After successfully attracting thousands of Lagosians to its annual food fair, Solomon Elusoji writes that Guaranty Trust Bank is redefining banking to include lifestyle experiences

Ever since Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) convinced songwriter Bukola Elemide to compose its theme song (The Place To Be) and focused on corralling youthful Nigeria, it has developed a reputation for coolness. That reputation has been sustained, largely, through its involvement in unconventional shows and a penchant for excellence. In the late 2000s, the bank sponsored a Television Debating series, the Debaters, at a time when the corporate world was obsessed with other things. During that same period, the bank launched Ndani TV, which started out first as a quarterly e-newsletter that attracted scant attention, but was later transformed to a popular online television, home to premium, exciting content.

Last weekend, the bank held the second edition of its Food and Drinks Fair and it was marked with youthful exuberance from start to finish, as thousands of Lagosians trooped into the event centre at Water Corporation Drive, Victoria Island. This reporter, who had previously attended a couple of food fairs in the city, spent hours interacting with scores of exhibitors and visitors. Those who attended the Food and Drinks Fair were impressed with the bank’s succinct organisation. The decor of the centre was GTBank-ish, with the orange as ubiquitous as air, and it blended in well with all other props.

The exhibitors’ stands were finely demarcated and despite the huge crowds milling through the space, free flow human traffic was hardly a problem. For the kids, there were fun rides and a free SKS “I Can Bake” junior class. And there was the music that filled the exhibitors’ space; it was interspersed with short bursts of announcement from the media box and provided a serenading atmosphere, enough to coach out culinary emotions and, maybe, a bit of glee.

The diverse range of exhibitors was a joy. The range, which must have been decided on by an army of painstaking curators, accommodated virtually all kinds of food and drinks, from packaged red stew to flavoured pap, to northern delicacies, to assorted spices, to unwieldy pastries, to a staggering variety of drinks. If one was ready to delight the palate with new excitement, there was so much to choose from. For lunch, this reporter had some sweet potato chips, taken with olive herby mustard and some snail skewers. It was some experience.

Away from the exhibitors, there were Master-classes organised that ran through the entire length of the fair, each lasting for one hour. The first class was taken by Chef Abiola Akanji. Popularly known by his fans as Chef Stone, Akanji is a culinary professional with more than a decade of experience in the art of food making. An alumnus of the French Culinary Institute and the International Culinary Education Centre in New York, Akanji owns the Red Dish Culinary School which has produced over a thousand graduates since its inception.

At the Fair, Akanji directed the cooking of two dishes: Salmon Wellignton and Pan Seal Steak. The teams were divided into male and female, and green cooks were selected from the audience to take part in the process. It was an hour of exotic culinary display and cheerful anecdotes, as Akanji took a barrage of questions from the audience, who were eager to learn. At the end, the female group won, after select audiences had tasted the prepared dishes.

Chef Jehan Powell, who came all the way from the Caribbean, made some Guyanese recipes, cooking a bake and salt fish during her Master-class. “My go-to-spices for most of the meal I prepare are garlic and red pepper,” she said. Renowned for a love of hotness in food, the Nigerians who tasted her meals loved it.

Chef Brian Malarkey had had some hot pepper soup the previous night in Lagos and joked about moving in. “I look forward to taking some of your amazing cuisine to the United States,” he said. The American chef, who adds vinegar to virtually every meal he makes, also noted that “cooking food is great, but the stories behind it are what’s important for sharing, for others to learn.” Using novel techniques, he ended up roasting a chicken in eight minutes during his Master-class, and it turned out well.
During her Master-class, Chef Lerato Umah-Shaylor, advised the audience never to cook their vegetables for too long as they tend to lose most of their nutrients that way. She made a dish with mangoes.

The last chef of the first day was Tolu Eros and he made his version of boli, which was coated with bread crumbs, palm oil puree and jollof risotto.
On day two of the food fair, which was International Workers Day, there was torrential downpour. But that did not stop Lagosians from trooping in, in their thousands. The first Master-class of the day was taken by Chef Nkesi Enyioha, a seasoned Chef with nearly a decade experience in offering private culinary and catering services. An alumnus of the Ashburton Cookery School in the United Kingdom, she is widely admired for her fusion of European techniques with the bold flavours of Africa and Asia. And, despite being nervy at the start (it was her first time cooking before a crowd), she did wow the audience with those techniques, preparing a variety of dishes, from miso glazed baby chicken, to jasmine rice, to fish stew, to lamb chops with salsa, to baked hasselback potatoes.

Chef Benedict Okuzu made a four course Italian meal. A typical Italian meal consists of a first course il primo (pasta, rice or similar), a second-course il secondo (meat or fish) served together with a side dish il contorno (vegetable or salad) and fruit. “Balance and consistency are important,” he told the audience while cooking, “and Italian is my balance; that’s what I grew up with.”

Next up was Chef Raphael Duntoye, who prefers olive oil over groundnut oil because “it’s healthier and adds a great flavor to most meals.” For him, “cooking is all about science and a balance of ingredients is necessary.” On being a chef, he said: “to do this job, you’ve gotta love it.”

Chef Kevin Curry was next and he was very engaging, encouraging everybody in the audience to take photos of themselves and share on social media. And the last chef for the fair was Chef Ronke Edoho, who recommended a smoothie drink as the best five minute meal after a long hard day in Lagos traffic.

At the end, this reporter went round the exhibitor stalls and virtually all of them reported that they had had terrific sales. A restaurateur at Afroleum who made pancakes out of semolina, Ms. Atim Ukoh, told THISDAY that she literally ran out of stock. “It has been overwhelming,” she said. “We ran out of everything.” Some hours to the end of the fair, this reporter approached the ewa agoyin store for some local, mashed-up beans, but came back with empty hands. It had been exhausted. The story was similar at almost all the stalls – exhausted vendors with fat smiles on their faces. It was an amazing two days of business.

Soon after the event, participants flooded social media to thank GTB for hosting such a successful event. One of the vendors and CEO of Tosh Coconuts, Jadesola Shawana, wrote an open letter to the bank. “This letter comes from a place deep down in my heart,” she started. Five months earlier, she had set up her coconut business with little hope of expansion. But she was selected for the GTB food fair, as one of the exhibiting businesses at no cost, gave her first POS machines, and put in front of thousands of shoppers. Now, she’s on a roll.

“I’ve been through countless conversations about how Nigeria is such a hard country for SMEs without support from government and corporations,” she said in her open letter. “This gesture of yours (GTB) will change my arguments in all such conversations forever. You have done what no other bank has ever done.”
“You cannot really call @gtbank a bank anymore,” a Twitter user, @TheOracleVA, posted on the platform, “they have metamorphosed into a lifestyle company.” @gtbank retweeted it.