Cooking for others runs in Mercy Adelabu’s family.
“My grandma – she’s in Nigeria – was a caterer for primary schools,” said Adelabu, on a recent Saturday morning in the kitchen of her parents’ apartment in Mulhuddart.
As she talks, she places fleshy balls of spinach into a boiling efo riro, a Nigerian stew, with a pair of tongs.
“I just love cooking,” says Adelabu, now picking up pieces of stockfish with the tongs, which are destined for one of the two steel pots bubbling on the stove.
One pot is for a customer who likes seasoning in their food, she says, the other for someone who doesn’t.
Adelabu set up a Nigerian food takeaway business from home last summer – when quarantine orders made the notion of home-cooking trendy, she says – but finding customers was hard. “Because it’s all in my house.”
Then a new company approached her on Instagram – where she follows Black-owned Irish businesses – with a proposition to team up.
She said yes and it’s helped her to find new customers for her Nigerian cuisine, which she sells under the banner of Mera’s Kitchen, through Esca Menu. “It’s helping me connect with customers in a way that I probably couldn’t because I don’t have much connections,” she said.
Esca Menu’s mission is to link chefs of colour cooking from home with those who want to buy their food, says Shalom Osiadi, its co-founder.
“It’s really helping people to grow. It was actually kind of nice to see, like, a Black-owned version of JustEat,” said Adelabu.
Osiadi says that compared to JustEat or Deliveroo, Esca Menu charges the cooks less, at two percent commission on every order.
He hopes to give cooks of colour who are finding it difficult to set up a business or break into Ireland’s food scene an opportunity to shine, he says, and help them jump barriers that prevent them from taking their cooking and businesses up a notch.
“It can be hard to get a job. We had people actually going to culinary schools who are being actively denied roles,” he says.
Authentic, For Real
Osiadi and his partner mulled over the idea for Esca Menu during the first lockdown in 2020, Osiadi says, sitting at the Westin Hotel’s upstairs café, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, shaking a packet of sugar before emptying it into his coffee.
Before the pandemic, they were pursuing an idea for a QR code on restaurant tables that caused menus to pop up. When the pandemic struck and people stopped eating out for a while, they decided to pivot, says Osiadi.
They launched Esca Menu in January 2021, and by March it had gathered a pool of customers, he says.
“I knew a lot of people in the West African community who essentially are very, very passionate cooks,” says Osiadi. “But because of lack of resources, they can’t actually start their business.”
Research shows that the Irish labour market can be unkind to migrants and “people who’ve done better than their White counterparts in college”, says Osiadi.
He wanted to change that, he says.
White chefs can learn a recipe and cook up meals from countries they’ve never been to, says Osiadi, and if they have connections, they can make it big off a culture they know little about.
For him, he says, that’s unfathomable. “Like, a Thai person, for example, trying to get a job at a Thai restaurant will be looked over for a White guy, that doesn’t make any sense to me, like, you know what I mean?”
Adelabu, the young cook in Mulhuddart, says she always wanted to study science. But she is flirting with the notion of a side course in culinary studies, to broaden her horizons.
She never envisioned, she says, that her small home venture could find its way onto an online food platform.
For Ruth Anokwute – known to family and friends as “Ruby Tuesday”, the free-spirited woman of a Rolling Stones song – the birth of Esca Menu has been a ray of hope, she says.
As a “woman of faith” she took Osiadi’s Hebrew first name as a sign of something good, she says.
Shalom, after all, is a greeting, she says. “It’s an old biblical word. I thought I’m going to trust the Lord,” she says.
When Osiadi reached out to Anokwute to come on board as a cook, she was coming to terms with a series of unhappy accidents that had shuttered her food ventures one by one, says Anokwute.
Anokwute grew up in Brixton in South London, with Ghanaian parents. She specialises in Ghanaian and Jamaican cuisine.
When she moved to Dublin nearly two decades ago, “a friend of mine, Richie Taplin, God rest his soul, had a friend, who had a recording studio, and he let me cook in the backyard and in the garden area”, says Anokwute.
“And my mates, Richie and all of them were like, ‘Wow, this tastes really good!’” she says.
Taplin was a well-known community figure in the Liberties, heavily involved in the successful campaign for a park on Bridgefoot Street. He died suddenly in June 2019.
After the backyard cooking, Anokwute set up pop-up food stalls at festivals like Electric Picnic and Body and Soul.
For a while, she catered reggae nights for a group called Rub A Dub Hi-Fi Crew at Tivoli Backstage on Francis Street, she says.
After that, she teamed up with a rickshaw business that had a warehouse in Smithfield where they stored the bikes. “In front of it there was a café,” she says, and she cooked food there for a while, making the jump from pop-up to fixture.
A fire put an end to that, she says. “We lost everything in the flames, I mean, it was a loss for me as well.”
Then Anokwute got a gig cooking at Berlin D2 bar on Dame Street. But a judge refused to renew the bar’s licence back in May after it broke Covid-19 rules.
Anokwute was elated, she says, to hear from Osiadi. He is setting up a cooking space for her because she can’t cook from home.
Her food smells too strong, she says, and in her Georgian Rathmines home, it’s unfair on her neighbours in other flats.
“I’m in the basement, so there’s no extractor, and the smell is very strong when you’re dealing with garlic, ginger, curry and coriander,” said Anokwute. “You can smell it from down the road,” she says, laughing.
Osiadi is arranging to set Anokwute up at a place in Churchtown because her food tastes divine, he says, so it’s a surefire way to bring in revenue for the venture.
“She’s a great cook and I think she should be able to cook from wherever she wants,” he says.
It’s common enough for Esca cooks not to have a proper space to cook at home, Osiadi says. Right now, he doesn’t have the means to help them all out.
But sometimes they can and partner with kitchens around Dublin and set them up for a while, said Osiadi. “But obviously, it comes at a cost to us.”
Esca Menu has about 60 cooks now, says Osiadi.
Sampling the online menus, customers may find Ghanian jollof for €5, Nigerian ayamase or green pepper stew for €30, and Croatian peas for €10 per portion.
Dubliners can type in their addresses on the website and find cooks and menus nearby.
All the cooks get a visit from the Health Service Executive’s (HSE’s) environmental health officers, Osiadi says. “They do an inspection come back and say to us, they’re good to go, they can legally start selling.”
If the HSE doesn’t give the green light, they have to let the cook go, he says – and they have. A company called Lynk Courier does the food deliveries, said Osiadi.
Osiadi says he recently pitched the idea for Esca Menu in a not-yet-aired reality-show competition in the United Kingdom, where it won prize money of £100,000 from Amazon. The show is due to air on Amazon Prime.
“I believe that we’re empowering a whole group of people who have been marginalised up until now,” says Osiadi. “And if it doesn’t work here, I know it will work in the UK.”
For now, he isn’t working with any restaurants, he says, as it conflicts with the core notion behind his venture: helping underdog cooks of colour make the food they’ve grown up with, find buyers, and build the confidence to plough forward.
Adelabu, the young Mulhuddart cook, said she feels seen. “It kind of helps us to shine in a sense.”