They are young, talented and ambitious. These male chefs have taken the culinary enterprise by storm, bringing glamour to the kitchen. They tell their stories
I’m a self-taught chef
Tolu Erogbogbo, also known as Chef Eros, is the founder The Cookie Jar. He speaks about his passion for the culinary industry
How did you develop the passion for cooking?
I started a long time ago while I was at the university and in the last 10 years, I have worked my way up. I started off working at a bar, but I really wanted to make cocktails. In the process, I found myself falling in love with the kitchen along with its hustle and bustle. I moved to the kitchen section and worked there for about a year before concentrating on my course of study, International Business Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom. In 2008, my mum and I moved back to Nigeria and we bought our first restaurant which we ran for two years. I wanted to try my hand on other things so, I left to try my hands at real estate and alternative energy. Two years after, I established The Cookie Jar brand. Shortly after that, I founded another brand called Eros and Gourmet Foods.
Was starting up rosy?
I started small and I expected it to grow fast. I kept my eye on the ball and the growth was slow and steady. Today, my brand is one of the strongest in the industry.
Do you have any regret not studying a food-related course at the university as opposed to what you studied?
I do not regret any of my choices; from selling my first restaurant to starting The Cookie Jar and where I am today. It is part of the entire journey that made me the man I am at the moment. Learning is something I love ;the fact that I did it on my own with the help of the Internet and a few mentors has been fantastic.
What are your specialties?
Pastries, cupcakes, cookies and food.
Did you train at a culinary school?
I am a self-taught chef. I have not received any training because I know I am talented and I have not felt the need to do that yet. My business has gone so far that leaving it to attend a culinary school would not be easy. I feel I can learn online and through books. My experience over the years has helped too.
What is your winning formula?
I am one of the chefs in Nigeria who is strong in cuisine alongside pastries and dessert. Also, my ability to communicate and my media-friendly looks stand me out. In Nigeria, there aren’t too many cookery shows and people want to learn how to cook. I have done a lot of television shows in Nigeria. My attention to detail, originality, creativity and love for the art of cooking stand me out.
As a self-taught chef, how do you stay ahead of the competition?
I keep looking out for what is new and I try a lot of things, although I do not put out half of the things that I experiment with. I use the social media to advertise my work; for my brand, it is one of the strongest influences.
Do you work alone?
No, I don’t; I have a large team and staff strength of over 30 people. As we expand, I hope to employ more people.
How do you manage your employees?
I am a chef and I am passionate about my work. I make sure I hire people who are just as passionate , can recognise their mistakes and fix it as opposed to people who are here for the money.
What are the challenges inherent in running a culinary business in Nigeria?
There is insufficient skilled labour, lack of access to funds and raw materials and these can be challenging.
Did your background contribute to your success?
My dad passed away when I was young and I did not have access to any of his funds. I worked hard and found the means to be successful. I started my company with N15,000 and it is worth over N1bn now.
Should culinary skill get patent rights?
It depends on what one is doing. When we expand our cookies aspect of the business, we might decide to patent some of the products.
You are interested in charity as well…
I have always wanted to give back to the society. I am where I am today because the society wants me to be there. I have given to a few charities and I have a new cake menu of which a certain percentage of what we make from sales goes back to feeding the poor. Apart from that, we help to raise funds for the Sickle Cell Foundation.
People prefer male chefs —Chef Alex
Alex Oke is passionate about bread, pastry and confections. The soft-spoken chef who studied Classical/Contemporary French Cuisine at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Canada, speaks about his craft
Tell us about your childhood?
I am mixed race; my mum is Russian and my dad is from Osun State. I was raised in Ibadan and I have two older siblings. Experiences from my parent’s cultures enriched my childhood. My mum instilled the love for cooking in her children and I learnt to cook indigenous meals like Jollof Rice, Puff Puff and Akara, even though savouries are my forte.
How did you become a chef?
It started after I attended the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Canada. Before then, I was into marketing and management for six years after my first and master’s degrees. I decided to try my hands at cooking professionally because I loved to cook.
Why did you dump your degree to pursue your love for cooking?
We tend to bag professional degrees in order please our families. After I had proven my mettle, I decided to focus on what I loved doing. When I got into culinary school, I discovered that many resorted to studying at the school as a form of last resort because they thought they couldn’t amount to anything meaningful in life. I felt I was surrounded by this set of people until I began to see people like me who were simply changing careers.
Were your parents supportive of this decision?
My parents were a bit sceptical at first, but they finally threw their weight behind me after seeing how passionate I was about my new profession. I wanted the freedom to work for myself since it wasn’t fun working for someone else.
Are you fulfilled?
Yes, I am and following this career path is the best decision I have made in my life.
Has it been worth your while?
Yes, it has and it makes no sense to follow a passion that doesn’t pay your bills. Your passion must allow you live a relatively fulfilled life. That way you can do and afford the things you love. It is expensive to attend refresher courses in London or Dubai and you need money to do this. I am still building my portfolio but so far, I have been fulfilled and well received.
Has it been financially rewarding?
Yes, it has. My partner and I are on the verge of opening our own bakery called XO Bakery on the Island. My business is self-funded and we are trying to take the organic route to grow. However, depending on the reception we receive, we may seek additional funding so we can expand further. I did work for six years and since I moved back in April, I have dug into my savings a bit.
Are male chefs better revered than their female counterparts?
I may sound a bit chauvinistic if I say I think the role of females has been reduced to just domestic chores.Our culture isn’t really receptive of men in the kitchen but that perception has changed. People are more receptive of male chefs but they respect both sexes. Going by my experiences overseas, the industry tends to be very male orientated and female chefs have to work a lot harder to prove their mettle in the industry.
What challenges do you currently encounter?
We are in this business to make money and earn a living so, it would be nice if people offered to pay rather than have you cook for free. Bigger challenges include sourcing ingredients locally as we still don’t have the same line of supply as we have overseas. Some people are also not willing to pay for quality.
Are you particular about marrying a spouse who must know how to cook?
I desire a spouse that must have a genuine passion for cooking. When I was moving back, a lot of people asked if I was moving back to Nigeria to get a wife.She must have a healthy appetite and we must have common interests. My biggest passion is food and I would hope she also loves food.
My recipes are from my heart —Chef Fregz
Gbubemi Fregene aka Chef Fregz, has a large following. Unarguably one of the most sought-after chefs in Nigeria, he shares his story
Have you always looked forward to becoming a chef?
Growing up, I loved to eat and I soon began to learn how to cook.As time went by, I decided to take up a career in the culinary industry. My mother, dad and aunty, all loved to cook; my dad taught me how to make scrambled eggs. As kids, my siblings and I spent a lot of time with our nanny because our parents had very demanding jobs so I spent a lot of time watching her cook for us.
At what stage did you decide to pay more attention to it?
After graduating from Covenant University, Ogun State, where I studied Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management, I knew I wanted to become a chef. My mum was very supportive of my decision and tasked me to become an educated chef. While observing the mandatory National Youth Service Corps programme in Kaduna State, my colleagues always looked forward to the meals I brought to my place of primary assignment each day. I patronised a particular market in Kaduna and was always eager to try out new recipes. When I moved back to Lagos, I took some time out to think and pray about the vision I had in mind and then, I decided to attend a culinary school in France.
You chose to study in France…
France chose me and it was a dream I thought would never happen. After conducting some research, I found out that it was rather expensive to study in France but I kept at it.
Were your parents willing to support you?
The best they could do for me was to pray because they were not too buoyant. My mum wanted me to get a lucrative job and become financially secured; she didn’t think I would make anything meaningful if I took up a career as a chef. My dad on the other hand wanted me to follow my dreams and thankfully I had the support of my whole family to attend the Culinary Institution – Le Cordon Bleu – in Paris. I moved back to Nigeria upon the expiration of my visa in 2011.
How did you start your business?
I started my business when I moved back to Lagos from Kaduna after my NYSC.I grabbed my neighbour’s barbeque stand and told him I was setting up a barbeque business. Even though I had no idea what I was getting into, my recipes were from the heart. I researched recipes and came up with creative ways of presenting popular Nigerian meals. When I returned from France, I sought jobs at top Nigerian hotels and was turned down. Amazingly, these same hotels now seek my services. I started out by catering only for private diners.
Why do you solely cater for small gatherings?
I still don’t do more than 50 people for food because the quality waters down and not many event centers and Nigerian homes are built for banqueting purposes. We do a lot of canapés and finger food for up to 500 persons. But for food, the maximum number of persons we can serve is 50; the smaller the better because the food comes out more beautiful and tastier.
If you weren’t a chef…
I would most likely be a human resource manager somewhere. For now, I’m working with food for the rest of my life.
I make comfort food
Niyi Williams, co-runs a dining club, Foodies United, and is a guest instructor at the Culinary Academy, in Lagos. He opens up on the challenges of running a culinary business
Do you have plans to solely own a business?
Yes, I do and I have already concluded plans to begin my food truck business, The Corner. Expansion is always the dream of every chef, and I want to ensure that anyone who eats from my food truck enjoys his or her experience. That means I have to focus on maintaining my food quality and service, while being realistic about what is achievable within the market here. Expansion can kill any food business really quickly especially if one is not able to scale and maintain all aspects of the business from its primary location.
Why did you choose to become a chef?
It has a lot to do with love, creativity but most importantly, the ability to produce food that people like.
At what age did you develop the interest in food and how did you hone your culinary skills?
When I was about 10 years old, I always sat in the kitchen with my grandmother. For some reason, I loved the noise, aroma and activities in the kitchen. My cooking skills were honed through much trial and error, plus practise.
Did you study a hospitality-related course in the university?
I am a self-taught chef; I learnt through lots of losses in my kitchen. However, there is an unbelievably large amount of information on the web today that can assist one in getting the basic knowledge and some nice tips and tricks. I studied Mechanical Engineering at Brunel University, London.
Where did you work before becoming a chef?
I worked with Myeko Energy Limited, a company in the oil and gas downstream sector. Before that, I was a turbine technician at Total Support Energy Group.
Was it difficult convincing your parents of your switch in career?
My career is an ongoing discussion that can simply be explained as the never-ending story. But the support they provide is always very much a part of the continuous drive to do more and get better.
How innovative are you with your recipes?
My specialty is 100 per cent comfort food. Comfort food tastes good, makes you feel good and is meant for all types of people. I like to think I am innovative, as I have done a lot of experimentation with local food and had it presented in different formats, while adding some fresh touches. I get my inspiration from eating and I always think of how to merge what I grew up eating, with other styles of cooking which I learnt from travelling to various places across the planet.
Is the business environment favourable to the culinary industry in Nigeria?
In my opinion, it is not favourable. There are challenges of high rent, security, power, and high cost of imported food and tax authorities to mention but a few. Also, it is difficult to find good waiters, bar staff and kitchen staff. When these challenges are combined, they pull one’s focus away from rendering quality service.
With the industry almost being saturated, how do you intend to stay on top your game?
I wouldn’t say the industry is saturated, but it is highly unsaturated. For cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, people recommend only a handful of places to friends or family. It is the prime time for the culinary industry and that makes it fascinating. Staying on top of one’s game means one has to achieve a consistently high quality service and simplicity in menus, trying as much as possible to keep the ingredients as local as possible. Most importantly, I would say I am having fun.
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