In the bustling streets of Lagos, Nigeria, a tantalising and diverse culinary landscape awaits adventurous food enthusiasts. From the sizzling aromas of suya grills to the mouth watering flavours of jollof rice, the country’s street food scene offers a captivating experience that reflects the rich cultural tapestry of this West African nation.
Businessday sits with Ette Assam, a Nigerian celebrity grill master known for his street food mastery and promotion of Nigerian cuisine. Born in Calabar and now based in Lagos, Chef Ette has carved a niche for himself in the culinary world. He discusses various aspects of Nigerian food culture, the challenges faced by chefs in Nigeria, why the Nigerian cuisine doesn’t receive enough global recognition and how social media can be leveraged to promote culinary businesses.
Despite its rich diversity and flavours, Nigerian cuisine doesn’t always receive the global publicity it deserves. Why do you think that is?
Nigerian cuisine is indeed a treasure trove of flavours and culinary traditions. One reason for the lack of global publicity is the limited exposure it receives outside Nigeria. Many people are simply unaware of the variety and uniqueness of Nigerian dishes. Additionally, there’s a misconception that African food is solely about ‘jollof rice’ or ‘pounded yam.’ While these dishes are undoubtedly popular, Nigerian cuisine encompasses much more, with each region boasting its own specialties.
Nigerians have not tapped into the Nigerian street food culture and packaged it in a way that it could attract tourists. People go to America and spend lots of money to have a feel of the popular ‘Briskets’ which is just the chest of a cow that we see here everyday. The only difference is the package and we have made the mistake of not promoting our street food. I believe culinary in Nigeria started from street food which was passed from one generation to the next because the culture never dies.
Another factor is the need for better representation in the international culinary scene. We need more Nigerian chefs and culinary ambassadors participating in global events, cooking shows, and collaborations with international chefs. By showcasing our cuisine’s vibrancy and versatility, we can attract attention and encourage more exploration of Nigerian food culture.
Discussing some of the challenges faced by chefs in Nigeria, particularly given the recent hike in inflation, how do chefs thrive despite these economic constraints?
Inflation has indeed presented a significant challenge for chefs and culinary businesses in Nigeria. Rising costs of food stuff and operational expenses make it harder to maintain profit margins. However, chefs in Nigeria have shown resilience and adaptability.
The price of a carton of chicken which was N1,500 is now priced at N35,000. Lagos alone houses over 23 million people and one household eats an average of one whole chicken a day which equals to over 23 million chicken consumed every day not to talk of events, fast food etc. The demand is more than the supply which makes one start thinking of getting farm and livestock produce at cheaper rates from foreign countries.
One way we thrive is by exploring local sourcing and supporting local farmers and producers. By building direct relationships with them, we can secure quality ingredients at fair prices. Additionally, we focus on creativity and innovation in our local cuisine, using our local ingredients in new and exciting ways. This allows us to create unique dining experiences that attract patrons despite the economic pressures.
Furthermore, collaborations and partnerships within the culinary community play a vital role. Chefs often share resources, knowledge, and support each other, fostering a sense of camaraderie rather than competition while food bloggers help the chefs to tell our story. Together, we find innovative solutions to overcome economic challenges and keep the culinary scene vibrant and thriving.
Social media has become a powerful tool for industries worldwide to grow their businesses. How can Nigerian chefs leverage social media to promote their culinary ventures?
Social media has revolutionised the way we connect and share our passions with the world. Nigerian chefs can harness its power to promote their culinary ventures effectively. First and foremost, chefs should showcase their expertise and unique dishes through visually appealing content. High-quality food photography and engaging videos can captivate an online audience and spark their interest in Nigerian cuisine.
Consistency and engagement on platforms like Whatsapp, Instagram and TikTok are key . Chefs should maintain a consistent presence on social media platforms, sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses, recipe tips, and engaging directly with their followers. Collaboration with influencers, food bloggers, and other chefs can also help reach a wider audience and build a strong online community.
We need to have a docu series on streaming platforms and cable channels that shows food from sub saharan Africa. We don’t need foreign chefs travelling to Nigeria to help us tell our story. We need to be in the position of telling people around the world the different ways to cook jollof rice and claim it as our food.
Finally, what steps do you think are necessary to improve the value chain of the culinary industry in Nigeria, particularly in terms of training?
Training plays a crucial role in elevating the culinary industry in Nigeria. First, we need to invest in culinary education by establishing more reputable culinary schools and training centres. These institutions should provide comprehensive programs that cover not only cooking techniques but also business skills, food safety, and entrepreneurship.
This will help to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical experience, and get people talking more about precision, flavour and methods of cooking. So when you are asked to differentiate between ordinary jollof and party jollof, they know that there is a different kind of wood to get that particular kind of flavour of jollof. So training will lead to a sustainable culinary industry that is better able to meet the needs of consumers and stakeholders
To improve the value chain, we must also focus on mentorship programs and apprenticeships. Experienced chefs should take aspirin culinary professionals under their wing, providing guidance, hands-on training, and exposure to different aspects of the industry. This practical knowledge combined with formal education will prepare individuals for the challenges they may face as they embark on their culinary careers.
Furthermore, fostering collaboration between chefs, farmers, suppliers, and policymakers can help streamline the supply chain and ensure that quality ingredients are accessible at fair prices. By working together, we can strengthen the entire value chain and create a sustainable culinary ecosystem in Nigeria.