roots.

After appearing on the BBC programme Dragons’ Den in 2007, seeking investment for his Reggae Reggae Sauce, the Jamaican-born entrepreneur, who is now a food columnist for The Voice, became an instant hit.

Complete with his guitar and a catchy reggae jingle that accompanied his jerk-inspired product, Roots not only entertained the show’s panel of investors, but convinced two of them – businessmen Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh – to invest £50,000 in his venture, in return for a 40 per cent stake in the business.

No sooner did he slay the dragons with his saucy plan, Sainsbury’s announced that they would be stocking the sauce in hundreds of their stores. Suddenly, a Jamaican inspired jerk-barbecue sauce was made available to the masses.

This was followed by a host of Levi Roots’ products – including soft drinks, pasties and ready meals – along with recipe books, a TV advert and the BBC series Caribbean Food Made Easy, in which the TV chef showcased a host of delicious delicacies from the tropical islands.

Suffice to say, Roots, who had previously sold his Reggae Reggae Sauce at Notting Hill Carnival, became synonymous with Caribbean food and undoubtedly helped to garner greater mainstream attention for the cuisine.

“Now, there are big investors who are willing to back Caribbean restaurants and these people wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t recognise that our cuisine is on the rise,” reasons Roots.

“And now, when people are looking for new food options, Caribbean food is one of them. It’s a cuisine that many non-Caribbeans have always been close to, because so many people have a Jamaican friend or they love reggae music – there’s some connection there for many people, but many of them just hadn’t tried the food. That’s now changing.”

Unsurprisingly, he is thrilled to see this development.

“I am, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” he says. “If you’d told me 10 years ago that my name would become associated with Caribbean food on a mainstream level, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now that is a reality, I’m very proud to have been a part of that.”

The most recent movement for Roots was the announcement last week that he is set to launch a new restaurant – or, as he described it on Twitter, “a RASTA'URANT!”

Due to open later this year, Levi Roots’ Caribbean Smokehouse will be located in east London’s Westfield shopping centre.

“It’s one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe and it’s a fantastic place for a Jamaican business to be. I mean, that’s where we should be, but the key thing is how we stand up against the other restaurants.

“Very often, when we set up our places, they tend to be on a small scale. So it’s great that we’ve managed to build a name that has allowed us to go in big and be amongst the Wagamamas and the Nando’s and all the other restaurants in there.”

Describing what diners can expect at his new eatery, Roots explains that his ‘rasta'urant’ will embrace the ethos of his Reggae Reggae Sauce catchphrase, ‘Put some music in your food’.

“I want to bring my presence [to the restaurant] both through the food and the music, so I will perform there with my band from time to time,” says the MOBO-nominated musician, who will release his new album Rise Above, at the end of the month.

“There will also be reggae and jazz acts performing there, so we really want to create that Caribbean flavour. Reggae Reggae Sauce was about putting some music in your food, so that’s what we want to do with this restaurant.”

Acknowledging the significance of being a “living, breathing person who is the face of the brand,” Roots says he wants his new eatery to be a reflection of him.

“I do want the place to have a feel that suggests I could walk in at any time or that I’m round the back or something,” he says. “I don’t want the restaurant to be devoid from myself.”

Is there extra pressure on Roots, being the face of his brand?

“Extra pressure? Boy, I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” he laughs. “But it’s been amazing how people have taken to what I do, inviting me to do talks in various places. I’ve got my School of Life tour and I also do a prison tour – it just goes on and on and it’s fantastic.”

Indeed, his School of Life tour – which sees him delivering talks in schools up and down the country, and also spawned a recipe book – has proved hugely successful.


EACH ONE TEACH ONE: Roots talks to young pupils during one of his School of Life tours

“The most surprising thing is that the programme has become very popular in primary schools – and these kids weren’t even born when I was on Dragons’ Den! But the stories still resonate with them.

“It’s wonderful that people don’t just want to see me for the food, but because they also like to hear what I have to say; stories of me growing up in Jamaica and striving to better myself. It’s not just about me saying: ‘Buy this sauce and it will full up yuh belly!’ There’s an inspirational element to the brand and I’m very proud of that.”

One person who would, perhaps, be even more proud of Roots’ achievements is his late grandmother, Miriam, who was responsible for inspiring her grandson’s passion for cooking when he was a young boy growing up in Jamaica.

“I think she would be very proud,” says Roots. “Like so many grandmothers in the Caribbean at that time, she had the job of looking after the children.

“With so many Caribbean parents leaving their children in the ’50s and ‘60s, in order to seek work overseas, it was often the grandparents that would take on the job of looking after their grandchildren. I think my grandmother would have been very proud of me.”

Reflecting on the future, Roots says, as an individual, he “gives thanks for every day.” But as a businessman, he thinks long-term.

“Looking ahead for the next five years, we want to enlarge the brand and hopefully roll out a chain of restaurants throughout the UK. They are big dreams but they are part of the plan. And usually, if the plan is good, it will become a reality.”

Be sure to read Levi’s Jamaican Independence-themed feature and recipe in next week’s issue of Life & Style, out on August 6.
H For more information on Levi, visit www.leviroots.com

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