Chef Tucker is the founder and executive chef of culinary brands, The Chef Tucker and Grey & Crimson. In this interview, he shares how a failed attempt at fashion design led him to his current career. He also tells us the impact the famed akara burger has had on his business.
Did you always want to cook professionally?
No. I never thought I was going to pursue a career as a chef until it happened. I’ve always been a very picky eater, so most times, I had to make my food; my mum couldn’t put up with how picky I was. That’s how putting things together to create something edible for myself began.
What did you study in school?
I studied Nutrition, but only because I didn’t get Pharmacy, the course I actually applied to study.
I guess it makes sense now.
Yes, it does, but I was upset by the idea then.
So tell me how you became a chef.
I actually started out as a fashion designer. I started learning that when I was 13, and by 14, I was already working. My parents were very supportive and gave me everything I needed. I got my first machine as a gift from my mum, and I made clothes for my friends and relatives.
I continued doing that when I got into university and before long I started making clothes for my lecturers. This made me a “household name” in my school.
Yeah. I got famous, and like most people who can’t handle fame, I became greedy with money. My business started to fail. I became a regular tailor. The business eventually failed and I had to take a break to figure out what to do next.
So what did you do next?
After graduating from school in 2017, I was convinced I didn’t want to work a 9-5 job. The next best thing for me was my cooking. I applied to become an intern with some chefs in Lagos. One notable one reached out to me and agreed to have me as an intern.
Were you anxious about the internship?
Oh, yes! I was both anxious and ashamed. I had just given up on a career path I had been building for years, and I had lost a lot in the process — people, clientele, money. It was like I was starting life afresh at 22, but I had to do what I had to do.
How was the internship?
It wasn’t as great as I had expected it to be.
What were you expecting?
I was expecting to learn. I had gone in there knowing little, but my mentor at the time thought I wasn’t coming up to speed as much as he’d expected me to. He even went as far as telling me I wasn’t cut out to be a chef.
That really got to me because, at the time, I didn’t know anything. So I walked out of his kitchen and never returned. I knew I gave it the best I could.
What did you do after leaving the internship?
I reached out to a friend who directed me to another restaurant. I went there to continue the internship and, luckily, I was really good at my job. I learnt fast, so I was promoted to pastry cook almost immediately.
What was the pay like, as an intern?
I wasn’t paid for the first internship. When we had external gigs, my boss would give me a stipend of about ₦20k. That was all. If we didn’t get an external job for a month, then I didn’t get any pay, but I didn’t really care because I just wanted to learn.
If I went to a culinary school, I would’ve spent way more than that, so I thought it was a good bargain. The second internship paid ₦50k. Then it increased to ₦80k.
What happened next?
I got a job as a sous chef at Jara Beach Resort, then I got an offer to work at an establishment I revered at the time.
By 2020, I had moved to Abuja. Covid struck that year, so the company had to downsize. I was retained, but I had to take a salary cut. I was a foreigner in Abuja, and I needed money, so I had to let him know that as much as I loved being there, I would love to start something on my own. He let me start out in his kitchen, but things didn’t work out as fast as I expected.
Abuja is too chill; it’s not a place where you hustle, and I really wanted to hustle. So I returned to Lagos by the end of the year.
Did things pick up when you returned to Lagos?
Not immediately. I started by getting referrals from friends, offering discounts to customers, sending out items to people for free and asking that they post me and my work if they liked it.
What was the first big win?
I think it was the big international brand I got to work for in 2020. I’ve been working for them since, and it has elevated my work significantly.
How did you get the gig?
I was referred to their head of marketing. They were super-impressed with my work, and that led to being put on retainer.
How have you been able to maintain that relationship?
I’ve learnt that you need to have a great attitude. You can know everything about the craft, but it’s your attitude that’ll help keep you there and get you referred as often as possible. It hasn’t been rosy, but I’ve been able to maintain a good attitude.
I get my pricing right, I express my displeasure in times of crisis/conflict without worsening the situation, sometimes I sacrifice some things because I want to get somewhere. That’s how I’ve been able to maintain that relationship and others.
What’s a memorable crisis from your line of work?
I remember destroying a bride’s wedding cake a few hours before the event started, and I was shaking. Thankfully, I was able to repair the cake. It didn’t look as great as it initially did, but I tried my best.
I apologised and sent a couple other things to the bride and her family. It broke me for a while because I thought I had really messed up, but the event planner was happy with the way I managed it, so she came back to me with more jobs.
Did you start out with cakes?
All I ever used to do was banana bread, then I developed a knack for designing cakes. So I started designing birthday cakes. Then I moved to wedding cakes. People liked what I made and that’s how it all started.
What things do you do in your business?
I’ve had to break the business into two arms. I have a pastry and cake business called Grey & Crimson. I also have The Chef Tucker brand, which deals in creating dining experiences for events.
How do you manage both brands?
I’ve been able to put certain people and structures in place to make it happen. I have a team of professionals who do their part. I do my part, and, together, everything just sort of works.
What’s your best-selling product?
It has to be the Akara burger.
Please tell me how that came about?
I can’t take the credit for it. A friend recently pointed out that every Nigerian street food has been elevated, except akara. We needed to do something about that. I’m a chef and I know how to merge flavours, so I built a flavour profile for it, made some samples, and I randomly put up a post about it on Twitter.
I wasn’t looking to sell it initially. I was simply having fun and expressing my creativity. To my surprise, the post received significant attention, and many people expressed curiosity and interest in trying it. Naturally, I became interested in the prospect of selling it. Then Twitter users came for me about everything, including the price (₦6,000).
Did that impact the brand?
I wasn’t responding to the trolls because I was making money. The response was incredible. At one point, we had to stop taking orders for a couple of days, just so we could manage the demand. A few days after the tweet, we had gotten about 300 orders.
What’s the average number of orders now?
Between 20 to 30 in a day. Sometimes, a little more, sometimes a little less, but usually within that range. We’ve stopped advertising, but orders still come in for it.
That’s incredible. In your career as a chef, what’s the biggest cheque you’ve received?
I can’t remember the biggest now, but I’ve been paid millions a lot of times.
You’ve come a long way from your fashion business. Has your relationship with money changed?
It has. I’m slightly more prudent with money. I still think I’m more lavish than I should be, but I’m way better. I’m more prudent because there are more structures in my personal life and in the business. I have to report to people, keep records, grow the business, buy new equipment, look out for my staff. All of that.
Running one business in Nigeria can be tough, not to mention two. How’s it going?
There are highs and lows. It varies throughout the year.
How do you manage the months when nothing is happening?
We survive on business savings from when things are good. It’s normal.
Is there any significant money mistake you’ve made in the past?
A while back, I invested in a Ponzi scheme. Looking back, I think I did it out of greed because I initially cashed out, but I was thrilled by the idea of “reinvesting” even more money, potentially tripling my funds. That was when the whole scheme went bust, and I lost my money. I was depressed for a while.
Any advice for people looking to excel in your field like you?
I believe it comes down to putting in the work. I don’t care so much for the glamour of my career. I prefer to be at the back, doing my job. I’ve always just wanted to work; I gave myself to the job. It’s difficult, but I always want to be excellent. Regardless of the scale of the project, I maintain a high standard of excellence. It’s hard to not notice that.