Chef Akwasi Brenya-Mensa is having his lunch on Monday afternoon at 4.20 pm when we meet in his restaurant in Southwark, half a mile from the Thames in South London. His latest venture, Tatale, has now been open and fully booked for just over three weeks as interest in the pan-African eatery reaches a peak. He feels the pressure, but today is a rest day and asks for a bowl of comfort.
At first glance, his lunch seems modest – it looks like a simple linguine with shrimp in tomato sauce. But it is the smell of the dish that intrigues me the most. It is reminiscent of belacan (also known as balachong), a pungent fermented shrimp paste commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine. The dish is a work in progress, and Brenya-Mensa uses a common Ghanaian ingredient called shito, which is a chili oil with dried fish powder.
The 40-year-old chef lights up when I say it reminds me of belacan. He had spent several weeks with Tatale in the first quarter of 2022 on tour as a pop-up in the Caribbean. “When I was touring in March, I was doing a festival in Puerto Rico and I couldn’t find the fish powder I needed for this dish anywhere,” he recalls. “I went to an Asian cash-and-carry and found a block of belacan, and it was amazing! I made this dish with that instead of the powder and it was really really good.”
It’s these slight variations on traditional African cuisine that characterize the menu at Brenya-Mensa in Tatale, located at The Africa Centre, a 15-minute walk from Waterloo station. From his signature omo tuo and nkate nkwan (rice dumpling with groundnut soup) to his chichinga chicken served with pickles of palm wine and a dollop of Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise, this is how Brenya-Mensa envisions the future of African food.
The second generation Ghanaian-British chef, a former mentee of The great British menu‘s James Cochran at Restaurant 1251, like most great chefs—started in his mother’s kitchen. The eldest of four boys growing up in South London under the watchful eye of first-generation Ghanaian parents, it fell to Brenya-Mensa to help prepare meals, or as he describes it, meal “alchemy”.
“You take this group of things as they are, and then you do some magic, and a meal comes out the other side,” he says. “I always wanted to know more, I’ve always been curious so I always asked questions.” It wasn’t always so magical, though, as he remembers being terrified of live crabs his mom would take home to cook. “I wouldn’t want to go to the kitchen if they were there. But they would taste delicious.”
That curiosity about the alchemy of food followed him to Sheffield, where he first started a street food burger business while studying for a degree in criminology and social policy. It eventually expanded into its own restaurant in central Sheffield called The Juicy Kitchen, which operated from 2015 to 2017.
How we achieve the goal of being a pan-African restaurant is bigger than just the menu at Tatale
Brenya-Mensa later went on to become a music producer and tour manager, collaborating with musicians such as Gaika, but continuing to pursue his love of food. In 2019 he launched his supper club Mensa, Plates & Friends in London. That same year, the idea for Tatale was born during a trip back to Ghana, when he began to taste more food and talk to more people about African cuisine, he began to envision what the future of African food could be.
Brenya-Mensa sees Tatale as a collaborative space. From September, he plans to invite other chefs to make their mark on the menu and showcase other African cuisines, as well as open up the space that can be used by others for supper clubs, activities and other forms of community programming.
This is how the chef sees the restaurant live up to its pan-African branding. The idea that anything can be “pan-African” is amorphous, as Africans live in all corners of the globe. It is usually used in the context of a movement that aims to bring African people from the continent and across the diaspora together. But using “pan” for a region or continent — such as “pan-Asian,” which has its own problems — can bring charges of trying to lump different cultures and cuisines into one.
“In terms of the scale of what we’re trying to achieve here, it’s important to emphasize that I’m from Ghana in West Africa, and our first menus will be West African, because that’s what I know,” explains Brenya -Man out. .
“I’ve tried my best to incorporate dishes and ingredients from other places, but I think how we’re going to achieve the goal of a pan-African restaurant is bigger than just the menu at Tatale. It’s a whole concept instead of me saying Tatale is 110 percent pan-African because how can I represent 50 countries in one menu?
“People in Ghana don’t even do things the same from one state to another, so I think that’s an important distinction to make. We are ready to invite employees from September and that is not just limited to pan-African cooperation. All my work has been about partnerships, so I look forward to inviting everyone to come and use this space to hold events.”
His other vision of the culinary future is less meat as more people lean towards plant-based or flexitarian diets. “We have a limited menu with only one meat option. And that’s because I’m much more interested in what the future of food looks like than I am in the present. My work is definitely about what African cuisine will look like in 30 to 50 years rather than what it looks like today.
Only in the diaspora do you have room to change things
“When we talk about the environment and sustainability, the statistics indicate that people will consume less meat in the future. [Tatale’s menu] could be what a restaurant menu will look like in 50 years.” Brenya-Mensa also stresses the importance of knowing where your food comes from, harking back to the live crabs swinging their spindly paws in his mother’s sink.
“Even though I was scared [of the crabs]“I think that’s really dope, because we’re so far from where our food comes from. I once read somewhere that if you can’t kill the animal yourself, you shouldn’t eat it. I find that very distressing. It is not just any piece of meat in the supermarket.”
His decision to put more plant-based dishes on his menu is not without controversy. Nkate nkwan is traditionally served with chicken or fish, but Brenya-Mensa’s version is served without meat. One of his Ghanaian aunts “point blank refuses to eat it”. In another case, a customer asked him why no meat was served with the dish.
“At home there is no reason to do anything else,” he says. “But really, you only have room in the diaspora to change things. When you learn to cook traditional dishes as children of immigrants, you are actually learning a remixed version because your parents wouldn’t be able to get all the ingredients they can get at home. They are already making do.
‘That recipe that they knew at home, you learn a 70 percent complete version of it. I think that for all children of immigrants, the parents are more flexible because they have had to make adjustments. So when people eat my food here, there’s a little less of ‘Don’t do that’.”
Brenya-Mensa does want customers to ask questions and challenge him in his culinary decisions for Tatale’s menu. He points to the customer who questions the lack of meat in his signature dish. “After I explained it, she said, ‘You know what, if you put it that way, I get it’. And that’s what I mean when I talk about this place as a place for storytelling and conversation. For to me that was a great exchange.”
The response to Tatale has been “almost overwhelmingly” positive so far, Brenya-Mensa says gratefully, but the restaurant’s next four to six weeks will be critical to its development. “We have to deliver because I think this restaurant is really important,” he adds. “If we get it right, I think this restaurant could change the perception of African cuisine in London, the UK and beyond.”
At the same time, Brenya-Mensa knows that Tatale won’t suit everyone’s taste – and that’s okay. “We have people around us to keep us grounded. At the same time, not everything is for everyone, so I have to do my best and release that to the world, and the feedback will be the feedback. Of course you want it to be good. So fingers crossed.”