How I Made It: 'I didn't see Black chefs growing up – now I am one'

Welcome back to How I Made It, Metro.co.uk’s weekly career journey series.

This week we’re talking with Maria Bradford, a recipe writer and chef who used to work in accounting.

Maria, 41, was born and raised in Sierra Leone, and now she takes inspiration from the culture and flavours there into her premium private dining experiences and product range.

After catering for Christmas parties and weddings, her family persuaded her to take up a career in cooking – so she career switched, and in 2018 set up her brand, Shwen Shwen. 

Here’s how she made it happen.

Hey Maria. What got you into food and cooking? 

Like most African children I started cooking when I was eight or nine years old, but the business began in 2017, having catered for my cousin’s wedding and having undertaken a few corporate events for my husband’s business. 

Do you have any role models or people that inspire you – or did you feel you really had to create space that wasn’t already there?

My mother and my grandmother were a big influence.

They can both really cook and I mean really cook.

I don’t feel I have competitors. I didn’t see Black chefs making African food growing up, and if I had I wouldn’t have gone to university, instead going to learn about cooking and starting my business before now.

How does being from Sierra Leone influence your career? 

Well, I am Sierra Leonean and I was born in Freetown Sierra Leone and there was a time when this country’s cooking was all I knew. 

Now I am here in Europe, I wanted to bring traditional Sierra Leonean food and my Afro Fusion dishes to a broader audience. 

I wanted to prove traditional Sierra Leonean cuisine can be plated in a fine dining style and I wanted to show off our colourful culture, enhance it where possible. 

Did you ever do any training or studying? 

Well, I learnt from my mother and grandmother back in Freetown, but I did train at Leiths School of Food and Wine.

Whilst I can cook French classics, let me be clear, that I learnt to cook in Freetown.  

How did you get your first job in the industry? 

My first large event was my cousins Nikah’s wedding. 

Muslim weddings vary enormously according to the culture of the people involved, and ours was brilliant and memorable and I am so proud to have prepared the food.  

How did you go about creating your private dining company? 

For me, cooking is about connection; connecting people through food.

I wanted to prove traditional Sierra Leonean cuisine can be plated in a fine dining style and I wanted to show off our colourful culture, enhance it where possible and create a platform on which others can build. 

Creating a private dining company is really the bi-product of this.  

An average day in the working life of Maria Bradford

6am: She gets up and plans the day ahead – every day is different.  

9am: Visit the Post Office to send off products to Europe and ship to Freetown.  

11am-5pm: Creating products or working on plating, food styling and photography.  

The workday ends by 6pm (Picture: Maria Bradford)

6pm: Family time.  

On weeks she has a private dining event, she preps and cooks all week.  

You career switched from accounting to cooking – what made you take the leap? 

I loved dinner parties and cooking for friends and family and many people would say ‘You should sell this’ or ‘You should open a restaurant’. 

I thought they were being polite but this went on for almost a decade and the penny started to drop with me. Perhaps I should? 

I took too long to build up the confidence or take them seriously. 

I don’t want others to lose that time or become disillusioned by a lack of appreciation for creative talent in the diaspora.  

What do you love most about your job? 

I love cooking for people. It’s really that simple. 

I’d like to add value to Sierra Leone and Sierra Leonean cuisine. I’d like to enhance our culture, put our cuisine on the map and leave some sort of legacy. 

I’m quite passionate about defeating poverty, demanding equity and defending the planet. Lofty ambitions but we must all do what we can with the skills we have. 

My skill is cooking and it is actually a really powerful tool to connect people through food stories.  That’s what I love about it.  

What do you like the least? 

Admin. I hate invoicing, dealing with governance issues for a limited company and writing – the book was a big task, that’s for sure.

I just want to cook for people and have fun.  

How I Made It

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Black History Month

October marks Black History Month, which reflects on the achievements, cultures and contributions of Black people in the UK and across the globe, as well as educating others about the diverse history of those from African and Caribbean descent.

For more information about the events and celebrations that are taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.

October is Black History Month (Picture: Metro.co.uk)

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