Words BY ANNA Lee
My grandfathers story is an important one. Unfortunately, his life was never easy. Being an immigrant in London meant working hard to make something of himself. He did, and this is his story.
Yagoumi (or in English ‘Jack’) was born March 1st 1929 in the village of Leonarisso in northern Cyprus. Born into a family of six children, money was short with multiple mouths to feed. However, being the second youngest meant having the protection and guidance of his older brothers to watch over him. Sadly, his parents wanted a better life for him and gave him away to a rich family in a nearby village. Naive and desperate, they were fooled into believing that their young son would be looked after and cared for. Instead, he was made a personal slave for the couple. Soon after, his brothers rescued him from the hell hole he had been sent to, and brought him back where he belonged. Home.
His older brother (Andrico) took on the responsibility of being sole carer to the family and was the main male figure in Jacks life. At around 15 years old, he began to mend shoes for the British forces in the army bases around the villages. Being a young man, he had his own dreams and aspirations. Not long after, his brother left for London and Jack was eager to follow. Fast forward to London, Kings Cross, 1950. His new home. This buzzing city was poles apart from the quaint, little Cypriot village he had once known.
London was full of bountiful opportunities for immigrants looking to find their place in a city still reeling from a World War. However, the army shoemaker from Cyprus found it difficult to find work. Things were looking bleak. Luckily, his older brother helped him find his place, bringing him eventually to the upmarket, Soho restaurant Ketner’s. An outsider no longer, he was busy working in a kitchen full of immigrants not so different to himself. I imagine ‘yes chef,’ ‘no chef’ were the only words echoing through the kitchen. No matter where you were from, the only language needed here was the language of food.
Everyday, Jack would leave at 8:30am and return home at 11pm. He worked hard, dedicating his time to his job. Persistently trying to grow and evolve into a real chef. Beginning at the bottom of the ladder as a kitchen porter, he slowly worked his way up to become the head saucier. It was no secret that he created the richest and creamiest béchamel.
Working in an extravagant restaurant meant that the clientele were either very rich or very famous. Winston Churchill was one of the many elite diners that regularly walked through the restaurants doors. Once he had asked to give his compliments to the chef for his amazingly cooked steak. Little did he know that that exact steak had been dropped by Jack on the floor! Despite moving to a new country, he was still the same young man from a little Greek village. If the food is good, it should never be wasted, Prime minister or not. After lengthy and demanding days, he would come home; pockets filled with treats from the kitchen for his young children. One evening, they were filled with crab and lobster claws, of a certain scene from the film Alien.
His dream was to save enough money to take his wife Margarita and children back to Cyprus. He wanted to go back to the simple village life he had always known. His wife had wanted to teach and he dreamed of opening his own cafe. But it was to never be. The Turkish invasion meant that all of northern Cyprus was decimated and destroyed by the Turkish forces. Constant fighting and bloodshed led to villagers leaving their homes at gunpoint. From that day, Jack vowed that despite his roots, he was now an English citizen and would remain so until the Cypriot people were given back their lands.
Throughout this period of turmoil in his homeland, he was thriving in his new city. Working in a professional kitchen gave him the opportunity to learn the classical way of cooking. But during the early 80s, restaurant chains began to encroach on the fine dining experience. Cheap, convenience now attracted the masses. Sadly, Ketner’s couldn’t keep up with the competition and was bought out by the ever growing chain Pizza Express. He was stripped of his job and livelihood. He was left with nothing. Stress soon sabotaged his health and he was diagnosed with severe shingles. Spreading across his back and spine it hit his optic nerve leaving him with irreversible glaucoma. The debilitating disease is also known as tunnel vision, with your peripheral sight slowly enveloped into darkness.
Amazingly, his other senses developed helping him adapt to the new world around him. He could still chop, boil and spice food, yet it would always be at a much slower pace than his old chef days. Despite these trying times, he was still a stubborn, old Greek man at heart who was not willing to give up his place in his own home kitchen.
The kitchen was his workshop. Delicious, homemade sausages hung from the ceiling; sweet, pickles and preserves stocked the cupboards. He perfected his traditional Magaronia de funo recipe which was always on the table at any family celebration. Even though he had such sturdy Greek roots, his finest home cooked meal was an English roast. His potatoes were so golden and fluffy that even Aunt Bessy or your dear old grandmother couldn’t match them.
His story is heartbreaking and yet inspiring. Slowly losing the ability to do something you love is unimaginable. He felt helpless but that didn’t stop him from giving up. The legacy he has left behind for his family is his passion and love of cooking. When food is brought to our tables, he will always remain in our hearts as the beloved chef of the family.