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