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Chef Mick Élysée is changing people’s perception of African food

PUBLISHED: 15:29 08 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:04 08 February 2018

Mick Elysee's recipe book, Not Guilty, is focused on dishes that are both delicious and healthy.

Mick Elysee's recipe book, Not Guilty, is focused on dishes that are both delicious and healthy.

Kabongo

To mark the release of his new book, Not Guilty, Mick Élysée is bringing his pop-up restaurant to Hackney. He talks about coming to Europe from the Congo as a teenage refugee, developing his distinctive Afro-fusion cuisine, and using his cooking to raise money for the Wonder Foundation.

Mick Elysee's recipe book, Not Guilty, is out now.Mick Elysee's recipe book, Not Guilty, is out now.

When Mick Élysée first came to London, he had already established himself as a skilled chef in Toulouse, where he had been running his own restaurant from the age of 22.

Having mastered French cuisine under the tutelage of Michel Toulousi and Jean-Marc Desclaux, he had begun his early experiments in combining the methods and style of modern French cooking with the ingredients and flavours of his native Congo.

Foie gras with a chilli spiced jelly was one of his first forays into fusion cooking, he tells me.

Mick Elysee trained in Toulouse and was running his own restaurant by the age of 22.Mick Elysee trained in Toulouse and was running his own restaurant by the age of 22.

“People found it a bit weird,” Mick says, laughing. “It was something new – they weren’t ready for it.”

He had arrived in France in 1993 (first Paris, then Toulouse) aged 14, as a refugee. Though the Congo has been tragically torn apart by civil war, he has fond memories of his childhood there – where he says his friends would gently mock him for preferring to spend time in his mother’s kitchen than playing football.

Mick found life in France difficult to adjust to, having been thrust into its education system with little preparation. Cooking, though, remained a passion, and travelling the world – taking in Canada, Brazil and Japan – gave him a renewed sense of purpose.

Mick Elysee's pop-up restaurant is coming to Hackney on Saturday, March 3.Mick Elysee's pop-up restaurant is coming to Hackney on Saturday, March 3.

It was with this determination to develop his own style that he arrived in London, where he has thrived.

“I worked at Soho House, Brooks’s, and Sketch – run by Michelin Starred French chef Pierre Garnier.

“Robin Reed was the chef who most inspired me, though. He gave me the chance to be a better chef and showed me lots of new things.”

His dishes fuse French cooking techniques with the flavours of his native Congo.His dishes fuse French cooking techniques with the flavours of his native Congo.

It has been a challenge to shape this Afro-fusion cuisine, but Mick reckons he’s just about nailed it, with a book full of recipes that draw on the strengths of each culture.

“I decided to use my background and explore my roots more. That’s where I came up with the idea to try and combine them. Sometimes it’s difficult, because Congolese flavours are strong, so it’s hard to combine them with French cuisine.

“But the challenge has helped me to be a better chef – I’ve had to be creative and improvise.”

One aspect of his cooking that he’s keen to emphasise is its healthiness, pointing out that African dishes sometimes have a reputation for being excessively sweet or fattening.

“I like Japanese cuisine – I like the healthy side of it. When I cook I try and make it as healthy as possible. I’m trying to communicate both the pleasure and the healthy side of it – that’s why my book is called Not Guilty.”

To showcase the ideas in the book, he’s running a series of pop-ups around London, where guests will be able to ask him questions, watch him cook, and of course, taste some delicious food.

“I want people to know more about African cuisine, and the only way to make it well known is to keep moving. That’s why I’m doing pop-ups – I’m taking the food to the people.”

The aim isn’t just to show people African cuisine, however. A portion of the profits will be going to the Wonder Foundation, a charity which helps disadvantaged communities – particularly women and girls – both here and around the world gain access to educational opportunities.

“The charity side came because of my story. The food comes first, but helping is a way for me to give back.”

Mick Élysée’s Hackney pop-up will be taking place on Saturday, March 3. To book a place visit his website. His book, Not Guilty, is out now.

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