Years before London’s supperclub scene took off, Maureen Tyne was cooking in her Brixton home and selling it to a growing base of loyal fans.
She shunned social media and a website, instead using the smell of the jerk pan and the Dutchpots bubbling with curry goat to let people know she was there. Sod Instagram – Maureen was sending smoke signals to get the word out. “Exactly,” she laughs. “The smell draws people in. People come in saying, ‘I can smell curry goat from a mile away! You’re killing me.’”
But in a world where the internet can make or break a food business and social strategies sometimes seem more important than the food, how has Maureen managed to sustain a business for more than 20 years?
The answer was through building a community.
Maureen’s best selling point, apart from the food itself, is word-of-mouth. Those from outside London bemoan the city’s apparent lack of community, yet in this corner of SE24, the sense of kinship is buoyant. “I could run for mayor,” she laughs. “Everybody near here knows me. I swear to god I could be a local councillor.”
The greetings from people walking past are testament to her popularity, and the joy that her food brings to the area. At her spot on Railton Road, a five minute walk from the heart of Brixton, Maureen’s phone rings continuously with orders. This time it’s an unsaved number, and the voice on the other end of the line is checking on the menu.
“Hiya Maureen,” they say over loudspeaker. “What soup you got today please?”
Maureen takes the order and shouts it over to Precious, who is in the kitchen surrounded by trays of oxtail, curry chicken, fry fish and festival. Maureen never writes down the order, preferring to commit everything to memory.
It’s the same with her recipes. They are all in her head, measured by sight and instinct rather than prescriptive measurements. It’s how she was taught by her grandmother Elmazine in Dalvey, St Thomas, in the east of Jamaica. There, she learned in her grandmother’s repertoire in her beautiful outside kitchen, over stoves fuelled by wood and coal.
Maureen’s yard is reminiscent of that, in a way. There isn’t the stunning greenery of the island’s countryside, but her coal burners and jerk pans create a scene that could be straight out of Kingston – albeit with less reliable weather.
Here she cooks her menu: oxtail, curry goat, fry fish and chicken, jerk chicken, plus weekend specials of jerk pork and cow foot and of course, her famous soups, including chicken foot and mannish water.
Maureen’s is neither cafe nor restaurant. It’s a sort of takeaway, though you’re welcome to stay if there’s space at the dining table, beneath the television usually showing the news. Or you could go outside and sit in the yard, where you might be joined by Errol prepping vegetables or fruits for juice.
Food was central to Maureen’s childhood. Her grandmother grew everything: cassava for hardfood and bammy, plantain, banana, yam, pumpkin, sweet potato, tomato, callaloo – the list goes on. “There was always a crop coming up, she grew everything,” recalls Maureen.
And her lessons in food started early. Aged six, her schoolteacher asked the class if anyone could cook. Maureen raised her hand, saying she could cook rice. So, she was called up to the front of the class to demonstrate it step-by-step, albeit imagined as there was no equipment and crucially, no rice.
She mimed everything – rinsing the rice, adding water, lighting a fire, putting the pot onto boil, tasting the rice, and adding a little bit more salt. “Everybody gave me a clap,” she says, “I remember it really clearly.”
After she had mastered rice, more dishes were added as Maureen proved herself. Cabbage and saltfish, corned beef, mackerel. “Then you graduated to chicken – how to French fry chicken, curry chicken, brown stew chicken, and then finally to bigger meats like cow foot, tripe and beans…” She loses herself for a moment in the mention of tripe, her eyes lighting up. “Oh my god, it was nice.”
Mealtimes were communal affairs, with cousins, aunts and extended family all coming together. The kids would help with the prep, peeling the yams, banana, coco, gungo peas and broad beans. The smell of the woodfire, Maureen recalls, was “amazing.” Little wonder it came naturally to her to recreate the same in London.
Maureen came to the UK in 1992, in her early 20s, to visit her sister, but then decided to stay. She got a job at Sainsbury’s, working in the canteen, a job she loved.
After the birth of her eldest son Brandon, things changed. He would cry from the minute she left for a shift until she returned. Eventually it got too much for Maureen, who quit and didn’t know what to do.
Her friends, already fans of her food, urged her to sell it. “They said there was nothing like it in Brixton.”
At the time, Maureen remembers just two Jamaican takeaways in Brixton, both since closed. So, she asked local businesses if their staff would buy her food for lunch. They said yes: “It didn’t take too long til I knew I could make a living, because the food I was cooking tasted different than the shops,” she says. “And the word-of-mouth – the more people who ordered, the more other people wanted it too.”
“Here, people come and support and they love the warmth. When I move next door, I’d like the same feel. That natural vibe, the coal stove, wood fire, the jerk drum.”
There was a restaurant briefly, but it closed with the 2008 recession, and Maureen brought the cooking back to her home, where she’s been ever since.
But the strain of living, cooking, and selling from the same space has taken its toll. Soon, Maureen will be taking the shop next door to a small park opposite her home that will, at last, create some separation between work and home.
She says there is no danger of her food losing its magic in the move. “Here, people come and support and they love the warmth. When I move next door, I’d like the same feel. That natural vibe, the coal stove, wood fire, the jerk drum.”
“I’ll be happy to be out of here so I can separate home from work. If I’m catering, it’s intense.”
Maureen also hopes to train the next generation, so she can pass on the mantle and take a step back and have a holiday. Her mother is still in Jamaica, and recently underwent surgery but the pressure of the business has meant that Maureen hasn’t yet been able to visit.
In the meantime, she’s still cooking, while promoting Jamaican food to a rapidly growing audience. She was recently listed in the Observer’s Top 50 in Food, BBC Good Food, and will be appearing in an upcoming episode of The Food Programme on Radio 4.
She’s even had a visit from royalty: Prince Charles, who came to visit a charity based in the same park as Maureen’s new spot, was snapped at the counter of her new food van. “He asked what I had and when I said curry goat, he looked a bit surprised,” says Maureen, “and then asked if it was spicy. He didn’t try anything.”
If only he knew what he was missing.