The Chef Set On Putting Iraqi Cuisine On The London Food Map
After spending five or so years post-university unhappily working in finance, Philip Juma – owner and head chef of Juma Kitchen, an Iraqi takeaway restaurant in London’s Borough Market – found himself cooking. “There are no romance stories of me on my nana’s knee or anything like that, cooking was just a nice distraction.”
A self-described “born and bred Londoner” – Juma’s mother is English-Irish – his kitchen journey began by hassling his Iraqi father for knowledge of the dishes they would eat at home. Or, as he puts it, “getting up in his face and pissing him off”. Juma grew up around dishes such as kubba and dolma and these family recipes were his only tangible reference point starting out. (Attempts to gain experience in Iraqi restaurants in London were unsuccessful; “chefs were suspicious and unwilling to share their knowledge,” he says.) This exploration of self and Iraqi identity has been at the heart of his cooking from day one.
Since then, Juma – both the individual and the kitchen – has been smashing it. A finalist in the 2021 BBC Street Food Awards, Juma has found himself on UK TV favourites Masterchef: The Professionals and Saturday Kitchen. Not bad for a distraction that started back in 2012 (one which has never had any PR or marketing representation). But, in Juma’s eyes, bringing Iraqi cuisine into the mainstream is bigger than success, bigger than anything on TV.
He has stories upon stories of Juma Kitchen fans messaging him and thanking him for representing Iraqis in a positive light. Back in January this year he visited Iraq for the first time, documenting the trip on Instagram, walking down Baghdad’s streets and visiting markets and churches – and he was blown away by the response. “The 25 to 35-year-old Iraqi diaspora worldwide were messaging me like, ‘Bro, you’re speaking in my head right now.’” So much so that one, from Australia, even sent Juma a screenshot of his flight confirmation to Iraq, thanking him for encouraging him to explore his family’s roots. As for Iraq’s identity crisis, Juma proudly acknowledges that, through Juma Kitchen, he’s “changing the narrative”. But his story isn’t about an eventual restaurant or cookbook, not just yet. As he says himself, “It’s become way bigger than food.”
Jake Missing is a London-based culture journalist who has written for Vogue, Noble Rot Magazine and Huck. He is a senior writer at The Infatuation