People Travel Food got the opportunity to interview one of the most prolific Black Female Chefs in the UK, Maria Bradford.
Chef Maria Bradford, MariaBradfordKitchen.com, is on a mission to teach the world about African food. She is originally from Sierra Leone where she was blessed to grow up on the country’s a multifaceted food culture.
What is it like to grow up in Sierra Leone?
Imagine mountains rising from the sea, beautiful beaches, rainforests, mangrove swamps, savanna grasslands, and rivers. We have the Gola Rainforest which is home to a diverse population of species, including rare and endangered animals such as the pygmy hippo. That is Sierra Leone, a country so beautiful that the locals have nicknamed it Sweet Salone.
We have a rich culture, expressed in our arts and crafts, folklore and religion, clothing, cuisine, music, and languages, Sierra Leone is a must-visit for anyone travelling to Africa.
You mentioned you grew up in Freetown, I bet the weather is much different from your hometown in the UK?
Freetown is a port city facing the Atlantic Ocean, on the coast of West Africa. The climate in Freetown is tropical and humid all year. Between November and June, it is very hot and dry, although the coastal areas are cooled by sea breezes. In December, January, and February the dry, dusty Harmattan wind blows from the Sahara. Rainfall can be torrential during the rainy season between May and November.
Ok, the rest of this is going to be about food, food, food. We love your Facebook and Instagram feeds, literally. But before I go on…how old were you when you fell in love with cooking?
I started cooking when I was nine years old. I was a quiet, serious, and studious child always keen to please. I would wake-up early every day and help around the house before school.
It is common in Sierra Leonean culture and probably more widely across the African continent for girls to help around the house from a very young age. This is considered an informal training, equipping girls with essential housekeeping skills parents think they may need in future. I guess this has been handed down from generation to generation.
I started by cooking rice and began to know my way around the kitchen through watching the adults knife skills, and by the simple task of passing ingredients and utensils to my mother when she was cooking our meals. I was curious and interested in food and with so many siblings to feed my mother often gave me the opportunity to ‘play-cook’ as we say in Krio.
So, I learnt to cook from my mother and she learnt to cook from hers. My mum grows her own fruits and vegetables. She has a small garden with a horticulture area in her compound where she cultivates a large variety of delicious fruits and vegetables such as bananas, potato leaves, crain crain, and cassava.
I grew up with great respect for food and where it comes from. Our food came directly from the ocean, from my mom’s garden, from local producers so this is why I want to showcase our cuisine to the world.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was a studious kid so school was of the utmost importance. I would be in the kitchen before school in the mornings, and after school I had my extra studies with a private tutor. Then after the lessons, I would help in the kitchen again. Then I had my regular homework, we were often without electricity and so studying by candlelight late into the night was a regular occurrence. For me, school and food went hand in hand.
Wow, so many stories we would love to hear more about, maybe in a Maria Bradford Cookbook? You said your cooking is “inspired by my rich Sierra Leonean heritage”, can you explain what that means and how it influences you today?
I cook traditional Sierra Leonean food with fine dining finesse due to my classical training, but I also combine traditional African cuisine with elements from other cultures to create Afro-fusion cuisine which has actually been part of our culture for centuries.
What makes Sierra Leone cuisine different from other African cuisines?
There are a whole host of influences in our cooking from various raiders and settlers that landed upon our shores and the origins of Afro-fusion cooking can be traced back to the transatlantic slave trade. For me, it’s an opportunity to showcase our unique culture.
Just a quick overview, in relation to food…slave trading had a huge impact on the dynamics of West African politics and societies and Freetown’s unique history has brought a melting pot of many influences from African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Southeast Asians, and Black people born in Great Britain. Before Freetown was established, this was where the Portuguese slave traders transported Africans as slaves to ships. Freetown has also been influenced by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with it being raided and plundered by French fleets. Lebanese immigrants also came to West Africa in the mid-19th century when a silk-worm crisis struck their homeland.
Can you tell us about one of Maria Bradford Kitchen’s most memorable event or supper-club event?
Wow tough question. Every event is memorable. I have catered for events in Freetown and Liberia and they come with unique challenges from the basics of ensuring there’s electricity, to training staff on the spot while simultaneously cooking food for hundreds of people. Then there’s the London supper-club scene which is an absolute blast, or my delivery of private dining events for high net worth individuals which again is always exciting and fun.
We know Maria Bradford Kitchen is in the throes of rebranding, can you tell us anything about the re-brand?
My dream is bigger than I am, and I have a real sense of purpose and duty to my country and my people, so I am re-branding Maria Bradford Kitchen to convey this higher purpose. I am passionate about connecting people through food, bringing African inspired products to life through unique experiences, celebrating culture and inspiring enterprise.
I wanted to create a platform for something broader than just me, perhaps even a platform that others can build from.
So, any hints as to what we can expect?
Ah this is a secret for now. Watch this space, and do check out my Instagram and Facebook for updates.
This dish below, posted on Maria Bradford Kitchen’s Facebook page, looks amazing, what can you tell us about it?
When the boat comes in…cured and blowtorched Mackerel with Hibiscus and Ginger. There’s a Sierra Leone folksong in our land…Thou shalt have a fishy on a little dishy when the boat comes in. Dance to thy Daddy, sing to thy mammy.
Fish is very important to our livelihood, up and down Sierra Leone’s 400 km (249 mile) coastline entire villages depend on the sea and there are some 8000 small boats manned by local fishermen that go out every single day to cast their nets to catch this vital source of food and income.
Four fifths of our population depend on fish but sadly foreign trawlers have for many years been plundering our stocks. Chinese trawlers are a particular problem. Almost a decade ago I did some work for a charity that was compiling evidence from local Mende speaking people and I worked briefly in London as a translator helping them to record what the villagers were saying. We desperately need China to stop their illegal plundering of our resources, their actions will cost lives.
All image credits belong to Maria Bradford Kitchen
Want to learn about more female chefs *disrupting the industry…Read about another groundbreaking female chef here.
*The most successful innovative disruptors don’t merely attempt to provide “the same service, only better” than the competition. They seek to change the way people think, change the outdated narratives, and change the way people act.