Chef Michael Elégbèdé owns ÌTÀN Restaurant and Test Kitchen in Ikoyi, Nigeria, where he works to create a platform that tells the story of Nigerian cuisine and culture to the world. It’s a story that is intertwined with African-American identity and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Elégbèdé had to shut his restaurant in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The virus has not affected Lagos as badly as other cities around the world, but because of the instability in the food system and food insecurity there, the lockdown has had a drastic effect on communities.
“We at ÌTÀN have been doing our best for outreach with communities that even before the lockdown didn’t have a lot of food. Now they have access to food,” says Elégbèdé.
With the restaurant and test kitchen closed, Elégbèdé looked for a way to sustain the food system he had built around it. They put their energy into building the Abori Network, an online marketplace for Nigerian suppliers to reach customers. The online marketplace provides a listing for local producers, so Nigerian consumers can shop direct, empowering local communities.
“It’s one of the missing links in Nigeria’s food system, accessibility. A lot of people are doing remarkable things in the food space in farms, creating biodiversity, but they don’t really have a platform. Not enough people are paying attention to what they’re doing in Nigeria.”
The marketplace is an extension of his Abori Foundation. Last year, the first Abori Food Summit in Nigeria explored the issues of the food system and food insecurity in the country. Attended by key people in the system, from architects and designers, to farmers and UN representatives, it was the establishment of a platform for discourse and thought leadership that had been missing.
“I moved to Nigeria four years ago and I realised that a lot of the food systems that I relied on in the US, we didn’t have. I realised that in Nigeria, just being a chef isn’t enough,” he says.
“Massimo (Bottura) would say ‘being a cook is a call to act’ and for me that made sense. I was honoured to have experienced food and culture and art in places like New York and Napa Valley, places that have systems in place. So when I returned to Nigeria and I saw what was missing, I saw the opportunity use what I had learned to make a difference, but also to create new and delicious food.”
While Nigeria has its problems, there are a lot of innovative things happening there that are allowing the country to take its future in its own hands.
“Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations and there are a lot of youth-led movements that are taking back the country. A lot of our leaders are old men who are quite out of touch with our realities. So nobody looks to the government any more. We’re not waiting for them to have their Eureka moment when they come to their senses and care about ordinary people. We’re creating our own system within a system. It’s up to us if we want to have a better more sustainable future.
“When you come to Nigeria and you see how beautiful and diverse it is in flavour, in culture and terrain, and you see the state of the people, it’s mind-boggling. We have now a lot of well-travelled youth, coming back into the country like myself, who see it and see the injustice in it.
Elégbèdé is part of the diaspora of Nigerians who have left the country to return with a fresh outlook and new ideas. Michael’s parents won the visa lottery when he was five years old and moved to America, leaving him and his younger brother with their grandmother, a pastry chef who was trained under French colonisation. Michael cooked with her and helped out in her bakery for eight years, before joining his parents in America. Arriving in the US was an eye-opener.
“Having grown up in Nigeria and then moving to a country that is so mixed, it was the first time that I realised my blackness,” he says. “It was the first time that I had to internalise that I am a black man. Never before had I had to confront my identity or my race because I lived in a black nation. And with that realisation came a lot of struggles.”
Much has been written about James Beard Award winner Kwame Onwuachi, the American-born chef who was sent to Nigeria by his mother to reconnect with his culture. Onwuachi is now one of the leading voices for African-American culinary culture and for change in the industry. The two chefs are close friends, having worked in the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park together. Elégbèdé‘s story is almost a mirror image of Onwuachi’s. Listening to Michael speak, you see how the African-American and African black experiences are intimately intertwined.
“I was one of only three black people attending culinary school in Napa Valley. I worked in three-Michelin-star restaurants where I was almost always the only black chef in the kitchen, I had never experienced such levels of blatant racism The kitchen has a certain way of using the hierarchy to excuse certain behaviours that would never be acceptable in society. You find a lot of people that are racist and because of their position in the kitchen there are no repercussions.
“I didn’t go into the culinary industry thinking that I would go back to Nigeria. I had a background in cooking Nigerian food with my mom. She had a restaurant in Chicago. I thought I could bring it with me, as part of my story as a Nigerian American. I would go to work and someone would literally say to me ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here, you’re going to end up frying chicken at the end of the day anyway’.”
Of course, things are changing in American kitchens. But while racism isn’t yet a thing of the past, there is undoubtedly more awareness of it today than ever before.
“I don’t think white chefs are oblivious to the plight of black chefs. They’re responsible for stepping up. If you have black chefs working in your kitchen over the years and not one black sous chef comes out of it, there’s something wrong in the system and structure there. The tradition in a kitchen is that they want to break you in order to remake you, but the problem with black chefs is, it stops at the breaking. They don’t have the support.
“Everyone goes through the brigade system and people who are nowhere near your level of excellence or efficiency are going up the ladder quicker than you. If you’ve been on that station and seen three people come after you and get promoted ahead of you… Everybody sees it, but nobody wants to say anything. You question yourself, you think maybe you’re incompetent and you are always reluctant to play the ‘black card’.”
Experiencing racism really influenced Elégbèdé’s decision to move back to Nigeria. If racism is based on ignorance, then knowledge is the solution.
“I wanted to create a platform so that black people could see a lineage of deliciousness, of excellence of culture and traditions, so people have that traceability. And I want them to say that with their food, because African-Americans are from Africa. There’s a lot of cultural dissonance that’s happened over the years but that lineage is there, that lineage is a shared culture. I want that culture to have a narrative that is true. What has happened in the past has misrepresented us.”
With a renewed passion for Nigerian cuisine, Elégbèdé started doing Nigerian tasting menus in New York, but soon realised how little he knew about Nigerian food, in order to tell the story he wanted.
“I’m from a south-western part of the country, so all I knew, and I knew very well, was south-western food. The food of one ethnic group of 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria.
If he wanted to tell this story, he had to do it from a place of truth and there was no way he could know that truth unless he returned to Nigeria.
“I bought a one-way ticket and started travelling the country, cooking with grandmothers, trying to learn as much as I could. Everyone thought I had gone crazy. They thought I was going to places where I could be kidnapped, but that was untrue, I went to these places and locals welcomed me into their homes. They called me ‘Oyinbo’, which means ‘white person’. How funny is that?”
While America wrestles with its race issues, and the Black Lives Matter movement affects positive change for African Americans, Elégbèdé does have some regret that he’s on the other side of the world and not part of it. He is, however, very much part of it.
“The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t really resonate here in Nigeria. It’s one thing to know that racism exists, it’s another to experience it.”
He doesn’t see the change he’s trying to effect as separate to what’s happening in America. He is both Nigerian and American, his activism springs from both and contributes to both causes. That’s why ÌTÀN is important.
“Food is a cultural bind. It’s the centre of our identity. We all eat. There’s something about the food that we eat that ties to our land and our ancestors, it’s such an emotional, holistic experience. I think it’s the most intimate art form because it’s one you ingest. Whatever you eat can tell you a story, if you understand the nuance of ingredients.
“If you’re using olive oil versus palm oil, those ingredients tell two different stories of ancestors, of the land and terroirs. That’s why it’s important that food is never demonised or the people are demonised. It’s very easy to see, if you look at how French food is perceived and see how French people are perceived. Look at how Spanish food is perceived and how Spanish people are perceived. Then think about how black and African food is perceived… That’s why we need Black Lives Matter.”