A SEASON OF SUYA
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
The gang gathered on a late July night for a drink which ended up at The Hide, Bermondsey, drinks were nice, food was great and the company even better. In this group we frequently share ideas but rarely speak with much gusto about our ambitions so these ideas tend to remain as nothing more than that, just an idea. On this occasion my brother Tomi and I shared a vision we had been discussing of opening a Nigerian food joint, something that would sit comfortably within the western society we have grown up in yet fully influenced by the West African flavours we have grown up with as second generation yoruba boys in London. The others all identified with the vision and FJ shared a concept for a restaurant that I shan’t explain further as I’m certain it is only a matter of time before it comes to fruition.
“Let’s just do something, even if it’s just a one off. A pop-up or something just to test the waters, it doesn’t have to be the finished article, but we are such a talented group of guys, we should be able to pull this off between us” FJ spoke passionately, he wasn’t going to let this one go, and it was here that SuyaSpot was birthed. Each and everyone at the table can comfortably claim they contributed to the idea, but only God knows who thought of it first. In the weeks that followed we exchanged various messages grounding the idea and sharing responsibilities amongst the three of us: Tomi the facilitator, FJ the aesthetics guru and Tobi the chef.
Pepe – pronounced peh-peh – Hot chilli powder or any other spicy chilli based seasoning.
The initial hunt for a venue was a huge pain, we wanted to be centrally located but still close enough to South East London where the majority of our friends and family reside. We needed to find a venue that would allow us to take over their space on a weekend to put on our experimental West African BBQ pop up at a reasonable price. Apparently this is a huge ask! We had so many negative responses and outrageously priced quotes that we started to get a bit disheartened, but The Facilitator pulled through and found us Bermondsey Social Club. A perfectly located, reasonably priced gem. Mr Aesthetics proved to be worth his weight in pepe designing the website and personalising it with his most poignant suya memoir, which resonated with all of us, and simultaneously establishing our social identity across platforms. As the foodie of the group, the conception of the menu fell comfortably into my lap. I was so enthralled by the idea of creating my own yaji blend, that I didn’t consider any of the store bought varieties. We all focused on our strengths, bought a new BBQ and started hosting suya tasting sessions at my house attended by our closest friends as humble guinea pigs.
For me one of the first challenges was choosing the right cut of beef. Rump was too tough and lean, sirloin too expensive, rib-eye a possibility but slightly too fragile and still slightly too expensive. After a few attempts I learnt that many caterers and suya take-aways in London use a mythical cut called Tozo, which is apparently the hump of a cow, but I did some research and I’m calling bullshit not sure on this one. The internet reveals nothing of where exactly tozo is located on any cow, more importantly whilst I could potentially source this unicorn cut locally I was not too impressed by the flavour of the fat nor the texture when grilled. After speaking to a few butchers, I found a more appropriate “sirloin strip” to use where the fat was nicely marbled ad gave a soft and succulent quality which would be perfect to BBQ and more enjoyable to both the western and west African palette.
Yaji – pronounced yah-G – The name given to the blend of spices that make up suya powder. Each yaji is a well guarded secret, ours like many has been perfected over time.
SuyaSpot was a complete sell out, our debut pop-up went ahead on Saturday 6th August 2016 at Bermondsey Social Club. We had a few super keen guests arriving early, before we even had access to the venue. We set up as quickly as we could, trying to put in place all we had discussed to turn this very unfamiliar setting in to our own. Once setup was almost complete about 20 mins prior to us opening the doors, I turned on the gas BBQ and began prepping, expecting everything to be as in practice at home. But it wasn’t, disaster struck, some of the BBQ burners were not working at all, whilst other parts would not heat up past a low flame. Management came to take a look, but there was very little they could do. This was catastrophic but what could we do now? The event was sold out, 150 people were going to be coming through the door any moment, to meet with friends, have dinner, celebrate birthdays and chop our suya, there was no backing down. So we persevered and played the cards that had been dealt us.
One of the difficulties in hosting a pop-up of this nature without a set time for service, is the unpredictable nature of arrivals, will some guests come early and the majority fashionably late? Will half come at the stated start time and the other half equally dispersed through the remaining six hours? I don’t know, Tomi didn’t know, FJ didn’t know, there was no way to anticipate this, however what did happen was perhaps the worst thing possible given the dysfunctional grill. Our event started at 6, and between 7 and 8 when we were struggling to find our feet 130 orders came flooding in at once. To put this in context, imagine an unaccompanied toddler with a sprained ankle ice skating for the first time with an extremely heavy bag on it’s back. They’ll be slipping and sliding all over the place, and probably break that ankle and several other bones in the process. This was us, the battle was uphill, and a few close family and friends who were in attendance stepped in to help prop us up, some efforts were extremely useful whilst others only added additional pressure to our ankles and already bruised egos. As debuts go, this was not an easy one.
Despite everything we somehow still managed to satisfy 90% of orders and most guests were not too aware of the carnage that we had believed so evident. Feedback from many attendees spoke of a successful and fun evening, with slow but good food. We came, we Suya’d and despite everything we conquered. SuyaSpot had over 120 attendees, the food was seriously tasty, we didn’t make a loss and the majority of guests were asking about the next event.
After a good two weeks, the haze of dissapointment settled and we sat down to discuss our shortcomings over brunch. Each of us wanted a shot at redemption and so the hunt began again for a new venue, tweaks were made to simplify the menu and the necessary precautions put in place to ensure our ankles were sturdy for SuyaSpot: The Second Helping on 25th September, at the Bermondsey Yard Café, a day before my 26th birthday. The Second Helping was another sellout event, we hired a charcoal BBQ which proved reliable and gave great flavour, the team was bigger and better, vibes were high, drinks were flowing with a great afrobeats playlist by day and E-man jumping on the decks by night, it was exceptional, a huge success. The Second Helping was SuyaSpot as we intended, a casual outdoor barbecue for friends, family and strangers to come and enjoy some of our succulent, spicy and balanced street food. The aura was infectious and several people walked in off the street to come and join us. We had found our stride, this was the perfect birthday present.
Six weeks went by before we started getting an abundance of queries about the next event. It appeared both us and our customers were getting restless, so we set the plans in motion to have one last SuyaSpot of the year. Unfortunately our much loved BYC had remodelled for winter which was not conducive for us to host a winter BBQ. We began looking around for another venue and were suggested Buster Mantis, an Afro-Caribbean bar in the heart of Deptford. The space was perfect, and the theme of the bar not too far off from our pop-up. We met with the owners, whose terms were reasonable, it was just what we needed. We were ready to agree and pencil in Sunday 18th December however there was an art class scheduled in half of the venue. Which would greatly reduce the space available to us. This was not going to put us off, we wanted to see the year out with a bang and assure our repeat customers that this high standard was not a fluke.
SuyaSitdown took place on the 18th December at Buster Mantis, with a revised format of Lunch and Dinner. This offered our guests something novel but also served as a solution to the reduced capacity we were faced with. The event was a resounding success, drinks were flowing, suya was sizzling and platters of meat came hot off the B to tables until guests could eat no more. There were no leftovers and no hungry mouths. SuyaSitdown was the most organised we have been to date, there were a few surprise challenges to overcome but we were able to calmly rise to the occasion.
The first SuyaSpot failure has instilled in me a nervousness bordering on anxiety that can only be dispelled by thinking 3 or 4 steps ahead, anticipating any problems which could arise while staying perfectly focused on the task at hand. There’s an exciting buzz which comes when the adrenaline starts pumping in these scenarios, it’s like time speeds up for you and everything you are doing relative to those around you. In these moments I try to stay conscious of two things, the first is to slow down my words when I speak so they actually come out in full sentences like “turn the heat on that pot down now please” instead of “pot” and a hand gesture. The second is to be open to the possibility of the unknown, be it spontaneous unsupresable inspiration or pure chaos like a busted grill that may come and rear its ugly head. The unpredictability of things really does add spice.
How, where and when the next SuyaSpots will take place is yet to be written in stone. The only certainty is that they will happen, and happen they will pretty soon. Each will be consistently awesome, with slightly varying suya inspired plates and positive vibes. So look out for us on social media and subscribe to our mailing list for future events.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have helped us in our journey so far. Your efforts are truly appreciated, for without you we couldn’t have done this.