Maria Bradford is an award winning entrepreneur in the hospitality business. Her special brand of fusion cuisine is already getting her noticed. In this interview, Maria sheds light on her multi- faceted business and the communities and traditions that helped shape her passion for food. We pick up the conversation on her recently won award.
Congratulations on winning the ‘Be Inclusive Hospitality Spotlight Award for African Food 2022’. Please tell us about the award and how, in your opinion, it will change the path of the Shwen Shwen business.
Every person, everywhere, should have an equal chance to live up to their full potential. That’s the basic principle that we need greater awareness of. Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion brings with it, greater innovation and creativity. There’s a richness in diversity we must seek out.
Shwen Shwen’s path is unchanged. I am determined to ensure that Sierra Leonean food culture has its place on the map, and to create a platform on which others can build. That will be my legacy. Winning the award amplifies that, it adds a credibility to the mission and supports my founding vision.
Was the category in which you entered only for African food or for the diversity of foods. Are you aware of the other nominees in this category?
Yes I met so many lovely people in my category and at the event, all of them talented and contributing to the food industry.
We love the name ShwenShwen. Can you explain the origins of the name and the full extent of the services you offer?
[Sh•wen Sh•wen] adjective, is derived from the Krio language word for fancy. I deliver award-winning African food for dinner parties, weddings, and corporate events. I have a product range and ‘fancy’ perfectly describes how I plate my food and the ambience one can expect at one of our events.
Your cuisine is very much based on traditional Sierra Leonean dishes. What is unique about the cuisine. How have you adapted it to suit a modern British palette?
There’s a blog post on my website which is entitled https://shwenshwen.com/why-afro-fusion-why-freetown/ and an article https://shwenshwen.com/african-crops-and-slave-cuisine/ which both give an insight into the unique history of Freetown. As a rule I do not mess with traditional Sierra Leonean dishes for the British palette. That would be a crime against food. I will try to elevate the traditional without losing any of its authenticity. I will use the finest ingredients I can find, I will plate it nicely, but I will not mess with traditional dishes to the point they are not authentic or have somehow become a different dish. The taste and basic components all need to be there. Afro-fusion side is where I get to be more creative and use African ingredients to create new dishes
In one of your blogs from https://shwenshwen.com/, you highlight the importance of the immigrant communities’ contribution to British cuisine, including your own. What have been the challenges of launching and operating your business in a climate that has been less than welcoming to immigrants?
Migration is not a crime, and the contribution to the UK and many other countries from migrants is significant. Migration has never been a one-way traffic. The main challenges in the UK are around unconscious bias and barriers are less obvious but there. For example, in the early days when I was trying to secure supper club venues by telephone, people could hear my accent and without trying to know me or understand what I do, I would often get a flat no. On occasions when my husband who is white British calls the same venues, they’re much more open to a conversation and he gets further. Unconscious bias should not be a form of ‘acceptable racism’.
The biggest challenges though in starting my own business were cultural and down to me. A lack of belief in myself was the biggest impediment and I needed to believe in myself first. The second was about how our own society views creative pursuits and how little they are valued. Another challenge is how our own community backs the underdog but isn’t always quite so fond of the underdog when they succeed or start succeeding. Also, when we do cross over to other communities beyond our own you are accused of selling out and somehow being less black.
Whether from the catering side, restaurant or sales of your speciality foods, which products are your best sellers?
My best seller by far is ‘Salone Fire’ chilli sauce. It’s moorish and many people become repeat customers.
At this stage , what are you most proud of and what would you still like to achieve?
I’m really proud of my debut cookbook ‘Sweet Salone’. Available to pre-order now from most good bookstores and to be realised 13th July in the UK, US and Australia. This has been work in progress for two years and it is the thing I am most proud of.
For more information visit; www.shwenshwen.com