Belfast Telegraph

Levi Roots: Cooking and music are the same to me... they are my life

A decade on from his appearance on Dragons' Den, musician and chef Levi Roots tells Joe Nerssessian about his love of reggae and his dream of breaking into the film world

It's 10 years since a beaming Levi Roots charmed his way to a £50,000 investment on Dragons' Den with the help of a guitar, some Reggae Reggae Sauce and an infectious tune.

When he arrived to take part in the BBC2 programme, the now 59-year-old was worried about paying for his taxi journey home. A decade on and his biggest concern is sticking to his hectic schedule.

Aside from the ubiquitous condiment and its copious accompaniments (pasties, drinks, crisps), he presents his own Radio 2 show, lectures at schools, colleges and universities and 18 months ago opened the first Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse restaurant in Stratford, east London.

Personal branding is key to the businessman's success. Sitting in a booth in the eponymous restaurant, which he dubs a 'rasta-raunt', Roots leans forward wearing a wide smile and a dark green blazer over a Jamaican gold shirt. In his hair, red, gold and green cuffs are clipped to his signature dreadlocks.

A day earlier, he was cooking for Usain Bolt at a celebration of the Jamaican sprinter's record-breaking career.

Roots credits these opportunities and his personal popularity to the decision to introduce music to his Dragons' Den pitch.

"It caught their attention and I think I would have come a cropper if I didn't have the guitar," the entrepreneur tells me in a soft Patois.

"It's why people liked me and it's the reason why people are still investing £1.49 in Reggae Reggae sauce, because of the fun moment when I combined music and food.

"If I'd gone in without the guitar, I wouldn't be here speaking to you, or I'd be speaking to you as one of the biggest losers of the Dragons' Den, who made everyone laugh and was the butt of the jokes."

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Caribbean inspiration: Levi playing the guitar on Dragons’ Den and

Born Keith Valentine Graham in Jamaica in 1958, Roots' love for music was inspired by the booming sound system culture. After leaving the Caribbean Island aged 11 to live with his parents in Brixton, south London, he joined the Coxsone Sound System.

Years of writing songs and touring dance halls followed (he once performed alongside James Brown) and in 1997 he was nominated for the Mobo Award for Best Reggae Artist.

But it was the sauce he first began selling at Notting Hill Carnival which brought Roots his big success. Yet, despite the busy lifestyle the Dragons' Den appearance has afforded, he has not forgotten about the music.

"Cooking and music are the same to me - they are my life," Roots says.

"If I'm making food in the kitchen, it's the same as making a bit of music... like a symphony, how you put things in, the balance of the ingredients."

Two years ago, he released a solo record and is now celebrating his relationship with reggae with a compilation album featuring some of his favourite artists.

The record, Levi Roots' Reggae Reggae Hits, features fellow Londoner and a former musical rival in Maxi Priest, who was part of the Saxon Sound System.

"It was a big rivalry," laughs Roots. "I've grown in a slightly different skew to him, but we're still there.

"Choosing his track wasn't rocket science at all. He inspired me and we both came from the ghetto, from an area where people normally don't go on to be a Maxi Priest or a Levi Roots."

Spreading that message of hope is important to Roots and it is why he spends so much of his time visiting schools, bidding to divert youngsters away the troubles he encountered himself as a teenager (Roots spent six months in Pentonville as a 15-year-old).

He credits his emergence from the "bad boy life" to Bob Marley, who he once played football with in Battersea Park. Marley's music features on the album and it was the famed singer who first introduced Roots to the Rastafarian lifestyle.

"The integrity of what a rastaman means literally saved me," he explains. "It's helped me be the Levi Roots that you see now, not the gritty kind of guy that got in trouble in Brixton."

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Levi with his famous Reggae Reggae Sauce

In the 10 years since his televised pitch on Dragons' Den, Roots says he has "learned a lot about admitting where your frailties are".

"You can't just think because you've got a load of money that you can build anything you want," he explains.

"I knew how to write the songs and how to create the sauce and all the recipes, but to run a bloody restaurant? I must admit that I didn't know f*** all about that."

Finding someone to deal with the less creative parts of his work has allowed him to focus on "the recipes and the music, as well as the hugging, the kissing and the selfies," he says, smiling.

Next year will see Roots turn 60, but he has no intention of slowing down as he looks to turn his hand to acting and opening more Smokehouse outlets.

"My dream is to roll out this place and have rasta-raunts around the country," he confirms.

"It's now about offering people Caribbean food. It's not about me and my brand - it's a Caribbean adventure. I'm bigging up Caribbean culture, Caribbean delicacy."

"I'd also love to go into films, I've always loved acting, I've not done it yet, but I'm always trying to excel myself.

"Ever since I was a kid getting into trouble in Brixton, I felt I could do better.

"Still now, I tell myself I can always do better than what I'm already doing."

With such glowing confidence and charm, you would be a fool to doubt that Roots will achieve his ambitions.

Levi Roots Reggae Reggae Hits is out on BMG now

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