Rap star to wrap star: Tinie Tempah on moving into food and dreaming big with his delivery brand

Bring the stars out: Tempah is launching a range of wraps inspired by his childhood, hip hop and his Nigerian heritage   (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)
Bring the stars out: Tempah is launching a range of wraps inspired by his childhood, hip hop and his Nigerian heritage (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)

Until now lying on a bean bag, Tinie Tempah suddenly sits up in excitement as he begins to talk about Tom Sellers, who has two Michelin stars at Restaurant Story, his place by London Bridge. They’re mates. “A family friend had like, a milestone birthday, so I got Sellers to come and cook for the whole family,” Tempah — real name Patrick Okogwu — remembers. “And he turned up in a Rolls-Royce, had this mad watch on, all these tattoos and I was like: f**k! This guy is having a great time, man!”

Tempah, then, is new in the food game but delighted with what he’s found. The Girls Like rapper — read also: record label boss, clothes designer, property developer, investor, and TV presenter — tonight launches his fried chicken brand, Raps, with a party on top of the flagship John Lewis in Oxford Street. The bash, “just a nice opportunity to bring my crowd to the centre of town,” marks the beginning of a four-month residency at the rooftop bar, Willows.

The Raps name is a pun: the business will cook mostly chicken-based “healthy wraps, inspired by hip hop”. It will also nod to Tempah’s Nigerian background. The brand will go live for home delivery at the same time the party kicks off, but there’s something about Tempah that suggests this is just the starting line on a long road ahead. “The food world is a lot more exciting than I thought it would be,” he says. “I mean, look at Gordon Ramsay. Or Sellers. They’re rock stars.” There’s a glint in his eye.

Before the beanbag, before the talk of where Raps — and the rapper himself — might end up if everything dominoes into place, the conversation starts in the Morley’s on the Woolwich Road, 15 minutes or so from the Tempah’s teenage home. Restaurants — back then, fast food spots — have always been at the centre of things. “Growing up, a lot of our food was in the home. I’m proud of the family I’ve come from, great mother and father, they always provided meals for us on the table, mainly Nigerian stuff,” he says. But Morley’s, a mostly south London-based fried chicken chain, was “almost like a cultural hub… It didn’t matter where in Greenwich you were, you could just say ‘meet in Morley’s’ and everyone knew where you meant. So when I was working on Raps, I was thinking of my fried chicken place, I was thinking of that Morley’s.”

Cultural hub: Tinie Tempah at the Morley’s in Greenwich he spent much of his teenage life in (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)
Cultural hub: Tinie Tempah at the Morley’s in Greenwich he spent much of his teenage life in (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)

Tempah began to work up an idea of launching something like an elevated version of his childhood staples when he noticed “the culture I grew up with had caught up with the rest of the world”. What does he mean? “A lot of the food I grew up on — the chicken, burgers, chips, all the fast food — this was s**t food — food that was frowned upon, laughed at. And now, you’ll go to the poshest places, you’ll be in Chiltern Firehouse or wherever and they’ll be like: ‘Can we offer you some fried chicken or some of this or that?’ It’s been changing, maybe, the last 10 years, I would say.”

What does he make of that shift? “I’m talking from the perspective of a black kid who’s grown up in south-east London on a council estate with immigrant parents, and then I get successful and I’m in these establishments where all the culinary etiquette has gone into overdrive — four knives, two glasses, all that — and then... suddenly that goes away and this stuff comes in. I felt like something that was such a staple of my culture had been taken, had been gentrified.

“I wouldn’t say I was shocked, I just saw culture shift. But I felt like, as a rapper, as someone who’s come from that working-class culture, this is something that’s authentic to me.”

Besides, he adds, that culture meant the idea of getting into food was almost par for the course. “All through Peckham, there’s loads of Nigerian and African-owned restaurants. Coming from that background, you save up some money, work a couple of jobs and you either buy a house or buy a restaurant, do you know what I mean? It’s very common.”

Grub’s up: part of the Raps’ range (Lateef photography)
Grub’s up: part of the Raps’ range (Lateef photography)

Tempah spent the pandemic refining his idea, partnering with dark kitchen and delivery specialist Kitchen Ventures — who also back Professor Green and Gizzi Erskine’s Giz ‘n’ Green pizza larks — to make it happen, and working with YouTube chef Big Has for the menu. Tempah says Raps will be “heavily Nigerian-inspired with the flavours, the spices, the ingredients, and I’m around a Caribbean community a lot so I’m going to add a jerk one in too.”

The hip hop influence is more in the brand than the food. Tempah explains: “So like our kids’ menu is called Lil’Babies because there’s quite a prominent rapper called Lil Baby. And then our wings are called Peng Wings, because peng means to the culture, like, beautiful, desirable. And like, penguins.” (Yes Tinie, I nod, checking my phone for any missed calls from the old people’s home.) Other dishes include the JMEEEE, a vegan choice, the Buffalo Soulja and the Big Pun platter, with wraps starting just shy of £9. The African Giant, named for Nigerian singer Burna Boy’s album, is Tempah’s favourite “because it’s got a little kick.”

He also wants the brand to become aligned with rap and hip hop. “We want to support tents at music festivals, or maybe there’s an artists’ rider, and it’s Raps who provide the food. Or maybe it’s something like there’s a Top Boy production and its Raps sending the dishes for the set.”

An online channel is also set to launch “for rappers to have a platform to spray some bars, something fun and playful so people can come and showcase their talent”. He pauses. “Similar to what Jamal Edwards, rest in peace, did with SBTV.” At the moment, he seems deep in the throes of getting Raps out there. He talks of food festivals, or touring with a food truck. He speaks about being inspired by a friend’s upmarket burger joint in Manchester, The Butcher, which has a “just the coolest speakeasy hidden in it”. Will there be a Raps restaurant? Tempah is almost bashful; first he cites all the benefits of keeping things delivery-only — fewer problems to worry about, in short — but later, he’ll settle on: “I’ll leave that up to the people. But if it gets successful enough to sustain a restaurant then we will have a full, immersive experience and I have ideas for that.”

A lot of the food I grew up on was food that was frowned upon and laughed at. Now, they serve it in the poshest places

Demand, then, will decide. But one thing is clear: Tinie is looking to go big. “I’m in it for the long haul. For me, everything is about community. However I can, building bases where communities can be formed is really important. There’s nothing to stop Raps from having a social responsibility initiative in a year or two years, to help food banks or help with school dinners. There’s nothing to say that can’t happen. It’s been so fun working on it, but I would love it to bring people together in some way, shape or form.”

“Look,” he says, sitting up again. “It’s a disruptive time. The main thing is that the food is good, and once that’s sorted, anything can happen.”

For more information, visit kitchenventures.co.uk