Head Chef at ÌTÀN Test Kitchen, Michael Elegbede, grew up in a family of chefs. The last book he enjoyed was Life, On The Line by Grant Achatz: ‘I enjoyed and learnt a lot from his journey as a chef and his perseverance through hard times, cooking even while getting treated for a tongue cancer that almost cost him his sense of taste.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What kind of food did you grow up eating or reading about?
Growing up in a family of chefs, I had the advantage of having quite an adventurous culinary upbringing. There was always something new to try; from occasional soups made with bush rats grandma brought back from her travels to the village to coq au vin made with hens from our humble-sized poultry. I realized the food I ate growing up became another medium of understanding cultures and traditions outside of my immediate reality.
What’s one dish that takes you back to your childhood?
Growing up in a culinary family, my references for childhood and food nostalgia are quite in-depth. However, the dish I loved the most from my childhood is pounded yam and egusi; my grandma only made it when Benue yam was in season because she says it’s the best yam for pounded yam and the egusi was heavenly: scrambled-like melon seed globules fortified with smoked mackerel, fresh prawns and the best palm oil.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your eating tastes/habits?
It’s quite ironic, but it’s often the case that chefs tend to have bad eating habits. The pandemic has forced me to pay more attention to what I’m feeding myself and when I’m actually eating during the day. I found myself eating a lot more vegetable-based dishes and less meat. I would make black-eyed peas with corn, carrots, sweet potatoes and ugwu leaves; made egusi with just a hint of crayfish powder using yam leaves from my garden; and had a lot of different types of smoothies.
The food I ate growing up became another medium of understanding cultures and traditions outside of my immediate reality.
What genre of books do you enjoy reading the most (and why)?
I enjoy reading philosophical books and memoirs, especially those of people I admire and sometimes see as mentors; they give me insight into their journeys in life, struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments.
What’s the last book/text you enjoyed?
Life, On The Line by Grant Achatz—I enjoyed and learnt a lot from his journey as a chef and his perseverance through hard times, cooking even while getting treated for a tongue cancer that almost cost him his sense of taste.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about food?
As a lover of science, I found On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee to be quite mind-blowing in the way it explored food and ingredients to its molecular breakdowns with narratives of their origins and history.
What’s something simple that continues to surprise you about cooking?
I’m constantly amazed by vastness of the food space, there is always something new to learn and taste.
As a lover of science, I found ‘On Food and Cooking’ by Harold McGee to be quite mind-blowing.
What’s a common misconception about (African) food?
Some misconceptions I’ve heard from the West revolve around this idea that African cuisines are just spicy and starchy; that there aren’t delicate preparations and flavours. The thought that all Nigerian food is just Jollof Rice and Suya or all people eat in Senegal is Thieboudienne or in Ethiopia all they eat is Injera. Unfortunately, due to the lack of expression of diverse iterations of cuisines across Africa; such notions based on ignorance still persist.
What’s the most recent dish you tried/made for the first time?
The nature of my occupation in many ways challenges me to rethink Nigerian food in ways neither myself nor others have ever experienced our dishes. So, in some ways you can say every time I’m creating a new menu, I’m making a dish for the first time.
What’s one dish you’ve been meaning to make/try but have not been able to?
The dish that I know of, that I’d like to try, I’ve tried.
In some ways you can say every time I’m creating a new menu, I’m making a dish for the first time.
What’s a book everyone should read to understand food?
I really think everyone should read Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. It covers the elements and fundamentals of flavours and the roles they play in shaping how people experience food. To learn more about Nigerian food, I’d recommend The Orishirishi Cookbook by Tola Akerele; it gives a nice and approachable overview of Nigerian cuisine.
You’re the chef at ÌTÀN Test Kitchen, what’s your process for coming up with your menus?
Once we’ve researched and decided on the story we want to tell with the menu (for example, a region in Nigeria, tradition, time of the year) we look at the ingredients in season and allow them to guide the dishes we create for the menu.
And what inspired your recent menu, ‘In Diaspora’?
‘In Diaspora’ menu helped us tell a story of a past often ignored. The menu allowed us to use food as a medium to have a conversation on a topic as serious as slavery and how it spread our cultures and traditions globally. Growing up in America, it was easy to see the similarities in the food eaten in the southern parts of America and our food in Nigeria. It’s a menu I’ve always wanted to do, this felt like the right time.
What’s something you learned about food and the African diaspora while preparing this menu?
Exploring how our food travelled across the Atlantic gave me an even more powerful insight to our tenacity as Black people and how food is used as a medium of passing down stories and history of a people. Acaraje in Brazil, with all conviction, traces the people in that region to southwestern Nigeria where the Yoruba people make akara.
Growing up in America, it was easy to see the similarities in the food eaten in the southern parts of America and our food in Nigeria.
Which three African chefs currently practising today should we all be paying attention to?
Selassie Atadika (Ghana); Dieuveil Malonga (Rwanda); Abiodun Williams (Nigeria)
What’s a dish you wish you had discovered earlier?
Banga! I never had banga growing up. Travelling to the East and eating banga the traditional way blew my mind.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I’ve been doing some writing on my journey to rediscovering Nigerian cuisine through my travels around the country and through my cooking with locals in those regions.
I never had banga growing up. Traveling to the East and eating banga the traditional way blew my mind.
What are you working on next?
I’m really excited about the work we’re doing at ÌTÀN Test Kitchen currently and looking forward to seeing how it grows. Our next menus will continue to tell different narratives of our cultures in Nigeria; maybe we’ll do a menu expressing dishes eaten during festivals in Nigeria or traditional dishes eaten when there is a birth or maybe… a death.
Questions from Bomi Fagbemi: What book would you adapt to film/television, and who would be the director?
There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe. Directed by Ava DuVernay.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What is one thing you love to eat and wish you could cook?⎈
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