London's Jamaican Pride
April Jackson gave up a law career to make food from the “greatest island in the world”
By April Jackson
July 5 2023
11:44am approaches quickly as I finish preparing the last of the fondant potatoes for tonight’s service, and whilst the smell of rosemary, thyme and garlic filling the air is alluring, the clock is ticking and I don’t want to be late for the Sheriff’s lunch at the Old Bailey. My normally bare face is already made-up as I change from my chef blacks into a little red dress, from Crocs to 4-inch heels, and wrapped hair to flowing curls. From law student to Chef Patron and aspiring media personality in one 11-minute costume change. I walk through the bustle of Brixton Market thinking about the demands of hospitality, the industry I chose over law – the career I could have pursued.
I came back to England eight years ago, after growing up in Jamaica, to be on BBC’s Apprentice. I had dreams of opening a Jamaican-inspired restaurant in London, to challenge the idea that Jamaicans were either rastafarian international reggae stars, athletic world champions, or the most violent drug lords out of Kingston, the place I call home. Everyone says do what you love.
I love Jamaica and eating out. My friends say that in high school I always spoke about opening a restaurant; perhaps the trauma of the reality has erased those memories, but they can’t all be lying. I knew I didn’t have the big budgets for PR and marketing to compete with London restaurant giants and steal any of their attention in the press, but I did know that I had a big enough personality to get onto a show with millions of viewers, which was great for my business.
Three Little Birds was born after four months of grafting and intense learning for someone who has never worked in a restaurant, in any capacity, but whose fear of failure was blinded by her dad’s support. Whilst the builders were renovating my office space, squatters moved in, claiming rights that I didn’t know existed, with no regard for my impending grand opening. Then the council refused my alcohol application, which I had filled out independently, essentially painting the form black, gold and green with pride. Naively, without seeking professional advice, I did not appreciate that Jamaican culture did not always evoke emotions of sun-filled laughter for the Metropolitan Police.
Luckily, after a meeting was organised, the police were surprised to discover that I was not “hardcore” and that I “could actually speak properly”, and seemed to have been charmed by the spirit of the island that I would describe as the greatest in the world.
Finally the doors were opened and I was able to showcase my version of Jamaica: neither a ghetto nor a beach, but a place where you could enjoy the flavours that were familiar to so many but without the styrofoam box. There was no teeth kissing here, but rum aplenty, the rhythms that transported you to the Caribbean and a tangible all-round good vibe. A couple years after its opening, a second Three Little Birds was born, in Clapham. We survived, some might even say thrived, but we undoubtedly beat the odds by not falling in the first year, as about 60% of new UK restaurants do.
Then cue COVID and everything changed. I made the tough decision to close one venue and rebrand another, after giving birth to twins. The new restaurant, Wood & Water, brought Jamaican soul to modern British cuisine on Coldharbour Lane. I still continue to fight the good fight despite food-price increases, skyrocketing electricity bills, a dwindling capable workforce, and curbed consumer spending during a cost-of-living crisis.
Ambition is a double-edged sword. Most of the time it is your dearest friend and then sometimes it chases you to exhaustion. Combined with impatience, it is an essential component to getting anything done, but it is also the drug that keeps you living in the future and spending only fleeting moments in the present. Years ago, whilst completing my Bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in New York, I decided that I no longer wanted to pursue a law degree because the thought of staying in school felt utterly stagnant. I was so keen to give life to the entrepreneur within me, that I petitioned the Board of Deans to allow me to complete six classes in six weeks so that I could graduate a year early.
Had impatience taken me down the wrong path? Had ambition cheated me of a safe career that would have been far more rewarding financially and far less stressful? The jury is still out. It is no secret that the current landscape in the hospitality industry is rough, not that it was ever the socialising party that daydreams are made of. But the optimist in me knows that better days must be on their way. Whether I should have stayed at my Ivy League university to become a big-shot City lawyer, we will never know.
Back at the pass, it’s mid-evening and I send out a plate of salt-cured coley with those fondant potatoes and ackee aioli. My reinterpretation of the national dish of Jamaica takes me straight home and swells my heart with pride. I can’t have it all, but I know that life is for living.
For a taste of Jamaica, book your table at www.woodandwater.uk.