He may be just 12 but Omari McQueen already has his own show, food brand and cookbook. Julia Llewellyn Smith meets the little chef with big ambitions.
Not many 12-year-olds can claim to know a saucepan from a frying pan, let alone cook a three-course dinner that’s not only delicious, but 100 per cent vegan. But then not many 12 year-olds are like Omari McQueen.
He has a CBBC show What’s Cooking Omari?, a vegan dip brand Dipalicious, a YouTube cooking channel and had his recipes published in Omari McQueen’s Best Bites Cookbook. There was also Omari’s pop-up Caribbean restaurant, which he ran for a week in 2019, with another one planned to open this year. ‘I want to be like Gordon Ramsay – but without the meat and the swearing,’ he says.
Not bad for someone with dyslexia who was told at school that he was an ‘underachiever’. ‘That made me very sad,’ he says. Omari started cooking when he was seven after his father Jermaine, a bus driver, decided to teach him and his elder brother Laquarn to heat up food, then prepare simple meals for their family of eight. ‘My mum was sick and my dad had to go to work,’ explains Omari, from Peckham, Southeast London. ‘So Dad taught us how to make meals such as tuna pasta and spaghetti bolognese.’
Omari’s mum Leah, 33, who is sitting next to him, explains she was suffering from severe migraines. ‘For a while I was unaware Omari was doing any more than warming up food,’ she says. ‘My husband knows I would have gone ape at the thought of him alone in the kitchen with hot stuff. But what he’d cooked was delicious.’
Despite his talent, Omari wasn’t immune to mishaps in the early days. ‘I would either cook the pasta for too long or too quickly,’ he says. ‘And once I forgot to put the lid on the blender.’
‘He made me a curry with rice that was still hard in the middle,’ Leah says. ‘His smoothies and soups were good, but let’s just say it was an interesting first year.’
As Omari’s skills improved, he began investigating vegan food. ‘I didn’t like the
way people were treating animals, so I decided to cook plant-based meals,’ he says. Then a school trip to Kidzania, an entertainment centre where children role-play adult jobs, led Omari to another realisation. ‘I came home and said, “Mummy, I don’t want to work for people, I want people to work for me.”’
Leah explained to him for that to happen, he would have to start a business, ‘But I meant when you were older,’ she says to him today, ‘I didn’t mean right now!’
But Omari signed up to the 2017 Children’s Business Fair where he unveiled the vegan dips he’d created – and sold out in an hour and a half. His brand Dipalicious now sells three varieties online.
For his tenth birthday, Omari asked his parents to give him membership of business networking site LinkedIn. Through it he contacted Roger Wade, boss of events venue Boxpark, which runs pop-up food festivals, telling him he wanted to open a restaurant when he was older. But Roger’s response was ‘Why wait?’ and the next thing Leah knew, she was taking a call from Boxpark. ‘They said, “We’d like to speak to you about dates Omari could open his restaurant.” I had no idea what they were talking about.’
Omari was given a week to launch his restaurant in Croydon. ‘It was stressful for me, fun for him,’ Leah chuckles. ‘But when it opened, I saw my little boy become a man running his own company. I’d say, “Do you want me to help?” and he was like, “No Mum, I know what I’m doing.” When he had a break, people would come up wanting to take photos. I’d say he needed a rest but he’d say, “No, I need to speak to my customers.”’
Omari is engaging and fun, without coming across as cocky or precocious. ‘The most important lesson I’ve learnt is to stay humble, be yourself and your flaws make you unique,’ he says, and smiles politely as he lets his mum do most of the talking. ‘He’s the quietest of all my kids,’ Leah says (there are five more children at home – Laquarn, 16, Mahkai, 11, Kiara, nine, Kainon, seven and their cousin Jaylen, also seven). Leah removed Omari from primary school for the final two years after teachers wouldn’t enter him for the Sats test. But Leah says, ‘I told him, “You can do anything you put your mind to. I’m not having you lose your confidence.’’’
Omari started secondary school in September 2019, but Leah says he was bullied, with his classmates saying, ‘You think you’re so great because you’re famous.’ Then came lockdown and Omari’s confidence was further crushed as he struggled to tackle schoolwork without any formal structure.
He went back to school for two weeks this September, but – worried he’d fallen behind – Leah quickly decided he should stay home again. He joined the four youngest children who were also all home schooling, largely to protect Kiara who has a lung condition, with Jermaine working nights so he can help out.
‘I do a lot of creative stuff with the younger kids but for the older ones I use tutors,’ she says when I express complete horror at what they’ve taken on.
Leah and Jermaine share the cooking but it helps that Omari cooks lunch for everyone and on Fridays serves up a three-course dinner. ‘I love Omari’s desserts. I could eat his blackberry crumble all day long,’ Leah sighs.
Another typical recipe might be his vegan shepherd’s pie made with plantain, or his callaloo (it’s a bit like spinach) ‘mix up’ with rice and peas. His nan is a particular fan of Omari’s jackfruit barbecue wrap. ‘She was amazed – jackfruit has the texture of pulled pork. You put it in a wrap with rice and beans and it’s delicious,’ Leah says.
Omari also loves to experiment with herbs and spices, ‘My kitchen is my science lab,’ he says, and Jermaine challenges his son to come up with meat alternatives, such as asking for a version of the Burger King Whopper, and gives Omari the whole week to practise. But the family isn’t fully converted to veganism. ‘I’m almost there but I still dabble in fish for the omega-3 benefits,’ Leah says. ‘We all tend to have a vegan dinner, though, because I can’t be bothered to cook two meals.’
To persuade other kids to give his vegetable-based food a go, Omari says, ‘I tell them, “If you cook something delicious, it will be delicious.”’ And he’s putting that message to full use on his YouTube channel, CBBC show and book, which he wrote – or rather, since he’s dyslexic, dictated – during lockdown.
The excitement surrounding his new projects helped distract the family from their worries about Jermaine returning to work, as around 30 London bus drivers died of Covid. ‘It’s been a stressful time, but when everything is up in the air, Omari just concentrates on the good stuff, because he knows if you concentrate on the horrible things you’ll get stuck – and you need to keep moving forward,’ says Leah, who turns to Omari, ’you showed me and Daddy that.’
But, in other ways, Omari is just like any other kid. ‘He’s meant to wash up his own pots but he tries to get out of it by putting them in the dishwasher,’ Leah sighs. ‘His dad says he goes into the kitchen to destroy it, opening all the cupboards, getting all the ingredients out.’
She doesn’t sound cross. After all, who could be annoyed with a boy who tells you his ambition by the age of 25 is to own a chain of international restaurants, with his dips stocked in shops all round the world? And by the age of 17, he wants to open a restaurant on a bus. ‘People will eat on it and my dad will drive it,’ he says. ‘He works long hours and I wish I could see him more. This way he can drive around with me all day.’
From any other 12-year-old it would sound like a cute dream, but when Omari’s speaking you can be almost certain it will come true.
Omari McQueen’s Best Bites Cookbook will be published on 7 January by Scholastic, price £12.99. What’s Cooking Omari? is on Sundays on CBBC and is also available to stream on iPlayer.