‘I’m Passionate About Food and Cooking’

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Michael Elegbede travelled to the United States of America to study medicine. But after his pre-medicine studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, he gave them up to become a chef. Though he said his decision shocked his parents who wanted him to become a medical doctor, Elegbede told Peter Uzoho that he has no regrets over his decision

Tell us about yourself and your journey

I returned to Nigeria about two months ago after 13 years in the United States of America, to focus on Nigerian food and cuisine. My background in food is rooted in my upbringing; my grandmother and my mother were both cooks. My grandmother studied culinary arts during the colonisation of Nigeria from a French chef that resided in Nigeria. My mother naturally learnt how to cook from my grandmother and she became a cook. When she got to the United States of America, she went to the Le Cordon Blue to got her culinary degree as a pastry chef.

It’s no surprise that I became a chef as well. However, it didn’t begin that way. My parents won a visa lottery to America and they left my brother and I with my grandmother while they went to settle down. We spent about eight years with my grandmother and during that time, I had the opportunity to learn about food, cooking and subconsciously fell in love with food without knowing it would be my profession.

Eventually, we moved to the States when I was 13 to meet my parents. At that point, I had no aspiration of becoming a chef. I finished high school and attended college at the University of Illinois, Chicago, to study pre-medicine as advised by my parents. Eventually, I realised cooking wasmore than just a hobby, it’s my life calling. So I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Greystone Napa Valley, CA. There, I experienced a completely different way of cooking; a very personal and in-depth way of understanding food. Food and cooking became more than what I did to fill the stomach of hungry folks, but a holistic phenomenon that was capable of communicating to all the senses, insinuate memories, inspire artistically, and natural.

During school did my internship at Eleven Madison Park Restaurant in New York and upon; I got hired to be a full time chef. Eleven Madison Park instilled in me standards that are necessary to cook food in a beautiful and philosophical way. It was a challenging work environment, but the harder I worked, the more I discovered myself as a Chef, and realised what it meant to cook at such a high level.
There came a point in my career when I felt something was missing. Reflecting back on how my journey in food began, it dawned on me that my love for food in rooted in Nigerian cuisine, and to feel complete, I cannot ignore it.

I started a testing menu series in New York, where I would do a seven to eight course testing menu that people would pay a certain amount and they would come and eat different courses that are Nigerian-inspired, like a corn dish that has popcorn or steamed corn; like just bringing in the cuisine to the people. And people fall in love with it. People experienced Nigerian food in the way they’d never experienced any African eating experience.

I felt that, it was important for me to do it for our own people, not for anyone else. I heardChimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said “I care more about what Africans think about Africa than what anyone else thinks of Africa.” That was very inspiring for me. With this reasoning, I decided to open a restaurant in Nigeria called ÌTÀN. Ìtànmeans story in Yoruba.
The idea is that, this restaurant tells the story of the Nigerian people; culture, diverse ethnic groups, the extent of our produce. Food is one thing brings everyone together, and Nigeria having over 320 ethnic groups, with very diverse techniques to food, it is important to keep those cultures alive.

When are you going to open the Itan Restaurant to the public?
We’re hoping to open the restaurant in the middle of next year and it’s going to be located in Victoria Island, Lagos.
How spacious is the restaurant and what is the staff strength?
It will not be a very big restaurant. We’re planning to have about 50 seats. For the staff strength, we’re going to have about 15 people in the kitchen, and 12 people outside dining area as well.

At what age did you start cooking?
At a very young age, helping my mother and grandmother in the kitchen.
Their restaurants had structures where they taught young women how to cook and bake in Nigeria. My grandmother’s cooking school graduated up to 60 people at a time in Aguda, and whenever there was a new set of people coming in for their apprenticeship, I would go into the kitchen and want to show them some techniques I knew. Just being in that environment really inspired my love for cooking without really knowing it. If anyone had asked me even when I was 13, if I was going to be a chef, I would have been like, of course not. But that’s just what I love to do. As a male coming from Nigeria, the idea of a man cooking in the kitchen as a career is not something that can be easily understood. I fell in love with cooking before I thought it would be a career.

What is your best delicacy?
I love pounded yam and egusi soup with some fresh foods like croaker fish or prawns.

You talked about leaving Nigeria for the US and that your parents wanted you to study medicine but you ended up becoming a chef. How did they take your decision?
Shocking! To my mum, not much because she had a restaurant in Chicago as well. Every time, after school in High school, I was at the restaurant cooking. I was the chief cook in the restaurant. The name of the restaurant is Jumidell Restaurant. And telling my father was the hardest because it’s hard for a Nigerian man to see his first son say he wants to be a cook and he was like, how are you going to be happy in life. You should just go to medical school, become a doctor, may be you can then open a restaurant. I was like, what is the point? Why should I go to medical school, become a medical doctor and after that I open a restaurant? He took it as such a shameful thing for me to do.

But for me it was more like, how can something I love so much be bad. Once my mother understood cooking was what would make me happy in life she gave me her full support.
No matter what anyone says, I believe we all have a calling in life and the meaning of life is finding that calling and hopefully using it to impact the world around you positively. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here. I have no regrets over my decision.

Recently, you participated in the Guarantee Trust Bank food and drink fair in Lagos. Can you tell us about the food fair?
It was a great experience. I was one of the keynote chefs in the event where demonstrated a dish to a group of people and it was very exciting. We also featured Ìtàn for the first time.

We had some cassava chips for people to taste and it insinuated many interesting conversations. People started arguing with us that the cassava chips were not cassava chips; that they had to be some other vegetable. But this is good! This is what we wanted; we wanted to challenge their expectations and norms.
It was also exciting to see how they interacted with the dishes. Some had reactions like, oh! My God, this is Nigerian food and it looked so beautiful. It’s not just a pounded meal and stew. There is much more to it, it’s beautiful, it’s autistic and it inspires. So it was quite exciting.

What kind of food did you cook?
We had a five course tasting menu where we had our first course as avocado pear with plantain and cassava chips, with Hibiscus pikled, onions, and slices of tomatoes. Then, in the second course, we had mango pawpaw salad with candid cashew, agbalumo vinaigrette and citrus segment.
Then after that, we had prawn pepper soup,braised lamb dish with pounded yam and egusi, which was a bit favourite for most people and finished with carrot cake.

You are invited as one of the keynote speaker to this year’s International Food Design Conference taking place New Zealand. What is it all about?
The International Food Design Conference in New Zealand, it’s where food designers, chefs, and food enthusiasts from around the world come to talk about the progress of food and I’m privileged to be one of the keynote speakers at this year’s event. I’m proud to be the first African and more proud to be the first Nigerian to be invited as a keynote speaker to the event. I’m even more excited to share our food at that event, because one thing that they want to see is the fact that they don’t see African food in the culinary spotlight.
I believe the food revolution in Nigeria is bringing a global awareness to Nigerian food.

When is the event coming up?
The event is coming up from June 29 to July 3 and I be in New Zealand from June 20 till July 8.
You talked about food revolution in Nigeria. What is your assessment of the food revolution in the country. Are we getting it right?
Yes! for the most part, we’re getting it right. We’re getting to the awareness of what we’re eating and the understanding that there is so much to food than just eba and the starches. We’re diversifying what we eat and realising that food can become more than just eating events; when you’re hungry, you just stuff your face with food. We’re realising that you can actually be creative with food. I’m seeing a lot of events where people are eating food as arts, using food as a means of interaction and it’s such a base to our core.

We are beginning to understand the importance of eating less imported food and more locally grown in Nigeria; it’s not only good for us but also good for our economy. Understanding the techniques to diversify how to use those ingredients is also important for us not to be bored with food. So I’m really excited and proud of the food revolution in Nigeria.

What is your assessment of hotels and restaurants in Nigeria in terms of meeting international standards?
There is a big movement for finer dining in Nigeria. Even in the more local dining and eateries, you see a better sense of service. You go to a restaurant in Victoria Island and you see them having really standardised and well put together restaurants where people can go into and eat.

What I would like see more is more focus on our traditional food in the restaurants. You go to the classiest and finest restaurants; you see that a lot of them are trying to introduce more international cuisines here in Nigeria, which is not a bad thing. One thing I like about New York is that it is the epicentre of cuisines all over the world. I believe Nigeria, Lagos specifically has the platform to be the epicentre of food from so many different places in Africa and even other places in the world. But, one thing that we have to do before we know everyone else is that it’s important we know ourselves before we know anyone else. So I see really amazing things happening in the restaurants from the amala bucker to the finest dining places in Victoria Island.

You talked about going into cooking and how people will perceive it, when you came back to Nigeria how did your friends receive you?

Oh! With joy, with so much support.

With your experience and your knowledge in cooking, are you in the nearest future thinking of setting up a training centre where you can train the younger ones?
In the future, hopefully in Nigeria. The kitchen at Ìtàn will serve as a learning centre for prospective chefs.
You know food and agriculture have a link, the present government at the national level has said agriculture is the way to go. Are we really there?
We’re getting there. What is important is that we continue to push agriculture, because over the years, we’ve really depleted in our internal produce when it comes to agriculture. We need more infrastructures, a better processing of the produce, efficient ways of transporting them. It is also important to have innovative ways to utilising this produce. For instance, in Otupo, Benue State, there are mango trees everywhere, and all the mangoes are just on the ground. We shouldn’t be wasting so much food. There has to be diversified ways of using those foods grown.

What is your message to Nigerians especially to youths?
Follow your dreams. Not everyone was born to become a doctor or a lawyer.
So, focus on what you love, invest your time, invest your everything and grow in it. Because with the state of Nigeria now, everyone is talking about diversifying our economy and what does that mean? It means that we have so many parts in the professional and business sectors that are not being accessed.

Most people focus on the five core professions, but I know farmers that are richer than bankers in the United States, because they are focused and passionate about the produce on their farms. So my biggest message will be, do what you love and do it well. If you do it well, if you’re focused, you will make it.