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Conscious Caribbean: Pop’s Kitchen

Interview with chef Marie Mitchell

Paths are not linear, futures are not pre-determined, and amazing goat curries do not (unfortunately) make themselves. It was almost inadvertently that Marie Mitchell, chef and founder of Pop’s Kitchen, realised that her passion for food was no laughing matter. The young chef spoke to us about how Pop’s Kitchen came to life, what drives her, and how Caribbean could be the next big food trend.

What led you to develop a passion for cooking?

I would say it started with my dad and nan really. I have memories of cooking with my nan during school holidays. Our family would head to the park at Earlsfield each summer and food was always the celebratory centrepiece. My dad has always absolutely loved cooking: he finds it very therapeutic like I do. Opening a cafe had always been a dream scenario for me, but things shifted when I began nannying for a lovely family: the parents noticed I had a really good way with food. They encouraged me to pursue my talent even though I’d never seen food as a career option.

Marie with her father. Image courtesy of James Hardwick. 

How did the idea for Pop’s Kitchen come to life?

I was reading an article about supper clubs and I just thought, “I’m going to start my own supper club!” Later that month I opened, having never even been to one! That’s just very much me…All guns blazing. A friend of mine runs Curio Cabal in Haggerston – I contacted him and he rented me the cafe on the evenings. It was great; really, really fun.

The name Pop’s Kitchen came about for a variety of reasons: the girl I nannied was called Pearl and we’d call her ‘Pops’. It was also a way to celebrate my dad’s influence; and, of course, the self-evident reason because it was a pop-up! The name just stuck.

It was never just about food in my family: it wasn’t just what you were eating, but who you were doing it with, how you were doing it, and where.

Ginger-lime cheesecake & flourless dark chocolate chilli cake. Images courtesy of James Hardwick & Nick Warner.

So that was your first foray into this, how did it feel?

I was crying the night before while making the ice cream: I’m pretty certain there were tears in it. I think realising that this was something I really wanted to do and the fact that I was attempting it made me feel exposed. Even though at that stage it was just friends and family coming, I was putting myself on the line. However, after the launch, friends kept telling me how proud they were, and that hit me. Without me realising it, food had been a slow-burning passion, and I had been too nervous to pursue it.

That’s quite special about supper clubs: you get to understand the food, the reason it’s on that plate and the journey the chef has undertaken to get there.

Your supper club was very successful. What were some of the challenges of running it?

Starting a business is never easy and food businesses are notoriously hard. You are constantly on the go: you’re prepping elsewhere, travelling, and handling logistics to make sure the food is safe and still delicious, regardless of the challenges. I was also very particular about the styling: I bought all the crockery, had napkins made and brought plants. It was never just about food in my family: it wasn’t just what you were eating, but who you were doing it with, how you were doing it, and where.

Supper club guests always said that coming to Pop’s meant coming alone and leaving with friends. I’m going to keep doing the pop-ups. You can’t get that same interactivity and immediate feedback in a restaurant if you’re running the kitchen: you can’t casually have a chat with guests about their meal. In a pop-up you have the opportunity of conveying who you are and build upon that, taking guests on a journey with you.

Pop’s is trying to achieve something new and different from what people have come to expect from Caribbean food in London.

Marie entertaining her guests and her mum enjoying the good company. Images courtesy of James Harwick.

Was your hope always to have a permanent residence for your kitchen?

It’s nice to have a permanent residence now. You’re working towards a different market, it’s a more formalised restaurant setting. It takes away a bit of the theatre of the supper club, which gives the opportunity to do both the cooking and hosting. That’s quite special about supper clubs: you get to understand the food, the reason it’s on that plate and the journey the chef has undertaken to get there.

On the flip side, a residence means you get new people coming to visit and see it in a totally different light. Recently a lovely lady commented on the fact that Pop’s is trying to achieve something new and different from what people have come to expect from Caribbean food in London. People like the idea of having depth of flavour without the food being quite so heavy. It’s about being a bit more conscious in our approach. At the moment I treat everything as an experiment: I’m seeking out and taking opportunities, using those to inform the next steps. The journey doesn’t have to be rigid.

Pop’s Kitchen jerk wings. Image courtesy of Enzo Cerri. 

Where do you find inspiration for your dishes?

I mean, London! It’s a melting pot of every different culture and cuisine you can think of, I’d be mad not to be influenced by that. Also, travelling. Exploring the world means exploring different cultures, their food, and how they interact with it. The more you explore the more you can adapt other principles and approaches to food in a Caribbean context. It’s amazing: food, music, theatre, art… all of these things influence us. At Pop’s Kitchen we want to encompass that and create that in our context. That’s why the styling of the space, amazing music and other elements make a big difference to the experience. We want guests to feel like they’re looked after, but also at home!

We need to be aware of our impact on the world by sourcing ingredients from good suppliers and using recyclable or compostable packaging. Small choices can have such a huge impact.

Guests enjoying the great vibes. Image courtesy of Riaz Phillips.

Do you think Caribbean cuisine could be one of the next big food trends?

Oh my God, yes! I 100% think it does. There is scope for more. I’d love for it to be the time for Caribbean food and culture to take off. Why would it not? It’s so vibrant and fun! Also, we take a new approach to Caribbean cuisine, I call it “conscious Caribbean.” We make sure that whenever we can we use free-range and organic meat and produce. We need to be aware of our impact on the world by sourcing ingredients from good suppliers and using recyclable or compostable packaging. Small choices can have such a huge impact.

Cassava fries with a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper. Image courtesy of Enzo Cerri. 

Any dreams?

Oh yes! I’d love to write a cookbook. In pursuing Pop’s I’ve become far more fascinated with where I come from. If you’re from the Caribbean you have Indian and African influences, and I have become deeply fascinated by the history. I would love to explore further. I’d also love to have a social impact by being a strong black female role model. The world is calling out for more strong women and I think that now’s the time to push that and explore it.

But also you must know that a dream doesn’t just appear, you have to work for it. But if you are willing to put energy and effort t will happen…and I’m still on my way! Life doesn’t have to be about traditional routes but you have to take ownership: just keep doing.

For a taste of her amazing Caribbean flavours, find Marie at the Green Rooms Hotel until the end of May, or head to Roti Shop at Stix Bar, a pop-up shack in collaboration with Island Social Club