To the wider world he is becoming known as Loyle Carner, a brilliant young rapper. But in a test kitchen near London’s Old Street he is plain old Ben, a lively 21-year-old showing six teenagers with ADHD, and one with anxiety, how to make pasta with pesto. It’s one of the hottest days of the year, and the fans whirring in each corner are not an optional extra.
Ben rushes from station to station, chopping herbs, grating parmesan and smashing garlic. Along with slick knife skills that belie long years of practice, he has the easy enthusiasm of a born teacher and his charges are absorbed in their tasks. One of his students, Eric, offers up his bowl of green paste for Ben to taste. “That’s sick,” says Ben approvingly. Both of them break out in broad grins.
“We had warnings from some of the parents that their kids might do this or that,” Ben tells me later. “But they’ve been brilliant. There has been no talking back, no aggression. Everyone is happy and learning.”
This is day two of Chilli Con Carner, a new initiative Ben is working on with the Goma Collective, a social enterprise focusing on creative projects. Ingredients have been provided by Borough Market, with support in the kitchen by catering company Get Stuffed. Ben has always known cooking could be therapeutic for those with ADHD, because he grew up with the condition himself.
“I was energetic and annoying and my mum would sometimes struggle to keep me in check,” he says. “But I loved making dinner. By the time I was six or seven I got to the point where I could cook on my own. The first thing I made was a sweet chilli squid. I was fascinated by squid: I’d gut it, slice it up and marinate it. But I had so many cultures bouncing around inside me – I’m half Guyanese but I had friends from Somalia, Morocco, Japan.”
Hospitality runs deep in the family – his maternal grandparents ran a restaurant on Skye. His mother is a special-needs teacher, and saw that, in the kitchen, her son could focus his spare energies while also providing tasty family meals.
“Often you hear kids with ADHD talk in terms of what they can’t do, but there’s lots of things they can do,” Ben says. “As my old teacher used to say: you shouldn’t judge a fish by how it can climb a wall.”
Ben looks so at home in the kitchen that it is easy to forget he is also one of Britain’s most hotly tipped young musicians, nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2016 and halfway through a string of high-profile festival performances. Songs like “Ain’t Nothing Changed” – a languid, jazzy paen to his London upbringing – are winning plaudits and ever-bigger crowds. He is unfailingly modest and polite – he runs up and down four flights of stairs seven times to fetch his pupils in person for interview – but in his good looks and easy charisma there is obvious star power.
While studying at the Brit school in Croydon – alma mater of Amy Winehouse and Adele, among countless others – he thought about going to catering college but accepted a drama scholarship to university. His time there was cut short in 2013 by the death of his beloved stepfather. He moved back home to support his mother and stepbrother, and would cook the evening meal.
He found his first intake of pupils through contacts of his mother’s and by putting up a notice at his old school. With some reluctance he advertised on his own social media, because he wanted kids with ADHD rather than Loyle Carner fans. The course lasts a week, with the students learning a different dish each day before serving a meal to their parents at the end of the week. Ben’s plan is that this is the first of many.
“The worry is that people think I’m just doing this for publicity, which is why I wanted to get it up and running – and hopefully able to stand on its own – before I get busy touring. I don’t want it to look like I’m some washed-up guy trying to stay relevant.
“I have no idea if I’m even going to be a rapper in six months’ time. I could tank. I can’t get away from music because I love it and it’s going well, but if it wasn’t for music I would be doing this. Working with these kids I feel unlike I ever have before. Writing is a release. You don’t have to think about anything else while you’re doing it. It just flows through you. It’s like cooking.”
Loyle Carner’s NO CD is out now (loylecarner.com). For more details about his cooking class, visit gomacollective.com