'It's a focus for the community': Stormzy takes Jay Rayner to his favourite cafe

For the full flavour of Caribbean food and an insight into his upbringing, the star takes the Observer’s restaurant critic to south London’s Bluejay Cafe

Bluejay Café, 2 Market Parade, Portland Road, South Norwood, London SE25 4PP (020 8656 9050). Breakfast £3.50-£7; main dishes £6-£10; desserts £2-£4.25 Licensed

A decade ago, when he was in his teens, Michael Owuo would come to Bluejay Café in London’s South Norwood after a heavy night out. “The Caribbean breakfast was the thing,” he says, stabbing at the laminated menu. “It’s a classic. Perfect for hangovers.” It looks like a substantial plateful for £7, perfectly engineered for a surfeit of booze: chicken or beef sausages, eggs, ackee and saltfish, fried dumpling, plantain and beans. “But get here too late in the morning and you’d never find a table,” he says.

This review appears in the 15 December 2019 Observer Magazine edited by Stormzy
This review appears in the 15 December 2019 Observer Magazine edited by Stormzy Photograph: PR

That’s not a problem these days, not now he’s traded Michael for Stormzy. He may have moved from South Norwood to leafy Kingston in southwest London. He may be the most famous former pupil of Stanley Tech, a man who has played the world’s biggest stages. But he still returns to Bluejay to eat. There’s a table reserved for us, up against a wall plastered with photographs of their regulars, of which he is one. So no, not a standard review. They knew both of us were coming. Instead it’s a snapshot of a particular slice of south London culture; the culture which made him.

Joy and Dave Blake, both of whose families are Jamaican, opened Bluejay Café in 2008. Places like this are familiar to me; I’ve lived a couple of miles up the road in Brixton for almost 30 years, which has its own version, their windows steamed, the air crackling with easy chatter. They’re much more than just restaurants. They are a focus for community; a way of reasserting cultural identity, one heaving plateful of the familiar at a time. Rarely do they shout about themselves. They don’t need to because their customers know exactly where they are. They are an extension of the domestic, which means they can be unfairly overlooked and underestimated. The other customers here at Bluejay today are almost entirely black British, though you make assumptions about where their families are from, at your peril.

‘Deep, rich and sustaining’: glossy oxtail stew.
‘Deep, rich and sustaining’: glossy oxtail stew. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

“South London communities are seriously complicated,” Stormzy says. “I’m very Ghanaian, very West African.” At home his mum cooked jollof rice and okra stew and peanut soup. “As a kid I don’t ever remember eating vegetables. It was always big carbs – rice or yam or fufu – and then a stew.” But the Jamaican food here at Bluejay roots him, too. “If you’re African around here you know so much about Jamaican culture, and if you’re Jamaican you know so much about African culture.”

He orders us both a fizzing glass of Mighty Malt. It is dark, and batters you around the head with huge caramel flavours. It’s like cola, in knuckle dusters. I admit that, despite three decades living around here, I’ve never before had one. “It’s an acquired taste,” he says. “And, you know, good after a heavy night out.” I leave him in charge of over-ordering. We start with golden fingers of salt fish fritter, both crisp and soft, sliced up into batons to be eaten with our hands.

‘A kick of allspice and chilli’: curry goat with rice and peas.
‘A kick of allspice and chilli’: curry goat with rice and peas. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

I ask him about food on tour. “Back in the early days,” he says, “it was a shit-show. Come off stage at 11pm and go for a McDonald’s. Get up the next morning and have a fry-up.” Eventually he concluded it was slowing him down for his full-on performance. “During my 2017 tour we had catering. We looked after ourselves.” And then there was the diet he went on ahead of his headline spot at this year’s Glastonbury. “It was 12 weeks, working with a nutritionist and a trainer. A lot of fish. There was mackerel and spinach in the morning, then I’d carb up until 5pm, then just protein and vegetables. It was gruelling. I was hungry all the time.” I ask if that was how he came to be so ripped when he performed with his top off at Glastonbury? He grins. “Yeah, that was it.” I tell him I’m relieved; that I thought he was just built like that.

Joy starts delivering the food. First up a bowl of glossy oxtail stew, in a deep sauce made rich from the melting gelatine, after many, many hours of heat and care. It is sweet and salty and rich and sustaining on an afternoon with more than a hint of winter about it. You tug at the meat with knife and fork and then set about the bones with your hands. There’s also a bowl of curry goat (never goat curry). It is an earthy yellow, presumably from turmeric, and has a powerful kick of allspice and Scotch bonnet. “Don’t drop that down your shirt,” Stormzy says, as if he’s my mum. “You’ll never get the stain out.” These are the ingredients others might leave behind, pushed firmly to the centre of the stage. Naturally enough there is rice and peas.

‘A nostalgic act’: jerk chicken and penne, perfect for soaking up previous excesses.
‘A nostalgic act’: jerk chicken and penne, perfect for soaking up previous excesses. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

He also orders a bowl of jerk chicken broken into penne pasta. It feels like a nostalgic act, a reminder of the younger man in search of food to soak up the excesses of the night before. It’s not a subtle bowlful, under its overcoat of waxy melted cheese, but it’s easy to see how it would do the job. I get a single piece of jerk chicken, which comes sauced and properly grilled. Each summer the Lambeth Country Show is held in Brockwell Park just to the south of Brixton. It’s a cross between a classic country show, with flower-arranging tents and sheep shearing demonstrations, and a Caribbean festival. A haze of grill smoke settles across the fields from the many brilliant jerk stands. The jerk chicken here is a reminder of that.

‘What’s the point without custard?’: apple crumble.
‘What’s the point without custard?’: apple crumble. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

To finish we have apple crumble. Would we like custard with that? Yes, we would. What’s the point of crumble without custard? I wonder aloud whether they take credit cards here. Stormzy turns to one of his mates, who arrived with him and is sitting at another table. “Do they?” His friend says no. “But there’s a cashpoint over there,” he says, pointing across the road to the post office. After a full-on night out, they always needed to know where the nearest cashpoint is.

Our lunch is done. We’ve run up a bill of £32, but only by over-ordering. Stormzy works his way around the room, leaning his enormously tall frame into eager groups, some of whom he knows, some of whom he doesn’t. Selfies are snapped, friends embraced. Joy takes a kiss on each cheek. And then he’s gone. The car? It’s a Lamborghini SUV, since you asked. Well of course it is.

News bites

Half Jamaican chef James Cochrane, who has worked at both the Ledbury and Harwood Arms, pulls irreverently on that heritage at his restaurant 1251 in London’s Islington. Try his buttermilk jerk spiced chicken with Scotch bonnet jam or the slow braised kid goat belly with radish and tarragon. Alongside the Caribbean influences, Cochrane playfully works in touches from all over. Hake comes with cod’s roe, XO sauce and nori and a sweetcorn dish is flavoured with miso (1251.co.uk).

The big must-have bakery good this Christmas? It’s the Terry’s Chocolate Orange muffin from Costa, which the coffee shop chain says has been selling at the rate of six a second. Each muffin comes topped with a chocolate orange segment. Apparently, Terry’s was unable to supply individual segments so the company making the muffins has had to buy in, tap and unwrap tens of thousands of chocolate oranges by hand.

Self-described ‘healthy’ fast food chain Leon, is to open two more sites at Motorway services on both the M40 at Beaconsfield and the M25 at Cobham. Meanwhile it has trademarked the phrase ‘Just Happens To Be Vegan’ after the success of its aquafaba based ‘mayonnaise’ supermarket range.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1


Jay Rayner

The GuardianTramp

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