“Zanzibar,” formerly known as “UK Mama,” is celebrating its 23rd anniversary this year. And a long history is not the only thing that makes this African-Caribbean restaurant unique; being the first of such kind in Yorkshire also contributes to its prestige.
For Godson Ogwudire, “Zanzibar” is a dream come true, literally. The idea of running a restaurant first hit Ogwudire in the form of a dream while he was in the final year of post graduate study. “I studied clinical pathology…nothing to do with food,” Ogwudire said with a hearty laughter. “I didn’t think at all there was any way that I’d run a restaurant,” Ogwudire had never thought of any other prospects until he dreamed of running a restaurant, then he decided to follow the dream and see what would come of it.
Initiating an African-Caribbean restaurant in an English community in early 90s was not an easy task; Ogwudire had to deal with pressure from both his family and the society. “There is no history of culinary industry in my family,” Ogwudire said with a thoughtful expression; to them, running a restaurant while holding a medical degree was unimaginable. Even so, Ogwudire persisted in scratching out his dream with a brilliant business plan. But such a restaurant was an unprecedented attempt and needed more than a piece of paper to take form. The initiation of Zanzibar was a slow stew, which Ogwudire flavoured with “a lot of marketing resolution and faith.”
When finally launched in 1993, the restaurant took the name “UK Mama.” What Ogwudire had in mind was the image of his mother cooking in the kitchen back home in Nigeria, “I remember my mother always singing and happy cooking in the kitchen.” Ogwudire’s mother is the muse for his cooking style and business philosophy, “There’s always love for the food and the people we’re cooking for.” With such value, UK Mama had built a good reputation over years until Ogwudire felt the need to re-identify his business. “People often took us for an Italian restaurant due to the term ‘mama,’” Ogwudire recalled. After a search and brainstorming, UK Mama was re-launched as “Zanzibar,” which bears a denotation that promotes drinks, “we’re letting people know that it’s more than a restaurant, that they can also have a drink here if they want to.” Alongside the literal implication, Ogwudire picked the name with the view to replicating the quality of “Zanzibar-” one of the least polluted places in Africa- in his restaurant. “It’s a beautiful place- homely, full of good food and hospitable people,” says Ogwudire in a vigorous tone. Starting a new page with his business, Ogwudire reinforced his determination, “I want it to be a unique place of Africa in the UK, established for all people- across races.”
At ‘Zanzibar,’ members of staff know each other’s tricks. To maintain the authenticity and quality of both African and Caribbean cuisines, all the chefs- including Ogwudire himself- need to cook in both styles properly. “I have to learn the way my chefs know, and they have to learn both styles,” Ogwudire explains his strategy of quality control, which is partly attributed to the fact that he works part time at the hospital a few days during the week, “so that when I’m not around, they can still prepare every dish with consistent quality.” Apart from inclusive proficiency, respect is another key that binds the team. Ogwudire regards his chefs as competent professionals and even leaves his menu open to input, “if they come in with a good recipe that I didn’t know, I would add it to the menu.” Such respect derives from an accommodating perspective, “it’s about realising the heritage that all black people come from the same continent- Africa.” And heritage is inevitably related to the history of slave trade, which caused migration from the continent of Africa to the Caribbean region. Ogwudire explains the cultural aspect in food using the deviation of ‘Jololff rice’ as an example: it was cooked with black eye peas in Africa but turned into ‘rice and peas’ (with kidney beans) over time after reaching the Caribbean. This is how history is reflected in food; deviation is inevitable while traces of common origin can often be found.
‘Zanzibar’ takes pride in its authentic cuisines, “the inspiration for our menu comes from my mother, so it’s definitely traditional and authentic.” But in line with the insistence in originality lies flexibility. “Chilies are essential especially to Caribbean cuisines,” but this principle never impedes adaptation; Ogwudire is always ready to adjust the spiciness of his dishes- oftentimes reducing the heat for customers. Still chilies never work alone, not in African-Caribbean cooking anyway, “how you balance different spices with chillies that go into a dish is very important; it affects the aroma and flavour of the food.” “Cooking is like creating art,” Ogwudire believes that ingredients in a dish- as colours in a painting- need to complement one another so as to achieve polyphony to please the taste bud.