Why This Chef Is Bringing Nigerian Food to the Table
Classically trained chef Michael Adé Elégbèdé knows his native country has a culinary story to tellDevra Ferst
October 09, 2018
It’s mid-September and chef Michael Adé Elégbèdé is at the airport in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, going through security. In Nigeria, he explains to me, bags must be opened and inspected before they are checked. Elégbèdé opens a medium-sized black suitcase. Carefully strapped in are neatly labeled jars of suya spice, calabash nutmeg, dried crayfish, and a bag of oburunbebe, a stick with a licorice flavor.
The officer, Elégbèdé recalls, said: “These are very beautiful spices. So, you’re traveling with your mom?”
No, he responded. “I am traveling by myself to America to cook a dinner, a very important dinner to me.”
“Do you work in [a] hotel?”
“No, I’m a chef.”
“You’re cooking continental food?”
“No, Nigerian food.” Elégbèdé explained: “‘These spices really represent us in Nigeria and I’m representing us at this dinner.’ And in that moment I saw that they understood to some point what that meant to me, to take those spices.”
This is not an uncommon conversation for Elégbèdé. He had a somewhat similar one at a West African grocery store in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood a few days later, when we went grocery shopping to supplement the contents of his suitcase.
The cultural dissonance surrounding the idea of a classically trained chef cooking Nigerian food in Lagos is one Elégbèdé has been facing for several years. But it’s an issue the chef, who just turned 29, is tackling head-on, not only pushing forward his personal culinary vision, but also offering up one for his country.
Just over a week ago, he presented that vision at a dinner titled “This Is Nigeria” at the James Beard House, offering guests a gastronomic tour of the country, and a taste of those spices he had carried more than 5,000 miles. The first course stopped in the north for miyan taushe, a pumpkin soup, while the second trekked down to the southeast for fisherman’s soup with seared scallop and okra. Elégbèdé chose dishes that people in the region take pride in, that would make them say emphatically, “yes, that is our food,” he explains.
Born in Lagos, Elégbèdé moved to the United States when he was 13, living in Chicago where his family owned a Nigerian restaurant. Despite growing up in the restaurant, his family wanted Elégbèdé to be a doctor. He attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, but ultimately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa, California before moving to New York City for an externship at Eleven Madison Park (EMP). After completing the program at CIA, he returned to Manhattan for a full-time position at EMP and eventually at The NoMad. Eager to connect to and share his roots, he started hosting Nigerian pop-ups around the city.
But, over a lunch of wooden bowls of Ivorian stews at a restaurant down the street from the grocery store, as the J train roared overhead, he explained to me, “I felt like I was just skimming the top of what it means to experience Nigerian cuisine.” At the pop-ups, he was cooking Yoruba food, from the West, where his family is from. “Nigeria is a country of over 250 ethnic groups, and almost 200 million people,” he adds. “I felt [that] to be able to call myself a Nigerian chef, I need to tell the story of all of Nigeria.”
That meant giving up his coveted position at The NoMad and moving. Elégbèdé hadn’t been back to the west African country since he moved to America. Friends, family, and fellow chefs, “thought I was crazy,” he says. He was told: “You don’t know where you’re going.” Still, he felt what he describes as a calling to “re-immerse myself into the culture, get inspired by the raw flavors, the culture, the noise, the lights, the smell.”
Elégbèdé moved back two and a half years ago and started traveling to remote villages and towns to cook with home cooks and capture their recipes. He brings those recipes and dishes back to ÌTÀN, the event space and test kitchen that he opened in Lagos. Through dinners, he’s working to craft a narrative around his own experience and his view of Nigeria as a nation—fittingly, ìtàn is the Yoruba word for “story.” Next year, he hopes to open it as a full-time restaurant, making it the first Nigerian-focused tasting menu restaurant in Lagos.
For many Nigerians, Elégbèdé’s cooking at ÌTÀN and the James Beard House doesn’t look as they might expect. Familiar staples like plantain flour, which he picked up in Bushwick, gari (or fermented cassava) that he packed, and dark red palm oil, an integral element of Nigerian cooking, were all present in the kitchen, but their application was altered.
An amuse-bouche at his Beard House dinner consisted of eba, a starch typically eaten with stews, reinterpreted as a crisp. Egusi, usually served as a soup of melon seeds, was made into a cream and served atop the eba along with smoked mackerel. The ingredients are the same, but the dish has “taken a new life,” Elégbèdé says. “No Nigerian would taste it and say it’s not Nigerian food.” He’s quick to explain, though, that he considers his cooking “Nigerian food," but not “Nigerian cuisine.” The flavors are intact, but reinterpreted and presented in a new way.
“We don’t have chef-driven restaurants where you can go and say ‘I’m going there to experience a chef’s philosophy on food,’” Elégbèdé says. But he’s working to shift that.
When Elégbèdé opened ÌTÀN, he expected some backlash. While not everyone he speaks to—airport security, included—fully understands what he’s aiming for, he says those who do are accepting.
And acceptance, arguably, isn’t the primary aim. As we finish up our lunch and Elégbèdé prepares to carry his grocery haul to a prep kitchen, he explains: “Massimo [Bottura] said something that was really profound...he said ‘any culture, any tradition that doesn’t evolve should be in a museum.’
“To keep our culture alive, we have to evolve it…I feel that’s what I’m doing with Nigerian food.”
Devra Ferst is a food writer, editor, and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @dferst.