Posts in Interviews
From Benin to Lagos: Chef Yacynthe's Road to Nok

This weekend, Nok is taking guests on a culinary journey to the Republic of Benin. Sous Chef, Yacynthe Aho, is sharing his favorite childhood dishes. To get a better understanding of Nok’s head honcho and what to expect this Saturday, we short chat with him at the restaurant. He talks about his journey so far in Lagos and his vision for the future of food


Tell us a bit about your self. What’s your background?

Well, my name is Chef Yacynthe and I’m from Benin Republic. Before I started cooking, I went to school and I have my two certificates. They are French certificates and correspond with the National Diploma in Nigeria. So, it’s a National Diploma in Hotel Management. When I completed that, I came to Nigeria and I’ve been in Nigeria for 15 years now. 

You’ve been here for 15 years?

Nok Chef Yacnythe in Restaurant.jpeg

“What is me is African food. What can I do to show African food to the whole world?”

Yes, I’ve been working here for 15 years.

What brought you to Nigeria?

I have a passion for cooking and I wanted to discover other countries. I wanted to discover both what they were doing in other countries and discover the spices they use. The first country that came to me in my dream was Nigeria and that’s why I’m here. 

Since you’ve been here, is there any spice in particular that you like?

Yeah, but it’s not only one. There are many spices I like in Nigeria. For example, the four corner spice (Ed note: Also known as Aridan). It has a nice flavor and the scent is perfect. They use it for a lot of dishes, you understand? There is another spice that they call Oso. It’s like beans. There’s a seed inside. Very black. When you use it to cook, it’s very nice. I’ve discovered a lot of spices in Nigeria.

What was your first job in the industry?

You know when you take a risk to leave your country and go to another country to express yourself, it’s not easy. My first job [in Nigeria] was with Protea Hotel and my first post at Protea was chef de partie. After two years, I left them and got another job at the Abibiz Restaurant in the international airport. I worked there as a chef de cuisine. I worked there for two years because if there is something I want, it is to meet people and discover their recipes and ingredients. That’s what inspired me to move from one restaurant to another. After I worked there, I got another offer at Morningside Suites Hotel. I was the Executive Chef there and I worked there for two years. 

It is after that, because I was working very hard, I was looking to work with people with the same vision as me. I was doing the continental dishes then, but one day, I said to myself: “That is not me, what is me is African food. What can I do to show African food to the whole world?”. 

To show people that, in Africa, we have something to offer. Because today, all of us are following other countries’ dishes and flavours but what about our own? That’s how I heard about Nok Restaurant. I came here and I met Chef Pierre. We had a discussion like I’m having a discussion with you and when I told him my vision, he said “Yacynthe, you’re the one to work with me at Nok”. 

That’s how I found myself at Nok today.

So what was like working with Chef Thiam?

Chef Yacynthe in his kitchen

Chef Yacynthe in his kitchen

Well, it was a very great time for me and I’ll say I’m very lucky to work with Chef Pierre because he’s my senior in the industry. He has the experience and he’s doing a lot of things with African food. So it was an opportunity to work with him to improve and today, to God’s glory, I’m doing better.

A lot of people like Nok. I’m sure you know this, but what do you think makes Nok special?

People like Nok because our standards are totally different. Our dishes are different. The spices we use are also different. We study those spices. We test them, test their flavors. We do the recipe tests again and again. When you want to be better, you need to do one thing again, again and again. At the end of the day, you get what you want. That’s what makes us different. And when you look for all these kinds of dishes in Africa today, it’s only at Nok you can get them. 

How do you keep things fresh and creative every time?

As I said before, we work very hard. We don’t sleep. Every second for us is an opportunity for us to have something new to offer to our customers. We do a lot of research. We go to many places: both to the local markets and international markets. We go there to discover all the spices so our customers can have different experiences. Not that you come today and you eat one thing, then you come the next day and eat the same thing. We study a lot and that’s how we come up with different dishes that make our guests happy. 

What do you love the most about being a chef and being in the industry?

For me, the reason I am a chef is that I can make other people happy with my dishes. The chef I am is not about the uniform or the name, but by what I present on the plate to my guests. That’s what makes me a chef. And when the guest eats and is happy, I’m happy too. It’s a passion. I feel like I’m in another world anytime I see myself in front of a guest or I present my food to a guest and he eats it with joy.

Ok, for the opposite. What would you say you hate?

As a human being, you must like something and you must hate something. What I hate most is that when i present a food to a guest and that plate comes back to the kitchen with the food, it makes me angry. It makes me want to discover what made the guest not like the food. 

You’re hosting a Chef’s Table this weekend. Tell us a bit about it. 

This Chef’s Table we’re about to do is something special. Special because when many people hear Benin Republic, they see it as a small country. They don’t know that even if it is small, something good can come from it. One particular thing that makes me happy to present dishes from Benin is that in Benin we have some unique spices. These spices are from the ancient days. Those that our grandparents were using to cook. Today, for spices people prefer to go the supermarket. It makes me to realize that I need to value what I have from my country. 

This is the country that made me who I am today so i want to value my country. All the things my country has, I want to make it available for people to experience. That’s how we came up with the different dishes [for the Chef’s Table]. But it’s not about the dishes alone, it’s about the spices. Without spices, the dish doesn’t have any value. It’s the spice that makes a dish. 

NOK Dakouin

NOK Dakouin

What’s your favorite dish from your country?

[laughs] I didn’t expect that question but I’m very happy for that question because if I call the name of that dish and explain to you, it’s funny but it’s my culture. 

We call it Dakouin. Dakouin is a fisherman’s dish in my place. The fisherman goes to the river and gets all the fish and when he comes back, the first thing he does is to remove the biggest fish and give it to his wife to cook. 

So how do you cook it? It’s a very simple dish. You just do a very light stew, then you remove the fish from the stew and then use the remaining stew to make the garri. You Nigerians call it eba, but we [Beninoise] call it garri dakouin

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Dakouin means “you cook and you turn it” because when you cook it, it doesn’t remain inside the pot. The fisherman has worked very hard so he needs to enjoy what he worked for. This is the first dish we offer every visitor in our village. Any program - birthday, marriage or funeral - if you don’t cook it, your party doesn’t have any meaning.

So it’s like jollof rice?

Yes, it’s like jollof rice in Nigeria.

Will it be on the menu this weekend?

Yes, that’s my signature. It’s going to be celebrated. 

You mentioned earlier that everyone just goes to supermarkets for spices. Do you have any challenges sourcing spices in Lagos?

No. No. One thing I like about Nigeria, it’s unless you don’t know the direction. When you know the direction, you know the particular person that can help you. When you meet those kind of people, you get what you want. It’s a very wide country. [laughs]

[laughs] …a very wide country.

We also source ingredients from all around Africa; even though it’s hard and expensive, it’s very important to us that we research and expose our own flavours

Thank you so much for sitting with us. We’re looking forward to the Chef’s Table. 

You’re invited! 


Join Chef Yacynthe this Saturday, October 13, at Nok as he explores the memories of Akodéha in a very personal Chef’s Table.

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Chef Imoteda is Cooking Her Way To Your Heart

In the two short years of this blog’s existence, we’ve had the opportunity to meet all sorts of amazing people in Lagos’ culinary scene. Chef Imoteda is right at the top of the list. 

Culinary school graduates tend to be very stiff with their food. Everything feels so premeditated and calculated. There’s just something about Imoteda’s work that makes her stands out. A little edge to her approach to food, you might say. There’s also personality to her cooking and a distinct lack of pretension,  both of which are rare in these parts. 

We got the chance to send some questions her way for the blog


For the folks unfamiliar, what/who is Heels In The Kitchen?

Heels in the Kitchen is a food service company headed by Chef Imoteda (daz me plix). We offer a range of food services from private chef services for intimate events up to 60 people, recipe development and food styling for brands and more recently quick and easy recipe videos that are easy to recreate by viewers in their home.

And yes, we often cook in heels. Someone didn’t think that brand through tbh. The blisters are so real.

You do a lot of private chef work in Lagos, right? What your favorite story? 

You people trying to ensure I never get work again abi

One time, I had a guest, at a dinner I served, book me for a dinner cause she loved the food so much. She pretty much booked me in front of her hosts. I’m like, "that’s cool!".

So we’re emailing back and forth about the menu, she wants the same menu but doesn’t want to pay the same cost. So, I come up with a similar but less expensive menu, right? All through this, the client keeps telling me “I want the radishes", so make sure the radishes are on the menu. I think you like radishes like that? Okay, cool beans. Here are some radishes on your salad.

I get there on the day, serve the first two courses and I’m plating up the dessert when the client calls me out to the dining room and demands to know where her radishes are.

In front of her guests!

So I say, “I put the shaved radishes on your salad cause that’s the only place that makes sense. Didn’t you notice?”.  

She goes, “No! THE RADISHES! I ASKED FOR RADISHES!”

At this point, I’m just lost AF. So I’m standing there looking like -____-. Her husband clearly slightly embarrassed goes “Dear, the radish was on the salad now. Maybe you didn’t get on your plate.” Then she goes “No now. Remember the radishes she served at Mrs. N’s house. The one with the red and the green sauce on the black plate.”

Turns out the entire time we were emailing about radishes, the darling lady was actually referring to crab cakes!!!

Her husband clocked this and had to explain to his guests who are at this point feeling mad uncomfortable, that his darling wife knows not the difference between crab cakes and radishes. I just jejely slunk back into the kitchen and laughed silently into my crème brûlée

LMAO, That's wild.

Anyway, you’re starting your food tour this month, what’s the whole idea behind it?

The idea behind the Nigerian Fusion Food Tour is to export the tastes and flavors of Nigerian cuisine to a wider audience. We have such a wealth of fresh and vibrant ingredients here as well as an insane amount of different cultures all of whom have their own meals. So, it’s ridiculous that outside Nigeria most people don’t know what Nigerian food is.

Apart from Jollof Rice, eh?

It’s also a chance for us to show Nigerians that we don’t have to continue to cook our foods in the same way as our grandmothers and their mothers did. It’s time to break the mold and get creative with our food. Pyam is not the worst of it. There’s the moi-moi spread, the egusi tortellini and my personal fave, the plantain puree. There is so much we can do and the food tour is just showing the very tip of the iceberg.

Speaking of Nigerian fusion, a couple months ago you launched a project Eko Street Eats with a pop up at Stranger. You haven't had another event since that first one. When is it back?

Man, that was almost a year ago. Eko Street Eats is a collaboration between myself and Chef Ramon (@ohwallaby). We created it honestly as a bit of stress relief. When food is your life, you need a space where food can be fun and removed from the stress of client demands. We had to take a little break due to some health related issues but we’ll be back in 2017 for sure.

Ok, a question from left field. If you could have a kitchen superpower i.e. like one thing you wish you could super fast and very well. What do you wish it to be?

Kitchen super power? Sigh, this is gonna be so pedestrian but it would probably be the ability to whisk super fast. I really hate whisking, I’ll hand the whisk to someone else as often as I can. Lol

Fill in the blanks

My favorite restaurant in Lagos… The Place (Jollof Rice and Asun. Judge me. I’ll fight you)

The most famous person I’ve cooked for… I did a dinner with ALL the heavy hitters of Lagos high society once, talk about pressure. The people that matter the most to me though are, Mrs. Ibukun Awosika & Mrs. Fela Durotoye, both at another dinner. That was dope to me. Also, Pastor Paul Adefarasin is someone I cook for quite often as well as his non-Nigerian gospel guests.

The best thing I ever cooked was... Everything I cook. Honestly, I can’t answer this cause my skills grow daily so things get better literally from day to day

My favorite spice is... Black pepper

My go-to grocery shop in Lagos is...  Spar in Lekki. Never the VI one. Trust me.

Kitchen Butterfly Is Ushering In The New Nigerian Kitchen
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We found her on Instagram a little over a year ago.  Ozoz, aka Kitchen Butterly, had the most fascinating takes on Nigerian food. Not in the boring "I blend pink eba" takes either. Her recipes felt like there was some science to it. Like her kitchen was more chemistry lab than kitchen.

Ozoz is a lot more than a "Nigerian food blogger". The label does her a great disservice.  She's a pioneer redefining our approach to Nigerian food. In another country, she'd be 3 cookbooks in with show on Food Network. 

There are a billion questions we've wanted to ask Ozoz and we finally got a chance to shoot some her way.


Where's your favorite place to go when you need inspiration?

My absolute favourite place for inspiration is in the pages of cookbooks.

Your recipes are very “out there* ”. We know you weren't professionally trained, i.e. Cordon Bleu and the like. Is there some sort of science to how you come up with your recipes?

Ha ha. I’ll take that as a compliment.

It comes from a few places. First, there’s knowledge - I’ve invested a lot of time reading, writing, eating and cooking food so I can literally taste flavours in my head. Then there’s the Japanese kaizen philosophy which I believe in - constant and neverending improvement, that works very well with my OCD :).  

Agbalumo Mimosas

Agbalumo Mimosas

Yaji French Toast

Yaji French Toast

And because of my science background - I’m an Exploration Geologist - I tend to take an experimental approach working from known to unknown, not only to recipe testing but also documentation - checking variables and constants and getting rather geeky about it. I love it!

You might be the only person on the Lagos food scene that puts in extensive work in terms of recipe development. Are we ever going to get all your recipes in one physical spot, like at a restaurant?

Thank you so much. I love food, particularly Nigerian food, and culture. My desire is to share what I know in a way that it makes a difference not only for cooks but for researchers who want to know what’s possible with our ingredients.

Will I ever open a restaurant? No. I think the hard work would take away the pleasure I find in cooking.

 How about more frequent pop-ups or even possibly a cookbook?

Cookbooks? TV shows? Food school? Yes, at some point. Pop-ups? Definitely.

Do you secretly wish you could patent or trademark some of your recipes? Because I know I’d be so pissed off if I came up with Nkwobi Jollof and someone claimed it.

*Crying with laughter* I don’t secretly wish that. The truth is I love sharing these ideas. I’m all about deepening our conversations and knowledge of food and pushing the boundaries for our cuisine’s sake.

Nkwobi

Nkwobi

Nkwobi Jollof

Nkwobi Jollof

We know (at least, we think) your ethos is the New Nigerian Cuisine and from following you it seems as though you don't make a lot of "swallow" type Nigerian food. What do you think is the place for these types of more traditional foods in the New Nigerian Kitchen?

It's important to understand the New Nigerian Kitchen. It's  my philosophy and practice around celebrating Nigerian cuisine in its entirety. It documents everything - history, culture, technique, traditional recipes, contemporary approaches, not just modern takes.

To be honest, time is the only thing that stops me from sharing all the things I wish I could about it. I do make swallow type food o. Plenty sef. I remember the time when I pounded yam (yes, mortar and pestle - I’m an Edo girl just in case) for my daughters who only ate Eba (garri) because they didn’t like poundo flour and converted them. *Super mum*

Asala-Scent Leaf Soup

Asala-Scent Leaf Soup

Or when I found Worowo - a special leafy green and combined it with Asala, African walnut to make a delicious soup. And when I made Banga (palmnut soup) and starch for Sunday lunch. But, I’m only one woman, a mind that’s a riot and not enough time to write it all down. Oh well, some day. So yes, the New Nigerian Kitchen is about it all. Every part of the spectrum - with a focus on celebration, on showcasing, on documenting.

Finish the following sentences

My favorite restaurant in Lagos is ... Terrakulture. Fried yam and goat meat.

Scent Leaf Curry Sauce

Scent Leaf Curry Sauce

I could eat ... bread with butter and jam every day for the rest of my life.

Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey? Jamie Oliver. There’s a recipe from Jamie’s Italy that still has me swooning 10 years on - Ice cream with olive oil and salt

My favourite spice/seasoning is ... Yaji, suya spice (Herbes de Provence is a close 2nd)

The best thing I've ever cooked is ... my scent leaf curry sauce with lemongrass rice and pawpaw salsa. For many reasons.

 

 

One Year In: How did The Hans & René Gelateria Get Here

Our love for Hans & René is a bit of an open secret at this point. Everything about the brand is extremely well done, and no matter what side of the fence you sit on regarding Hans & René, you have to admit they are insanely creative. Evident from their masterful use of Instagram to the actual gelato flavors in the store. Hans & René has gone from little cupcake service with a blog to one of Lagos' favorite dessert spots with 3 branches.

There are a few burning questions we've always wanted to ask Tayo Bolodeoku (who is fondly referred to as Mrs. B), the creative director of Hans & René, and we finally got a chance to shoot our questions her way.


Hans & René used to be just cakes, what prompted you to make the jump to full blown gelateria?

I love food in general but I am a proper sweet tooth. I had always dreamt about having a sweet shop with ice cream, so from the very first day I baked, ice cream was always on my mind.

I decided that if I was going to do it and do it well I had to learn from the very best. Who makes the best cold creams? Italians. Off I went to school in Italy; not to learn how to make ice cream but gelato.

Does it annoy you, even just a little, when people refer to your gelato as ice cream? And also why gelato and not ice cream?

No, it doesn’t annoy me, rather I see it as an opportunity to educate them on what they are having and why they are actually enjoying it so much.

There are many differences in how it's made, what temperature it's stored at, recipes etc but I will give you two basic facts about the difference between gelato and ice cream

  1. Less air churned into it
  2. Wayyy less fat

The results are a richer, creamier texture, no grainy icicles, it is denser with little to no fat to dull your senses when you taste it. A customer of ours said on Twitter “comparing Hans and René gelato to any other ice cream brand in Nigeria is like comparing a store bought chocolate brand to artisanal prepared Belgian chocolate”. It is head swelling and humbling at the same time that people are actually starting to get it.

We heard all H&R flavors are made custom for you. Like, you actually fly to Italy and determine how chocolatey you want your chocolate to be. Is that true?

That question made me chuckle, I wish it were so easy! 

I'm proudly Nigerian and that means my palette is wonderfully complex with all the food we eat....crayfish today, ogbono tomorrow, sheri mangoes, agbalumo etc. We also have our funny feeling about sugar and jedi jedi.

It is our recipe, custom made by us here in Lagos.

Before we opened, we worked extensively with Maestro’s and specialists in the gelato making world in Italy on the technical side of making the gelato.

We did this because as you know, we produce in-house daily and create new flavors on the fly. It was important to ensure that if we tweaked things a little bit that our work wouldn't fall apart.

With the help of my palate and expertise, we came up with our recipes. So to answer your question; There will never be a chocolate brownie gelato that tastes like a Hans and René Chocolate brownie gelato. It is our recipe, custom made by us here in Lagos. We learned the technicalities from the Italians but we refined the process with our own creativity. After all agbalumo, cashew fruit and zobo don’t grow in Italy.

Are there any plans to add savory items to Hans & René's offerings?

Watch this space closely......

Where's your favorite place to go when you need inspiration?

I draw inspiration from everything I see so I don’t have a particular place; however, I wake up at 3am every day and begin to download, research and write down all I have seen and don’t want to forget; that is my favorite time. The world is still and quiet and I can think.

Finish the following sentences

My favorite restaurant in Lagos is … Is it terrible that I don’t eat out much? I like to cook and eat at home with my family.

My all time favorite cupcake flavor is … Good old vanilla!

The best part of my job is … Experimenting in the lab and then seeing people enjoy what I've created makes me really happy.

If I wasn't doing this, I would be … A full-time mummy!

Jollof Rice or Amala … Amala. With gbegiri and ewedu...yes please!!!!


The third Hans & René After Dark is tonight (Saturday, June 4 2016). You should swing by and say hi to Mrs. B.

Ed Note: Hans & René gelateria is one, but they've been making cakes for six years. 

Meet Your Bartender: Kingsley

Café Royale

267A, Etim Iyang Crescent, Victoria Island, Lagos. 

01 271 4155

NOSA: The best thing about turning 21 and finally being able to drink legally is bartenders. They're the best people in the world. By the time I was done with grad school, I was buddies with all the bartenders at my favorite bar. 

FOLLY: LOL, yeah I was more focused on making friends with the bouncers. Why ? Go figure.

Anyway, we found out about Kingsley through some blog via Instagram. Apparently, he makes the best cocktails in Lagos (he actually does) and that's why we're here.

Kingsley.jpeg

NOSA: How long have you been a bartender?

Kingsley: 5 years.

NOSA: ...and where did you start at?

Kingsley: Here [Cafe Royale]

NOSA: So what's your signature drink?

Kingsley: If you want something, you just tell me

FOLLY: No, your specialty...

Kingsley: Most of my drinks are not on the menu

Kingsley proceeds to make us a shot

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Kingsley: We call it "Condom". Normally, if I do this one I put my hand inside and it forms a condom. [He demonstrates using a straw]

By now we're in fits of laughter and are certain Kingsley is a keeper. 

FOLLY: What's in it?

Kingsley: This is like Sambuca. Not a spirit. Don't worry, it's not that strong. I can't give you something that is, you told me you're driving.

FOLLY: Are you a king? Because I'm a princess

Kingsley: Of course I'm a king.

FOLLY: Can you marry me?

Kingsley: Not just like that.

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FOLLY: Ok, if you won't marry me, will you make drinks at my wedding? Do you even make drinks at events?

Kingsley: Yes, I do.

NOSA: What's your favorite liquor?

Kingsley: Baileys. I just like Baileys.

FOLLY: Baileys and ice is nice. I like peach Ciroc too.

Kingsley: That's good for vodka.

FOLLY: I like Malibu and Campari, but only with Chapman

Kingsley: Yeah, Malibu is very light. Campari and chapman is good, but when you take it with Sprite...

FOLLY: What's your least favorite?

Kingsley: Tequila. So who introduced you to me?

FOLLY: This guy gets me (I drink Margarita's but I haven't had a tequila shot since 2010, and that's a story for another day) ... Toyin

Kingsley: Toyin...I don't remember.

*Kingsley makes another drink*

NOSA: What's in my drink?

Kingsley: "Perfectamol" (*that's what I heard first)

NOSA: WHAT?

Kingsley: Parfait Armour. Lime. Pineapple Juice. Rum

POSTSCRIPT

NOSA: This is completely unrelated. The Nachos at Cafe Royale aren't nachos like nachos, but the chips are sooooo perf. I never esperred it.

nachos.jpeg

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