Better known as ‘Big J’, Jemal Peters is the man behind the street food-inspired condiments line Big J’s Kitchen. Supplying to Selfridges and working alongside celebrity chefs, Peters has come a long way from dealing drugs and being arrested for robbery on his 16th birthday.
“We grew up kind of hard,” Peters recalls of his childhood in Tooting, South London. “But food was always the centre of our household, and was something that brought us together.”
His father walked out when Peters was just seven years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his brothers on her own.
“I was still young, so I guess [my older brothers] would protect me,” he tells The Huffington Post UK. “But I noticed little changes, like the Sky TV and phone line disappearing, and being told ‘no’ a lot more often.”
When Peters was 10, “everything changed”.
“My mum got seriously ill, so she was unable to go out and work. We lived off benefits.
“It was never going to be enough, now I was getting older and mixing with older people. I realised those around me had more.”
Most days, Peters went to school without money for lunch. “To tell the honest truth I never really realised until I was older, but not having enough money to go to school with meant I got into trouble because I couldn’t concentrate as I was hungry.”
Peters, now 30, also started to stray into crime because “I just wanted what everyone else had, even if it meant I had to take it”.
“The majority of time I knew I was wrong but the need outweighed my conscience and even the consequences,” he says.
“From a young age I saw the streets as the viable option to make things better in my life. But I was never the worst of the worst. I’ve been been around some horrible people deep in the road life.”
As a teenager, Peters “dabbled” in selling weed, but says his motivation in getting involved in crime was to fend for himself or his family – not to cause harm to others.
“I would commit certain crimes just to get dinner money or not to feel left out around my peers and get what I liked here and there.
“When I was 14, me and a few friends tried to sell weed. We had a master plan, but it lasted about a week because when my brothers found out they gave me a beating,” he laughs. “So I reverted back to crimes I knew.
“I also had a job in a barber shop cleaning it,” he adds “This is what I mean, I wanted to do things the right way but I only knew the roads.”
Peters was arrested “a number of times”, spending his 16th birthday in a cell.
“The embarrassment of having family members in my house waiting to sing ‘happy birthday’ to me,” he recalls. “The guilt from sitting in a cell looking at my £120 trainers that my brother bought for my birthday, without doing anything stupid [to buy them], made me say no more robberies and silly crimes.
“I didn’t do the crime that time, but I saw it as karma for the previous ones I got away with.”
Despite the wake-up call, Peters sold weed “properly” for the next five years.
“I knew I should be doing more with life than crime and I never planned to do it forever,” he says. “I refused to sell class A drugs because of the effect it has on my community and I was always planning a way off of the streets, when most people around me were buying cars, clothes and jewellery.”
Peters says his main priority was helping his mum with bills, buying fridges and hoovers, or putting food in the fridge.
“Don’t get me wrong, I kept myself fly,” he concedes. “I had nice clothes and a couple nice chains. But that wasn’t a priority for me. I was all about making mine and the lives around me better.
“Many times I tried to get a job and was unsuccessful or did it for a month or so and it wouldn’t work out. So I just did what I knew.”
The motivation to change his lifestyle came from having a daughter.
“From early I knew I wanted better in life, but I never had enough reason to leave,” Peters explains. “I’ve always known me and most of people around me who were on the streets were worth much more than the street life.
“I tell people, you have to go cold turkey. You get addicted to the lifestyle, women, materials… That feeling to do what you want when you want. It’s addictive.”
“To leave, you have to find a true purpose,” Peters reflects. “Unfortunately that purpose for most doesn’t come and it all ends with your freedom or life being taken.
“Luckily for me I found my reason to leave in my daughter and family. Until I had my daughter….” he trails off.
“I’ve never looked into someone’s eyes and realised everything [they] need in this world has to come from me. Nothing in this world mattered, not even myself.
“So in my eyes, being locked up or even killed because I was taking the easy route [and working on the roads] would be selfish of me. Being on the streets puts me at risk of messing up my daughter’s world in so many ways… So I said ‘I’m done with it all’.”
Peters built a career in the youth work industry, but said an office job “just wasn’t for me”, so in 2012, decided to create his own business.
“It was time for Big J’s Kitchen. When I had my light bulb moment and decided to create my own food brand I never looked back. I knew this was the route to a better life for everyone around me and more.”
Peters was backed by Sarah Willingham, star of Dragons’ Den, who he cold-emailed. “Surprisingly she replied,” he recalled. “At first I thought it was spam.”
Willingham’s support led to the brand taking over the London Cocktail Club’s kitchens, which are co-owned by the BBC star and celebrity chef Raymond Blanc.
“The crazy thing is, the skills I learnt on the streets is what I carried through to the business world,” he says. “From the motivation, to marketing, dealing with customers, breaking down profit and losses and even more.
“I didn’t learn it at school, I always felt school just taught me words. Which is a shame. But majority of what I learnt, I learnt on the streets.”
Peters says he has always been an entrepreneur, he just “didn’t know there was a name for it”.
“As a teen I had a mini store set up in my room and I use to sell stuff to my older brothers and their friends, I sold everything from drinks, crisps to rolling papers.
“I’ve never smoked but I could see the things people usually needed when they smoked or couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop to get, so I sold it to them at a premium.
“I was analysing my customers and their patterns from early on.”
Although he never envisioned food as being the base of his business, Peters said he used food as therapy, “and as a tool to bring fun and joy”.
“I remember the only thing I could look forward to was watching ‘Can’t Cook Won’t Cook’ and ‘Ready Steady Cook’, but only if Ainsley Harriet was on it, because he made food fun on TV, so I guess I should thank Big A for it all.”
Peters doesn’t deny his journey has been hard, but says he’s “good” with it.
“It adds more glory when we make it,” he enthuses. “Running around like a mad man with sauces in my boot, showing them to anyone that’ll listen, slamming my car side ways in the road to block in delivery drivers to make them take my sauces to their boss – that’s how I got in Allens of Mayfair.
“From long days and nights in the kitchen with my family burning myself on pots and bottles, cutting my hands cleaning pots, to getting out there into a new environment and trying to win everyone over without losing my true self.”
Although many of the people he’s met along the way have been supportive, Peters says there’s been a “good amount” of fights, which usually stem from stereotypes.
“Unfortunately a lot of the time our success only seems noticeable in entertainment and sport.
“I actually get fights from places I didn’t expect it. For example, even though we’ve been a ‘top 5 seller’ in Selfridges, I’ve had buyers from a certain major supermarket say we’re too ‘street’ then when I challenged her, she said she was clumsy with her words and meant we were ‘too cool’.
“How can you be ‘too cool’?” he asks. “The whole world loves cool things! In every industry it’s cool things that sell!
“I personally think it’s code for something else,” he adds. “But that’s another story for another day.
“Don’t be blinded by the tracksuit and a few swear words here and there… You’re looking at the new era of savvy business men.”
“Being street don’t mean you’re an idiot or a trouble maker or any of the negative stereotypes associated with us. I’m not going to walk into a board meeting, put my feet on the table and speak in street slang.
“You’d be surprised at the great and positive morals, etiquette, manners and all round values we have and pride ourselves on.
“That’s the type of thing I have to put up with, either so called industry experts who aren’t keeping up with trends or people who are ignorant to people from my world.
“So as soon as they see me and my brand, rather than focus on our successes to date and give us the respect we deserve, they make comments, judgments and decisions based on ignorance.
“My business partners are two middle-aged white guys from Sheen and Kent with strong careers in finance and the fruit industry,” he muses.
“I guess it doesn’t get more street than that.”
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