Chef Akwasi Brenya-Mensa is tucking into his lunch at 4.20pm on a Monday afternoon when we meet at his restaurant in Southwark, half a mile from the Thames in south London. His newest venture, Tatale, has been open and fully booked for just over three weeks now, as interest in the pan-African eatery reaches a fever pitch. He’s feeling the pressure, but today is a rest day and calls for a bowl of comfort.
At first glance, his lunch appears unassuming – it looks like a simple linguine with prawns in a tomato sauce. But it’s the aroma of the dish that intrigues me most. It is reminiscent of belacan (also known as balachong), a pungent fermented shrimp paste commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking. The dish is a work in progress and Brenya-Mensa is using a common Ghanaian ingredient called shito, which is a chili oil with dried fish powder.
The 40-year-old chef lights up when I mention that it reminds me of belacan. He had spent several weeks in the first quarter of 2022 taking Tatale on tour as a pop-up in the Caribbean. “When I was touring in March, I did 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 using that instead of the powder and it was really, really good.”
It’s these little twists on traditional African cuisine that are emblematic of Brenya-Mensa’s menu at Tatale, located in 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 that is served with palm wine pickles and a dollop of Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise, this is how Brenya-Mensa imagines the future of African food to be.
The second-generation Ghanaian-British chef, a former mentee of The Great British Menu’s James Cochran at Restaurant 1251, started out like most great chefs – in his mother’s kitchen. As the eldest of four boys growing up in south London under the watchful eye of first-generation Ghanaian parents, it fell on Brenya-Mensa to help with meal preparations, 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 end,” he says. “I always wanted to know more, I’ve always been inquisitive so I always asked questions.” It wasn’t always so magical though, as he recalls being terrified of live crabs his mother would bring home to cook. “I would not want to go into the kitchen if they were there. But they would taste delicious.”
That curiosity around the alchemy of food followed him to Sheffield, where he first launched a street food burger business while studying for a degree in criminology and social policy. It eventually expanded into an on-site restaurant in Sheffield city centre called The Juicy Kitchen, which operated from 2015 to 2017.
How we will achieve the goal of being a pan-African restaurant is bigger than just the menu at Tatale
Brenya-Mensa later became a music producer and tour manager, working with musicians such as Gaika, but continued to pursue his love for food. He launched his supper club Mensa, Plates & Friends in London in 2019. In the same year, the idea for Tatale was born during a trip back to Ghana, as he began tasting more food and speaking to more people about African cuisine, he began picturing 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 put their mark on the menu and showcase other African cuisines, as well as open the space to be used by others for supper clubs, activities and other types of community programming.
This is how the chef sees the restaurant living up to its pan-African branding. The idea that anything can be “pan-African” is an amorphous one, as Africans reside in every corner of the globe. It is usually used in the context of a movement that aims to bring together African people from the continent and in the diaspora. But using “pan” before a region or continent – such as “pan-Asian”, which has its own set of issues – can attract accusations of trying to lump different cultures and cuisines together.
“In terms of the scale of what we’re trying to achieve here, it’s important to highlight that I am from Ghana in West Africa, and our initial menus will be West African-leaning because that’s what I know,” Brenya-Mensa explains.
“I’ve done my best to incorporate dishes and ingredients from other places, but I think that how we will achieve the goal of being a pan-African restaurant is bigger than just the menu at Tatale. It’s a whole concept rather than me saying that Tatale is 110 per cent 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 the other, so I think that’s an important distinction to make. We’re ready to start inviting collaborators from September onwards and that is not just limited to pan-African collaboration. All my work has been about partnerships so I’m looking forward to inviting anybody and everybody to come and use this space to hold events.”
His other vision of the culinary future involves less meat, as more people lean towards plant-based or flexitarian diets. “We’ve got 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 the present day. My work is definitely about what African cuisine will look like in 30 to 50 years rather than what it looks like today.
It’s really only in the diaspora that you have room to change things
“If we’re talking about the environment and sustainability, the statistics point to the fact that people will consume less meat in the future. [Tatale’s menu] might be what a restaurant menu looks like 50 years from now.” Brenya-Mensa also emphasises the importance of knowing where one’s food comes from, harking back to the live crabs waving their spindly legs in his mother’s kitchen sink.
“Even though I was scared [of the crabs], I think that’s really dope, because we’re so far removed from where our food comes from. I read somewhere once that, if you couldn’t kill the animal yourself, then you shouldn’t be able to eat it. I think that’s very poignant. It’s not just another piece of meat in the supermarket.”
His decision to include more plant-based dishes in his menu hasn’t gone unchallenged. 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 instance, a customer asked him why no meat was served with the dish.
“Back home, there’s no reason to do anything differently,” he says. “But it’s really only in the diaspora that you have room to change things. If you learn how to cook traditional dishes as the children of immigrants, you’re actually learning a remixed version because your parents wouldn’t have been able to get all the ingredients they can get back home. They’re already making do.
“That recipe that they knew back home, you’re learning a 70 per cent complete version of it. I think that for all children of immigrants, the parents are more flexible because they’ve had to make adjustments. So when people here eat my food, there’s a bit less of, ‘You shouldn’t do that’.”
Brenya-Mensa does want customers to ask questions and challenge him on his culinary decisions for Tatale’s menu. He points towards the customer who questioned the lack of meat in his signature dish. “After I explained it, she was like, ‘You know what, when you put it like that, I get it’. And that’s what I mean when I speak about this place being a place for telling stories and conversation. For me, that was an amazing exchange.”
The response to Tatale so far has been “almost overwhelmingly” positive, Brenya-Mensa says gratefully, but the restaurant’s next four to six weeks are crucial for its development. “We have to deliver, because I think this restaurant is really, really important,” he adds. “If we get it right, I think that this restaurant can change the perception of African cuisine in London, in the UK, and further afield.”
At the same time, Brenya-Mensa knows Tatale won’t suit everybody’s tastes – and that’s OK. “We have people around to keep us grounded. At the same time, everything is not for everybody, so I have to do the best job that I can do and release that to the world, and the feedback will be the feedback. Obviously, you want it to be good. So fingers crossed.”