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Unfiltered: Henna Zinzuwadia

The head of wine for Fitzrovia’s Akoko, a West African restaurant, talks to Douglas Blyde about how a chance encounter with a lively wine bar changed her life, trying her first oyster and a flair for boxing…

What does “Akoko” mean?

It translates to “time” and also “the first” in Yoruba and is the first part of the name of our British Nigerian founder, Aji Akokomi.

What is your motto?

Life is about the journey. Wine is not what I expected to be in initially. While at university studying economics, I had an accident and had to learn how to walk again. On my first unassisted walk, I came across a wine bar in Spitalfields called Bedales where everyone was having the best fun, which gave me a small insight into the life of a Sommelier. It made me realise that I wanted to work in a field where I could continue to learn new things and also be involved in the social aspect which is what I had been missing, so I asked for a job.”

What is your vintage?

I was born in Leicester in 1998. Thanks to wineries such as Staffelter Hof, I am a self-confessed Riesling fan. I had the opportunity to go visit its owner-winemaker, Jan Matthias Klein in the Mosel two years ago who gifted me a bottle of Spätlese Halbtrocken from this year which was probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever tried. The 1998 Musar I list also comes close. I compare such cuvées to being the Audrey Hepburn of wines – luxurious, timeless and elegant.

Where would your fantasy vineyard be?

As you may have guessed, the Mosel, though I’ve also got a soft spot for New York State’s Finger Lakes.

Describe your list?

The first version was designed by Honey Spencer and her business partner, Ania Smelskaya with an emphasis on natural, organic and biodynamic wines. I want to keep such integrity while creating bridges to big names which also practise caring methods.

Credit: Food Story Media Ltd

What is your ultimate aim for the list?

For it to have something for every occasion and everyone with unexpected finds such as mineral and nutty Chasellas from Sierra de Gredos in Spain. And I want to see more BIPOC-owned wineries on both my list and others.

Describe Akoko’s atmosphere?

Designed by René Dekker, it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever worked in, being minimalistic and structural yet warm with a beautiful Zalto glass wall behind the bar. It looks very sophisticated. Then you’ve got the music – jazz, soul, and the polyrhythmic beats of West Africa including music Aji grew up with which makes you want to dance. Everyone in the small team has a real passion for what they do. Together, these things make it really hard to leave without a smile on your face.

What has been a winning pairing with a dish by head chef, Theo Clench?

He’s so good at bringing unexpected flavours together which can lead to insanely good results when matched with wine. For example, with the peanut-rich maafe squab with yaji spiced leg, finished with 100% cacao, I pour a bold Vacqueyras with vanilla and bitter chocolate notes which compliments the cacao, while its concentrated blueberry notes tame the pigeon’s slight gamey flavours.

Credit: Food Story Media Ltd

What grape could you happily do without?

Catarratto, which for me, embedded deep in my brain, always evokes marzipan.

What do you think of English wines?

We make some amazing Pinot Noirs such as Will Davenport’s organic Diamond Fields 2020 which has delicious notes of strawberry and raspberry and works chilled with a BBQ.

How was the recent experience of eating your first oyster?

I grew up vegetarian for the first 16 years of my life, always shying away from seafood to the extent I wouldn’t even touch prawn crackers. However, on becoming a Somm, I’ve definitely acquired a better mentality to discovering new foods. And that first oyster kickstarted a love for seafood. Very frustrating it took 22 years to get there!

Tell us something surprising about yourself?

I’m very into health and fitness and love boxing. I am also a self-taught guitar player.

What is Bọri Table?

Aside from working at Akoko, I run an eight-seat supper club with chef, Victor Ofunime Okunowo, at Not Just Another Store in Shoreditch. What we bring is something unique and inclusive. Guests come to listen to us as people and find out what we do. A community experience.

What do you look for in prospective team members?

Passion. They don’t need to come with qualifications, which is something I can familiarise with! It’s a great space to kickstart a wine career.

Akoko – 21 Berners Street, London, W1T 3LP; 020 7323 0593;

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