Omari McQueen is weighing a bowl of jackfruit in his airy kitchen in Peckham, south London. “You can make this taste like anything you want,” he says of the tropical fruit that has become a popular vegan alternative to meat, as his mum, Leah, and I peer at the vast selection of spice bowls and pans scattered across the kitchen island. “I hope that daddy will switch his curry goat for my version; it definitely tastes better!”
Omari is 11 years old, though that’s easy to forget as I watch him taste the curry from the bubbling pot, consider it for a moment, and add a pinch of spice. Wearing a bright yellow apron and a cheeky smile, he’s astonishingly confident, but that’s hardly surprising: the young chef and entrepreneur has been making waves in the food industry since 2018, when he launched his award-winning online business, Dipalicious.
Cooking has always been a family affair for the McQueens, and it was in this very kitchen that a curious seven-year-old Omari peeped over the counter as his father, Jermaine, taught his older brother to cook; a necessity after Leah was struck by migraines that rendered her unable to move.
“It was tough when I got sick,” she admits. “The mother in me was still so afraid of letting the kids take over in the kitchen.” Leah, a mother of six, remembers the first time Omari handed her a meal he’d cooked himself. “I immediately worried about whether he had burnt himself,” she says with a laugh.
Over the next few months, the McQueen children cooked their way through Jermaine’s Caribbean repertoire, turning out everything from curry goat and chicken to spaghetti bolognese. But when Omari turned eight he decided to go vegan, after watching a Peta video on animal welfare. “It made me sad how the animals were treated,” he recalls. “I decided I couldn’t eat meat after that.”
After her initial shock – meat was a staple in their house – Leah’s next concern was cost. “Prepared vegan meals are so expensive,” she explains. “I was starting to wonder whether we could afford it.” But after being inspired by videos on YouTube, Omari decided to make plant-based dinners for his family from scratch.
For the young chef, cooking gave him the confidence he lacked in education. In school, he admits that it was difficult getting the extra help he needed for his dyslexia. “I feel so happy when I teach other kids how to cook because I know how to do it,” he says, fidgeting with his apron. “My dyslexia makes it hard for me to read, that’s why I don’t feel comfortable sometimes when I have to read aloud. When I’m cooking I feel comfortable, and people find confidence in their comfort zone.”
Leah, too, was frustrated with the one-size-fits-all approach to her son’s classes so decided to homeschool Omari through year five, improving his grades in English while also encouraging him to create his own vegan versions of recipes from her cookbook collection in extra-curricular time. “I had to work with the curriculum but I could change the lesson to fit his needs. For a creative child, there are definitely benefits.”
Omari’s family loved his food, but it wasn’t until he visited Kidzania, an enterprise that bills itself as “an indoor city run by kids”, that he considered turning his cooking into a business. “They had lots of nice jobs like a policeman or vet, but I don’t like working for people. I want people to work for me because it’s fun,” he says. “I came home and told mum that I wanted to start my own business.”
With the support of Leah and Jermaine, Omari set up a YouTube channel called Omari Goes Wild. With mum filming, he whipped up plant-based meals while chatting about the benefits of a healthy vegan diet. His first video lit the spark for Dipalicious. Serving up a pizza that was delicious but admittedly dry, he fancied a dip with it but wasn’t sure if ketchup was vegan. So he made his own.
The resulting home-made dips were debuted at UltraKids Business Fair in 2017 and received a brilliant reaction – Omari was on the road to reaching a much wider audience. Dipalicious now sells five varieties online: Caribbean kick (a mango, pineapple and chilli combination), Sweet Tooth (starring pear and peach), Coco Curry, Luv’in Jerk (a fiery dip of sweet peppers), and Sour Breeze (avocado and lime). And all made to order in his mum’s kitchen.
There’s more, too – Omari has since launched a successful pop-up restaurant and festival for children in Box Park, Croydon. He messaged the owner on LinkedIn to say he wanted to open a restaurant there when he was older, but Roger Wade replied, “Why not now?”, and offered to waive the £1,000-a-week rent so the family could set up shop.
Omari has had big-name recognition (Danny Dyer is rumoured to have said, “tell all your mates that I’m your mate now”) and he is now busy teaching a six-week cookery class for children at his home, making vegan wraps and pizza. “Eurgh, no black olives allowed though!” he shouts across the kitchen island. “They taste like metal!”
This year, he will also make an appearance at the Camp Bestival music festival alongside The Feast Collective and Neil Rankin.
In the future, he hopes to open a restaurant-bus hybrid where his London bus-driver dad takes the wheel, he cooks and Leah serves. “My dad works long hours and I wish I could see him more. That’s why I want a bus that he can drive around with me all day.”
Omari is polite, giggling as he jokes with his dad, and confident – despite his accomplishments, which could inspire cockiness, Omari’s humbleness is admirable. “I want to join people together with my food,” he says, as he passes me the curry he’s made. And when it tastes this good, I’m sold.
Britain’s brightest young food entrepreneurs
Lucy Musgrave, founder of Pure Delicious
15 year-old Lucy Musgrave made a name for herself online with a vegan food blog. After winning an audience with plant-based recipes like veggie chilli, lentil cottage pie and Thai patties, Musgrave decided to start Pure Delicious, a vegan company that gives meal-planning advice to small businesses across the UK, in 2018.
The accompanying website is used as a platform for her ebook, Powered by Plants, and the teenager has gone on to achieve an accounting qualification after receiving a grant from John Cracknell Youth Enterprise Bank in Hull.
Co-founder and baker at The Orange Bakery
Kitty Tait, 15, found solace in bread-making after a bought of depression and anxiety as a pre-teen. After a few months of honing her skills, both she and her father Alex were hooked.
A sell-out pop up event followed, and the pair then opened The Orange Bakery in Watlington, Oxfordshire, in 2019. The menu has everything from chocolate sourdough to salty focaccia for sale, so it’s no surprise that the bakery has become a community hub.
Owner of Snacks R Us, Girlington
Ibriham Ali, 16, opened his sweet shop, Snacks R Us, in Girlington, Bradford, last year. Inspired by a love of American sweets and treats, the GCSE student made a name for himself as an eBay seller before his parents handed him the keys to an empty shop unit, encouraged by his business-savvy attitude.
There you can find treats from America, China and Holland including Cheetos, Chocomel and Sour Patch Kids. The shop is open every day, with Ibrahim running it after school and on weekends with the help of family and friends.