The London Evening Standard recently declared June, 2017 as ‘London Food Month’, a celebration of London’s status as the world’s new culinary capital. That announcement coincides with the start of our spring/summer food series. We love telling the stories behind food and so, in this interview with Chef John Gionleka of Peckham Bazaar, we explore the connections between food, culture and identity.

 

London: The world’s new culinary capital

At a time when the United Kingdom was questioning her European identity, we wanted to highlight and celebrate the positive aspects of London’s cultural diversity using food as a backdrop.

Our initiative (called FFEU16) was inspired by simultaneously occurring world events including the UEFA 2016 European tournament and the fractious Brexit referendum.

We set out on an ambitious mission to find London-based food businesses serving cuisines representing the cultures of the 24 countries participating at the Euro2016 tournament.

Albania was one of the countries on our target list. Our hunt led us to Peckham Bazaar, an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant located in Peckham, South London where we met Albanian-born chef, John Gionleka.

Peckham Bazaar, London Food Month

The fact that the restaurant is located in one of London’s most ethnically diverse communities and one not normally associated with fine dining made it even more intriguing. We visited on a summer afternoon as John and his staff prepared for the evening sitting.

The restaurant’s open-plan design brings diners into the kitchen, creating a feeling of eating at a friend’s house. The large grill, colourful tiles, wooden panels and generous natural light transported us from Peckham to a Mediterranean tavern. It was unsurprising to hear restaurant manager Olivia remark that guests often compare the place to having a meal on holiday.

 

Embracing new cultures in London

Food was the main attraction but first, we wanted to meet one of London’s most intriguing chefs. As he stepped away from the kitchen and took a seat, we couldn’t help but notice the symmetry between his black and white apron, thoughtful eyes and salt-and-pepper hair and beard.

More comfortable crafting creative Balkan-inspired recipes than being the centre of attention, John Gionleka, like many artists, prefers his art to speak for him.

“Coming from a small country in the Balkans like Albania, England was the furthest place I could imagine going to. I was actually quite chuffed I came this far!” John said excitedly as he began to share his journey.

“When I came here, I decided that I wanted to experience London and not be intimidated by it. I decided to embrace this new and exciting culture,” John said.

“I had a relative who lived in a small village who once visited Athens,” he said. When she returned to the village, everyone was very excited and eager to hear about Athens. She told them, “You won’t believe it. It was so full of people and yet I didn’t know anyone!”

The culture shock of big cities and the feelings of anonymity they evoke means that while cities like London can challenge our sense of cultural identity, they present opportunities for interacting with other cultures.

Apart from a childhood encounter with an Ethiopian family living in Albania, John explained that he had not had any significant interaction with African culture up to that point. That minor encounter did little to prepare him for the intensity of London’s cultural cauldron.

My first years of living in [South] London were memorable. I began working at a Greek/Cypriot facility which was predominantly used by West Africans and West Indians.”

“I soon found myself interacting with various communities; hanging out with Jamaicans, dancing to ska, dancehall and reggae and drinking Super Malt with Nigerians.”

“It felt quite overwhelming sometimes! London has a habit of attracting you and making you want to do different things with different cultures and communities,” he concluded.

 

Peckham Bazaar: Reconnecting with identity

Peckham Bazaar, London Food Month

John thinks that it is possible to hold on to your cultural identity while embracing what a city like London helps you become.

“On one hand, I was part of a reaffirming Greek Cypriot community; yet, here was this other community that enjoyed celebrating who they were before coming to London. It took me a while to realise how important it is to celebrate what you leave behind.”

However, sometimes life takes us full circle and eventually, we seek a place of balance.

“Having embraced an understanding of something other than what I had been before, I decided it was time to become Albanian once again.” John said.

Food was John’s point of reconnection with his Albanian heritage. He described how he found comfort in food as a means of asserting his identity. From that place of balance, Peckham Bazaar emerged.

 

What is food?

Eastern Mediterranean Food at Peckham Bazaar, London

The sounds and aromas from the kitchen soon reminded us of the main reason we were there…food! We asked John to describe Albanian food. His reflective look implied he was deep in thought.

“Probably a more valid question would be, ‘What is food to people?’” he responded.

“Food represents succour and a sense of security. It is moments of shared happiness around what you call family.”

Food represents succour and a sense of security. It is moments of shared happiness around what you call family.Click To Tweet

“Food stretches our context. It could be the spaghetti bolognese dish someone prepares even though they have never been to Bologna or fish and chips for someone who would not consider themselves English.”

Eastern Mediterranean Food at Peckham Bazaar, London

“Food is the experience. It is the smell of something being cooked rather than the end product. It is the anticipation of it being served. I think it is less important whether the food is Turkish, Albanian, Greek or how authentic or otherwise it is. In a metaphorical sense, food is everything around it but not [necessarily] the food itself.”

Food is made up of memories that we refine and embellish.Click To Tweet

“It is the sound of your mother’s voice from the kitchen calling, “Food is ready! Where are you?” and you replying, “I’m coming!” It is the hot summer night eating on a balcony while listening to the sound of cicadas and watching the stars. That is food to me.”

According to John, the food shortages caused by Communism meant that Albanians imbibed self-sufficiency and made the best of what little they had. His poetic response was a clear expression of a deep sense of appreciation.

 

Eastern Mediterranean cuisine at Peckham Bazaar

Eastern Mediterranean Food at Peckham Bazaar, London

Following the publication of Rick Stein’s book ‘From Venice to Istanbul’ and the resulting BBC series documenting his adventures through the Eastern Mediterranean, the UK Telegraph speculated about Balkan food being the next ‘big thing’ for British diners.

While that gastronomic movement may have been short-lived, there was nothing false about the freshness, unique combination of flavours and the artistic presentation of food at Peckham Bazaar.

John and the Peckham Bazaar team demonstrated an understanding of the pan-Balkan provenance of their ingredients and a mastery for combining them. The weekly changes to their menu ensure that guests experience a wide range of tastes from across the region.

We chose a mix of seafood and meat dishes, particularly enjoying the grilled octopus with Cyprus potatoes and the pork and lamb adana with baba ganoush.

The highlight of the meal was sampling a bottle of Methymnæos, an amazing organic wine from Chidira, a village on the volcanic Greek island of Lesbos. Its distinct mineral hints complemented the food’s flavours perfectly.

The overriding feelings from our dining experience were of warmth, family and sharing.

Eastern Mediterranean Food at Peckham Bazaar, London

 

Food and social enterprise

Peckham Bazaar, London Food Month

Like many of London’s communities, Peckham is changing. Affluent properties contrast sharply with council estates; a reminder that London’s socio-cultural gaps are real.

“When we opened as a delicatessen in 2008, it was my intention through that first incarnation to try to bridge the divide and create social cohesion through food,” John commented.

“Before deciding to change direction in 2013, I think we were trying to shift social paradigms that a small place like ours had no right to attempt to do.” While he may not have succeeded in that attempt, John remains hopeful that London will one day bridge that gap.

In the meantime, Peckham Bazaar are engaged in their community through support for refugees and asylum seekers. Food waste is also a concern which they are tackling through contributing to local charities involved in feeding efforts.

“We are thinking more about how we can be more than just a restaurant and contribute to social enterprise,” manager Olivia added.

Why is community important to John?

“Starting at the bottom of the ladder, one of the first things you have to give up is your sense of identity. You are viewed as a statistic. You have to renounce what you were in order to somehow validate what you want to become. To me that is a very traumatic experience.”

“When I speak to asylum seekers, I like to show an interest in what they were before they came here and encourage them not to lose that side of themselves. By listening to their food stories, I often learn a lot, for example how bread is made in Eritrea or Syria. But more importantly, as they tell their stories, they unwittingly reaffirm their humanity, which is something they often lose on their journey here.”

 

Booking details

Peckham Bazaar is located at 119 Consort Road, London, SE15 3RU (Peckham Rye station). Reservations are advised. Budget: £35 per person three courses and wine.

We wish to thank Chef John Gionleka and the staff and management of Peckham Bazaar for making time to speak to us as part of this project. We received no compensation for this article.

 

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Exploring food, identity and community at Peckham Bazaar, London | #LondonFoodMonth

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).

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