The professional chef and chef instructor spoke with PiggyVest recently and topics covered include, his earliest memory of cooking, his tech business aspirations, as well as a recollection of a very dark episode in his life.
First things first, why “Chef Human”?
“Chef” is just a title, and “Human” is my identity. It is a call to order: regardless of my achievements, successes and failures, it is what I am. It has been my pen name and signature for my art since school.
The Chef | The Food pic.twitter.com/FTyBeXYa1U— Chef Human™ (@WildChefHuman) September 6, 2023
How was it growing up?
Normal. We were neither poor nor rich. I am an Ikorodu boy who has mostly spent his life in Lagos. I am the middle child in a family of all boys.
As a kid were you interested in cooking?
Yes, I was.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
I was 11 and in secondary school, I think. My mum, who worked in banking for over 30 years, had just come home from work. She slept off while cooking, and I continued the process.
I woke her up afterwards and she panicked, but I assured her that it was fine. I served her the meal, and she was impressed. From that night, I began cooking for my family. My mum had cookbooks that I used at the time, even if many of the ingredients were unavailable.
Did you have any plans to do something significant in the future with your cooking?
Not really; I just liked cooking. When it was time for university, I didn’t consider anything connected to that at all. I wanted to study medicine and eventually studied microbiology in OOU.
In school, were you known for cooking?
Yes. But my younger brother was the really popular one in school. He was a photographer. For me, I liked to cook for friends. Nothing really big. I was mostly known for my art.
Were you getting paid? What was your first paid gig?
Yes, I did get paid. I did something for a customer’s father and got around ₦7,000. This was around 2014. My brother had a studio as a student, and a part of it was for my art.
Did that first gig make you think there was money to be made in the field of art?
Yes, but it was really just an opportunity to express myself.
So what was your highest fee as a student?
It was about ₦30k.
After school, what happened next?
I went to culinary school.
Interesting. You didn’t get a job or try to monetise your art skill?
[Laughs] No. That is where passion comes in. I hadn’t even earned anything from cooking at that stage. I had been talking about culinary school when I was a student, so I decided to go ahead when I finished.
How long was culinary school?
And throughout that period you didn’t earn any income?
You are my hero! That kind of single-mindedness is rare.
So what was your first job?
It was an internship at a food company, and it paid ₦30,000. The experience was great, but it was also hell. The workload was massive. We were producing food for airlines and for ships.
I resumed at 8am and left at 6pm. I was on my feet throughout, covering several sections of the premises from Monday to Friday.
How long did you last?
A couple of months. I had to resign.
What happened next?
A friend I met in culinary school recommended me for a job she couldn’t take.
How much was the pay?
₦80,000. But the workload was even worse than the other place I left. The place had a restaurant, a lounge and a club. The kitchen had to service all of these, and it was Sunday to Sunday.
How long did you last at this one?
A couple of months. [Laughs] I had to leave for a collection of reasons. One time, a friend of the owner waved a gun at me. I was like, “Abeg, I only came here to work.” From there, I got a job as an assistant culinary instructor.
What was your salary at this stage?
It was ridiculous. It was ₦60,000, but it was okay because I also wanted to work with companies that have value.
Had you started posting stuff online at the time?
I started posting for culinary school. It was around this time that I started to get a followership online.
Burger l'anje.❤️— Chef Human™ (@WildChefHuman) September 23, 2023
It is tasty
It is crispyy
It is drippyyyyy💦 pic.twitter.com/HkYVSiXwTr
What was your plan after leaving that job?
I wanted to create a place for creatives to play music and all. It was also meant to have a teaching area. We finished it right when the pandemic started in 2020.
This must have been bad for you?
Bad is an understatement. It was devastating. When things were normal again, I decided to split the place in two: one would be a restaurant and the other the school.
That’s smart. Did it work out?
Well, before things took shape, we were ejected from the building and it was destroyed.
Yes. The lady we had paid wasn’t the owner of the land. A bank had acquired the land and wanted to start doing things with it. Long story short, the building was demolished.
Wow. Sorry, man.
There were other occupants in the building, but I had the biggest portion.
Did you get any money back?
I didn’t get a dime back. I lost everything just because I wanted to set up a business in Lagos. I started living from hand to mouth. Even the mouth…
Sheesh. That must have been terrible.
I was depressed for months. There were times I wrote my suicide note. Those were dark days. We had probably spent over ₦10m, and it just disappeared.
How did you recover?
I didn’t recover. Even remembering it now…[trails off into silence]
I can only imagine.
I was admitted to a hospital. When I returned home, I was like a vegetable. I had no will to do anything. But there is always a time when you decide to take your life back. I wasn’t ready to die.
After a while, I started reaching out to people to link me with opportunities. One of my brother’s friends had street food stalls around Lagos. He sold me one of his stalls around the Yaba area. With blood, sweat and begging, I raised ₦300k to buy the place from him.
What did you want to do with the spot?
I just wanted to continue what he was doing, I just wanted to be doing something. But I didn’t have money to even start. Luckily, my brother gave me about ₦50k. The business scattered anyway because the staff I inherited weren’t quite as interested, probably because of the management change. But I did what I could, servicing food orders.
Did things change?
Yeah. One day, I got a call on my personal line and it was a lady saying she had been trying to reach me on Twitter for days. I later checked and found that a tech company in the food space wanted to fill a role and many people had mentioned me as a response to the tweet.
I also saw that a HR person had reached out to me about recommending someone for the role. Well, I later asked if I could shoot my own short. It was a long process, but I joined them as assistant production manager.
We were producing over 3,000 meals per week. I was managing the inventory, procurement, quality control and other units. It was quite an experience. I also did some writing and a lot of administrative work.
Was the pay good?
It was good enough to get by, and I was with them for about a year. I was getting around half a million and the money helped me pay the debts I owed.
At this stage, you had gotten popular on Twitter, right? How did it happen?
Yes. But I can’t exactly say how it happened. I went to culinary school, where you learn about plating, although I try to be creative with my approach. Most of what we are taught in school are from the west. What I do is take those principles and infuse them with our African-ness.
I also write explanatory captions so people know what they are looking at. Sometimes I’ll write something like “jute puree”, which is basically ewedu. When I say stuff like that, people are surprised and that gets their attention.
Jute puree? Abeg, give me ewedu.
[Laughs] People don’t know the real name.
So after leaving the food tech company what happened?
I wanted to still remain in tech, even if the company I was leaving had a fair bit of toxicity. People would join and in about a week they’d resign; and this kept happening. The working conditions led to high turnover. But somehow I worked there for about a year.
Just before I left, I started taking product designer courses online. I was going to get a MacBook to increase my efficiency but it kept getting delayed. Around that time, I wrote something of a joke about sapa and it got the attention of Unity Games. I got offered a copywriting job but without a laptop, the opportunity disappeared.
Must have been hard to take.
Yeah. I got what I had paid for eventually, though. And then my brother and I relocated to Gbagada to a bigger space, where he has set up a studio and I set up a culinary arts section named Roux De Noir – Institute of Culinary Arts & Science. I train students and sometimes shoot content.
In our French class, we made Coq au Vin.— Chef Human™ (@WildChefHuman) June 20, 2023
-Cock cooked in red wine
-Creamy mashed potatoes
-Bed of Lettuce
-Buttered green beans
Creating culinary masters, one student at a time.❤️ pic.twitter.com/GVr4YkkTq8
So that’s what you are up to now?
Yeah. But I also got connected to a restaurant who needs an experienced hand to run the operations. I have also been consulting for some food tech companies. I design menus and general operations.
What are your current streams of income?
It is mostly working with this restaurant. There is also my culinary school, but that is an occasional arrangement. Then, there is the consultancy bit.
You have had a topsy-turvy time in business. What lessons can you share from it all?
I think the first thing is perseverance. You need to persevere no matter what life throws at you. It is also important to be driven by passion. If I didn’t have a passion for cooking, I wouldn’t be here. I think it is important to follow your passion. Finally, always try to improve and collaborate with other people.
What’s the plan for Chef Human going forward?
I created a tech-enabled food product brand. I haven’t launched yet because I am seeking a level of financial stability. I also want to work as a junior product designer. Of course, I still want to have a restaurant but that is the bigger picture.