This autumn, Gambian-born chef Lawrence Gomez is bringing the flavours of West Africa to south-west London for a six-week pop-up, Papa L’s Kitchen. We caught up with him to find out more about his career as a chef and what diners can expect from his unique African fusion menu.
My food journey began when I was a child watching my Mum cook. We used to have lots of dinner parties and I was fascinated by the way food brings people together and how food plays a big part in how Gambians socialise. My Mum did a lot of the cooking and she would always make us watch and learn before we actually did something. I decided I wanted to become a chef when I was in secondary school and I was the only boy in my class in my food tech class.
How would you describe your cooking style?
My style is a mix of home cooking and the style and techniques I learned at some of the top restaurants in London. When I was young, all the children used to just eat from the same big bowl and I remember how happy that made me, everyone sharing and having fun. That’s what I’m trying to do with my food – not eating from the same bowl but everyone sharing home-cooked dishes and having a really good time.
After the success of your summer pop-up, you were able to re-employ your former colleagues from The Gojk. With the hospitality industry going through such a tough time, this must have felt like a huge win for you?
It was a huge win to put a smile on my staff’s faces knowing that they can pay their rent, feed their families and have a regular income in this difficult time for people in hospitality. I’ve also employed additional staff who were out of work due to COVID. It was a huge risk but it’s paid off and I’m overwhelmed by the support of customers and my Instagram followers who keep coming back to try new dishes – that’s a really special feeling for me and my team.
For some diners, your pop-up might be their first experience of West African food. What can they expect from your menu?
In terms of the African-fusion cuisine I offer, it’s about mixing the learnings from my career with my heritage and trying to change people’s perceptions in terms of the ingredients that are being used. I love to cook with fish and other traditional ingredients from back home, and then put my own little twist on things. The dining experience at Papa L’s Kitchen is a culmination of my life, from growing up in Gambia watching my mum cook, to working at restaurants like The Ivy and Sexy Fish. I was also a DJ in central London so the music in the restaurant and the fun aspect comes from there.
My favourite dishes are all of them! If I had to choose it would be Ma’s Benachin rice because it’s inspired by my Mum’s recipe and it’s the national dish of Gambia, so this one comes straight from the heart. If you ask my customers, the crowd favourite is definitely the grilled king prawns in my signature sauce – people can’t get enough of them!
The pop-up runs until 14th November. What are your plans for 2021?
We’ll have a special announcement about the rest of 2020 coming soon so stay tuned! The plan for 2021 is to go full time with the restaurant and employ my staff full-time, not part-time.
When you’re not in the kitchen, where do you like to dine out in London?
When I’m not working, which is very rare these days, I eat wherever my kids take me so it’s always down to them and if I said anything other than McDonalds, I’d be lying! That’s a rare occasion though, and usually you’ll find us in GBK or Wahaca.
Papa L’s Kitchen is popping up at The Gojk on Old Brompton Road until 14th November, with 15% off every Thursday during Black History Month. Visit OpenTable to make a reservation.