By Funmi Ajumpbi
The saying that while many people may be engaged in the same thing, only the few who dare to stand out will matter. Oluwatosin decided to stand out of the crowd among other Chefs by bringing traditional dishes of old, some of which are gradually going into extinction, into mainstream contemporary menu. But she did not just appear suddenly.
While many of her colleagues back in the university lived off stipends from their parents, she seized an opportunity that opened during one of the faculty events to bake a cake. The general acceptance her cake received, provided Tosin the confidence she needed to evolve into the brand she has become today. As Chief Executive Officer, Appela Cuisine, also known as Ibile Chef, Tosin is the brain behind the reappearance of local dishes such as Ebiripo, Ikokore, Egusin Ijebu, Ewa Aganyin, Egbo, Ekuru, Asaro, Banga soup, Owo soup, Fisherman soup, Ogbono soup and many others, at social gatherings. Tosin was our guest at Vanguard Live recently and she shared her journey with us. Excerpts:
Why local dishes?
After the culinary school, I realised there are lots of continental chefs and I wanted to carve a niche for myself. Though initially I was cooking continental dishes for people from home when I was at Ibadan, after my Youth Service, I decided to do more of foods that we used to eat while growing up, especially in the rural areas. I met people who were telling me they didn’t mind eating egbo, ekuru, isapa and because I used to have some in my house, I would prepare, package and send to them. Because they loved it, some would take the photographs and post on social media to inform their friends about what they just had. From there, I would have orders from more people. That was how it began growing.
How do you source your ingredients for these dishes?
For egbo, I get the ingredients from Ibadan, Delta and other South-South states. I also get stuff from Ido market, water yam and cocoyam from Ijebu. I cook my egusin and ikokore with ogiri which my mother sends from Shagamu every week.
Considering the exotic tastes of people in urban cities generally, how well do they accept our local dishes?
About 80 per cent of my clients who want Ijebu delicacy actually want ogiri in it. Very few people complain about the smell. For this group of people, I have to cook theirs separately to satisfy their demands. Even for ofada sauce, I have some clients who don’t want iru in it (locust beans), so I have to device how to use other ingredients that will still give me the same taste I need. Basically, it is really hard to convince people about what they have made up their minds they don’t like. Some say locust beans nauseate them and the further you push them, the more they lose interest in the order. Most times, I don’t use condiments like the cubes, I make use of crayfish and dry fish which I blend together to achieve that local flavour. Usually, I have a list of questions I send to my clients, especially those who make bulk orders. So, I cook along the responses I get.
Do you have any formal training in Catering?
My mum is a caterer and I would say I learnt from her. At a point, I was a server, at another time, I was only washing plates and it got to a time that I became the cook. She was into local foods basically but added jollof rice and fried rice as the only continental dishes.
So I learned from her but only added the business angle such as social media.
When did you actually start Ibile dishes?
The whole business started in my second year at Babcock University. I noticed people like cakes, so when I go home, I would bring cakes for my friends and they loved my cakes. Then it occurred to me that I could make money from it. So, at Valentine that year, I took my first orders. It was a huge success. So, I started taking orders for cakes, chin chin and other finger foods. Later, during my Departmental Week, the organisers asked if I could make food for them, so I told my mummy to bring the food. From there, other departments started asking me and it was at that point that I decided to partner with my mum. So, she was doing the food and I was doing the cakes and pastries. But it was actually during my NYSC in Delta State that I met a Permanent Secretary who is late now (God bless her soul) who introduced me to Government House and I started cooking for them for their monthly meetings in the Government House. I can say it was there in 2009 that my cooking business actually took off. I had to stop on relocating to Ibadan because I got married and the children came. Then we moved to Lagos and I started cooking from home on orders. Realising that I was still missing something, I decided to go to Culinary School. After that, I sat down and thought about what I can do to stand out in the industry since Lagos is already saturated with chefs making continental dishes. That was how Ibile Dishes was birthed.
Until recently, continental dishes, especially Chinese, were the bomb at parties, but now, you find dishes like abula, asaro, what can you ascribe to this change?
For me and I think for most people of our generation, dishes like ikokore, asaro, elegede, orunla were not food that you could eat outside. You will notice that some of these dishes have even began to go into extinction. I have heard some people say they have not eaten egbo in 20 years. There are also those who have never tasted them, but have heard about them and are curious to try them out. But the catch here is that they are not dishes that you can quickly put together in your kitchen on an ordinary day. Some of them require certain ingredients you may not have at home. So, when people go to parties and see such dishes on the menu, they are excited and want to eat them. Now there is a hype around native foods. I get orders from people visiting the country on holiday, I get from people who can’t eat them unless they visit their villages. Also, from people who want their children to learn how to eat these dishes. Clients also serve such at parties for their very special guests. In a way, I am helping to preserve our culture by reawakening the native taste buds of people who have forgotten what these local dishes taste like. Business has been good and support from people have been overwhelming.