Maria was born and raised in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, where she has fond childhood memories of discovering and cooking age-old African recipes. Maria’s enduring love for the taste of home inspired her to deepen her understanding of cooking theory and expand her knowledge surrounding food. She went to Leiths School of Food and Wine to satisfy her culinary passions and solidify a professional future in the industry. She has turned her life-long passion for food into a fulfilling business, Shwen Shwen, which was conceived in 2017.
So, Maria, tell us about Shwen Shwen.
“Our mission is simple – we’re here to bring a whole new world of flavours to peoples’ doors. Whether that’s dinner parties, weddings or corporate events, we draw upon our Sierra Leonean colourful culture to bring people closer together through food. We offer an authentic experience, always with inspiration from traditional African recipes and always with a distinctive Maria Bradford twist infused into each dish. My business is called Shwen Shwen, derived from the Krio language word for fancy, which describes how I style my food.”
What inspired you to launch the brand?
“I founded Shwen Shwen with a strong sense of purpose and that was to put Sierra Leonean produce, cuisine and unique culture on the map. I wanted to prove that traditional West African cuisine can be fine dining. Ultimately, I wanted to connect people through food, preserve and even elevate our culture where possible.”
You offer bespoke private dining experiences. What does that involve exactly?
“For a start, there’s only one table. That’s what’s special. Have you ever had a really good night in a high-end restaurant ruined by a noisy table next to you? I deliver private dining experiences for friends, families, colleagues and connections. They may want to celebrate a special occasion or spend quality time with family or network with colleagues.
“A Shwen Shwen client has much greater involvement because there are no pre-set menus and you can discuss and help design the menu, the table and the entertainment from concept to completion.
“If you have allergies, we can handle it, and if you want your fish/meat ethically sourced or nothing to have touched a plastic wrapper, that’s fine. As a chef, I enjoy it because it affords an opportunity to be creative every time – be that through four courses or seven.
“Shwen Shwen experiences provide another level of luxury. Intimate or extravagant, it’s time spent with friends and family in a private space which is comfortable, stress-free and ultimately more enjoyable. I am happy to interact with my guests, introduce each course and answer any questions.”
Can you run us through the Shwen Shwen product range? Are you looking to grow this?
“All of the Shwen Shwen products are available to order from our online shop. Our range includes two Shwen Shwen Hot Sauces – Salone Fire Chili Sauce and Salone Spark Chili Sauce. We also offer Shwen Shwen Prosecco a choice of Shwen Shwen Fruit Juices, which are perfect for cocktails.
“There’s Passionately Bissap, a hibiscus and strawberry juice; Spiced Bissap, a ginger and hibiscus juice; Nomoli Ginger Beer; Tombe, a sweet and sour tamarind juice; Purple Haze, made with lavender and coconut water; and Mango Sunshine, a mango lemonade.”
As a business, what are some of the ups and downs you’ve experienced so far?
“To be honest, I love the cooking, the events, the socialising and interacting with people. I love researching food and ingredients. I don’t enjoy the business side as much. As a small business owner, there are many hats to wear and to be quite frank, the hat I want to wear is that of a chef – preferably one that can fit my dreadlocks under it!”
What does the next year look like for Shwen Shwen?
“We are aiming to publish my debut cookbook, Sweet Salone, in Spring 2023. There’s a lot of work to put into that before it is ready for print, but I am delighted to have the support of Quadrille Hardy Grant.”
In your eyes, what is the landscape like for UK startups in 2022?
“I think it’s tough, with Brexit hitting prices and the availability of produce. I also think inflation and the war in Ukraine breed uncertainty, and we may be on for a recession. That said, I wouldn’t let it stop anyone. We must live and move forward and cannot just cower under our duvets!”
Do you have any advice for like-minded and aspiring startups?
“Follow your passions, work to your strengths and if you want to do it, then do it. Once you’ve started, pursue it with a dogged determination!”