FOR David Kra, his debut in the world of Cork farmers’ markets was far from ideal. It was the depths of winter, with snow and ice making the trek to Midleton treacherous.
“I had no job and I had a wife and four children to feed,” he recalls. “I just had the tent up when a gust of wind took it and blew it down.
“When my friends arrived; they were so disappointed there was no food. People said; where is the food? I was afraid that I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
However, David was undeterred by this setback. After all, he fled from his home in the Ivory Coast 15 years ago and travelled 3,165 miles to Ireland, his belongings squeezed into one bag.
And after that auspicious start, he is now making a living at the Farmer’s Market in Midleton and also at Ballyseedy, with his African/Caribbean food.
“When I eventually got my licence to trade at Midleton Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, I was so happy,” says David. “I bought a better barbecue and weights to hold the tent down.”
His determination and will to succeed now sees queues of people lining up at his jerk chicken kiosk to sample the tasty African/Caribbean dishes he cooks up.
“It is a way of life for me now and a way to ground myself,” he says.
David inherited his mother’s iron will.
“Mum made the move first to Ireland,” he says. “She lived for a couple of years in Cork, before she organised for the three of us children to join her. It was a big undertaking and a relief to her when we finally arrived here.”
David comes from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast on the west coast of Africa. It is one of the top 20 poorest countries in the world and a quarter of its population lives on under $1 per day
“My mother wanted a better life for herself and a better future for her children,” says David. “Our country had suffered political unrest and a civil war.”
Mary Claire had a big heart.
“Mum would have big gatherings for the African community,” says David. “They would all come together. She loved cooking for friends.”
Is that when David’s love of cooking surfaced? He laughs.
“No. I had no interest at all in cooking,” admits David. “It was chore for me. I much preferred to be outside playing soccer and basketball.
“Mum made me help her. She made us all help her out. I helped her peel onions and wash herbs. I gave her a hand to make things easier.”
Instead of too many cooks spoiling the broth, the family learned how to perfect the delicious, spicy dishes from their homeland.
They learned to speak English too.
“Mum said, you guys need to learn English to get on here and make friends. Then it will be easier.”
David did not find learning a new language easy. “There was no conversation, so it was hard to make friends,” he says. “English was not easy to learn, but I had the will to learn it. I watched the news on TV and I bought a dictionary. After a year, I got good at English.”
He found the climate cold, even when it wasn’t snowing.
“I found the cold hard to get used to,” he says. “I wore two jackets and three pairs of socks to keep warm.”
Was he homesick being so far away from his native country?
“In the beginning, yes,” admits David. “I felt like I had no connection and I found it hard to be included. Others found it hard to identify with us.”
But that was soon remedied.
“The smell of cooking and spices always lingered in our house,” says David.
“Our house was full very weekend. Christmas was fantastic. The house was full of people.very weekend. Christmas was fantastic. The house was full of people.full very weekend. Christmas was fantastic. The house was full of people.
“My mother was well known in the African community and invited friends and family to come for dinner. Everyone piled in. She used Irish produce the African way.”
Roast chicken was Mary Claire’s signature dish.
“She used herbs like Rosemary, Thyme and Garlic in the cooking,” says David. The spices she used were a secret. “They remain a family secret,” says David, laughing.
David married Antoinette in 2009 and says: “She is a brilliant cook herself and she has her own secret recipes from Ghana.”
David began to experiment more with his cooking when his children came along.
“I tried out recipes that I learned from my mother as a young boy.The kids loved the food I cooked and pals came over to eat. The kids said; Dad, you are a great chef and Antoinette said so too.
“I remembered how my Mum used to cook the rainbow rice, the joloff rice, the spicy stews, vegetable curry and jerk chicken. I tried out the dishes once or twice on the kids. I perfected the thick gravy my mother made and the tomato sauce base for the rainbow rice.”
David found he had a natural flair for cooking. “The food went down a treat,” he says.
“Soon, I incorporated more recipes from the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigerian cooking, creating African-Caribbean dishes.
“I admire chefs Jamie Oliver and Levi Roots. God’s word, The Bible is my first inspiration.”
He had been working as a carer, but he admits: “The job was very hard. I thought that I would like it, but it didn’t work out. The time came when I had no job. That was not good, having four children to feed.”
But his instincts were good and when he met the co-ordinator at Mahon Farmers’ Market, David made inquiries on how he could go about setting up his own stall.
“I had no clue,” he says. "I got advice to go to the local council and get a licence to trade at Midleton Farmers’ Market. I made the application but I had to wait a few months to get the licence. Meanwhile I was jobless.”
David was resilient.
“The licence took a while to process. Until it came through I had to go out and do something. I was getting fed-up. I realised I had no cooking qualifications and I didn’t go to cookery school, but I got confidence from my mum, my wife and my kids.”
He bought a barbecue in Lidl for €80. David was on his way to market.
“I cooked chicken wings and chicken legs in herbs and spices. Chicken is the easiest thing to cook. I stuck with that. I felt I wasn’t experienced enough to cook ribs.”
His pals rallied.
“I was pretty much alone on Fridays at the market,” says David. “A couple of people were very good to support me. Often I had only one customer. I put in a lot of preparation and work. My wife helped. Then I had the disaster when the tent blew down in the gale of wind.”
David was not disheartened. He didn’t throw in the towel.
His customers came through too.
“People came up to me and told me how much they appreciated my efforts,” says David.
“It was encouraging. And my friend helped me out with the use of his van to carry the stuff to market. I started going to Ballyseedy Farmers Market on Wednesdays.”
David got new gear.
“I got weights to put down to secure the tent, and I invested in a bigger barbecue. Now I have one that burns mostly wood and charcoal, making the meat more tender and juicier, real Caribbean style. Nobody else was doing what I was doing.
“People were interested in tasting new flavours and trying out new dishes. Word of mouth helped spread the word and so did the free samples of food I gave out.”
David got better and more experienced each week and got a great response to the authentic African/Caribbean dishes at the market.
“My wife said I got better and better,” says David with a smile. “I got more creative in the kitchen.
Did she get any more surprises?
“I was making four or five times more on a busy day than I was making in the beginning,” says David. “It was great.”
David is delighted with life.
Is he glad now that his mother made him help out in the kitchen?
“Mum never saw me as a cook,” says David. “She never saw it coming. She is really proud of me.
“I can cook for my mother now. Sometimes when I think of how brave she was to leave her homeland, I wonder how she did it.”
Midleton Farmers Market Saturdays, 9am-2pm
Ballyseedy Farmers Market Wednesdays, 10am-2pm