Within the corrugated walls of a shipping container in East London, vegan chef King Cook’s kitchen ‘CookDaily’ stands at the heart of a food revolution. Challenging the trending vegan archetype of acai bowls and courgetti, the 34-year-old’s rough and ready set-up has pioneered a new era of meat-free eating in London. Taking notes from the street vendors of Bangkok, the bustling ‘eating rig’ has become a culinary mecca for music industry royalty, inquisitive meat eaters and savvy school kids alike. Scrawled with graffiti and blaring the sounds of the UK underground, it’s where grime stars come to grab tofu bowls between recording sessions and chew the proverbial vegan-fat.
Hustling his way through the capital’s culinary scene, Bounsou Senathit, now known only as ‘King’, started out with blood on his hands, until a moment of existential revelation redefined a new era of gastronomic enlightenment for the young chef. Slicing and dicing his way through the hellfire of the capital’s elite kitchens, King, the current bad boy of London’s vegan scene, made a clean departure from the feverish floors of Michelin kitchens. With new eyes and an appreciation for the power of clean living, he took his vision of a meat free kitchen to the streets and built an empire on his marijuana-inspired “High Grade” and yam-packed “Hard Bowl”. Bracing ourselves before the lunch rush, we speak to the chef about the mentality of meat, starting again and how veganism has changed his view on life.
TBE : So where did your story begin?
I found myself becoming a really angry, young chef.
KC: I got the chance to work in Spain for a French chef and that’s when I really fell in love with fine dining. Before, food was just food, but there I was touching expensive ingredients, pairing food with different beverages, working with different cuts of fish, really top grade stuff. I was in deep and I fell in love. After spending years in Spain, I realised I needed to experience different kitchens. At that time Gordon Ramsay was blowing up so I thought ‘let me just send my CV’. I got a call back from one of his restaurants and moved to Knightsbridge to work. I knew about fine dining and stars, but suddenly I was in a kitchen with two stars and it was hard-core.
That’s when things really started taking off. I was gassed. I was like, ‘this is the real deal, I’m here now and this is deep’. Starting off as a commis chef, it was so intense. It was a lot. I can adapt to a lot of things, but the shifts were tough, and the hours were tough. But, it was such a good insight into that world. It was just so cutthroat, there was a lot of sabotage along the way. Everyone was just out for themselves. That chef mentality, it really grows on you.
They wouldn’t even sleep, they’d just go back into work in the same clothes.
I wasn’t involved but, there were a lot of drugs around. Working in the city, you’d finish your shift and go out to the clubs and restaurants in Chinatown. People from all over come here and work their arses off to pay rent and just stay working in West London. They wouldn’t even sleep, they’d just go back into work in the same clothes. I found myself becoming a really angry, young chef. Truthfully the energy was not where I wanted to be.
TBE: So I’m guessing there was a lot of meat around? Do you think it affected you?
Once I stepped out, and saw what a vegetarian restaurant was like I thought, ‘Damn this is clean’.
KC: I used to play a game when I worked in Spain, I’d to carve up the chickens after a big delivery and time myself. I’d take off the head, section the legs, the wings, the breast, the thighs. I got it down to forty seconds. At the time I didn’t realise what I was doing but, looking back I think, ‘fuck man, that’s someone’s fucking legs and arms’. That energy was not where I wanted to be. Our slogan now is ‘Vegan. No blood. No bones’ It’s quite graphic, but it’s straightforward.
People see five chicken wings as a meal, but what is five chicken wings? It’s three chickens dead, for one meal. So that’s the energy that I am talking about and, because you’re so used to it, you’re blind to it. You’re there wiping up blood, dealing with red meat, cleaning all the shit out from under your nails. Once I stepped out, and saw what a vegetarian restaurant was like; working with fruits, vegetables, clean boards and minimal cross contamination I thought, ‘Damn this is clean’.
Dealing with dead flesh, blood and bones can definitely affect you when you are preparing it, so what does it do to you when you are eating it?
TBE: When did you start thinking about turning vegan?
I belong to a totally different generation than to my parents. To be honest, they aren’t going to fucking care about the life of a cow or a chicken.
KC: In 2009, I started attending the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green because I needed peace of mind, I needed to get back to my roots. I spoke to the elders and they suggested I tried vegetarianism. They just broke it down to me; about the ethics and the energy and I thought about it. I started with vegetarianism and then, in 2014 I went vegan.
Dealing with dead flesh, blood and bones can definitely affect you when you are preparing it, so what does it do to you when you are eating it? Fruits digest in like 15 minutes whereas curry goat takes 48 hours. Fact. It leaves you feeling slumped and that’s how diseases are grown. I’m just trying to look after my kids, my family, my people.
TBE: What other benefits are there to a vegan diet?
KC: First I think it’s about the animals then, when you read into it you realise the health benefits, how it helps with your life and your clarity. Raising my kids with no meat in the house has changed my life.
We don’t get ill. And even when we do catch the flu, we juice and sometimes it only lasts for a day. Whereas before, I’d be in bed for a week taking Nurofen. Now I try to stay away from pharmaceuticals and try to heal myself with foods like turmeric.
I belong to a totally different generation than to my parents. To be honest, they aren’t going to fucking care about the life of a cow or a chicken. They’ve been eating meat for 70 years already. But it can also be about health. They aren’t vegan, but my mum has started to juice and I’ve been helping them find healthy alternatives. As they age I just want them to have a healthier lifestyle.
TBE : Are you on a mission to convert the world to veganism?
The biggest misconception about vegans is that it’s all about sloppy stews, lasagnas and white men with dreadlocks
I’m not trying to educate, I’m not a preacher, I just want to show people our way of living. The biggest misconception about vegans is that it’s all about sloppy stews, lasagnas and white men with dreadlocks. But, now we are reaching out to a wider audience, a different demographic- all walks of life. One minute its school kids coming through and the next it’s Boy Better Know (JME). I really love the locals, the youths, the roadmen, the tattoo artists, the meat eaters that are dragged along by their friends, the musicians and the celebrities that come through. It’s all love.
We are making a lot of noise. Without us here everyone would still be on the “healthy juice journey” I grew up in East London, my family were immigrants and we ate a certain way. Now we have the chance to change the way we eat. For me, veganism is really important, it’s the future, it’s my form of activism.
TBE: And how has it changed your state of mind?
KC: It’s made me a much calmer chef, without dealing with all that energy in the kitchen. Instead of gutting fish, chopping and boiling bones, we are just cutting broccoli and bananas and dehydrating dried fruits.
I feel like I found myself and got back to my Buddhist roots. Everything is personal, everything is connected to my life story. Veganism has always been here, but this is a new vegan London. This is the rebirth of it and I’m am flying the flag. I’m not an expert, I’m not a health advocate. I’m just a vegan chef, living in London, living my life and building my empire.