The word “chef” has, for the most part, been abused in Lagos. You see it on instagram all the time. Someone makes a couple plates for friends and in no time, a “chef” is prepended to the name.
That’s not Simi Ajibodu, however.
From culinary school to a Michelin-starred kitchen, Simi, also known Chef SiA, has put in the hours and earned the title. We got a chance to speak to her ahead of her popup in Lagos this weekend.
Tell us a bit about SiA. How did you get into the industry?
I’ve actually always wanted to be a chef. When I was in boarding school they used to offer “Food Tech” classes, and so when I got to A-Levels, I had a big decision to make. Do I want to do Food Tech or do I want to be a lawyer? Naturally, it became a huge conversation in the family. I was asked “what are you going to do with Food Tech?”
Umm, become a chef. Obviously.
And they were like that’s not really a profession. I was like okay, let’s go out to be a lawyer. I actually applied to the University of Kent to do Law and I realised it wasn’t for me halfway through so I ended up switching courses to American Studies just to go to uni. After that, I got into the workforce and hated the whole 9-5. I decided to leave it and go to culinary school. It was huge decision because I was leaving a comfortable job to pursue something I had no clue about. If not for the support of the people around me, I don’t think I’d have made it to the other side.
I applied to the Le Cordon Bleu (London) and started in January 2014. Before then, I romanticised what it meant to be a chef. Based on reading books, going food festivals, and watching TV shows - everything I thought I knew about being a chef was wrong. No one tells you that you have to be on your feet 12 hours a day or you have to pull long hours. You also have to more or less sacrifice your social life if this is the dream you want to pursue.
Your first job...
The first job I ever got was a week after I graduated from culinary school, I worked at CUT at 45 Park Lane.
As much as they teach you about these things [in culinary school], reality slaps you in the face HARD. I used to wake up at 3am for a 5am shift. I’d do breakfast, do lunch, go home to sleep and be back at it the next day.
I was like, “wow, this is what people actually go through?”. We sit in restaurants and think, “oh, this food is lovely, this service is great”, but we don’t know the grind that truly goes on. It gave me more appreciation for things that go on in the kitchen. For example, back in the day, I probably wouldn’t have paid service charge. My service wasn’t great so why should I pay for it? Then I got to understand the difference between service charge, VAT, and taxes. I started asking questions.
Is this going to the whole kitchen?
Is it going to my server?
Who am I tipping exactly?
If what I’m tipping is going to the whole kitchen, I will always gladly pay for it. Just because you have a bad experience with waiter doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve had a bad experience with the food. I’m not sure you understand what I mean.
From the Dorchester, I went a little restaurant called The Gallery. If you know where Saatchi Gallery is in Chelsea, then you know where it is. I think that’s where I got a lot of my experience as a young chef. The head chef, Andy, really took me under his wing. Not just the cooking side of things, but also, the front office. He taught me how to make and order supplies, how to understand stock levels, etc. It’s not just making the food and setting the prices, there’s a lot that goes into it. Basically, he taught me how to run a kitchen the right way. I think that’s the biggest lesson I ever learnt.
I thought to myself, “I can actually run a kitchen”.
A few years go by and I started focusing on private dining to understand what the customers want from Fine Dining and their understanding of it. Is it just about going to fancy restaurants or would they like that kind of service at home? While I was dabbling with that, the opportunity at IKOYI came up.
I actually found the job through instagram. I messaged the guys like “hey, I’m interested in working for you guys” and they told me to come through. We had a chat and he gave me the job on the spot. All of us in the [IKOYI] kitchen are 32 and under, and it drives the point that young chefs can actually do what we’re doing. We can run a restaurant and run it successfully. Age doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you have the right experience.
I’ve always been curious, what is it like at IKOYI? Or at any top level restaurant actually. What’s the structure?
Everywhere that I’ve worked, there’s a form of hierarchy. The bigger the restaurant, the more bureaucratic it is in my opinion. While I was at the Dorchester, we had this culture where as soon as you step in the door, you must shake everyone’s hand. It didn’t matter if you like them or not, you must do it. You also say “good morning” or “good afternoon” depending the time you start [your shift]. You do the same thing when you’re leaving. You have to clock in and clock out for your breaks. It doesn’t matter if you are in the shits (when you have so much prep that needs to be done), they don’t care. Everything was really structured and regimented. I didn’t really enjoy it.
Then, I got to IKOYI and it’s very different. As much as Jeremy is the head chef, we all contribute our ideas. We’re all in it together and there’s more of a camaraderie. We’re the sort of people that straight from work, everyone can go out to grab drinks and have fun regardless of how service went. We all have a sense of loyalty and trust in each other. You need that sense of “this person has my back”. If I can’t get food out on time, this person is going to help me. For me, that’s one of the reasons I really like where I am right now.
In terms of structure, everyone has their positions but everyone does everything. Today, I can be on sides. Tomorrow, I can be on the grill. If the person washing the pots and pans doesn’t show up, I can step in to do it. There’s no demeaning job. One job isn’t more important than the other.
When Ikoyi got that Michelin star, I was so excited on multiple levels. First, there’s the patriotic pride in the fact it’s partly Nigerian owned and Nigerian inspired. Second, Ire was like 3 years my [Nosa’s] senior in secondary school. It’s “famz”, but knowing someone that owns a Michelin starred restaurant is so crazy. I’m so far removed from it and I was so excited so I can only imagine how exciting it was for you to actually work in that kitchen. What’s it like to work in the kitchen following the star? Is there extra pressure?
Funny enough, we were not expecting it. A lot of people expect the star or expect some sort of honourable mention. We were not expecting it at all. When we got the email, Jeremy was like “Simi, can you take a look at this. Is this real or is someone playing a prank?”.
All of us had a look at it.
Then, we got the follow up email, which did not look like a prank. We were all in shock. All of a sudden, people started congratulating us. We’re still in shock till this day.
Following that, I’d say the only difference is that we got busier. People that didn’t understand what West African fusion was got to understand it. We had to handle the fact that on a given night where we’d be doing 40 covers, we were now doing 90 covers. We’re still riding off the high of the Michelin star. It’s still busy and people still congratulate us. Last week, someone sent a gift to congratulate us on the star.
There’s also more of an international recognition. We get a lot of foreigners that come through and one of the reasons why they come to London is because they want to visit IKOYI after hearing about it from someone else. I can meet random people and when they ask where I work, I say IKOYI and they know about it. It’s quite cool.
How did you guys celebrate when you got the star? Did you go to a fancy dinner or something?
Oh no, we went to Shake Shack
Literally, that’s what we did. I mean, we’re young. For us, if you want to eat good food, you can eat good food anywhere but most times you go somewhere affordable and cheap where you can just wind down. And not some fancy place that tells you to wear a jacket.
Fair enough. Ok, something a bit more personal. You had your first popup in Lagos in December and you have a couple more lined up for this year.
So, last December was actually not my first popup. My first popup was back in 2015. It was market research for me. I invited about 20 people and served a 7 course menu. I just wanted to get feedback from people.
"Did you like the food?” “What would you eat differently?” " Would you want a more fine dining service?” “Do you want something more casual?” “Are the portions just enough?”
And I got a lot of good feedback from it. The only thing I wasn’t sure of was: were they giving me good feedback because the food was free? Or did they actually enjoy the food? I had to go back to the drawing board to understand what I would do differently. I also needed to get more experience because I was still a young chef. That’s when the Roundtable series came to life in December. I’d actually gone to do a lot of research on how I’d like to eat at home in Nigeria.
Is there a reason you’re looking at Lagos more? I mean, it’s a good thing but I wanted to understand why.
There’s access to great food everywhere else in the world, but in my opinion, we don’t have modern fine dining in Nigeria. Or even in Lagos, more specifically. I decided that even if people don’t know me, I don’t want to be known as a private dining chef. I want to be known as someone that’s trying to change the culinary game in Lagos. And then Nigeria, then Africa, then the world.
Rather than starting in London, I wanted to start in Lagos because there’s a lot of great access to produce. For example, our puna yam. When we have them in London, I’m not guaranteed that it’s coming straight from Ogun State. I want Ogun State puna yam because it has a particular flavour and texture that I’m not going to be able to get in London.
My aim for next few months is to come back home and build awareness about how interesting our food is and how imaginative we can be as well. That’s why I’m doing a restaurant style popup as well as the second edition of the Roundtable series.
Are you ever going to move back and set up something here? Is that something that’s in your plans?
It’s actually a goal of mine but I’m very specific about the space that I want in terms of the ambiance and right now property in Lagos is bloody expensive.
A lot of the new spaces are in VI and some of those locations are leaseholds. Some of them are more or less renovated [houses]. They’re are not new buildings and I want to do that. I want to build something from scratch. I don’t want to lease a property, I want to be able to afford to buy it and build it the way I want to build it. I want to take my time with it because if I rush it and I fail, I will not have the confidence to do it again. I’m going to take my time and hopefully in 2-3 years, I can save, build and introduce myself as Chef SiA.
Tell us a bit about the menu for the Round Table later this week. I had a look at it yesterday and I noticed a lot of familiar elements, like plantains, but in unfamiliar places like a plantain macaron.
The funny thing about the plantain macaron is that a friend of mine said, “Simi, you don’t do too many things with plantain. Plantain is in every other dish in Lagos.”
I thought to myself that we could do a plantain macaron. What’s stopping us from infusing plantain flavour into it. What is gizdodo, for example? Can I infuse gizdodo into a macaron? In one bite, something sweet and something savoury that’ll make people go “Oh my God! I ate gizdodo but it did not look like gizdodo”. I want people to go away thinking it was different and cool. That’s the idea behind the plantain macaron.
For the rest of the menu, I wanted to do things that featured almost everyday in our [Nigerian] food. For example, chicken. Chicken is in everything we eat but honestly, I am not a fan of chicken. I think it’s a dry bird but I know how to make it juicy if I need to. Another thing we eat often is ram. Nigerians love our public holidays and we’re always celebrating one thing or the other, and if we’re not getting our Sallah meat from one our of Muslim friends, we’ve not really celebrated. So I thought I’d bring an element of that into the menu and introduce something different.
My menu is truly inspired by basic Nigerian ingredients that we can get anywhere. It’s meant to be something that looks exciting but something people think they can do at home, but they really can’t. So that they always come back and eat at my establishment
A lot of it is just me sitting at thinking if I can do things like okra ice cream. Is that something that’s plausible? If I strain the tanginess out of okra, put in some sugar and blitz it, will I be able to get candied okra? Can I use it as a garnish? That’s more or less what happens in my head everyday and I experiment. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then I go back to the drawing board.
Is there anything you brought to a menu that didn’t work and you had to toss it aside?
Yes, actually. There’s this particular dish that still bothers me. The egusi dish that I did at my last event had a lot of mixed feelings about it. Like, straight down the middle feelings. It bothered me. Why was it such a subjective dish? Did people think it was too close to hime and I didn’t reinvent it enough? I didn’t toss it aside per se but it bothered me. I need to go back to the drawing board so that it comes across as something that’s different but also familiar.
Final question: what’s next for Chef SIA?
My main focus now is taking Nigeria to the world. Even though Africa hasn’t been on the map with regards to the Michelin Guide or World’s Best Foods etc, we have something to offer. We can also produce quality food at a good price. That’s my main goal - to reinvent Nigerian cuisine and make it more accessible to everyone.
Right now, I’m trying to do more events and collaborate with more people. I’m also trying to focus on female chef empowerment. Especially here in London. The female chef is seen as second class to the male chef. All the “celebrity chefs” are male. I know there are a lot of female chefs doing a lot of great things in the background and we don’t always hear too much about them. One of my goals is to try to bring the female chef out into the open. To say that we’re here and we stand for something, and do great food as well.
In terms of my personal brand, I’m just trying to hustle out there. To let people know that I am Chef SiA, also known as Simisola Idowu Ajibodu. I’m a mother, a wife, and also a great ass chef. Come and eat my food. Let me know what you think. I’m here to have conversations about food, wine, Nigerian agriculture and how we can reinvent it.
Thank you so much.
Chef SiA will be in Lagos this month hosting two popups. Her first, at Black Olive in Ikoyi, will take place on March 15 and 16. While her second, at The Metaphor, will take place on March 23. To make a reservation for either, send an email to info[at]chefsiaa[dot]com.