26 years old James shares his story of making a career out of a childhood passion. He also gives aspiring chefs a few pointers.
How did you start cooking?
My mother taught me to cook and boy, can she cook! I grew up as the first of four children. My sister is the youngest child in the family so my brothers and I grew up doing all the housework. There was no distinction between chores for the boys or the girl in our home. I can remember cooking Edikang-Ikong soup at a very young age.
Besides cooking, do you have any other hobbies?
I enjoy swimming, travelling and playing snooker. I also love music; my favorite songs are by Boys II Men.
What made you decide to take cooking up professionally?
My childhood dream was to become a lawyer. However, when I lost my dad at age 12 the dream had to change. Things became so tough for my family and my mother was still a student at the Polytechnic so she didn’t have much money. We could barely afford to pay school fees and bills so I had to find ways to become a man. I considered going to work as an apprentice for a mechanic, and then a trader but I finally decided to try cheffing. I chose cheffing because I already loved cooking so why not make a living off it?
Could you take us on your journey to becoming a Chef?
My first job was at the Le Chateau, Calabar, Cross Rivers State, Nigeria. I had no experience whatsoever in the hospitality industry so I was employed as a waiter.
In 2005, my friends and I set out to establish a small restaurant in Calabar. We did well enough for young people who had little and no managerial experience. I got admitted into the University of Calabar to study Accountancy. I thought I had made a lot of money, so I pulled out of the restaurant business. By my second year, I realized I was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Things weren’t rosy at all so I dropped out of school. With the benefit of hindsight, I could have deferred the admission to a more suitable time.
Sometime in 2008, I went for a swim at Axari Hotel, Calabar. While sitting by the pool side, a chef walked past. He looked so glorious in his regalia. I couldn’t help it but I wanted to be just like him. I walked up to the Chef and introduced myself. He asked how he could help him and I poured out my heart to him. I begged him to employ me and teach me everything he knew. The Chef asked me a few more questions and told me to come back the next day. He turned out to be Chef Andrea, the then Executive Chef of Axari Hotel.
What was your experience apprenticing under Chef Andrea like?
Chef Andrea taught me everything it takes to be a continental chef. He started from the very basic – a club sandwich then proceeded to sauces. When the Amber Hotel, Tinapa was established, Chef Andrea was invited to be head the Kitchen the Executive Chef. Unfortunately, I had to leave Amber Hotel after about two and a half years.
What have you been up to since Amber Tinapa?
In 2010, I moved to Lynx Hotel, Owerri to head their Kitchen. This was different from working under my mentor. I learned people management skills from senior colleagues on that job. The experience in Owerri was awesome. I learned how to cook Igbo Soups like Ofe Onugbu, Ofe Owerri and Nsalla.
In 2012, I worked briefly at Orchid Hotel, Lekki Lagos as Head Chef before moving to The Lekki Free Trade Zone Development Company.
What can you cook with your eyes closed?
Hmm, Tomato sauce? But come on, let’s be real. Cooking with my eyes closed will result in an accident.
Tell us about your signature dish?
My signature dish is Chicken Fricassee.
Do you have a special ingredient, something that can turn the plainest dish around?
For continental dishes, white pepper, black pepper and sea salt are key. While for any national dish, the stock determines how the meal turns out.
Ever been in a crazy situation while in the kitchen?
I once got burnt by hot soup. The entire pot of soup poured on my regalia. It was a serious injury but thank God it healed quickly.
What possible challenges can a Chef face on the job?
Working in a poorly equipped kitchen can make the job more tasking. The right equipment goes a long way to make the job easier. The saying that “Teamwork makes the dream work”, applies in the kitchen as well. Without the right team, your productivity will be low and this affects the clients who are waiting for their meals.
What advice do you have for young people who aspire to take up careers in Cheffing?
I’ll say keep an open mind. Be willing to learn and study under a good chef. Also be prepared to make sacrifices. Stay back in the kitchen for extra shifts after your official shift has ended. You will most probably learn more that way. Always have a notepad and pen with you; you never know when you may need to write something down. Be very neat; no one wants to eat from a dirty person’s pot.
Develop good communications skills; you’ll need this when dealing with colleagues, customers and even management.
Challenges don’t kill you; they only make you a better person. Above all, pray to God to give your success and the courage to carry on.
Where do you see yourself in another five years?
I should be an Executive Chef by then, running my own restaurant and teaching young chefs. I’m also looking to take a course in food science at the University.