By Chris Onuoha
Chef Tiyan Alile is the executive chef of Tarragon Restaurant in Ikoyi, Lagos. She is the President of the Culinary Arts Practitioners Association in Nigeria and founder, Culinary Academy, Ikoyi, Lagos. As a lawyer with corporate background that spanned 15 years, she went into the food business, a passion that has materialised into something bigger than her expectations. Recently, she organised the African Young Chefs Competition ‘AYCC’, a platform that is billed to bring young and inspiring African chefs together to change the narrative about African indigenous food to international standards. In a chat with Saturday Woman, she speaks on emerging trends in the culinary and hospitality industry in Nigeria.
What informs the passion for culinary art? Does it run in your family?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any professional chef in my family. My mum is a lawyer retired as a chief magistrate. My father is a doctor- a veterinary surgeon. My mum loves to entertain us with food. She finds time to cook despite her profession as a lawyer. I definitely picked a lot from her kitchen experience. Going to culinary school for me was to brush up, design and educate myself because I believe knowledge is power that can never be taken away, and it’s always good to educate yourself.
When I came back from sojourn abroad, I noticed that it was quite obvious, because of the way I ate and dined, that there was definitely that gap in eating habits and style in Nigeria. Dining out here does not really meet ones expectation. We have quite a number of people in the hospitality industry in the country, as fast as it is growing, but these brands ought to have international standards. Then the chefs we have within hardly meet the human resource demands.
I said to myself, I know what I am going to do. I then decided to get a good curriculum to teach culinart art, start to train chefs. It’s not only training chefs but also recreational training to train staff who will be relevant in the industry. This is because some people just love to cook and there are some who want to do it professionally. We train children also – catch them young. It is within this context that I found the African Young Chef Competition (AYCC)
Culinary Academy as an institution is 5 years old. Within the period I realise that we really need to do more on a broader and global scale. I then decided, let’s start with Africa first, that gave birth to AYCC competition and also engage young chefs in mentoring sessions.
Culinary Art Academy, what’s the mandate?
Our objective is to create a platform where all the industry can come together, build a synergy and help to educate each other; have the camaraderie that the industry needs and help make the industry a better space. Memberships comprise so many young and talented chefs and others.
With your corporate law background, how did you transit to food and cooking?
I will definitely say that my interest and love for food outdates my passion for corporate law. My interest in food started when I was pretty young. Law of course was my academic specialization in the university. I did practice law and was called to bar. I had fifteen years at the bar, but I haven’t practiced for over 5 years now. Within that period, I did foreign investment advisory. I worked in a law firm in Lagos and also had a consulting firm in Washington DC, USA doing advisory consultancy for people who wanted to invest in the USA. I was also doing that for people who wanted to invest in West Africa and Nigeria, in public private partnerships that include oil and gas transactions. I also went to culinary school in the USA. When I came back I know full well that what I intended to do was in the line of culinary education. I didn’t come back to just be a caterer.
Was it strange changing career and what are the challenges?
No!, it wasn’t strange in any way because, when I was in secondary school, I was cooking, baking and also having my friends come over the weekend for cooking classes. It wasn’t like I did a drastic career change. Friends always tell me to teach them how to cook and I was obviously doing it not for core business but for the love for cooking. Eventually, the overheads are incredible, and the marketing style is completely different. I wouldn’t say there was a challenge because I am this kind of person who always looks for the silver lining and see the possibility from everything and when I realise there is an obstacle; I just tackle it and move on. I keep myself focused on my objective and I will be persistent until I achieve.
How successful was the AYCC ‘17 competition?
The competition, I would say, is completely successful. We had up to 600 people in attendance. It was a whole day’s event with vendors from the culinary sector, hospitality industry and chefs from renowned institutions that presented a special jollof rice cuisine that is new on the table. It was a mix of fun, entertainment; interactive and mentoring sessions. A young and inspiring Nigerian won the completion. Hopefully next year we will take it to another country within Africa and see how it goes because it is an African thing.
From the preliminary stage we wrote letters to culinary institutions across Africa requesting their participation through online publication and other mediums. Opportunities favoured more of people from outside Nigeria because we did that to encourage wider participation from African countries to showcase their kind of cultural foods and culinary expertise. We had people from Congo, South Africa, Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria. Others could not make it as a result of low funds.
However, the winner went home with 5000 dollars, the second winner got 2000 dollars and the third got 1000 dollars. It was quite rewarding as all the participants went home with something to show besides the experiences, networks and interactions with people of other cultural backgrounds. Most of them have never been to Nigeria before. For them, it was quite an exciting experience to come here to Nigeria.
On the day of AYCC, we mentored about 250 young aspiring chefs and caterers who wanted to go into the business and market their brands and businesses: how to start, where to start and the best kind of culinary education they need to get. We had ten experienced and seasoned chefs in the industry that facilitated that session. Subsequently, my team went to represent Nigeria in India in the young chef competition. We came out 19th out of 65 candidates that participated. It’s not enough to run a marathon, we train for it. With all the training we are deepening the knowledge of the participants, creating a platform for learning for people in the culinary space.
How do you see the hospitality industry in Nigeria today?
I can only say it is striving to come up better, pushing harder to meet up the international standard. The food culture has changed and many more people are embracing our cultural food values. People are beginning to understand our indigenous ingredients and also eat from the perspective of ‘Oh how can you transform my ingredient to a well prepared cuisine?’ Also people are health conscious and the hospitality industry is addressing that through programmes like this. In terms of tourism, this is the time. With a competition like the African Young Chef Completion, AYCC, it is meant to attract tourism and perhaps, it was done in identification with Lagos at 50 celebrations.
What do you expect or perhaps, advise government to do to better the hospitality industry from the level it operates now?
Honestly I would say government should leave it for the private sector. I am not quite sure there is a lot they can do. Perhaps, there is a ministry of tourism that can be put on that platform to boost the industry. Otherwise the private sector can do a lot more in managing the industry effectively.
Did you get an unpleasant reaction from your parents as you made a shift to the culinary business?
My mother definitely understood better because she knew exactly what I wanted to do. My dad was the only one who showed some resentment as he said he never believed I would leave my law profession to do this kind of thing. Initially, there was resistance because they saw that it is cost effective. But eventually, he has come to reckon with me having been to my business place, and believed in what I am doing. I have their full support. Even some of my friends in the law profession cannot remember I was once a lawyer seeing how passionate and progressive the culinary business is going.
What’s your advice to young people that want to trail your path in culinary art?
Just like you cannot tell if your child is ugly or beautiful because it is your child (which is a wise analogy), it is the same way that everything goes. If you believe in what you want to do, you will succeed. You really cannot tell if you are a good cook or not unless you give it a trial and put your mind in it. Start from the scratch, educate yourself and go to culinary school and get the basics; then you will be surprised that cooking as a profession is easy. Be in a professional environment and pursue your dreams, so long as you ambitiously believe that it is possible. One thing I always say is that Tiyan is the most important person to Tiyan. I take very good care of myself and place myself first before anything. I have this go-getting attitude and nothing stops me from reaching any point when I make up my mind. For me, go for it and do not be afraid. Be kind to one another, and consider integrity in anything you do.
What are those things you have done in life that you find regrettable.
Honestly, people ask me this question quite often, and I keep saying I don’t think there is anything I have done that is worth regretting. Even those things that could have made me think that I have goofed; I leave that with an experience of a lesson. There’s always a lesson to learn from everything, even when I burn myself in the kitchen, I call it a lesson. I embrace life with so much vigour that I keep moving without regrets. No space for penitence and drama.
Would you stop cooking some day?
It is very possible to stop cooking professionally, but I will not stop cooking. I so tell my students and staff that one day you will hear that Chef Tiyan has retired professionally. It is a career that is physically exerting. Sometimes I am on my feet for 20 hours. I see myself as the grandmother at the 120th year, in the kitchen cooking for the grandchildren…
What kind of drive do your students have in the course of mentorship?
When I think about my students, I am so overwhelmed. They are so passionate about the career, so driven and doing things that marvel me. I get so emotional and I always see in them such a drive that will take them far. Although you can tell those who are not serious about what they are doing, but majority are good and serious.
Doing business in Nigeria is very expensive.
What is Chef Tiyan doing differently to redefine Nigerian indigenous foods?
In fact, when you look at my menu on the table, you would see an improved menu that reflects our local food in different and enhanced recipes. We prepare these meals in a special way to surprise our customers and at the same time, showing the wonders we make with our Nigerian indigenous recipes. People who come to the restaurant will always call back or send a note of commendation that even overwhelms me. I am born to do this.