Former Leiths student Maria Bradford was born and raised in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. She now lives in Kent, where she runs Shwen Shwen (meaning ‘fancy’ in her native Krio), a high-end catering company, supper club, and online stores specialising in Sierra Leonean cuisine. Her debut cookbook Sweet Salone (after the nickname locals use for Sierra Leone) will be published by Quadrille in 2023.
How did you first learn to cook?
“From my grandmother and mother in Sierra Leone. It’s very common in Sierra Leone to do menial tasks in the kitchen like peeling onions from a young age. My first experience of having more responsibility in the kitchen was towards the end of primary school, I must have been about nine, when I started coming home by myself. My mum would make all the sauces for the week at the weekend, and she’d ask me to cook the rice to go with the sauces.”
What prompted you to take a cooking course at Leiths?
“I think it was confidence. I had left my job [in accounting] and was doing private catering and running a supper club in London with a friend of mine, but I still cringed when people called me a chef. I’d cringe and say, ‘I’m not a chef, I’m just somebody who likes to cook’. I always made excuses to explain why I didn’t feel like I could call myself that.”
Which course did you do?
“I did the Essential Cooking Certificate in the evenings. In fact, what actually happened was my husband booked me a place on the food photography course at Leiths as a Christmas present because I also loved photography. It was while I was doing the photography course that I saw the kitchen and all the really nice produce we were using. I was really excited by that, so I went downstairs to ask about it and booked an appointment to speak to the principal about doing a course. I didn’t have time to do the full Diploma because I had a full product line, I have a young family, and I was doing lots of supper clubs, so she recommended the Essential Cooking Certificate to build my confidence and give me a strong foundation. It was really good and I really enjoyed the fact I spent my evening doing something just for me.”
For those who are unfamiliar with Sierra Leonean food, how would you describe it?
Cassava leaf stew is the national dish. We have some very very traditional food and what we call stews, not in the western sense, but a really nice, onion-based kind of dish. We have jollof rice, and we eat lots of fish as we have a long coastline. We don’t have a lot of waste when we cook. For example, sweet potato – we eat the root, the leaves, and feed the peelings to animals.”
Your first book Sweet Salone comes out next year. Can you give us a hint about what we can expect from it?
“It’s going to showcase Sierra Leonean culture and our food, and it’s also going to showcase Afro-fusion. For me, Afro-fusion is the combination of places I’ve travelled and the different influences and skills I’ve picked up which I bring into Sierra Leonean cuisine. I’m known for my Afro-fusion food, bringing elements from western culture into Sierra Leonean ingredients, and changing the form of ingredients that people are very familiar with to make new dishes. When it comes to traditional dishes, apart from cooking it well and plating it well, there’s not much I want to change about it because I really like how they are, but when it comes to the ingredients we’ve got, it’s quite an open field. You can do as you wish with them really. It gets me excited, changing something I’ve grown up eating and knowing in one particular way, and finding new ways of using it.”
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