When the tall Jamaican-born Rasta Levi Roots bounded up the famous stairs of the Dragons’ Den lair in 2007, with a guitar slung round his neck singing merrily to the normally stony-faced investors, many viewers were torn between admiring his courage and wondering if he was crazy. But he left with £50,000 from Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh and within months Sainsbury’s was stocking his fiery Reggae Reggae sauce in all of their stores. It became their fastest-selling product, even outselling Heinz tomato ketchup.
‘It’s not unusual for a boy-child in Jamaica to be found in the kitchen watching his grandparents cook. Me granddad owned a farm and there were a lot of spices in Clarenden where we lived. They taught me how to use the real hot stuff, like Scotch Bonnet peppers. “You can’t just chuck them in like that – you’ll kill us all!” But my grandma showed me that if you cooked them inside their own casing, you got the flavour without the heat.’
Moving to London
‘It was a shock for me when all of us kids [Levi has five siblings] were reunited with our parents in London, as I’d gone from living in the countryside to a council estate in Brixton. Hardly the most fertile place, but you really can grow herbs in the smallest and most unusual of places, so I want to encourage people to try like I did.’
Life before cookery
After spending time breaking into the music world in the 1990s and playing with greats such as James Brown and Maxi Priest, Levi wanted a change and went to work in a plumber’s yard while he figured out what he wanted to do. ‘I wasn’t cut out to be a builder, but it was there that I figured out I could combine my two loves – music and cooking.’
Start of the sauce
Levi started making small batches of his grandmother’s special jerk barbecue sauce and selling it locally with decent success. He knew it had the potential to be bigger but his growth was being hampered by funding. ‘I was very worried because it really was a make or break point for me. I had this great enthusiasm and passion for what I was doing and I was going to food places that normally a black guy with dreadlocks from Brixton would never be seen in. But by pounding the pavement myself I really connected with the people I was selling to and I discovered a whole new world of speciality foods and markets that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I just prayed that my passion would carry me through. I was enjoying myself and that rubs off on people.’
Dragons’ Den and beyond
Levi channelled this enthusiasm when he went on Dragons’ Den. ‘I’ve been a performer all my life, so I envisaged myself playing to an audience, not five white millionaires who were going to judge me.’ Since that day four years ago, Levi Roots’ company has expanded into a £30 million business, with an extended range of sauces, juices and meals. He’s also been credited with raising the profile of Caribbean cooking in the UK. He’s written several books, including You Can Get It If You Really Want It and Caribbean Food Made Easy, which spawned a popular BBC2 series and regular mainstream TV appearances.
Twisting his Roots
‘What I’ve tried to do is give Caribbean dishes and specialties my own twist in order to keep moving with changing tastes. One thing I would never mess with though is the national dish of Ackee and saltfish because that would be disrespectful.’
For cooking aficionados who’ve never attempted Caribbean food, Levi recommends getting familiar with the various native spices, which he always has in his so-called ‘sunshine kit’ as they crop up in almost every dish. These include pimento seeds, nutmeg and ginger. He also recommends having limes to hand as they are used in the Caribbean to wash meat and fish with.
And to drink
If you’re having a Caribbean-themed evening at home and are feeling adventurous, Levi suggests making up a batch of Sorrel juice, which is made from soaking the hibiscus plant overnight with some ginger and pimento – ‘it’s popular to drink at Christmas with the main meal.’ He also suggests adding some rum to give it a kick.
Giving something back
One of the things that Levi is most proud of is being a role model to disadvantaged kids, black and white alike, around the country. He spends a lot of time visiting schools, talking to kids and preparing healthy meals to help kickstart their interest in food. ‘Giving back is definitely the best part of my job. My job isn’t just about making money; it’s about doing something positive for the community to allow others to grow as well. But it is hard – I usually work seven days a week.’
‘I’ve got a new book out at the beginning of the year called Sweet. I just can’t switch off, there’s so much I want to still do. I want Caribbean food to be as popular as Indian food.’