Life

12-year-old vegan cook Omari McQueen: The kitchen is my science lab

CBBC cooking show host Omari McQueen is all about having fun with food and bringing in the Caribbean flavours of his heritage. Prudence Wade finds out more

Omari McQueen (12), author of Omari McQueen's Best Bites Cookbook

WHILE you might struggle to get many 12-year-olds to eat their veg, Omari McQueen isn’t your average tween.

Not only has Omari been vegan since he was eight years old, but his CV reads like that of a seasoned chef: running a pop-up restaurant, selling a range of dips, presenting a cooking show on CBBC – and now publishing his own cookbook.

He fell in love with food by accident. “When my mum was sick, my dad taught me how to cook when he was going to work,” he explains. “He taught me and my older brother how to warm up food and do the basics, but I wanted to get more into it and actually use the stove, learn how to fry and chop things.”

When researching food that might help his mum Leah feel better, Omari stumbled across veganism. He soon committed to a plant-based diet, saying: “I didn’t like the way animals were treated for food and clothes, so I decided to become vegan and cook my own vegan meals.”

His enthusiasm for cooking and veganism is infectious, and you can see why he’s the perfect bubbly host for a CBBC cooking show. The tween cook is all about having fun with food, saying boldly: “I’m creative – the kitchen is my science lab. I’m always experimenting with different flavours and different meals, and making new recipes.”

Part of this experimentation is bringing in Caribbean flavours and seasonings into his plant-based dishes. Omari's grandmother “cooks Caribbean meals”, he explains. “I put my own vegan twist to it, so I don’t miss out on any Caribbean meals, because I come from a Caribbean background.” His eyes light up when talking about his vegan Jamaican patties: “It tastes delicious!”

With a TV show and burgeoning business already under his belt, writing Omari McQueen’s Best Bites Cookbook was a no-brainer – and for Omari, it was a huge achievement.

“I’ve got dyslexia and I find spelling hard sometimes,” he admits. “But I achieved the goal, because I wrote the whole book myself. I had some spelling mistakes, but my mum checked it and then it was really amazing.”

For Leah, food is a jumping-off point for her son to learn about so many different things. The book has helped with his spelling and self-confidence, and she says: “Omari learned to read fluently by reading cookbooks… And most of Omari’s measurements and maths have been through cooking as well.” Leah homeschools all six of her children, saying: “It’s hard work, but I make sure they are learning in a way that they’re enjoying at the same time.”

That’s not to say it’s always smooth sailing in the kitchen. After a few pointed looks from his mother, Omari admits sheepishly: “I am messy, I do not tidy up after myself.”

To which Leah adds with a humorous groan: “It’s absolutely hell. When he goes into the kitchen, he takes every seasoning out – he’s got about three cupboards now. When he’s in the kitchen he’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to be making vegan patties’. And then he’d be like, ‘But I’ll make a cake as well’. And then you’ve got cake mix all over the sideboard.

“I’m like, ‘Omari, you’re sitting down and waiting for things to cook in the oven or bake – why are you still sitting and there’s mess around you?’ He’s ruined a few of his good knives by putting them in the dishwasher – they’re not meant to be in there, but he’s too lazy to give it a wash. But he’s learning, and I’m teaching him.”

One thing Omari has certainly mastered is setting himself targets and going for them. “Achieving goals, I get that from my mum,” he says with a grin. “She always wants to achieve some goals of her own. I have my own vision board of what I want to achieve, and whenever I achieve a goal of what’s on that board, then I cross it out.”

So what’s next for Omari and his budding empire? Other than a cheque for a million pounds (yes, that’s on the vision board), his next big plan is to start making balanced, vegan ready meals for children, and donating part of the profits to free school meals.

Omari McQueen’s Best Bites Cookbook by Omari McQueen, photography by Xavier Buendia, is published by Scholastic UK, priced £12.99. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

HOT CAULI BITES

(Serves four)

100g plain flour

1tsp jerk spice mix

½tsp garlic powder

175ml oat milk

1 whole cauliflower, leaves removed, broken into large bite-size florets

½-1 tsp hot sauce, to taste (it’s pretty hot!)

1tbsp maple syrup

1tsp sunflower oil

Salt and black pepper

Method:

To make the batter, mix together plain flour, jerk spice mix, garlic powder and oat milk in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Line a large baking tray with baking paper.

Dip the cauliflower florets, one at a time, into the thick, spicy batter until coated all over. Let them drip a little over the bowl to remove any excess batter, then place them slightly spaced apart on the lined baking tray. Bake for 20 minutes, turning once, until light golden all over and the batter sets.

Meanwhile, mix together the hot sauce, maple syrup and sunflower oil.

Carefully remove the baking tray from the oven. Brush the hot sauce mixture over the cauliflower bites until coated, then put the tray back in the oven for another 20 minutes until golden. Place in a serving bowl then tuck in, dunking them into a sweet chilli mayo, if you like.

ITAL RUNDOWN

(CARIBBEAN STEW)

(Serves four)

2tbsp sunflower oil

1 onion, chopped

1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped

1 green pepper, deseeded and chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1tsp ground allspice

½tsp turmeric powder

1tbsp fresh thyme leaves

2 sweet potatoes, about 450g, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks

450g butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into bite-size chunks

200ml vegetable stock

400g tin coconut milk

1 Scotch bonnet, left whole, or jalapeno chilli, deseeded and chopped (optional)

100g tinned callaloo or spinach leaves

1 corn on the cob, kernels sliced off, or 175g canned sweetcorn

Salt and black pepper

Method:

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes until softened.

Add the chopped red pepper and green pepper and finely chopped garlic and cook for another three minutes, stirring often. Stir in the allspice, turmeric, thyme, sweet potato chunks and butternut squash chunks.

Pour in the vegetable stock and coconut milk and add the whole Scotch bonnet or chopped chilli, if using. I like my rundown hot, but you don’t need to use chilli if it’s not your thing! Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low. Cover with a lid and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

Add the callaloo or spinach and sweetcorn and cook for another five to 10 minutes until all the vegetables are tender. Take care that the Scotch bonnet doesn’t burst when stirring or it will make everything very hot! Season with salt and pepper, then tuck in. I like to serve it with rice.

BARBECUE JACKFRUIT

(Serves four)

400g tin jackfruit, drained

1tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1tsp dried thyme

1tsp jerk spice mix

4tbsp of your favourite barbecue sauce

200ml tin chopped tomatoes

2tsp white wine vinegar

Salt and black pepper

Method:

Remove the seeds from the tinned jackfruit and cut any large pieces in half. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the chopped onion and cook, stirring often, for five minutes until softened. Add the crushed garlic and cook for another one minute.

Add the thyme and jerk spice mix, then stir in the jackfruit, barbecue sauce, chopped tomatoes, vinegar and 150ml water. When the sauce starts to bubble, turn the heat to low, cover with a lid, and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir the sauce every now and then to stop it sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Take the lid off and cook for another five minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7. Line a large baking tray with baking paper. Spoon the jackfruit on to the lined baking tray. Now the fun bit! Using two forks, pull the jackfruit into strips, so it looks shredded. Add a splash of water to the sauce in the pan and spoon it over the shredded jackfruit until coated. Place in the oven for 15 minutes until starting to crisp at the edges.

I like to spoon the jackfruit on top of tortillas, with any spare sauce, and top with chopped avocado, tomato, coleslaw and some fresh coriander. A spoonful of dairy-free creme fraiche and salsa is great too.

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