‘I Abandoned Law for Catering’

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Ope Tejuoso, a legal practitioner-turned-chef, is making her cooking career more exciting and intense with the recent opening of her very first restaurant, Opindos. Tejuoso, who is the only daughter of former Lagos State Governor, late Air Commodore Gholahan Mudasiru, in this interview with Mary Nnah, talks about her passion for catering and why she abandoned her career in law for the food and confectionery industry

How did your journey into the food business start?

I went to the University of Lagos and later the Law School and I graduated about 22 years ago. My journey into catering began at the university. Actually, it was borne out of one of the strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). This prompted my friends and I to look for something else to do. We started going for cooking and computer classes and some others, basically to keep us busy. Back at school after the strike, I still took up cooking jobs. That was how my first company, Opindos Limited, was born. Opindos later gave birth to the Muse Academy. By the time I finished from the University of Lagos, the Law School had been moved to Abuja. I had just gotten married and already had a little baby. So, after weighing the options, instead of going to Abuja, I just went to Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London. I felt cooking would be better for me if I had to concentrate on motherhood.  I am a certified chef but I came back to become a baker because baking is something I really wanted to do. I really wanted to go into baking school but I couldn’t find one at that time. It wasn’t like now that you go online and Google tells you. Then you had to check yellow pages and ask people and the only information I had was something on TV which was a cooking school in London. So, I ended up in a cooking school and still came back and continued with the baking. I did my brother’s wedding cake because my mum insisted I had to. From that event, I got three jobs and the rest, as they say, is history. That was how I abandoned a career in Law for the food industry. I worked in Eko Hotels for a while as a chef and left to start doing my own thing, which is predominantly baking. Opindos Limited will be 20 years this October and I felt it was time to move out into the streets and do something slightly different but still in the same line of business.

What is the story behind Opindos Restaurant? 

This is our first restaurant.  We have been operating primarily as a bakery. And we do outdoor catering for food, dessert and we run talk shops in quite a number of schools. That was who we were till now when we opened the restaurant to offer another type of service in the culinary industry.  This one has been a long time coming. People have been asking me time and time again when I was going to open a restaurant because everybody that knows me, knows me with food and so finally two years ago, I started looking for space to do this.  That is how the Opindos Restaurant came to be.

You have been into the food business almost 20 years now, why did it take you so long to start a restaurant?

The restaurant business is a different ball game. It is more capital intensive and the human resource aspect as well is a little bit more technical because now you are in the forefront, everything you are doing is live. There is no room for error. It is not like when somebody ordered for a cake and you have enough time to bake it. I don’t rush into things, so I had to plan it carefully. I did all the checks with the recipes, taking into consideration what will appeal to people. So you have to do a lot of research.  It is not just something you just wake up one morning and say you want to open a restaurant because you know how to cook. It is something that you plan. So this has been a long time in the making and everything has come together now. That is why we are opening at this point.

Now that the dream eatery has come to reality, what are you offering to the public?

We are offering, first of all, the tastiest food you would ever eat anywhere in Lagos.  Then we are health conscious and I know a lot of people are these days and we have considered that very carefully in the kind of menu we do here. So when you see our menu and the way it is made out, you would know that a lot of thought have gone into putting the menu together.

What differentiates Opindos from others?

The first thing is quality. We are not sub-changing on the quality of the ingredients we are using; we are not going to say because we want to make profits we would start cutting corners. Secondly, the way we laid out our menu is different from every other menu you would see out there. I do diet planning for people and I know the challenges they have when they go out to eat. Often, they call me to say, I am at a restaurant and there is nothing in the menu for me to eat.  We know a lot of people are being health conscious but just because you want to be healthy does not mean you shouldn’t find food to eat outside. Or because they are serving healthy food, it should be tasteless. You should enjoy your food at all times. So that is what Opindos restaurant is bringing – you would eat healthy but tasty food any time you stop by. I am very conscious of the quality of what goes into what I cook. I watch the oil, sugar and make sure everything is fresh. If you are eating a lot of fresh foods, your body absorbs better and you don’t add weight.

Would these special considerations in the menu affect the price of meals? 

Not really. We are competitive. We know what is going on out there and we are matching what is being offered.  So if you want good food and you are ready to pay for it, we are definitely very affordable.

What has been the challenge of putting up a place like this?

The usual challenges that we have in Nigeria and that includes artisans not taking their trades serious. You give them  deadlines for delivery and yet they don’t meet up and one month after, you are still calling them. Or some artisans that will come and paint, then you come in asking so when are you going to be painting and he tells you that he is done. And you are like, have you painted this? You know things like that – finishing and quality is a big challenge in Nigeria because there are no proper associations so that if someone comes in and calls himself a painter, there is nowhere to check to verify if he is genuine or not.  So that has been the main challenge, so we had to do some things twice and sometimes thrice just to get the standard we needed.

What is your vision for the Opindos restaurant?

It is huge. I am just scratching the surface and starting small because it’s a new baby and we don’t want to be overwhelmed. I will do my test run. I have ticked all the boxes and once we have everything right, we would go into to next phase – opening up branches, but I need to get this one right first.

Are you still going to focus on the bakery aspect of Opindos?

Absolutely, I have my fingers in many pies and they are all food related. I have a tailoring outfit because I can make clothes but we do more of uniforms, chef jackets, aprons and easy-to-wear suits and jackets for cooks. I have a cooking school called the Muse Academy; that one is still running; I have the bakery, the talk shops and now the Opindos restaurant.

How do you intend to combine all these various businesses?

That is the same question I ask myself every morning. The Muse Academy is on autopilot, meaning I have had the same staff since it started. They are still there and pretty know what to do even when I am not around. But I will structure some of the classes because I love teaching and that was what brought about running a school in the first place.

What is the inspiration behind Muse Academy?

It came about because there were two separate types of needs. I had a friend who had a daughter who used to come to us about seven or eight years ago and we trained her every Saturday. At that point in time, it registered that it would be nice to have a place where people could come in for classes rather than coming to the house. Sometimes, I am not there and my staff may not be able to attend to her needs as well. That was one. And there was a situation where two mums came with their daughters; they were grown up and just couldn’t cook. So we filled that gap. We get them every day like, some over the age of 18 years. It is a far cry from when we were young. I am the only girl and everyone in my house can cook. I am not even the best cook in my house. Our first son, who is a doctor, can whip up the best Italian dishes you can think of. Funny enough, we all learnt from my grandma. She is not a Nigerian; she is from the republic of Benin. She was a fantastic cook. I started cooking from age six and my grandma taught me how to cook. She would mix most of it and tell me to carry it to the cooker. I was also influenced by the fact that I am the only girl and we had a lot of parties when I was young. I actually started making money from Queens College and later UNILAG. At Queens College, I was a day student and you know that boarders don’t have access to food. They gave me money and I cooked for them. I remember making a birthday cake for a classmate with N40. I just bought cake mix and followed the packet instruction, and that was it!”