Ever since musician, chef and entrepreneur Keith Valentine Graham – better known to you and me as Levi Roots - was scooped up for his signature Reggae Reggae Sauce on Dragon’s Den in 2007, the Jamaican native has been hotter than a scotch bonnet.
Not content with having his trademark sauce (and a slew of new products) sold in supermarkets throughout the country, he has now teamed up with mega chicken chain KFC to create a Reggae Reggae burger. Plus, he’s also partnered with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ creators Aardman for a new £2million animated ad to promote a new, milder version of his spicy Jamaican jerk sauce.
So how does this Rasta man from humble beginnings in Jamaica, who couldn’t read or write until the age of 12 and who has been in trouble with the law – including a five-year stint in prison – feel after making it as a big-time culinary businessman in the UK?
Humble, he told Yahoo! Lifestyle.
“I never envisaged this would have taken me where it has. I knew this was a great sauce but in no way could I have grasped how well it would sell and the fame that would come with it,” says Levi.
“It’s still a dream and I still wake up every morning pinching myself.“
But what is it that has made us fall in love with spicy flavours of his native land’s food? Could it be the enticing heat of those warmer climate?
[Related feature: Levi Root's delicious vegetarian chili recipe]
“People love that Caribbean cooking stirs up a bit of fun. Our food is about spice, hot scotch peppers, barbeques, eating outside and music: it’s about fun, it’s about lifestyle and it’s about those sunshine flavours. That’s what I think people are picking up on.”
The same goes for the success of his own brand of spicy sauce, which he believes has been such a huge hit as a result of successful marketing.
“My friends had said I should call it ‘Levi Roots' Caribbean Hot Pepper Sauce’. They said the name I’d given it was ‘too black, too Jamaican, too Rasta’, and putting music in wasn’t a good idea. If I’d followed that route, I don’t think the Dragons would have invested in it. People are buying the music and the culture and everything that goes with that,” says Levi.
And while Brits may be quick to gobble up tasty treats from the Caribbean and beyond, Levi thinks our love of ethnic cuisine may be because we don’t have a style of cooking to call our own.
“We don’t have a long-standing cuisine in Britain, aside from good old fish and chips and Shepherd’s pie. It’s good to be the devourers of other people’s food and try to hone a British style out of it. I can’t think of a name of what we can call the way we cook here. I don’t know what to call our style. Watch this space. I’ll come up with a name!”
And while the 53-year-old is busy trying to define our burgeoning cuisine, he’s also hopeful about Britain’s culinary prospects.
“I think food culture in Britain right now is exciting. Man, is it exciting! It’s the best. Do you know why? Because we steal everything from everybody else - we don’t have [anything to call our own] so everything is allowed. The future is looking good.“
His bright outlook speaks volume about his personality – one he has, in essence, bottled up and sold all across the country after a successful run-in with the Dragons five years ago.
“Going on Dragon’s Den with the guitar, the song and Reggae Reggae sauce, was me saying I wanted to take my experiences - going back to my childhood and my grandmother back in Jamaica – and I wanted to bring that with me and tell the story about where I’m from.”
As well as his mother and grandmother, there are few key players that Levi counts among the biggest inspirations in his life.
Most of his faithful fans know about his tight bond with musician and fellow Rastafarian Bob Marley, who Levi says ‘brought music into his life’. He remains close with the Marley family and has recently appeared in a biographic film about the late signer called ‘Marley’.
Secondly, Nelson Mandela, who Levi met in Brixton in the ‘90s, and then “the tall 6’7 white guy [Peter Jones],” who Levi calls the ‘masterstroke’ behind his success.
But what really helped the Reggae Reggae man stick out from the rest of the pack was his soulful love of music and the Jamaican rhythms he includes in everything he cooks.
While he failed to make money at it professionally, Levi set his sights on merging his biggest passions – cooking and music - by singing about food.
“I just wanted to put together the two things I loved. And it worked,” says Levi.
The slogan for his Reggae Reggae sauce, ‘Put some music in your food,’ speaks to the Rasta man’s belief in the marriage between the two art forms. And if you don’t remember him crooning out his Reggae Reggae ballad on Dragon’s Den, well, you’ve missed out on what makes this brand so powerful.
So what is the creator of Reggae Reggae sauce’s favourite recipe, then?
“Oh that’s a tough one. I guess it would have to be Salmon St Jago de la Vega – you doused in as much of the sauce as possible and leave it overnight. Put a chunk of salmon in and let it swim and dream,” he says.
“Once you take it out, remove the drippings and then fry it or grill it and let me tell you, it is something else. Its succulent, it’s fantastic!”
Next for Levi is global domination, starting in what he calls the ‘Holy Grail’ for any businessman: the US of A.
“In 2013, I’m looking forward to going there with my flavour and my style - and I’m hoping to cook tea for President Obama and lunch with Oprah Winfrey. That is my plan.”
Levi Roots is appearing at Foodies Hampton Court Palace on May 5, 6 and 7. You can buy tickets for Foodies online at foodiesfestival.com or by calling 0844 995 1111.
Check out Levi's claymation ad for his less-spicy jerk sauce below: